Everything was slower in the South. It gave us time to digest not only our brunch—which always came with a side of grits and a biscuit—but also our surroundings. We noticed the slight drawl of our waitress, the slipped-in “y’alls” and overly-polite “ma’ams” that hungover college students like us by no means deserved. We had time to rock back-and-forth, back-and-forth on Charleston swings, looking out at the Atlantic waves that lapped at the shore like a tired sheepdog’s tongue.
Everything was more carefree in the South. Laissez les bons temps rouler, they said. Here it was legal to sip Maker’s Mark in a Wrangler, to fire a shotgun at Styx River’s unsupervised range, to order a “Triple Coronary Bypass Burger” at the smoke-filled Vortex Grill (hey, a heart attack was our own goddamn prerogative). Here was where the ‘Shag’ originated and the longest blackwater stream flowed, where people took pride in the shoddy roads of their tight-knit towns and five-story buildings towered like skyscrapers. Here was where the gloriously tacky “South of the Border” rest stop boasted a reptile house, fireworks arsenal, and gas station within a mile of one another, and where the menu at “Toast!” invited us “strap on [our] boots and visit Market Street Saloon” if we were kicked out of bottomless mimosa brunch. Here we could shoot Skoal spitballs into the same hard dirt where tobacco plants once grew a nation.
Everything was brighter in the South. Stars peppered the landscape like freckles on the face of the midnight sky, each distant speck of light making us feel infinitesimally small. The inconsequentiality of our actions was at first daunting, and then oddly liberating. As the road stretched on for what seemed like forever, our narrow thoughts became meaningless in comparison.
The decision to drive down South was, for me, an uncharacteristic act of spontaneity—there were five spots to fill, and I was the fifth. Everyone in the car I’d known for less than a year, having just joined Fence Club in the fall. Our collective philosophy was to plan little in advance—to confirm that we’d have a surface to sleep on the next night, but not much else.
The result was a trip full of wet willies and half-read magazines, lost shoes and cocked guns, Old Crow mixtapes and awkward sleeping positions. Days were lazy, but never dull; strangers friendly, but never fake. There were certainly surreal moments, but most of what defined our travels was the day-to-day minutiae: playing luggage Tetris to fit our suitcases in the trunk, whoring out our mouths for silly dares (like eating a potato in one bite), and accepting bets we’d later regret. Halfway through the trip, I jumped in the fountain at Waterfront Park fully-clothed for free drinks—and suffered the consequences on the towel-less, interminable walk home.
The South made me feel I had something to prove. I imagined an invisible sheriff’s hat propped on my head as I shimmied into the freezing fountain that day, one I’d wear proudly for the rest of my time in Charleston. By no means was I any sort of rough-and-tough country girl—the only thing I’d ever chewed and spit were sunflower seeds. But even I could feel the raucous undertones swelling beneath the charming Southern grid.
As we passed gravestones enveloped in tattered flags, a sense of patriotism shot through me. Though above us the lambent North Star reminded of a more shameful history, I felt more American in South Carolina—the first state to secede—than I did anywhere up North. Many times I’d heard New Yorkers or San Franciscans tout their city as the greatest in the world, but Southerners rarely bragged of their city’s prestige. America is the greatest country on Earth, they’d say instead. Twenty years in the tri-state area and I’d become a foreigner in my own country. I’d taken on the stereotypically Northern air of superiority, the idea fully ingrained in my head that the Bible Belt was “beneath” me. But no longer would I dismiss this land of slow talking and fast food. What I once scoffed at was someone’s heritage, and what I ignored an entirely distinct way of life.
Erica Leh is from Short Hills, New Jersey, but if you ask her she will probably claim to be from New York. Although she has contemplated moving to the South, she ultimately remains in the tri-state area because of Shake Shack and dreams of becoming Larry David. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.