I never meant to go down south.

Growing up in Maryland, I never really thought about the land.  But when I did, I had to contend with a crisis of identity: we were nestled north of the Capital, but south of the Mason Dixon; waving a mile down the road from sites of the best free education money could buy were the Stars and Bars, billowing above stretches of farmland; on the green screens of network news, our state line was the threshold at which red turned blue during every election, amid grumbling about gerrymandering my wealthy homogeneous county into the district with Baltimore City.

I fancied myself a northerner, because the north was the bastion of liberals and sensible people who cared about the environment and read the New Yorker and hosted dinner parties where they cooked only with local produce, and if anybody listened to Rush Limbaugh, it was to be ironic.  I dreamt of moving up north and begging New England to adopt me.  I imagined myself as the kind of person who would get arrested at a protest.  So I applied to nine colleges there.

Then I enrolled at Virginia.  The morning my parents drove me down for move-in day, we stopped at a Chic-Fil-A where a woman asked for our order in a slow drawl.  That day was the first time I ever saw a Sheetz gas station.  By the end of our orientation, I was heartbroken that I’d left everyone I’d ever known, and exhausted from meeting new people — all of whom I assumed to be vapid and superficial, because that’s what I generally assume about well-dressed strangers. At Convocation, while the President was telling us about how special we were and how selective the admissions committee had been in choosing us, all I could focus on were feelings of inferiority stemming from not getting into Harvard.  It was a failure in a series of failures that would come to define my experience.

Robert Penn Warren, in my all-time favorite book, All the King’s Men, wrote, “[W]hen you don’t like it where you are you always go west.  We have always gone west.”  His narrator, Jack Burden, reflects on this notion from a hotel room in Long Beach, California, to where he flees after suffering a great shock: he discovers that his childhood love is carrying on an affair with his boss, the hegemonic and morally ambiguous–if not morally bankrupt–governor of Louisiana.

To escape the emotional confines of disappointment and despair, Jack physically removes himself from the scene of the trauma.  Jack’s avoidant behavior arises from a major character flaw: the dismissal of responsibility for his own actions.  If he does not engage with other people in a meaningful way, then he runs no risk of heartbreak when they inevitably let him down.  So he chooses to disengage.  He runs away.  And he relinquishes any accountability.

Jack has been on my mind a lot lately.  I used to think of him as an abject coward without conviction, eclipsed by the greatness of the figures surrounding him.  But now, several years and several re-readings later, I’m not so sure.

“When you don’t like it where you are you always go west.”  The beauty of the statement is that it has a double-meaning: “where you are” may refer either to your proximal location or to your place in time.  In my case, the location was not a choice.  On the day of my graduation, I had eleven days left on my lease.  I was forced out of Central Virginia, kicking and screaming.  Kicking, screaming, and climbing mountains.  It is tradition at the University that students hike a nearby trail that leads to Humpback Rocks.  Two days after graduation, my best friend and I woke up at quarter to four in the morning, drove into the Blue Ridge, and hiked the trail before sunrise. Three-thousand feet above sea-level, tracing the sun’s ascent over the mountains in the distance to the soundtrack of animals waking for the day, perception takes on a different quality.  It is one of surrealism, posed by the contradiction between feeling so inconsequential and transient compared to the million-year-old landscape and feeling powerful and deliberate for conquering the summit.  (Said “conquering of the summit” was not done without a great deal of complaining, sweating, complaining about sweating, and expressing gratitude that we had ultimately decided not to make the trek with the boys, who would have judged our athletic stamina, or lack thereof.)

View from the King Family vineyards

It was in the Blue Ridge hills that a landscape evoked a visceral reaction from me for the first time; it was in Virginia that I learned to love the land.  In the spring of 2011, I was having a particularly rough morning, just festering in my own misery on a friend’s couch, as I am wont to do.  Deaf to my protests, he poured me into his truck and drove me down I-64 toward Staunton.  On the drive, during a conversation about our childhoods, it started to rain, even though the sun was still out.  The roof of the truck was given an occasional reprieve from the drumming of the rain by an overpass.  Rivers of water raced down the jagged rock of the mountainside that the highway had carved out, and over the hills stretched a double rainbow.  “This is God’s country,” my friend announced, and though I couldn’t subscribe to the same theistic sentiment, I understood what he meant.

Mint Springs

The view from Mint Springs near Crozet, just down the road from Grounds.

Somehow, after that, the asphalt rivers and shopping-center mountains of suburban Maryland didn’t cut it.  After graduation, after everyone had left and the festivities had died down and I was left to my own devices–i.e., to lie on the couch for three days straight watching The Graduate on repeat while intermittently crying and eating peanut-free trail mix–the thought of going back there to begin the Rest of My Life made me sick to my stomach.  As it is, I find the whole prospect of “getting a job” to be morally and philosophically problematic.  The idea that making enough money to afford basic necessities so that you can continue to exist so that you can continue to make more money is depressing to me.  Is this really all there is?

I don’t particularly care to find out.  The reason I’ve been re-assessing my adjudication of Jack Burden is because if he is a coward, then I, too, am a coward, shirking accountability for my actions and “running away from my problems,” as it were.

But if Jack Burden is self-aware, and maybe even a little bit brave, that is another story.  And maybe, for everyone’s sake, I ought to eschew comparing myself to characters in books.

As much as I am loathe to wax platitudinal, here is what I have learned in the past four years: relationships unravel.  People disappoint.  And when you don’t like it where you are you always go west.  Last week I moved to Texas.  It is exactly what you think, in a lot of ways:  a caricature of America, the physical representation of all the stereotypes that Europe perpetuates about us.  But there is also a sense of regional pride that can only be found in one other place–Virginia–that is inextricably linked with the land.  I’ve had a few interesting experiences already, and I anticipate more.  This blog will serve as my account of it.



One response to “GTT

  1. I’ve been in Texas for three years now, and various iterations of your sentiments have passed through my mind during the quiet hours of the early morning, or drives on one of the countless two-lane highways crisscrossing this immense state. Penn Warren resonates far more strongly now than in Hum–indeed I thought it an awfully boring book–after having left both the North and the East Coast for Texas, and has borne rereading very well. While I do not claim to be comparing myself to Jack Burden, I could not help but notice that Burden was a graduate student in history studying the antebellum South, struggling with having left behind–geographically and temporally–treasured relationships and a familiar way of life. I have often had recourse to the vignette of Jack lying on the bed in California, wondering to what industry should he next apply himself, or the extended scenes with Ann, which signify beyond that particular relationship, an entire period of his life which he had come to cherish but could no longer resurrect. ATKM has become a bit of an ad hoc bible during my tenure down here, not least because I’m young, and have moved down south and far from home.

    Texas has defied simple categorization or any attempts to force it into some kind of workable explanatory abstraction. This isn’t just because it’s the South (an abstraction, a place, and a state of mind that has befuddled and confounded Northerners and other foreigners since kingdom come), but, at least for me, because it’s the southwest. (BTW, since you are waxing philosophical about the South, may I humbly suggest W.J. Cash’s The Mind of he South–it is the seminal work on the cultural and historical underpinnings of the South as we know it. Cash attempts to present and explain the defining characteristics of the Southern experience.)Texas alone among the southwestern states, I believe, maintains both the characteristics of the littoral South and the Deep South (what most people mean when they say “the South”) and the individualism and ready, rugged initiative of the southwest. I feel–at least to a certain extent–that I can apprehend the nature of life as it occurs in the seaboard South, but Texas truly makes me feel like a foreigner.

    I have come to love the South. I am fascinated and even bewitched by the South–I study it for the Ph.D., and find its history and culture enchanting. I relish the barbecue wars, delight in the football craze that doesn’t exist back home, enthusiastically embrace the oppressive heat and long summers, and appreciate a generally more considerate people and slower way of life. I came to Texas expecting the genteel, plantation-dotted South of Virginia and the Carolinas, the South where people dress up for game day, drink mint juleps, and have ready recourse to the Civil War as a historical and cultural conceit. The latter is, of course, everywhere to be found in Virginia. Texas, at least in College Station, is nothing like that. I have come to apprehend that the South of the East Coast is ultimately familiar to me because, despite earnest protestations from its residents on behalf of a rural, “countryfied,” slower pace of life than that prevailing in the North, the seaboard South is very metropolitan, rural hamlets in Appalachia notwithstanding. College Station amplifies many of the stereotypes Northerners nurture about the South and its indigenous population. Even for Texas, College Station is a Republican dominated, conservative stronghold, and hosts one of the most conservative college populations in the United States. It is a big town (100k) with a small-town feel. There is little to do here relative to a city or Northern states, where small towns are right next to one another, and population centers overlap others and form unending swathes of densely-populated regions. Texas itself perpetuates this feeling of “small-town southernness.” I discovered early on that the immensity of Texas renders even large cities–at least to my Northern sensibilities–isolated. Great distances separate mostly small towns, so that it takes time to travel other places–trips to Austin and Houston require some planning, and it still bewilders this Northerner that after a trip of even nine hours in certain directions, drivers might still find themselves in Texas.

    I imagine that my feeling of relative isolation is probably mitigated in your instance because you are living in a major city, but the distance between population centers in general, and its effect on local conceptions of RECIPES (read: McCaslin) I think still holds true. The Texas variety of the South is quite an experience for this Northerner–warmness and hospitality go hand in hand with an understanding that rudeness and challenges to others are occasions for physical violence, kindness coexists with narrow-mindedness and arrogance regarding the sanctity and rectitude of one’s own morality and political views (perhaps such a stance finds its Northern counterpart among some intellectual elites in East Coast cities). Sports are heartily extolled with a resultant diminution of value in other avenues of achievement. My views are of course based on life in College Station, and are by no means what I experience day-to-day. Rather, the essence of my argument is that these hallmarks of small-town Southern culture are amplified in parts of Texas, and *combined with my own moderate conceits as a Northerner*, make me feel more of a visitor than I otherwise would.

    These are some of the grander, academic thoughts that have been rolling round in my head during my time down here. Being in an entirely different part of the country, far from home, far from my high school and college friendships, I have truly come to appreciate my family. I can’t simply zip up or down the coast and come home for the weekend, and for me, that made the transition so jarring–I am *here*, my family and old life is *there*. The Rest of My Life is right now, right here, in a place I haven’t figured out yet. I have little doubt that a more local move from MD/DC/VA would have mitigated, perhaps even nullified, the sense of emotional distance or the idea of a break with the past–hence the aptness of RPW’s themes regarding their applicability to my situation? I can’t say, but there are few things more tasty than barbecue brisket done well, more marvelous than the wide arc of the Texas sky (really!) and the call of its roads, or more fun than a weekend in Austin. But I feel that I am Jack Burdenesque–from time to time, I think of the Chesapeake, the cornfields of the Eastern Shore, nights in Ocean City, and days walking the Inner Harbor,and I feel both longing for these places and times, and, I daresay, a quiet pride that could match a Texan’s on any day.

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