Driving South

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Alabama-Mississippi state line.
Alabama-Mississippi state line.

I have believed certain things about the South for a long time. Long-held suppositions that I fully believed I would either see born out or completely dispelled were I to go there.

I was not wrong.

We left Chicago around 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, enjoying, as we do, driving at night.

I thought about why we like to do this.

It started with the kids. When they were very young, it was much easier to travel by night so they would sleep. Many of our drives were around 6 to 8 hours in length, which gave us plenty of time to get somewhere and still enjoy some sleep before getting on with our journey the next day.

The question in my mind yesterday was why do we still do this even now that the kids are grown?

The answer, for me, was evident when we woke up in a chilly, but sunny Nashville, Tennessee.

It was all new, as if we’d passed over time and space to arrive at an entirely new location.

Driving at night eases you through the familiar places so there is no transition. You do not see the flat landscape you know so well, lost, as it is, in the darkness.

So I always wake up feeling as if I magically arrived somewhere new and exciting.

We enjoyed a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes on the west side of town with an old friend from Alaska before getting on the road midmorning.

We stayed in Nashville all of two minutes, but I was taken in by the clean, modern feel of the city I always imagined as a large, overly sequined Elvis outfit or an ornate Gretsch guitar.

The posted 70 mile per hour speed limit was delightful, as I set the cruise control to 75 and carefully took in the rolling countryside.

Those suppositions were burning through brain tissue trying to force me into confronting things I didn’t want to.

As a journalist, I prefer to observe something before making assumptions. I like to know what I’m dealing with.

As a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I only knew of the South what I read about it in books, and much of it was not flattering.

Start with “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” and continue into my early adult years with John Grisham’s literary legalese.

But there was Anne Rice too, and the Garden District, as she described it, played seductively in my mind as I drove.

What if all that you know of a place is from books and movies? What if all that you know of the people in a certain region is negatively influenced by some invisible line that says you are on one side and they were on another?

What if you believe your side was right and their’s was wrong?

How do you go into this place objectively to experience the region and its people.

We talked as we drove, discussing Grisham and movie scenes that depicted southern rest stops as playgrounds for homicidal maniacs.

When we crossed into Mississippi, we stopped at a rest stop that had special security features. This only played into my suspicions and fears.

By the time we made it to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, I was ready to be confronted by my beliefs.

We slipped off the freeway and looked for a Starbucks, something I hadn’t expected to find there. But we encountered much more.

It looked like any town anywhere, and I found myself looking at the yoga studio and the sushi bars as if they were out of place.

I tried to think of another place in the world that comes with as much baggage as the South does for me. And I come up blank.

Cheryl walked to the register and ordered me a large China Green Tips tea, and the young lady at the counter asked where she was from.

“Chicago,” Cheryl said.

“How do you like working at Starbucks in Chicago?” the young lady asked, when Cheryl gave her her partner numbers.

“It’s alright,” Cheryl said. “It’s really, really busy, so there is no downtime.”

“Wow,” the young lady said. “That’s not like here. It’s slow and boring, but that’s the South, it’s boring.”

The young lady made us laugh for the next twenty minutes or so as we got back on the freeway.

I told Cheryl that every young person in every town anywhere thinks their town is boring.

And that’s when it hit me.

The South is everything I thought it was and so much more. It might have more baggage than boring old Salem, Oregon in the temperate Pacific Northwest, but it is here and now and kids feel he same things coast to coast.

The South is epic in ways that I’ve never understood but which I want to.

There will always be a sense of pride in where you come from. But understanding our own origins takes exploring new places.

Tim Akimoff

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