The International Writers Magazine
The South shows its many colours

The South shows its many colours
Ari Kaufman

Driving through a 30-minute blizzard in Western Alabama last week, I mentioned to my traveling companion that I didn’t think that this area received this kind of snowfall.

She nodded in concurrence, and I then went on a controlled tirade about how weather is just another large misconception many American have pertaining to the South. My investigation was already in full throttle, but this simply added to the intrigue and validity of my endeavors.
Growing up in coastal cities, like most of the elitists that lived near me, we never ventured “south” unless it was to Florida or the beach communities of Virginia and the Carolinas. Thus, I had the usual stereotypes of Southern culture. And while Thomas Sowell’s recent book, “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” does not necessary dispel the basis of these views, a few lengthy trips through this part of the country have shown me the erroneousness of many northerners’ assumptions, particularly 'why would anyone want to live there?' or 'I hear it is still so backwards down there'.
A friend of mine, who used to work in Americorps, spent nine months in various southern areas from the Gulf Coast to Southern Tennessee to Western Georgia. Although a hard-core liberal Northerner, he often elucidated to me how we wrongly portray southerners (black or white) as uneducated, poor, racist or homophobic. After spending a week last March in Mississippi and Louisiana with him; also driving cross this part of the country twice in the past year; and, very recently, spending four days traversing the interstates and back roads of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and North Florida, this man was basically correct.
I cannot honestly say that I never witnessed so-called 'cracker culture' at its finest. My girlfriend and I dined in some local establishments, spent a great deal of time off the interstate, walked through the chill of small towns, and stayed in hotels that were occupied by people that most coastal elites have never encountered. And I am not saying I could see myself living in Reform, Alabama; Perry, Georgia or Booneville, Mississippi, but I can also tell you that these people, as I so often opine, serve as much of the backbone for what American stands for.
As for the exact geography of the sojourn, we left South Florida and traveled up vapid I-95 until we hit the Georgia state lines and eventually dinner in the charming city of Savannah. Few people dining on the river walk or shopping in the artsy market square seemed to notice the horrific ghetto just a block outside the city center, aside from us that is. Afterwards, through the nighttime drizzle, we prodded all the way up to Atlanta and then west through the Talladega National Forest to a hotel in Birmingham. The day’s toll on my Nissan was 840 miles. But all was worth it, as Birmingham would prove a perfect jumping off point for the wonders of Northern Mississippi and Alabama over the next day and a half. It wasn’t exactly Cape Cod or Malibu, but we’d manage somehow.
Maria and I drove west on US-78 through the beautiful hills and forests of Northwestern Alabama and Northeastern Mississippi, undulating our way to Tupelo, whereupon we stopped to quickly gawk at Elvis’s house. It was well done, but since we eschewed the in-house tour,
and it was in the high 30s, we bid The King farewell after a few minutes, and rolled back down the hill into downtown.
Downtown Tupelo has it's moments, but is nothing to write home about. There were a few charming buildings and a large, modern, out-of-place City Hall at the edge of town. After scurrying around for 20 minutes, Maria was cold, and so we ate, gassed up, and then departed for the Natchez Trace Parkway. Nonetheless, I was glad we stopped.
I had been on the Natchez Trace extensively last March, so this 55 miles southwesterly exercise would move across many areas I had seen already; however a month earlier in the year, presented an entirely different landscape. Lacking were the mossy-colored ponds and overhanging deciduous trees, rather hastily replaced by bare trees and lots of dead trees on the ground. Just as I was about to declare this portion of the trip a failure, my windshield began being pelted by...snowflakes. Maria had seen snow only once, and I, having been raised in California, always welcome snow in moderation. We drove through vacillating flurries for about 25 minutes, and then exited the Trace, heading 40 miles east to the town of Columbus, Mississippi.

 One of the reasons I was eager to see Columbus was because it, along with Selma, Alabama (a stop tomorrow) had been praised as a 'splendid little town' by travel writer, Bill Bryson, in his 1988 book, “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America.”
Upon arriving on a sun-soaked 40 degree late afternoon, Maria and I went inside a charming five-and-dime store to purchase a disposable camera. Unfortunately, they did not sell those but instead referenced me to Wal-Mart where they did. I was not planning to go to any Wal-mart type store while in such a unique, charming town like Columbus, so I resigned myself to driving down the hill to the gas station for a camera.
As we exited, the sun disappeared and snow began to fall and fall and fall, albeit it for no more than five minutes. As Maria and I stood and sauntered mesmerizingly down Main Street, we and others were pelted with hard, driving snowflakes. It was quite cool and obviously unexpected.
After driving down to purchase the camera, then walking around town a bit more, snapping some shots of the rotating barber shop pole, banks, big clock tower, courthouse and so on, we hustled back to the car through the biting cold. The snow had stopped, and the sun had reappeared as rapidly as it had departed 15 minutes before. As we got into the car, an elderly couple who had entered the drug store at the same time as us, exited. The man remarked to his wife at what a beautiful, sunny afternoon it was. They had missed the entire storm, as ephemeral as it was.
While I was in towns like Columbus, the accents were hardly torturous as so may claim they are. Some people spoke slowly, some fast. I could understand most, if not all, perfectly. With the aid of satirical authors like Bryson, this is how many of us in the North get our misconceptions of the South, and lord knows few northerners would ever visit to find out the truth for themselves.
After Columbus, we rummaged through the blizzard I mentioned at the onset of the piece, then had dinner in Tuscaloosa, eventually back at the hotel in Birmingham at a reasonable hour.

A desolate, chilly, Sunday morning was spent in Birmingham, looking at all the Civil Rights exhibits: churches, parks, museums, buildings, shops, etc. We drove up some hills atop Birmingham and peered down at the city. It was eerily reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington, sans the three rivers. I’ll take Pittsburgh over Birmingham due to that tragic omission.
Heading down I-65, and eventually the I-22 toward Selma, we found ourselves once again within the parameters of the wondrous Talladega National Forest; this just being a separate part of it. Then we criss-crossed jagged hills on the small roads into Selma. The joy of a road trip cannot be maximized without spending a bulk of time off the interstate. The amount of people drive cross country 'in a hurry to get there' always discourages me, in three days, they never leaving the interstate. Especially since so many of these people, consider themselves ' culturally enlightened'.
Selma, a town I visited due to the recommendations of Bryson again, was mediocre at best. It had a few nice shops, some historic buildings, but it was Sunday, and most of the town was closed on a sunny 40 degree day. As I walked toward the Edmund Pettis Bridge, I quickly recalled why Bryson liked this town. It was not solely because of 'the benches on the waterfront where the city ended in a sharp bluff overlooking the Alabama River' as he notes, which are very serene, but rather due to the history.

It was here that Martin Luther King began forty, mile marches to the state capital, registering blacks to vote. This was a tidy bit of history, and upon reading that when the first few marches King led were met at the bridge by the Alabama National Guard, whence King peacefully turned away in 'protest', I knew why a peacenik like Bryson loved this town and King.

After Selma, it was on to our first of two state capitals for the final two days of the trip. Montgomery was an extremely charming city. On a chilly, late Sunday afternoon, the city was a veritable ghost town, and Maria and I thoroughly enjoyed the city’s entrance, down a steep hill after a turn from Interstate 65. The capital area is grandiose and steeped in history.
The original Southern White House was still pleasantly perched adjacent to the capital area, which sits on a hill, ala Washington DC, as you approach from the south. Various white government buildings shroud all sides of a tastefully-done and maintained circle, replete with state flags, statues and an eternal flame to remember all of Alabama’s fallen soldiers. People in this state fight wars.
On the way out of town, we circumnavigated the minor league baseball park, home of the Montgomery Biscuits. Like many downtown ballparks, minor and major league, this yard was constructed in an abandoned part of town, amongst warehouses and near the railroad. Baseball is about saving otherwise areas that would otherwise become erstwhile areas. There is even a train that goes along the left field fence, just mere feet over the wall. We happened to see it go by.
Tallahassee, the capital city of the state of Florida, could not have looked less like the Southern Florida that I now call my temporary home. Driving in from the west on
I-10, there are hills. That is something to behold in languid Florida. Not only are there hills, but upon looking to each side, and surprisingly even more so when I hit Tallahassee Metro, there are gaunt sycamores, pine trees and many coniferous trees.
The center of Tallahassee has Florida’s state capital building, governmental offices and Florida State University. All are neatly nestled in the center of town, about two or three miles south of the interstate and perched atop a hill with a decent view of the outskirts. The campus itself, especially the sophisticated architecture, pleasantly surprised us. There is a main street with it's trendy college shops, spectacularly professional athletic facilities for FSU (the football and baseball teams are regularly among the nation’s finest) and some decent-looking restaurants, parks and lakes. State parks are abundant just a few miles from town in any direction, and the ocean (Gulf of Mexico to be technical) is no more than 25 miles to the south. All in all, although I am sure the city has it's shortcomings (commercialism is abundant and we drove through some fairly downtrodden areas), it was the first Florida city in which I could actually see myself residing on a more permanent basis, if needs be.
If any of the northern coastal elites spent considerable time in the south, I feel comfortable that they would come to the many of the same conclusions I did, rectifying their uninformed conjectures. They may not proclaim 'the South will rise again!' or wave the Confederate flag with Southern Pride (and neither did I), but their goggles may cease to be so tainted.

© Ari Kaufman February 2006 (Politics) (Sports, Travel)

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