Pelham, Alabama. The year was 1927. Coolidge was president. Gas was 21 cents per gallon. Beer was illegal.
It was a pivotal year in this country. Maybe the most pivotal ever. Charles Lindberg crossed Atlantic. A guy named Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the first electronic TV image.
Henry Ford unveiled the Model A. The first “Talkie” motion picture was released. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Babe was setting world records up the wazooty.
And way down in Alabama, the Twenty-Second state bought 940 acres and transformed the land into a state park.
It was virginal country which included Double Oak Mountain and parts of Little Oak Ridge. The foothills of the Appalachians themselves. These were pristine mountainsides. Some of the most incorrupt acreage in the United States. One reporter called it “Zion.”
This was such magnificent country that a few years later, the National Park Service got involved with its development. The NPS acquired 8,000 acres of additional land.
The federal government was so psyched about this place, they were going to turn it all into a national park, on par with Yellowstone and Yosemite. They were going to call the park “Little Smoky Mountain National Park.”
Dear old Uncle Sam bussed down shiploads of Civilian Conservation Corps men. Machines began hewing through stone and granite. The population of Pelham swelled with workers.
But then some guy named Hitler screwed up the world, started a war, and every able-bodied male was sent overseas.
Work ceased on the park. The national big-wigs forgot about this place.
Today, what remains is Oak Mountain State Park. The greatest state park in the country. Hands down.
I’ve been to a lot of state parks and national parks on the North American Continent. Oak Mountain is among the best.
I hike Oak Mountain a lot because it isn’t far from my back door. I like it here.
Whenever I visit, I feel my heart begin to beat in a normalized rhythm again. I feel my shoulders lower from my ears.
This morning, I hiked in Oak Mountain with my dog, Otis (alleged Labrador). We hiked for several hours. He sprinted ahead, while I struggled to stay oxygenated.
“Slow down, dangit!” is what I was saying for most of the day.
He traipsed up mountainsides, while I wheezed and coughed and saw purple spots in my vision.
And I met a colorful mosaic of human beings on the mountain.
I passed three older women who were hiking together, using walking sticks, singing hymns aloud. They were from Alabaster.
They sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “No Not One,” and “Reach Out To Jesus.” The woods came alive with their harmonies.
“We’re Church of Christers,” they told me. “But we drink a little.”
I passed a young man who was hiking with a newborn baby strapped to his chest. He said he was a single dad. His wife died in a car accident a few months ago. He is raising his infant daughter alone. He comes here because this is where he can feel peace.
I met a woman hiking with her teenage daughter. The daughter just graduated college and is joining the military. She is about to ship out for training soon. The mother began to cry when she spoke of it.
“I am so proud of my daughter,” Mama said. “But my heart will be empty when she leaves.”
I passed a family from Denmark. They are visiting America and trying to see every state. A mother, father, and two boys. So far they have seen 13 states. Alabama is their 14th.
I asked how they liked it.
“Alabama has the best Mexican food,” said the Danish family. “Our digestives are still suffering from all these little, how you say, jalapeño peppers.”
On my way to the top of the mountain, my dog greeted a man who is a car salesman in Birmingham. He was hiking because his doctor told him he needed to take care of his cholesterol.
I also met a woman who was training for her upcoming thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. I asked why she was going to hike the AT. She answered, “Because my mom always wanted to hike the AT, and she can’t hike anymore.”
There was an elderly man plodding toward the top of the mountain. He pet Otis’s head and gave him a piece of beef jerky. Otis was eternally grateful.
“My wife has Alzheimer’s,” he said. “We have been hiking Oak Mountain since the 1950s, but she doesn’t remember any of that now. So sometimes I come out here to hike, and just remember her.”
I asked him what this place was like in the ‘50s.
He said, “Oh, it was just like it is now. Same beautiful mountains. Same beautiful people.”
And try as I have for the last 15 minutes, I can’t come up with a better closing line than that.