I am driving Alabama backroads. I am in search of barbecue. I always brake for barbecue.
I am searching the same way Ponce de León once hunted for the fountain of youth. The same way Hernando de Soto once looked for a mythical city of gold. The same way a guy with a dead phone battery looks for his charger.
Whenever I’m on an Alabamian road, I’m always on the lookout for barbecue. It’s my unspoken tradition. Old highways and pulled pork simply go together like French fries and ketchup. Like Peanut butter and blackberry jam. Like two familiar feelings.
In fact if you were to ask me to list the happiest feelings in the entire universe, barbecue would be up there. I can think of few things that rival the smell of distant pecan smoke, wafting through the air and bathing your awareness in the sacred smells of saturated fat.
The scent affects me the same way receiving a phone call from an old friend does. Or a postcard in the mail. Or a hug from a child, which is something else I miss in this pandemic era. Hugs.
Remember hugs? Before coronavirus, my favorite part about going to church was when service was over, when the preacher finally quit talking and people were allowed to socialize in the aisles. Because this was the moment when you hugged people. In the parking lot, kids would come running, and throw their arms around you like you were long lost pals.
And I would usually say something like, “Do you know that I was just thinking about you?”
“Yep, and I was wondering if you liked caramel candy. But, never mind, you probably don’t.”
“YES I DO!”
“No. Caramel is too grown up for you.”
“NUH-UH! I LOVE CARAMEL!”
Then I would give them a piece of wrapped caramel candy. And I would get 29 hugs in return. The old men in my childhood church always carried caramel and traded it for hugs. And if I don’t carry on this tradition, who will?
Other great human feelings are loaded fireplaces, stocked with fresh cords of wood on cold nights. And dogs—any feeling dog-related. Sleeping in. Singing with a radio in the car when your wife is on an important phone call. And receiving test results, telling you that the lump in your wife’s breast was benign. Or eating at the Gator Cafe in Baker, Florida, to celebrate non-malignant test results.
But as I said, eating barbecue ranks with the best of feelings. So does the whir of tires beneath my seat. The shallow Alabamian hillsides, rising and falling. And the idea that somewhere over the next hill is an unknown barbecue joint calling my name. Nothing like it.
Right now, my journey across this rural countryside is accompanied by farmland on both sides of my vehicle. Long green prairies to my right; golden hayfields to my left. Bass ponds. Cattle. Splintered barns, barely able to stand upright.
Lonely brick chimneys in hayfields. Creek bridges. Dogs crossing highways. Enormous John Deeres holding up traffic, driven by men old enough to remember the presidency of William McKinnley.
It’s funny. Before COVID-19, I was always driving. I was always on the road. In fact, I was practically born on the road.
Seriously. The particular moment my mother went into labor she called my father at work. She shouted into the phone that he should hurry home because she was, quote, “about to squirt this baby out!” But he couldn’t get home quick enough.
So Mama crawled into an old Ford and drove herself to the hospital. Her water broke in the car while she was speeding across an open two-lane highway.
I wasn’t even two seconds old and I was already on the road.
As a boy, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to drive the backwaters of America, aimless, in my own vehicle. Which is exactly what I did when I was hit my late teens. When I was 17, I began driving the roads in earnest, playing music with regional bands.
These were my adventures. I played music with anyone who would have me. I played piano in Georgia one night; the next night I played guitar in some water hole in Mobile. The next evening I’d play in the corner of some Panhandle bar. The following morning, I’d be at church by seven.
Many times I slept in my truck at night. My dog would accompany me on these trips. Sometimes after gigs, on long drives home I would be too tired to drive so I would pull into vacant farmland to sleep. Technically, this was trespassing. But who’s counting?
I would unroll a blanket, my dog would curl beside me, and it was like being born again. Because the views were perfect. The sky would be nothing but scattered stars on the purple fabric of night, and I was the only human around for miles.
Now that I’m older, I realize this former teenage boy was searching for himself. Because, as embarrassed as it is to admit this, I had no idea who I was. Neither did I have any idea what life was supposed to be about, nor where I was going.
Actually, I still don’t know these things. To be perfectly honest, the only thing I’m sure about is that this life is not nearly long enough. Which somehow, only makes it infinitely more majestic. And it makes you want to just hurry up and do as much living as you can before they roll the credits.
Also, I know that each time I drive through the heart of the Alabama countryside with the windows down, on a vacant highway, I always brake for barbecue.