She stuck her head out the window to see what all the fuss was about,
her night gown flapped in the warm breeze. She made friendly conversation, like we just sat down for brunch after church—nowhere to be, and no hurry to get there. She offered to go fetch her son to help me fix the motorcycle while she adjusted her hair curlers in the vanity mirror—it was 11 o’clock at night.
A gentlemen with a limp and wild eyebrows took me into his garage, past ancient piles of two-stoke engines and parts, to find fuel line after mine had split. A few weeks later a homeless women living in her car gave me a ride to the gas station, with just enough gas to get the car there itself.
Mechanical failure on the side of the road is the best way to peel back the layers of southern hospitality that lie beneath a culture that has so much to give. Selfless acts to help anyone in a time of need, even if they have a northern accent.
Rookie was a gamble—two hundred cubic centimeters of gutless power and just enough hustle to ride with two passengers and squeak over the low crests of the black belt. Decrepit, but worthy—unreliable, but necessary. Appropriately named for my inadequacy as a mechanic, and his reluctance to stay running. Rookie was us, not just a forty year old motorcycle, but a companionship built on our incompetence to handle the task, bound my persistence and our ripe curiosity.
A yankee by blood, preference for ice hockey and distaste for sweet tea, I was an outlier in the South. It grabbed me by its humid claws when I meet a women born and raised in Mobile; but these claws had painted fingernails behind a low county drawl.
Our relationship gained the momentum young lovers have no trouble finding, but was stalled by our geographic boundary. I was at school in Montana, chasing thin air and trout, while she studied at Auburn. Fostered by the care this southerner knew so well, our relationship wouldn’t die, simply take its time.
Years passed. Our relationship scudded along slowly and steadily with the patience only a southerner could distill into love 1,000 miles away. She would shout over the phone about a football game, send photos of her grandmas biscuits, a king cake even showed up in the mail one day. I moved south after graduation to give the relationship the attention it deserved. Only after asking her parents to court their daughter, you see, I was learning the subtle ways of the south.
I packed my bags, and all the myths of the south Yankees never admit they believe; it’s always hot in the south, BBQ is created equal, football is entertainment (it’s actually religion). I found work on a farm in Greene County, where a Yankee is always out of place, come hell or high water.
Laboring in the humidity and heat of a coal furnace, I sought a life that made me part of a landscape that was so foreign to me. I forged bold personal benchmarks of sweat output, bug bites, tick removals, and square footage of poison ivy on my body. The landscape was soon becoming as much a part of me as I was it. I found sustenance in the vegetables I planted, the deer I harvested, and the newness of a world that continued to buzz, bite and slither around me.
I purchased Rookie to commute back and forth from the farm to her school. For $1,000 it was my introduction to the South, not just BBQ and empty country roads—but a front row seat—vibrating, sweaty and loud—to the character that makes the south hard to describe to people unless you take them by the hand and lead them down these roads. An introduction to the heritage and wistful mystery that my girlfriend called home—if I wanted her to be my wife, it was best I know more about the place that is part of her character, even if I didn’t like to watch football, or the texture of grits grossed me out.
For a few bucks in gas, I rode Rookie down every kudzu chocked corridor and crumbling back road till my rear end was cotton pickin’ sore. I stopped to savor smoked brisket and sweet tea, answering questions of my accent and the origin of the machine dripping oil in the parking lot. We rolled across abandoned country bridges, joining the gap between the red clay ravines that swell with spring storms that bring the humidity, and first signs of life on the scuppernongs. We watched the south at dawn, where the humidity settles in hazy columns, and listened to the cacophony of the marsh that drowns out the engine noise.
Rookie and I found the fragrance of the south—dipping through wafts of methane where cypress knees claw for air, and chased the forgotten stench of cat fish ponds. We followed curls of blue exhaust as we dodged logging trucks, spewing the fragrance of loblollies that jounced in the flat bed headed for the mills. Flicking through second, third, and forth, holding high in fifth gear we escaped the paper mills up wind of our journey.
We navigated with conversation. The rhythm and cadence of speech suggested no one cared where I had to go, so long as I got there safely. We rode on instinct, down roads with crooked signs, peppered with signs of target practice, and church bullitins with witty messages (“C-H-R-C-H what’s missing?”).
The vitality of the woods overwhelmed me, their complete and utter seizure of small dirt roads, rotting bridges, or abandoned farmhouses—as if taking something with you isn’t an option but a requirement of this productive landscape that seeks to give even for those who don’t want anything.
The girlfriend became a fiancé, and you can probably guess what followed. There was change. It was my manners at first, something all Yankees could learn a thing or two about. She noticed when it all began to make sense to me, why she loved this place and how it shaped her. Overloaded and underpowered, Rookie guided us down the chip sealed roads of my wife’s past. Shouting over the engine noise as the sun slipped behind a hazy curtain of gold, we found the quality of light that exists nowhere else but the South. The effusive rays of light that punch through columns of pine plantations, looking for an outlet for it’s radiant warmth, and settling in the communities and crooked porches that welcome its presence.
Rookie still whisks us down empty roads, but we’ve traded cypress swaps for the hardwoods of Northern Michigan. Now it’s her turn to see what shaped me, even if it means walking home when Rookie breaks down.