If you are someone who feels a stirring deep within, is drawn by a sense of adventure and a desire to experience something outside the sanitised and sameness of much of the rest of America, you may feel your spirit lured to the dreaminess and wildness of the American South.
Half a century ago Route 66 was the coolest way to cross the country, and still is for many, but there are other roads less travelled which may appeal to those who want to take time, linger a while and shoot the breeze. One of those is the Interstate 10.
Starting on the Atlantic east coast in Jacksonville, Florida, it heads west, the sweltering tarmac shimmering in the southern heat like a water moccasin, snaking its way for 2434 miles and terminating on the west coast in the City of Angels, Los Angeles.
The journey crosses six states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California), four time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific) and four climates (humid sub- tropical, semi-arid, desert and finally on the west coast, Mediterranean). On its journey west it skims the Gulf of Mexico, bridges the Mississippi and the wetlands and swamps of Louisiana, crosses the pasture lands of Texas, and journeys through desserts and sierras to the Pacific Ocean.
It passes through places and cities ingrained in the American psyche and folklore – Tallahassee, Mobile, Biloxi, Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Houston, San Antonio, Tucson and Phoenix to name a few.
The western states from Texas to California are vast with big skies and dry heat; the east bathes in the sunshine of wealth and groomed perfection of Florida, but the real south, the Deep South, nestles between these extremes, the brooding, sultry states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
They are the pulsating heart of the American South, slumbering in the brutal heat and humidity of a country within a country. A past of jaded elegance and decadence mixed with a dark complex history is embedded in the culture of its people – still tangible if you’re prepared to spend the time and linger for longer than a stop on the tourist bus.
The mighty Mississippi river meanders through Louisiana and Mississippi, a lumbering, heavy, silt-laden gargantuan winding and coiling its way through the heart of America, splitting east from west for 2320 miles culminating in the massive delta where it drops its onerous muddy load and rushes free into the azure glittering waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
South-east of where the I-10 and the Mississippi river intersect (at Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana) lies the dazzling jewel in the crown of the south – the City that Care Forgot, New Orleans.
It is unique with an old soul and rich history. It has a depth and complexity of spirit unlike any other city in the USA. It will not embrace you as a long-lost friend and share intimate secrets over dinner. It is a place that weighs you up and tests your endurance, challenges and demands the best of you. She is a hard mistress, but once she accepts you, you’ll never want to give her up.
For many passing through on their tour buses it is a strange place, slightly tawdry, tacky in parts, confusing, a cultural oddity past its best. Don’t be fooled. The natives are happy for you to assume that – they save the best for themselves.
The city has always been a magnet for poets, writers and visual artists, attracted by the raw energy of this great city perched above the Mississippi delta, closer in spirit to its Caribbean neighbours than her countrymen upriver to the north. She has spent much of her history deliberately under the radar of mainstream America.
Think of the writers who came and wrote with eloquence and savage beauty of this city and the south – Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, John Kennedy Toole, Ernest Hemingway and those southern belles who put the south on the literary map, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee and the city’s own Anne Rice.
Think of the musicians born here and those drawn to the city by them; Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Lee Dorsey, and a myriad of others. The birthplace and cradle of jazz; the home of the blues. Walk through the French Quarter, day or nigh,t and you will hear music – all types of music played by people who have grown up absorbing this rich and heady heritage.
The food is sensational. There are so many small exquisite cafes and bistros in the city it’s said you can dine out twice a day for a year and not eat in the same place twice. I have no doubt it’s true.
Every day is a party in New Orleans. There are music, wine and food festivals throughout the year, several in any given month, and the daddy of them all? Mardi Gras. The city never sleeps. Its motto? Laissez les bons temps rouler – let the good times roll.
Enmeshed with this larger-than-life façade, New Orleans charms and seduces with the graciousness of southern living. There’s a reason for porch swings, Spanish moss draped from the trees, the slow paddle of ceiling fans and the relentless chirping of cicadas. Time ticks to a different clock in the south. Many Americans are frustrated with the perceived archaic attitudes, slow pace, skewed politics and closed mindedness of the locals – they miss the point. People here walk to the beat of a different drum.
Allow yourself to sit a while, sip iced tea or a mint julep and feel that beat – a deep, resonant vibrating in your soul. Spend some time here, live awhile in its mellow gentleness, engage with the people who have always called the south home and you will be humbled.
You will leave with a greater understanding of their tenacity and goodness and a gaping hole in your heart for their warmth and generosity. The south gets to you that way. Once you’ve breathed its humid air, been caressed by its balmy breezes and wrapped yourself it its warmth, it will be in your blood. Always.