We have been visiting family in Pensacola. This, I have to point out, is not the Florida of Miami or Tampa. No wall-to-wall high rises, no East Coast retirees, no Midwestern snowbirds. Here we are in the true South; the panhandle is virtually a part of Alabama. The beaches are lovely white sand, minus the hassles and expense of South Florida: The Redneck Riviera.
Now we're traveling through more of the South. We're driving eight hours from Pensacola to Cashiers, North Carolina (pronounced Cashers) where Laura's mom grew up. We're crossing Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Our route takes us through the Old South, Old Dixie, the Confederate South. Good times here are not forgotten. A joking man asks in passing, "How come the South lost the war?"
In the center of a small Alabama town, we pass an old log cabin.
No longer king, nevertheless some cotton still grows here. This field, shot from our speeding car, looks odd: lots of cotton bolls but no leaves. Laura's stepdad explains: cotton isn't picked by hand anymore. Farmers spray defoliant on the fields and mechanically harvest the bolls after the leaves have fallen: efficient, but the romance is gone.
Near Greenville, Alabama, we pass Hank WIlliams' birthplace. Along the lonesome highway a billboard declares:
GOD, GUNS & GUTS
We Support Our Troops
We pass the Beams of Light Church, the Apostolic Faith Campground, the Abundant Life Parking Lot. Here jackleg preachers perform foot washings. Here abortion clinics suffered bombings. Here a fanatic assassinated Dr. David Gunn.
Signs hawk green peanuts, boiled peanuts, goobers. One delivers a mixed message: "Layaway Plan Available—One Nation Under God." A vanity license plate admonishes: "Choose Life." Church and State are not so separate in Alabama.
But whether Southerners want it or not, change is coming. A billboard heralds: "Hyundai—Proudly Built in Alabama." Koreans now own a part of Dixie.
Hours later, crossing into Georgia, we spy the golden dome of the state capitol. For a brief while we leave the Old South behind, passing through a modern metropolis of freeways, skyscrapers and mammon.
Kudzu grows everywhere. This rampant vine continues to eat the south, smothering trees, impossible to eradicate.
We cross the South Carolina line—really cheap gas! One of our party orders the chicken fried steak at Cracker Barrel. He won't do that again.
In North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains appear on the horizon—welcome sighting of our destination.
We're in a different kind of South here: still socially conservative but less strident. We're going to visit mountain people, more independent than doctrinaire. We're looking for a small hamlet along a winding mountain road, where Grandma and Grandpa lived their entire lives, cutting their own firewood, putting up homegrown string beans.