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Dispatches from the Gulf Coast: Palm Trees and the South

05 Jun

WE HADN’T PLANNED TO VISIT NEW ORLEANS. The spring prior, my wife and I had given up our seats on an overbooked United flight out of San Diego in exchange for two free tickets to anywhere in the Lower 48. I love being a landlocked desert rat, but it has its drawbacks. Specifically, the high desert lacks two very important things: palm trees and the sea.

Sure, we have the Great Salt Lake. But there are no waves, no fish, and believe me- you don’t want to swim in it. This could be easily remedied though: Dike off a section of the lake, dilute it with fresh water until you hit ocean salinity, construct a couple faux coral reefs, and throw in some dolphins. Voile! Ocean! Take note, Utah Tourism Board- I’m giving you this idea for free.

As a boy, I vowed to grow up and biologically engineer a palm tree that could thrive in Utah’s harsh bipolar climate. There’s just something about exotic evergreen leaves perched atop a thatched trunk that just plain makes me happy. Palm trees = tropical paradise. Tropical paradise = zero stress. Zero stress = happy.

I realize this is a very simplistic train of thought that by no means reflects reality. But that’s how it works in my mind. When I’m driving south on I-15 and pass that invisible line, below which the beloved palm tree grows, my inner surf bum compels me to don flip-flops and blast Jack Johnson tunes. The decision on the tickets was a no-brainer- we’re going somewhere with palm trees and salt water.

Since airline tickets don’t come easily for us, we decided to kill two birds with one stone. A nice jaunt to Pensacola, Florida, would satisfy my beach craving and we’d be able to see a corner of the Deep South. It turns out United doesn’t fly to Pensacola. But they do fly to New Orleans, and a drive along the Gulf Coast sounded nice.

We arranged to leave our two oldest kids with family, but the one-year-old was going with us, frankly because he’s nuts. Not mental nuts- maniac nuts. Tasmanian devil nuts. He’ll have a room in shambles before you even notice he’s crawled off. When my mom watches him, she knows to take the knobs off the stove and lock up the cat’s litter. From what we’d seen in the media about the Big not-so-Easy post Katrina, we were worried about taking our baby there. But we were more worried about the boy burning down mom’s house. So we bought a snazzy baby backpack at the baby store were on our way.

THE SOUTH

I’ve always been interested in the South, partly because it’s so different from Utah, but mostly because it seems to me that a great deal of American culture originates there. Each region of the United States contributes in its own way to the collective American experience. But the South makes a special contribution. A rich history fused with a unique landscape has produced an area lush in character that bleeds deep into the American psyche. Of course there are the tangibles- the food, tradition, architecture, music. With those, the South has certainly made its mark. But there is also a profound, non-corporeal component, for which those tangibles merely act as a vehicle. It is that component which interests me the most. In short, the South is the soul of this nation- America’s cultural heartland.

I got my first taste of the South when I met my wife and spent some time in Texas. Some argue that Texas is more West than South. To me, eastern Texas is much more South than West. Driving through the green-draped corridors of east Texas, I might as well be driving through central Alabama. My wife is definitely more southern belle than cowgirl. My friends on the Gulf Coast would argue that the Deep South is much different from the Appalachian South. My friends in the Appalachian South would no doubt agree.

But from my vantage point- and historically speaking- the South as a whole is a very distinct region unto itself, and many characteristics are shared between its sub-regions. As a representative of one South-based travel agency told me, “When you come here, the South will get in your blood. Doesn’t matter if you go to Louisiana, Kentucky, or North Carolina. It’s all the same. It’ll be in your blood for the rest of your life.”

All Photos by Bonneville Mariner

Scroll down or click here for part 1 of this series.

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