Ta-da! The high point of West Virginia! Yippee!
Lisa and I walk the Whispering Spruce Trail, the little half-mile nature trail that encircles the summit. We come upon a group of locals who are hanging out on the trail. How do we know they are locals? We don’t, but they are dressed in blue jeans and flannel, their vocal accents sound like they are from this area and they are smoking cigarettes. We’re in West Virginia. These folks are just settling in to their trailside picnic, Budweiser and all. And facts be known, there are very few teeth in this crowd.
We’re below the Mason-Dixon line. We drove across it and didn’t feel a thing. But cross this line and you are in the South. Not the deep south, but without trying, you notice the changes in their articulation and inflection, their intonation and vocal delivery. As backpackers, cotton pants and flannel are very foreign to Lisa and me. Honestly, we are a little apprehensive.
And yet, as we approach this crowd of strangers, they are as friendly and pleasant as can be. Real nice folks, congenial as anyone we’ve ever met on the trail.
Why this prejudice? What makes us anxious? So they are wearing baseball caps, so they talk like the people who live here, so they are drinking crappy beer at a picnic. The guys are unshaven and the women wear cheap clothing. Exactly what is sinister about them after all? Are these folks Bible-thumping, tobacco-chewing, gun-toting, racist, antisemitic, marry-your-sister hicks?
Why does this stereotype persist? Could it be that we have this vague notion, or even outright belief, that the South is actually another country? After all, it almost was. The Confederate States of America.
David Davis, a professor of literature and Southern studies at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia offers an explanation of this snobbish, discriminatory thinking: “Northern studies,” he says, “is American studies. Southern studies is the opposition to that…. We imagine the South as… less modernized, less educated, more racist.”
Clyde Edgerton, a writer from North Carolina, says, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.”
The movie made from James Dickey’s novel called Deliverance possibly did more to alienate and diminish the Southerner than any other single factor. What do you remember from that movie?
Lisa and I have been constantly reminded of stereotypes on our Highpointing trips. And yet, not one of those stereotypes has been supported by reality. Never in my life did I imagine visiting Arkansas, Louisiana or Mississippi, for example. I grew up in a northeastern capital city, Lisa grew up in sparsely populated Maine. Southern states were barely on our radar, trivia questions when trying to think of state capitals. Supposedly populated by troglodytes, interbred mouth breathers.
We walk through this group of picnickers. “How you doin’?”
“Great. Ain’t this beautiful. Have a fun hike.”
“Yeah, you enjoy your day too.”