I had been driving around “The South” for the past three weeks, and was using this opportunity to give the area a chance. Where I’m from, the South doesn’t connote great thoughts. My preconceived notion of the South was that it was a land of rednecks, racists, and raging bible beaters. It still thought the Civil War was going on, and it’s filled with trash, trailer parks, idiots, and the occasional poetic sage. Aside from a few major cities, nothing of worth was there and letting them secede from the Union might not have been such a bad idea.
I know it was a harsh opinion, but it was a view reinforced by what I saw on TV, what Southern politicians said, the fact that they pay the least taxes and get the most federal aid, and because they have the highest rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, child and spousal abuse, and drug abuse in the country. All in all, it seemed like a cultural wasteland and I was glad to never really have gone there.
But I was traveling the country and, for better or worse, the South was part of my country.
Travel is about seeing new places, experiencing new people, and letting go of your baggage. This was my opportunity to see the area and give it a chance, to see what was right and what was wrong. Was it as bad as I thought it was? Or was it all hype?
Like all stereotypes, there was a bit of truth and a lot of exaggeration.
After driving through a good chunk of the South, I have a somewhat new, less-negative opinion of Southern living. While driving, I noticed many cultural differences that I knew existed, and some I didn’t. One thing I noticed is that everything on the radio is either country, Christian, preaching, or conservative talk. There are only one or two stations that play new rock/pop/rap. You can definitely tell by the radio just how far “south” you really are. Once pop gets relegated to one station and country gets seven, you know you’re in the deep South. When the opposite is true, you’re heading north.
The food down here is a symptom of the suburban lifestyle they’ve mastered. I noticed that outside many of the major cities, a lot of Southern residents live in cookie cutter developments. This is especially true east of Alabama. All those developments all look the same. (Florida was the worst offender.) Everything was a modern suburban nightmare. This sameness spread to their malls and restaurants.
Up North, even outside the cities, we tend to have more local and unique restaurants. Sure, we have our Applebees, Chili’s, and fast food, but that isn’t “good” food to us. Down here, it seems that those chains are the “good” cuisine. When you ask people here about their favorite restaurant, it’s usually a chain. “I love Chick Fil A.” “I love Cracker Barrel.” Up North, we go to those chains as a last cheap resort, not a first pick. It was only in the big cities that you tended to see the nicer, non-chain restaurants.
Despite all of that, the South has great qualities, and I walked away with a better opinion of it than when I came. The weather is hot, the cities hot, the women hot, the accent hot, and Creole food even hotter. People were very friendly and polite as well. It was weird to this Bostonian to be walking or standing on the street and having people come up and talk to me. They also move at a slower pace in the South. They take their time. They aren’t in as much of a rush as their other countrymen.
Going through the South was an eye-opening experience that taught me a lot about my own northern attitudes towards people, time, and places. It also shed light on a part of my country I had only ever criticized.
I found out that the people here aren’t so backwards, and that some are living in the 21st century, despite not having any real form of public transit anywhere. (Atlanta, I’d love you more if you had a train!). There were some amazing cities I would return to visit, especially New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston.
That is the beauty of travel. It opens your mind and breaks down stereotypes. It forces you to confront the reality in your mind and helps you understand others in the world. I’m not in love with the South, but I understand it now and it is a place I would be happy to go back to again.
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