Unlike some folks, he’ll talk politics with you. One day recently a fellow came down from Washington to ride, and mentioned that he was an economist working for President Obama. That riled Lamb. He would no sooner vote for Obama than wear a protective helmet instead of a cowboy hat.
“We’re bankrupt,” he told the economist, and proceeded to debate politics for an hour as they rode together through the woods.
“He’ll never be back,” Lamb says, shrugging.
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. 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.”
Along the Carolina Road
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. She’s a Fox News fan, and her politics are more anti-Obama than pro-Mitt Romney.