Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Journey into the 19th Century

Bridging the Past, with Courage 

How did author John Jakes research his series, The Kent Family Chronicles? A writer of historical fiction must “look unto the rock” from which he’s hewn, meaning to delve deep into the past. Time machines don’t exist. A writer wishing to write realism must think and act like a detective. My April research trip to South Carolina for an antebellum/Civil War novel-in-progress began two years ago, in conversations with historians and curators, perusing old maps and history archives, hanging out in libraries, reading tall stacks of books. Writing fictionalized history authentically is like going for a Nobel Prize.   

After gaining a knowledge base, I detected a possible migration route for my novel’s main characters travelling from Upstate South Carolina to North Alabama through North Georgia by wagon in 1858.Considering the remoteness of this route and ever seeking my security, I was fortunate to find a photography workshop in coordination with Clemson University, where participants would visit remote sites together. I packed, prepared, drove east.

I avoided Interstate highways, nonexistent in 1858. I audiotaped, describing what I saw of the route, traces of antebellum history, old buildings, ancient roadbeds now grown in timber, noting rivers, mountain ranges. I considered dangers, like river crossings and mountain precipices, landslides and wild carnivores, starvation, exhaustion. No tow trucks. One major concern was how the migrants going from Clayton to Hiawassee, Georgia got around a very lofty mountain, ranging from Timpson Creek on the east to Hightower Creek on the west. I was on a mission, to find an ancient roadway.

In South Carolina I arrived at Clemson University’s site in Pickens, admiring the view, towering mountains like a wall to the north. My good fortune held. The places I wanted to go were exactly where the group visited: a railway tunnel unfinished when Civil War hit, grist mills, waterfalls and botanicals. At daybreak we were sitting on a foggy mountaintop. As thunderheads gathered, we boated on Lake Jocassee. All but the lake would’ve been seen by 19th Century immigrants moving west from Upstate South Carolina. I chatted with local historians, and was somewhat confirmed in my speculation. A wagon trail going west once followed the blue mountain range on an ancient Indian trail. 

Returning home, I drove along the proposed migration route now partly hidden in two national forests. I descended from Sumter Forest at dawn, in a light drizzle. An enormous glowing cross set on a mountainside overlooking Clayton, Georgia lit the fog in a warm welcome. It was nearing 7:00am, hours before a museum would open, so I found the 1930’s Clayton CafĂ© and went inside for breakfast, hot coffee, blueberry pancakes.

While still sipping, hard rain hit, winds blustery. I snuggled down in my booth’s vinyl seat, listening to nearby conversations, chatting with the waitress, telling my desire to go to the museum, and why.

“How did wagons get over that huge mountain west of Clayton?” I asked.

She seated herself across from me. Her blue eyes lit, every freckle glowing. “How did wagons get over the Rockies? They had to, so they did.”

The answer was so simple I hadn’t seen it, but still. Couldn’t immigrants find a way around? 

Leaving Clayton in flooding rain, I proceeded slowly over the massive mountain in question, marveling at pioneer grit. I was alone on the winding high road. Never saw another car. Near the peak at the Appalachian Trailhead, two soaked and bedraggled hikers with monstrous dripping backpacks were hitching a ride. It was a couple, male and female. How pitiful, but it wouldn’t be prudent, picking up strangers. In all sincerity I breathed, Lord have mercy, and looked into my rearview, seeing a white van pull up… out of nowhere. 

About thirty minutes from Clayton, I arrived in the lakeside village Hiawassee and located its shoe-box size library near two old log cabins. No history museum. The young librarian led me to resource books. I began to peruse. In half an hour or less, in walked the hikers I’d seen, now dry-clothed. I decided they’d changed inside the white van, since the woman rushed to the ladies room. He got permission to get on the computer. Listening in like a gumshoe on his conversation with the librarian, I was able to confirm who they were: out-of-state AT hikers “taking the day off” due to rain. He pecked away on the computer. His hiking blog, I noted.  Today’s courage is hiking the AT. They likely seek history too, in their own way. Now back to my reading, a journal written by local history students in 1946-47, and here was my answer. A wagon road once existed in the Hightower Creek area, running northward of that mountain, crossing Appalachian Trail, connecting with Persimmon Road and Timpson Creek on Highway 76. I surged with excitement, made copies. 

On to Blairsville and I located the 1890 courthouse, now a museum. The rain was pounding the pavement, flooding streets, as I parked on a roundabout. Preparing to exit my trusty car, I looked up to see an elderly gentleman in full Scottish Highlander dress, kilts and all. My interest piqued.

Inside were more folks dressed in Scottish plaid, a gathering of a local clan likely descended from early immigrants. I signed the guest registry, told the white-haired museum hostess my desire to find an antebellum migration route, artifacts or maps. How did immigrants get around that mountain? I wanted more affirmation. She called to a younger man, fifties with graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, sitting within a side room. He jumped to his feet like an arrow shot from a bow, and began pulling books and maps.

I asked Mr. Ponytail, “How did 19th Century immigrants get around the mountain east of here?”

Well, quickly it became evident no one knows the name of that mountain, and he didn’t know east from west, plus his accent betrayed him. A newcomer. How much help could he be? What’s he doing here in remote northern Georgia anyway?

“Where are you from, originally,” I asked, gently.


He migrated, from the west? I smiled. “How did you end up here?”

“I was looking for a cabin.”

“Worked at other historical museums?”

He chuckled. “No… casinos.”

Is he escaping, some thing or another, or an undercover agent? As he pulled more books, I studied his face. Something about him seemed off, like bringing Legos into a domino game.

I glanced over at the snowy haired lady now seated under a window, watching us closely. “That your white car out there? You travelling alone?” she asked me.

A fellow freelance detective… I shrugged.

She continued. “You’re a gutsy little thing. I’d be afraid.”

Courage… even traveling 21st Century-style requires grit…

About that time, Mr. Phony Ponytail fled the room.

She pointed her chin toward his departing figure. “It’s men I’m afraid of… men! And that one is strange, much too fidgety.”

It was clear she has her eye on Mr. Ponytail, for all the good it will do her.

“Where do locals have lunch?” I asked to change the subject.


Nearing home, after ten hours on the road, my trusty steed’s leather seats no longer felt comfy. Approaching Ashville, Alabama, I glanced to my right. Bright afternoon sun lit up a fresh washed, spring green meadow. Beyond sat Chandler Mountain under a cloud, casting it a cobalt blue. The contrast was otherworldly, stunning. A renewed passion for home stirred within my chest, likely the way 19th Century immigrants felt on arrival, after nearly a month-long trudge behind a dusty wagon. That’s true grit. You know, looking back occasionally is fine, but don’t stare. You can get lost in the past, lose courage to face forward. -G.H.Sherrer