Charles Frazier’s acclaimed novel Cold Mountain presents geography as symbolic of human conditions. To his central character Inman, the mountains represent healing and salvation and are the goal of his trek homeward. At the
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cold mountain essay
Essay by Timothy N. Osment, History M.A., WCU 2008
When western North Carolina native and Civil War deserter “Inman” finally made it back to his beloved mountains, “He rose and took a wide stance on the rock and stood and pinched down his eyes to sharpen his view across the vast prospect … It was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was homeland.”
While Charles Frazier’s 1997 book is fictional, the landscape for which Inman yearned is very real. Cold Mountain is located in Haywood County in Western North Carolina. At 6,030 feet, it is the tallest peak in the Shining Rock Wilderness, part of the Pisgah National Forest. From most vantage points and with few exceptions, Cold Mountain appears today much as it would have during the Civil War.
The Pisgah National Forest traces its origins to the late 1800s when George Vanderbilt began amassing large tracts of land that surrounded the confluence of the Swannanoa and French Broad Rivers for his new home that he named Biltmore. Located in the center of his estate’s vast acreage was Mt. Pisgah, named by Presbyterian minister James Hall in the late 1700s. Hall, accompanying General Griffith Rutherford’s expeditions against the Cherokee, found himself atop a high peak with a magnificent, expansive view of the French Broad River basin. Feeling akin to Moses looking out over the Promised Land from the biblical Mt. Pisgah, Reverend Hall selected the same designation for the mountain upon which he stood.
In 1911 Congress passed the Weeks Act, authorizing the federal purchase of lands for stream-flow protection and to maintain the acquired tracts as national forests. Initially, 8,100 acres were purchased above Old Fort in McDowell County in western North Carolina. In 1917, this acreage was combined with a large tract of land bought from George Vanderbilt’s widow. Out of these early purchases grew today’s Pisgah National Forest, named for the mountain peak that towers above its ridgelines. The 495,000 acre Pisgah National Forest, along with the Nantahala National Forest, comprises a significant portion of the forested land remaining in Western North Carolina.
Within the Pisgah National Forest, the Shining Rock Wilderness is a component of the federal government’s 1964 National Wilderness System. Totaling 18,500 acres, it is North Carolina’s largest wilderness area. Many of its peaks exceed 5,000 feet and several are over 6,000. In this area the mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway form a big “U,” with the Shining Rock Wilderness occupying the eastern half of the U. Occupying the western half is the 7,900 acre Middle Prong Wilderness, created in 1984 by the North Carolina Wilderness Act. The mountains in this area are steep and rugged. The Pigeon River, fed by tributaries originating atop these high mountains, drains the region. It is here that the Pigeon splits into the East and West Forks – on its journey towards its final destination, the Tennessee River.
Named for a white quartzite rock outcrop, Shining Rock was originally part of the Cherokee Nation. European settlers began arriving in response to a 1796 state land grant. One hundred years later most of the area was purchased by the Champion Fibre Company, which logged the region around Cold Mountain until the 1920s. Large, old-growth stands of red spruce, Fraser fir, hemlock, and various hardwoods were virtually wiped out. Early twentieth-century fires that consumed well over 100,000 acres also greatly affected the landscape. Whether ignited by industrial locomotives or intentionally set to clear land for agriculture, these fires created the meadows and grasslands, called balds, now visible from miles away.
This is the setting Charles Frazier chose for the backdrop for his Civil War novel, the love story between Inman and Ada, Cold Mountain. Frazier’s characters were sometimes warm, sometimes vicious, but most assuredly influenced by their environment. Many people feel that the star of the book was actually the rural Appalachian Mountains – still several generations away from the effects of industry and development. To both locals and outsiders, while it is important what people “do” in Appalachia, what it is often more significant and interesting is where they “live.”
The residents of the Pisgah, Shining Rock, and Cold Mountain regions do not primarily describe their roots as Southern. Instead it is the mountains that define their cultural heritage. Pisgah has been referred to as the epicenter of three hundred years of the European Appalachian tradition – beginning with the sad saga of Native displacement and continuing to the present. The mountains have always commanded that attention be paid to survival and the environment. The weather is unpredictable, transportation can be difficult, and there is a degree of psychological and physical isolation that is distinct to the region. Charles Frazier, a native of Western North Carolina, captures all these characteristics in his narrative about fictional people influenced by a very real place – Cold Mountain.
Because production costs were lower and signs of civilization were fewer, Hollywood chose to film Cold Mountain in Romania instead of on location in western North Carolina. However, that has not stopped thousands of people from visiting the Shining Rock Wilderness to experience firsthand the region, and mountain, that Inman identified as his heart and soul. There are several ways to access Cold Mountain.
The best viewing spots are along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Milepost 411 is the designated “Cold Mountain Overlook” and remains accessible even when the Parkway closes due to winter weather. From Milepost 431 visitors take in a sweeping panorama of the Shining Rock Wilderness, including Cold Mountain. The Pisgah Inn and the trailhead to the top of Mt. Pisgah are located at Milepost 408. Both offer wonderful vistas of Cold Mountain and other distant peaks.
For hikers there are several options. Trails leading into Shining Rock originate in the Black Balsam area near the Blue Ridge Parkway and the East Fork of the Pigeon River. The summit of Cold Mountain is accessible by foot as well, but only experienced and fit hikers should attempt this trek. The ten mile journey has an altitude gain of 3,000 feet and is mostly unmarked. For this reason, while Cold Mountain is one of the Appalachian’s most viewed peaks, it is also one of the region’s least-visited. Even trails rated easy or moderate can quickly become steep and strenuous. Take advantage of the information available through local Chambers of Commerce and federal and state agencies. A little research will increase both the value and safety of visits to the wilderness surrounding Cold Mountain.
• District Ranger 828-877-3265
• Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, 1-800-334-9036, 828-452-0152; www.smokeymountains.net and www.haywood-nc.com
• Blue Ridge Parkway, 828-298-0398, www.nps.gov/blri
For more information
- “Cold Mountain
“ Encyclopediaof Appalachia, Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, eds., 2006
- The Travels of William Bartram by William Bartram, edited by Mark Van Doren, 1998
- Our Southern Highlanders: A Narrative of Adventure in the Southern Appalachians and a Study of Life Among the Mountaineers, Horace Kephart, 1922
- Cabins in the Laurel, Muriel Earley Sheppard, 1935
- The Appalachian Forest, A Search For Roots and Renewal, Chris Bolgiano, 1998
- Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier, 2006