Sunrise in middle Tennessee. It was four in the morning. I left my hotel early to get on the road.
I had a long way to go. There was a light dusting of frost on the Smoky Mountains. I could see my breath.
I turned on the radio and found a station playing Hank Williams’ “Alabama Waltz.”
It was a candid recording from a radio show in the 40s. Hank gave an introduction to the tune. He says, “This is a song about my home state.”
I cranked up the volume, since Hank Senior was the soundtrack of my boyhood. Every male in my life idolized Hiram King Williams. For years, as a child, I thought Hank Williams was a Bible character who played guitar.
I found the hidden backroads and headed southward toward my home in Birmingham, Alabama.
If you ask me, the modest two-lane highways that lead through the Yellowhammer State are among the most scenic corridors in the nation.
I’m not saying this because I am biased. I’m saying this because I’ve driven backroads in 42 different American states. Alabama is up there with the best.
The scenes were arresting.
North central Alabama’s swelling Appalachian foothills were blanketed in the palettes of autumn. The whole world was golden and red. The rivers were polished chrome. It was enough to stop your pulse.
I’ve been having a love affair with this state since my youth. I grew up forty-odd miles from the state line. They called our Florida region L.A. “Lower Alabama.”
I had my first Pabst near the Coosa River. I had my first kiss in Saraland. I caught my first crappie in Houston County. I met my wife near Burnt Corn Creek.
There is something unamable about the soul of this state. Whenever I enter its borders, I feel something deep within the pit of my stomach. I can’t explain it in words. My sentences would only cheapen things.
The irony is, Alabama gets a bad name. Maybe the worst name of all. I can’t tell you how many tasteless jokes I’ve heard about Alabama during my travels around the continental U.S.
I recently did an author event in Pennsylvania. A person in the audience asked where I lived. I said Alabama. They laughed and said, “Gosh, that must be horrible.”
And they truly meant it. This cut me.
Oh, sure, I could have told them about the Pinhoti Trail at dawn—a trail that connects with the Appalachian Trail. I could have told this person that when you stand in just the right place on the Pinhoti, you can see God looking at you.
I could have told this person about the feelings you get when you’re riding a skiff on Dog River at sundown.
I could have told them what it feels like to go sailing on a 28-foot sloop near Bear Point.
I could have told them about James Spann.
But I kept my mouth shut.
Another man in the audience said, “Why would anyone in their right mind live in Alabama?”
I just smiled at this person. Because I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Pennsylvania isn’t all that different than the Cotton State. I’ve been to Pennsylvania five times, and I’ve come to this conclusion:
Pennsylvania is just Pittsburgh on one side, Philadelphia on the other, and Alabama in between.
People are people. State borders are manmade concepts. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Every state has their problems. One region is no better or worse than the other.
Still, for whatever reason, Alabama remains the butt of every joke. And belive me, I’ve heard them all:
“Did you hear the Alabama governor’s mansion burned down? Almost took out the whole trailer park.”
“What do you call 23 John Deeres parked at a Dairy Queen? Prom night in Tuscaloosa.”
“A stranger walks into a bar and says ‘I have an Alabama joke.’ So the bartender stops him and says, ‘Before you tell your joke, son, I’m six-five, 275 pounds, and I’m from Mobile.
“The stranger answers, ‘Nevermind, I won’t tell the joke.
“‘What’s the matter?’ asks the bartender. ‘Are you chicken?’
“‘No,’ says the stranger. ‘I don’t want to explain the joke three times.’”
I never laugh at these punchlines. Because, you see, Alabama is the place of my rebirth. It’s where I found myself. To me, it’s Zion.
I am nothing. I’ve always been nothing. I grew up humble. I was Florida white trash. I have no credibility. No pedigree. A paltry education. Until one day I met a woman in Escambia County who believed otherwise.
She told me I was somebody. She gave me something I’d never had before. Devotion. Confidence. She helped me learn to fly.
I owe my whole career to that fine woman. I owe my whole life to these small-town folk, to these rivers, and to these autumnal hills.
God bless the people of this fine state. God bless the memory of Hank Senior. And God bless Alabama.