August 2019

Southern Hospitality: From the Vantage of a Lone Woman Traveler

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

Southern hospitality is thought to have its origins in the antebellum planter class that stood ready to entertain guests lavishly on the old plantation. This was not only a code of social and even religious honor; it was also a relief from the isolation of rural life. Poor dirt-farmers of the age were equally famous for welcoming weary travelers into their homes and sharing whatever humble provisions they had. Society has changed enormously since then, but I can tell you as a contemporary traveler that Southern hospitality remains alive and well.

As a lone woman on the road, I have experienced the kindness of strangers in every Southern state. They have fed, sheltered and entertained me, shared their stories and bought my books. The one and only time I went to Louisiana, I had five offers of accommodation within the first 24 hours! I ended up staying a week with a sweet Cajun family in Lafayette who taught me to make gumbo and dance zydeco, took me boating on the bayou, and yielded their guest bedroom on sight as though it were the most natural thing in the world. The wife worked for Tabasco, and the husband was a muralist of traditional swamp and Cajun village scenes. I still remember how touched I felt the day I was leaving when my hostess kept saying assuredly, “She’s coming back. We’re going to take her to Avery Island, New Orleans, all that.”

In Mississippi, I arranged to stay with the daughter of a famous artist whose work I’d admired for years. Walter Anderson has long since passed away, but his devoted daughter Mary, self-appointed curator of his legacy, received my telephone call in her sugary Gulf Coast accent, almost as though she were expecting it. “Why I’d love for you to pay a visit, dahlin’,” she said nonchalantly. Over the course of several days, she looked after me like a granddaughter, gave me a personal tour of her father’s museum, told me family stories, showed me her favorite cypress swamp and pitcher bogs, and took me to a bonfire with her sons. We kept up a snail-mail correspondence for years afterward.

Sometimes my homestays begin with a personal recommendation. A friend here in Bluffton referred me to her brother and his family, who live in a hand-built cabin way back up the mountain in rural Long Creek, South Carolina, purely because she knew I’d want to write about it. The resulting story covered backcountry hikes; Chattooga River lore; the precocious imaginations of wild homeschooled children and the astonishing clutter of their rustic abode; fall foliage and apple picking; the eccentric ways of backwoods Southerners, who are actually highly intelligent; and most of all the intimate connection between land and its inhabitants. I slept under homemade quilts, ate deer burritos, and took sponge baths; I played in secret wooded fairylands with the kids and went out for BBQ with their grandmother. I haven’t been to Long Creek since, but I’d love to see how the kids have grown.

Another good friend in Bluffton set me up with her mom in Tennessee, which turned out to be a lifesaver because, en route to her house, halfway through a month-long Deep South road trip, my transmission went out.

So, I spent a week with Ms. Dot while the repair took place; she helped me ascertain the mechanic’s integrity by asking him a bunch of personal questions about his family, where he went to school, and what he thought of all the crime in Memphis. Of me she demanded that I make myself at home, do whatever I liked, and help myself to anything. She took me out to early-bird senior suppers and carried me to the county courthouse to get information for the book I was writing. She told me stories from her youth about Elvis, tobacco farming, and square dancing at a club inside a cave. She apologized for being too old to take me to Civil War sites and such, but I was perfectly happy to live on Dot’s terms. The day I packed up to leave, she gave me a Tennessee sweatshirt, a pair of shoes and a roll of paper towels.

A girl I once met in Georgia invited me to stay with her in Birmingham. She took me to her mega-church, where people spoke in tongues and the gospel choir gave a blockbuster performance. When her best friend came over to do her hair, I got cornrows too. On a trip through the Mississippi Delta, I ended up camping on a former cotton farm, now turned trendy travel destination; I couldn’t afford to rent one of the sharecropper shacks, so the owner kindly let me sleep in my truck next to the railroad tracks and use the restroom in the old cotton gin. In Asheville, North Carolina, an artist I met through a mutual friend let me stay in his converted chicken coop, on a little strip of land over a creek, that he had filled with every sort of folk-art construction imaginable.

Perhaps the most audacious of such occasions was the time I took up with some gem miners in the Smoky Mountains. I had just arrived in the town of Franklin, North Carolina, where I visited the Chamber of Commerce, which led me to Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Mine on a long, twisty country road. It was already quittin’ time when I arrived, so they said I could camp next to the porta potty for $10 a night. But one of the men working there piped up, “Shoot, you can camp at my place. Won’t charge ya nuthin’, and we got real bathrooms.” I sized him up and made a snap judgment that he was harmless, a real goofy good-time guy. After following him back to his double-wide on a country lane called Sugarfork, a second fellow appeared, and I briefly feared I’d been set up. But that second fellow and I are still friends to this day. He later took me ruby mining in the backcountry and facilitated a memorable session with some moonshiners he knew who agreed to let me interview them. But that first night at Sugarfork, I was still operating on faith, sitting on the front porch shooting the breeze while they picked guitars and slammed Coors Lites. It was the wee hours when I finally turned in on the couch in a “nest” of blankets and pillows they made for me. And although the thought crossed my mind that folks back home might be horrified if they could see me, I curled up and slept like a child.

My travels have always been on a shoestring. I can’t afford fine dining and accommodations. I eat out of my cooler and sleep in my truck down Forest Service roads. When I need a break from the rigors to get a hot shower, soft bed, square meal and maybe even some clean laundry, I rely on homestays. I’ve had people reach in their purse and give me gas money, then worry over me enough to call later and ask how the trip was going.

I often wondered what I did to deserve such special treatment from people who didn’t even know me, but now I understand that I was framing it wrong. It wasn’t really about me at all—it was about the opportunity to give, because the good feeling one gets from acts of kindness is a reward unto itself. I haven’t road-tripped as extensively in other parts of the country, but what I’ve seen of the South has given me a happy outlook on its hospitality. The warmth, sincerity, generosity and sweetness of the friends I’ve met along the way have meant more to me than the destinations themselves. I hope my hosts recall me as fondly.

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