Originally published February 27, 2014
“…Go on, I’ve had enough, dump my blues down in the gulf
She loves you, Big River, more than me.”
And as I drove on down through Mississippi further south towards the Gulf, I was accompanied by the soul enriching music of Johnny Cash, Elvis, George Jones, Roy Orbison and the Zac Brown Band. There is a reason I loved Memphis so much; why I am able to look past the crazy homeless lady who cornered me asking for $20. Because at the heart of the city is a beating heart of music. Blues, R&B, country, rock. It’s all there and it’s all so nice.
I did want to get the hell out of there though and when I left it was much later in the day than I would have liked. At two o’clock, I knew I would have to do some night driving in order to make up for lost time so I set my course for the only town I could think of on the coast- Biloxi. No, it wasn’t a completely random choice- I had just done Biloxi Blues last summer and thought it would be fun to send Armando a picture of me in the city. You know, life imitating art and all that.
Well I had to get through the rest of the state first, an eight hour trek from top to bottom. Surprisingly it wasn’t that bad, again, I had great music along the way bringing me back to my southern roots and remember, Mississippi is rather beautiful even with the trees and grass all having fallen victim to winter. As I am driving, however, my buddy Jay calls me to see how everything went with the tire. I told him fine and that I was looking to make Biloxi that night. This was followed by a cautious “really??” I said, “Yeah, what’s up with Biloxi?” And he reminded me that it’s a seedy casino-driven city and that even the nice hotels are apparently creepy and smell of smoke.
Well, come on, what was I supposed to do?
A solution! Jay actually offered his house in Pensacola, Florida for the night. Sure, it was an extra two hours but two hours was literally nothing compared to what I was used to at this point. I agreed and my course took a slightly different turn as I was headed back to the Sunshine State that very night. Making up for lost time indeed!
Before I move on, I would like to make a note about Jackson, Mississippi. It is the state capital and it is probably the smallest capital city I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember one skyscraper! Not that I’m knocking it, I’m just used to seeing any kind of population center have some tall buildings. But not sleepy old Jackson. Huh.
Okay, so moving on. I made Pensacola that night after driving through Mobile, Alabama and across the Mobile Bay- which I’m sure would have been stunning had been during the day (You’re welcome, Alabama!) By this time it was around 10 and I was quite tired. I had never met Jay’s folks before but they were super nice and just the best, offering me sweet tea and the best grits I have ever had. They’re called Nassau grits and they were crazy good! And I’m not the biggest fan of grits. But damn. Grits.
True southern hospitality, for sure, but I don’t even know if it’s because they live in the South. I think it’s just being a genuine human being and wanting to be nice to a weary traveler. If that’s unique to just the South then it shouldn’t be. It’s a lesson in compassion that we should all take away from. In fact, I would say that the thing I enjoyed the most on the entire trip were the warm personalities and good-natured individuals I got to meet. Actors, directors, and artistic producers all sharing a hotel and riding the shuttles together, but not letting any ounce of ego mar the relationships we were trying to build. That was truly wonderful.
The next morning I awoke to an empty house and after leaving the key under a rock and writing a thank you note, I bounded into my car and went to my last destination of interest. It was a place called Ft. Pickens right on the Gulf coast, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and as cool as the Civil War fortification was, it was nothing compared to what surrounded it.
For days I had been driving through freezing temperatures and basically feeling a true winter but that morning I could not believe the weather. It was as if I had finally reached the promised land. A perfect 65 degrees, hot sun, the turquoise water of the Gulf, and dunes of sand so fine it looked like flour. As I drove across the bay with my windows down and in a t-shirt with pelicans soaring overhead I couldn’t help but be overcome with a tremendous surge of love for my home state. It’s moments like that when you really do appreciate where you come from and boy, I had never been prouder to hail from Florida. Or be in it.
After I ran around Ft. Pickens for a little bit in this paradise-on-earth, I decided that it was time, once and for all, to go back home. I knew I could make it that night, but I also knew that I could make it the next morning so I opted for the latter when my good friend, Lucas, said I could stay the night in Gainesville. So I again found myself at the receiving end of someone’s graciousness and I wasn’t spending the evening alone in a motel room. It was the perfect respite so he and I did what we always do in Gainesville, and that was get pleasantly drunk.
With home being just another two hours from there, I woke up at a reasonable time and pulled into town by noon of that day. I have to confess, however, it was not “home” in St. Cloud, but rather UCF. I had that untimely business to take care of. In fact, I spent a further two days in Orlando before finally get back to the Cloud and unpacking my car!
Whatever the timeline and however it ended, I still had an incredible time. I met so many wonderful and talented people in Memphis, including reuniting with old dear friends such as Terrance and Kevia. I got to once again see parts of the country that were completely new to me, and I’m constantly amazed at how truly ginormous, diverse, and beautiful this country is. Nassau grits in Pensacola, blues in Memphis, even snow in Alabama. As I often attest, the South can be a dirty place, but as a whole I believe it is imbued with a rare magnanimity that is nothing but infectious. In then end, it’s my home and I’m glad I got to see it.
One of my favorite memories now of the trip was driving through rural Tennessee and seeing dogs just chilling by the road outside their homes. Like you see in the movies, like you see in pictures from the Depression. It really seemed like a place time forgot, but these dogs didn’t know anything about that; they’re just living their lives happy and free.
“…Tell that engineer I said thanks a lot,
and I didn’t mind the fare.
I’m gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.”