Road Trip VI, Days 20-23, Monroe, Louisiana to Cumberland Island National Seashore: Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Piney hills. Black-water cypress swamps. Real, deciduous oaks that understand they’re supposed to grow new leaves every year. Maples starting their spring blush. Redbuds already blushing hard. Spanish moss. Magnolias.

We headin’ HOME. Or I am, anyway. But this journey was the idea of my Californian Mate, so he can hardly complain.

But the scenery is already leading to some arguments interesting discussions. I’m a western chauvinist with a deep strain of southeastern nostalgia–an uncomfortable combination. Makes me tetchy. I can claim–and do–that northwestern forests are more dramatic, beautiful, and walkable than those in, say, my home state of North Carolina…but you can’t. The Mate walks into this trap constantly.

Him: “Those pines are a such a weird shade of green.”
Me: “Well, at least they have more individuality than our firs.”
Him: “These wintertime hardwoods make the forest look dead!”
Me: “But at least you can see through it this time of year! And look at the size of that hickory!”

I’ve come to think of these southeastern forests as the ultimate glass-half-full-vs.-empty scenario. I can choose to see a scrubby, scratchy, inhospitable tangle of poison ivy, smilax and honeysuckle…or I can see heritage: my daily walk to school; summer blackberrying; finding a safe spot to pee in the woods during a run. Or, in literary daydreams, Scout Finch and Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie.

 

I know my bipolar attitude is the result of too much history. I can’t see cotton fields without thinking about James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; can’t see big magnolias without thinking of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit.” The South is soaked in more misery per acre than any other region in our country.

Usually, I’ll admit, I see those scruffy, history-laden woods and and think how lucky I am to live diagonally across the continent from here, in forests where nothing wants to bite me or make me itchy, or make me think of slavery, share cropping and the KKK.

These woods aren't dead--they're just getting their beauty sleep.

These woods aren’t dead–they’re just getting their beauty sleep.

But if anyone else says that to me? Nuh-uh, honey.

BTW: I’ll write about our discovery of Cumberland Island in my next post. Right now I just have to give a little shout-out to our friends Raven and Chickadee (a.k.a. Eric and Laurel) for steering us to Oak Mountain State Park via their travel blog, Ravenandchickadee.com. This largest of Alabama’s state parks offers miles of steep, winding trails in wild-feeling woods an astonishing ten miles south of its largest city, Birmingham. We didn’t get enough time there and look forward to staying longer some day. In Alabama!

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scary snob says, "Pretty pretty!"

Oak Mountain, Alabama? This western scenery snob says, “Pretty pretty!”

Gone to Carolina in My Mind…But My Body’s a Lot Happier Here, Thanks

Who knew? I’m part of a tribe: GRITS. Girls Raised in The South. 

I just learned that from a bumper sticker, back in my home state of North Carolina on a visit with my besties from high school. The fact that I never heard this term when I lived there, 24 years ago, tells me something.

Roots change. Or rather, our sense of where we come from, and how we feel about it–that changes. Continuously, it turns out.

When The Mate and I moved, in 1990, it was largely out of frustration. North Carolina had just re-elected Senator Jesse Helms for a SIXTH term. A baldly racist campaign, playing on white fears of preferential treatment for blacks, left us feeling shaken and soured. So much for the “New South.”

Then there was the weather. We were both distance runners. The only way to get our workout in during the summer was to be out the door by 6 am. That got old real fast.

In the Pacific Northwest, we found a home, both culturally and geographically. I developed a mantra for explaining to people how I felt about the South.

“I only miss five things,” I’d say. “My parents, Tarheel basketball, big ol’ oak trees, fried chicken, and BBQ.” For years, I said that.

Now, thinking back over the sweaty weekend I just spent with my girls on the coast, I realize my non-nostalgia is more nuanced. Here are some other things I’ve missed:

#1. Flat-out Wackiness. The South has a special affection for “characters.” Despite its insistence on conformity in most issues of dress and religion and Livin’ Right, if you’re a “character,” you can not only get away with quite a bit, you’re loved for it. Example: The Mary’s Gone Wild Folk Art compound we discovered. Part connected treehouses, part structures of bottles stuck in mortar–think End of Star Wars III meets The Burrow from Harry Potter, with a little Gothic Pippi Longstocking thrown in.

Building inspectors aren't too picky in Supply, NC.

Building inspectors aren’t too picky in Supply, NC.

Mary's Gone Wild! But she's good folks.

Mary’s Gone Wild! But she’s good folks.

#2. Summer Veggies. Having not been back in the summer for years and years, I had forgotten about SWEET sweet corn, velvety slabs of ripe tomato, basil bursting weedlike out of gardens. And the watermelon? Makes me feel like crying just thinking about it. We don’t get enough sun here in the Pacific Northwest to grow hot-weather crops that taste the way they were meant to.

#3. Quaint vestiges of respect built into conversation. “Yes, ma’am, these peaches are ripe.” And my mom, who tutors a guy older than me who’s finally learning to read, says he calls her “Miss Martha.”

#4. Did I mention wackiness? These ironic flamingos decorated our rental house:

Is that even legal?

Is that even legal?

#5. Boiled peanuts. Just try ’em, ok? You’ll see what I mean.

#6. Fried pickles. Ditto.

Of course I bumped into several items to add to my WHAT I DON’T MISS list, namely:

#1. Smoking. YECCCCCCCCCCCCCCCHHHHHHHHHH. People still smoke a lot more in NC than they do here. And there’s still tobacco growing every old where.

#2. Billboards. Everywhere. Turning otherwise pretty land into pretty ugly land.

#. Humidity. Yeah, that one’s not new. But I had forgotten how much my HAIR hates it. I turned into a sticky, grumpy Mufasa. “Muuu-FASSS-ahhhh!”

But enough with the lists. I’m home now, and I’m curious about your own love-hate relationship with a place you once called home. What do you miss? What do you NOT miss? Share!