I’ve been called many things in my life, and worn many hats. I’ve been a student, a brother, son and husband. I’ve been a friend, an enemy, a combatant and I’ve been labeled a challenge. I’ve been called a liar, once; recently, and I’ve been called an honest man. I’ve been a coal miner, a consulting geologist, an engineer of sorts and a teacher. I’ve traveled throughout most of the U.S. I’ve lived in Reno, San Fransisco, Maryland, D.C. and NOVA. Throughout it all, I’ve remained steadfastly southern and have only once been accused of being a Yankee.
That was in deep Mississippi. One screamingly hot night, in a fog of cigarette smoke which only pretended to keep mosquitos the size of small helicopters away, a rather drunk local stared at me through the smoke of endless cigarettes. I was uncomfortable and really wished I was in bed and wondering why, oh why, I had agreed to this trip in the first place.
Those that know me even slightly know that I do not travel well. In all honesty, I’d rather be home. At home, I know from which direction Jupiter will rise. I can find Orion’s Belt in seconds. Laura’s Mountain is always in the same spot and I know where the green garlic will be in the spring. My bed is reassuringly in the same spot every night, which is not the case when you are traveling. So, it is with great reluctance that I travel. But I do enjoy it, especially the fine art of observing other people, trying new things and learning about new places and cultures; and delving into strange food. That is the best. There is nothing funnier in retrospect and humbling in the experience than having a beautiful Italian woman in snake skin pants, high heels and a butchers apron tell you that the meat you have asked for is little better than dog meat. Score one, Italy.
This was something different though. The fog hung low and the unrelenting beat of southern rock stormed out of the smoky bar. I was face to face with a rather large and intimidating and decidedly annoyed girl sporting the most amazing mullet I’ve seen in years. I’m fairly certain I’ve just been insulted, but I’m so fascinated by the situation, the place and the mullet that good sense has abandoned me. I step closer. “Do what?” I ask. “I just wanted to know how you like it in the South.” This comes out as a threat, somehow. Accusatory.
I reply that I’m actually from the South, Virginia, as a matter of fact. This fact has no relevance on the situation currently at hand, which is to say that in her mind I am from Northern Virginia, that accursed place from which I fled so many years ago, a land of endless traffic jams, pavement, inflated real estate and desperate single women who want nothing more than to just meet a decent man, a myth in that desperate quagmire of iniquity. I’m offended, really, for her to think, with my accent, that I am from that place. I attempt a geography lesson. I explain that Virginia is a very large state, and the most beautiful part of it is Southwestern Virginia, which is a land of rivers and mountains, trees and fertile soil, wonderfully friendly people and entrepreneurs of all sorts. The kind of place that you can settle in, sink your roots deep and live with the land. A place where we have four seasons, gentle winters and mild summers. A place where you know your neighbors – and they leave you the hell alone.
I fall silent. I realize that I am now talking to several people, looming in the shadows, invisible except for the muted red of the nearly constant draws on their cancer sticks. I feel that I have made my case for being southern, especially since my Buchanan County accent has inexplicably returned in all its nasal glory. I glance at mullet girl, hoping for a confirmation of sorts. She is glaring at me now openly. “So, you don’t like it here, huh?”
I am baffled, but I realize that her attitude is germane to the fact that it is time to go. It’s been a very long time since I have been in a bar fight, and I have no desire to relive that experience in rural Mississippi. I beat a hasty retreat, collect my wife and friend and we head to the hotel. The bed is where it should be. For now.
(Author’s note: This recollection by no means summarizes my Mississippi experience. Quite the contrary, I found the Deep South to be a wonderful place, despite the unrelenting heat. The people were friendly and hospitable, the food was wonderful and I fully intend to go back. In January or February, not August.)