This time last year, a few of my best friends and I set off for a "Deep South Road Trip" with the idea that, in 10 days, we could pay some kind of homage to the mythologized landmarks we grew up hearing about. A compressed pilgrimage, if you will.
We drove to New Orleans and arrived just as Mardi Gras hangovers were beginning to set in. Our cheapest lodging option, a Pepto-Bismol-pink motel named "Mardi Gras RV Park and Motel," turned out to be as seedy as it sounded. After this, we proceeded to get wildly lost looking for William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Miss.
In Memphis, Tenn., we laid aside our vegetarian persuasions for barbecue, then cried in spite of ourselves at Graceland. On the way home, on a godforsaken stretch of highway, a car full of UNC guys spotted our bumper sticker and asked us to dinner via the classic sign-in-the-window trick. You know who you are.
In 2012, we take great pains to avoid making sweeping geographic generalizations -- unless, of course, we're talking about the Southern leg of the United States. At UNC, introductions are often followed by a familiar disclaimer: "I'm from the South, but I'm not Southern."
The implication is that Southern culture shares a monolithic identity -- an identity to avoid.
It's easy to spot the tensions that give Southerners a bad rap: immigration conflict, soaring obesity rates, pastors who burn the Quran, a recent election that reveals disturbing undertones about the status of women's rights in the region.
When these are the token points of reference for "Southern" culture, the region can seem homogeneous and backwards. Given this perception, it isn't hard to understand why we're hesitant to embrace Southern culture.
But there's a lot more to the South than this, as my trip last spring affirmed. My friends and I came away with a deeper appreciation of just how complex the South is and how much there is of value here.
Sure, on the road, we encountered greasy food and misogynistic billboards and signs advertising eternal damnation. But there was also gas station poetry, farm food and some of the most gracious, empowered women I've ever met.
Of course, there are many parts of the South that are systematically flawed in ways we don't often acknowledge. But in order to engage with the cultural landscape, it's important to first experience it.
That the Bible Belt is "more than meets the eye" is a song that has been sung countless times before, but it could be sung more. If there's one thing the South doesn't lack, it's dimension. We just don't always embrace it.
My Elvis keychain wasn't the only thing I took away from this small odyssey. I developed a stronger sense of place, and my motivation to invest myself in the South was renewed. I think this sense of place will prove vital to a new generation of Southerners as we navigate an uncertain future.
I know that our road trip only scratched the surface of the rich and complicated experience the South has to offer. But at moments -- like when standing at the crest of the Mississippi River during sunset -- it took my breath away.
I thought about the way my accent sometimes springs out in spite of me, the jazz singers in New Orleans, the billboards and strip malls and, finally, UNC. I felt glad to call this place home.
This post was originally published in The Daily Tar Heel.