The house is dark and quiet, peaceful in the predawn hours. I, however, am frantic. With mere minutes until my parents and I must leave, I am still thinking of and packing a million little things that suddenly seem of paramount importance. I run back and forth through the kitchen, one of my cats observing me lazily from the counter. I sprint up the stairs and into my room for what will be the final time for several months. I walk to the two eastward-facing windows to close my curtains. My family’s land stretches out below me, with the garden and trees and treehouse that formed the map of many a day spent outside in the Southern sun. I hesitate for a moment, trying to allow this image to imprint permanently on my mind.
I have lived in Lexington, Kentucky since I was four years old. Growing up there breathed the sweet air of Southern charm into my life. For to be Southern (yes, with a capital “S”) means more than simply being from below the Mason-Dixon line. And Kentucky is indeed a part of the good ol’ South. Southern hospitality lives here, in the pleasant greetings, in the sweet tea, in the bluegrass lawns my brothers and I used to run across barefoot in the summers.
Seven years after coming to Kentucky, my family moved to Deepwood, the neighborhood built upon the land of the old Deepwood farm. My house was the original house on the farm, sitting at the base of a hill that overlooks what is left of the woods for which Deepwood was named. The old hardwood floors creak and many windows probably let out more heat than they let in light, but no one would ever consider changing these features of my house. The house speaks of history, of generations of families enjoying Indian summers in our backyard and delicious home-cooked meals in our breakfast nook. We Southerners are traditional by nature, not averse to change but appreciative of the past. The past is as much a part of us as the present. And now, for the first time in fourteen years, I am leaving this past behind for a new future, 800 miles away. I am leaving Kentucky.
By 5:30 a.m. the car is packed, and we are off. By 6:30 the first true rays of sunlight break across the sky, reflecting off the fog of the Smoky Mountains and creating hundreds of rainbows. The blues, purples, reds, and greens bounce around in the car, infusing my luggage with one last bit of countrified mystery. By 8:30 we have nearly left the state of Kentucky, home of horses and the brave.
We stop at our usual road-trip Starbucks, located on the Kentucky border, the gateway of many a trip “up North.” A blonde girl with a soft Southern lilt and freckled nose takes our orders and says, “We’ll have those all ready for ya’ll in just a minit.” Of course, it takes more than a minute, but a certain amount of patience comes with hospitality. Ten minutes later, we’re on the road again, and as I look out the back window over my big blue duffel, I see the final stretch of Kentucky road. We pass the sign that says, “You are now leaving Kentucky.” I turn and see that on the opposite side it says, “You are now leaving West Virginia. We hope to see you again soon.”
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West Virginia flies past in a series of mountains, both peaked and halved. The only interruptions in the pristine Appalachian landscape are the coal-mines, with slurry creeping down mountainsides, as though some unfriendly giant upended a black-flecked Snow Cone. We make a pit stop to refuel both the car and our growling stomachs. The gas station attendant offers, with quite the drawl, to throw in a fried Twinkie with our sandwiches. Our demurral earns us a toothy grin; he knows we’re “not from ’round hurr.’” Some would consider his relatively strong accent an indication of “backwardness.” To me, the Southern accent adds personality to a voice. He sounds like home.
Maryland marks the divide. I watch the sun crest in the sky as we speed away from it. The mountains, our final connection to Appalachia, smooth out to rolling hills as we cross into this new state. As the hills begin to shrink into mounds, then ant hills, so too do the final whispers of the South fade. Politically, it begins with a single Democrat lawn sign. Then there are two. Then three. Finally Republican lawn signs become the needles in the haystack of the more liberal North. There’s even an independent sign or two. My dad snorts at an old Ralph Nader poster as road signs for Washington, D.C. begin to appear overhead. Fortunately, before we enter the city we take a break in Hagerstown and hop onto Highway 81, putting off our entrance into the metropolitan monster of the East Coast. The suburbs of D.C. retreat into the distance as we make our way into the smooth green of rural Pennsylvania before our descent into the ultimate monster: New York City.
Driving through New York is a time of white, clenched fists on the steering wheel and much swearing, both within our car and without. The final patches of green disappear as urbanity swallows and spits us into a driver’s nightmare. Though my dad handles the many twists and turns rather deftly, there is nothing but tense silence in the car. We are used to open roads and little traffic; the grid of New York City streets feels claustrophobic. Our arrival on the Merritt Parkway brings the greatest sighs of relief. New York is behind us, and the only thing that stands between us and a good night’s rest at my godmother’s house in Connecticut is an hour or so of peaceful, scenic driving.
When we do eventually arrive at her house, which is surrounded by the majestic evergreens I’ve come to associate with my visits to the North, I make my way to my godmother’s kitchen for something to drink. I notice a pitcher of iced tea at the back of the second shelf. I pour a glass, take three heaping spoonfuls of sugar from the canister on the counter, and stir until all of the crystals have disappeared into the golden-brown of the tea. I take a good long sip; the South is still here. I can see the sun setting through the window, coming down to rest in my new home. As the final rays leave the kitchen, I can’t help but be reminded of a similar sunset in a different, faraway kitchen, one that I’ve seen a thousand times before.