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In the south

08/09/02 12:00AM By David Moats
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(Host) Commentator David Moats just got back from a road trip, and he's still savoring a renewed sense of regional diversity - and flavors.

(Moats) It was somewhere near Chattanooga when I realized how big this country is. It's not as if I haven't seen the country before. I've driven across it three times, and I used to live out West. But I'd never been to the South, and by the time we got to J.L.'s Barbecue outside Macon, it was clear this huge country has worlds within worlds.

Most of us have an idea of America as a single entity, and we worry that everything is becoming the same. If we watch television, we're part of a virtual community where the accents are alike and it doesn't matter much where you're from. In this virtual world, our local identity is no more significant than the baseball cap we choose to wear. So it's encouraging to see that despite the Mixmaster effect of our popular culture, which tries to blend us into one bland milk shake, the differences from place to place are still huge.

I-75 in Georgia is a tunnel of towering commercial messages that dominate the landscape. You get on this road and you know for sure you're not in Vermont anymore. But even taking into account a Vermonter's snobby disdain for commercial advertising, it's not all bad.

A patron standing in line at J.L.'s Barbecue informed the road-weary Vermonters that J.L.'s was probably the best barbecue in Georgia. That was a good thing for the Vermonters who wanted to sample the local culture - the ribs, the catfish, the twice-baked potatoes.

Yes, things are different down here. Regional accents are not just an affectation. The tightly clipped accent of the Vermont Yankee is a weirdness itself in a sea of lazy, drawling Southerners.

People know different things in different places. The cab driver in Tallahassee was as conversant about the undersea life he had encountered as a diver in the Gulf as any Vermont hunter talking about his favorite spot in the woods.

You get out and away from home, and you realize this country is a vast continental empire, containing whole nations of people jostling up against one another, united by history and by the virtual community in which most of us participate. We are the third most populous nation on earth, after all. It's a miracle we hold together as peacefully as we do.

Of course, the Civil War statues in the squares of those Georgia towns are a reminder that it hasn't always been so peaceful. The statues in Vermont and Georgia commemorate two sides of a war whose legacy has lasted for more than a century.

But from the barrios of Los Angeles to the villages of Vermont, from the bucolic Shenandoah to the bustle of the Bronx, this is a huge and interesting country. Vermonters, too, are unique, but we aren't the only ones.

If you ever stop in at J.L.'s, try the peach cobbler. And thank J.L. on the way out. He's the one standing by the cash register.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
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