From the way my southern grandmother has always talked, I thought men in blue uniforms with rifles may be waiting for me when I crossed the Mason-Dixon Line on my way to Maine last week. It turns out, however, that the Mason-Dixon Line is not a line at all. I looked for a bright red mark drawn across the earth or warning signs that read “Go back, Southerner,” but I never saw either. I knew by instinct though that I should keep myself, as best I could, from saying “y’all.” Just in case.
The only thing bearing any resemblance to a Mason-Dixon Line, in my estimation, were long stretches of toll booths with people working in them who wanted my life savings. Apparently, in the North, you pay for everything, including the privilege to drive on public
roads that have very few exits. In the South, blue reflective signs as big as small outhouses adorn the sides of highways to help drivers know which exits have a Waffle House and which ones don’t (answer: not many). You can also find Krispy Kreme, Piggly Wiggly and Whataburger this way.
Not only does the North not have many exit signs, they also don’t seem to use “Ks” for “Cs.” I’ve spent almost my entire marriage in Florida, where every time my husband sees an exit for Whataburger, he feels compelled to say “WHAT-a-BURGER,” just like the commercials. When he joins me in the North later this fall, he’ll be slightly disappointed to realize that yelling “food” and “gas,” as these things are called on the northern exit signs, won’t have the same irritating effect.
But never mind, for a moment, what stores and restaurants the North has. Once you get on the many turnpikes north of Maryland, you may never get off. We have something similar to this — something you enter and can’t get back out of, all while continuously emptying your wallet for reasons you’re not sure of — in the South. We call them “casinos.” I got on a turnpike in New Jersey, shortly before Owen, 5, announced his urgent need to find a bathroom, and many miles later, I was in New York, still on the turnpike, still unable to find an exit.
This is right around the time that I was introduced to the concept of “speeding traffic.” In the South, traffic means that your car doesn’t move. In New York, traffic often means that hundreds of cars, all within a few inches of one another, travel not slower, but faster than the speed limit.
And no one cares that you didn’t realize the exit you were looking for is on the left, not right, until you are a quarter of a mile in front of it. Smiling out the window with a gosh-I-didn’t-even-know expression doesn’t help. In fact, I suspected that my Florida license plates were hurting my chances of getting across the 100-lane turnpike.
My grandmother has always, however unintentionally, made me think that northerners would be unfriendly. “Aloof” was a word I learned and associated with the North early in life. Yet on that road going through New York City, I learned otherwise. New Yorkers are definitely glad to speak to you, even if it means yelling through their closed car windows and making gestures with their fingers.
Then we entered Maine. It was as if we had crossed from one room in a house to another, and someone had just shut off all the lights in front of us. The smog and city lights of New York were far behind us, and even though we were still technically on a turnpike, there was only one other car in my rearview mirror. OK, so it was 1 o’clock in the morning, but still. The world literally seemed to slow back down. Giant fir trees flanked the sides of the road, and the stars shone down like tiny pinpricks in the black sky.
At a gas station near Brunswick, I stopped to get a drink. I was 33 cents short. “Ah, don’t worry about it,” the clerk said. “It’s on me.”
“For real?” I said, still digging through my purse.
“What’s 33 cents?” she laughed. “Go on now. Get on the road.”
Farther down the turnpike, I came to the last toll booth I would pass through before getting to Bangor.
“How much farther to Bangor?” I asked the attendant.
“About 88 miles,” he said.
I took my change and got ready to drive off again. But the man stopped me.
“You going to be alright, miss?” he said.
I smiled and thanked him for caring.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’m going to be just fine.”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Read more about Sarah at www.sarahsmiley.com.