New York to Nashville: Two Manhattan Liberals Boldly Go Forth into America's Heartland

08/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For this year's summer vacation, my partner and fellow blogger Nelson Montana and I decided to venture outside of our Manhattan bubble and head for a little getaway - far away as it turns out. We embarked on a road trip to the South. That's right, two liberal New Yorkers heading straight into enemy territory - the land of conservative, gun-toting, Jesus-loving rednecks. Um, I mean red states.

All the media pundits talking about a divided America and the rise of right wing extremism put us in the mood for an adventure, and maybe even a reality check. There was another purpose to this willful act of culture clashing. Nelson is a gifted composer with a flair for country songs, and he had some interest from a Nashville publishing company. We figured it was a long shot, but we knew that at least we'd get some good barbeque. We were right, especially about the BBQ. Along the way we must have consumed a barnyard of animals between us.

Our first stop in the South was Front Royal, Virginia, a pretty town nestled among the lush rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley, a couple of hours' drive outside the D.C. Beltway. A long lost school friend lives there, and on the spur of the moment I decided to call her and see if she was in town. She could not have been more welcoming, and within minutes of our arrival we were perched at the bar of the local watering hole, The Lucky Star, making friends with the locals.

Front Royal was known as "Helltown" in the 18th century because of the roughnecks living in the area - river travelers and mountaineers who came into town looking for liquor and loose women. During the Civil War, area residents fought fiercely to stave off Union soldiers. Front Royal was the northernmost town in Virginia not to fall to the North, and when you meet descendents of these Confederate citizens, it's not surprising.

Dewey Vaughan, bartender at the Lucky Star and unofficial mayor of Front Royal, traces his family's history back to the 17th century in Front Royal. You can just imagine his great, great, great grandpappy chasing off the Yankees with a musket. Dewey's family owns most of the property in Front Royal, leaving him free to pontificate in between pouring drinks. When we last met, in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war, Dewey was a firmly entrenched Republican. We expected more of the same, but this time his political views were a little more complex that Rush Limbaugh would have us believe.

"The Republicans are fascists. They say they believe in small government but they're all for big military and big business, tied to big government telling us how to live. And the Democrats are socialists. They want to spread the wealth - take your money and give it to somebody else. I hope Obama does well, but I don't believe in either party."

Some of Dewey's views may be extreme, but he's thoughtful in his opinions, and impossible to pigeonhole. "I'm a Jeffersonian," he jokes. "I would have seceded in 1861. I'd have been wearing grey."

As we left Virginia and headed into Tennessee, the political tone seemed slightly less nuanced. Christian rock, sermonizing and right-wing proselytizing dominated the local airwaves. Gun shops dotted the roadside like Starbucks on a Manhattan avenue.

But we were on the lookout for a different kind of Southern establishment. We were starving and craving some pork from a pit. We saw a tantalizing roadside shack decorated with a giant neon pig. But it was surrounded by dozens of choppers festooned with Confederate flags. With our New York state license plate, we were afraid we wouldn't exactly blend in. Having just heard on the local news that Tennessee just passed a law that allowing guns in bars, we decided it to keep on driving.

We finally pulled up at Braeden's BBQ in King's Port, Tennessee. The décor was appropriately red state, with homey looking signs on the walls saying "Support Our Troops" and "God Bless America." Glenn Beck was on the television over the food counter, gas bagging in the background. But this rib joint was a find. At lunchtime the line gets 30-deep from Eastman chemical factory workers clamoring for pulled pork sandwiches and ribs. We were lucky to get our meal before closing. The owner, Barry Collette, shuts shop by seven p.m. to get home to his five year old son, the restaurant's namesake.

Barry was thrilled that a couple of northerners would seek out his ribs. They were worth it. The smell of hickory-smoked pork lingered on our fingers hours later, even after washing our hands. It made me want to nibble on my own digits. And it was only then I realized that, in a state of food coma or a blonde moment, I'd lost my wallet.

My heart was in my mouth. It had all my identification, checkbooks, credit cards and my Green Card. I called Braeden's on the off chance I'd left it there and when Jessica, the wholesome-looking waitress who served us told me I'd left in the restroom, I could not have been more relieved. Something told me these folks could be trusted. Barry sent it by overnight courier to our hotel in Nashville the next day. It's the kind of small thing that restores your faith in humanity.

And that's just the point. Everywhere we went, people were gracious, friendly and thrilled that a couple of New Yorkers bothered to take the time to drive through their town. The subject of politics was just noise in the background. Judging by the predominance of Palin/McCain bumper stickers, most were probably Republican, and they probably figured we were Democrats. But they were nice enough not to hold it against us.

In a media capital like New York, we're obsessed, and a little suspicious of anyone whose views don't line up on the side of political correctness. But, south of the Mason-Dixon line, other priorities loom large. We did not see a single "tea party." Most people we met wanted to talk to us about food, family, their vacations in our city and what we thought of their towns. At all the cafes and rib shacks where we sampled homemade biscuits and heavenly variations on pork, locals would spot our New York license plate and seek us out for pleasant conversation. Nashville was a bust, but at least we discovered that Southerners don't hate us.

Are New Yorkers really that different from the rest of the country? Sean Hannity and Sara Palin seem to think so. According to them, we aren't even real Americans. Left wing commentators, meanwhile, have made huntin', shootin' bible-thumpin'caricatures out of our brothers and sisters in the heartland, as if anywhere south of Baltimore is breeding ground for the next Timothy McVeigh. Both sides have been unfairly painted into an extreme corner by cable television. But as Americans we have many more dimensions to us than the politicians and talking heads would like to believe.

As Dewey Vaughan, wise man of the South, puts it:

"It's not black and white. It's not even grey. It's a prism."