LONGLEAF STORIES

full circle in the hundred acre wood

Buck and I got a late start leaving Pensacola last Friday, and by the time we glimpsed Lake Gantt, it was after 3:30. It’s a small, non-navigable Alabama Power Company lake and has a reputation for being a kind of redneck Riviera for folks who like to fish, run around in a small boat, or just hang out on a dock without being bothered by a whole lot of rules.

We saw a “lots for sale” sign and drove into the short cul de sac for a look. The lots were on a high bluff overlooking the lake. Someone in one of the houses nearby had cranked up the music to a perfect pitch, and an accoustic guitar accompanied a sweet-voiced southern guy singing “Jambalaya (On The Bayou).” Good thing there wasn’t a sales contract in front of me.

We poked around the lake for more than an hour, locals in their pick-up trucks stirring up the red clay roads as they maneuvered around our citified black sedan. The prevailing architecture around the lake is Early Fish Camp, with several rather stunning examples of a little silly looking gentrification. There were some really appealing spots along the way, too, however, that looked like the kind of comfortable homes where years of laid back loving had softened the very air.

A bridge across a portion of the lake was too low to accomodate a boat, and we could see that the lake had a large number of cypress knees sticking up in clusters. Beautiful, but not the looked-for image in my mind’s eye, nor Buck’s.

“Well, I believe I’ve seen enough,” Buck said to me. “How about you?”

“Yep,” I replied. “That’s one question answered. Let’s go.”

We headed in a direction which would lead us to our bed for the night at the Holiday Inn Express in Monroeville, Alabama.

The road took us through the town of Red Level, and a light rain freshened the chartreuse greenery of producing pecan groves,  just planted cotton and soybean fields, and acres of silky wheat full of promise. The John Deere dealership looked so fine, there, with all the pretty tractors. And in the town square, or what passed for it, families were gathered drinking lemonade and having a picnic to raise money for the volunteer fire department, little kids gathered around the shining new ladder truck.

America. It’s still here.  America, the hopeful, the bruised, the wondering. America, the seeking, the wayward, the returning. America. I see it today. Maybe it’s why I came.

“I missed the truck route,” Buck notes as we drive past the picnic scene.

“I’m glad,” I say, looking over at him.

“If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have gotten to see this.”

“That’s right.”

Near the sign for Herbert, Alabama (like so many others along this road, the sign was the only clue that a place called “Herbert” existed) — near that sign we crossed the Sepulga River, when another big government type sign startled me:

EARTH SLIDES

For one psychedelic moment, I imagined the earth opening and shifting around like some rebellious jigsaw puzzle, and I started like a person awakened suddenly from one of those “falling” dreams. Then I saw the high embankments on either side of the road, and realized the EARTH SLIDES sign was like ROCK SLIDES with no rocks. Duh.

I think it was in the tiny burg of Repton that I saw a large, successful-looking business. It was the Cope Funeral Home. “May I give you my card?” says the salesman. (It says, in big letters: COPE).

I respond, “I’m doing the best I can. . .”

Just at the right time, we arrive in Monroeville, and after circling the venerable old courthouse a couple of times, we slingshot around it once more and find the road to the Holiday Inn Express. Monroeville was home to Harper Lee and Truman Capote, and now is home to Radley’s Fountain Grill and The Mockingbird Grille.

On Saturday morning, we drove deeper into the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, on our way to take a look at Lake Dannelly at Miller’s Ferry Landing. This is the home of the now famous Gee’s Bend Quilters.

The road from Monroeville to Alberta began to look more and more like the land that time forgot. There was an amazing amount of road kill for such a little-traveled road. Stubborn buzzards in the middle of the road were worse than the adorable hairy cows who claim squatter’s rights on rural byways in Scotland.

More signs here and there:  “Miss Ann, Palm Reader,” and a sign on a ramshakle building on the side of the road that looked about one week from falling in on itself:  “DELI:  Come In And Find Something Good.”

At Beatrice, Alabama, a banner posted by The Beatrice Alabama Garden Club declared it to be Clean-Up Week. I swear, this tiny spot in the world was an oasis of lush landscaping, artfully arranged picket fences, swept sidewalks and blooming flowers. I had to blink several times.

On down the road, the pervasive wood smell from a visible pulpwood plant was not at all unpleasant, but rather reminded me of visits to my Grandparent’s home near Jay, Florida when I was a child.

Damn. It’s gotten late on me again. Maggie gave up and went on to her bed, and Buck has closed the drapes and is stalking around turning off the lights, one by one.

Tomorrow: Lake Dannelly and the journey home.

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