Aesthetics, landscape, and culture first drew me to the Deep South. Before my visit, my impressions of this region of the United States were informed by films I had seen: “Gone with the Wind,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Color Purple,” “Forrest Gump.” I was drawn to the architecture of the English-style manor homes in pastels of pink, yellow, green, and blue; the dreamy porches with beaming white columns and lazy rocking chairs; the sun-drenched landscapes and gardens; the lush vegetation flourishing under the heat and humidity; the Southern accent, charm and hospitality; apple pies and blueberry jams; and the region’s romance enhanced by its silhouetted sunsets. It was a world unlike mine, with a unique past, pace, and palette.
I quenched my curiosity to visit this area only after relocating to Virginia two years ago and seeing “12 Years a Slave” in the early part of 2014. Only now, I was just as intrigued by the American Civil War and the South’s history of slavery.
I began to plan a road trip to South Carolina and Georgia (saving the more southern states for another time) in the time remaining in the summer before I resumed teaching. In the days before my departure, I was increasingly excited about what my eyes would see; on the day of my departure, behind the wheel, I felt free and alive. And I was overjoyed to be travelling alone! These emotions were no doubt fueled by my excitement about discovering a new area. I can’t deny, however, that my recent decision to return to Canada next year intensified the sensations, making this trip more meaningful than I initially anticipated. The open road ahead took on multiple meanings for me.
Historically, socially, and culturally, the South did not disappoint me, and it began to educate me even before my first destination in South Carolina. Along Highway 95 South, billboards in North Carolina indicated that I was entering a world where Christianity, military honour, and patriotism were foremost values. Deeper into the south, the line between fiction and reality began to blur, and I felt like a character in a film. When I stopped for gas in the small town of Timmonsville, SC, I was hit with a wave of extreme heat the instant I stepped out of my car. Beads of sweat trickled down my chest. I inspected my surroundings: nobody was in sight, and the diner attached to the gas station convenience store had boarded-up windows, signaling it had not been open for some time. As I filled up my tank at the pump, a young man drove up in a large pick-up truck with no shirt on, his windows down, and country music blaring from his radio. He noticed me and looked at me, but I quickly turned my eyes away from his. I didn’t want him to see me laughing. Hollywood could not have created a better scene than the one in which I was participating.
Once in South Carolina, I began to explore its history. While Fort Sumter predictably informed me about the American Civil War, my visit to Boone Hall Plantation took me by surprise: the site is breathtaking, and it was cloaked in such delicious sunlight and dreamy Spanish moss that I was quickly transported into a world beyond the concrete. My head tried to remain cool before the historical facts, but my heart and body couldn’t help but relish in the sensuality of the space. My visit to the slaves’ cabins moved me, but even then, once I stepped out of the enclosed spaces, I was swept away by the physical beauty of the larger site. I preferred to spend hours under the Avenue of the Oaks gazing into the golden sunlight peering through the cracks of the trees and letting my mind wander into oblivion.
Food and dining experiences took me to yet another world. They led me to other human beings. After a long day of severe thunder storming and flooding in Charleston, topped off with a scary return to my accommodations, the next day’s sun promised much better things. At a popular brunch spot called Hominy Grill, I was seated at a table of four, while others, who arrived later, waited in a long line before being seated. Feeling guilty about occupying a table of four, I advised the hostess that I would be happy to share my table with other patrons. Moments later, Gary, his wife Charlotte, and daughter Wendy joined me. The conversation was ordinary and somewhat formal, but when we said goodbye, I felt altered – in a good way; there was lightness in my steps. The experience made me hopeful, boosted my confidence, and lifted any barriers I had placed around me as a solo traveller. This brunch with strangers was the turning point of my trip; it was the greatest lesson I learned on the trip; and, unknown to me at the time, it was just the beginning of more meaningful human encounters.
As I continued to visit sites in South Carolina, I paid just more attention to what and where I would eat. Whenever possible, my table of choice was the bar, where I could be visible, open and vulnerable on all sides. Consequently, I rarely dined alone. Bartenders, a lawyer from Columbia, mothers and daughters, and an octogenarian novelist all approached me to ask questions and share details of their lives. Each encounter was like opening a new window, revealing something different to me each time. There were honest and heartfelt conversations; empathetic pauses; laughter; shared heritage; another glass of wine; a stunning night view of Charleston from a rooftop; and subsequent meetings. Though some encounters were more memorable than others, each was telling of how compelled we feel to share parts of ourselves with others. Admittedly, I was just as pulled into the worlds of these people as they were to mine. I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted them to be a part of me so that, one day, I could retell them to others as my own.
In Savannah, Georgia, an afternoon at my choice hangout spot, an independent coffeehouse, and my passion, film, led to my culminating human encounter. I was drawn to this person instantly and only more so in the following days. His company was enjoyable, and so was the freedom from the social and moral codes that normally dictate my actions in my home environment. As unexpected as it was, this was the encounter I was building towards through all the preceding ones. This was the encounter I was waiting for to complete the internal shift that had already been set in motion at the start of my trip. So that when it presented itself to me, I walked towards it naturally and without hesitation. I was ready for and wanted everything it promised to offer.
This trip convinced me that in my heart, I am a traveller and a lover of human stories; that physical places are the beginning of a story that is completed by the human beings occupying those spaces, and that it is essential for me to engage with both; and that when my gut okays it, I should never refuse an invitation to sit next to somebody on a love seat — the story that unfolds between us might just be the one that offers more answers to questions about who I am and where I want to go more quickly than I could arrive at on my own. There is no better gift that a journey to places with others can offer than the gift of clarity.
(See photo gallery for more pictures from this trip.)
Text and photos by Filomena Calabrese. Text edits by Agnieszka Polakowska.