Seattle, Washington

My Night in Redneck Heaven

By Julia Cook

Most people go to Europe. But our postgrad trip — that birthright of the entitled — was a 500-mile bike ride through three Southern states: Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, documented with 35mm disposable cameras and a $2 notebook from Walgreens. It was my idea, sprouted from a Civil War tour with my Dad, one he seemed none too pleased to have germinated. My diploma freshly minted from a teeny school in Arkansas, we agreed that I’d do all the talking.

That’s me on the right, striking a pose at mile marker 100

That’s me on the right, striking a pose at mile marker 100

And it was I who’d wondered aloud, will we be OK, in cycle gear and close-clipped hair, stomping around on homophobia’s home turf, two privileged girls like dykes on bikes? “Yeah,” she’d said, “especially since one of us is one.”  We’d been close since seventh grade, but she’d come out to me ten years later, suspended in our hammocks at the mercy of the forests north of Natchez.

So when we Sundayed at a whitewashed Baptist Church in Farmville, Mississippi, it was surprising, to say the least.

We’d been on the road for about four days: she picking meals and campsites, I scouting five miles ahead in a Rosie the Riveter jersey I’d paid 80 bucks to sport, averaging 45 miles a day, pausing for historical markers and period cramps. A flat, lakeside ride up from Jackson led us to Ratliff Ferry, with $10 campsites, a convenience store and ramps for pontoon boats to join their summer neighbors.

“I wish we had a boat!”  I sighed, munching our 60-mile reward. Cool Ranch Doritos chased with Blue Gatorade.

I’d done the talking all right. Minutes later a huge man emerged from the shop, asking would we like to meet his grandkids, he’s got room to spare and Grandbugs is making brats. Real meat, no can? We hesitated — we didn’t know this guy, all kinds of things could go wrong — but it was an offer our Dorito-dusted stomachs couldn’t refuse.

Grandpa Ronnie and the kids hop in

Grandpa Ronnie and the kids hop in

So there we were, adrift, our bikes locked together and out of sight for the first time in days. Looking out for gators and Super Soaker shots as we traded life stories. Soon we gave up staying dry and joined three youngsters in the water, their mother, our age, watching with tired eyes as her father manned the grill.

It was the perfect day for a swim, the sky enflamed as summer melted past the tree line. September in the South means dog days lead to freezing evenings, and it’s your job to catch the last firefly, sizzle that last brat, make the most of what you’ve already lost. I can still see the leaves go black in sunset, like reptiles lurking in their shade.

To open your home is not uncommon in these states; we learned this in the coming miles, as no less than three families offered the gifts of food, shelter and playtime with their kin. Maybe it was the nature of our journey, looking vulnerable (and one night we were, because all the rooms were booked in teeny Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee) and seeming social. Regardless, our haircuts, hers buzzed and mine a Twiggy crop, were never in question, not even at a trailer-park rager.

We didn’t know what we’d signed up for when Bean and I heaved wheels into the bed of a pickup, the first of five we’d ride on our journey. To us, “sleep at our place, out of the cold,” meant a house, with real walls, on a road, with a driveway. But here we were, two girls from Pittsburgh’s Mansion Mile, pulling into a trailer park, trading eyebrows, then a look that said, go with it.

The kids were pumped—new friends to feed their vegetables, to jump on their twin beds, to educate on the best Nick Jr. shows. Mom was hushed. She kept a blog, she said, hoped someday to finish a book, get it published. She’d grown up in this mobile home, surrounded by ATVs and pontoons and immobility.

We each took a night ride, by the way. Grandpa Ronnie muddin’ through six-foot stalks, ducking branches, guided only by moonlight and the endless stars. A scenario that could have been bad, but wasn’t. I kept close track of my friend, just to make sure. But this was a safe house, warm with family and cool with A/C.

Around midnight a chubby little girl showed up in her nightgown. Mackenzie’s mom was gone at the State game, we learned. Her dad was drunk, and she’d got scared. She’d join us for church in the morning, Grandbugs said, tucking her into a La-Z-Boy. Seemed it happened pretty often.

The State game didn’t — so on Ronnie’s advice we kicked down the dirt road till we hit a driveway clogged with pickups. An iPod played into an amplifier, a huge pot spit out seafood smells. And not one person pulled for Ole Miss.

Bean had her first crawfish, I sang a bad rendition of Little Big Town, our short hair waved to buzz cuts and bump-its. “Welcome to Redneck Heaven,” one Dad cheered. Redneck Hell, came the hoots as a 30-rack ripped open. We were stuffed and happy in our yoga pants and thrift store sweaters.

Morning brought biscuits, bacon, and church. I grew up in a house of hopeful pagans, Bean turned Unitarian at 13. But when you’re fed three times and welcomed like we were, church is not an optional thing (actually, it’s not optional at all, we learned the next Sunday, when we woke up starving and had to wait around till 1 for anywhere to eat).  Mackenzie’s mother showed up, but didn’t join. She’d been arrested the night before.

Back in the pickup, we rattled down the road to a one-room building, with a basement for events. There must have been 12 pews, the seating long ordained. Our job was to keep the young’uns still, to nod politely when Ronnie prayed for our safe passage. The prayers were for people who needed them, for nobody who hadn’t asked. We were different, we were welcome, we were surprised.

But he’d used us, Ronnie later confessed. We’d been a teachable moment for his kids — see, there are kind people in this world, they’re not too hard to find, and once you find them, their company is its own reward. He’d learned this on long swaths of Interstate, from Maine to California and back, one of the sweet and silent truckers John Steinbeck praised in his own roadside account.

He still did routes, sometimes, when his daughter needed the money, and each time, he said, he’d become more sure of America, of humanity. He’d seen too much kindness to submit to its opposite. We wouldn’t have met him, wouldn’t have tasted the best brats east of the Mississippi, if deep down we hadn’t believed that, too. I remember thinking, he must be right. I haven’t stopped believing that.

Grandbugs, Ronnie and the kids, dressed for Church

Grandbugs, Ronnie and the kids, dressed for Church

And I still think on my Mississippi family. If the mother, our peer in age but certainly not experience, wrote that novel. If the kids have started school, if they have a favorite subject, if Mackenzie still gets scared. If we were their only guests, or if it’s all that hard to enter Redneck Heaven.

We sent them souvenirs from Nashville, made a call on Grandbugs’ birthday, and both of us flinched when, at a marker in Alabama, a Colorado traveler badmouthed “these ignorant hicks.”  That word is gone from my vocabulary — if I ever have kids, I’ll make sure it lands a quarter in the swear jar.

Once AirBnB is obsolete, and our lives get planned via cloud-synced microchip weeks in advance, I want them to know there’s a place where strangers can still share a meal (or three) and it’s not a brewpub’s community table. Long as I’m doing the talking, their story will be told. Because if I can’t be born a Southerner, I might as well live by one.