An excerpt of this column originally appeared as a special to the Kenosha News, Sunday Mornings With Basil Willis, February 13, 2012.
I love America. From stem to stern and tip to toe, I heart this big cauldron of diversity, dysfunction and determination. I especially like Wisconsin. I’ve lived in different parts of the country – Chicago, Miami and a brief stint in New Orleans – but our great state keeps pulling me back. I was reminded why on a recent road trip to Florida.
The automobile is how people used to take vacations, when gas was cheap and air travel was not. The family would load up the station wagon or living room-sized sedan (this was pre-SUVs), tie suitcases to the roof and spend two or three weeks traveling cross country by car. I had made the drive at least a dozen times myself, but it was Beth’s first such adventure southward. Americans tend to fly everywhere now and don’t really experience the in-between like we used to.
Traveling through the southern United States is like being in another country. And like actually being in another country, it’s the little things one notices. Sometimes all we share with them is currency and a language, and the latter is open for debate. When a woman asked us, “Y’all from Shelbyville?” it literally took her repeating the question three times before we understood. I thought she was saying, “Y’all want a shelter here?”
Later, when a waitress called me “sugar” and “darlin’,” I immediately understood what she was saying. There is something about a woman with a southern drawl calling me “sugar” that makes me kind of goofy. Beth noticed right away and said, “Don’t get too full of yourself. She says that to everyone.” And sure enough, when the waitress returned to our table she called Beth “darlin’” too.
One buxom server, upon learning we were from Wisconsin, said, “Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit.” Umm… ok. I will never be able to unthink the mental imagery that accompanied that directive.
While taking a trip south on the interstate system gives one a flavor of the rest of the country, it is not the same as seeing the back roads of Charles Kuralt’s America. There is an entire ecosystem built around the major arteries that includes all sorts of traveler traps and assorted freak shows. Most of the people you see when you get off the highway are other travelers; stretching, fueling and getting called “sugar.”
One fact that cannot be denied is Southerners love them some Waffle House. There is a Waffle House at every single interstate exit from Indianapolis to Tampa. The running joke on the trip became, “Only 94 Waffle Houses until we’re there!”
Interstate 75 that runs through southern Georgia, between Atlanta and the Florida border, is a sociological petri dish. There is a two hundred mile stretch of massive billboards, spaced every hundred yards, that kept repeating three themes; Jesus loves and/or will punish you, pecans, and gentlemen’s club next exit (truck parking in rear). Pray, eat pecans, watch strippers. Rinse and repent. The moral tension between the battle for souls and wallets was palpable in the heart of Dixie.
You have to be careful where you walk in the deep south. At my mom’s house you can’t walk barefoot on grass because there’s stuff in there that can kill you, or at the very least, ruin your day. Fire ants, scorpions, coral snakes, alligators and bobcats are not uncommon in her neighborhood, an area where humans are not at the top of the food chain. And don’t even think about getting in the water. In Wisconsin you can go just about anywhere without fear of being bitten or eaten, unless you’re feeding baby bears, or cover yourself in peanut butter and stumble upon a hungry wolf pack in the far north woods.
On the way back we stayed overnight in Louisville. We ordered drinks with dinner and the bartender said, ‘Y’all ain’t from around here. We can’t serve alcohol on Sunday.” Turns out the good people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky have decided that it is ok to drink wine and beer on Sunday, but not booze. When asked why, the man replied with a chuckle, “Guess they don’t want people getting tanked before church.” And therein lies a fundamental difference between Southerners and ‘Sconnies – we don’t need spirits to get tanked before church; beer or wine work just fine.
I am certain that people from the south find things about the north strange, besides our nasally accents, but I’m not sure what. You just don’t see a lot of northward migration, unless it’s Flatlanders, so it’s hard to get a good sampling. The harsh winters act as something of a filter, keeping the less hardy at bay. Despite my disdain for it, there is something about winter and its ability to kill everything outdoors that makes things seem cleaner, less greasy here. The environment has a chance to reboot. But that’s easy to say during this glorious specimen of a winter.
As we left the shorts and flip-flops weather and retraced our route north, we realized how huge and beautiful our country is, and that there’s no place like home. The return trip seemed shorter. It always does.