In Mystery and Manners Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” The American South is known as the Bible Belt – the most religious region in the United Sates. It was on a drive through Florida’s panhandle, Georgia, South and North Carolina, and beyond toward the northeast states that I realised how saturated with Christianity this area is. Some areas seemed to have a church of one sect or another at each corner (although the reality is that these churches are mainly of Protestant denominations – particularly Southern Baptist, Methodist, and evangelical). This left an impression on me. Since much of our road trip was destination-focused, and we had set a time limit for our return home, I did not have opportunity to photograph this surprising (to me) phenomenon. Mounted on billboards and church signs Steve and I saw as we drove along, were messages like:
“Jesus, we love you! Signed, Wakulla” (billboard outside Wakulla, FL)
“Even SATAN believes in me. Signed, God” (on the side of a tractor-trailer, GA interstate)
“The first valentine was made of two pieces of wood and three nails” (a church’s signboard, somewhere in GA)
But of course there is more to the American South than religious immoderation. Our trip was a whirlwind, aimed at returning to New England with a few slight diversions. What we chose to experience was the natural world of Florida by hiking through two of the many state and national parks (Ocala and Wakulla). While on the road we passed through towns like Palatka and Micanopy (both in Florida) that recall days past, with unpretentious historic town centres that seem worlds away from their outlying suburban areas. Similarly, in places like Eustis, Florida, there remain vestiges of the mid-20th century that hint at what these places once were; we stayed in a hotel on the town’s outskirts that still has its original neon sign from the 1960s. Athens, GA, has a strong creative community with flourishing music, culinary, and arts scenes.
Until Athens, Georgia, we took back-roads that passed through many small towns where we saw a lot of poverty. Because the Church’s presence is a strong one in the South; the general tenor of the place seemed significantly more conservative than anywhere I have been. What also became clear was evidence of the historical interchange between black and white – palpable from the food, music, religion, and probably a whole lot more that we didn’t experience ourselves. Though all we had was a mere glance at this complex region, we were always on the receiving end of great hospitality and manners.