Seaside to Selma to Oxford: Contrasts in the Deep South

I’m writing this more than two weeks into our summer journey and we’ve already seen too much to recount. We’re currently staying at what I’m certain will be the most expensive “campsite” of our trip. Some campsites boast private decks, stone fireplaces and clubhouses with all the comforts of a fine hotel. Alas, this patch of $120 per night gravel in Jersey City comes with almost NO amenities. But having a place to park and plug in within sight of Lady Liberty is priceless. Believe me, it’s the best deal we’ll get all summer, just two train stops from Greenwich Village. This parking space is prime real estate.

We started out our trip wandering the “Big Bend” of Florida, making a pit stop to visit my dad in the little village of Dowling Park, Florida. Then we found our way over to the Lost Coast. We stopped for lunch in the struggling fishing / oyster farming town of Apalachicola. Depending upon who you ask, the oyster beds are decimated because Georgia is taking all the fresh water before it can enrich the coastal waters OR the beds are over-harvested. It’s an issue that went all the way to the US Supreme Court where the Florida folks did not prevail. Without a major highway or airport servicing the area, it is the rare coastal town that isn’t a hive of construction activity.

Apalachicola is one of those places that I hope does well enough to survive, but doesn’t get “discovered.” It’s a place we could find parking for the RV, a fully functioning coffee shop, and an interesting cemetery. No, I’m not desecrating a grave. Many of the graves were broken by open by time and neglect, and I just wanted to get a better look. It was just dirt—the coffin and bones have been gone 100 years. It reminded me of graves in Buenos Aires, where stones had crumbled and coffins and who-knows-what-else were exposed.

Down the road we entered The Twilight Zone. I booked us for two nights in the sugary white sands of Grayton Beach State Park. I did not realize that this put us a quick 2 mile bike ride to the town of Seaside, FL. You’ve probably seen Seaside. It was used as the setting for the 1990s film The Truman Show starring Jim Carey. More than just a quaint backdrop, Seaside was a main character because the entire premise of the movie is that the place is a phony town full of perfect people performing roles. And that’s how the real Seaside feels. I’m a BIG fan of a walkable town, and I appreciate that they didn’t just do Destin all over agin. But it felt like a theme park. Although a theme park would actually have a place to park. The town’s quaint walkable aura is destroyed by the mile-long traffic jam lining the main drag and the stupid, stupid, stupid golf carts that are the new status symbol (add in a ‘Salt Life’ sticker, a Yeti cooler and some loud Luke Bryan country music). I’m a grumpy old man. Seaside is a victim of its own charm.

Seaside’s “newspaper” comes out quarterly. A food truck court of old Airstreams offered some nostalgia. I’d love to see someone roll into town with a real food truck and see how long it takes for someone to run them off. The “neighborhoods” were all perfect, lacking in any personal touches that I suspect wouldn’t be allowed. Each home carries a little sign with a name of the owner – presumably to give it a neighborly feel – but a lot of those names were companies and not humans. We did not see Truman.

Grayton Beach State Park is excellent place to experience the panhandle beaches without getting into the long stretches of condos. At sunset we felt like total losers as the only family without a professional photographer in tow.

Leaving Seaside, we took a trip through some Civil Rights sights in Alabama and Mississippi that we had hoped to see before Snowmageddon 2021 turned us away in February. Our first stop was Selma, Alabama. We happened to meet local historian, Columbus Mitchell, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two of his uncles were there on Bloody Sunday. For nearly an hour, Columbus offered the unsanitized story of Selma’s role in a critical time in the Civil Rights Movement. After Selma, we drove a couple hours over to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute which is across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls were killed in a bombing in 1963.

Seeing the smoke stains still remaining above the window was a moving experience and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is truly incredible. Our kids were particularly drawn to the exhibits of signage and facilities of the Jim Crow era.

Our next stop was Oxford, Mississippi. We were stalking two people. One dead and one living. First, was literary legend William Faulkner, who lived in Oxford most of his life. The second, the very alive, Dr. Mark Dolan, was Monica’s favorite high school teacher, and is now a tenured professor in journalism at UM. He gave us an insider’s tour. Oxford is a curiosity in the way the town really is the university and not much more—and it’s nowhere near any other cities. It’s a “college town” if there ever was one.

Oxford has its own fascinating Civil Rights story with the high profile 1962 segregation case which allowed James Meredith to enroll as the first black student. Today, Oxford may be a progressive university town, but it’s still in the South. The “Ole Miss” nickname (a reference to slave dialect) remains, and even though “Colonel Reb” has been retired, his face is still everywhere. It hasn’t been a year since the university removed the statue of a Confederate soldier from a prominent campus site.

Our stay was brief enough to give us a taste and build our curiosity. We found the “town square” charming and real (featuring another monument whose days are numbered). Square Books was one of those perfectly nerdy bookstores with employees offering recommendations and conversation. Nielsen’s Department Store (the first department store in the South) dates to 1838 and bears the distinction of being burned during the Civil War (word is that General Sherman was not a fan of seersucker suits). Uptown Coffee offered the perfect pitstop to watch Oxford life pass by. Oxford is an interesting place that checked all the boxes: history, charm, coffee and books.

William Faulkner’s home, followed by a spin through town and a walk through campus. Huge thanks to Mark Dolan for spending the day with us. After dinner with Mark and his wife Amy, an enormous storm shaped like PacMan came to devour us. Tornados were spotted in just about every direction. We waited out the tornado warning in a Walgreens before heading down the road to a Cracker Barrel parking lot in Tupelo (2 straight nights in Cracker Barrels, if you’re keeping score.)

As I mentioned, I began writing this in New York City, where old urbanism once inspired suburban flight, which ultimately made us long for the old urbanism again. What do we love about old cities? Why do we visit Manhattan and not Leavittown? Places that have a diversity of life, work and pleasure are simply more interesting. I confess my attitude toward Seaside has softened a little. At least they’re designing a place that people want to live. Florida already proved it couldn’t build well designed beach communities (Daytona and Panama City Beach.) Why not create a place that is everything a typical beach town isn’t?

Our tires are barely even warm and we’ve already bitten off a lot in this trip. Next stop: Helen Keller, Muscle Shoals, we go missing in the Smokies, and snag some amazing free camping in Chattanooga.

You’re enjoying the FOURTH summer trip of “Don’t Make Me Turn This Van Around.” This blog is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. In 2016, after series of major medical issues, Jon was diagnosed with a serious genetic condition called Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. With life completely altered, they developed a road-trip habit. Reach Jon at Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker. Also, don’t forget to follow our Instagram feed for stuff that doesn’t make the blog.

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