Guns, God, Spirits and Sundries: Road Trip Tales from the South

As a psychologist and perhaps as an armchair anthropologist, I really enjoy road trips.  I have traveled cross country four times, road-tripped through Canada and the entire continental west coast.  I have road-tripped individual states such as Hawaii, Kentucky, North Carolina, and New York.  There is much you can learn about a country and specifically the United States by road-tripping. The United States is so diverse in geography, people and experiences that traveling the highway can give you a glimpse into the regional and local psyche.

During the last four years, I have fallen in love with the Deep South region of the United States.  I’m intimately involved in a southern program and subsequently have had numerous business trips throughout the south.  Despite the high-calorie and artery-clogging saturated fats, I can truly say I love southern cuisine. And, yes I used the word cuisine.   I love the road signs, the weather (well except that high pollen count in Atlanta), the landscape, and the architecture.  So, instead of going to Turkey or Morocco, I went on a southern road trip for the Christmas holidays where I got my fill of guns, spirits (AKA liquor), God, and sundries. Now the word “sundries” is somewhat misleading here.  Sundries (term first used in 1775) usually refers to miscellaneous small items, usually of no large value and too numerous to mention separately, such as dry goods and toiletries.  What I found on the road trip was of no small value but instead constitutes actual major shifts and value and just as important to the Deep South context these days as its civil-war tinged history.

About a decade ago, I lived in Atlanta and have visited it numerous times since then.  When I lived in Atlanta, I noticed a distinct deep sense of pride that despite the rapidly changing environment (both figuratively and literally) was there to stay. The question was, how would that deeply-seeded pride remain despite all the changes that were  to come?   Well, for one, the billboards plastered throughout the extensive road and highway system very clearly announce and remind us of the varying state and regional level values, history and sense of pride.

On my road trip from New York down to Florida [which entailed driving through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Northern Florida] I encountered over 200 billboards that gave me a greater appreciation of the south. There is definitely a sense of southern hospitality throughout the states in terms of customer service, but the billboards show a snarky sense of humor that many often associate with New Yorkers.   There was a billboard, for instance, that talked about how a certain company “did your mother” [see photo for actual billboard].  Southern transplants have readily mentioned comedy shows are a form of entertainment that are prolific and cheap. Seems comedians often try out their acts down in the south on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.   The sense of humor shows on the billboards.

Following in that vein, there is the “naughty” nature of the south which is in full display as evidenced by their billboard advertisements for fantasy and adult clubs. Of course, on the highway, many of those billboards cater to truckers who need a form entertainment after long hauls across the country.  But there is no shyness in the display of these billboards. They are front and center [see accompanying photo for billboard of café risqué]. There was one billboard that advertised come to “Sinsations for nude live entertainment.”   I always did it find it amusing that the Pink Pony in Atlanta is located right across the street from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  I wonder how many “business meetings” are held there?

Speaking of adventure and excitement, I was astounded by the sheer number of fireworks stands and the advertisements throughout the south of “two for one” fireworks sales.   I am not too sure why I was surprised by this, but I was. I always think of fireworks as something reserved for the Fourth of July in honor of our Country’s independence. But in the south, fireworks seem to be a constant part of the environment.  How do fireworks play into the southern psyche?  Let me get back to you in a few paragraphs.   Are fireworks just randomly shot off by anyone, anywhere?  In Alabama, it is illegal to explode or ignite fireworks within 600 feet of any church, hospital, asylum, public school, or any enclosed building or within 200 feet of where fireworks are stored, sold, or offered for sale.  Considering, however, the sheer number of churches that exist in the south where can one shoot off fireworks legally?

Church, God and Country. That seems to be the common mantra in the South.  I would estimate that 33% of all the billboards we encountered on the road trip were about God and Jesus.  The billboards serve to provide advice, counsel and reminders that God is here and everywhere.  One billboard noted “the bible is your manufacturer’s instruction manual. Read it and heed it!”   In the town of Yulee, they reminded travelers that “God loves you.”  In South Carolina, there was a billboard that noted “wise men still seek him: Jesus.”   In the town of Santee, one was admonished to “pray without ceasing.”  To accompany all those reminders and advice, there was a countless number of churches of all denominations. In the eastern coastal part of South Carolina (near the town of Myrtle Beach) there was an area labeled as the “prayer mile.”  Of course, Myrtle Beach (a southern version of Las Vegas riddled with many golf courses) had liquor stores and strip clubs all about.  Thus, it made sense to have a prayer mile right before reaching the town.

Of course, guns, guns and more guns were in full display throughout my road trip. Each locale seemed to advertise that it had the biggest collection of guns. Definitely a size – bigger is better— mentality exists.  There were individual establishments, along the way, that made a point of putting signs on their entrances stating that no guns –concealed or not – were allowed. With the current gun discussions that are occurring in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, it will be interesting to see how the gun dynamics shape out in the south.   The gun discussion oftentimes plays out along the lines of rural versus urban regions, but with less and less people concentrated in rural areas how will those regional dynamics shift?  But we must be realistic that guns are part of the history of the deep south. This could not be more evident than in the numerous antique shops and centers across the deep south.

Every 30 miles or so, it seemed that there were major antique centers on the road trip. The antique centers had the ubiquitous mammie dolls, confederate flags, old guns and rifles.  There were many political campaign memorabilia and landscape watercolor paintings as well. The sense of history that runs deep is fully on sale in the south. Indeed, many good bargains and finds to be had. One such antique center had a whole stall dedicated to Coca Cola-which I readily admit I am a big fan of.  I cannot get enough of that Coke Zero. The Coca Cola museum in Atlanta is my mecca. Although, surprisingly I am not a big fan of rum and coke and I love both equally. Go figure.

Speaking of rum and coke, alcohol is definitely plentiful in the south. Beer, wine, liquor and cordials can be found just about everywhere. Even in the prayer mile we managed to find a place to get a cocktail. And the south is not just about beer and whiskey. I had a fantastic spiced pear martini on my road trip. How about that Mint Julep in Savannah? While in the south, you will also notice now an ever-increasing number of places that serve margaritas; margaritas and other drinks mixed by Hispanics. I have already written about the emerging Hispanic population in the South. The south is growing in part due to the influx of Hispanic individuals.  Again, this growth is not due solely to immigration from abroad but is also due to births and internal migration of northerners down south (i.e. Puerto Ricans heading south from New York and Chicago).  The increase is so large that there is even a military recruitment billboard in South Carolina that targets Hispanics [see accompanying photo].  Furthermore, there is a “theme park” called South of the Border in South Carolina (right at the state line with North Carolina).   I have to admit, I am not too sure how I feel about that place as some of the iconography seemed to play into stereotypes.  But of all places, I did not expect to see that in South Carolina.   The south is changing and if it is to come out from its housing market collapse (which was evident in the billboards about foreclosure rights and abandoned houses), Hispanics will need to be empowered to purchase homes and continue to aid the economy. The southern environment is definitely changing.

Every morning and every evening, I took out my camera to take photos of the beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  The skies lit up and were on fire. They were just awe inducing. Going back to why there are so many fireworks in the south. Perhaps, Katie Perry can answer that. Yup, Katie Perry. Or rather, her song “fireworks.”

Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind wanting to start again?
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards one blow from caving in?

Do you ever feel already buried deep six feet under?
Scream but no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there’s still a chance for you
‘Cause there’s a spark in you?

You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine
Just own the night like the 4th of July

‘Cause, baby, you’re a firework
Come on, show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y

You don’t have to feel like a wasted space
You’re original, cannot be replaced
If you only knew what the future holds
After a hurricane comes a rainbow

The South is growing yet oftentimes it feels like it is forgotten.  There is a sense of modern-day glory, yet a feel of antiquity to it.  Fried catfish and chicken along with oysters and crabs are plentiful and fanciful. While enjoying the good eats, fireworks and shows, get yourself an antique rocking chair and enjoy the sunrises and sunsets are to be marveled at and revered.   While at it, perhaps pick up a little Spanish along the way and enjoy some cilantro rice, margaritas and mojitos.  Cheers! And may the south remain as yummy and interesting.

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