Lessons Learned in the American South: #1 time is just a number

19Nov09

Bell Buckle, TN, USA

As I began to reflect on past adventures this week (one of my strategies for warding off wanderlust), a peculiar pattern kept peeking its fuzzy little head out at me: with each successive adventure, I have simultaneously discarded and embraced pieces of my hometown.  Its a Darwinian process, clutching the functional and scrapping the rest.  After growing up with a West-Coast family in the listing hills of Middle Tennessee, I have decided to share (in a three-part series) a few invaluable travel lessons I have learned living in the American South.

The sign pictured above is posted in a small woodworking shop in Bell Buckle, Tennessee–home of one stoplight, a wishing well, and the annual RC Cola & Moonpie festival each June.  The joviality and nonchalance of this proprietor’s notice is not remarkable; it could doubtless typify the whole speckled South.  So, the first invaluable lesson I have learned?  Time is just a number.

Southern folk are often slighted for being lazy, simple-minded, or slow.  Even in the quaintest antiquing towns from Kentucky to Georgia, I have found people to be industrious, intelligent, and yes…slow.  This Southern poky-ness is not indolence, but the indubitable conviction that smiles are better than sales, and family traditions more important than societal expectations.  Though I still have some trouble understanding the desire to spend every Sunday afternoon split between football and front-porch-sittin’, I appreciate the community values that counter the “go-go-go” mentality on which the rest of the country seems to operate.  Do you think our friendly shopkeeper worried about the business he missed when he didn’t roll in until noon?  No!  He was enjoying the extra few hours’ sleep, probably wondering whether he should close early, too, in order to stop by his mother’s house before dinner.

To be a globe rover (and to actually enjoy extended travel), you must accept periods of extreme activity and extreme inactivity.  The highs of snowboarding, camel riding, kite surfing, river rafting and all other sorts of glorious escapades comprise a small fraction of the journey.  The other hours find you waiting for buses, sitting in airport terminals, sipping away entire afternoons in local cafes, checking into hostels or wandering aimlessly through crooked alleyways hoping to run into that eerily attractive Colombian you passed in the marketplace.  I once had to spend eight hours in the Hong Kong International airport waiting for a delayed connection, and even people watching loses its whimsy after that long.

Not only must you contend with an onslaught of downtime when traveling, you must maintain an open relationship with your watch.  The second you commit, time will cheat on you–the museum will be closed, the flight will be canceled, the shopkeeper in Bell Buckle will be “someplace else.”  Your optimistic schedule has little integrity, and will be off romancing the world on its own terms in split second, leaving you hungry, tired and homeless on some drab South American sand dune.

Planning on grid skipping soon? Start orientating yourself toward people and not time slots.  Put down the day planner and pick up the address book.  Inhale the spirit of the South and let it seep into your bloodstream.  And remember…

Time is just a number; don’t let it play you.

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