Navigating Dixie

Week Fifteen (12-18 May 2014)

Negotiating the Southland (The Old School Way)

As British troops landed on our shores during the Revolution or Union boys moved south in pursuit of Johnny Reb, I am sure they had a number of devices for determining just how far south they had found themselves. It is just conjecture, but I suspect that linguistics, drawl in particular, played a role, along with flora and fauna and cuisine.

Our travels this week have proven these to still be handy, albeit relative, indicators of how far one has moved from the Mason-Dixon Line. Considering oral sign posts, for instance, a slow continuum of accent was heard passing through southern Virginia and onto South Carolina, but when we “turned right” and began moving through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, we were exposed to more distinct and separate forms of the Queen’s English, even though folks from outside the region would generally just lump all of these into the category of “southern accent.”

Homeschool P.E. on the Road (Yes…that is a truck stop and a frisbee).

Flora and fauna identification, general taxonomy, for geolocation? Absolutely. When we had to swerve out of our highway lane to avoid a dinner-plate sized snapping turtle leisurely crossing the road while deep in thought (somewhere in the southern bits of North Carolina, if I recall correctly) we knew we were quickly moving away from home. The palm trees of South Carolina and the abundance of magnolias through Georgia gave away some hints, as did the dead armadillo on the side of the road in Alabama.

As far as using local comestibles to gauge general whereabouts, I am now quite certain that a formula exists to determine your location in the South based on the per-square-mile concentration of outlets for fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea. Churches, Bojangles, and Zaxbys certainly serve as key variables in this mystery calculus. Fried gator, anyone?

Chartering A Southern Passage (Modern Tools)

Our travels also made us aware that more recent inventions–highway rest stops and their offerings, billboard marketing, and radio programming, in particular–provide today’s traveler with additional tools to determine the general depth of one’s plunge into Dixie. For example, when we began seeing at least ten varieties of pork rinds, fifteen types of long cut chew, and pickled eggs on the counters at the gas station, we knew we had reached southern Virginia, if not the first of the Carolinas. Boiled peanuts and signs for peaches and pecans? Must be in South Carolina already and likely heading toward Georgia. Billboard caricatures that morphed from crawdads to long-horn steers? Ah, we crossed the Louisiana-Texas border (and we noticed more mariachi music on the radio as well).

You Must Wash the Car on a Road Trip (or, at least, the kids must do so…)

Miles and miles of billboards hawking messages of spiritual salvation, strangely interspersed with other towering roadside signs giving directions to the nearest gentlemen’s club or adult store, are a strong indicator that you have entered the Bible Belt. At one stop, I bought a bag of cracklings that had a Bible verse printed on the back and, using the radio’s scan function at one point in Georgia, I hit five Christian stations in a row. The many, and very large, churches scattered down the major highways in view of the motorists is another dead giveaway. At a certain point, I believe it was somewhere after South Carolina, billboard ads started appearing for another house of worship–the casino (and hotlines for gambling addiction).

And let’s not forget the never ending array of eye-catching roadside posters for that famous tourist trap, South of the Border, a sure sign for anyone whose journey begins north of the Carolinas that they are going in the right general direction. (We greeted Pedro at least two dozen times before we reached our first lodging site.)

Appearances of the name “Bubba” was a clear indicator of being in Mississippi or Louisiana (though they may have started as early as Georgia). Whoever this guy is, he is awfully busy and talented. It would seem that he does everything from car repairs to creole food catering. Signs for firework and gun shops–not really seen until you enter the Carolinas, but consistent throughout the trip into the Lone Star state.

Blazed Trail

So…after hours of audio books (C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), mad libs, a survival trivia card game, numb butt cheeks, attempts at passenger-seat juggling, and harmonica “practice,” here is how the trip looks so far for you cartographically inclined readers:

Notes on The Lower Carolina

Seven-plus hours and 440 miles after departing the Commonwealth, our first stop, to visit with longtime family friends in Myrtle Beach, gave us our first breathing space since the pack out began in earnest and allowed us to say our formal goodbyes to the Atlantic Ocean as we set off again to take up residence on the shores of her western cousin. We caught up on sleep and shared a wonderful few days of camaraderie over fishing poles, grilled sausages, and treasure hunting with a metal detector on the beach. For the first time in years, I broke out an old dual line kite and gave her a whirl, and we learned that the girls are adept fisherfolk–they will be well employed on the Big Island. We dubbed the eldest “Bass Master” after she reeled in two large mouth bass and five other piscine varieties (of the crappie and sunfish sort) in a single day.

We discovered, too, that our mini van, Serenity, has a propensity for slipping out at night on her own and, apparently, hitting the bottle. This became known when she was found the morning of our departure sporting a fresh tattoo, a little memento to remind her of the fun she had in South Carolina.

The journey away from the sanctuary that was our recuperation stop in the beach of myrtles was relatively uneventful, save a memorable stop at a genuine mom and pop pit barbecue roadside stand somewhere in the grand state of Alabama. Mighty fine, slow cooked, wood fired meats.

Before moving the story along, I should make mention of the weather, though. When you are forced to drive 20 miles-per-hour under the speed limit due to low visibility caused by “heavy precipitation,” you know you have entered a good ole southern storm. That was us…somewhere midway through Georgia. Slowed, but perfectly well, we arrived some two-hours later than expected (a character building nine-hour drive) in LaGrange, where we had decided to lodge for a night to break up this leg of the journey. At daybreak, we set off on our next jaunt, a mere seven hours, to New Orleans.

Cajun Country

During our brief 24-hour stay in the Big Easy, we caught up with a college friend of the bride, stuffed ourselves with fine creole vittles, and exposed the kids to some of the peculiarities of this fine city during a quick stroll around the French Quarter. The wee one’s palates were introduced to boiled crawfish, fried gator bites, Cajun style frog legs, boudins, bread pudding, beignets, chicory infused coffee, and more.

A stroll down the infamous Bourbon Street on Saturday afternoon allowed us the pleasure of an olfactory swim through the thick smells of the previous night’s vomit and public urination, overlaid with cigar smoke coming from men who were acting like boys and boys pretending to be men, as we passed by the strip clubs, smoke shops, and even a purveyor of fine voodoo paraphernalia. Mojo bags and smudge, anyone? Rest assured, the kids are in the process of drafting some very interesting essays as part of this “field trip.” (Is there any better way to kick off homeschooling?)

We also found ourselves physically standing in the middle of the taping of a future episode of The Amazing Race before saddling up and proceeding further west. We arrived in Houston late Saturday night.

Of Music, Radio Shows, and Movies

During our travels these few days, we encountered musical phenomenon worth putting on record. First, and I kid you not, the very instant that we rolled across the Virginia-North Carolina border, as indicated by the roadside sign, we heard from our car radio that well known opening guitar wail of Angus Young. Yes…AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” pierced our speakers and set the stage for our road trip into the deeper South.

Somewhere just after Montgomery, and I swear that I am not making this up, Lynyrd Skynrd came rolling out from across the airwaves…. “Sweet home Alabama….where the skies are so blue…” The really funny thing was that we looked up and saw a cloudless blue ether above.

Crossing inlets and swamps and bayous enroute to Baton Rouge is not the place you would expect to find yourself listening to Garrison Keillor, but we were–in fact–able to tune in to the full two-hour live broadcast of this week’s edition of A Prairie Home Companion. Turns out that the crew is doing their southern loop for the year, and they were in Atlanta. (If you are unfamiliar with this piece of iconic Americana, I urge you to look it up, tune in on one weekend, and–if possible–go see a live performance before this last bastion of radio variety show excellence comes to an end.)

Finally, I’ll note that this week’s travel could nearly have been plotted out using famous films. Mississippi alone left us discussing Biloxi Blues, The Help, Mississippi Burning, Cross Roads, and (of course) O Brother Where Art Thou (great soundtrack).

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