Thursday, September 27, 2007

More Road Trip Meanderings

My trip up North, well actually...up South, went well. You see, even though Florida is geographically South, it isn't Southern. Culturally, its a huge mix of nationalities and transplants from all over the U.S. So, leaving here, I had to travel North to get to the South. I know, I know--it sounds backwards.

Arkansas was my final destination.

Driving along the vast highways, I was instantly 18 again, guiding a 1984 Dodge 600 --packed to the gills with every material possession I owned--to my liberal arts University in Tennessee. I was free, unencumbered, invigorated. The world was an open book.

This time my life was much more determined and settled, but I couldn't escape the primal satisfaction of being alone on a long journey with time to think, listen to music and lose myself in the process.

I traveled through Georgia's countryside, passing pecan trees and peanut fields, long grasses with silver tufts swaying in the wind and yellow sunlight that tinged everything with a warm hue. Alabama with its steep, rocky hills covered with scrub pines and kudzu was a revelation of wild beauty. Each curve uncovered verdant forests with pockets of white mists dotting them, a ghostly mystery filling the valleys between the peaks. Mississippi was gentle and calm; its hills less death-defying, its forests less wild.

I watched the country unfold itself before me as I wondered about who lived there, and what they did with their lives. I remembered my time in Tennessee--a beautiful state. It made me long for a move to somewhere else; locations with texture and surprise, like those rolling hills in Alabama, places with seasons and earthly change instead of the monotonous heat and humidity of Florida. I missed it all.

I was brought up short in my romanticism when I stopped at a McDonald's restaurant in Georgia. I immediately noticed the contrast of people inside. All the workers, every last one of them, was black. Most of the patrons were white. I had forgotten how binary the South was. Black and White. Occasionally, there might be Mexican migrant workers around.

I don't normally pay much attention to who's behind the counter of a fast food restaurant. I just want my food, thank you very much. In Florida, there are usually a wide variety of people and skin colors represented--black, white, Hispanic, middle eastern, but this stark relief struck me as I waited in line.

A group of men, seeming to be on their lunch break, stood in front of me. I could already sense a tension about them, but didn't know why. They hadn't ordered yet. Nonetheless, I thought to myself, "There's trouble brewing here." Sure enough, one of them soon began berating the young girl who took their order and was assembling it. She knew the story. She looked at him with guarded suspicion as he complained and gave her a hard time. The manager intervened, asking the man what he needed, getting it for him, and sending him on his way. He kept his cool, even though he knew the customer was being a complete jerk.

It made me remember why I didn't stay in the South, despite my love for it. I just wasn't Southern. I couldn't culturally relate to its binary nature.

As I pondered the negatives of some things Southern, a girl of about 9 stood in line with her grandfather. He was so gentle with her, asking her what she would like, placing his arm around her shoulder, speaking to her kindly. She would answer his questions with a "Yes, sir," or "No, sir,"--another Southern nicety that traditional Southerners teach their children. Her grandmother was also sweet as she assured them that she would get things ready for them, grabbing napkins and straws, finding a place for them in the restaurant, and letting her husband know what she would like. Family. Tradition. A place of belonging. The South has us beat there.

I got my drink and left.

As I continued the drive I remembered all the good and bad things I had learned in Tennessee. The food--yummy. The ingrained stereotypes--boo! The friends--great. The disillusionment--bad. I wondered how a culture could have so much good and bad mixed together. It reminded me of myself. It reminded me of life.

No comments: