Trans America Part IV -- The Atlantic and the Deep South
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Continued from Part III - the South01 .
I spent the night again in Gatlinburg, reading and agonizing over where I should arrange my long-awaited date with the Atlantic coast. There are quite a few reputable small towns along the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia: Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Savannah... Unable to make up my mind, I put my faith on the endless lists of “best small towns in America” in the internet. It turned out that the mossy Savannah, GA enjoyed the most publicity. So Savannah it was.
The next morning, as I still savoring the sweet dreams of caressing Atlantic beaches, misfortune struck. I just got out of the Great Smokey Mountain and was cruising along Interstate 26. Suddenly, the steering became unusually heavy. Baffled, I stopped by a Napa Auto Part, bought a bottle of power steering fluid to fill it up, but it didn’t help (the fluid level was actually OK). I consulted a nearby auto shop, but they were busy and asked me to wait till the afternoon or tomorrow. I weighted my options, and decided that I may as well just press on. I was in the middle of nowhere. If I had to stop for a repair, I reasoned, better find a larger town with better amenities and more auto shops. Besides, if it was just heavy steering, I reasoned that I could still manage it in highway speed.
But then a few miles later, I lost the radio; at the same time the speedometer and the rev meter flickered and flipped back to zero; a minutes later, the engine died altogether. I steered the car hectically with all the strength I could muster, cut into the way of a large truck, glided onto the road shoulder, and crawled out from the passenger door. Semitrailers swooshed by just a few feet away, rocking the car no end. Miraculously, there was one tiny bar of cell phone signal. Google map told me that the nearest community was Columbus, NC, 4 miles away, population 981 – talked about a one-horse town. I called AAA, and thanked God to hear that they did have an affiliated tow company in such a dump.
While waiting for the tow truck, I spent the next two hours watching small bugs crawling all over my feet, pondering what I should do when stranded in a very small place indefinitely. According to Google map, the entire town of Columbus consisted of pretty much just one street, some 6,000 feet from end to end. Along the street, there was one Days Inn, one hospital, one library, and one community college – not sure how they manage to support a college with such a population base. All Californian community colleges I knew had more enrollments than the entire population of Columbus. Heck, most of them had more staff members than the entire population of Columbus. Basically, my prospect didn’t look very bright.
Two hours later, a rotund, red-faced, and amicable young man squeezed out of a black tow truck. He pumped my hand with a powerful grip, and loaded my car onto the truck with surprising dexterity, considering his size. We chatted amiably about the weather, the life in North Carolina, and my trip across the continent. I carefully avoided politics, as I gathered he’s most likely a Trump supporter (I checked later, 63% went for Trump in the 2016 election here in Polk county, compared to 35% for Clinton). After hearing my story, he made a couple phone calls, and found me an auto shop next to the Days Inn, the only hotel in town.
The shop owner was a rotund, amicable, middle-aged fella with a bristly salt-and-pepper beard. He pumped my hand with a powerful grip, and sympathized with my bad luck. He promised to get on my car as soon as he could, and recommended a BBQ restaurant nearby for lunch.
If it was any consolation, the restaurant was great. “All our dishes are good,” the young girl behind the counter touted, “especially our brisket.” And she was right. Brisket was tender and flavorful. The fried-green tomatoes, fried okra, and hush puppies were also well-done. This was one of those few surviving old-style family-run restaurants that still made their own rubs, BBQ sauces, and potatoes salad, I was told. Well, I sincerely hoped it’ll survive the siege of MacDonald’s and Pizza huts, which have already clustered on the other end of the town and, as I imagined, was gazing this way covetously.
On my way back to the auto shop, I noticed an expansive green cemetery across the road under a backdrop of lush mountains, which was kind of picturesque. From the size of it, there were probably more dead people in Columbus than breathing ones. I don’t usually visit a cemetery voluntarily, but out of boredom, I walked over impulsively. The first principle of visiting a graveyard, is to adopt a philosophical stance and face mortality in a stoic frame of mind. That I did, and after walking a full circle, I concluded that the average life span of the more recently deceased in this small Southern rural town was less than 70 years, way below the national life expectancy of 79. Infant and toddler mortality rate seemed high, even in the 1970s and 80s. A good portion of the buried were veterans of the two world wars. From an unusual angle, it completed a portrait of a quintessential Trump supporter base: small, remote, conservative, economically strained, but passionately patriotic.
Back on the auto shop, I was greeted with a miracle. Those laid-back small-town folks already had my problem figured out – the fan belt snapped. The replacement part was on its way. If everything goes well, the rotund gentleman told me with a grin, I wouldn’t have to spend the night in the Days Inn. I couldn’t think of anything to say except to thank him profusely. Sure enough, a couple hours later, I was on my way again, with my radio sang like a bird fled from the cage. The unfortunate incident shaved half a day off my schedule, but thank god (actually I should thank my rotund friends), I could still make it to Savannah tonight.
I reflected on the little town where I spent the last six hours, and its people. That was a few weeks before Hillary Clinton called them “a basket of deplorable” in a speech. But for the life of me, I couldn’t associate my rotund friends with the barbarous angry mobs that I’ve pictured before. Politics aside, for all I knew, they were just the average kind-hearted, honest, and patriotic American I came to know ever since I arrived in this country over twenty years ago. It was a heart-warming thought, and I was glad that I reconciled myself at least partially with the other half of the country for the trip.
I was about 9pm when I finally arrived at Savannah. Settled on a hotel, I hurried to the historic water front of Savannah River for dinner before everything was closed for the night. I ordered shrimp and grits, a renowned local dish, and half a dozen of raw oyster, but then changed my mind and requested the oysters to be lightly steamed – it was near closing time and probably unwise to put too much faith on their freshness. The dishes turned out to be better than I anticipated. The shrimp and grits was buttery and appetizing, and the oysters retained its firm texture and subtle sweetness. Guess the chef weren’t as weary and grumpy as I worried after all.
Savannah was one of those rare small sedate towns that had a rich nightlife. It was well past 10pm after dinner, but quite a few souvenir stores, cafes, and bars were still open. There were enough people strolling leisurely along the soothing water front to keep the place lively, but not too many to turn the town into a bazaar. Refreshing breeze gently washed away any residual summer heat from the day. Everything was just right.
Savannah boasted itself “American’s most haunted city,” which I wasn’t sure why. I walked passed dark and creepy old buildings and allies, but failed to feel any chilliness or horror in the air -- the air was warm and moist, for all I knew. The lofty city hall, palely lit from below like a kid about to tell a ghost story, also failed to spook me.
I returned to the river front the next morning, and found the city still in a hangover. The old buildings were stained and worn and tired, and the streets were sleepy and almost free of pedestrians.
If there was one building that defined old town Savannah, it had to be the Cotton Exchange Building. The Roman Revival red-brick building was the commercial center of the town, when cotton was the lifeblood of Georgia. In the 19th century, Savannah was the biggest cotton seaport along the Atlantic coast. Every year, millions bales of cotton collected in thousands of Georgia slave plantations were loaded here to be exported across the Atlantic.
The Savannah River, once bustled with Atlantic vessels, were open and serene. A retro-style ferry boat leisurely cruise along the river.
The streets were lined with towering oak trees that dangled with epic drapes of Spanish moss. Every couple of blocks there would be an inviting park, with a monument in the middle and a few wooden benches around, where Forrest Gump would sit and reciting his life story.
While the Old Cotton Exchange Building was the town’s commercial center, the City Hall was the political center, and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist the spiritual center. All gorgeous structures that reflected the town’s past glory.
The French Gothic-styled cathedral was particularly neat. I rather liked the brightly-colored stain glasses inside.
Today Savannah is still an important Atlantic seaport, because the ocean is just some 18 miles eastward from both sides of Savannah River. I drove east along Highway 80 across boundless marshy wetland now, to reach the east-most point of Georgia, and the farthest point from home in the trip, the Tybee Island. Here, I would finally complete my transcontinental feat, and meet with the other great ocean of the world, a moment I’ve been long waiting for.
What greeted me first was the dominating landmark of the Tybee island, the striking black-and-white lighthouse. Built in 1736 by the British, it was the oldest lighthouse, and one of the oldest public structures in Georgia. Interestingly, the inside of the tower was also painted in matching colors of black and white. I followed the black stairs all the way to the top, and was instantly charmed by the sweeping view of the entire island, plus the expansive marsh beyond. And there was the Atlantic Ocean, immensely blue and immensely deep. It didn’t have the kind of hypnotic, seductive blue of the Pacific, but there was a certain serene, reassuring quality in it, like an old sea captain.
The beach, a bit coarse and ashy, honestly wasn’t as nice as those in Florida. But it wasn’t as crowded and commercialized either. Still a good, laid-back spot to dip your toe to the Atlantic, I thought.
Guarding the estuary of Savannah River, the Tybee island is at quite a strategic location. That explained the Fort Screven structures right across the street from the lighthouse. Under the battery was a very interesting historic museum, where I learnt the history of swimsuit since the 1900s, which was virtually the evolution of being more and more shrifty with materials on the apparel.
Another fascinating historic fact was that before the colonist established on the island in 1733, it was a haven for the pirates, where they could find fresh water, firewood, and refuge for bad weather. So, the ocean out there was not so serene as I thought, once upon a time.
On my way back, I made a right turn to Fort Pulaski on Cockspur Island. This was the location of a crucial Civil War battle, the Siege of Port Pulaski. In April 10-11, 1862, the Confederate-held Fort Pulaski, once thought an invincible fortress in the age of smooth bore canon, was for the first time bombarded with the newly-invented rifted cannon, which is more powerful and accurate. After 30 hours of bombardment, the cannon fire finally penetrated the eleven-foot brick wall, a previously unimaginable feat. The stunned confederates had no choice but to surrender, which ended the siege as well as a millennia-long era of brick fortification as the golden rule for military defense.
I walked along the moat and entered the fortress, and found the wall seemed to be repaired now.
Inside there was a museum that gave a detail account of the Civil War and the Siege of Fort Pulaski. The exhibit didn’t take a Southern perspective like I’ve hoped, but a more objective “main-stream” view of history, probably because the Fort was now operated by National Park Service. I’ve been hoping to learn about the war and post-war experience from a Southern perspective, after a bitter loss. Guess for that I had to wait till New Orleans.
What I did learn was that after the Union captured Fort Pulaski, it became the destination of the Underground Railroad, a beacon on the road to freedom for thousands of slaves. Towards the end of the war, the fort also served as a prison for captured Confederate officers. Today the bunkbeds of the prisoners were still left on those half-open cells. I didn’t think those were comfortable dwelling on the bug-infested South.
There were cannons all over the fort, big and small, pointing out through hundreds of loopholes. In the last picature was the quarter where Colonel Olmstead, the hapless Confederate Commander surrendered the fortress. Imagined you were trusted with the most impenetrable stronghold of the time, and you gave it up to the enemy after less than two days of siege. Wouldn’t look too good on the poor guy’s resume, would it?
Back to the car, I tried to shift myself into the most comfortable position possible, because ahead of me would be the longest stretch in this entire trip. I planned to blast through some 500 miles to Mobile, AL in about 8 hours, to make up the half day I lost in NC due to the breakdown. I had to give up the original plan of cruising down the coast to Jacksonville, but took a shortcut crossing Georgia and Alabama inland through Interstate 16 and then 65.
I passed through the familiar southern lush woods, meadows, and quiet small towns. When it was turning dark, I spotted a beach-theme restaurant conveniently on the roadside and stopped. It must be a couple hundred miles from the beach front, but a hearty meal of seafood would be a nice break from such a long, tedious drive.
I ordered a seafood platter and a dozen raw oysters, and asked the waitress, a young black girl, if they’re the sweeter river oysters or saltier Atlantic ones. The poor girl blushed, lowered her eyes, and stuttered in a low voice that she didn’t know, because she had never tried one before. She stood there bashfully for a moment, making sure that I didn’t have other requests, and fled, like a wounded kitten. I felt sorry for her, and in a strange way I was even more embarrassed that she was. I hadn’t faced poverty so directly and so unexpectedly for a long time. Flashed back 20 years, when I was working my way through college, it could have very well been me standing on the other side waiting the table, I thought. As It turned out, the oysters, though fresh, were salty and plain. But I left a bigger tip than usual for the girl.
It started raining, and raining hard late into the night. The visibility was poor, and the road became treacherous. But still, there were fiercely fast cars zipped by me like maniacs. I started to feel a bit of regret on my ambitious plan now. Did you know that Alabama was one of the most dangerous states for motorists? With 18.8 traffic fatalities per 10,000 (2008-2014), it’s way up there with other reckless states like Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming. Well, now stuck in the middle of nowhere, and with a hotel room booked in Mobile, I could do nothing but slowed down and pressed on. I arrived at Mobile very late that night, and vouched to myself that I would never attempt such imprudence ever again. With a sigh of relief, I fell asleep immediately without even changing my clothes.
I allowed myself to sleep in the next morning – it was gloomy and raining out there anyway. The day’s itinerary was relatively relaxed: I just needed to drive some 150 miles west and enjoy myself in New Orleans.
It was still morning when I approached New Orleans in rain. I decided then not to get into the city so early, since the town had a reputation of waking up late and coming alive at night. Instead I drove past it and headed to possibly the most famous plantations in the South, the Oak Alley Plantation of Vacherie, in the suburb of New Orleans.
If you are searching for the Tara or the Twelve Oaks Plantations in Gone with the Wind in real life, you can’t do any better than the Oak Alley. Oak Alley was a sugarcane plantation built in the 1830s by Jacques Telesphore Roman, a wealthy businessman. Its magnificent 800-feet long oak-canopied drive way facing the Mississippi River must be one of the most iconic image of the antebellum south.
Upon arrival at the stylish Greek Revival mansion, I was greeted by tour guides dressed like Southern belles, with hoop skirts and all (except the corset, to accommodate American’s ever-expanding waistline). The interior of the mansion was plush and cozy, with sturdy furniture, elaborate chandeliers, fancy European artifacts, oil paintings of dead aristocrats – everything you would expect in a wealthy plantation owner’s home. I could almost hear Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable bickering on the other end of the dining hall: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” …
Upstairs, our guide gathered us on the hall way for a prolong lecture, and when everyone was about to nod off, she dramatically opened the large double door to the balcony. After our eyes adjusted to the glare, we were stunned by what lied in front of us – the famous canopied alley lined with 28 giant oak trees, extending afar like a tunnel, all the way to the shore of the Mississippi River. God, it was a view to kill for.
It was a bit curious that during the tour, very little was mentioned about the elephant in the room, namely the slaves that produced the massive fortune. Whenever they were impossible to omit, the guide substituted “slaves” with the more innocuous “servants.” Finally, at the end of the tour, our guide pointed inadvertently to the south, said that we could have a self-guided tour in the “slaves’ quarter.” So, I walked about fifty yards from the mansion, and entered a completely different world. There were six wooden sheds rebuilt following the original design, which we could only inspect from outside the door. It was gloomy and damp in there, but I could still make out that under the tattered window curtains were rudimental furniture and coarse utensils laid on the table.
Sugarcane planting was labor-intensive and hazardous work. Oak alley possessed about 600 acre of field and somewhere between 110-120 slaves, women and children included. A slaved labor typically worked 12-14 hours a day, while in harvest season, it could be up to 18 hours a day. In return, they often received less than adequate sustenance, leading to malnutrition. When they’re sick, they were sent to the “Sick House,” to be treated by untrained fellow slaves. In consequence, the life expectancy of slave labor was painfully short (averagely about 36 in 1850, which was already considerably higher than those in other sugar colonies in Caribbean and Brazil). When we enjoy today's riveting varieties of pastries and deserts, we probably never realize that we owe much of our gratification to these toiling slave labors, who produced cheap sugar that make possible a pastry revolution in the 16th and 17th century.
One of the sheds was a display of various artifacts and farm implements used by the slaves. What caught my eyes was a collection of shackles and restrains. One of the shackles was specifically designed to transport children – slave families were frequently torn apart due to trading. On one of the walls were close to two hundred known names of the slaves; most of them were just a first name.
I was speechless after going through the whole exhibit. No wonder there wasn’t a guided tour, I thought. Who would be willing to elaborate on such an uncomfortable notion that not so long ago, a group of human beings actually OWNED another group, like life stocks? The owners could shackle, exploit, trade, abuse, torture, rape, and even murder their “properties,” more or less freely. All the while there were only fifty yard that separated the two worlds. How could such a system be sustained?
Well, as we all know, it couldn’t be. Slave revolts were common throughout the colonial and early republic history, though few were successful. The abolition movement have long been gathering steam, and eventually led to the Civil War. The slavery system collapsed in the 1860s after the emancipation and the war. Shown here was a replica of a civil war commander’s tent.
Without slave labor, plantation like Oak Alley was economically not viable. The Roman’s suffered what may have been a real-life version the O’Hara’s story in Gone with the Wind. Accustomed to absolute control over the slaves, they struggled to adopt the new wage labor economic system. In 1866, seriously in debt, they sold the plantation, which was eventually converted into a cattle ranch. I could only imagine the bitterness of the Roman’s when they bid farewell to such a gorgeous piece of land.
Today, I could still see boundless fields of sugarcane in a distance – they were re-introduced back to the plantation in the 1960s. The sugarcane was farmed and harvested mechanically, which of course required much less human labor. The romance of antebellum plantation life has long gone with the wind, but the world was fairer, if not more peaceful.
I drove back to New Orleans in the afternoon, and found the city in a hectic mess. Near my hotel in the French Quarter, a pickup truck plunged into a street car at Canal street, incapacitating the city’s iconic public transport and leading to a huge traffic jam. I found out later that this is part of the original Desire line through the French Quarter and the Bywater District, which inspired the name of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, the incredibly repressive A Street Named Desire. Guess some tormented soul was feeling vindictive.
One had to marvel at the ingenuity of the French in coming up so many colorful street names in New Orleans (I presumed it must be the French, not the Spaniard based on my knowledge of all the unattractive place names in California): Mystery Street, Magazine Street, Tchoupitoulas Street (just try to pronounce it to a cab driver), Bourbon Street… Somewhere in the Suburb, Dickory Ave ran parallel with Hickory Ave, then intersected with Dock Street. And How could we forget Blanche DuBois’ implicit and symbolic quote, “why, they told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields!” Yes, there’s a Desire Street in the St. Claude neighborhood, and Elysian Fields, also a street name, is the land of the dead in Greek mythology.
I settled down in my hotel, and had a stroll around the French Quarter. New Orleans was one of the more pedestrian-friendly cities I’ve been to. Relatively compact and slow, it possessed such charm that was meant to be appreciated in a leisure pace. Take its architecture for an example, New Orleans was a zoo of architectural styles, reflecting its rich history as a French and then Spanish colony, and then an important antebellum slave trading port. All those intricate, time-worn mansions, cottages, townhouses, shotgun houses (very narrow residence) gave a very live-in feel. Many street buildings had balconies that provided shelters from the intermittent showers, which I liked.
There were also grander edifices such as the Piazza d’Italia, with a riveting blend of post-modern, Mediterranean styles, a Baroque-styled Cabildo, and a plain yet elegant St. Louis Cathedral soaring in the backdrop of Jackson Square.
Jackson Square appeared to be the social center of the French Quarter, and thus the center of the city. Right in front of the St. Louis Cathedral was a bronze statue of Andrew Jackson to commemorate the victory of Battle of New Orleans in 1814, in which he defended New Orleans from a much larger British force during the Anglo-American War. It was a re-cast of the original in Washington D.C. near the Washington Monument. Jackson, the original anti-elitist, anti-establishment president, hailing from a prancing horse to an invisible crowd, was probably more than ever an endearing hero to the deep-red Louisiana in today’s political climate (though probably not in light blue New Orleans itself).
One block from Jackson Square was the waterfront, where I faced with the mighty Mississippi. In the antebellum days, this used to be the main artery of the plantation economy and the center of Atlantic slave trade. The river was bustling with steamships, flat boats, and sailboats, as postcards in the shops depicted. Today, that turbid water was all quiet and peaceful now. What’s remained was an idle retro steamboat on the dock. I supposed it’s for the night cruises, when all that murkiness was masked by the darkness and the glittering night light.
Everything in the city, the street cars, the boats, the music, the people, were smooth and easy, carrying a slightly festive mood, even in a rainy day. Laissez les bon temps rouler, my friend.
I had dinner in a local seafood restaurant that boasted their baked oysters to be “the single best bite of food in New Orleans.” And goodness me, they were. The gumbo was also outstanding.
At night, the festive mood intensified, and the city was all fired up. The entire French Quarter woke up and turned into a lively Jazz carnival. Every block of Bourbon Street was filled with such cheerful and danceable tune, you can boogie your way down from one end to the other without skipping a beat.
New Orleans was the birthplace of Jazz, and later had strongly influence on the birth of Rock and Roll. Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Al Hirt, and Pete Fountain were all familiar names people associate with New Orleans’ music scene. The curious thing was, such a rhythmic, tonal, and improvisational “black” music as Jazz attracted a mostly white audience nationally. Probably like some people theorized, that the improvisation, especially Avant-grade Jazz, had led the genre away from its black root towards a more “mainstream” taste. Anyway, here in New Orleans, it didn’t matter. Everyone just shook their bodies with airy steps, having a good time…
A very good time. In a backdrop of smooth Jazz, there were great food, alcohol of all sort, gentlemen’s show, lady companions with very skimpy outfits, all sort of flashy figures, and even an ambulance if one’s heart couldn’t handle all the excitement.
The Royal Street on the next block was a lot more constrained. Both sides were lined with art galleries, antique stores, and pricier souvenir shops. Some of items looked quite good. I walked past the back side of the St. Louis Cathedral, where a statue of Jesus with open arms were lighted from under, casting a long and creepy shadow on the wall behind.
The next morning, I woke up to another gray, drizzling day. The city was still sleepy, as expected after a hard night of fun. I enjoyed a healthy portion of shrimp and grits, a traditional Southern breakfast, and was ready to roll.
Texas, here I come.
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