American Culture

What two northerners learned on our trip south

I live and breathe travel. I love to see new things, but more importantly I travel to learn. To me, exploring the world firsthand has proven the most effective way to learn about the depths of people, culture and myself. Our trip from Chicago to New Orleans included a drive through seven states: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Of these seven states, I had only been to three before making this trip, which proved a unique and exciting opportunity to learn more about the hidden beauties and truths of America.

Dan and I, while both well-traveled, learned a great deal about geography while driving the countryside. We spent a lot of time with maps, signs and the open road, and this combination gave us no choice but to embrace a new sense of our foreign surroundings. My most astounding, yet simple geographical realization involved a new understanding of the mighty Mississippi River. While it offers a powerful and historic role in our country, I only ever paid attention to the states in which I could see the River. I never considered where this natural landmark actually starts or ends. Or, perhaps I learned this once in elementary school, but it escaped my mind having not played a direct role in my daily life.

The 3,710-mile stream runs almost perfectly along several state borders and, amazingly, we could have followed it from my old home of Chicago (or at least Southern Illinois) to my new back door in New Orleans. After scrolling across my smart phone Google Map, I realized the River actually runs from near the Canadian border in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico – a magnificent path for any U.S. citizen to be unaware of. I have a new appreciation for the Mississippi’s magnitude now that I have watched it appear, disappear and reappear among several cities and highways along our drive.

Though we veered off course of the Mississippi on our trip, the pattern of encountering rivers remained quite constant. To our surprise, every major city we stopped in rests along a river. The Ohio River runs through Louisville, Nashville rests along the Cumberland, Memphis and New Orleans on the Mississippi and Little Rock on the Arkansas. I actually know the Arkansas River well from rafting down it several times in Aspen, Colorado while living in Denver. I never paid such close attention to how many rivers run through our country, or to how beautiful they can appear against a setting sun and the backdrop of a small city.

The vast difference in culture – even within similar regions of the U.S. – continued to amaze us. We passed through big cities, small towns and across lands with nothing besides trees or fields for miles. We noticed trends among people in the places we visited. Some local groups loved music and others loved cigarettes. Many loved food, and few seemed concerned or aware of their visibly poor health. Cities thrived on everything from entertainment to architecture to crime. Some cultures had progressive ways of thinking. Others displayed a resistance to change in every element of their words and appearances.

Dan and I felt like outsiders around many of the people we met. We seemed to stand out in most places – partly because of our “big city” appearances, and sometimes because locals would recognize any visitors in such small towns. Though we seemed to have different backgrounds and ways of thinking than many of the people we met, we continued to remind ourselves that we all live and breathe American air. Though different, we probably share some similar beliefs and hopes. Many of them are just hidden beneath our surfaces and state lines. In fact, crossing some state borders presented such a dramatic change in the landscapes and people that we could almost see the imaginary lines separating each region and culture.

In the end, we learned how these once unfamiliar “middle” states fit together with the many others Dan and I know along the U.S. coasts. Though it felt like we were passing through foreign countries sometimes, we saw a new side of America’s diversity and even passed a few picture-worthy sights along the way. Many of these sights have actually been referenced by artists in famous songs like Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “The Nashville Scene.” Old Crow Medicine Show even references the Cumberland Gap in “Wagon Wheel.” We have seen a lot of the countryside, which brought life to the roads, buildings and cities we had only ever heard about in lyrics.

“Now,” Dan said, “we know what these country singers are singing about.”

10 replies »

  1. Now that you’re in the South, you should put away that polite euphemism (“northerner”) and get comfortable with the proper latin term, “goddamned Yankee.”

    Also, you can find the best prices on stretch pants at the dollar store…. 🙂

  2. Brilliant satire! The condescension and ignorance just ooze from every paragraph. The stereotypical dumb-American-doesn’t-know-geography right next to the bit about the poor rubes not “concerned or aware” that they’re in “visibly poor health” is priceless.

  3. Eulalie, maybe the writer is simply young. I’m not saying it’s breathtakingly insightful, genuinely self-aware or particularly well-written – but it sounds like an honest effort, and at least they’re consciously trying to broaden their horizons. I thought the realization about rivers as essential to inland cities rang very true.

    • I’m not really sure what the hell Eulalie is talking about. I don’t see any condescension at all. American knowledge of geography IS terrible, and I think Sara is acknowledging that she herself hadn’t quite grasped some of these geographical nuances before the trip.

      As for the “poor health” thing, well, that’s some more of them ugly facts rearing their inconvenient heads. Maybe this makes me condescending, but I’m damned if I’m going to apologize when somebody tells the truth. (And by the way, I’m from the South, so my remarks can’t be dismissed as those of a smart-assed Yankee.)

  4. On St. Charles, about a block off Canal Street, on the uptown side, you’ll find an Historic Marker for Highway 61. Someone said that god told Abraham to kill his son on it. I once considered driving it from beginning to end, but driving it from New Orleans to Baton Rouge teaches you that if you do that what you’ll see for the entire trip is a levee on one side of the road.

    U.S. Route 61, is the official designation for a United States highway that runs 1,400 miles (2,300 km) from New Orleans, Louisiana, to the city of Wyoming, Minnesota. The highway generally follows the course of the Mississippi River, and is designated the Great River Road for much of its route.

    Canal Street, appropriately enough, was intended to be a canal connecting the River with Lake Ponchatrain (the Industrial Canal now fulfills that role). I don’t think it was ever completed simply because the levee system was put into place rendering the connecting waterway impossible for a couple of centuries.

    The train tracks used to (until the 1930s) run to the end of Canal Street where there was a train ferry. The bridge downtown was built after WWII. The first bridge is the Huey P. Long Bridge downriver, build out of town simply because New Orleans was the center of anti-Long political power (home to the oil company headquarters).

  5. Your trip gave me lots of small smiles along the way, Sara. Thanks for taking me along.

    I particularly liked “My most astounding, yet simple geographical realization involved a new understanding of the mighty Mississippi River.” It’s amazing how most of us take something like the Mississippi for granted–if we consider it at all–yet it is a geographic feature of incredible natural and cultural significance.

    Good stuff. Keep traveling and keep writing.

  6. I’m not surprised you don’t see it, Sam, but I think that speaks more for your loyalty than for your perception. You and I have had a similar issue before; my offer still stands to let you see what dozens of other readers, the majority of them women and gay men, had to say about that one. It’s not flattering.

    Here again, I’m not sure why it’s so difficult for you to see Eulalie’s point. That paragraph in its entirety is steeped in assumptions about, oh, what’s progressive, what’s not, who cares about health and who doesn’t (and since that bit immediately follows the food comment, I’m pretty sure I know what she’s talking about), and most importantly the assumption that self-described outsiders driving through an area could really develop any kind of meaningful insight into these issues. Take “not caring about health.” Did they poll the locals about health care spending, doctor visits, cancer rates, dietary programs? Or did they just see a bunch of fat people and draw their own conclusions?

    Because let’s be honest: you know the writer, or someone on staff does. You like her, and she’s producing material for you. You have a huge blind spot here and it’s not the first time it’s cropped up. There’s “wide-eyed innocence and a sense of discovery,” and then there’s plain old “too self-centered to realize your revelation is not everyone’s.” Again, I think this may be an age issue – but I also know several excellent young writers who would never turn out lines like this:

    “amazingly, we could have followed it from my old home of Chicago…” Amazing! Unless you look at a map.

    “even passed a few picture-worthy sights along the way.” In seven states? A few? I’m sure the residents will be pleased to hear it.

    “Many of these sights have actually been referenced by artists in famous songs…” No way! Actually?

    And the constant stream of hackneyed cliches…

    Though we seemed to have different backgrounds and ways of thinking than many of the people we met, we continued to remind ourselves that we all live and breathe American air. Though different, we probably share some similar beliefs and hopes.

    …and how many times can anyone use the words “though,” “seems” and “actually” in one brief blog entry? Way, way too many. In fact, a complete lack of editing is very likely contributing to the (I say immature, Eulalie says condescending) tone here. Take out a few of those meaningless adverbs and it would be a much fresher, more enjoyable piece.

    Or she could have stuck to observations, given us better, more specific details and let the reader draw some conclusions on his or her own. The first couple of paragraphs were pointed in that direction.

    • 1: You do a far better job of stating Eulalie’s objections than Eulalie does. I don’t know if you know her and are speaking with authority or if you’re speaking for yourself and projecting, but my response to WHAT SHE WROTE seems, still, rather on the point.

      2: Sara is a younger writer and a promising one. Frequent readers have no doubt noticed that we’re trying to promote more and more younger writers of late. For one thing, we’d like S&R to be something more than a bunch of geezers – especially old, white male ones – and second, several of us are or have been teachers and feel something of a mission to help develop the next generation of talent. That mission probably just got a little harder. I hope, after this, I can persuade her (or anyone else under the age of 40, for that matter) to post here again. Could she have done more, certainly. But ascribing all kinds of ill will to the piece? I just don’t see it.

      3: Beyond this, you have my e-mail, and that’s probably a better place for the bulk of what this conversation is really about.

  7. As an old geezer, I’d like more of this please. We took lots of these trips when my kids were growing up–one of our best holidays ever was the college tour that stretched from Boston out to New Ulm and the Little House in th Big Woods, and back, by Blue highways, mostly. Then there was the one to the Cherokee country in Tennessee and Georgia. Oh, and the time we got locked in Okeefenokee at dusk by accident. They were all great, and they were all instructive–they’re learning adventures, and I’m glad to see the tradition continues. The only geography many Americans know is the drive from Orlando Airport to Disney World.

  8. I stand by my original reading, this is terrific satire. I think there are plenty of cues that this shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than Jonathan Swift eating babies (e.g., songs about Memphis are really about Memphis! OMG, really?). And as broad as the satire is, it has just enough ring of truth to strike a chord with anyone from a “flyover” state (Illinois, for instance) who’s had to listen to a visitor explain “what’s wrong with you people” in the same breath that they betray their absolute ignorance of anything that’s ever happened beyond their own back yard.

    If it was intended as satire, bravo to Ms. Maurer. If I’m wrong, how does acting like she’s a dumb broad too young to be expected to know any better, and who needs to be shielded from any hint of how her piece was actually received by different readers, help matters?

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