The Magic that was this Journey

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Southern Conversations – The Natchez Trace National Parkway, The Blue Ridge Parkway and Traveling Through the South/Southeast

I’ve gone silent since Ash Wednesday. Perhaps it is in respect to the Christian tradition of Lent, a time of introspection, fasting and preparation.  Perhaps it is because being in the South, my ancestral homelands, brought some grief and longing for links to my father’s family, which have long since disappeared.  

Perhaps I’ve been silent because ever since I left the Natchez Trace (just south of Nashville, about 10 days ago), traveling has been difficult and mostly unpleasant.  The roads are bad (the infrastructure deficit, especially in states with more roads to maintain like these easterly states?) and crowded with aggressive drivers and towns.  The back roads are a test of the structure of one’s vehicle (and we know this old RV is an old girl, with many loose parts) and a test of one’s patience. Even the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway was not drivable in this old RV.

Yesterday, I drove the worst road I’ve driven in my life, through the foothills of the Appalachians in West Virginia.  And, excepting for stopping for gas, it felt like there were few reasons to stop along this mean road. The intention was to get through it, be rid of the road and get to the next place.  That describes my traveling for the last 10 days or so. I’ve had some lovely visits with friends and stayed at a captivating state park in North Carolina (Stone Mountain State Park), but the destinations have been the highlights, not the traveling.  This is not the intention of this expedition.

I also realize I’m not as captivated by place in these southerly/easterly states as I was during my travels in the Pacific Northwest, California and the Southwest.  Yes, Natchez, Mississippi and the unspoiled antebellum mansions and plantations spoke of place, but it was not a place that speaks to me.  Actually, I want to speak out to it: “how can we glorify and make tourism around a tradition that would not have existed without slavery and how do we explain the tin-roofed shacks up the road where black folk are living today, not much better off than they were then?”

The Natchez Trace Parkway, a highway that is part of the National Park System (see a later blog for ponderings on national, state and county parks), runs from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN for approximately 400 miles.  It, roughly, traces the original “Trace” or path that was used by the first people who inhabited this continent (the Chickasaws called it “the Path of Peace”) and, later, by traders and settlers. The Trace seems to ooze Southern living – the speed limit is 50mph and you can’t rush through it.

William Heat Least Moon, in Blue Highways has this to say about the Trace:

…[the Trace], like a river, followed natural contours and gave focus to the land; it so brought out the beauty that every road commissioner in the nation should drive the Trace to see that highway does not have to outrage landscape (p. 107).

Perhaps another reason I’ve gone silent is that I feel the landscape becomes more outraged, as one moves from “West” to “East.”  

High population density, many highways and byways, the same damn chain restaurants and stores (including, yes you named it, the ubiquitous Dollar General and Family Dollar stores), too many cars on the road – it all outrages and overpowers a landscape that has less drama, less spectacle, and is more muted than those landscapes of the West.

These south/easterly landscapes are still magnificent (I’ve just passed through the Appalachians and, boy howdy, these are some amazing mountains).  But, somehow, for me, place is getting lost in the outrages of too many people, too many towns/cities, too many convenience stores—too much of everything.  Many apologies to my friends and loved ones who live in these parts of this country, are attached to place, have a sense of place, and love where they live.  No disrespect intended. And, apologies to the eastern and New England states (is this even possible, this apology?) for traveling around you  (sorry, Greg, for not traveling in New York).

These south/easterly places meld together, as do the voices of the people I talk to. They are starting to sound the same, not just with regard to sweet southern accents, but also what they have to say about government.

I’m surrounded by a cacophony of voices saying government is inefficient, wasteful, overly controlling, needs to get out of the religion business, needs to be run more like a business, needs to downsize and reorganize, needs to stop spending more than it has, stop giving stuff to freeloaders, stop giving everything to minorities and stop falling all over itself in trying to acclimate to minority views.  The modal view, no matter where one stands on the ideological or political spectrum (but, mostly I’ve talked to those who would be considered conservatives), is that government is corrupt and broke, not trustworthy and has forgotten its purpose: to represent the people.

But, how can we adequately represent people who are as diverse as we are in this country?  Forget about the multiple positions our diversity could lead to: how do we represent a “people” that do seem to be sitting on two sides of the ideological fence?  While we may agree with each other about what is wrong, we don’t agree about what to do. 

For one side, a Madisonian—or, perhaps, Reagan approach is preferred.  For the other side, a more Jeffersonian/Lincoln/FDR approach is preferred.

One side thinks if we just let the market do what it does best, radically cut government/spending (except for military), return to a representative government run by the elites (some have even suggested taking away citizenship rights from some groups so they can’t vote) and leave folks alone to pursue their individualistic needs, we’ll be in better shape.  And, don’t presume that these folks are all privileged; many of the folks I talked with were working poor. 

The other side says government has abandoned the people and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. They want government to do what we can’t do as individuals (regulate water, air, food, workplace safety standards, etc) and to exercise responsibility for the public good. They want safety nets and businesses required to participate in safety net programs because they don’t trust business to do right by their employees without being required to do so. They want government to keep us out of war.

One side says government meddles too much in their lives; the other side says that government has abandoned the people and the public good and is on a very slippery slope toward doing more harm than good.

(As I write this, I am slightly aware that we are bombing Libya—along with the French and Brits—and while I don’t know the right thing to do in this case, I wonder about our intervention and the money going toward that effort.  Also, I’m remarkably cut off from news as not much news is played on backcountry radio, I’ve been without an internet connection for more than a week and the newspapers I’ve seen are all local papers, published a few times a week, and reporting on world events is not their purpose. One would think, in this information era, people would be bombarded with information no matter where they are.  I don’t think this is the case, especially if you have to rely on satellite connections to the internet and on local papers.  This may partially explain why so many people seem ignorant of current events. Even in the information era, it can still be difficult to get information.)

Those that lean toward individualism and the free market are either nonplussed by income inequalities or don’t care about them—are either ignorant of how our tax systems favor the rich and disfavor the poor, or don’t care.  Those that lean toward a more activist government point to the failures of early 21st century capitalism as the reason why we need a more activist, populist, people-friendly (versus business friendly) government.

There has to be an in-between in here somewhere.  This becomes the next question to talk about and ponder.

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