In late June, a friend and I traveled into Central Georgia, looking for Flannery O’Connor.

Mary Ann had never heard of Flannery O’Connor.  She didn’t know Hazel Motes from a hole in the ground and assured me she had never encountered “A Good Man Is Hard To Find“ or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”  Mary Ann’s literary tastes run in a different stream, and she was strictly along for the adventure.

All of that notwithstanding, it was Mary Ann who finally conjured up the spirit of Flannery O’Connor for us.

That Saturday morning we dropped from the Carolina mountains into Piedmont Georgia and followed Route 441 toward Milledge­ville, where O’Connor spent the last 13 years of her short life—she died at 39 of lupus—living on a nearby dairy and beef farm with her mother, Regina.  Driving into town from this farm, which the family called by its original name of Andalusia, meant for O’Connor a three-mile jaunt through pastures, barns, and scruffy pine.  Corporate America has since set its stamp on Milledgeville, and that same stretch of road is today a plastic strip of motels, fast-food restaurants, shopping malls, and outlet stores.

At Andalusia we parked in a gravel lot behind the house.  The custodians of the property have retained nearly all of the 500-odd acres formerly owned by the O’Connors.  Surrounded by oak, cedar, and walnut trees, the outbuildings were in varying states of repair.  It was hot and dusty, and we didn’t trouble to walk to all these buildings, though I was fascinated to see that directly behind the house a small barn lay collapsed upon itself, with an enormous old iron washpot upside-down in the wreckage.  Beside the fallen barn was the water tower, painted white, which figures in some of O’Connor’s stories.  Off to one side of the yard was a coop holding three peacocks—O’Connor was famous for keeping such birds—whose shrill cries occasionally startled the air of this quiet place.

The outside of the house, with its large screened-in porch, its various abutments, and its red and apparently freshly painted tin roof, appeared in good repair.  Around one of the second-floor windows buzzed a swarm of honeybees, an incongruous detail which I felt sure O’Connor, had she seen such a sight, might have worked into one of her stories.

Inside the house were the rooms that I had hoped would evoke in me the spirit of O’Connor’s writing.  Here in the kitchen were the white metal sink, stove, and cabinets so prevalent among kitchenware in the first half of the 20th century.  Here was the Hot-Air Refrigerator O’Connor had bought for her mother with the television proceeds of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”  In a bookcase in the combination parlor and dining room there lay open a copy of Pinocchio in which O’Connor as a girl had scrawled some of her earliest literary criticism: “This is absolutely the worst book I have ever read.  Don’t read it.”

The small gift shop at the back of the house carried O’Connor’s books as well as some tourist items: coffee cups, pens, cards.  Mark Jurgensen, who was operating the shop and the tours that day, spoke to a small group of visitors for five minutes or so about O’Connor’s life at Andalusia and how she had written most of her important work here.

O’Connor’s lupus made getting around troublesome, and so she lived at the front of the house in the spacious room that might otherwise have served as the parlor.  Standing in the doorway, I looked at the bare room with its faded carpet, its typewriter and desk, the crutches leaning against a plain dresser, the tidy single bed, the cracked and peeling paint of the walls.  (The foundation is trying to raise money to make these repairs.)

“This place is Jerusalem for me,” a Massachusetts man said to Mary Ann when she walked to her car for her purse.  “I’ve read everything she’s ever written and everything ever written about her.”

Jerusalem it is to those who love O’Con­nor’s writing, but something—her spirit, her presence—was, for me, still missing.  It was missing when we later visited the Flannery O’Connor Room in town at the Georgia College and State University, where we found other items belonging to O’Connor, including another typewriter and desk.  The presence I sought was missing when we stood at her grave in Memory Hill Cemetery.  It was missing when we took the trolley tour of Milledgeville and later, too, when we attended Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, sitting just a few pews back from those habitually occupied by O’Connor and her mother.

What was absent, I realized by day’s end, were O’Connor’s people, the characters of her short stories and novels.  Neither they nor their descendants were visible.  The motels and restaurants somehow seemed to hide them from view.  In town, many people we met during our explorations were outlanders.  Our trolley tour guide, for example, a knowledgeable raconteur who clearly loved his adopted town, was a retiree from Pittsburgh.  We didn’t find out much about O’Connor on our two-hour tour, but we did learn a solid amount of history.  Our good guide pointed out that Milledgeville was the capital of Georgia from 1804 to 1868.  During his March to the Sea, Sherman and his men ravaged the town, sacked the Episcopal church, quartered their horses inside, and then accidentally blew the roof off the church when they exploded a nearby town arsenal.  Oliver Hardy was from Milledgeville and worked in the local movie theater; the murders behind the novel Paris Trout occurred here.  Of the parishioners at Mass that Saturday evening, only two were originally from Milledgeville.  (We found out this statistic when the visiting priest, who hailed from Michigan, joked at the end of Mass about Yankee invaders and was told by a parishioner that there were only two natives sitting in the pews.)

Yet all was not lost.  I still had Mary Ann.

That next morning, as we drove back toward Commerce to catch the interstate, Mary Ann pointed out a roadside sign advertising “J&J Flea Market, Georgia’s Largest.”  I had promised her some shopping in return for enduring my literary ambles, so we swung down a dirt road past a pretty pond into an enormous bazaar composed of weathered wooden tables, a maze of dirt roads, and a swarm of shoppers and vendors.

And here they were in their glory—whites, blacks, and Hispanics, tattooed, sweaty rednecks of all hues selling and buying old rusty tools, secondhand clothing, jewelry, “Got God?” baseball caps, lawn mowers, DVDs, watermelons, and tomatoes on this late Sunday morning.  Here was the Flea Express, a trolley car, dustier and shabbier than its Milledgeville counterpart, hauling folks from one bare table emporium to the next.  Here was the Dust-Buster, a broken-down old truck dribbling water out its rear end to keep the dirt from getting restless on this dry, scorching day.  Here, in short, were the people O’Connor frequently portrayed in her work—a whole crew of them, like that mob seen by Mrs. Turpin in a vision in “Revelation”:

[A] vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.  There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.  And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. . . . They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.  They alone were on key.  Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

Later, spotting a fruit stand alongside the road—why she picked this one I’m not sure; the fruit stands here seem as common as James Agee’s ubiquitous tin roofs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—Mary Ann asked me to stop again.  While she was looking over the fruit, she asked the lean young man behind the counter whether the peaches were local.  “Those peaches?” he said.  “Why, no ma’am.  Those peaches have come out of Edgehill, South Carolina.”

After this exchange, I returned home an even happier man.  A part of Flannery O’Connor’s people still survive out there in the Georgia hills, and a few of them even understand the meaning of the word local as O’Connor herself once understood it.  They doubtless possess all the toys of our modern society, computers and Facebook, iPods and WiFi, and I’m sure they watch television shows like American Idol and Dance Your Ass Off, and eat Big Macs more than they do collard greens and cornbread.  But there they are, those people O’Connor studied so often in her fiction, mutated somewhat by the age in which we all live, yet still recognizable.

Andalusia is no doubt Jerusalem for O’Connor aficionados, but her characters—and some of her spirit as well—live on at J&J Flea Market out on Highway 441.