Photo: Richard Allen
My grandparents’ home was in a secluded spot on Lavalette Mountain in West Virginia, but a couple times a year, both of them liked to go. Over the course of their 47-year marriage, they visited every state in the union, steering my grandfather’s powder blue Oldsmobile through the hills of Tennessee, the Badlands of South Dakota, the narrow streets of San Francisco. They taught me travel was an accomplishment, something that distinguished you and fed you. (My grandfather was a railroad man; travel was in his blood.) In middle and high school, they made it possible for me to attend far-flung summer programs and even, once, to go to France. Every time I boarded a plane I would carefully and proudly catalog all of my past flights.
Since then, I have traveled enough that I no longer keep a mental list of my plane rides, but I still have vivid memories of the car trips I made with my grandparents along I-95 from Virginia, where I lived with my parents, to Jacksonville, Florida, where they’d retired. We took our time, stopping for dangerous-looking fireworks in South Carolina and fragrant baskets of peaches and bags of prickly okra in Georgia. I remember my grandmother fluffing her travel-flattened hair and shrugging, saying “No one knows us here,” at IHOPs and Cracker Barrels. I remember the way the landscape changed, the way you could trace that journey through the appearance of longleaf pines, then palmettos, then palm trees, or through the increasingly sandy quality of the soil, which became shockingly white and fine by the time we reached Florida. It’s on these trips that I first understood the South in a panoramic sense, as a living, changing landscape I could examine, admire, and write about. I understood it as a place worthy of travel.
Familiar and strange, old and new, the American South can make it seem as if you are always traveling, always exploring, even when you are driving distance from your home. Go looking for a produce stand and find instead architect Samuel Mockbee’s houses made of hay bales and Coke bottles; while waiting for a Georgia Bulldogs game to begin, stumble across “The Tree That Owns Itself.” At a yard sale, casually open a dusty hamper to find it overflowing with frothy debutante dresses.
I love this sense of discovery and expectation, the feeling—so strong in Southern literature—that something surprising, even odd, is just around the corner. But perhaps the strongest reason for travel, and the one I most associate with my grandparents and their yearly trips, is what it reveals about you, removing masks you may not have even known you were wearing. People don’t know you there. And for a Southerner, that’s no small thing.