WAYNESVILLE, N.C. - Northwest from Wagon Road Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cold Mountain fills the horizon like a broad thumb pushed against the vast forests of the Shining Rock Wilderness in Pisgah National Forest. Ragged layers of fog hang from its peaks like linen on a line. In the mists on a rainy day the mountain resembles a blurred watercolor.
Cold Mountain, rising 6,030 feet above sea level,centerpiece in a cascade of sandstone and sun dance, is a collection of communities where the past is reflected in pale morning light.
Now, after years of relative quiet and obscurity, the area has achieved international celebrity. For the past 40-plus weeks, Cold Mountain has been on The New York Times Bestseller list. "Cold Mountain" a novel by Charles Frazier of Raleigh, has latched onto America's fancy and won't let go.
There's good reason. The fictional story of a Confederate soldier's desertion from a hospital in Raleigh and his journey home is a marvel of writing. But the author's words, old usage and phrasing from long-extinct mountain vernacular, touch southern hearts.
Around Waynesville, where Frazier spent his learning years with his grandparents, people like the book because it is about them and their mountain. Although "Cold Mountain," is a work of fiction, Frazier used an event in his family history as an outline for the work. W.P. Inman, one of his ancestors, was a Confederate soldier who was wounded and left a hospital to walk home, some 300-plus miles from Raleigh. He was gunned down by marauding Confederate guerrillas before reaching his home on Little East Fork of the Pigeon River in 1864.
Inman, Frazier's character, is a fictional re-creation of that event with one important deviation: Frazier's story has the classical layering of Homer's Odyssey to hold it fast in a strong superstructure. His fictional town of Cold Mountain probably is a merging of smaller mountainside stops in Haywood County around Waynesville: Bethel, Woodward, Brevard, Cruso. There is an Inman Chapel on Little East Fork where James Anderson Inman, brother to the slain Inman, began a ministry at the turn of the century.
Not far from the chapel, outlined in the book, cove land nestles against Little East Fork River, a place Frazier called Black Cove.
In truth, there are many coves around here: Smith Cove, Edwards Cove, Caldwell Cove, Cove Creek, that may have served as geographic model for Frazier's masterpiece.
Or even Waynesville itself.
Waynesville sits on a slant, a town situated in a bowl of mountains. It reminds you of a place in the last movie you saw with a 1930s setting. Its buildings are defined by wide fronts and big glass windows. They are one and two-story boxes, joined at the hip. Parking in the downtown is free on both sides of the street. Downtown stores are open for business instead of dark and boarded like many other Appalachian towns.
Waynesville, with its 8,400 people, is a wedge in the 546-square miles of Haywood County. The county is part of Western North Carolina, shaped like a foot, 250 miles long and 150 miles wide.
If you had to direct people to the Cold Mountain of "Cold Mountain" you would say, go to Waynesville. Then explore. You find the mountain by heading west on U.S. Highway 276 and on to Wagon Road Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 15 miles up through a whip of switchbacks. Or you can take 276 and turn south along the West Prong of the Pigeon River that parallels State Road 215, to Beech Gap. Then north on Blue Ridge Parkway for the panoramic view, the looming presence.
Stop by Frank's Up the River Grocery on 276, just before you get into the switchbacks. The fellows there, including store owner Frank Blaylock, will give you directions for other roads to experience the mountain.
Lawrence Lanning, a store regular, has been doing some impromptu guiding, since folks now want to see the mountain.
"There were some around here who didn't like the book," Lanning says. "Said it rambled too much. But I liked it. It hasn't changed much here, though," Lanning says.
Ira Henson, leaning back, smoking a slender brown cigar, appears amused at the various opinions and tourist advice. He is wearing his dark blue Cruso Volunteer Fire Department jacket. Henson is 81 years old and likes to talk about the time the airplane crashed into Cold Mountain.
"That was '46. Just after the war. It was a military plane. A colonel was on board. All of them killed. I was one of the first to the scene. Bodies everywhere. Guess they were going home after the war. Had to lead the Army in. Went up Crawford's Creek to Dead Holler and then took the trail to Double Springs Gap. that will lead you straight to the top of that mountain. Right at the crash site."
He leans back more to contemplate his expertise in describing yet another way to reach the mountain of fame.
Cold Mountain, then, possessed celebrity long before the novel.
But has the popularity of Frazier's riveting book done much to change hopes of the folks or things around Waynesville and Bethel?
"You can tell them in Hollywood that we are actresses," says a waitress at the Jukebox Junction Restaurant, where you can buy a hamburger and watch an Elvis doll swivel its hips.
There is talk of a movie being made somewhere around here, since the movie rights have sold for a reported $1.25 million to MGM/UA. It is said that Anthony Minghella, who directed "The English Patient," is reportedly slated to direct the film.
The waitresses at Jukebox Junction are waiting for their big call.
"As for bringing in tourism, we had some people last summer who were in the middle of reading the book and wanted to know how to get there,' says Melanie Cutshaw, executive assistant at the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.
"Before the book, no one asked about the mountain."
Scott McLeod, editor of the Enterprise Mountaineer, Waynesville's three-day-a week newspaper, says the book is producing bragging rights in the county, if for no other reason than it is their mountain.
"The people here very much are connected to their Appalachian roots. Like a lot of areas of the mountains, people are fighting fiercely to save their traditions. And I don't know if it has changed anything much. We have always had a literary tradition here," he says proudly.
He mentions novelist/poet Fred Chappell. He's from Canton, just up the road. Chappell, another one of those North Carolina writers who can turn you around with a gifted phrase or line, teaches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and has just been named North Carolina's Poet Laureate.
McLeod nods in the direction of the town and says to see the town's tribute to its Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Miller. She lived on tree-lined Haywood Street near the site of the gray stone Haywood County Public Library for 55 years until she died in 1992.
Miller wrote "Lamb in His Bosom," which took the Pulitzer in 1934.
"We have a rich literary tradition," McLeod repeats.
In the far-off glare, Cold Mountain cracks open the morning in a sunburst. A brisk, following wind sweeps up through hardwood forests and on up the ridge through the hemlocks.
"There in the highlands, clear weather held for much of the time. The air lacked its usual haze, and the view stretched on and on across rows of blue mountains, each paler than the last until the final ranks were indistinguishable from sky. It was as if all the world might be composed of nothing but valley and ridge," Frazier wrote in the opening pages of his "Cold Mountain."
Tradition. Written, spoken and lived. That's what this mountain and its people have bequeathed. From valley to ridge, from pale mornings to deepening dusk, tradition is in the wind.