Mile by mile, the dreamscape unfolds like an old map, falling into familiar place after place. As the road narrows to two lanes, the residue of the past begins to float by. You pass abandoned cotton gins, long empty houses by the side of the road, their roofs slowly, majestically caving in, as if they had all the time in the world to disappear. They already seem archaeological, like forgotten monuments. The testify, like a stove-in old man at a camp meeting, to both the malice of time and the persistence of memory. Something, something powerful, lives on here. The evidence of it is all around.
You can tell you're getting deeper into the dream by the signs for products that are no longer made, the empty storefronts that went out of business long ago but are still there, some just barely. That one must have been a filling station, to judge by the rusty gas pump outside. You drive on, curve after curve, one half-forgotten vista opening after another, like the endless corridors of some memory palace.
Forgotten politicians live on here in their signs, their tattered images still flapping in the idle wind. Some of the billboards have dated with remarkable speed for a slow-paced land. One touts Blanche Lincoln, now the former senior senator from Arkansas, as One Tough Lady. Why, you wonder, would a U.S. senator have to present herself as macho if she really was?
Hattie Caraway, who really was tough, whipped an assortment of male rivals in 1932 to win a seat in the U.S. Senate -- without having to say much of anything. Huey Long, the Kingfish himself, took care of that. He and his sound truck came to her aid from south of the (state) border. He said everything that needed to be said in '32 and a lot more, as was Huey's way. For nine days he barnstormed the state and Silent Hattie won in a walk.
Six years later, Hattie Caraway would whup her challenger in the Democratic primary, which was, as they used to say in those days, Tantamount to Election. Her opponent? John L. McClellan, who would eventually get to the Senate after all. He was still young in 1938 but already gruff. Miss Hattie took care of him without needing any help by then. His campaign slogan that year was less than effective, or subtle: "Arkansas needs a man in the Senate." Who wouldn't have voted for the little widder woman after that?
Like so many other things, Southern demagoguery ain't what she used to be. Blanche Lincoln's fading billboard is already headed for the fate of all the old Faubus posters you used to see everywhere in Arkansas.
That's what driving south into the South is like: a series of flashbacks, usually in black-and-white, pre-Technicolor. Along the blue highways, the demagogues of the 1950s and '60s, or even the '30s, come to life again. It's we the living who seem pallid ghosts.
"I have fallen in love with American names," wrote the poet. He would have stayed in love with Southern ones, which are good enough to last a lifetime. They loll on the tongue, ripple through the void of time, conjuring up a past that still has not quite passed. And turn us all as garrulous as good ol' boys at a family reunion. ("Oh, remember when Bobby here...")
We love the past here, even if it's with a wink and a nod. If you've grown up anywhere Southern, you know the people who live along this winding highway even if you've never met them. You can hear their voices, even their pauses. The cultivated Suthuhn of the aristocrats. The everyday ring of black laughter -- which is one of my first childhood memories. We lived above my father's shoe store in Shreveport, and the joyous sound would drift up to my crib from below, like the sound of life, beckoning.
We stop at Lake Village, Ark., to see an old friend, the kind of Southern matron who is an old friend as soon as you meet her. Ensconced in her unchanged lakeside house, attending meetings of her clubs, all kinds of them, she still has time, all the time in the world, to entertain us -- or so she lets you think. For nothing must ever be hurried in these latitudes.
Over a Coke and nibbles, she tells us there is indeed something new under the sun in Lake Village: the Teach for America delegation. The young teachers live across the street in an old house big enough for a whole passel of them. You can almost feel the lifelong friendships being formed from where we sit in her parlor. They've brought hope and cheer to the public schools in Lake Village along with their dedication and math skills. And must be charmed by their hosts. Yes, Virginia, there is still a Southern hospitality.
You can take the Mississippi or Louisiana side of The River down to New Orleans, choosing to cross at either Greenville or Vicksburg. Each has its attractions, but I've always preferred the Mississippi passage; it seems to have more ruins. Or maybe it's the language; something majestically, quintessentially Southern seems to happen to it once you cross over The River.
Deep into the night, leaving the two-lanes and shanties behind, getting onto the interstate and beginning to enter American anonymity again, we stop for coffee at a convenience store. But the South persists. We hear a black clerk impatiently admonish a friend, "You heard me what I said!"
We drive on through the sweet, enveloping night, unable to stop repeating the phrase. Is it a variation of the reflexive, a Shakespearean echo, something all its own? It doesn't matter. It has force, clarity, a beat, and it stays with you. Like the South. You heard me what I said.