Who’s afraid of the Deep South? Many of us north of the Mason-Dixon Line, actually. Well, okay, we’re not afraid, but the phrase “fish out of water” comes to mind.
When you’re from the Northeast, anything in the Southeast that lies west of I-95 seems like a foreign country.
After leaving the familiar feel of a liberal city like Falls Church, Va., I headed straight into the Deep South.
Before we go there, however, I have to illustrate another ironic difference between Kerouac’s America and ours today. In the 1950s and ’60s, U.S. Route 66 was the epitome of “Main Street” Americana. In the 21st Century, Historic Route 66 is a broken trail mix of highways and byways. The freeway with the official designation is Interstate 66 leading to the Capitol Beltway. Way to commandeer our paved passion, Washington! Why not take it to the next level and bury some Cadillacs headfirst in the lawn at the White House while you’re at it?
For about 400 miles or so, there’s nothing but farmland heading into rural Virginia. Unless you enjoy watching the cows go by (which I actually do), then you might be bored on this drive. But the beautiful green mountains make for lovely scenery and the trees are just now starting to change color.
The only trouble I hit was an accident north of Roanoke, Va. Accidents on I-95 aren’t too bad because there is often no shortage of lanes or exits. Going through the mountains, on the other hand… It’s a four-lane divided highway, so an overturned truck ground traffic to a three-hour halt, turning my six hours on the road into nine. My trusty sidekick, the GPS, really wanted to help me out but it was no use. When it detects you’ve slowed down significantly or stopped, it kindly offers detour options, but since it’s about 15 miles between exits, my only detour would have been off the side of a nice steep mountain.
I opted for turning off the engine between small bursts of movement, which were exciting until proving to be false starts. Need the definition of irony? How about an exit right after the accident site? But seeing all the emergency vehicles on scene defined how fortunate I was to be getting to my destination safe and sound.
When I finally arrived, it was too late to do anything besides settle in and plan for a Sunday in Knoxville, Tenn. Knoxville is home to approximately 44,000 people, many of whom lack the distinctive Southern accent, because the city is home to the University of Tennessee (UT) and draws a diverse crowd.
The biggest employers are labs and the nuclear facility at Oak Ridge (along with Los Alamos, one of the birthplaces of the atomic bomb). The city was also the home of Roots author Alex Haley.
Along the Tennessee River lie plenty of what we in Jersey refer to as “open space.” These things, which they call parks, offer the beauty of cliffs and mountains along the riverfront and water-based recreation. Knoxville was also host to the 1982 World’s Fair. The Sunsphere and fairgrounds remain as a park and a home to the modern Knoxville Convention Center.
Nearby, Market Square hosts outdoor events and an open mall with restaurants such as The Tomato Head. Their pizza with tomato, sundried tomato, and pesto is one of many tasty choices for lunch. Gay Street is the main drag, where you can find the Art Market selling local artists’ works. Old Town has some nice shops too, but the renaissance of this warehouse district has not gone as well as it has in Hoboken or Jersey City, and the area was extremely quiet as foot traffic goes … or doesn’t.
By the way, country music (along with bluegrass) takes over the radio waves, billboards, restaurants, and anything else that can have a theme the second you cross the Virginia-Tennessee border at Bristol.
Bombarded by accents, country, and cowboy hats, it’s natural to experience some culture shock on arrival. The truth is that going to the Deep South, or anywhere for that matter, is exactly like visiting a foreign country.
If you’re used to the fast-paced bustle of Hudson County, leave it at home. You’re going to find that, for the most part, Southerners take their time. Being in a big rush (and as loud as New York City) is the best way to let everyone know you’re a Northerner, and a rude one at that – which makes you a bad diplomat too.
If you ever hear anyone ask in a thick Southern droll, “You’re not from around here, are ya?” after you yelled out and rang a bell for service three seconds after you rang it the first time, now you know why.
For the record, everyone whose path I crossed was plenty friendly. Nevertheless, I was headed northwest. Next stop: Metropolis, Ill., adoptive home of an American icon. Columnist Mary Paul is a former staff writer of the Hudson Reporter and Jersey City resident. Comments on this piece can be sent to: email@example.com.