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Southern States

June 11th, 2013 at 10:05 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


Faulkner home

Rowan Oak, Oxford, Mississippi


Interstate highways allow you make good time while traveling, but having a good time on those highways is not guaranteed.

Those slabs of concrete are like run-on sentences: no periods in sight. If you want to cover miles quickly, interstates are the way to go. The downside is that two full days of interstate travel is too much.

My mom and I took a fun trip in May when we drove from central Arkansas to Savannah. Because my previous trips to Georgia had a starting point of Kansas rather than Arkansas, this route took me through new territory and new states: the Deep South.

On the way out, the entire trip was done on interstate highways. While crossing Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, my mom and I saw trees, ditches, the highway, trucks, cars – and not much more than that. One exit is as generic as the next: McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s – and the occasional Cracker Barrel thrown in for grits.

On the return trip, Mom and I, desperate for a change of scenery, followed a few two-lane roads. When we left Savannah, we drove through the small Georgia towns, each with its own character. When Mom lived near Savannah in the ‘90s, she sent me Claxton Fruitcakes a few times. Normally, I’m not an eater of fruitcake, but these were good. Really. We drove through Claxton (pop. 2,276), which claims to be the fruitcake capital of the world.

Up the road a bit was the land of sweet onions, Vidalia, Ga. (pop. 10,491). It was harvest time. A field is first undercut, unearthing the onions. Then the onions are allowed to air-dry for a few days. We saw dozens of workers in the field, packing them in crates. The Vidalia onion is the official state vegetable of Georgia.

We had to join the interstate, but exited again at Tupelo, Miss., so that we could visit Oxford. Oxford is one of those towns I kept hearing about, and as a writer, I wanted to see it for myself. William Faulkner lived there. John Grisham is a part-time resident. Jesmyn Ward, Tom Franklin and many other writers make Oxford home.

The town’s population is about 19,000, so that small-town feeling comes naturally to Oxford. The Lafayette County Courthouse is a beautiful building constructed in 1872. The original courthouse was burned during the Civil War. The University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss, is an energetic part of the community with an enrollment of 21,500.

Because Oxford is a town of writers, it was not a surprise to find a magnificent bookseller on the square. Square Books was recently named as the Bookstore of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly.

Square Books is divine, its air filled with that heavenly old building/new book smell. On the staircase to the second floor, risers are painted with names of categories: African-American studies, Southern studies, signed editions, Mississippiana, Faulkner, etc. Photographs of authors cover the walls.

Square books

It’s such a popular business that it has three separate storefronts downtown. In addition to the main store, there’s Off Square Books which includes a space for book events. This location hosts Thacker Mountain Radio Show which is broadcast on Mississippi Public Radio and features authors and musical performances. The third location is Square Books, Jr., a bookstore for children.

Mom and I toured Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s residence, now a museum. Rowan Oak, a primitive Greek revival home is located in town, but its four acres of land and trees made it feel isolated. I could see how it would be an inspiring place to write. It was here that Faulkner created his many stories, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize, one a Nobel Prize.

In a display at Rowan Oak, I noted this Faulkner quote: “Beginning with ‘Sartoris’ I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it….”

Stopping at Oxford, and spending the night there, was one of my favorite parts of this trip with my mom.

Interstate highways are great for getting someplace quickly, but it’s more fun to take the slower roads. A person needs to stop and smell the bookstores along the way.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh


Square Books 3

William Faulker

William Faulkner


columns, out of state, traveling, writing

  1. Flips
    June 11th, 2013 at 12:23 | #1

    We haven’t been that direction for several years– we may have to head the motor home that way again– we were headed that way last year when the storm blew in– so we changed plans!!!

  2. roger
    June 11th, 2013 at 20:54 | #2

    This was a rich travelogue, Cheryl.

  3. Sandy
    June 11th, 2013 at 21:45 | #3

    Cheryl, I loved reading this. I’ve been to a lot of bookstores, but that is one I have never managed to visit. I agree with you about going on the “little” highways–interstates are for speed and not for the traveler!
    Glad you and your mom had a good trip.

  4. Leon Unruh
    June 12th, 2013 at 16:40 | #4

    I love this line:

    One exit is as generic as the next: McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s – and the occasional Cracker Barrel thrown in for grits.

  5. June 12th, 2013 at 23:22 | #5

    I loved this!