In the summer of 2012, I helped a close friend (who was also named Sam) move from Pasadena, California to Atlanta, Georgia. Instead of taking a normal route along Interstate 10, Sam, drawn in by the search for a rare German pastry called baumkuchen, insisted on taking a circuitous route that ultimately sprawled across the Great Basin and the Midwest and down the Appalachians and Atlantic Coast. My recollections from the time, lightly edited, are hereby offered for your entertainment.
There was no evidence of promised tornadoes the next morning, which was steamy as ever but nearly cloudless. Though our journeys from one city to the next had shortened since Morgantown, we made extra sure to be out of Charleston immediately after breakfast, as it was two hours to another great city, Savannah.
I didn’t know what Sam expected when he took a detour into the Sea Islands, known to me from Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide. These islands, off the coast where South Carolina and Georgia meet, were populated mainly by the Gullah People, descendants of African slaves who retained their ancestral culture due to their isolation and specialized skills. Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue spoke eloquently of Gullah’s influence on American culture, but had nothing to say when he actually visited the area in 1987. Twenty years later, Stephen Fry was more vocal in his appreciation, describing in Stephen Fry in America how amazing it was to hear spirituals in the land where it was born. But there was not a soul to be seen on these back roads.
Savannah, I have been told, is a lovingly preserved city of colonial splendor. Unfortunately I saw none of it, as the Southern-Cuban fusion restaurant recommended to Sam was about a mile outside the old city.
Savannah was another place to hear an unusual accent; more traditionally southern even than most places in the South. Ed Helms on the American version of The Office famously referred to it as if there were “molasses comin’ out of yo’ mouth.” In fact, most of the people we overheard while eating spoke very quickly. They were young women in colorful sundresses with babies in strollers, chatting away with their similarly refined matriarchs, seemingly all of them having just arrived in town to see the new babies. We were one of four men in the whole restaurant, but then again this was the workweek, and it was the South.
The August heat blasted us with steam as we returned to the car. The music playing was something by the band Bahamas, and it occurred to me that the actual Bahamas were no longer far away. If we wanted to, we could have gotten to them by midnight.
Gradually, the gorgeous estuaries of Georgia’s gave way to plantations, the ancient manor houses of America, built on slavery and a which a few continue to survive by raising livestock, often unorthodox kinds like ostriches. The houses were deep into the woods, and the properties were obscured by a strange type of pine tree that grew straight up like giant fenceposts. The road was still a two-lane affair in most places, only just being widened as we drove through. We couldn’t see where we were going, even our sat-nav showed nothing of significance, but it didn’t matter. We knew we were going straight to hell.
My mother has always hated the South. She has been there just once, during a family vacation when she was fourteen. But she has always hated the South, and had spent the past several years trying to quash my interest in the region.
“You know they hate Jews,” she said.
“Who?” I asked. “You know, Jews in the South were quite upwardly mobile in the old days.”
“Just…white people,” she said.
“Evangelical Christians love us,” I said, “We’re helping them end the world, remember?! The only anti-semites left in America today are weirdo survivalists and college students!”
She would have none of this. My uncle, a somewhat more worldy veteran and Texophile, was not as helpful as I’d hoped.
“Haven’t you ever seen Easy Rider? Or even Deliverance?” he pleaded. “And you’re going in a Prius. Do you know what they’ll do to you?”
For us, the South had been friendlier, more verdant, and significantly less rapey than they had described. But things were about to change. Sam and I were venturing further south than you could get in most of America. We were going into a hated land, famed for its lawlessness and for threatening our democracy, riddled with disease and drugs and douchebags. Only a few weeks earlier there had been a tuberculosis outbreak, and they still had bubonic plague.
This was the place of my mother’s nightmares, and the butt of childhood jokes. A sign in the woods announced our arrival: Welcome to Florida.
Gainesville is a city only in the most tenuous sense. It is laid out on a massive grid, most of which is unoccupied land under a dense canopy jungle. The street plan is similar to that of Salt Lake City, and just as hard to get lost in, though I suppose that should be a point in its favor. Sam had planned for us to stay with his friends, more faceless fans from the depths of the internet. But I was expected somewhere else entirely.
My aunt Dian prided herself on her long-term affair with Bill Moyers. She lived by a lake, under an unimaginably dense forest in a remote part of town, and I arrived under a sudden summer shower.
“I’m taking inventory,” she said, parsing over her collection of west African masks. “There’s a lot to get rid of.” I acted nervously around her dog while she prepared for dinner. But that dinner wasn’t very interesting, so let’s return to Sam and his…associates.
They had only just begun dinner at the restaurant downtown when I found them, and the clientele didn’t look much like the drunken dystopian Floridians we’d imagined as children.
“Well it is a college town,” said Sally, one of Sam’s new friends.
“We’re going to get high tonight,” said Sam, semi-excitedly.
I wanted to caution Sam, remind him of the last time. But this was his journey, and I let it go.
The apartment block resembled a collection cheap motels. Sally’s apartment was dark and unconscionably hot, as there was no air conditioning. I wondered how these people could ever sleep and quickly learned that they didn’t. Instead they got high. I would say that Sam and I also got high, but before publishing this story, Sam contacted me to set the record straight.
“I did not get high in Florida,” he said. “What happened in Florida was orthogonal to high.”
Although I had only this trip to see the typical effects of marijuana on my friend, I must confess that he was right. At one point I sprung out of my chair, half wondering where he was, baked out of my mind and hoping to breathe in some cool air. Not only was it just as hot outside, but there was Sam, vomiting liberally into a bucket.
I wasn’t feeling so good myself, which is to say I felt like a person who’s in Florida in August with no air conditioning. The weed had not had the intended effect, and while Sam slept uneasily, I lay awake on the couch for hours while a kitten walked on me.
“Her name is Foot-Foot,” said Sally. She was incredibly sweet.1 Sally and I talked for a while more before she disappeared out the front door to go to work. I couldn’t imagine where; it was nearly midnight. But I fell asleep soon after.
It was around 9 in the morning when I came to, astonished to discover that the floor was, and had been, covered in rabbit shit. I staggered around all every nugget to reach the bathroom, passing the offending rabbit along the way, to take a much-needed shower.
When I came out, Sam was already up and playing with Foot-Foot.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“Definitely,” he said. “What do you say to getting the hell out of here?”