I am driving through shallow green hills, under a big blue sky, on a two-lane highway. Ahead of me is a beat-up Ford with a bumper sticker that reads: “I ‘heart’ Alabama.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a road trip through Alabama. Too long. I haven’t been here since the pandemic began some six hundred years ago.
I’m an adopted Alabamian. I married into the family and have spent more time in the Yellowhammer State than in my home state of Florida. I have written more stories here than anywhere else.
And I’ve done many quintessential Alabamian things. I’ve eaten blueberry ice cream at the Blueberry Festival in Brewton. I once hung out with the mayor of Tuscaloosa. I hugged the neck of a former Slocomb Tomato Festival beauty pageant title-holder. I have been in the same room with William Lee Golden.
But it was my Keego-born-and-bred father-in-law, the noted hellraiser and foul-joke aficionado, who made my adoption official. Once, directly before a family supper, he stood at the table, raised a glass, and said, “I hereby declare you an Alabamian.”
I am lucky indeed. For Alabama is grand.
When I started writing, my wife and I began traveling across this state full-time. We have spent years rolling along these wobbly highways, roaming the backwater roads.
I have driven the length and breadth of the state more times than I can count. I used to do this so frequently that once, I watched the sunrise up in Elkmont, and made it down to Bayou La Batre in time for sunset.
But then a worldwide epidemic happened.
Ever since then our vehicle has been sitting in the driveway, untouched, and our battery started to die.
I’ll level with you. At first, being quarantined drove me nuts. My mind had been in work-mode for so long that I didn’t know how to relax. Nobody tells you that workaholism happens slowly. But it does.
I freely admit that I was working too much. I don’t blame anyone else but myself. And also El Niño.
I was in Alabama when the shutdown happened. I was on a book tour—of all things. We had a few days left on our itinerary when Birmingham shut its doors.
To give you an idea of how quickly things changed: There was a local bar across the street from our hotel room window. I had a perfect view of the nightlife action. On Thursday night the joint was lit up like a beer sign. By Friday night the lights were off.
That was the beginning of the end. Since then I haven’t changed from my pajamas. And do you want to know something?
This has probably been the best thing to ever happen to me.
I fought it at first, but our lives slowed to a crawl, and I needed that. Suddenly we weren’t leaving our house. My wife and I were eating meals at home, playing rummy, going on walks. I fell into an easy routine. I started reading books again.
I’ve always been a big reader, but over these last years I didn’t have much time with all the traveling. So the first thing I did during the quarantine was pick up a book by Ernie Pyle. A dusty book my father gave me a hundred years ago about World War II. I’d never read it.
I finished the book in one day. I couldn’t put it down.
Slowly, I’ve been rediscovering who I used to be. The reader. The pajama man. The fisherman who always strikes out. A man who, even after years of marriage, still leaves his laundry on the bedroom floor for the Laundry Fairy.
This pandemic, in some ways, has saved me from myself. And it would have never happened unless my life hadn’t become quieter.
But of course the ironic thing is that the world is anything BUT quiet. It’s become loud and obnoxious. And frightening.
Three out of every five people are developing COVID-19. And there isn’t a moment when someone isn’t reminding you that, statistically, the leading cause of death in the U.S. is The Virus.
This morning, when the gal at the McDonald’s drive-thru handed me change, she told me to “Have a safe day.”
Perhaps one of the hardest things has been the loss of everyday ceremonies. I think humans are hardwired to party, and I miss it.
I don’t mean parties like when your cousin’s parents left town and the cops showed up because Dan Cooper was asleep on the roof. I’m talking about the time-honored art of the shindig.
Wedding receptions, graduation parties, baby dedications, fortieth birthday parties, barbecues, quinceañeras, picnics, family reunions, and funeral wakes. They’re all gone.
My friend passed away, for instance, a few months ago. Only two people attended his funeral because of social-distancing. There was no wake, no visitation. The life he led just disappeared into a hole in the ground. The priest, I understand, wore a mask.
The thing I miss most, however, is road trips. Like the one I’m on now. I almost forgot how to travel. I almost forgot the thrill of looking out the window at the beauty lying between my Floridian Panhandle home and the sunkissed pastures of Alabama.
I almost forgot what it feels like to roll down my window on a clear day, travelling fifty-five. I nearly forgot how freeing it is to be on an old highway among the peanut fields and cotton.
Workaholic Me is gone. And I hope he stays gone. And for the next few days, I am once again an adopted son of a truly great state.
I heart Alabama.