For the next three weeks, I’m traversing several states on a journey across America’s south. Along the way, I’ll provide obnoxious and cynical observations about local culture, relate humorous tales of human interaction and enlighten you on the world of professional tennis. Caveat emptor on the writing through. I’ve been known to deviate from the normal journalistic form and digress into rants about history and psychology and other types of literary mischief. If you are inclined, hoist and tilt that morning cuppa while I lift the window shade unto a strange world.
The drive from St. Petersburg, Florida to Dothan, Alabama passes through the panhandle. There are cows and fruit farms and a sleek transition from palm trees to coniferous ones. As you leave the tropics, humidity turns into something cooler, dustier, as though the back woods are offering a welcoming breath, one which resonates with the stink of beached fish and tractor fumes. Too, advertisements change. Northern Florida trends conservative, with giant roadside rectangles shouting guilting religious phrases like “Abortion Breaks God’s Heart” and ‘Children are Not Meat.” That an Arby’s sign followed the latter billboard must be the world’s most disconcerting commercial irony. Entering ‘Bama, trees host crosses nailed to their trunks and Garth Brooks billboards join the ubiquitous auto racing signs.
As you travel through East Alabama, a waging of two contests appears. Whether the United States flag is more prevalent than the one supporting the University of Alabama is too close to call. The second battle takes place between cows and churches. Almost every home here hosts herded cows – some are pets, some are livestock, and some are dinner – and the smell is one of those wintry day smells when Papa lights the fireplace and the smoky scent permeates the entire city, only, more fertilized. The churches don’t smell, but the herding is similar.
In what has to approach a record for the nation’s most diverse sales kiosk, one roadside tent offers fudge ice cream, gator jerky and cow tongue. While the gator jerky was tempting, the cow tongue caught my attention because it answers one of my most profound childhood inquiries – Why do cows say Moo? The absence of a tongue means they are mute and, with the “moo,” I’m fairly certain they are trying to let us know that cutting out their tongues make them this way, but without being able to put the tongue on the roof of their mouth, they just can’t get there. That that took a seven-hour drive to discover, makes it all the more satisfying.
About twenty minutes before arrival, I pulled into a back road Alabama gas station. Smitty came out to greet me. I know this because the oval patch and cursive script which adorned his grey jumpsuit said so. The tobacco stains on his collar suggested potential dental issues, which were confirmed when he grinned. Smitty scrubbed my windows with a Miyagi-ish circular motion and then filled my tank by straddling and holding the hose as though taking a leak. Though he was very friendly, I think this was Smitty’s way of pissing on a world which had pissed him off. I was hoping I’d see a hound laying across a hose outside the service station, but fortune granted me no favor today.
So, now here I am in Dothan, Alabama, population 70K, most of whom appear to be related. There is a Subway, a Walmart, and a few BBQ places with names like Chuck’s or Slim’s or Bubba’s. This afternoon I intend to explore the local attractions. Based on first impressions, I’ll be cow-tippin’, finger-lickin’ and fishin’. Tomorrow, the tennis tournament begins.