Thursday, November 18, 2010

Do You Speak Redneck?

We've been running down the Tombigbee River toward Mobile, in the heart of rural Alabama . . . apparently an internet-free zone.  That's why the blog has been silent the last few days.  With a shaky, tentative connection, I'll try to start catching up. Photos to come!

Last week, as we prepared to leave our snug harbor at the marina in Columbus for the run down a (mostly) wild stretch of river to Demopolis, a rumor was going round.  "With so many 'Loopers' headed downstream," people said, "the river's gettin' mighty crowded!"  

"I hear the anchorages are completely full by nightfall," one person told us. "You could be left with nowhere to stay for the night."  

"The marina at Demopolis only lets boaters stay one night,"  said another, with a worried frown.  "Going to be hard to re-supply and fix up your boat for the run down to Mobile."   

But once again, our funny little boat demonstrated the perverse power of going slow.  This past week we found beautiful anchorages--side channels, pretty little coves decked with bald cypress and palmetto, completely deserted.

I think what happens is that these other boats, which can easily go 50 to 90 miles in a day, consult the same guidebooks and tend stop in the same places.  We, on the other hand, go a paltry 15 to 25 miles day (we can do 50 if pressed, but it's a grind!)  So we are in effect forced to stop at the little-visited places . . . or find new anchorages on our own.

One night we DID share an anchorage with other boats--in a bay by a park called Sumter Landing. But there was plenty of room for all seven large vessels. It was a spontaneous party.  All the  boats rafted up (tied together, side by side), making it easy to visit back and forth. (Chapman's Boating Etiquette for rafts: Always ask permission before you step across someone else's deck to reach a boat further down the line.  And while you are making the crossing, eyes forward and down. The crew or the boat may be in deshabille, but you notice nothing.)

Boat culture also dictates you carry your drink of choice to cocktail hour (many boaters have this down to a science, with stylish plastic or metal wineglasses and mini-coolers for re-supply) plus a snack to share. The conversation flowed as if we'd all know each other for years. We laughed and laughed.

Finally, on Thursday, we came to Demopolis, a town of about 22,000 souls founded in 1818 by refugees from France who tried (and failed) to create a little Eden blooming with grapevines and olive trees.  Wonder of wonders, instead of limiting us to a single night, the dockmistress cheerfully obliged our request for three nights dockage.  (OK, maybe that was because she could fit our skinny canal boat in a space too narrow and too shallow for most big trawlers.  Demonstrating yet again the greatness of canal boats.)

During our days in Demopolis we did boat chores--change the oil and the various filters, stock the cupboards with food and take on water, wash the boat. (A clean boat is a happy boat!) The Cap'n saw his first alligators--lifelike rubber beasts, eight feet long, in the parking lot outside the marina restaurant, where Sam Adams is a "premium import."  We ate spicy, rich jambalaya and practically licked the plate.  

One day we hopped our our bikes to visit the city's two antebellum mansions-turned- museums.  Gaineswood is "Alabama's most lavish plantation house" and the creation of General Nathan Bryan Whitefield, a boy genius and passionate fan of Greek Revival architecture who turned the family's original "dogtrot" log cabin into the wedding cake pile you see here. (He also build the Whitfield Canal, to drain his farmland.  We're always interested in canals.)  

The tour guide painted a vivid picture of a multi-talented and energetic man (successful farmer and businessman, self-taught and able architect, musician, composer, artist) but made no mention of the slaves who worked for 18 years to build the place.

Bluff Hall, another white-columned confection perched on a stretch of white chalk bluffs, is rumored to have been the inspiration for the plantation house called Lionnet in the play "Little Foxes," the best-known work of Demopolis native Lillian Hellman (whose great-grandfather Isaac Marx was the town's first Jewish settler). 

On our way to Bluff Hall we noticed a modest Jewish synagogue in a residential neighborhood. Our guide at the mansion (a striking black woman, elaborately dressed in a gold jacket, long black skirt and high-heeled boots) also made no mention of the slave labor that built or maintained the home. She told us the town's small Jewish population now travels to Tuscaloosa, an hour away, to worship, but the local Episcopalian church maintains the synagogue out of respect for the town's diverse heritage.

This morning's Philadelphia Inquirer notes that when we ring in the year 2011, Americans will start to celebrate a whole lot of 150th anniversaries relating to key events during the Civil War.  OK, at the Pennsylvania battlefield in Gettysburg it's called the Civil War, but here in Demopolis it's "The War Between the States," according to the brief town history published in a glossy pamphlet distributed by the Chamber of Commerce.  

Besides these indicators that we're in a different cultural region,we notice that we now stand out for our funny accents. When we order lunch at a restaurant, or pay for groceries, the pretty young girl in the apron looks at us quizzically and says, "Scuse me?" We're working on speaking slowly as well as traveling slowly.

Speaking of groceries, I'm having a blast sampling the regional differences.  The Food Fare back in Aliceville had no granola in the cereal aisle, but you could chose from about 15 different brands of grits. (Then once you chose a brand, you still have to decide, quick cooking or stone ground? cheese flavored? butter flavored?)  In the canned food aisle, garbanzo beans were not to be had, but you could get purple-hulled peas and pigeon peas, not to mention canned turnip greens (plain or spicy.)

We left Demopolis yesterday morning under gray skies.  The air was heavy with wet mist that didn't quite turn to rain.  Five other big white boats left the marina at the same time, and as we approached the Demopolis lock, three miles downstream, each boat radioed the lockmaster in turn, so he would know how many boats were coming and could think about where to place us in the lock (it depends on the length of the boat).

Monitoring the radio we overheard this conversation.  Boat:  "Demopolis Lock, Demopolis Lock, this is pleasure craft Andiamo."  Lockmaster: "What's that? Andamo?  Adamo?"  Boat: (laughs)  "Andiamo.  It's Italian for 'let's go.'"  Lockmaster:  (whistles)  "Cain't y'all find the words for that in Redneck?"

In Demopolis I had stocked up on crawfish tails and the makings for jambalaya.  Dinner that night was quite a treat.


  1. Hey Cynthia,

    You've described the Dragonfly pretty well to date, but you've avoided the "potty." Marble bathroom or padded bucket?

    Jim F.

  2. H i C y n t h i a.
    Y e s , b e i n g f r o m K e n t u c k y I k e e n s p e a k a n d u n d e r s t a n d " R e d n e c k " .

    I have a theory that people from cold places move and talk fast so they can stay warm and people from hot places don't want to work up a sweat :)