A Road Trip, Southbound

If you leave Montgomery, Alabama heading south on US Highway 331, you’ll pass through the small community of Highland Home then, before you reach Luverne, you’ll pass Trump Towers on your left. Yes, that’s right: Trump Towers. Not the one you’re familiar with, the one in Manhattan. This one is slightly less grandiose, comprised of a corrugated metal grain silo about two stories tall with an attached outdoor stairwell and something that looks like a screened porch connected to it. I wouldn’t have associated the former president’s monolithic construct with this one in rural Crenshaw County, except that the words “Trump Towers” are painted on it. If you do decide to go down and see it for yourself, you’ll know that you’re getting close when you pass the now-dilapidated Hillbilly Mall on your right.

For personal reasons, I had occasion to travel that route several times this summer, through south-central Alabama and also into the northern Florida Panhandle. My son, who is quite the baseball player, had a state championship all-stars tournament in Andalusia, Alabama, and as Southerners are wont to do, we also made our annual pilgrimage to the Gulf, staying at a state park on the famed 30A. Youth-league baseball and the beach are staples of a Southern summer.

Though my family members see the road as something to endure and tolerate on the way to what we’re actually going to do, I see the road as part of the trip. They want to buckle in with windows up and A/C on, then barrel down the interstate, only to be alerted or disturbed when we’re almost there. Me, I want back roads, windows down, radio up, arm out the window, passing through small towns. My wife and kids usually look at the maps on their phones and tell me that my route takes longer, to which I answer, “I know.” 

Driving for more than an hour on a Southern two-lane highway allows for lots of time to look and think. A few things pass by consistently: empty fields, stands of trees, collapsing homes and trailers, some inhabited homes and trailers, small gas stations and equally small churches. Otherwise, it’s the whir of the tires on the black top, on a winding route through green space. But I choose it anyway, for two reasons. First, the interstate is, to me, mind-numbingly monotonous. It’s faster, certainly, but so impersonal and bland as to be distasteful. The interstate robs a road trip of humanity, reducing it to speed, gas, and fast food. Second, you get a feel for your neighbors’ lives in nearby communities when you see their homes, read their signs, and chat with folks at the stores and restaurants where you stop. This observation doesn’t have to be scientific or formal— in fact, it’s better if it’s not. Out in the country, pushing record and asking a question isn’t going to get much more than hesitancy.

So, the decision to take 331, not I-65, was easy for me. On one of the trips, my daughter rode with me and was surprised when I said, “Oh, a rebel flag. I thought we’d’ve seen one sooner.” She asked what I meant, and I tried to explain some Southerners’ propensity for hanging these flags out, but her wrinkled expression told me that she didn’t see my point, or theirs. But along the way you will see Confederate flags a few times, including some monuments and historic markers, as well as the occasional Trump flag these days.

The fact of Alabama’s – and the larger South’s – support for President Trump belies other forces in our culture, especially in the rural areas where his support is strongest. Personally, I see no reason why rural Southerners would have an affinity for a spray-tanned real estate developer from New York. Yet, my best guess relates to how Trump’s charisma, rhetoric, and public speaking style parallel George Wallace’s in some ways: a snide refusal to concede other viewpoints, openly insulting one’s opponents, harsh treatment of hecklers and protestors at public events. Many Southerners  see those traits not as rude or undignified, but as displays of strength. Likewise, Trump has mastered the art of the monster/boogeyman, forming narratives about vaguely defined people whose primary notable features are that they ruin everything good, that they don’t deserve any respect at all, and their defeat will yield unimaginable prosperity. Southerners love a boogeyman narrative: yankees and carpetbaggers in the mid- to late 1800s, communists during the Depression, and the outside agitators, beatniks, and hippies that stirred up the Civil Rights movement. The Trump flags these days probably connote a disdain for Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and AOC, the current boogeymen – boogeypeople? – who’ve replaced Harry Reid, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton as the monsters du jour

Maybe this myth of forthcoming prosperity is appealing out in the rural areas because there has been so much out-migration and blight, making the idea of a new gilded age more than welcome. Highway 331, like many rural Southern roads, is dotted with attempts at revitalizing small downtowns, but it is also lined with the now-closed businesses of yesteryear. Small stores with names like Bob’s Grocery cave in slowly, while the new Jack’s or Dollar General invite their former customers to come on in. But at the same time, the narratives of those communities are changing, too:  in empty storefronts appear a Mexican restaurant, a dimly lit trendy coffee shop, and a Main Street office where something like a family-owned hardware store or café used to be.  

Though there may be change in so many of these small towns, other features don’t change. This rural culture still says that a man drives a truck and values his guns and his freedom, even the middle-class GenX dads who wear Southern Fried Cotton shirts and buy a $7 coffee on their way to work. In Andalusia, I got behind a red full-sized truck whose tinted back window sported a large white image of an automatic weapon, which was accompanied by the text, “If you plan to take my AR-15, you’d better bring yours.” However, you won’t see the classic rifle in the gun rack as often these days. I understand the trend now is to keep a semi-automatic pistol in the glove box or console. 

Small towns have also embraced the narrative that the arrival of national retail chains means “progress.” (The Agrarians are not just rolling over in their graves, they’re probably full-on rolling around, moaning, and wailing.) The suburban sprawl mentality isn’t confined to the big cities like Atlanta, nor to the medium-sized cities like Montgomery. It’s catching on all over the South, yielding outer-loop four-lane highways cluttered with Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Rooms to Go, Holiday Inn Express, Home Depot, and of course, Wal-Mart. In the really tiny towns and communities, there’s alway a Dollar General and often a Piggly Wiggly. Local businesses just can’t keep with those companies’ supply chains, which allow them to carry nationally advertised brands in greater and more sustained quantities. 

That paradigm couldn’t be truer than it is in a place like Grayton Beach, Florida. If you live in the South, you may have seen these round, bright-blue stickers that read “30A” where the zero is yellow sun. That tiny two-lane highway has become a Mecca for affluent (and want-to-be affluent) beachgoers as the small and quaint experience for people who like big SUVs and crowded restaurants. Personally, I love the beaches of the Gulf Coast – as a boy, my father took our family every year – but I can’t stand crowds, can’t stand people who ride my bumper in traffic, can’t stand waiting for a table in a restaurant, and generally, can’t stand being in any situation like that. But that’s what “the beach” has become.

The culture of the Gulf Coast beaches has changed mightily, and knowing them as part of my personal mythology has made it hard to let those images go and accept what what I see today. For much of my boyhood, we stayed in beachfront motels, one room for four of us with a Coleman cooler to keep things like beer and sandwich meat cold. We were on the beach all day, then in the evening, we washed the sand off our sunburnt bodies and went out to eat. Nights, for teenagers, were for “cruising chicks” and, for kids like me, hunting sand crabs. Later, when I was in junior high, my dad was making a little more money, so we started staying in a condo, which actually had bedrooms and a kitchenette. But with that step up, there was also shared feeling of dismay at seeing the condo’s rule against cutoff blue jeans as swim trunks. I remember asking my mom if the loose strings clogged the pool filter or something like that, and she assuredly me vaguely that that wasn’t it. The truth was: they were willing to rent a place to people like us but they weren’t going to let us act like rednecks while we were there.

So, I’m much more comfortable in a place like the state park, which fits my narrative. I will always see “the beach” as a getaway for working people like my dad, not as a glitzy and needlessly expensive way to keep up with the Joneses. I can’t separate the idea of the beach from the idea of my dad, who worked fixing machinery for the phone company for 42 years. He took my mom to the beach for their honeymoon, took us for about a week every summer, and insisted that, no matter how tight money got, he wasn’t giving up that one indulgence that he allowed himself. He was a short, pudgy, fair-skinned man who sat in the sun all day and ended up with a white stripe across his belly where his little fat roll doubled over. In the evening, he wanted to eat at one of the local fish places that he’d been going to since the 1960s. He traveled light and didn’t want to be bothered— today, I’m the same way. I just can’t understand toting a wagon-full of tents, umbrellas, towels, chairs, toys, blankets, sunscreen, drinks, food, extra clothes, medicine, band-aids . . . it gives me anxiety just writing it. At the beach – my narrative says – you keep it simple. Grab a towel and come on. There’s sun to soak up, water to play in, and people to watch. What else do you need?

It does a writer good to get out his office and go look around a little bit. The original plan had been for this editor’s blog Groundwork to contain more posts about more travels, but COVID-19 didn’t allow for it. These two quick trips were wedged into the short period between vaccinations bringing rates down and a lack of vaccinations pushing the rates back up. Ultimately, this project will finish up year one, and – Lord, please let this be true! – one day, the effects of COVID-19 on our society will diminish, which will allow some more room to move. There is beautiful country up in north Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and the western parts of the Carolinas, and the fall is, to me, the best time to get up that way. I particularly like back roads between Aiken, South Carolina and Asheville, North Carolina, and that’s where I’d like to go next.

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