The just-shy-of-a-hurricane storm was turning an afternoon sun into a crazy pulsating orange sky-blister whose glow transformed landscapes into eerie dreamscapes. As photographer Jim Stawniak and I plunged into a Smoky Mountains valley, I first spied wisps of animated clouds -- I would later reconsider whether they were, indeed, clouds -- that became thicker when the descent bottomed out.
And then, I swear, as we began the uphill climb, one of those clouds jumped in front of me and looked just like the Stone Mountain, Ga., carving of Robert E. Lee sitting astride his warhorse Traveller.
Too much coffee and no food, I mused. Gas pedal to the floor, we ripped through the general and his pony. Hope he didn't mind. The maybe-apparition so bothered me, I started paying some respectful mind to the bluish gossamer strands of moisture that chased the breezes in the valleys. Was that a face over there? That one looks like a woman. And that sure resembles the sails on a schooner, the sort my Key West kin sailed a century or so ago.
It didn't take much imagination to see those ghosts. Indians, farmers, Confederate soldiers, Union, too. The South has plenty of ghosts. Always watching.
But this special section is about real people. Stawniak and I didn't talk to any ghosts. But over a month's time -- along 7,500 miles of interstates, highways, byways, back roads, back-back-back roads, and a few dirt trails -- we'd like to think that a panoply of dear departed Southerners guided us. There are some good reasons to think they did.
In Helena, Ark., for example, I asked Cora Bullock, who owns a damn fine soul food cafe, what had devastated the town. She smiled: "I was just thinkin' the other day that someone needed to come by and ask that question."
I defy anyone to prove it wasn't a haunt -- maybe even one of the seven Johnny Reb generals who hailed from Helena -- who jostled us into Bullock's sweet-smelling kitchen to ask the question she'd been expecting.
Stawniak and I palavered with, oh, 200 people. We distilled that down to the folks you'll meet in this section. There were (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) something like 97,645,264 Southerners we didn't quite get around to. So, I guess it would be stretching the truth a little to claim that what you're reading is any sort of scientific study or poll. It isn't. It wasn't intended to be.
One thing I'm sure of: The people of the South love to gab. We met folks on the road, in parks, at their workplaces, in restaurants, at football games, and in churches big and small. We knocked on the doors of homes.
We didn't find a single person who wasn't willing to tell us what was on his or her mind. We had to coax a little, but only rarely. On a canal bank near Lula, Miss., for example, Willie Lee Anderson looked at me as if I were a surgeon preparing to cut him without anesthetic. He explained with a world of experience: "White folks are mostly trouble." Still, with a little nudging, Anderson finally opened up about the 1,000 acres he owns and farms.
This little exercise is tagged to the election we're having in a few days. But this isn't exactly a political treatise. All we asked was: "What's on your mind? What are the big issues in this town?" The people we talked to took it from there.
Chance (or ghosts) guided our trip, and hurricanes played havoc with our routes. Twice Stawniak and I looked storms in the eye ... and then we ran away, scurrying from one end of the South to the other. When volunteer firefighters in Sardis, Miss., discovered that almost everywhere we went, the hurricanes followed, they politely suggested we move on. And right fast.
We tarried longer in the rural and small-town South than in its great cities -- although your urban neighbors aren't ignored. I believe that however citified the South gets, the sustenance that keeps the region strong flows from small hamlets, the cotton and sugarcane fields, the country churches.
Put another way, there's probably more truth to be found at a Tuscaloosa, Ala., high school football game, or at Morris Williams' convenience store in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., or onboard Cal Lang's shrimp boat in St. Marys, Ga., than in the corporate redoubts of Charlotte and Miami or the state bureaucratic warrens of Atlanta.
With similar thinking, we avoided captains of industry and all but a few politicians. Their voices already dominate the media.
What did we find? At a produce stand and tiny museum celebrating the now-spirit pundit of Moreland, Ga., Lewis Grizzard, we watched the columnist on a video declaiming, "Southerners talk funny." We loved the variations on the funny-talk we found. The most painful twang is up around North Georgia, but I'm sure it's honey to those folks' ears. The nicest, sweetest, syllable-proliferating, magnolia-scented sounds come from Mississippi's Delta country.
Increasingly, the accents of the South have traveled from Brooklyn, Chicago and St. Louis. We're all immigrants at some point in our families' histories, so we welcomed Yankees to our story. But we didn't invite too many. You know how they crowd things up.
Southerners, to no one's surprise, can be ornery and fractious. About equal numbers of our new acquaintances supported George Bush or John Kerry -- but almost as many thought both choices were as enticing as finding bugs in the grits.
The hot buttons that motivated people to speak ranged from the disappearing factories and jobs throughout the South to the obsession with high school football in Alabama.
On part of the trip, along U.S. 13 from Fayetteville, N.C., to the coast, I was listening to Stephen Stills, a good Southern boy born in Texas and schooled in Florida. A line from his song "Southern Cross" grabbed me: "Spirits are moving me, larger voices calling."
Those feathery clouds, I'd like to think they were spirits moving Stawniak and me, guiding us to the proud people of Dixie.
Let's listen to these Southerners. ...
This special section is a collaboration of Southerners and Yankees. They are:
- John Sugg is senior editor for the Creative Loafing and Weekly Planet group of newspapers. Sugg was born in Miami, graduated from the University of Florida, and has split his career between newspapers in Georgia and Florida, including The Palm Beach Post, The Miami Herald, The Atlanta Constitution and The Tampa Tribune. He has been with the Creative Loafing group for almost 10 years. Sugg has won more than three dozen national and state awards for investigative reporting, news reporting, columns, editorials and contributions to freedom of information.
- Jim Stawniak is Creative Loafing's staff photographer in Atlanta. He is originally from Erie, Pa., and graduated from Purdue University in Indiana. Stawniak worked as a commercial photographer before joining Creative Loafing seven years ago. Stawniak was the 2003 winner of the Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade award for photojournalism and the runner-up for the Atlanta Press Club photojournalist of the year.
- Gregory Favre, a consultant to Creative Loafing, edited the section. Favre was born in New Orleans and grew up in Bay St. Louis, Miss. He retired as editor of The Sacramento Bee, and is a distinguished fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
- John Yardley, senior art director for Creative Loafing is from Martins Ferry, Ohio. He's graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
- Chante LaGon, who copy edits for Creative Loafing, is from Oak Park, Ill. She's a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.