Big Wheels Keep On Turnin’

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.

34 comments

  1. Steve Winfield [Lifer] - July 21, 2020 7:18 am

    Alabamians & Texans always go home.
    I served in the Navy with people from all 50 states plus Puerto Rico & the Philippines. Wherever they’re from it’s about 50:50 that they plan on returning to their home state when they get out. Except for Alabama & Texas. Ask either & there’s no hesitation, they’re going home because they’re both sure home is the best place there is. I know Alabama is. Never considered any place else.
    Grizzard was hot back then & I stole his quote. When my Navy buds asked where I was going when I got out I’d say, “When I get back to Bama I’m gonna nail my feet to the ground”.
    Y’all be safe out there!
    Love, Steve.

    Reply
  2. franfluker - July 21, 2020 9:23 am

    Well, then: I heart GA! Nothing like getting in the car to head out in the dark, traveling across the south, seeing the sun come up through the pines, slowly turning the bleak blackness to fields of cotton soybeans and corn as far as the eye can see…..

    Reply
  3. GaryD - July 21, 2020 10:02 am

    I ❤️ Alabama, too.

    Reply
  4. Bob Brenner - July 21, 2020 10:43 am

    Enjoy yourself, Thanks for the reminder;of people and the simple things we have forgotten to do,
    I ❤️ North Carolina…

    Reply
  5. Charlie Long - July 21, 2020 11:58 am

    As a Virginian I love my State…..However I married a Alabama girl….And frequent the State often to see her folks….I have become to love the state….(Not to mention I have been a CRIMSON Tide fan since I was old enough to walk)…From Mentone to Mobile there are many great places to visit….Love Chilton county peaches..and Sweet corn from my wife’s native place in Calhoun county….Not to mention the peeps are the most friendly and warmest on this good earth.

    Reply
  6. Charles Mathers - July 21, 2020 12:23 pm

    And I really resent the sob’s who want to go back to the way it was! I loved the quiet. The not going anywhere. Taking the dog for a walk and meeting no one except early morning tousled hair old farts like me. I hear we’re going to shut down again. I hope so.

    Reply
  7. Melanie - July 21, 2020 12:29 pm

    ❤️Sweet Home Alabama ❤️ (and pick your dadgum dirty clothes up off the floor Sean😄)

    Reply
  8. Bob Young - July 21, 2020 1:07 pm

    We moved to Florida because our daughter and grandchildren live here, but my Home is Alabama. Hikes in forests to waterfalls and lakes and good ole homemade biscuits and cornbread cooked in a cast iron skillet.

    Reply
  9. Berryman Mary M - July 21, 2020 1:43 pm

    Dear Sean, I ♥️ Alabama, too! Born and Bred here.

    Reply
  10. Penn Wells - July 21, 2020 2:08 pm

    My wife and I are driving from Virginia to Portland in August. Taking the southern route. I’ve done it twice, it will be her first. I can’t wait for her to see Ocean Springs, MS, and the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. The flat around Amarillo. Santa Fe. The Grand Canyon and a million NPs in Utah. Death Valley & Yosemite, Napa and the Southern Oregon coast. No radio, no TV in the room, no newspaper over breakfast. Just 60-70 cds in the car, starting with Willie Nelson & “Stardust.” Every morning. Selah.

    Reply
  11. Doyal Logan - July 21, 2020 2:11 pm

    Thank you Sean, for pointing out what I already knew, but kept putting it off.
    I love Alabama too. Born and raised there. Temporarily loaned out to Florida. When this pandemic is over I’m going to take many slow trips throughout Alabama, my home. (And of course, back to Plant City area.)

    Reply
  12. Claudia D. - July 21, 2020 2:20 pm

    We are adopted Alabamians, too! ❤️ And we love coming ‘home’ here more and more with each passing year.

    Reply
  13. Jerri Matthews - July 21, 2020 3:04 pm

    which Ernie Pyle book – my son is a big fan and does WW2 reenactments. Would love to get it for him for Christmas

    Reply
  14. Marylin Anderson - July 21, 2020 3:06 pm

    Sean, like you, I married into a family from Alabama. We usually take a l-o-n-g road trip from far west Texas (El Paso is as far west as you can go in Texas) to Texasville, Alabama for the Glover family reunion. Most of the kin folk drive a couple of hours for the event. It’s good to see the in-laws and cousins once a year, but I wouldn’t call it a reunion. We meet, greet, and eat. Then hug a few necks, shake some hands, maybe take a photo, and say “see you next year.” Guess we won’t be doing that this year, with the social distancing and all. I sure do miss our road trips.

    Say “hello” to Alabama for me. Stay well. And keep writing. I ❤ Sean and Jamie and Alabama.

    Reply
  15. Tom S - July 21, 2020 4:09 pm

    Sweet Home- Love it!!

    Reply
  16. Jon Dragonfly - July 21, 2020 4:21 pm

    Welcome home, Brother.

    Reply
  17. T.C. - July 21, 2020 4:49 pm

    I do love Alabama. Oh, I remember in my younger days, jumping in a truck or car and just riding the roads. having no idea where we were headed. We had no GPS or maps back then, so didn’t know where a road would take us, but we traveled it anyway. It was so much fun and adventurous. Not that easy now, as many back roads take you to someone’s hunting land and folks get ill with you driving on their place. Plus, don’t have time to run off and get lost.  Strange having all the time in the world in your youth.

    Reply
  18. nancy Pritchett hood - July 21, 2020 4:50 pm

    I❤️Alabama, also! Passionately, I 🧡💙Auburn! War Eagle! Alabama the Beautiful!

    Reply
  19. Teresa S - July 21, 2020 5:11 pm

    Love your outlook on life! We enjoyed our time in Alabama when my hubby went to work in Huntsville for a TDY assignment from Lockheed/Martin years ago. Nice people, good food, etc. however, I’m a Charleston girl at heart and a loyal Clemson fan by education and athletic history. I’m so old I’m Clemson’s first captain of Clemson’s first women’s volleyball team!

    However, the leading reasons for death In the US in 2020 are still heart disease, more than double the deaths of Covid, and cancer, still well above the Covid deaths. Please remember, cases don’t mean deaths and that more than 99% of cases recover. That’s the way herd immunity comes. Unfortunately, the elderly and those with comorbidity issues are high risk and yes, one death is too many. Let’s just try to stick with truth and reality.

    I live in FL where 300 sites turned in 100% positive rates for testing results for weeks until a local station looked into it. Death certificates are reading Covid as the cause of death when people are dying in automobile accidents, stabbing, etc., because the hospitals get $19,000 per case and $39,000 per death. Families have been contacted by hospitals saying they will share that money with the grieving family if Covid is allowed to be put on the death certificate. I do not trust stats because of the political implications. For instance, I know 1 person with Covid, and she’s doing fine. I, thankfully, know nobody who has died. People I know say the same and I’m 64.

    And don’t let me get started on masks!

    Sean, keep the great stuff coming! And thanks!

    Reply
  20. Kenny Whatley - July 21, 2020 5:40 pm

    Good comments about the wonderful state that I have lived in my entire life. I’m very proud of the state of Alabama and my home city of Dothan. Also the University of Alabama. Roll Tide!

    Reply
  21. Diane Mark - July 21, 2020 5:43 pm

    ALABAMA LOVES YOU RIGHT BACK!!!….as do certain SPECIAL PEOPLE IN PHOENIX ARIZONA…..

    Reply
  22. Steve Wasion - July 21, 2020 6:07 pm

    If you like road trips as much as we do, look at Rally North America’s facebook page.
    We’ve been road tripping locally on weekends, but with a nation-wide group who each does it locally, on scavenger-hunt type rallies. We have two more weekends to go with this particular rally. The group usually does a different type of rally each year, but, you know, Covid and all that.
    Check ’em out!
    Love your writing!

    Reply
  23. Jonathan Machen - July 21, 2020 6:21 pm

    Glad you’re on a road trip now!

    Reply
  24. Becky Souders - July 21, 2020 6:26 pm

    Ditto on the roadtrips.. since my husband passed, I’ve completed my “get to all 50 states” journey and now I’m stuck at home dreaming of the road.
    Please pick up your own laundry.

    Reply
  25. Linda Moon - July 21, 2020 6:47 pm

    Alabama IS grand. Thankfully, I saw you at the last book tour before shutdown and then “honored” you and Jamie for the next one that was cancelled. If not for shutdown, I could have magnanimously honored and attended your live event at the same time! If I see you on the road here in my Sweet Home Alabama, I’ll roll my window down and holler at you. And conjure up some Tina Turner and Lynrd Skynrd at the same time, too! Now I’m going to read a book all day long, Son.

    Reply
  26. Jerri Mccreless - July 21, 2020 7:12 pm

    Love your column. But this one really spoke to me. My son is a newspaper editor in PC. He has had to slow down too Thanks for loving Alabama.

    Reply
  27. oldandblessed - July 21, 2020 7:19 pm

    One of the best examples of taking lemons and making champagne I’ve ever read. 😊

    Reply
  28. Janice - July 21, 2020 8:34 pm

    Love all your columns, but this one is special because I was born and raised in Alabama. Met a Florida boy 48 years ago in PC and married him, so my home is where he is … Florida. I visit Alabama family (some in their final resting place) annually and feel like I’m “home” when I see those Appalachian foot hills, especially in the fall! When my journey on Earth is complete, some of my ashes are going to be scratched into the ground between my mother and daddy’s graves.
    I look forward to your email every morning!! I ❤ Alabama!

    Reply
  29. Geri Worley - July 21, 2020 8:35 pm

    We heart you too, Sean Dietrich. You are a part of my every morning and I love you like a son. If I ever do meet you, I plan to chunk both your cheeks at once. Best wishes and be safe from Hueytown, Alabama

    Reply
  30. HT - July 21, 2020 10:15 pm

    With 5 family members in AL with covid, me in the NE, I too am reading, gardening and lots of prayers. Your notes take me home, mentally, often & I appreciate it. Pick your clothes up Sean!

    Reply
  31. Patricia Schwindt - July 21, 2020 10:46 pm

    I so enjoy and love your writing! Thanks for doing it.

    Reply
  32. MAM - July 21, 2020 11:38 pm

    I must say I envy your calm and quiet. Yes, it’s quieter at our house during Covid (and we’re always here), but my days are busier than ever, keeping up with the news, including on Covid, and other news stories in town. Stay YOU, Sean. I love your writing!

    Reply
  33. Cynthia Staton - July 22, 2020 4:24 pm

    Sean, I heart Alabama, too. I wish everyone in this great state of ours felt the same way but unfortunately many don’t. Alabama is a great state to live in, to grow up in and to spend your entire life in (I know that’s not correct grammar, but it’s Southern English!). Thank you for your stories. I enjoy them immensely.

    Reply
  34. Ruth Ledyard - July 22, 2020 10:12 pm

    We heart you in Alabama also! Love your columns and love to pass them on. So tired of people who think if you live in Alabama you have to be stupid. We have moved from the city to the country outside of Headland and we love it. Retirement is wonderful in Alabama!

    Reply

Leave a Comment