Graceland

1 Jul

“It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?'”-Carl Sandburg

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“We Found Our Ham in a Loveless Place”

Downtown Nashville was a blast. An exciting, gaudy, blast. Broadway had the kind of kitsch tourist things that’d make Anthony Bourdain’s blood boil faster than microwaved tea. Cowboy boots and Elvis minutiae would make most country music-haters run for the hills, and they made me a little uncomfortable. But I loved it, free of any irony. Part of me is surprised to have fallen in love with Music City, but it now all seems to make sense. Like Charleston, Nashville’s got a big serving of Southern Charm, a charm that followed me all over.

After a day of browsing the public library, touring the Vanderbilt campus, and honky-tonks, I had a trip to make home. One of the most famous places in Nashville has treated travelers to the most important meal of the day for 50 years. Done. I grumbled out of bed on and took a drive down a stretch of Highway 100. The neon sign and smell of country ham were nice greetings on an overcast day. The Loveless Cafe was my cap to my Midwestern trip, and it is also one of Nashville’s classic institutions, right up there with Hank Williams and the Cumberland Gap.

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An early morning meal of country ham, biscuits, cheddar-potato casserole, and red-eye gravy, a reduced sauce of bacon drippings and strong coffee.

The Loveless Cafe opened in 1951 as the Harpeth Valley Tea Room. Lon and Annie Loveless made their own biscuits and started a restaurant focused on country ham they cured and smoked right on site. They built 14 motel rooms and constructed a sign you could see from the other end of Highway 100. The cafe focuses on Annie’s original recipes for teacup-sized biscuits, preserves, and ham. Country ham is nothing like the jamon serrano of Argentina, Italian prosciutto, or even the ham I grew up eating on school lunch sandwiches or Easter Brunch. It’s salty, stringy, and hard, yet perfect with the toasty brine of red-eye gravy.

Under different owners, the cafe continued working through the ’80s and expanded into gift shops, television appearances, and Hams & Jams, a mail-order division. The motel rooms closed in 1985; in 2003, the building got its first renovations and a new look. It’s the only Nashville landmark that makes 7,000 biscuits a day, and every order comes with three complementary ones.

The cafe itself felt like most places that get hundreds of visitors: service is rushed and there’s lots of different people. I couldn’t help but feeling something magical about seeing cops in uniform eating country ham while a family of five try to decide what to get the tykes. Meanwhile, some kid from Charleston is photographing his food and taking notes like he’s observing a scientific reaction.

There’s history, flavor, and things feel familiar. That’s the South. Loveless was a great first stop on a long journey back home, wherever that was.

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way”

The drive back to home took me through the mountains in Western North Carolina, a narrow, winding stream of interstate. I felt like some of the turns would put my car on two wheels. Flying was never a method of transportation on the trip; here, I might be making an exception.

While racing down I-26 and jamming, I started seeing signs for the Carl Sandburg home in Flat Rock, NC. I’m familiar with Sandburg’s writing and had covered a lot of his material in AP English Literature, but I had never had the chance to visit his final home. When I drove to Asheville with my writer friend Ryan, we saw the signs and decided to save it for a later time. I decided now was the time.

Carl Sandburg was called “The People’s Poet” and wrote of the everyday. My favorite of his will always be “Graceland,” a story about the tomb of a multi-million dollar merchant prince. It’s a poem all about a dead man with flowers, preserved in the past. I’ve always thought it could be about Elvis, even though Sandburg wrote it almost 70 years before the King kicked the bucket. I’ve also got a connection with Carl Sandburg: like me, he also moved from Chicago to the South. After making an incredible reputation in the Windy City and receiving the Pulizter Prize (twice!), he moved to North Carolina with his  kids and wife, Paula Steichen.

Not a shredder like Goatsnake, but Sandburg had guitar chops

Not a shredder like Goatsnake, but Sandburg had guitar chops

Sandburg played the guitar, took walks in the woods, wrote in his office, and loved entertaining friends. His house is at the top of a hill and it overlooks a stream and forest (see the top photo). As soon as I rushed from my car and made my first turn, this was my welcome. The ringing my ears made stopped. For once, I stopped walking like I was running. Glad I made the detour.

I continued past the house to a barn and petting zoo. A family, much like the one in Loveless, was hanging out with baby goats and calves, while I sat on a bench and watched the mountain range go nowhere. The grown-up goats were to my left, and I thought about the quotation I wrote at the start of this post. After leaving all of college’s accomplishments, my friends, and Charleston routine, I was left with myself. I had spent hours driving by myself, and while I spent a lot of that trying to harmonize with The Beatles, I spent a bit of it reflecting. Many of the relatives I visited asked, “what’s next,” but I think I need to think about “who am I” first. Can I answer that with a resume? Or can I answer that with how traveled? Without anyone beside me, traveling was a direct way to find out. Tennyson said, “I am a part of all that I have met,” and this makes so much sense while actually traveling. You bring the physical luggage but all the personal baggage of stories and growth, stuff that’s means so much in a trip but is almost impossible to explain.

Where I have been could be itinerary of Cubs games, restaurant lists, and places that’d be tempting to brag about. Where I’ve been, though, was spending time and laughing with friends and relatives, the people that made me who I am. Seeing a historical Chicago baseball game is secondary to why I was there in the first place. I was thinking about graduation, every step of every trip, and what the South has become for me, all the while two goats are going at it in the pen. There’s nothing else like the South. Though I’m a Yankee at heart, I’ll always look forward to coming back. Carl Sandburg spent 22 years in North Carolina; it’s taken me that long to finally call this strange, funny, heartbreaking, and warm place home.

Now I know the difference between going “home” and going home. Home isn’t where I was born. Home isn’t where I spent my childhood. Home isn’t where I rest my head. It’s where I am. The South is my reality, an open field, and where I found myself. Where was I going? Whatever the future holds.

william_smith_cs_portrait__copyWelcome home.

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