Go East: Here lie dragons

Exploring Flannery O’Connor territory


On a table in the foyer of Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor’s ancestral home, next to the bird-watching pamphlets and the fishbowl stuffed with cash donations, sits a stack of maps bearing the signature of one J.K. King. “Guide to O’Connor Country” reads the handwritten script across the top of the page. And, farther down, a disclaimer: “Scale highly eccentric.” Downtown Milledgeville, just to the south of the white farmhouse where O’Connor wrote the bulk of her biting Southern gothic masterpieces, is rendered in approximate detail. There’s the old state capitol, the courthouse identified as the “actual site of ‘Partridge Festival’ murders” from the short story of the same name, and the Catholic church where the author and her mother attended Mass daily. But beyond downtown—to the north and east, to the south and west—the mapmaker performed only the most general cartography, sketching in a few squiggled lines and, in looping cursive, “Here lie dragons.”

We humans have long mapped things in this way. On the Lenox Globe, from the sixteenth century, the designation appears in Latin: Hic sunt dracones. On ancient European maps of the world, serpents and leering merpeople are drawn amid frothy peaks of uncharted waters. In the face of terra incognita, we often assume the worst, or are made to fear the worst by those who wish to keep the less gumptious at bay.

Until recently, Milledgeville (population 17,715)—along with most of the neighboring small towns that populate the state’s midsection—was, for this traveler, Georgia incognita. If the presence of dragons had ever been indicated, maybe I would have lit out earlier; instead, it took until this spring for me to go exploring. Over a few days in May, armed with a loose itinerary and also my mother, I charted a languid easterly zigzag, the farthest point on the three-day route less than a hundred miles beyond the groping tentacles of Atlanta sprawl.

First was Covington (population 13,118), an hour’s drive from Atlanta but so very much a small town that it has played the part in hundreds of movies and TV shows—most notably as the seat of Hazzard County in Dukes of Hazzard, most recently as Mystic Falls on the CW’s Vampire Diaries. Note the corner of Clark and Hays streets, where a onetime law office bears the facade of the Mystic Grill, one of the show’s recurring set pieces; the building was badly damaged in a fire last year, but Covington’s mayor and a couple of local foodies are now working to redevelop the space. As a restaurant. Called the Mystic Grill. Until it opens, you can lead yourself on a walking tour of the town’s major points of showbiz pride, etched not into terrazzo-and-brass stars but octagonal pavers sunk into downtown sidewalks.

Up in Social Circle (population 4,262), another reality-warping dining opportunity: the famous Blue Willow Inn, perhaps the world’s only replica antebellum mansion to feature a daily buffet spread. If it’s lunch you’re after, feast away. But for a real history lesson, stop in at Claude T. Wiley’s general store, once the town’s central retail hub, now an ad hoc museum. The walls are spackled with a century’s worth of Coke cans, flour sacks, and rusted farm tools (eat your chicken-fried heart out, Cracker Barrel), and owner Fred Wiley, born a few years after his father opened the place in 1920, is a gracious docent. If, like my mom and me, you find
yourself wanting to contribute to Fred and the store’s continued existence but are not in the market for a MoonPie of dubious freshness, note the donation jar by the front door.

There are two Yesterday Cafes out here, both making large claims about their buttermilk pie. Rutledge (population 781) boasts the original location; Greensboro (population 3,359), the original owners. Having consumed a full serving of each offering, I favor Greensboro’s by a narrow margin; in a surprise finish, though, the chocolate walnut pie (also available at both) beats either slice of buttermilk by a mile. Elsewhere in Greensboro: Ripe Thing, a breezy local organic produce market, and Genuine Georgia, a gift shop where a dryer-lint-colored poodle keeps watch over locally made wares. In Rutledge: a downtown darling enough—
and nearly small enough—to slip into your back pocket, with a train depot housing City Hall, a rare “traffic barrel” at the one four-way stop, and schoolkids running wild and free with the town dog.

As if to restore some balance to the universe after that onslaught of idyll, when we drove through the even smaller small town of Buckhead (population 171), we were greeted by not much more than the sight of a greasy-beaked turkey buzzard crouched on the side of the road, pulling at the fly-swarmed carcass of an armadillo. Which, incidentally, is a pretty fair summation of the state of my soul every time I’m made to travel through a certain other Buckhead. A different sort of surprise was the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art, a bunker-like building in the middle of a cow field that houses the life’s work of the late German-born Stone Mountain artist, most familiar to Atlantans for his statue of Governor Talmadge at the Capitol and the copper Trilon fountain in front of Colony Square. Thomas’s muse and widow, Sara, all but exhausted her savings to build the museum in 1997 (Buckhead was selected for the site because one of the Thomas children lived nearby); by the time Sara died in 2009 at age 101, the museum had quietly established itself as a cultural center, offering art education and creative workshops for local families and schoolkids.

We spent night one in Madison (population 3,979) at the James Madison Inn, a gracious Greek Revival–style building overlooking the manicured swath of Town Park—both recent additions to Madison’s downtown, styled to seem as if they threw down roots two centuries ago. Unlike many small towns in middle Georgia, much of Madison dates back to before the Civil War; Sherman spared the town either because he found it so lovely or because he was friends with Joshua Hill, a local pro-Unionist who served in the U.S. Senate in the years immediately before and after the Late Unpleasantness. We curled up for the night in a room outfitted with a mix of vintage and custom furniture and named after the Hunter House, one of the hundred-plus antebellum homes that border the grid of downtown. All of the James Madison’s rooms bear the name of one of these homes, and each room’s mantel bears the home’s portrait. Grab a map from the visitors center and you can see them all for yourself on a self-guided tour that’s easy by car and, when the rhododendrons are exploding and the bumblebees are flying low, especially charming by foot.

Night two was in Washington (population 4,134) at the Fitzpatrick Hotel, built in 1899 and renovated and reopened in 2004 after sitting in shambles for decades. The aged redbrick building looks something akin to the primary set piece in a Wes Anderson remake of The Shining: Outside, the Queen Anne–style facade is studded with bay windows and turrets, its detailing painted in russet, goldenrod, and teal; inside, a chandelier-hung ballroom, long mahogany hallways, doors that open with big brassy keys. The rooms are unfussily furnished with turn-of-the-century antiques (including, in our bathroom, a claw-foot tub) and, for those still partial to the present, Wi-Fi and cable. The Fitzpatrick offers a free breakfast too, but its charms lie elsewhere; instead, try Fievet Pharmacy around the corner, where a lunch counter hawks fried-chicken biscuits until 9 a.m.

And, of course, Milledgeville. There, at the visitors center in the old post office, the girl behind the front desk whipped out her pink-cased iPhone to show us Pinterest photos of the semi-abandoned Central State Hospital just south of town. We gawked and oohed; she slid a Xeroxed map across the counter. “Guide to O’Connor Country” listed the hospital too, though I abandoned both maps on the floorboard once Google Maps, my modern-day Lenox Globe, seemed to know where we were going. As my mother steered the car down the 1,100-acre property’s winding, desolate driveway, I kept expecting the Misfit, or a misfit, to emerge from behind a sagging ivy-curtained wall and amble our way. On the map open on the screen in my hands, there were no dragons, no warnings or admonitions, just a little blue dot forever pushing toward somewhere it had never been.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.

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