I’ve long been curious about the Deep South. We Yankees hold many prejudices about the region: friendly, drawling people and soulful music; confederate flags and conservative Christians; fried chicken, and Fried Green Tomatoes.
I know I’m not going to do more than scratch the surface of the place by visiting for a couple of months. But I have formed some better-informed impressions. And the first is that there are many different Souths. From North Carolina’s Christian billboard wars to a lively charter school with a social justice focus. From giant Confederate flags and enormous crosses along the highways, to the powerful, well-told story in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
From beautifully restored old mansions to derelict, forgotten houses. The gorgeous natural beauty of Kentucky’s Mammoth Caves; Georgia’s rust red plains; the lush green of the Mississippi Delta. The Blue Ridge Parkway. Dramatic, sculptural stone formations in Kentucky and North Carolina. And from visibly segregated cities to the un-self-conscious cultural mashup of individual neighborhoods and towns, like midtown Memphis. So, here are a few of my newly formed impressions.
Rural Georgia, urbane Atlanta
The jury seems to be out on Columbus, Georgia’s second largest city. In 2013, Livability.com ranked it #74 on the Top 100 Best Places to Live in America. But in 2014 Gallup ranked it the seventh most miserable city in the US! What we found was an old river town, a little rough around the edges but with a thriving historic preservation movement and beautifully restored architecture. And seriously deserted on a Monday afternoon.
But I loved the rural areas to the east—like Providence Canyon, which wasn’t a canyon 150 years ago. Erosion from poor farming practices led to the rapid formation of deep crevices. Making for good hiking and odd discoveries, like the relics of a community that was deserted as the canyons widened: a bunch of rusty 50s cars sinking into the rust red earth.
After that, we headed further east to Andersonville, one of the saddest, most miserable Confederate military prisons. It held 45,000 Union solders, four times what it was built for; 13,000 of them died here. Now it’s the excellent National Prisoner of War Museum, telling POW stories from across our many wars.
On the way we found quiet small towns, God-fearing people, plain folks serving good food, and Plains, where we detoured to Jimmy Carter’s boyhood home.
Then, up to Atlanta, home to culture High and low—from the High Museum of Art to Fox Bros. BBQ (yumm, Frito Pie). Atlanta is where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and you can visit his modest Victorian home, holding the stair railing that he slid down as a rambunctious boy. Just up the street is Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached, as his father did before him. The High Museum is worth a mention too—the real highlight for me was the photography of Gordon Parks and Leonard Freed, and their intimate, iconic images of the Jim Crow experience and the civil rights era.
Near Atlanta we stayed at sunny Stone Mountain Park—with bucolic lakes, good hilly bike riding, and good bike riding weather. Which was very welcome after a few weeks of chilly and rainy. Plus a surprising find: an enormous bas-relief carving on the mountainside of three Confederate heroes: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. And their horses.
North through North Carolina
Along the highways of North Carolina, Tennessee, and other bible belt states, there’s a billboard pissing match going on between the Christians and the atheists. Sometimes across the road from each other. I’m actually not kidding. It made for an entertaining drive north, especially in rural areas where billboard space is cheap.
In the context of the rest of North Carolina, the college town of Asheville does seem like a liberal outpost. Having met a really interesting couple in an RV park in Florida, we expected to join Bruce and Donna for a beer and ended up spending a couple of great evenings with them. They invited us to an event at the Francine Delany school, a charter school with a social justice focus, for a celebration of Selma’s 50th Anniversary with their very articulate 8th graders.
Around here you’re driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain. So you keep stumbling on great hiking with incredible vistas, like Black Mountain and Chimney Rock, a popular straight-up hike in Hickory Nut Gorge, with many hundreds a of steps and a ridiculous sense of accomplishment when you look out across the valley.
Kentucky and Tennessee: not just barns, bourbon, and BBQ
Southeastern Kentucky has great natural beauty and a lot of really photogenic black barns, but overall it’s a downer of a place. That’s because it’s where a lot of people are unemployed, part of the dying coal industry. But I’ve blogged here about the downer part, so let’s talk about the beauty!
Where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet, there’s a low point in the Cumberland Mountains where Daniel Boone made a shortcut through the Appalachians to the West in 1775. Ever since, folks like us have been climbing up the path to view the famous Cumberland Gap, only to find that’s it’s completely socked in with fog. But on the plus side, we caught a couple of NCAA Division Two Sweet 16 games at the local college. Plus, in nearby Middleboro, there’s a house made entirely of coal! Down in the Red River Gorge, we camped alongside the gorgeous, muddy river all by ourselves, and found great hiking around, and on, Natural Bridge.
In contrast to the southeast, northern Kentucky has more polish, especially Lexington, which calls itself the Horse Capital of the World, with its manicured horse racing barns, darn good BBQ, and lots of bourbon. Hey, distilleries give free samples! In Louisville they have the world’s biggest bat, and a limo covered with red jewels in front of a hotel covered with red penguins. And there’s also a cool pedestrian/bike bridge over the Ohio River. (We walked across just so we could say we visited Indiana.)
One of our more outlandish discoveries was the aptly-named Mammoth Cave National Park: the longest known cave system in the world. You’re driving along—or especially if you’re cycling, because you keep riding down and up—and you start seeing dimples in the land surface; it’s the opposite of hilly if you think about it. But go underground and it gets a lot weirder. There are rock formations that look like waterfalls, and Fat Man’s Misery, a path that winds through rock you have to duck and squeeze through. You peer down the Bottomless Pit, and climb stairs up inside 200’ Mammoth Dome.
Fortunately I was nourished by my inaccurately-named Healthy Breakfast, with a sugary cooked apple ‘fruit cup,’ grits, biscuits and gravy!
Then, on down the music highway
Nashville, as you know, is God’s gift to country music. But the town has terrific music of all kinds, not just the country variety. So much so that I think I’ll talk separately about the music we heard in the South, just because this post would get even longer than it is. But suffice to say, music is everywhere in Nashville—not just in the honky-tonks lining Broadway, but out on the streets and out of the way neighborhoods. People who want nothing more than to make music seem to just move here.
Nashville also has a lot going for it besides that; it’s a good biking town for one, with photogenic neon and ‘ghost signs.’ The Hatch Show Print shop—a letterpress printer that’s been cranking out posters, especially for music events, since 1879. Graphic designers all know their style—it’s sort of the opposite of digital design. And there’s a full size Parthenon made of concrete, complete with the Elgin Marbles in their proper place and without all that messy crumbling stone, so I guess it’s the Parthenon the way it was meant to be viewed. Fortunately, we missed the NRA convention here by a week (but we were still reminded often how much these good folk loves them some guns).
Then on to Memphis, where the blues shacked up with hillbilly and birthed rock ‘n roll. Our great friends Clark & Lisa arrived from Seattle—we’ve long talked about meeting here for the music. And the music didn’t disappoint—the home of R&B and soul, it’s a also a soup of funk, gospel, blues, and jazz. The Rock and Soul Museum, Sun Records, and Stax were terrific visits (the Gibson guitar factory was disappointing—brief and rushed). We toured the Graceland Industrial Complex because that’s what you do here; but far better was the National Civil Rights Museum, which resides in the Lorraine Motel, where MLK was shot. Memphis seems to have struggled to come back from that terrible event, and the town looks as if it hasn’t changed much in 50 years. But that makes it accessible and less frenetic than towns like Nashville.
Clarksdale is the home of more blues legends than I can count; and the Juke Joint Festival, a weekend of nothing but music and sunshine. Back in the early 20th century, Clarksdale was one of a handful of Mississippi Delta towns where locals could make more money playing the blues than picking cotton. Now they keep the deep south blues alive here, and I’ve wanted to experience the authentic music here since I fell in love with the blues 20-some years ago.
Working our way down the Mississippi River: Vicksburg, which played a pivotal role in the Civil War (and if you know me at all, you know I love learning about it). We found two of my favorite things here: good biking in the Vicksburg National Military Park, where you really get a first-hand feel for how the Confederates were able to defend their city from these high bluffs, holding the key strategic point on the river for so long. And small museums crammed with fascinating, very personal points of view on the local people and events throughout that time.
Here’s something we don’t see in the Northwest: around the south, and especially in Mississippi, very large crosses are erected alongside the roads; sometimes just one cross, sometimes in threes. Just another reminder that we’re in the heart of the bible belt.
In the Southwest corner of the state we stopped in the architecturally-rich town of Natchez, right on the Mississippi River and at the southwest end of the Natchez Trace—the historic path from the river up to the Ohio valley. In the early 19th century, Natchez was a wealthy city, attracting both cotton and sugar cane trade to the river, and planters who built mansions befitting their status (actual and aspirational). Many of the grand antebellum homes still stand, thanks to the mayor who kept surrendering every time the Union Navy or Army approached the city. One plantation manor along the beautiful Natchez Trace burned to the ground however, though the columns still stand, leaving a strange, giant skeleton of the Windsor plantation that was.
There’s still more of the South to explore, and more fantastic music along the way to share, but I’m going to end this post at the Mississippi border. Next up: New Orleans and Jazz Fest. Down here they claim it’s where the South ends and the Caribbean begins.
All photos: © 2015 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.