An Englishman heads South
They say that the South is a state of mind. People love where they are from, it is the place they know best and it shapes who they are; it’s home, and it’s a special place to be. Being a southerner is more than about mere location, it’s about family, being with friends, being welcome and just being. It is a particular way of living, a way of enjoying life and all it has to offer.
I am a southerner in my own country of England, and in fact we joke in my home town that if we were any more southern we’d be in France. I have travelled far and wide in many countries on vacations and for work, and it’s always the best part of any journey to finally head away from the airport or turn south out of London to go back to my home county, back to the place by the sea I call home. The reassuring move south, away from the bustling city, to have the busy streets fall away and the closed-in greyness of the urban world open out into the green, lush and rolling fields and hills of the south must surely be a feeling shared by many others who make that journey down once again to their own home.
As both a tourist fascinated with America, and a professional traveller for much of my adult life, I have always wanted to see as much of the United States as possible, and I’ve done pretty well so far with many more places still to discover. I had felt for as long as America had interested me (which was as far back as I could remember if truth be told) that the physical journey from North to South in the United States was one that I really would have to make. I had to make it, I just had to see as much as I could of the two halves of America that were so clearly delineated in my mind, showing me up as the naive and simplistic Limey that I so obviously was.
I knew that it was a physical journey that would have meaning to me. The dividing line in the British imagination between North and South, between the northern cities shown so often in popular culture and the mysterious, lesser-known areas of ‘The South’, is a strong one. The British are often so used to films, music and TV shows being North-centric that their ideas of the South are only clichés, and not in a good way. The popular ideas and clichés of the British public about America’s South do not do the South justice. Many British people think the South is a very distant part of America, and that the only part of any southern state you ever need to visit is the Disney enclave in Florida.
I always knew that there was more to it than that, more to the South and to America of course, but I knew I’d need to see all the states myself, to visit every single last one in turn. My first journey into the South was a short one, but my physical moving from one place to another conjured up many thoughts for an English tourist who at that time was a newcomer to America. The simple ‘line’ between the known ‘northern states’ and the unknown South was a big deal for me and crossing it gave me an idea of all the places that lay before me that I could experience in the future for myself.
It was my first time in the United States, the first time I’d ever been to that great and vast country that lay on the far side of the Atlantic. It had always been there, romantic and beckoning, in the films and books and TV shows that I had grown up with and loved, in the photographs and famous faces and history that had always gripped my imagination. I was already 25 years old, not a very young man, but still innocent about what beautiful delights America’s South had yet to give to me.
In the car with my cousin (a distant, once-removed cousin begat from my great-aunt and uncle who immigrated to the US after the war), we drove through the beautiful, rolling Pennsylvania countryside. We had enjoyed a massive Thanksgiving dinner and subsequent party where much turkey, beer and televised football was enjoyed. Suddenly, I felt a thump beneath the wheels of the car.
I flinched, thinking we’d hit an animal or bounced in a devastating pot-hole, but he just muttered ‘You just crossed the line’. I did a double-take and wondered if I’d suddenly offended my kinsman somehow and if my English charm had finally failed me. He saw my confusion and elaborated: ‘we just crossed the Mason-Dixon line; we’re now in The South.’
I must have still been looking at him quizzically because he continued, explaining how we were now in Maryland and this was over the line, and therefore we were now in the South proper. I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not sure now, if that bump we felt was really a raised line in the road or just some happenstance used for comedy effect to tease a naive English guy as we crossed the state line.
In that moment I realised there was no barrier to my travelling South, to my moving away from the British ideas of what America was and what America felt like; I came to know that there is a whole different, Southern way of life over the line, waiting to be explored and experienced.
Over time and on many of my travels, in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, in Tennessee’s bars and music venues, on the river in St Louis, in downtown Little Rock, and across Kentucky and down into Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, I would find that some legends are true and the South is a special place that needs to be discovered and celebrated by everyone.
I have many a tale to tell of my journeys, all of which follow on from that first drive south over the Mason-Dixon line; I have tales of the South’s genuinely warm and welcoming people, their amazing hospitality, unrivalled friendliness, impeccable manners and wonderful food, and beautiful places and vibrant towns and cities all eager to make a wandering Englishman feel at home. Maybe I’ll tell you some of these stories sometime, about the way of life and way of living I saw in the South; but if you’ve been there or you’re from there, you probably already know what I’m going to say.
David Winstanley has been a professional traveler for 15 years working for several different tour companies. He has traveled all over the world including all the western world and far off destinations such as Mongolia.