This line of country

Google maps makes it possible to play cat-and-mouse in your car.
Parke County, Indiana, from an earlier midwest painting trip.
Most of my kids have Google maps location sharing set up. This feature tells you where a cell phone is. If I had younger kids, I’d insist on it. However, my children are all adults. I don’t have them tied to my apron strings; it was something my husband was tinkering with and we never turned it off.
It’s very useful, especially when someone loses their cell phone. “Mary,” I can say from across the country, “it’s at your house.”
Chapel of Faith, by Carol L. Douglas
I met my eldest and her family in Mobile, Alabama. Since then we’ve been traveling in parallel. They amuse themselves with tourist activities while I paint, and we meet up afterwards.
Location sharing has limitations. It updates periodically, not instantaneously. You can set a route to the last destination the phone was in, but you can’t track the other phone in real time. It will be less fun when they fix that.
Parke County, Indiana, from an earlier midwest painting trip.
My kids were poking along the gulf coast while I was in Langan Park with fellow painter Cat Pope. Rather than call them to meet up, I decided to track them. It was an exhilarating game, for they were moving as fast as I was. Time after time, I pounced, only to come up with thin air—they’d moved on. Finally, they entered a cul-de-sac. “Ah!” I said. “I can cut them off at the entrance.” But, alas, another car pulled up behind me, preventing my neat maneuver.
A warning, though: you’re driving a real machine, not an imaginary video-game car. Pull off to the side of the road to use Google maps, just as you should when doing anything not driving-related.
My son-in-law likes to drive at night. They headed north while I got a hotel room in Mississippi. I’m a poor sleeper. I noted they’d stopped for a while at a rest stop in Tennessee. In the morning, they were at the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY.
Wabash Bottom Lands, by Carol L. Douglas
Rather than retrace my steps through Virginia, I decided to head north after them.
They’d stopped at a lonely country intersection south of Birmingham, Alabama for gas, about 40 miles from where I’d been in Marion last week. There were two service stations. The first was devoid of life, except for a big ol’ junkyard dog. Arthur lost his favorite cap running back to his truck.
At the second station, there appeared to be a party in progress. There were trucks everywhere, but nobody was buying gas. Nobody seemed to notice him. “They were like zombies,” Arthur told me. He decided to go back to the first station. The dog was gone and the pumps were on, but the station was as ghostly and abandoned as ever.
As he headed back to the interstate, he saw something in the road. “That’s my hat!” he exclaimed. It was full of bitemarks. He left it right where it was.

This painting isn’t as bad as it looks

Actually, it was pretty much a failure, but I will try again today.

Gator pond, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Ocean Spring, Mississippi.
When I was in the Bahamas in 2016, I was fascinated with palms, a family of plants with more than 2000 members. I meant to be fascinated with them on this trip, too. Instead, the southern live oak has captured my heart.
These are not true evergreens. Rather, like young beeches and oaks up north, they drop their old leaves immediately before new leaves emerge in the spring. The difference is that the old leaves remain green right up until the swap, whereas our northern ones dry up and rattle in the winter wind.
This week, the new growth on New Orleans’ live oaks is emerging. That leaves the branches denuded of their characteristic heavy, dark covering, allowing their parasites to dominate the scene. These include ball moss, Spanish mossresurrection fern, and mistletoe. The trees seem to tolerate them, but they make them look more gnarly than they actually are.
Spanish moss at Mobile Bay. (Photo courtesy of Douglas Perot)
There are countless examples of ancient live oaks here in New Orleans. They have weathered terrible storms for many decades.
On Sunday, we made the drive from Mobile to New Orleans through a heavy rain. My intention was to paint at Davis Bayou at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Mississippi, but the rain drowned all visibility. I did this little sketch of a gator pond before the lightning drove me away.
Louisiana ‘s wild alligator population is estimated to be around two million. Apparently, that’s not enough, because there are an additional 300,000 farmed alligators here. That, I think, means you’re likely to see one anywhere there’s water. I imagine they’re relatively torpid right now. Daytime temperatures are the low sixties. Still the sun—when you’re in it—is hot, and reptiles love sunbathing.
Live oak and folly (unfinished) at City Park.
I set up to paint in City Park. This has a wonderful botanical garden, great swathes of trees, meandering creeks, and the additional attraction of the Morning Call coffee stand in the old casino. It was, however, unwise of me to choose a backlighted tree with a domed, columned folly behind it. I spent the morning cheerfully drawing the building and trees and started to limn in the colors when two things occurred to me. First, I was unbearably hot, and second, the light had turned. My backlighting was no more.
Fewer beignets, more painting time!
I gave it up and decided to go down to the historic district to find some lunch and the waterfront. What I thought might be a two-hour jaunt used up the remainder of the day.
“During the week, especially in Manhattan, the pace is so slow, you often feel that any mode of transportation might be as fast as any other—you could walk, drive, take a cab or ride the subway and get there about the same time—so we choose our transport more on aesthetic grounds,” Garrison Keillor once said.
The same seems true of New Orleans. I raced my traveling companions back to City Park—they on the trolley and on foot, me in my car. We arrived back at exactly the same time.

The old South and the new

An Alabama folk artist will know he’s made it when his work graces the walls of a Manhattan apartment, even if he doesn’t see much cash from the sale.

An outdoor folk art installation in the woods.

The Confederate Cemetery at Marion is full of Union soldiers who died in hospital here. They outnumber their southern brethren, in fact, with whom they’re buried side-by-side. It was just one of many surprises here in Perry County. This is the second-poorest county in Alabama, which is itself the 47th poorest state in America, but it’s also a proud and beautiful place.

“There’s art in these woods,” our guide, Pastor John Nicholson of Siloam Baptist Church, told us. Sure enough, tacked to the trees were paintings on pieces of old tin roofs. “There used to be lots more,” John lamented. I hope that a gallerist doesn’t discover this open-air gallery any time soon. Then, instead of being free to the citizens of Marion, the art will cost $20 for Manhattanites.
Cypress swamp in Perry County, Alabama.
In the bigger world, money conveys legitimacy. Earnest Williams isn’t making any money by tacking his paintings onto trees. When his paintings sell for six figures and grace the walls of an Upper East Side classic six, he’ll know he’s arrived, although he will probably see very little actual cash from it.
The UN instructs us that Alabama is practically a third-world nation. My husband was in Haiti a few years ago. “Does that look like Haiti?” I asked him as we passed a particularly ramshackle cabin.
“Perhaps like the very best house in Port-au-Prince,” he answered.
Antebellum house in Marion, Alabama.
I do know the slums of Rochester pretty well, and measure for measure, I’d rather be in the woods. New York ranks 15thin America for wealth but right behind the District of Columbia for income inequality. I’ve known plenty of people living in a different kind of squalor. If your neighbor is a snapping turtle or black bear, you’re already wealthier than the family living next to a drug house with a chronic rat problem.
There is a lovely antebellum house mouldering on Marion’s main street. This is not because of poverty, but because of family dynamics; the owners are alive and prospering just around the corner.
Old slave housing in Marion, Alabama.
A sermon or seven could be preached about this house’s fall from grace. Camellias of every variety bloom in its overgrown lawns. Its slave quarters stand as they did in the 19th century, as does its outdoor kitchen. For the first time in years, I’m motivated to paint something overtly instructive. I took many, many photographs. “You’ll just have to come back,” John said.
South of town, the landscape is less woodsy and more prairie. We stopped by a lovely old farmhouse in the middle of pasturage, lakes and ponds. It would be the perfect place for a workshop. I’m seriously thinking about it.
Camellias in bloom.
I stopped in Montgomery for lunch. This is more like the New South I’ve read about, a 20th century boom-town, with bustling restaurants and souvenirs in its riverfront area. A tour guide cheerfully herded her charges down pavements that once served as Montgomery’s slave market.
There’s a small industry here in Hank Williams remembrances, with people picking over the details of another poor Alabama boy’s life. I’m a fan, so we dutifully forked over our $20. A swank tour coach from Georgia was parked next to his grave. 
Next stop, Mobile.

Alabama’s black belt

A sleepy exterior belies a turbulent civil rights history.

Siloam Baptist Church, by Carol L. Douglas.

In the earliest days of social media, ‘stranger danger’ took the form of warnings about people on the internet. When I befriended a Southern Baptist preacher online, my kids were horrified. Facebook came along, and Pastor John Nicholson posted photos of Marion, AL, and historic Siloam Baptist Church. He told me that I really ought to come down and paint there someday. Yesterday, I did.

The city of Marion’s population is about the same as that of Rockport, ME, but it is able to spread out on a neat grid of streets. There are some terrific, large, old houses here, and like everything else, they have elbow room. The pastor’s home is a massive old place; so is the church itself. Built in the boom times, it could seat five hundred worshippers.
The chair of the art department at Judson College told me a little about this area’s civil rights history, and gave me this book.
This is the center of Alabama’s Black Belt. This originally referred to the region’s rich, black topsoil. With the development of 19th century cotton plantations, the term started to refer to African-American slaves as well. After the Civil War, freedmen stayed as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Perry County, of which Marion is the seat, is almost 70% black.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was a young civil rights activist and deacon at St. James Baptist Church here in Marion. On February 18, 1965, he was beaten and shot by troopers while protesting. Eight days later, he died in hospital in nearby Selma. This was the catalyst for the first Selma to Montgomery March on March 7, 1965.
Jimmie Lee Jackson’s home church in Marion, AL.
It’s hard to resolve this sleepy, pretty town with such a violent and important history. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it until I met Joshua Pickens, head of the art department at Judson College. This small, jewel-like school was founded by members of Siloam Baptist Church in 1838, making it the fifth-oldest women’s college in the United States.
My maritime buddies might appreciate the sentiment.
I was there to talk to his students. After, they showed me a formal room in the front of Mead Hall. This is a combination parlor and dining room. It dates from the days when etiquette was an important part of a woman’s education. Even the beautiful old china is still there.
Siloam is a mother church of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Siloam Baptist Church itself has a strict, austere Greek Revival symmetry. Had I the time to do a second sketch, it would be of the doors behind those squat Doric columns.  Seldom used now, they led to the sanctuary and to the gallery, where slaves (and later, cadets from Marion Military Institute) sat.
That evening, I joined the Siloam church family at a church supper. The college-age Bible study was lightly attended because it’s midterms, but there were still more than a dozen young people. They recounted Old Testament history, sang hymns and then discussed Scripture for an hour and half. It was far more rigorous than any church school class I ever taught. The Black Belt may be financially poor, but they have a rich spiritual legacy, and they’re tending it.