We really loved the southern Arizona desert we’ve called home for the better part of January, but unfortunately the desert gets bitter cold this time of year, too cold for us. We had a choice — head further south, into Mexico, or head east and south, back to the Gulf Coast. We really wanted to go to Mexico, but the Georgia DMV lost our registration papers for the better part of two months and it was looking like they were never going to get to us. No registration, no Mexico1.
We ended up deciding to head back to what remains one of our favorite places — the southern Gulf Coast.
We loved the southwest desert, especially the our corners area, but generally most of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. If the weather were different we’d have headed north into northern Arizona and southern Utah again. But we go where the weather is warm and so we’re headed back to the south for now.
While Mexico still has a strong pull on our future, there are few things in this country quite as nice as spring in the south. We’re looking forward to it. Especially because we felt like we had to rush through Louisiana on our way out west.
It is of course, a long way from here to there. We hit the road for some long driving days across New Mexico and Texas. We rarely do more than 200 miles a day and hardly ever drive back to back days. But from the time we left the Dragoons we covered roughly 1200 miles in five days with only one weekend as a break.
One night, the day we left the Dragoons, the forecast called for 18 degrees overnight so we got a hotel in Deming NM. I ended up sleeping in the bus anyway and it wasn’t that bad, but we try to err on the side of caution for the kids. From there we went on to Las Cruces, ostensibly for the night, but we knew we wanted to head up to the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns the next day and that area was having winds in the 60-70 mile and hour range.
I wanted to see what the bus would be like in those kinds of winds, but Corrinne wasn’t having it. We holed up at a state park outside Las Cruces for the weekend. Even there the wind was bad enough that one day I don’t think we left the bus for more than 20 minutes.
When things finally calmed down we hit the road again and made the Guadalupe Mountains only to discover that — despite what the news was saying — the park was closed for the government shutdown. I really didn’t care because I was still so excited the bus had actually made it over Guadalupe Pass without incident that the whole world could have been on fire and I wouldn’t have cared. I made it over the hill damn it.
We ended up camping in a parking lot just down the road for the night, along with a few other rigs in the same situation.
The next morning the government was back in business so we drove up to Carlsbad Caverns and had the place pretty much to ourselves.
Carlsbad was just like Corrinne and I remembered it from our childhoods, with one exception — there’s almost no water in any of the pools now. Turns out the park service was artificially filling those pools the keep visitors enthralled, but at some point it thought better of that and now lets nature run its course, which means very little water.
It’s a very strange thing to descend 800 feet underground, but what surprised me the most was how quickly the kids became hushed and whispered in the darkness.
We spent the morning underground. Part of the reason there was no one in the cave was because the elevator wasn’t working. We’d been told that it would be fixed around 10, but that turned out to not be true. There was about half an hour there where we thought we’d have to hike out. Not the end of the world, but not really what the kids were looking forward to. Just about the time we were going to give up and start hiking out we heard the hiss of elevator doors and we ended up escaping the underworld the easy way. So long Hades, Persephone, Dionysus and all the rest of the vegetation cycle personifications around the world. The underworld is fun to visit, but I wouldn’t want to stay.
We had a quick bite to eat in the parking lot and then continued on our way. The drive south from Carlsbad to Fort Stockton was the single worst road we’ve driven, and I’ll go ahead and say it’s in the top ten worst roads I’ve driven anywhere in the world. The reason? The fracking industry. This is west Texas, the water table won’t support fracking, so water is trucked in. Hundreds and hundreds of trucks all day every day will absolutely destroy a road. And of course whatever water table was available here is full of chemicals now and, from a human perspective, forever.
Fracking is bit like burning the furniture to keep the house warm, and all you need to know about the current state of oil in the world is to drive though an area where the old oil pumps are rusted and collapsing and water trucks are rolling by in the steady stream — we’re getting desperate and nothing illustrates that so well as a fracking field. This is the third we’ve driven through and by far the worst.
After a night in Fort Stockton we continued on toward Kerrville and somewhere on that drive, I can almost pin it down to single climb over a single hill, you’re no longer in the west. You’re also not yet in the east. Nor are you in the Midwest. You’re in something uniquely Texas for a while. By Kerrville though you’re more or less back in the south. I got a little giddy at the grocery store walking the aisle and seeing okra, collards, grits, Duke’s Mayonnaise and all the other things I love about the south.
Westerners and Northerners always look at me funny when I say the south is my favorite part of America. Doubly so when they find out I actually grew up in Los Angeles. Whatever the case, it’s good to be back in the south. And yes, there’s more to it than a few foods that I’ve come to love. For example southern campgrounds put soap in the bathrooms, you really need to look into this westerners.
To be totally honest I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what it is I love about the south beyond saying that the people are kinder, more open, and friendlier. If you want to be left alone and never have to talk to anyone at the grocery store, head to the west. If you prefer to engage with your fellow spaceship travelers you’ll have a more rewarding time of it in the south.
Sometimes this gets called “southern politeness”, but I dislike that term. I prefer kindness. What I mean by that is that you say hello to people when you can, yes, strangers. You hold the door for them if you can, you pause to let them go first, you wait for them when they walk and you’re in a car, you respect them and treat them as people even if you don’t like them at all. This last point is especially important. Even if you thoroughly dislike someone, perhaps especially if you thoroughly dislike them, you still treat them with respect, you treat them as if you loved them.
The reason I prefer to term kindness is that the whole politeness thing gets obsessed over by northerners and westerners who think it’s somehow quaint and charming. It’s neither. It’s much simpler than that. It’s something that used to be called common decency, which you would extend to anyone — anyone with whom you have an I-you relationship. That is, anyone you consider a “person”. When people get rude and people get dangerous it’s because they have convinced themselves that you are an “it” not a “you”2.
That’s why I don’t like the term polite. In fact even the term kindness should be unnecessary. I would prefer to call the kindness nothing at all and instead define northern and western behavior what it is — coarse and rude.
One thing we’ve painfully noticed in 8000 miles of travel around the U.S. is that the lack of respect, the lack the treating the world around you and what’s in it as equals, is a huge part of so many of the problems our country is having just now. When you deal with the world outside yourself as a collection of “its” things have a way of turning ugly rather quickly.
There are, in my experience, more people with more “yous” in their lives in the south than elsewhere.
This is part of why, despite the economic strife, lingering racial prejudices, and the arrogant dismissal of the rest of the nation, southerners remain a generally happier, friendlier bunch than most. And of course it’s doubly impressive when you consider that there are more differences among people in the south than in much the rest of the country.
That’s not to say the south doesn’t have terrible people or is somehow a paradise. It’s flawed like everything else. It’s a mess too, but the people in it have at least retain the ability to go about the daily lives with a certain grace, dignity, and kindness that I find missing elsewhere. I should also probably say that, by the same token, we’ve met very nice, kind people in the west and are glad to call many of them friends at this point.
One of the interesting outgrowths of leaving the south has been discovering that southern culture extends beyond its borders. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to us to talk because they saw our license plate. We’ve met Georgians, Carolinians, Louisianans, Alabamans and others who wanted to talk simply because we were also from the south, because they knew we would talk, because they knew we would treat them with respect, and perhaps because there is an unwritten understanding among those from the south that we must stick together in the face of the unkindness that has engulfed the rest of the nation.
Truth be told I feel like, unfortunately, many of the things I like about the south — nebulous and difficult to define though they may be — are fast disappearing. They seem already gone in many larger cities, except perhaps New Orleans, but New Orleans is really it’s own thing, not exactly part of the south.
Still, if you stick to the small towns, particularly those lining the gulf of Mexico, the further out from the interstate and cities the better, you can still find some of the south Henry Miller describes in his 1939 drive across America.
For the foreseeable future, that’s our plan — visit the small towns, the backwaters, the places in the south that time forgot so to speak.
Our registration eventually showed up and got to us in Tucson, but by then we’d already made reservations all along the Gulf Coast (the one downside of the Gulf is that you can’t just show up and expect to get a campsite in most places). ↩
I’m borrowing those terms from philosopher Martin Buber because I think they work quite well, so long as you keep in mind that all dualities are concealing a third possibility. ↩