The Altar of the South

During my first stateside flight I sat next to a southerner who told me that the American male sees his car as the ultimate accessory; an expression of personality and individualism “much like how women like to wear different shoes from each other”. During my last flight, I sat next to a northerner who told me that the American male has but two topics of conversation: sports, and the weather. “They all take such pride in their cars so they have one more discussion point before conversation runs dry.”

The further we travelled, the more towns we stayed in and the more people we met, the more apparent it became to me that the real altar at which America worships is not found within the pretty tin-roofed churches lining our routes. It is the God of the Automobile that rules the south with an aluminium fist. It may be true that one of the few fully pedestrian-planned towns in the country is the most expensive property in the whole of the state of Florida, but for the south at large the SUV and the four wheel drive are as essential to life as food and air con. Even in the cities – perhaps especially in the cities – pedestrians on the sidewalk are a rare breed, and those that we do manage to spot from our fortified Range Rover do not look to be the sort of characters you want to find yourself within a foot of. Without a child lock and an egregiously tinted window in between. And this unbelievable reliance on having a vehicle is not even just a unfortunate necessity; the very idea of investment in public transport is seen as a direct attack on personal freedom (the most important thing in this country, don’t you know). “When I sit behind my wheel I feel like I can go anywhere, do anything, get to any part of the country I want as long as there are gas stations between here and there,” is a sentiment expressed by almost everyone with which I have broached this subject. “Why would I sit with my face in a stranger’s armpit when I could cruise along in my air conditioned SUV?” A damning indictment of train travel, and one that rings like blasphemy in ears of railway-loving Englanders.

Admittedly these arguments, like many of those alien American arguments, political and otherwise, that I at first scoffed at unashamedly, have gained credence the further our journey took us through the southernmost states. The south is its own nation built on and for the car, its (second) booming highpoint synchronous with that of the invention of the automobile and its roads specifically constructed for streams of individuals in cars large enough for eight. It’s a land that has had industry from so comparatively close to its conception that to structure itself around the pedestrian and not the 4×4 would have seemed absurd to the city-expanders of the early 20th century. Its towns are built around never having to leave your car and step into the brutal southern heat; there’s drive-thru food, drive-thru banks that shoot a capsule of money down to you through a vacuum tube, drive-thru voting polls, and, most incongruously, drive-thru liquor stores. There is a painful artificiality to the giant southern metropolises in which you can go a whole day without stepping a foot outside. From your living room to your garage to the parking lot to your office to the parking lot to your garage to your living room. An endless chain of air-conditioned artificial exteriors, a reality where it’s almost too easy to never have to see another human being save through the barrier of your windscreen or the glass of a drive-thru booth. I don't love it.