August already...in Arizona, back-to-school doesn't wait until after the dog days of summer. Last Thursday the teens returned, so I'm back in the classroom, hoping the air-conditioning won't malfunction, as it has every August since I began teaching in Tucson...106 degrees outside is no joke.
I try not to inflict a what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation-assignment on my students, but I do feel compelled, here, to post my own summary: a good chunk of June was spent moving (two households) and traveling, and although it was definitely not vacation, Seneca's oft-quoted "travel and change of place impart new vigor" comes to mind...
The vigorous route, then: 2900 miles...
After my wife and I moved into a new home at the beginning of June, I immediately flew to Georgia to help my mother pack up for her own move; she lives down the road from us in Tucson now. At the last minute, arrangements to ship her car fell through. (Beware the shady conglomerate of car-shippers based out of southern Florida.) Result: I ended up driving her car out west--a cross-continent road trip through The South and Texas, with a several-day detour to visit friends in central Florida...So, from Augusta, via Atlanta, down to the Orlando area, then through Mobile, New Orleans, on to San Antonio through El Paso, ending up, almost three thousand miles later, back in Tucson.
A South Carolina sunrise,
from the Georgia side of the Savannah River...
On my visits to Georgia over the years, especially since I've lived in the desert, I've come to love morning runs along the Savannah River, on the Augusta Canal trail. Languid mornings, fog lifting over backwater reflections...
...19th-century brick, railroad bridges...
Maybe it sounds shallow--I mean, people are most important, and I still have friends in Georgia--but now that I no longer have family members who live there, which will make any future visits much less frequent--one of the things I'll miss most is that trail. Water, tunnels of greenery curtained with Spanish moss, humid solitude, history...
Neither of my parents is from Georgia, but that's where we ended up living when my father retired from the military when I was a kid. Nice enough, but I never did really feel 'at home.' As polite as people can be--and part of me does miss the social lubrication of 'yessirs' and 'thank you ma'ams'--I never could completely get away from "you ain't from around here, boy, are ya." So, I came back out west for grad school, moving to Seattle, and after spending a year each in France and Nicaragua, I've been in Arizona for eight years now...
Georgia's second city does have its international side, which pre-dates "The New South" of the late 20th century.
Chinese script on an antebellum building...huh?
(I went to high school just a few blocks from here.)
Go back up to that canal--dug in the mid-19th century by African slave and Irish-immigrant labor, then enlarged in the 1870's by Chinese workers; those laborers, from either further afield weren't limited to building the railroads out West... In the Reconstruction South, Augusta became home to one of the oldest Chinese communities east of the Mississippi...
And at the Saturday morning Farmers' market down by the river--
--you can now get arepas colombianas:
Grits and fried green tomatoes still rule,
but this small southern city has evolving tastes...
Also just a few blocks from where I went to high school, a relic of 18th-century farm life--the home of a signer of the Declaration of Independence:
Meadow Garden dates to the 1790's and was originally the home of George Walton, a young member of the Georgia delegation to the Continental Congress of 1776.
I'd never been, so I visited this landmark during what will probably turn out to be my last trip to Georgia for a good while. The vibrant interior, furnished with period pieces, struck me.
This blue: historically accurate.
Who knew that 18th-century decorators favored such a bold shade?
During the Federalist Era, almost every home had a portrait of George Washington...
...and here, he presides on a wall of...yep, peaches.
Georgia has been taking that fruit seriously for a long time...
What's better on a summer day than a drippingly fragrant peach?
(Note, too, how "y'all" is spelled here...correctly.
"Ya'll" makes my skin crawl.)
After driving my mother to Atlanta, where she got on the plane to Arizona, I headed down to central Florida to see old friends. With days of hotels and highway driving looming before me, their home was truly an oasis.
Kitchen-wall words with pedigree...
Ahh, subtropical mornings:
...with BIG birds!
These neighborhood sand hill cranes let me get so close...Alarmingly tall...
Hearing their cries, it felt like I was running through the wilderness instead of a suburban neighborhood...
Downtown Orlando's Lake Eola Park:
Away from the theme parks, Orlando is a birdwatcher's dream, tree-filled and never far from water...
...and street-art. This wall truly caught my eye, as I drove by it on the day that the tv/radio/print/socialnetwork news was saturated with the details of the Charleston church shooting.
Head, and heart, hurt.
Oh, The South...
"Tortured past" and "complicated legacy" are the clichéd perennial fallback phrases that almost everyone uses when talking about The South's history of slavery and segregation. Really, though, is there anywhere on the planet that can escape those epithets? (I'm reminded of this quote from great Western writer Wallace Stegner: "No one who has studied Western History can cling to the belief that the Nazis invented genocide.") Prejudice-fueled-injustice--its flavor may vary, but its presence marks all corners of human geography...
So, having spent the largest chunk of my growing-up down South, I can't help but note the lingering aftertaste of the American brand of chattel slavery south of the Mason-Dixon Line whenever I see the region's historical architecture. So much of it is lovely, aesthetically...but I've never been comfortable with those who insist on using the adjective 'genteel' when describing the Antebellum 'way of life.' This summer, with the Charleston shooting and the resulting Confederate-flag discussions, the 'heritage-not-hate' slogans were heard again...
...and although this building (below) is not directly linked to that politically-controversial issue...
...it does epitomize for me, the unpleasant undertones of a historically complete understanding of The South's "heritage." This structure in Augusta, Georgia (again, just up the street and around the corner from where I went to high school) is the old First Baptist Church--the site, where in 1845, a regional convention of Baptists decided to formally separate themselves from the national denomination in order to become "Southern Baptists." Why? Slavery. More and more of their coreligionists up north were becoming increasingly vocal Abolitionists, so it was time for a break. The genesis of the Southern Baptist Convention was their pro-slavery stance; truly, black and white.
Lovely building. Heritage, indeed.
Millions of Americans today owe their religious affiliation to what took place here. And yet...
How many truly understand the origin?
This should not be read as a rant against any one denomination in particular--but history is history.
It wasn't until 1995 that the Southern Baptist Convention formally 'repented' of its pro-slavery position.
Driving up from Orlando to finally head out west, I took a detour off I-10 up in Florida's panhandle. I'd never seen the Gulf Coast, and I was curious about the so-called 'Redneck Riviera.'
It was a Saturday; it felt like half of the population within a half-day's drive of the Gulf of Mexico was all here. Stuck in traffic, this vacant lot caught my eye:
Some juxtaposition, eh?
Powdery white beaches and turquoise waters. Check.
By evening, along the Alabama coastal wetlands around Mobile Bay.
It had never been on my radar as a destination. I decided to spend the night here--a childhood friend, whom I'd not seen in many years, moved here a while ago, so it was good to see him and his family...And, oh, the seafood...(Try The Oyster House on the causeway.)
The next morning I drove through downtown--home to the tallest skyscrapers on the Gulf Coast and also old Fort Condé--the original French military fortifications on Mobile Bay. Mobile would be French, then Spanish and British before finally becoming American in 1813.
By late morning, I was in New Orleans. Time for beignets and café au lait at the Café du Monde.
Obscene amounts of powdered sugar.
There are some things you just have to do.
Along with the Louisiana air itself, the copious white powder and the throngs of sweaty tourists make everything sticky...truly atmospheric...and gloriously so. And the wait staff--visual confirmation of New Orleans' legacy as an outpost of the French Empire and an immigrant draw--largely Vietnamese...
I was wondering if this corner of Jackson Square had become one of those tourists-have-replaced-the-locals landmarks. While waiting in line for the restroom (yes, have to queue up for the toilet), a guy next to me asked me, "so, are ya from here?" I asked him the same question, to which he replied: "Oh yeah I come here all the time, and especially when friends from out of town visit." Okay, then!
Such a celebrated city--a city I'd not yet visited--but I only had a few hours here...enough of a first-hand taste, though, to ensure that I will return.
While French is no longer the language-of-the-street in the French Quarter,
you have to love how local sports fan have adopted Frenchy spelling: "GEAUX Saints!"
(I know, I know,
I'm a French-teacher-who-works-in-the-U.S.,
but I'd never yet visited La Nouvelle Orléans?
Hey, I was gonna get around to it eventually,
it was on my list...
and it still is.)
With limited time, after just several hours in The Crescent City,
I kept heading west, this time away from I-10,
driving along the Mississippi River, through Vacherie.
Banana trees everywhere,
next to tin-roofed wooden structures.
Felt like I was back in Central America.
Truly sub-tropical down in those parishes...
In the bookstore of the old Laura Plantation on this River Road, I had a conversation with one of the docents--a young man who speaks fluent local French--le bon français acadien. He learned it spending summers with his grandparents and great-grandparents who spoke no English. Finding fluent Louisiana francophones is becoming more difficult, as the younger people increasingly turn to mainstream English...
A Southern Plantation home par excellence, and the French is entirely intentional. This was originally named "Bon Séjour," founded by the Aimé and Roman families in the 1830's. The sugar aristocracy along the lower Mississippi River was mostly French-speaking Créole society who preferred that their daughters not marry les Américains. A magnificent setting--centuries-old oaks, the mighty Mississippi, and pillared Greek Revival Majesty...all built with slave labor.
The honesty of Oak Alley's depiction and exhibits of slave life impressed me. (It wasn't too long ago that visitors to many plantations still encountered phrases such as 'and this is where the servants lived'...)
Inside a slave's shack.
An example of an iron 'collar' with bells,
and below that, "children's transport shackles."
Table and map showing the percentage of the regional population that was actually made up of slaves...
...and a listing of some of the names of the French-speaking African slaves--
no last names, no African names--
a memorial, of sorts, to those
who made plantation life possible here during the
Antebellum decades of "The Peculiar Institution."
From Créole life along the Mississippi to the Cajun world along the Bayou Teche:
I stopped in Breaux Bridge ("Pont Breaux" here) to stretch my legs in the Crawfish Capital of the world. The helpful lady in the regional information office, proud of her local heritage, told me that, as I continued heading west, there were two things I had to do: eat boudin and handle baby 'gators.
So I did.
The town of Scott is, officialy, "The Boudin Capital of the World." In much of the French-speaking world, 'boudin' can refer to a blood-sausage, but in Louisiana, it's blessedly safe for non-vampires. Pork, rice, spice...all nicely encased. I tasted it in all its glory: boudin roll, (yep, fried in an egg-roll wrapper) plain boudin, and boudin balls (crunchy!), washed down with Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle. Mangez, buvez, as they say...
As for handling baby alligators,
it may be touristy,
you can't not get off the highway to handle these guys.
They are so docile...and so (surprisingly) soft.
The boudin kept me going all the way through Houston at rush-hour until I finally arrived in San Antonio.
A pedestrian oasis after driving all day...
The next morning, I got up early--desperately needing a morning run after the previous day of porcine-feasting in Cajun Country. The streets in the King William district, lined with 19th-century mansions, and the paths along the San Antonio River, make for a perfect urban loop of greenery and architecture.
Heading west--the Texas Hill Country: big sky, wildflowers...
...and, of course, barbecue.
At last, just one more night in a hotel before sleeping in my own bed again in Tucson--spent the night in El Paso, and drove up a bare mountainside for this view the next morning--looking over the city into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico:
Back in the desert again.
(Another place where history's 'mixed legacy'
has led to a complicated present.)
An unlikely spot, perhaps, but this hillside motel just north of downtown is home to one of the best roadside breakfasts I have ever had. Think Waffle House...or Alice's Diner--but Spanish-speaking.
Next time I'm passing through west Texas, this hole-in-the-wall will be a destination. Driving west from the lands of grits and biscuits-and-gravy, this taste of hashbrowns and huevos con frijoles made me feel like I was 'back home'--a culinary welcome-back to the Southwest...¡Gracias, Lucy!
Before the final four and a half hours of driving to Tucson, I walked around downtown El Paso a bit.
streetscape in the Segundo Barrio district,
the blocks surrounding the border crossing.
Color and lively shopping...and good eats...
And, for the last meal on the road--lunch just a few hours before arriving in Tucson,
in Mesilla, New Mexico, a plate of red- and green-chile smothered enchiladas in La Posta De Mesilla, an adobe compound that was once a stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line in the 19th century, when this tiny town served as the territorial capital for New Mexico and Arizona...
Taste of place.
The place that's become home.
The Desert Southwest.
Road trip, safely ended.
The soundtrack to summer in Tucson is the song of cicadas--hidden in the mesquite and palo verde trees...you will occasionally spot one resting in the morning hours on a stucco wall:
And when the heat in the lowlands gets to be too much, all you have to do is go up.
A quick 45-minute drive from my house takes me to the highest peaks and trails in the Santa Catalina Mountains, where, at 9000', it's 30 degrees cooler than the desert 6500' below...
...green cool peaks, granite crags, sky island meadows...
...and we try to hold on to summer...
mountaintops, long days, wildflowers...