I got back recently from a three-week long road trip through the South. I hadn’t been back to my home town in South Carolina since 2003 because my family and most of my friends had since moved away. Without any real purpose in going back, I hadn’t prioritized flying in. But given that I don’t have a full-time job, I decided to turn a family vacation to Myrtle Beach into a road trip to see the places in the South that I haven’t seen.
The South is beautiful almost anywhere you go, but there isn’t a great destination if one is coming from the other side of the country. Even beautiful cities like Charleston and Savannah don’t offer all that much to do. So rather than flying in for a long weekend, a road trip is the ideal way to see the South.
I have conflicted feelings about the South. The culture is still very segregated, and white people are largely unwilling to acknowledge their racism. Because racism is less institutionalized than it has been in the past, many affirm that they aren’t racist and aren’t willing to hear how they might be. While this is the case with most of the country, Southerners in particular chafe about being seen as racist when they disavow outright white supremacy.
In a more personal vein, my parents’ being transplants meant that while I grew up in South Carolina for my entire childhood and adolescence, I never quite felt Southern. A part of that was my buying in to stereotypes about Southerners; I consciously avoided speaking with an accent. So while returning to the area brought back a sense of familiarity, it also reminded me of how out of place I felt growing up.
Machismo is prevalent, even though the average upper-class white Carolina man seems effete and speaks with a lisp. Manliness, whether it’s a blue collar interest in hunting and cars or white collar chivalry and good ol’ boy sexual harassment, is a pervasive construct in the South. I remember moving to Utah and thinking how Utah men, in the by-definition patriarchal LDS religion, seemed so gentle and sensitive.
Certainly many young men like myself felt critical of Southern machismo, but in my quick-moving tour of Southern states I was puzzled by the invisibility of the counterculture. There are few avenues there for oppositional ideas. The counterculture in many places is limited to outdoorsy hippie types, whose rejection of the status quo is often merely aesthetic. I knew three punks growing up, and only one of them went to my high school. It still puzzles me why, since the hegemony of Southern racist machismo is so stifling, there isn’t more of a rebellion against it. My mind was grasping at explanations—maybe the Southern narrative of white persecution at the hands of the Union makes people think they are the rebellion against the status quo? maybe that manifests through white identification with black people? maybe the material rewards associated with white privilege are too enticing? I don’t have a good answer.
Despite my ambivalence, I fell in love with two cities. New Orleans was fun and charming. At the same time it was sad to see how neglected the infrastructure was in black neighborhoods while Loyola was surrounded by pristine, affluent neighborhoods and a “park” which was in fact a golf course. Walking up to Audobon Zoo it struck me that there were no pedestrian paths to the entrance. I felt out of place walking in the street as cars drove up. It was an architectural reminder of the class and racial segregation that persists to this day.
The other city was Asheville, North Carolina. Having heard good things about several cities in the South, Asheville was the only one that, in the brief time that I was there, seemed to live up to expectations. The downtown was full of little restaurants and coffee shops and a lively mix of people tolerating the humidity, including transient people playing chess in a park. But the really winning part of the city was its setting. It’s an hour’s drive from Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. In Pisgah National Forest there were weeks’ worth of hikes and swimming holes to explore.
Driving back through Wyoming made me feel conflicted. Normally when I come back to Salt Lake City I get excited to be back. It’s a great, overlooked city that offers lots of outdoors activities as well as a burgeoning music and arts scene. But the West looked so dry and brown compared to the Blue Ridge Mountains. There must have been something deeper going on than just feeling underwhelmed by the landscape.
In the week following my return, I sank into a depression. I had been looking forward to this trip for months and now had nothing to plan for or to look forward to. There is also the theory that the high altitude can trigger depression. Along with these factors, I felt vulnerable in that I was wanting to date someone, to feel romantically, and I came home to no prospects. I hadn’t felt vulnerable in this way since my ex, around this time last year, left me the day before my birthday without saying goodbye. The traumatic nature of our split meant that I never processed the feelings of rejection until last week.
But it took me days to work that out. Even once I had a grasp on the source of my depression there was no solution other than isolating myself in my room, wishing for something to spark pleasure.
As I began feeling better, I had a temp job for two days fall into my lap. Working helped me distract myself, which was good. But I wonder if the deep wallow into feelings of worthlessness was something I needed to experience, to help overcome the trauma of my break up. I don’t know. I was working when we broke up, and part of my motivation for burying my feelings was so I could go in to work as if all was normal. I’ve never had to ask for time off because of depression, which is to say I’m fortunately high functioning. But it also is a sad fact of our social order that the emotional health of workers is of so little importance to capital, that it’s a learned skill for many to bury feelings that conflict with one’s ability to sell labor.
I worked on my novel a little while on my trip. But since getting back it became an important activity for me to work through. I also started a short story, something I haven’t done in over a year, again with the motivation of expressing myself. And, with the luxury of having nothing else to do, I’ve finished the longest, most difficult section of the novel. I’ve almost finished the first draft.