Don't Ask a Southerner for Directions (Unless You've Got Some Time on Your Hands)

Locals south of the Mason-Dixon are blessed with the gift of gab—a real curse for lost travelers hoping for quick answers.

Valerie Fraser Luesse
Robert Johnson’s fabled Crossroads
One of several spots claiming to be Robert Johnson’s fabled Crossroads.
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

Let’s face it—the South has back roads and byways that no GPS can touch—from remote Appalachian hamlets to desert outposts, from bayou villages where shrimp boats are as common as pickups to tiny little beach burgs that don’t get all worked up about spotty cell phone reception. Should you get lost in such a place, you will have to make like Blanche DuBois and depend on the kindness of strangers. The good news: You will find kindness in abundance. The bad news: Hope you’re not in a hurry.

When it comes to expressing ourselves—even answering a simple question like, “Which way to the interstate?”—Southerners are a circular people. We don’t like getting to the point. We find that abrupt and unfriendly. Instead, we prefer to wander around the conversation a bit, in hopes that it might somehow bring us all closer together:

“So y’all are headed for Pensacola? Bet your kids can’t wait to hit that beach! Mine just love it. Where y’all from?  Pennsylvania? My goodness, you’ve come a long way! What? Oh, sure. I can tell you right where you need to go. You’re just a little off track is all. You got any people from around here?”

Our intentions are always good. We’re just trying to let you know that you’re among friends while giving you a complete picture of where you are and where you want to go. To cover all bases, some of us actually offer up negative directions:

“Do you remember passing a pretty little Methodist church about a mile up the road—the brick one with the bell out front and a big white house next to it—sits right by a two-lane county blacktop? You do remember? Oh, good! Don’t turn there.”

It doesn’t help that we often nickname our roads, even in major cities. People in Birmingham, for example, will tell you to drive cautiously at “Malfunction Junction,” a snafu of an intersection where several interstates come together. Dallas has an even bigger entanglement in the “Spaghetti Bowl” downtown, not to be confused with Virginia’s “Mixing Bowl,” just outside of D.C.

Sometimes, there’s a lovely regionality to our directions. You know you’re in Texas or Oklahoma when you hear something like, “Once you cross the cattle guard, start looking for a dirt road to your left.”

The most maddening geographic Southernism of all: We sometimes base directions on landmarks that no longer exist. Because even though you can’t see them, we still can:

“It’s just the easiest thing. What you wanna do is go back the way you came. Get right back on this highway out here and drive a little ways till you get to that intersection where the old Pan-Am filling station used to be. What? Oh, no, honey, it burned down back in ’75. But that’s still where you turn.”