Chicago, Illinois

My Home Is Not Below the Mason-Dixon Line

By Anne-Marie Akin

It’s a long straight drive down through Illinois to get to Memphis, cornfields repeating themselves beneath a flat, unwavering sky. It’s one of the most boring drives imaginable. And yet somehow in the stretch of I-57 from Chicago to Cairo, probably around the time the flat land suddenly becomes a hill-and-gully descent toward the Mississippi River, the world changes from North to South. The accents change with the landscape, from flat Midwestern nasal vowels to a twangy drawl that Southern Illinoisans swear is Southern, and that as a child in Memphis I doubtless called Yankee.

If I’m the only one in the car (oh, who am I kidding, even if I’m not), at some point I will begin singing “Going Down to Cairo” at the top of my lungs.

Going down to Cairo

Goodbye, and a goodbye

Going down to Cairo

Goodbye Liza Jane

I always sing it fast and twangy, and I get louder on the “black them boots and make ’em shine” part.  For those of you not from around these parts, I should probably tell you that Cairo, Illinois, is pronounced Kay-ro (just like Cairo, Georgia).  If you need to back up and read again with a corrected pronunciation, go ahead. I will wait. The right vowel can make all the difference.

Cairo, Illinois, and the rest of the state, I had always believed, was above the Mason-Dixon line. My uncle was a truck driver, and he used to talk about driving up to Cairo. Now that I’m a Chicagoan, Cairo is down. When I was a child and people talked about the North (boorish Yankees) and the South (home), they spoke of anything above Tennessee as being “above the Mason-Dixon line.” It turns out that line, demarcated by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon back before the Declaration of Independence, ends way east of Chicago: it simply keeps Pennsylvania out of Virginia and Maryland, and divides Delaware in half.  

There is no Mason-Dixon line for me to cross over when I travel from Chicago to Memphis.

But there’s something there. I feel it. I see it. I hear it. My heart simultaneously leaps up in joy and fills with a dull thudding anxiety.  Usually the first rumblings of joy happen as the hills begin to bubble up. There are pine trees growing beside the highway instead of cornfields, and the blood in my veins feels the tug of the Mississippi River, slow and inexorable, so powerful it can’t be swum. The bridge is enormous, you drive over one more hill and then there it is, looming in the distance, a long, high bridge of steel arches, and if I’m alone in the car, when I drive up the quarter mile of ramp it takes to get onto the bridge proper, I roll down my window and holler like a Razorback fan. If the kids are in the car, I holler at them instead: “Look, y’all look, it’s the Mississippi River! Oh, look!” And just like that, my accent is there, the second “look” has two or three extra syllables for emphasis.

Is it the bridge? Is it the water? It will be three more hours until Memphis. We will have to slip through a corner of Missouri and then wend our way through more flatness, Mississippi River flatness, passing soybean and cotton fields beneath an unforgiving sky, past ugly fast-food marquees through dusty West Memphis, Arkansas, and then again, “Oh, look, girls! Look, there’s the bridge!” The second Mississippi crossing is right in front of me, wider than the first. I have a moment of panic where I try to remember if I am supposed to take I-40 or I-55, and then I drive up onto the huge M-shaped bridge. I see downtown Memphis winking in the sun with its low-rise skyline. A sign in the middle of the bridge says WELCOME TO TENNESSEE.

I holler one more time, and I am home.