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Letters from America
A Yankee in Dixie
By Greg Evans
Special Correspondent
Appalachian Mountains
The south conjures images in the minds of people that have never been as a winsome landscape of rolling fluffy fields of cotton, ambrosial plantation homes dripping with Spanish moss, mint juleps and glasses of sweet tea thick as melted jolly rangers, a place where the pace of life is as slow as the setting of the sun and warm balmy nights are entertained by the mellow song of a lonesome mockingbird.

But the south isn’t just one image. It is many and each corner of Dixie is like its own little world. Being a restless adventurer and journalist, traveling and exploring is just part of my DNA. My final destination was originally Miami, but I got lost in the mountains, and I am still here. And this Dixie, it wasn’t the Miami, Charlotte, or even Naples that I expected. Nor was it one of the pastel suits and parasols. It was high in the mountains, a hidden world tucked away in the near-forgotten hollers of the Appalachian Mountains. Here, people speak a language that I can’t fully understand, still after nearly a decade. I carry around a notebook with translations of words and phrases that include such gems as, “I was plum tickled,” “J’eat,” “I trust her bout as far as I can speit,” and “Ain’t she purdy!” and “Ain’t she ‘bout as sweet as Grandma’s apple pie,” and “Yon’t too? And…”

It can be argued that it was the show “Moonshiners,” that first made people cognizant of the fact that there were actually a few paved roads meandering through these mountains. It can also be argued that an American from the north traveling to the American south is no less a foreigner then a Guatemalan from Quetzaltenango. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson, himself a prolific wanderer, once said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

One of history’s great travelers, Herodotus of Halicarnassus’ universal quote rings so true for many a restless gadabout. “Maybe I was that lone wandering Greek headed full-steam ahead into barbarian country.”

I didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived in the country of East Tennessee. As far as I was concerned it was a blank space on the map- an uncharted wilderness of rough and tumble bootleggers and moonshiners, roving bands of hostile Indians that prayed to alien Gods and sacrificed clothed foreigners, a rugged landscape of barefooted mountain children, unheated log cabins and forests teeming with bears, wolves, yetis and whatever else could kill you with impunity.

I imagined meals with the locals of stewed possum, wooly mammoth and the occasional Yankee chitterlings dipped in apple cigar vinegar and hot sauce. From where this pragmatic thought process derived I could only surmise. In the fertile mind of a northern vagabond the “south,” took on a life of its own. I remember pulling off that exit 63, off the 81 in East Tennessee for the first time and thinking to myself, “Here we go …” There is just something about the unknown that sucks you in. And we were hurtling toward it at 75 mph.

The reason for my driving deeper and deeper into the massive purple mountains was because of a girl. Isn’t that what always happens? I guess that could be a feasible explanation, or maybe it was that white space on the map, like Marlow in the Heart of Darkness, “The biggest, the most blank, so to speak- that I had a hankering after.” Nonetheless, it was starting to get dark and when we pulled into town it wasn’t the log cabin, the dirt-road image I had envisioned. There were no barefooted children in overalls and slain possum hanging from the trees. Instead, it was a place peppered with manicured neighborhoods and homes like other places I have lived including New York, Long Beach, Huntersville (North Carolina), and even metropolitan Nashville.

I left Nashville and landed in the country of East Tennessee, located a stone’s throw from both the Virginia and North Carolina border. More or less founded by Chicago bootleggers, East Tennessee primarily consists of three scenic medium-sized towns labeled as “cities.” These three towns, Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport are nowhere near each other. It is like calling Charlotte, Atlanta, and Miami the “Tri-cities.” At least they would be actual cities.

Having lived in New York City and then Long Beach, CA, my interpretation of city life was greatly erred. East Tennessee is scenic with rolling hills and farmland and large misty purple and dark green mountains jutting out of the background like Vesuvius in Naples, only these mountains were in every direction. Nearly anywhere you went looked like a wistful John Philip Falter painting. There were red rustic barns and 150-year-old farmhouses. There were rushing brooks and creeks brimming with fish, emerald-green meadows, and golden fields with bales of hay. I have traveled my fair share in this life- Europe, North Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and out in the Pacific, but landing in East Tennessee I might as well have relocated to Mars. There was a learning curve and I quickly realized that assimilation into this culture would take years…if ever.

Along with learning the layout of the land I also had to become acquainted with the rules and nuances of the road. Like any traveler arriving somewhere the first thing that you notice aside from the scenery, are the roads and driving habits of the locals. For example, honking at someone in East Tennessee, even if you are in the right and they are in the wrong, can get you chased (as happened to me one day) or even riddled with bullets (as what happened to a poor guy one rainy afternoon, probably a Yankee transplant). Then there is the use of, or better yet, lack of, turn signals, and the simple fact that fast and slow lanes are interchangeable, and that traffic light synchronization is still twenty years down the road and yield and stop signs are fungible and should it rain, apocalypse now, wrecks every ¼ mile. But the foreign language of driving in these parts barely scrapes the surface and it is fair to say that the overwhelming road rage phenomenon is due to the inclement weather, or better yet, less sunshine than Detroit.

But the south is a charming place. It is slow and at times hospitable, and if you are a young single man, there might be more beautiful women per square mile than anywhere else in the world, except for maybe Laos. I don’t know if they are being churned out in some mad hillbilly scientist's basement or if it is an ancient undiscovered mineral in the local mountain water, but it is a wonder. And in Dixie, the girls marry young. I guess I have come across one or two that made it past the age of 16 without a ring shoved onto their finger but it is as rare as seeing a turn signal being used. It is just one more factoid that justifies the reality that North America is essentially five countries: Mexico, Southern America (Confederacy), Northern America (Union), Canada, and East Tennessee.

When I first arrived here the place still had the feel of the “old south.” There was a romance to it, a nostalgic sentiment. The way the wind blew through the redbud, elm, and dogwood trees, fish still in the Boone’s Crick, the languid gait of old farmers in their fields, the miles of rolling hills and soft whistling of a mockingbird in the quiet darkness. And when the sun goes down those glimmers on the hillsides of the bonfires from corn liquor stills mixing with the flickering of firebugs alluded to some kind of Shangri-La. But the old south rustic feel is going away. In the years I have lived in the sleepy south its transformation began with mutant aggressiveness. There was money and a new generation hungry to spend it, make their marks, and acquire their fortunes. Build, build, build- to make progress happen, penetrating deeper and deeper into a quintessential heart of darkness.

A seedy lot of slick-haired developers appeared overnight- troublesome, uninvited, destructive, whose reign of terror across the whole south has been analogous to Nero. The old south, in less time than it took the conquistadores to conquer and reinvent Mexico, will become a cesspool of sterile architecture, match-box sub-divisions, and savage progress. The beautiful land was shredded like processed cheese, flattened, paved, and homogenized. Confederate rebel dead turning in their graves as the south becomes northernized. Small southern towns are becoming extinct, or so the old-timers howl from worn porches with shotguns across their laps.

Gone are the southern belles with the big hats and parasols- gone are the days of wine and roses- gone! Gone are country roads with wildflowers growing beside them, stretches of farmland for a hundred miles, all gone. Somewhere out on the horizon though- through the dust and diesel smoke of industrialization sits a small town in a holler that refuses to throw away their history like a used fast-food wrapper into a city sewer.

It takes being a Yankee in Dixie to see the nuances of the south with clarity and the peculiarity that a local wouldn’t see because for them it is just everyday life. I like Dixie. I think it has a lot to offer the itinerant journalist. Dixieland, it is a wonderful journey, eye-opening and unforgettable. Traveling is so important because it takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to learn about different people and places. And doing that rips down barriers and prejudices, some of which have stood firm for hundreds of years. As the old saying goes, “nothing is what it seems,” and this holds true especially for a Yankee traveling into Dixie.

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