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Searching for that Something 'Southern'
   A journey down an Interstate highway to the soul of the South

By Mary Carmichael

We are lurching down I-85 toward Atlanta when we see them: twin flagpoles, their majestic furls rippling and convulsing in the strong spring wind. One flag is America's. The other is Georgia's. Red, white and blue, stars and bars, and if you squint, it's the Confederate flag you'll see, rolling and unrolling there in the sun, wrapping itself around the pole. It towers over us as our car barrels past, and we know we have arrived. Tim and I have come from Carolina, past the World's Largest Flea Market, past the casinos of Blacksburg, S.C., past Bedtyme Stories and Café Risque, on the blackface interstate that crosses the gray-green Southern countryside. Our trip is easy to plot. Run your finger down the twisting southbound line on a map from Durham. to Atlanta. Hop on 75 in the city, turn east and roll into Florida, down to the St. Pete Peninsula where the highway dead-ends. Reverse and repeat.

    We are searching for something we can't define, something I know I've seen on the tens of times I've made this trip from home to school and back again. We are searching for the soul of the South, armed with a ripped and water-stained atlas, a 1995 Saturn SL1 with a full ($24) tank of gas, a pad and a pen. We head South, tank up again north of Atlanta, grab a couple hours' sleep and set out, brave explorers of the wild Interstate back country.

    "Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Maine. Oregon too. And a helluva lotta Canucks." Tim and I are playing tag-license tag-competing to find the most state plates. A trucker whizzes past, the force of his acceleration swatting Tim's car into the right lane. The truck is from Tennessee. I mark it down-didn't have that state yet. I'm up to state #14 on my tally when Tim points at a garish hot-pink sign: WE BARE ALL. "Wanna go in?" He shoots me a sly grin and I bury my face in my hands and tell him to take the exit, our first foray into Highway Country.

    We pull up exit ramp 147 and into the cramped lot of Cafe Erotica. The place is surprisingly small, only one story high, and set out like a brown-and-pink Western brothel. The roof is plastered with sun-bleached pictures of busty, grimacing women. A curly-haired Hispanic is idling his rumbling engine in the parking lot. California, I mutter, I'll have to write that down.

    Nearer to the door now, where a couple of beer guts are working on their Marlboros and waiting in line. We take our place, noting the sign by the door: "Our local state attorney will NOT TAKE KINDLY to patrons touching the ladies in inappropriate places." And another: "Plan to be a gentleman." And another:"We can't just show you our beautiful ladies for free, now can we?" There's a cover. Tim is tight-fisted, so we don't go in; I promise myself we'll do it later.

    Back in the car now, defeated, and headed toward the state line. A decrepit white Cadillac flies by with a bumper sticker proclaiming the truth of "The Big Bang: God spoke, and BANG! It happened." And another one, a little black sedan: "Got Jesus?" Suddenly, it's clear that we are no longer in Erotica territory. This is the Land of the Lord.

    Here among the roadkill and the retreads, just a few miles down from the home of the world-famous dancing girls, God is speaking on 550 AM, and his messenger is a mealy-mouthed radio kingpin. His rant of the day is directed at Jimi Hendrix. "He's up there banging his stuff around, and using that guitar in a-well-a sexual manner," he whines, whispering the word "sexual" as if the beautiful ladies weren't just up the road. Our announcer decides to expose us to appropriate music. The synthesizer settles into a sedate groove, a light high-hat kicks in and a syrupy, pre-pubescent ingenue begins to croon: Please tell me nobody was assassinated by a kid with a gun today,
Wouldn't it be better if we could sit at school and pray,
We sure could use a little good news today. . . .
    Deep into Florida now, past the World-Famous Catfish House Where Jesus is Lord, past the gas stations that offered us Mexican blankets, mandalas and dream-catchers for the low, low price of $6.

    Lewis Grizzard, that great, sarcastic Southern humorist, once wrote that the Yankees came to Florida from miles around to see dogs, painted up like 'gators, wrestling with each other. If the 'gators are anywhere nearby, we've missed 'em, but the Yankees-they're everywhere. It begs the question why anyone would wear out their tires and drain their gas tanks in these days of high oil prices, just to see a little green country and a sliver of white Gulf sand.

    We're clued in a little bit later, after we've reached the end of the trail and settled into our stark La Playa Beach Resort room. "So, what do you think of these accommodations?" asks the ruddy old man who has accosted us by the pool. He is sporting a thin T-shirt, a buzz cut and a bulbous nose. His wife, who is well under five feet short, is wearing faded-pink cargo trunks and a red cotton top. They are Canadians. They think, well, they think the accommodations stink.

    Homer-not his real name, but it fits- is a mechanic in a GM factory north of the border. He likes to ask questions. "Ah learn," he explains, in a clearly affected "Southern" drawl that he's picked up somewhere on the drive between Ontario and Florida. He engages us in friendly conversation for a few minutes, then retreats to his room with a casual "see y'all later." If Homer is adopting the customs of the coast, the coast has also adopted some of his. The peninsula might be the only place in the world you'll ever see a Canadian flag, a U.S. flag and a Confederate flag all flying together on the same five-foot strip of land. The local 7-Eleven carries the Canadian national paper. The La Playa Beach Resort parking lot has more Ontario plates than American ones. There are New Yawkahs too, and a guy from Vermont. They watch a lot of hockey here in Florida. Odd. We had come to see the South. Instead, we're the most Southern people here. Tim is twiddling with the radio dials. We're back on the road, going north this time from Florida, after a few days of lounging on the soft sand. For the moment, there isn't much to stop for. A few yellow tractors scattered by the roadside like giant children's toys; a rainbow; a couple of billboards.

    We're running low when we reach a gas station in the Florida backwaters. Our gas station is home to the "Alien's Truck Wash," a wooden shed in back of the station with this dubious distinction scrawled in black spray-paint on its side. "I guess somebody just thought they'd be cute," says Tammy, the clerk who checks us out, handing over two Yoo-hoos and a bag of Gummi Worms.

    Back on the road and finally into Georgia. We pass Cordele, Juliette, East Juliette, Tifton ("Cleanest City in America!"), a thousand tiny towns. After a few hours, we fill up again and shoot sideways glances at the mammoth trailer that's pulled up beside us. Here's a woman with her pleated chambray shorts pulled up her torso, toting a blond, barefoot toddler on her hip. The baby is restless and is not wearing any shorts. Here's the woman's husband, a stringy-haired dirty blond in a thin undershirt and rusty jeans. "Ah'm 'on win," he says, clutching a lottery ticket. "Ah'm the one! Heh! Ah'm the one!"

    Gambling is the vice of choice in the New South. Drive almost anywhere near a Southern state line and you'll find small patches of land playing host to five or six different video casinos under the shadow of a huge "$9 Million Annuitized Jackpot" sign. For our requisite stop, we exit I-85 at Blacksburg, S.C., just south of the North Carolina border. Caribbean Video Games, State Line Video Games, State Line II Video Games, Monte Carlo Video Games, Castle Video Games. Video Poker! It's everywhere! Walking into State Line Video Games is like retreating into a cave. We are washed over by the thick smell of nicotine and carbon monoxide, the sweet stench of burning tobacco. We approach a portly woman with a cigarette and heavily hair-sprayed bangs; I fear her hair will catch on fire, but she gestures wildly, seemingly unaware of the peril, as she takes our money and checks our IDs. She can barely see them in the darkness, and she calls a slumping, skinny black man over to help. The man has a nametag, but I can't make it out in the dark. He is chewing on his mustache; his round glasses support a jaunty, brown traveling cap that belies his boredom. I ask him about the cluster of video casinos, why they're not more spread out, why they all picked here as their place of business. "N'yep, there sure are a lot of them," he sighs, with an air of finality. He laughs a little when I tell him I've never played poker. He murmurs a soothing mantra, something like "here, here," and encourages me to feed a dollar into the arcade blackjack slot. And then he pulls up a faded plush chair and sits.

    We win our first round. He sits. We win some more. He sits some more. I'm beginning to feel that we're being looked after, or looked over. Given all the shady characters in this place, I wonder naively why a pair of clean-cut 20-somethings would need a chaperone.

    We make out like bandits-40 whole cents up from our original one-dollar investment-then lose it all. It's surprising how monotonous this is. Stay. Hit. Hit. Stay. Low card. High card. Can something this boring actually be a vice? We turn to go, bidding adieu to our friend, who manages a halfhearted wave and a mumbled corruption of "y'all come back now. "Back to the road, and back to North Carolina, where we started. We've bought fireworks (illegal in Georgia), combed over the merchandise at a flea market, counted 77 Waffle Houses, about one every 10 miles. As we wind down the road toward Durham, I remember our original purpose and rack my brain for something, anything, distinctly Southern in the 800-some miles we've driven. The people we caught loitering outside the gas stations and cheap motels off the interstate. A curious juxtaposition of religion and sex and commercialism. A weather-beaten, assembly-line mechanic with a stumpy wife and a blunt sense of curiosity... None of it was "Southern" in our minds. And for the moment, it appeared that the soul of the South had eluded us, slipping through our fingers every time we thought we had touched it.

    Later, I would sit quietly in a cold classroom listening to New York Times' Southern bureau chief, Kevin Sack, expound on the loss of a distinct region that was the South, one that had fallen victim to a curious kind of small-scale globalization. "It's not the same South that it was," he would say. And I'd know that many scholars disagree with him, but I'd think back to all those license plates from Michigan and Maine, and I'd believe him.

    But for now, I'm left to puzzle over this lack of distinction. This wasn't the "South," and maybe I should have expected it. Then again, how about those twin flags, rippling and convulsing in the wind, rolling and unrolling in the sun?
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