It’s hard writing about the salty Gulf Coast without the taste of fried biscuits in Mendenhall, Mississippi, or the hypnotic curves of rice paddies in southeast Arkansas, the lonely cotton gins and weathered Baptist churches that survive calamitous storms year after year. Before we can throw our bodies into the roiling sea, there’s a rite of passage we must traverse. It takes nine-and-a-half hours to drive from Little Rock to Orange Beach. Nine-and-a-half hours of poverty and the whims of commodity crop economics. It used to be cotton and rice. Now it’s GMO corn and soy. “You can’t even eat that corn,” my mom would say. A black cloud of starlings shoots past us. “I know, it all goes to the cows outside Denver,” I would reply. Dollar General replaced the mom-and-pop small town shops, and now even those soul-starved places are empty, only to be filled by storefront churches promising salvation by the highway. One sign reads Just Church. Fast food wrappers skitter along asphalt and half-smashed snakes. Upturned armadillos try to hold up the sky with their stubby legs. Meanwhile, kudzu swallows up longleaf pines and the lives that depend on them, and the forest turns into a tomb, encased by this foreign, medicinal vine only Agent Orange could knock out. The roadside greenbelt looks more like a freak show displaying storybook monsters frozen in time – their movements, their joys, their battles all swallowed up by this relentless vine. I don’t care how medicinal it is and what the rumors are for curing cancer. That vine is killing the forests.
We drive and drive through one small southern hamlet after another. We look for the places where the good bathrooms are. Lake Providence. Hattiesburg. We pass the HoJo where my parents stayed on their way to New Orleans for their honeymoon. I casually mention that I’ve never tried boiled peanuts. My husband shakes his head and exclaims, “You’ve never tried boiled peanuts!” We stop at the first roadside sign—just a piece of cardboard and the words, Boiled Peanuts, written in black marker. A round man in overalls scoops them out of a steaming metal barrel next to his pickup truck. I hold the heavy brown paper bag between my legs and feel the warmth radiate through my thighs. The slippery peanuts taste like what they actually are, legumes, and this feels right. I can’t finish the whole bag. I can’t write about the ocean without covering the ground leading there. Those peanuts and disenfranchised farming dreams. We cross five hundred hardscrabble miles for the promise of beach paradise at the end of the road. Yes, there is beach litter – cigarette butts, Styrofoam scraps, tampon applicators, and the odd flipper. Tar balls have decreased since the 2010 oil spill. Pelicans, osprey, and gulls act like nothing happened. Some say not to eat the oysters and shrimp, but I can’t resist the flavors holding my childhood together. I walk to the water and dive into a small wave. A school of fish shoots past me, and I know my ashes will be scattered here someday. I know I will return and become part of a swirling gyre of manmade debris and God’s holy mysteries, and that will be fine.