South n 1 : The compass direction directly opposite to the north. 2 : The direction to the right of one facing east.
Realistically, however, south is more than one of the cardinal points on a compass. It is also a state of mind. When most Americans think of the south, many cultural references come to mind. The Civil War, slavery, plantations, civil rights, voting rights, hillbillies, the KKK, lynchings, poverty, cotton, levees and even dirt that is red. There are plenty of stereotypes to make anyone happy. If you turn this mental picture around, something quite different should come to mind. It’s the land of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, heart-breaking blues, early jazz, proud and beautiful people of color, perfect swamps, Spanish Moss, Jack Daniels and sometimes a soft gentility that is lacking on the hot pavements of East New York in Brooklyn.
Indeed, the south has many faces, many histories and many ways of life.
I’m camped now, just a few miles across the state line of South Carolina. I’ve crossed bridges over waterways with such names as the Little Pee Dee River. I’ve seen enough Kudzu choking the trees along I-95 to know for certain that I’ve entered a world unlike my hometown or my present home of Rainbow Lake, NY.
As I drive, I think dark and ironic thoughts. If it were a mere 152 years ago, I would be marching with a unit of New York Volunteers along a strip of dust or a ribbon of mud–on my way to a battlefield. I would be looking for someone to kill–some poor barefoot kid, maybe wearing gray, maybe wearing his father’s shirt, probably hungry, likely thirsty–but proud of who he his and what he thinks is a noble cause. He will probably die in a day or two. He will probably never hear the sound that a small ball of lead makes in those moments before it enters his chest. He probably won’t die for a few long and sad minutes. He’ll have time to think of his mother, his girl, his wife, his brother, his son, his father–and he may even have enough seconds to beg God to forgive him and to make a plea to God to bestow a blessing on Robert E. Lee.
The irony? The dead rebel from 1862, may have had a child. His great, great, great, great grandson probably just sold me a bottle of water at the Kwik Stop Sunoco station at Exit 78. Another bit of irony? I can’t locate a Starbucks without an app on my laptop.
You don’t experience the real south along the Interstate corridor. I would have to drive 150 miles to the west–into the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains, into the dark hollows, into the woods beyond the towns to find the mountaineers who make the moonshine, clog dance on the bare plank porches, strum the banjo or sing a song that sounds as though it was sung yesterday in Galway, Ireland. Or, I would have to drive south from Memphis, down Highway 61, and through the Delta Country to Vicksburg, past dusty fields and old sharecroppers shacks to find a certain cross-roads. That legendary intersection of two dirt traces where Robert Johnson bartered his soul to Satan in exchange for the ability to play the ultimate delta blues guitar, is somewhere around those parts.
Traditionally the people of the backwoods had little traffic with store-bought goods. They made do with what they had. They distilled the grain, they strung their own fiddles and they made their own soap.
I’m in the south now. I need to go native. I need to begin thinking differently than I did two weeks ago. I need…
But, wait. I have no clue about how to distill grain alcohol. I can’t whittle. I can’t play any instrument or craft any art, folk or otherwise.
I bought a brown and polished stone to wear around my neck. I picked some cotton, but I can’t pull it apart and make a shirt.
I am a stranger in a strange land. I’m a Yankee and not a true southerner. I was not born of this strange soil and I will never acclimatize myself to the unforgiving heat and humidity.
I am an alien here. I’m only passing through.
My restless nature has taken me this far, but I’m not anywhere close to beginning my return trip. My body will find a place to heal. I know where that place is located. It sits at the edge of the Mojave Desert, about 3,000 miles away.
It’s said to be a ghost town now. I won’t accept that. But, before I soak in the hot healing springs, I’ll have a lot of time to watch the waves along the Gulf Coast, examine the sand grains of countless beaches and stare at the shore birds as they nest. Maybe they are migrating–from one home to another. I can relate to those avian cousins of mine.
And, who knows? Maybe I’ll take a class, learn a craft, write something sublime.
I have plenty of time to go native.
[A selfie. See how I’m “going native”? Notice the casual open collar of people who “go native”, the single-stone necklace and the silver fountain pen that my son, Brian, got me for my birthday. It’s for making entries in my “Going Native” journal. Also, note the scene behind my left shoulder. They have a pumpkin display that is just out of sight behind me. But, you can see the satellite dish, the BEWARE OF DOG sign by the red tent and the golf cart. What you can’t hear is the yipping little dog tied to the tree. I apologize for not using a “selfie-stick” but most places are asking $19.99 (+ tax) for them. I’m native enough to take a selfie without one (but, it wasn’t easy).]