Saturday, September 4, 2010
Debunking the Hillbilly myth
There is no such thing as a hillbilly. Not in real life anyways. Like any stereotype, there are people who share the characteristics associated with the fictional character. But the gun toting, barefoot, moonshine drinking, corn cob pipe smoking, overall wearing, lazy, backwoods character that is such a big part of the popular character in our pop culture is no more real today than a leprechaun or the Easter bunny. Somehow creating stereotypes of others makes us feel better about ourselves, but it really reflects back to how we feel about ourselves more than it does those we poke fun at.
The final stop overnight on the Great Hillbilly Road Trip was Clayton, Georgia smack dab between South Carolina to the west and North Carolina to the north. As we pulled off of U.S. 441 to go to my aunt's house on Warwoman road, there was one last surprise, a hillbilly restaurant called Shiners. Being Sunday it was closed so I never got to see more than the facade. The stereotype lives on.
I remember my late uncle, the youngest of my dad's six bothers and sisters telling me that he knew where a steel was. My response was "what?", and finally through an extended Abbott and Costello-like exchange I got the notion that he meant a "still" in his thick Georgia accent. And for a while I had a large Mason jar full of "peach brandy" I procured from a Georgia relative. The "brandy", (moonshine), was too strong for me to drink and I got rid of it by leaving it out at a party and letting my guests polish it off and pay the consequences for ingesting homemade rocket fuel. My dad still has a jar in his liquor cabinet. So like the clerk in the Mountaineer said, the moonshine tradition still lives on in the mountains of the South.
Warwoman Road is a twisty stretch of highway that takes you through a National Forest towards South Carolina. My relatives have resided off that road as long as I can remember, so I have lots of memories up and down its curvy asphalt path. My aunt and uncle live on top of a hill overlooking the road, and if you continue on the dirt road past their house you'll end up at the river they filmed the movie Deliverance on. I have fond memories of going out to their garden and picking vegetables that I later ate for dinner - now that is fresh. One of my favorite objects in their house is a painting of a rock house on a flying pan. My uncle's father worked for the Forestry Service and everyday he'd bring a river rock home with him when he returned from work. He eventually had enough to cover the entire house with rocks and that's the house that is now painted on the pan, his collapsible CCC frying pan. The artworks hangs in the dining room overlooking the valley where the house still sits as far as I know.
It was cool reuniting my dad with his two older sisters who are both facing health challenges. One of my aunts showed us pictures of her ten great-grandchildren, and gave us updates on relatives I've never heard of. The real treasure for me was hearing stories from when they grew up. The same aunt with the great grand kids eloped with my uncle at age 15, crossing the bridge into the adjacent state on foot because the person driving them refused to take them into South Carolina (should he be accused of transporting them across state lines.) Fifty-eight years later they are still happily married. My other aunt, the oldest in the family and the one responsible for getting them all in the Tallulah Gorge School, was the first person in our family to attend college, receiving a scholarship for her vocal talent to a nearby small college in South Carolina. My dad told me how the same aunt perhaps saved his life by fishing him out of a neighbor's spring when he was just a toddler. Both aunts returned to mountains after stints in Michigan.
Life in mountains is by no means easy as my aunt labored in a mill sewing clothes and my uncle loaded trucks for years. Today my uncle suffers chronic back pain from lifetime of exertions yet still manages to put up a load of homemade jelly while enduring excruciating pain just to stand.
The next day we went down to the community of Persimmon where my father grew up. Our objective was to visit the grave sites of those in his family who had departed. There were a small number of families who settled the region as evidenced by the many grave markers carved with the same last names. It's a peaceful spot with views of a valley and soft round hills in the distance. There is something very real about visiting a cemetery with your family buried in it. All the differences you may have while you are living melt away and it makes it easy to see beyond superficiality we normally live in. How we talk, what we were, how we acted all disappear when facing the absolute. There are no hillbillies.
We made two stops on the way home – first to see the hillbilly mannequin at Tallulah Gorge at a spot close to where it was crossed by Karl Wallenda in 1970. The second stop was to see the world's largest peanut in Ashburn, Georgia. I've passed it a zillion times and never stopped and my road trip companions were gracious enough to indulge me. And one more stop - Arby's for lunch and a great milkshake.
The road trip was supposed to be about exploring roadside hillbilly iconography and seeking connections to the "real life" hillbillies in my own family. I came away with a better understanding of what it was like for my dad's family to grow up in the Appalachians and a stronger connection to my own family, both those I traveled with and those in Georgia. I think I understood that some of the qualities associated with hillbilly character, namely resourcefulness and a connection to the natural environment may have been passed to my father and then to me. But most of all I re-affirmed that a road trip, putting some distance between yourself and your everyday life, is one of the best ways to get a better understanding about parts of yourself that go with you wherever you travel.