Travel: Down Highway 64
Take this iconic highway to visit to Carl Sandburg’s home and the Esmeralda Inn
Driving east on Highway 64 in North Carolina, I traveled the same route my parents took me years ago. We’d take off early on a Sunday and head north to the hills. Get back well after dark. All these year later, I followed them. Loaded down with camera gear, water, coffee, luggage and an old-fashioned paper map, I struck out.
I ran into an agreeable string of towns: Highlands, Cashiers, Brevard, Hendersonville, Bat Cave, Chimney Rock and Lake Lure. Mom always talked about Highlands and Cashiers, and she and Dad spent their honeymoon at Chimney Rock, a fact not lost on me when I checked into he Esmeralda Inn. “Esmeralda.” Is there a prettier word in the English language? (Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote the play “Esmerelda” (with an extra “e”) in 1881 while staying at an inn near Lake Lure.)
Emerald green hills and white cascades accompanied me on this nostalgic, literary journey. And so did rocks. Lots of rocks. Massive boulders and sheer rock faces glistened here and there thanks to seeps, rivulets and waterfalls. The mountains serve up more surprises than the coast. It’s true. The green crumpled hills confine your vision to what’s in front of the windshield. Round a bend and the earth drops away thousands of feet. Round another curve and a waterfall thunders away. Climb a serpentine, switchback highway and you drift in and out of clouds. Stand on a beach and you see, well, lots more beach and too many people.
Two places, in particular, intrigued me on this journey. I wanted to see Carl Sandburg’s writing studio, and I wanted to stay at The Esmeralda Inn.
Sandburg’s home, Connemara, makes for a good experience, but development has squeezed in as close as it can. You drive through an urban area to reach the parking lot. Wasn’t that way 16 years or so ago, and it sure wasn’t like that when Sandburg’s wife tended her beloved goats there. And what about that name, Connemara? That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? William Faulkner called his home Rowan Oak. Big shot writers name their homes. Well, I have a name for mine, too. I call it home.
I don’t know that Mom and Dad honeymooned at the old Esmeralda Inn, but I like to think that they did. In the early 1900s, Hollywood fell in love with this region. The Esmeralda Inn served as a setting for many silent films. Maybe that’s what attracted my parents to this place. Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable stayed at the old inn to escape the crowds. Lew Wallace finished the script for “Ben Hur” in Room 9 of the old inn. Many years later, Hollywood rediscovered the region filming “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Firestarter” and “Dirty Dancing” here.
Do you ladies recall the scene where Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey of “Dirty Dancing” danced? I’m sure you do. Well, you walk that very floor now when you check into The Esmeralda Inn. I found it to be a beautiful, luxurious and quiet escape from the harassment of daily life. I stared at that floor recalling Otis Redding’s voice, the “Mashed Potato” and other songs from “Dirty Dancing.” You can, too.
Across Highway 64, the Broad River purls, and beyond it a massive cliff skyrockets up, bringing to mind Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but it’s a sheer and dangerous face that looks down on the Broad River and nearby Lake Lure.
Highway 64. For me it was a chance to make an excursion, a chance to relive old memories and a chance to see where a man named Carl Sandburg wrote poetry, “Abraham Lincoln” and “The Prairie Years.” Best of all, it gave me a chance to say that beautiful word, “Esmeralda,” upon my return to the flatlands.
Tom Poland writes about nature, the South, and its people, traditions and lifestyles. His work appears in books, magazines, journals and newspapers throughout the South.