“We’re going to drive down the Natchez Trace,” my father informed from behind the steering wheel. We pulled out from the drive of my grandparents’ Alabaman home. The year was 2002; the event? The most bizarre Hutton family vacation.
“What is the Natchez Trace?” I asked. My father quickly appeased the question.
“It’s a historic trail. Used a lot for trading a long time ago.” Oh, okay. I expected a short jog through some run-down stretch of highway, where cops foam at the mouth for speeding tourists, but my little heart, buried under a hefty amount of baby fat, did not prepare itself for the 444-mile trek.
Before we delved into the soul of Southern America, we dropped into Tuscumbia, Alabama: the birthplace of Helen Keller.
The iconic waterspout remained nearly untouched by the 100 years spent since Ms. Keller mouthed “water”. My mom and dad circled the site with genuine interest. My sister and myself daydreamed an escape.
“Look, Bonne,” my father cried to my mother, “the Kellers used to own a plantation.” The gears in my father’s brain burned through his eyes. His curious mind needed an expert to calm his inquisition.
The general teenage dissatisfaction reigned supreme within my sister and myself as we floated detached into the gift shop. Our parents soon followed suit. They grabbed some postcards and probably a paperweight or some knick-knack of equal caliber.
My dad finally saw his opportunity. “Excuse me ma’am,” he began as the cashier rang up the items, “I saw that the Kellers had a plantation. Did they have slaves on the plantation?”
I turned to my sister, only to find my sister turning to me. We quickly looked back at the cashier, our mouths agape. The tense silence hung on the tip of a knife. Finally, the woman behind the counter broke the silence with a dense molasses drawl, “Oh no, sir! The slaves were in the North!”
“Yes, sir. The Northern United States. Down here we just had sharecroppers.” In that instant I learned two value lessons. The first, Union money is not accepted everywhere. The Confederate States of America expect a wandering tourist to adapt. Secondly, everyone is allowed a past they don’t care to mention: even the United States. We left with a fidgeting glance and a fumble of car keys.
The rest of the trip brimmed with 55 mph speed limits, sweaty walks through the streets of Louisiana for “real” Cajun barbeque, and run-ins with ghost towns.
I remember finding initials with a heart-shaped border carved into an old oak tree outside of an antebellum mansion.
While we are all allowed pasts to bury underground, we are also allowed pasts that rest contentedly on the topsoil (or in this case the bark of an oak), awaiting the moment when the wind picks up our memories and love. The best aspects of humanity eagerly wait on top: kindness, curiosity and comedy transcend bloodline- they ride the wind. The entire human experience began with bizarre family vacations (Noah’s Ark, anyone?).
Manifest destiny, ladies and fellas.