DeepeningSouth

southmap
The South mystifies me, and the Deep South terrifies me. I’ve successfully avoided visiting it until now. Since we relocated into the still mysterious northern reaches of the region five years ago, The Muse has been lobbying for a drive through that situation I’d shunned. I suppose this goosing passes as one of the primary responsibilities of any halfway decent muse, to encourage exploration of nether regions.

The map situates it below, though I know that’s merely convention speaking. On a globe, there can only ever be over; any other representation materially misrepresents and can impart a curiously certain Northern sense of lordly superiority, a malady I recognize in myself. I know my birthplace was an accidental artifact of birth, and that others were similarly situated then imprinted upon their birthplace as home. We can’t escape this. My ancestors trudged across The Carolinas, Virginia, and Kentucky, each identifying with places I never believed I could relate with. I am curious whether I might find vestigial familiarity in this land I’ve for so long shunned.

Our escape from beneath the Beltway felt perfect. We were off the eight-lane quickly, dissuaded from that route when it promised, as it often does, to devolve into a parking lot again. Two-lane blacktop’s our preferred medium, anyway. We picked our way on farm roads along the Maryland side of the Potomac before slipping across into Virginia, then West Virginia, then back into Virginia, then back into West Virginia yet again, and then sometime later, we stumbled across an odd Western edge of Maryland wedged up between two ridges before settling into West Virginia like smugglers stealing in the back way. I felt like we were sneaking southward, and needed to.

We’d chosen a road dizzying with hairpin turns, and felt fortunate to average forty miles an hour, though we’d decided to forget to pack time for this toodle and let Karios, the Ancient Greek God of Timelessness, prevail. This was tough country when frontiersmen first ventured in, and the centuries have softened nothing. Sharp ridges snake down the length of this state whose motto insists that Montani Semper Liberi, Mountaineers Are Always Free. Well, free from everything except gravity, poverty, and pride.

The Muse notes that the place looks a bit past pull date. The church spires might outnumber people. The towns seem plucked from an alternate universe in a prior century and placed precariously along rusty railroad tracks amid rocky outcropings. We drive for hours without once ending up behind any slow-moving vehicle, and see few other drivers on the road. My senses remained on high alert, sniffing for clues. I feel alien here, and should.

Feeling alien could be a lofty objective because it encourages more active engagement. Freeway travel might remain the very best way to get anywhere without feeling like you’ve left home, but a two lane twisting through immovable mountains uproots this root-bound man. The highway engineers managed to achieve an uneasy truce with the land. Nothing was conquered paving it, and winter’s reneged on the truce leaving a turbulent, posthumously potholed surface. The roadway remains an uneasy compromise promising fifty five but delivering innumerable fifteen and twenty gravel-strewn centrifugal turns. I’d found an old rusty hairpin when cleaning out the car before the trip; the perfectly prescient omen for our corkscrew entry into the Deep South.

We started drawling at the state line, as if the tarf (tariff) for aintry had been to forfut the trailin’ lettah from ever’ wor’, receivin’ a twangin’ apostroph’ fer ar troubl’: -ing naturally becomes in’ here, and what further north might be satisfied with a simple, undescriptive, definitive “no,” here becomes a flowery phrase featuring some “houn’ dawg what don’ huuun’.” We speak like extras in a bad Tennessee Williams revival. I do not know why.

My ear loves the language here, even when it arrives almost overwhelmed by the marbles rolling around the speaker’s tongue and clacking off’n they teef. It awakens an informality inside me, discouraging my airs, probably shaking awake a few forebears.

My friend Franklin, who is a masterful songwriter and performer, makes the fine distinction between talent and gift, insisting that even losing his guitar wouldn’t wound his gift. His guitar playing, that’s a talent, but a talent is never more than the medium within which the gift gets delivered; and one of many possible. He claims that the exchanges we call relationships occur between gifts, not talents. I trade in my gifts, you trade in yours, and it’s easy, common, to over-identify with talent and under-appreciate gift. Some might never discover this distinction had Franklin not shared his great gift for noticing and his greater gift for sharing.

I figure I’m heading Deeper South in search of my gift, or confirmation of its presence. I feel like some tardy wise man searching for an all night bazaar, hoping that star’s running later than me. I must know who I are, though I might know that I who used to be better, and I might have noticed my talents more than I ever acknowledged my gifts. This Deeping South, long shunned, might serve as the perfect backdrop for this resident alien to notice his gift in stark relief against this other world. The Deep South terrifies me like acknowledging my unique gift seems to. Why? This great mystery might be deepening as we head steadily southward.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved









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