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The American southland has a lot of good things going for it. Number one on my list is that there are Dairy Queens everywhere. Since I don’t eat things that begin with the words “chicken fried,” as in chicken fried steak, having the soft frozen milkfat that I crave readily available is a real plus, and nobody does it better than Dairy Queen does it. Number two on my list is “entertaining” talk radio – venally creative and uber-conservative talk shows abound and provide an almost comedic backdrop for endless miles of rural roads, very much enhanced by the overlay of bible radio and its message of doom, gloom, and salvation through faith. And these are just a couple of things that make the southland special.

There is much about my recent month-long journey through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and a bit of Tennessee that made an impression on me. To try to give you some of the flavor of these places in the context of a solo camping road trip, following are some random observations that stuck with me:

  • The Appalachian Mountains as they pass through Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee are a spectacular scenic backdrop, with the meandering Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive providing easy access and a sense of being enveloped by this special part of the country. Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the North Carolina end of the Blue Ridge Parkway is a national treasure not to be missed.

  • The east coast of Florida from Jacksonville to south of Miami seems to have been commercially raped so badly that a once beautiful part of the southland is unrecognizable, now a land of intermittent playgrounds for those who can afford to wall themselves off from the surrounding environmental blight.

  • The Florida Keys celebrated in song is a myth, as best I can tell. Key Largo is largely a continuous strip mall connected to other places by bridges that go over some really pretty water. Key West was perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, its famed Duval Street little more than a Bourbon Street wannabe without the great food. I did go to the Southernmost Point of the United States to salute Fidel, Che and the Revolution. While there I was up close and personal with an iguana that seemed to have an affinity for trashed Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer cans.

  • Big Recreational Vehicles (RV’s) are all the rage for those heading south for the winter months without a gated community to call home. Most of these things are huge, luxury hotel suites on wheels with clever model names like “Montana Stallion” or “Adventure Quest” followed by a notation in big letters that the particular model is “ultra-lightweight” or “super lite”. In over a month of following these things, I never saw one that said what they really are - “huge gas guzzler” or “heavy as a semi”.

  • A solid majority of the occupants of RV’s in the southland are 50+ white couples who have in common a tendency to obesity, a seeming aversion to actual outdoor recreational activity, and an inexplicable compulsion to place a rug outside the main door to the RV and under the power awning. Some have personalized little wooden or plastic “Welcome” or “God Bless” signs placed strategically at the entrance to their campsite so the rest of us know that Bill and Betty Walters are the ones responsible for the noise coming from their constantly running air conditioning unit, even though they are welcoming and god-fearing folks.

  • Dogs never take a dump in their own campsite. Not sure how they know they aren’t supposed to, but they do know.

  • In the southland, you can go to a multitude of Dollar Stores in the same small town – Family Dollar, Local Dollar, Dollar General. It’s like the original Dollar Store had babies in the hope that the invasion of Walmart could be overcome by a larger army of discount stores.

  • Perhaps best of all and not to be missed is the Okefenokee Swamp in Southern Georgia. It has been messed with less by humans than the Everglades, giving it the feel of a relatively wild place. I kayaked there for a couple of days with alligators as my main companions and beautiful birds all around - the trip highlight.

As you can see, I do not have a unifying theme here that brings these observations, and many others, to some meaningful conclusions. But some of what I saw re-enforces the notion that America is an extremely diverse and troubled land. Folks living in rotting mobile home colonies cannot seem to grasp that part of the advertised American dream could be theirs if they got up off their large asses, educated themselves, organized a bit and demanded a piece of the action for them and their kids. Folks who love the land are still watching it raped of its natural splendor so rich people and the runaway corporate culture that spawns them have towers with a view, beaches to despoil, and gated communities to protect them from the rest of us.

Maybe what we all need is a little more time for sharing our experiences in the serenity of a cool evening around a campfire under a starlit sky. The majesty of those moments might be able to fuel a collective will to make our world a truly better place for all its creatures.

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