Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.

Yes, Viva Las Vegas, Because It Is So American

Europeans moved into the Mexican-held area of what is now Las Vegas in the early 1800s on expeditions to open trade routes between New Mexico and California. “Las Vegas” is Spanish for “the meadows,” which described the grassy area in the desert that was fed by a series of springs. By the mid-19th century, this valley region was a part of the United States. The railroads came through in the early 20th century, but southern Nevada was still very much a frontier region. Everything began to change in 1931 with a huge project that would completely alter the physical and cultural landscape of the valley: the construction of Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. Thousands of workers needed entertainment, and they found it on the city’s only paved road, Fremont Street, where gambling houses and saloons began to pop up with their signature flashing neon signs made possible with the plentiful electricity generated at the dam.

Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club
Vegas Vic from the Pioneer Club

As mob money funneled from the east began to pour into the city, the funds went from playing the tables to building casinos, and even legal investors became interested, including the Mormon Church. By the mid-1950s, millions of tourists were making their way to the city, driving up the demand and the supply of casinos, hotels, and night clubs. The Old-West character of the city was replaced by massive, more modern resorts in the 1960s with the interest and influx of cash from big players like Howard Hughes. Into the 1980s and 90s, investors such as Steve Wynn pushed the envelope even further with the introduction of the Mirage and numerous resorts popped up with international themes from places like Paris, Venice, Egypt, and Rome.

Las Vegas resorts
Las Vegas resorts

With its reputation for providing an endless supply of legal amenities around the clock, such as gambling, striptease shows, and alcohol, along with the not-so-legal activities of drugs, money-laundering, and prostitution, Las Vegas has earned the nickname “Sin City.” It is the premiere destination for self-indulgence, excess, and over-the-top entertainment for adults. Over the decades the city has produced a distinctive sub-culture and has inspired hundreds of cliches, myths, and jokes. It attracts more than 41 million visitors each year from every state in the union and all around the world. Seventeen of the twenty largest hotels in the country are in Las Vegas, and they are all luxurious.

Las Vegas night life
Las Vegas night life

Both historians and sociologists have observed that among the advanced countries in the world, America is still like a reckless, impetuous adolescent — full of energy and life, always on the run, flashy and even gaudy, a little out of control, and perhaps a bit naughty. If this is a fair assessment, then Las Vegas is an exhibition of America to the extreme. Visitors come to the city for many different reasons, but most of those reasons revolve around the entertainment options available. Certainly, Vegas is not everyone’s cup of tea, and many people find it shallow, gratuitous, or even repulsive. Be that as it may, this city undeniably presents us with an honest and vivid reflection of an important part of the American spirit. We are a nation driven by sensation. We love to be dazzled, impressed, shocked, and amazed. Las Vegas never fails to deliver.

Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino
Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino

The Omega Point: Where Science and Religion Converge

I just finished reading The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is the fourth book I have read by Taylor, and although it is not her best-known work, I think this short essay collection is very fine. Admittedly, my praise of the book comes out of my deep interest in the intersection (or polarization) of science and religion. Most scientists will not find it as compelling as those who are sympathetic to religious belief or even spirituality. Published in 2000, the book is perhaps somewhat dated now, but the principle thesis and the keen observations are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest and a professor of religion with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history, going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Rev. Dr. Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method.  She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have been reading popular books on science and religion for about thirty years. I am drawn to authors who tend to challenge or even shatter long-held assumptions about religion, mainly Christianity since that is the faith of my heritage. In addition to Barbara Brown Taylor, a few that come to mind are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart D. Ehrman, Philip Gulley, and James Mulholland. In recent years I have also been reading books by the modern atheists and humanists, like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greg M. Epstein, Edward O. Wilson, Eugenie C. Scott, and Jerry A. Coyne. All of these writers have addressed the friction created where science and religion meet.

I certainly have issues with organized religion, although I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I am repelled by evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist factions across the globe, radical sects of all faiths, and any religious practice that results in division, discrimination, sexism, racism, and superiority. At the same time, I cannot agree with some of the modern atheists who have decided that all religion is superstitious nonsense with no purpose, no value to humanity. Some of these scholars claim that religion is not just a benign fantasy but a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity.  To judge religion based on the manner in which it is too often adulterated by immoral clergy, zealots, dictators, and politicians, to my way of thinking, is similar to faulting science when technology is used by power-hungry leaders to make weapons of mass destruction.

Some scientists posit that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, science has been rapidly replacing religion as a unified explanation for all existence. In other words, we don’t need religion anymore. As much as Dawkins and others have tried to make the case of science’s ability to answer all our questions, I believe there will always be significant gaps. My argument for the existence and validity of religion is primarily built on its longevity, that it has been a hallmark of hominids at least as far back as the Neanderthals. Evolutionary theory teaches us that nature selects what will and will not survive based on characteristics such as fitness, adaptability, necessity, and the ability to pass on vital information from one generation to the next.  It works for genes, language, technology, and yes, religion. Humans have passed down faith and myth for thousands of years, not because they are entertained by them, but because they need them.

As contemplative animals who are consciously aware of their existence, their past, and their possible future, humans have evolved a thirst for answers to questions about our place in the universe, how it all began, and the meaning of life. But, we also need a practice to help us appreciate and absorb emotion, beauty, and a whole host of other experiences. Sometimes science falls short, not because of what is yet undiscovered, but because so many people need the most treasured part of life to remain a mystery. Is religion nothing more than a panacea? Is it “the opium of the people” as Karl Marx observed? Is it a vestige that we will eventually slough off like dead skin? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that we will see that next stage in our evolutionary development nearly as soon as some of our atheist friends are predicting.

San Francisco Hiking

For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service.  Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside.  Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching.  Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country.  One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area.  The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.

Transamerica building in San Francisco
Transamerica building in San Francisco

The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet.  There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area.  There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco.  Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city.  For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.

Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south.  The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast.  There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east.  Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk.  The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening.  The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!

Land's End waves crashing on the beach
Lands End waves crashing on the beach

Looking for a more traditional hiking experience?  Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument.  Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog.  The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible.  The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy.  Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.

Muir Woods
Muir Woods

Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast.  With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean.  The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles.  Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay.  Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best.  My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods.  Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable.  With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.

San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods
San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods