I was raised in Maryland but even though it is South of the Mason-Dixon line (the traditional North-South dividing line), I always considered myself a Northerner (what can I say, no matter the topic, I like winning). The Washington Post heads even further down South and takes a look at the changing state of affairs in “rural” Virginia and the North-South divide within this important Battleground State:
There’s debate about where the South really begins. The Mason-Dixon Line? The Potomac? The Rappahannock? The “sweet tea line?” What’s certain is that, by the time you’ve reached David Lamb’s horse farm in Orange County, you’re there. Oakland Heights Farm offers riding lessons and holds rodeos in the splendid heart of the Piedmont, on Route 15 a couple of hours southwest of Washington. Lamb is a Civil War buff who says his side lost, and grouses about prickly Yankees who swoop in and buy huge tracts of land and put up fences. Ask him what being southern means, and he says, “You can show up and sit on my front porch and have a glass of iced tea with me.”
Southern hospitality isn’t about to disappear, but the intensity of American politics in this election season can make for awkward encounters and tricky relationships, to judge by dozens of interviews in recent days along Route 15 in Virginia. The north-south scenic byway offers a transect of the cultural fault line between Northern Virginia and what might be more traditionally defined as the South. Virginia has a long history as contested territory, and this year it’s a critical battleground state in the presidential election, with 13 electoral votes in the balance.
For a full generation, since the political realignment during the civil rights era, Republican presidential candidates had an apparent lock on the old Confederacy. [NOTE: this isn't true. Whomever won the South won the election and in 1976, 1992 and 1996 it was a Democrat] But Obama, boosted by support in the booming Northern Virginia suburbs — known among some unreconstructed southerners as Occupied Virginia — won the state four years ago and has enjoyed a small but steady lead in recent Virginia polls.
As a general rule, the true South is more conservative, and more friendly to Republican candidates. The only catch is that the South is changing, modernizing, diversifying. Crude electoral maps and broad-brush political analysis can miss the granular complexity of America’s political geography, because so many people have added to their list of inalienable rights the right to defy stereotypes. “The nature of the South is changing faster than the stereotypes are. Much of the South now looks like San Jose. Is it still southern?” asks John Shelton Reed, a retired professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina who has studied the cultural borders of the South. So where is the border, professor? “If I had to say, and I guess I do, I’d say just about the Rappahannock [River] when you’re going south,” he said. “When you get 50 miles from Washington, you’re probably in the South.”
Route 15 is the asphalt version of what was known long ago as the Carolina Road. The road crosses the Potomac at Point of Rocks, Md., and is just a two-lane country road when it reaches Lucketts, Va., in northern Loudoun County. Dominating the heart of Lucketts are a couple of antique stores, including Really Great Finds, where Carrie Sisk, 36, the retail manager, is a local and remembers when Loudoun County was just cow farms…Keep heading south, past Leesburg with its outlet stores, and you’ll see the antebellum plantation Oatlands, where preservationists are fighting to keep housing developments out of its viewshed. Oatlands says “South,” but the eye is drawn beyond the old grain silo to the rack of new housing on the distant hillside. Eventually you’ll see signs for the Winery at La Grange, which sits at the base of the Bull Run Mountains…Onward to Warrenton, which is now a suburb of Washington. “When I was a kid, Main Street was dirt,” says William Lawson, 75, a funeral director standing in the shade on Main…Tom Armstrong, 59, an arborist, pops out of the post office and says he remembers when this part of Virginia was rural and didn’t have many middle-class people, just the poor and the very rich. He likes the more multicultural feel of the area. He’ll vote for Romney, saying he doesn’t like the Democratic position on entitlements: “I really don’t think being a citizen of the United States entitles you to anything.” [I normally edit out partisan citizen quotes but that last one was too good to leave out. That's a man I want to have a drink with.]
Below Warrenton on Route 15, the landscape starts to change. There are fewer housing developments, and fewer just-built mansions that look like they sprouted in a pasture after a recent rain. You’re nearing the Rappahannock, an unofficial border, and now you see vintage motels, what used to be called motor courts, and the occasional old house being eaten by vines. A truck stop has a big sign out front: “BBQ World.” This is Quarles Truck Stop, where the manager is Donn Sachs, 63, a Tidewater Virginian who doesn’t feel he’s in the South when he’s this far north: “A lot of people don’t even know what grits are.” … Just a little ways ahead, in the hamlet of Opal, a sign on the right says, “Clark Bros — Guns.” It’s a gun shop with an outdoor shooting range in back. There’s a fiberglass bear, ferociously kitschy, on the roof. “This is kind of where it starts,” says owner Steve Clark, and he’s referring, of course, to the South.
The Rappahannock River
Now comes the Rappahannock River, which is shallow this far upstream. Last weekend some local African Americans reenacted an August 1862 flight to freedom, in which slaves crossed the river here to escape bondage and join retreating Union soldiers. Ed Dudley, a Verizon employee, has parked a van on the northern side of the river so he can work on a line that leads to a water gauge in the river…In downtown Culpeper, you’re probably in the South, though you’re really not that far from Washington, which spews cultural seeds into distant pastures. Along the fault line you might think yourself deep in Dixie, only to see signs for yoga lessons and a wine bar.
Halfway to Orange is a vintage roadside store, the Midway Country Market. The proprietors are an African American couple who spent years teaching school in the District before relocating. Bob and Mary Royster, both 65, have packed their market with antiques, old tools, vintage glass bottles, furniture. You can buy pigs’ feet marinating in a jar, and pickled eggs. This is where you can buy souse — “head cheese.” …Route 15 comes to Orange, where Jimmy Harris, 57, makes a purchase at a produce stand, and says he was a contractor until “the illegal immigrants put me out of business.” …Eventually Route 15 hits Interstate 64. Just before the interstate there’s a new shopping plaza, with a Wal-Mart and a Lowe’s. The place calls itself “The Shoppes at Spring Creek” — the kind of spelling that makes a southerner suspect that someone’s taking on airs. Beyond that is the village of Zion Crossroads. A man sells produce on the roadside. People trickle into the laundromat and the convenience store. William Sprouse, 55, a logger and tree culler, says he’s undecided this fall…Route 15 keeps going, of course, because remember, it was the Carolina Road. The conversation about where the South begins can safely come to an end at this point. People here know where they live.