Thursday, September 15, 2011

Some Pictures From the South

I went on this trip back in July, so (as with everything else) I've been a laggard at writing anything about it. Being the digital age there are of course about 7 or 800 pictures. I won't put them all up, but I will probably do 3 or 4 postings worth. They are easy and usually fast, so I can inflate my pathetic post total for the year a bit. Judging by the page views no one looks at the trip photos, and it is true that people do always talk about how much they hate looking at other people's vacation pictures. I do like seeing them however, provided there is anything at all interesting in the presentation. Unfortunately I have very little ability to judge my own presentation so you will have to take my word that the presentation is not meant to be boring. Like the movie of Forever Amber, a lot will still have to be cut out. As I have done before, my plan is to take a more or less random selection of pictures and incidents and hope that they give some idea of an overall story.

I was not certain we would be going on this trip until about three weeks beforehand, due to the new baby. Ladies often do not feel up to traveling for some months afterwards in the wake of childbirth. Mr Bourgeois Surrender was feeling pretty robust after just a few weeks however and decided she would be up for it. Given the short notice, combined with the circumstances that everyone had enjoyed going to the Smoky Mountains the previous year and my own sense that we had not had enough days there on this previous occasion, we decided to head back in that direction; for, despite all the commercialism and lowbrow culture surrounding it, it is one of the great national parks of the country. I thought we should go somewhere new as well. So returning to what has worked so well for me these past few years, I returned to my 1966 Encyclopedia, with its 431 different travel recommendations for earnest middle class white families, and played the lottery game I have devised for it to see what should come up.

The first draw was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This doubtless would have been spectacular, but as it was not reasonable for the travel gods to expect me to make it there on a few weeks notice this particular summer, I excused myself from the obligation to undertake this particular trip at this particular time, filed it on one of my to-do lists (the vast majority of which items are of course never going to be done, but it is always good to have a reserve supply of ideas) and selected another destination. The second 'winner' was the Talladega National Forest in Alabama.

This one was less easy to dismiss outright than Hawaii, though it was not unproblematic, mainly because one still has to persuade others to want to go there, and it is easy to imagine the many arguments that might be made against it. In the first place, it is about five hours drive beyond the Smoky Mountains, which are already nearly two full days from home for us, and this with five little children, including an infant. In the second place it is in Alabama; and people from the north are wont to recoil instinctively from the idea of Alabama, especially if they have never been there. I was not wholly immune to this reaction myself.

Over the past few years I have documented the breaking down of my apprehension of traveling in the south, which, not having been to much at any time of my life, and not at all between approximately 1981 and 2006 or so, I had become convinced through my extensive exposure to internet and media accounts of the area's dominant socio-political passions, that as a comparatively effete and probably liberal yankee, I was going to be treated with cold hostility at best, and should expect the occasional encounter with someone whose anger was worked up to a hotter and less restrainable state. I was pretty sure that the days of the Deliverance-style treatment of unwelcome intruders were over; but in such matters one is never really certain either. Of course I told myself I must embrace such challenges and be eager to defend my own choices in and situation of life if I were unable to sniff haughtily upon such detractors as I might meet from a secure height, which is supposed to be the educated northerner's preferred stance in such matters. But after passing at various times over a period of several years through parts of southern Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee without any unpleasant incidents--there was the one gas station in the mountains of North Carolina whose windows were plastered over with pro-gun and anti-Obama signs where a crowd of unsmiling guys in overalls were looking over me a little overly hungrily, but even here nothing openly antagonistic transpired--as well as through the power of the internet slowly came to realize perhaps more palpably than I was able to through the haze of myth and reputation that the south is overwhelmingly populated with people who are in fact normal for the most part. But still...

A third problem was that, especially compared to the Smoky Mountains, there was a real dearth of practical information about the Talladega National Forest, and apparently not much of a developed tourist industry. This last of course offered itself as a potential bonus, though it might also have been an indication that the place was comparatively boring, since the competition for tourists is so well-developed nowadays that any place which does not have a sophisticated organization for promoting itself and is not well known to be favored by rich people is almost suspicious. Also I was concerned lest camping was the only option in the area, as we were not going to do that with a baby, and, to be honest, though I have become more enthusiastic about nature and exploring America and all of that in the past few years, I have not yet gone so far as to prefer this to sleeping indoors with showers and those kinds of things. Finally I found a guidebook (Lonely Planet's Southern Road Trips) which had a very short section on the Forest, in which it revealed that the best, and practically only accomodation requiring less than an hour's driving each day was in the Cheaha State Park, which is located on Mt Cheaha, which is Alabama's highest mountain, and is in the middle of the national forest. This state park was built in the 1930s by the CCC and had a hotel, cabins, chalets, and a restaurant, attractive enough in themselves and in a lovely setting, but not expensive. Friends of the hotel on Facebook gushed about it as well, so all this was enough to sell me on staying there should there be any spaces left for seven people on such short notice, which there was.

The fourth concern was that going to Alabama in July in itself seemed an invitation to ridicule from anyone in the north who should hear of it, though I reminded myself that the place is much more populated than Northern New England and presumably people go outside and do things in the heat. Though I must admit I was worried about what it would be like.

1. I-78 between Allentown and Harrisburg, PA, after stopping at Wawa.

As we travel frequently to Philadelphia to visit my relatives we are no strangers to Wawa, most likely the world's greatest convenience store chain. As Wawa's fledgling empire is still largely confined to southeastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey, and Delaware, with a few outposts as far afield as Maryland and northern Virginia, it was not a given that we would have the good fortune to come across one on this trip, as our route barely skirted the northern boundary of this territory in the Lehigh Valley. But we did.

2. Rolling hills adjacent to Exxon station, Natural Bridge, VA, off I-81.

The Natural Bridge itself is a famous attraction, considered by some to be an overhyped one, though Jefferson and Patrick Henry, among other early patriots eager to promote such sublimities as were to be found in these lands as equivalent to their celebrated counterparts in the old world, were reputedly fans. We did not take the opportunity to see it this time, though maybe someday we will be back. It is among the 431 sites highlighted in the 1966 encyclopedia.

3. We are arrived at the Chalet in Cheaha State Park, Alabama.

Alabama, along with Mississippi, and maybe Arkansas, about which nobody in the north knows very much at all, are still regarded as the hard core of the south and maybe, especially when one gets away from the interstates, still trapped in something of a nightmarish pre-civil rights era time warp. One sort of knows this is not true, but until you get there...

The first day we drove from Concord all the way to Harrisonburg, Virginia (the home of James Madison University), arriving around midnight, at which time it was still around 90 degrees, which only added further to my concern that we were driving a third of the way across the country only to find ourselves unable to do anything once we got there due to the weather. The second day we proceeded through southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee, which latter has a rather comforting geography, hilly but with a lot of green farmland, horses, etc, visible from the road practically all the way to Chattanooga, which itself is situated in an interesting and dramatic setting, amidst mountains and a serpentine river, I presume the Tennessee River. After Chattanooga we went through a small slice of Georgia--about 20 miles--on I-59. This stretch of land is unihabitated, largely empty of traffic, hilly and profusely forested and green, almost junglelike, with lots of kudzu. The road is not in the best repair. It was well over 90 degrees of course, and there had been a shower or even a light thunderstorm, though not enough to clear the air of tension, and the sky was cranberry red. I was a little spooked out. When we finally made to Alabama darkness was starting to fall, and this somehow made it calmer, less sinister-looking than I was anticipating, though there was at least a further hour of driving through deep, dark woods with very few indications of human presence. My image of 'Alabama' had consisted of endless cotton fields, one (blinking) traffic light towns with brick city halls and austere white churches presiding around a tired looking grassy square. I knew this probably only described a small number of real places anymore, but I was not anticipating that the whole of northeast Alabama was basically sparsely inhabited hill country, with comparatively few black people or immigrants, at least that I saw.

4. View of the Talladega Forest from the Cheaha State Park swimming pool area.

This is the only nature picture that made it into this first set. This place was more beautiful than I thought it was going to be, and it was very uncrowded. Other than fifteen or so families staying at the park and a small number of day trippers/hikers there were scarcely any people for 20, 30 miles around in any direction, which when you have lived on the east coast all your life, even in New England, is practically unheard of roominess. It was extremely pleasant and rejuvenating. I could happily have stayed there for a week.

5. Making the trail mix for the next day's hike.

When we arrived--about midnight, after about a half hour of driving through pitch dark woods without seeing a single other car and only the occasional haunted looking sign directing us to our destination--it was a still sweltering 87 degrees or so and the chirping of the crickets/locusts/cicadas/boll weevils or whatever the local insect life was almost terrifying. Right now as I type this it is around 1:45am and I can hear some crickets outside the window. If the volume of these crickets is a "1" then that of the crickets in Alabama was about a "17". If these things had somehow been able to decide in unision that they wanted to swarm over and eat me, my life expectancy would have been about 4 minutes. As I clambered up to the office to get my keys I was still having my doubts as to whether this place was going to be fun or not, and I was really hoping that my semi-rustic chalet somehow had air conditioning, which in New England of course, such places never do. But in Alabama I guess they know and accept the evil necessity of air conditioning, because our cabin had it going full bore the whole time. I am something of a connoisseur of air conditioning--I spent most of my formative years in the very hot mid-atlantic, remember--and this was good air conditioning.

6. Antique Playground Equipment of Cheaha State Park in Twilight.

This place had some of the oldest playground equipment still in use that I have ever seen.

Of course anytime you go somewhere in the south that is more than 40 years old and that is at all nice, you are aware that at the time whenever the place was originally built black people would almost certainly not have been allowed to go there. It is not that one has never been in such places before. My college in Maryland for example did not admit its first black student until 1947 and most of the buildings long predate that, and it is something one scarcely thinks about at all. But in Alabama one is highly conscious about all of these kinds of things, especially as when we were there every single person staying at the park was white, and in our whole four days there apart from one hispanic family that was having a picnic we did not encounter any non-white people in the entire preserved area at all. The atmosphere was really kind of 1950sish, which obviously I kind of was going for, though I guess I am always surprised to actually find it. As always in the south the other people were pretty outgoing and friendly to us, even though they were almost certainly pro-business, pro-Jesus, family values Republicans who think of themselves as disliking hand-wringing, goody-goody, meddling, socialistic whiny New Englanders, though I suppose we do not present ourselves as blatantly being of this type. There were two families, one from Texas and one from Florida, that I suppose regularly came up to the mountains of Alabama in the summer to "cool off" for a few days. I found that amusing.

7. Baby Susanna in Alabama.

She is only half the age she is now here.

8. A redundant playground equipment picture.

Should have made another selection. However I will do another set from Alabama before we go back to Tennessee.

I really would like to post more frequently. I have a lot going on, and I am a slow writer and thinker. The time constraints will not always be this way (I hope).

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