I am leaving Florida, heading for Birmingham on important business. By which I mean barbecue.
My cousin is having a little get-together in his backyard. He is slow-smoking a large pork butt, serving homemade banana pudding, and his famous fall-off-the-bone ribs. I have been known to travel great distances for good barbecue.
I’m on a two-lane highway. It’s 99 degrees outside. The Florida weather is so hot that the trees are bribing the dogs.
I cross the state line, and I’m in Alabama.
The first town I pass is Florala. It’s tiny. It sits on Lake Jackson. Picture thick oaks with lots of moss, a small mainstreet, and Opie Taylor kicking a can on the sidewalk.
I once dated a girl from Florala. Her father hated me. One day he invited me hog hunting. Just the two of us. This was my cue to get off his porch before I had an unfortunate hunting accident.
You can follow Highway 55 upward for a breathtaking drive. Pass Lockhart, North Creek, miles of farmland, and soon you’re in Andalusia. Hank Williams got married in Andalusia.
Pass the country club, the Conecuh River, and you’re back on 55 again. Follow this through Red Level, McKenzie, and you really ought to stop in Georgiana, at Kendall’s Barbecue—a little shack beside a gas station. Thank me later.
While you’re in town, visit the childhood home of Hank Senior. Get the dime tour of the museum from a sweet elderly woman named Miss Margaret, who I keep hoping will adopt me.
After that, you will have a few routes you can take to Birmingham.
1. Interstate 65—a congested mega-highway with every SUV in the known universe riding your butt and trying to ram your tailgate if you don’t drive 125 miles per hour even though they have bumper stickers which read “Jesus is my co-pilot.”
2. Highway 31.
Ride the sleepy highway past Chapman, Bolling, and Greenville.
Most people associate Greenville with the Bates House of Turkey restaurant. But there’s a lot more than turkey in Greenville.
For one thing, they have the Camellia City Bakery and Deli. Try the grilled pimento cheese and bacon sandwich. And pick me up some chicken salad to-go. Tell Miss Ann that Sean says hello.
When you’re done with Greenville, you’re getting close to Fort Deposit. And I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but if you don’t stop at Priester’s Pecans to buy some pecan fiddlesticks you are a Communist sympathizer who doesn’t love the Lord.
There’s also an itty-bitty barbecue joint off the interstate called Front Porch Barbecue. If you’re hungry, try the pulled pork. On a scale of one to ten, the pulled pork is a forty-six.
Follow Highway 31 through more pasture and uncut pines. You’ll see small unincorporated communities. I won’t say these towns are on the edge of the world, but you can see the edge from there.
Sandy Ridge, Davenport, Letohatchee—where my cousin and I once bought a gallon of moonshine from the trunk of a man’s car.
And Hope Hull—where my cousin’s girlfriend’s brother tried to kill us with a lawnmower blade.
The old highway crosses the interstate and you’ll roll past the hustle and bustle of Montgomery. Take a drive downtown. Visit the river, see a baseball game, tour the historic neighborhoods.
Some people will tell you that all the yuppies live in Old Cloverdale. Not true. They also have summer houses in Orange Beach they sometimes live in.
Keep driving the highway. Pass more country hamlets. Like:
Clanton—buy as many peaches as you can before the tourists get them.
Jemison—the Appalachian Mountains officially end here.
Calera—stop at Cowart Drugs and step back into the 1920s. Buy a Coke, or a pack of bubble gum. The Masonic Hall is upstairs.
Saginaw, Alabaster, Pelham, and Hoover.
Visit Oak Mountain State Park if you have time. I used to go camping in Oak Mountain once per year with the elderly Baptist men’s Sunday school class. These were righteous, upright men who avoided beer like the plague.
When their wives were around.
And now I’m in Birmingham. Young people on sidewalks stare at cell phones. People rush from place to place, carrying briefcases. Skyscrapers. Honking horns. The smell of exhaust.
It’s hard to believe that in 1865 there were only two hundred people living in Birmingham.
I pull over at a gas station downtown. An elderly man wandering by asks me for some money. I have a twenty on me. Before I give it to him, I ask why people call this place “Magic City.”
He just smiles. “People, man. People is magic.”
Works for me.
So it couldn’t be a nicer day in Magic City. It’s a little cooler here than my Panhandle home. And I love this town. In fact, I love this state. I love the highways, byways, historic drugstores, antique churches, foothills, and the lazy rivers.
I don’t know why it all makes me feel warm inside. Maybe because throughout my life I’ve spent more time in Alabama than I have at home. Maybe it’s because a lot of my friends are here. Maybe the old man is right. Maybe it’s people.
Either way, I guess it doesn’t matter. Because right now I am in my cousin’s backyard, holding a loaded paper plate.
I drove a long way just to eat this barbecue.