I spent my summer non-vacation
few thoughts on the South
weeks ago, in what now constitutes the month of June, I ventured
for the first time to the southern part of the United States.
My visit was not a vacation, as I had an appointment
in a small North Carolina university as seminar director for a
summer-intensive MFA program. So although I was not on holiday
by any means, an assessment of what it means to be a Southerner
entered my life on a daily basis.
Travel, even when a particular trip is fraught with
chaos and exhaustion, always teaches you something about the universe.
This is what I learned in the one month I was almost 3,000 miles
away from the Pacific Northwest.
The Civil War is still alive and kicking ... in the South. This
fact comes with light bemusement when mentioned to anyone already
familiar with the turf. While perusing the Asheville, N.C., weekly
equivalent of Portland's Mercury or Seattle's Stranger, I came
across a two-page article:
"Questions for Time Travelers: Buncombe County
Chautauqua brings Civil War Figures to Life."
Laughing and asking myself why this rated as a fresh
topic of interest in 2005, I laid the article aside, only to come
across the subject again and again. One of my students (a born
Yankee) summed up the obsession as a matter of bitter economics.
On my last day in N.C., a good friend who'd relocated to the region
from upstate New York admitted he continued to be befuddled by
the 140-year-old topic and handed me a book, "Confederates
in the Attic," to read on the plane.
Having previously lived in New York, a place ripe with avid sports
fanatics asserting their baseball-capped allegiance as Yankee
fans, the true meaning of being a Yankee was never apparent until
I heard the terminology said with disdain. A "northern"
accent is a pretty good giveaway that you are one. See previous
ebb: Southern cuisine's less than sophisticated fare.
Before leaving, my partner gently chided me with the prediction
I would gain a large heft from consuming the Southern cuisine.
While I consciously stayed away from sampling fat
back and red-eye gravy, there were, as predicted, many deep-fried
choices to behold. Amazing barbeque and fried green tomatoes were
found in the closest large town, Waynesville, and delectable delicacies
at a faculty barbecue produced grilled romaine.
The low ebb of the food chain was witnessed on a
side trip to Dollywood, where deep-fried Twinkies and Snickers
bars were a treat. Dollywood's only non-belt-tightening offering
consisted of a salad bar (iceberg lettuce, bleu cheese, black
olives, croutons). On the flip side, in a small mountain town
20 minutes from where I lived were two delicious restaurants that
could satisfy the needs of my vegan brother. Asheville has much
sophisticated fare to behold; it was, however, 1.5 hours away.
Someone told me you've never experienced the South until you've
been to a Super Wal-Mart at midnight on a Friday evening. I'm
happy to report that one of my first experiences in North Carolina
was exactly that. I drove dark and curvy mountain roads in search
of the only place within a 50-mile radius that could sell me toilet
paper at that hour. I found entire families roaming the aisles
in the one establishment that had its light on in the region.
Dollywood: where deep-fried Twinkies and Snickers bars are
I think most of us who live in the Pacific Northwest are prideful
of the amazing landscape we count as our backyard. But living
at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains challenged my own regional
Here was an area that boasts its own rain-forest
climate and an oddly different landscape than what I'm used to.
Tall trees hung with a natural haze. What you could decipher of
the skyline was stunning and especially after a typical
afternoon rain break at sunset the smell of the air was
It would be impossible to not mention the pervasiveness of The
Christian Right in the region.
I was reminded of this on a daily basis, from the
lady at the post office refusing to accept a package in a shipping
box originally containing wine (a Sharpie crossing out the term
"alcohol" rendered the situation to my advantage) to
a drive down the Billy Graham Parkway all constant reminders
to the prevalent thought.
I observed a team setting up for a tent revival
on the side of the road while driving on my way to the Smoky Mountain
National Park. Billboards for assorted Christian bible schools
or studies dotted the highway. One morning some students announced
they had visited a museum that weekend, at Bob Jones University.
I think the mountain air had gone to my head because I said I'd
never heard of it. Of course, thanks to George W. Bush, I have
heard of it. Unfortunately, Waynesville, the place of wonderful
barbecue, had also been on the map recently due to a church incident.
A plant more invasive and disdainful than blackberries
if that's possible.
op: gift-shop reality.
While driving through the tourist town called Cherokee, a million
souvenir shops offered Confederate flag beach towels, baseball
hats, bumper stickers and replicas that could be mounted on the
back of your own car. In the context of the gift shop, complete
with a real live Native American in head-to-toe war paint posing
next to a Plains tepee (waiting for photo opportunities), the
idea seemed mildly amusing. While driving around small mountain
towns and seeing the flag flown proudly in someone's front yard,
the idea scared the hell out of me.
The most insane reasons that I could be served a beer but couldn't
be served a gin and tonic were laid out for me one night by a
waiter trying to describe what constitutes a dry county. Meanwhile,
one county over, there are drive-thru beer and wine stores.
One night on campus I was invited to an Appalachian dulcimer program
and was sweetly blown away. The music from the region is so sincere
and heartfelt that I was honored to be in the room. A general
lack of pretension was a comforting theme to the music and a reflection
of the region itself.
I had some eye-opening stories thrown my way on the racism topic.
Some I am still processing.
The most honest conversation I've ever had on the
subject was with a woman visiting the art building who was a Georgia
native. During the course of our discussion she related that during
her childhood there were certain counties in Georgia you just
didn't go to. This came up as she had taken a teaching job on
campus and was trying to assess the local attitudes. I told her
there was hope with the sight of vegan food and a culturally diverse
bookstore only 20 minutes away indicating, with any luck,
Unfortunately, counties you should not visit still
exist and I heard stories, all in the here and now, that made
my stomach churn. If travel is considered one road to enlightenment,
it's also another road to a quick reminder that the world isn't
how you think it is in your safe corner.
choices: adding heft with Southern delicacies.
Not one month later
Writing this, I am reminded of a movie I saw in college, "Shocking
Asia." The sensationalistic film is a biased documentary
profiling practices in Asia that Westerners would find repulsive
(Oh my God! They eat their young!).
While listening to my rant on Dollywood food choices
(and their subsequent effect on an entire population) a student
reminded me that, as members of coffee-swilling, bicycle-obsessed,
organic-chomping Seattle, we could be equally found obscene. True.
I had to laugh.
Back in Seattle, savoring the fact that I can now
visit my liquor store on Sunday or order a green tea latte (kidding),
I'm glad I know a little more about what makes this country tick,
but I'm really glad to be home.