Author, journalist, conservative, libertarian(ish)

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There is a saying out on Edisto Island, South Carolina, that goes something like this: “Why do we need to go anywhere – we’re already here.” 

An introduction to a Southern sense of place from the book 
Journeys of Lightheartedness

That saying succinctly sums up the traditional Southern attitude toward travel. It is passed down from generation to generation, rooted in a sacred sense of place. Back before the Civil War, Edisto was the home of long-staple cotton, favored by high-end haberdashers around the world, including those that dressed the Pope. It brought unimagined wealth to Edisto plantation owners, who hosted the likes of Lafayette, on his American adventures, and hobnobbed with some of the world’s wealthiest and most famous – when and if they came to Edisto. The Edistonians themselves did not usually venture far. Their plantations were dug deep into the heart of the island. On the shorefront, a couple of miles away, in Edingsville village, they built their beach cottages, where they summered to escape the malaria that flourished in the sweltering island’s interior. The more adventurous among them might have another mansion 40 miles away in Charleston, but travel beyond that, Edistonians believed, wasn’t much necessary. 

A Southern sense of place is a peculiar but strong trait. It is anchored in part in the South’s agrarian past, a marriage to the lands that fed and sheltered and clothed its people. In 1865, Mary Ames, a Springfield, Massachusetts, school teacher desperate to contribute something to her country after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, landed on Edisto to teach the children of newly freed slaves. She was shocked at what she found: not only the ravages of war but a palpable and impartible rapport between the people and the land. In her diary she recorded the underpinnings of Southern culture, shared by white and black alike. The races might not integrate, she discovered, but each was rolled into one with the same land, with the same rivers and swamps, with the same mysterious wispiness, scantiness even, of a lowcountry sky. Within the wilted air and depleted soil, all Southerners gasped and struggled for breath, from birth to death. But, on Edisto Island, the struggle willed within everyone a sense of survival and bonded them – an earthy and cordial if intense intimacy based on the love of the island’s ghostlike marshes and salty backwaters. It’s hard not to shake hands with someone who knows what it’s like to sink waist-deep in pluff mud or who fishes from the creek bank. As Mary Ames wrote: “Edisto was a culture gleaned from the earth and wedded to it.” All of the South is much the same, or at least for many generations it was. 

Southerners identify with a living landscape, store their heritage in the hollows of its trees, like a backpack they will pick up later on the way home, and tramp down paths through the back woods of years past, where they walk in comfortable familiarity even as new details startle: a reedy rock ledge they never noticed before, perfect for a picnic; a new thicket on the other side of the creek bed, a deer trail through it leading to who knows where. All of this, the well-recognized and the newly discovered, Southerners seek to preserve – not only preservation of patterns and pasture but conservation of tradition and desire – and that is the matter of their sense of place, forging an extraordinarily personal alliance between the old world and the reality of living in the new. Such a powerful sense creates a universe all its own, and universes are made to explore. And so the Southerner finds not boredom and monotony in his or her place but adventure – and not only in the woods. 

My mother could travel the world merely by going to the grocery store in our small, out-of-the-way town. I’ll never forget the time she discovered bagels and thought they surely must have been invented in Charleston, they were so alien. Charleston was only 50 miles away but to my mother it might as well have been on Mars. She looked at that bagel and her mind roamed, I am sure, to a New York bodega, though she had never seen a New York bodega. In her mind she had traveled that far, and every day there was a similar flight of fancy. She could step off her porch and taste a bit of the world, all the while tending the azaleas, and so there was need to go to the city, or to any other place: She was already there. I was different. I was born with wanderlust in my heart. I dreamed of those faraway places and planned to travel there. And I have, and have even lived in many. But always I have returned to the South, to live or to visit. So many times I tried to reject that Southern sense of place, and so many times my soul has not let me. I have explored distant destinations, and returned to the South, only to leave again. Along the way, my travels have revealed a major secret, lending my life a harmony I can savor no matter where I am: that Southern sense of place can be enlarged, taken with me, like a trailer hitched to the car. Just stop at the wayside and unpack it, for travel is all about the journey of the heart, its marriage to the land you happen to be in. That’s what the Southern sense of place is all about – enjoying where you are because you are already there. With an awakened sense of place, you can discover home in the most colorful capitals of the world, and you can discover the wildest and most unique adventures, and people, right in your hometown. 

Journeys of Lightheartedness is an expression of that sentiment. It is not a travel guide per se but essays – characterizations and impressions, verbal portraits –  about the travels I have pursued, near and far, and the lands to which they have taken me, and take me still. Many of the businesses mentioned within may no longer exist, but I venture to say the cultural business of these places remains intact. Written at various times over the past thirty-odd years, they trace my naturalization and citizenship in a very few places once foreign to me but which I love, they visit the homeland as a traveler who might never have been there, they record the journey in between. In Paris, I was bludgeoned with friendliness and eager souls seeking camaraderie; in Greece, I discovered how big a tiny island can be, so big many natives never even saw some parts of it; in New York, I could relive, years later, the excitement of watching my South Carolina high-school baseball team, only this time in Yankee Stadium, and even watch the same pitcher walk to the mound – what are the odds of that?; on a bus I could experience the agony and despair of all travelers, which is to say the agony and despair of all humanity, but the quiet survival of their hope, too; in North Carolina, a trip around a mountain blossomed into a trip across generations of people and tradition; in Charleston I learned about the longitude of latitude, or why perspective makes all the difference in the world; in Wisconsin I could float in the same waters with the most primitive birds from the beginning of time, and in the vast lakes feel the glaciated layers of centuries peel back. 

You can tell how good it all has made me feel. What I have learned is that travel brings a certain lightheartedness to life, or at least exposes it for us to enjoy and revel in, if only we avail ourselves of the opportunities. Be warned, though, that when I speak of lightheartedness, I do not mean that every experience or journey is filled with pleasure. That is decidedly not the case. Not every trip leaves me free from care or anxiety or sadness. Rather, when I write of lightheartedness, I write of the cheerful optimism and hope that is gained from every experience, good or bad. It is easy to be easygoing when you feel at home no matter where you are. There is a certain giddiness to be derived in finding the exotic at home, and in uncovering home in the far-flung land. It sets the soul to dancing, unless the soul prefers to sing. It doesn’t much matter to me, whether I am far away in my back yard or close by on a Greek island 5,458 miles from home. So enjoy the travels, these journeys of lightheartedness, even if sometimes we don’t go very far. It is my hope that this book takes us all just far enough.