Driving into Tuscaloosa at rush hour on a Friday, I remember why I avoided rush hour traffic during my years in Tuscaloosa. It was easy then, actually, since I didn’t own a car for most of my college years. Today, I’m running a little late and catching every traffic light between Cottondale and DCH, grateful that I stayed away from McFarland, where the traffic would be even more annoying.
After the April 2011 tornado devastated a large portion of the city, unexpected vistas opened up because the trees were gone. Even twelve years later, the changes to the city since the tornado are shocking, but the tornado is not the problem with the traffic which will likely never get better, especially as the university continues its unprecedented growth and building. As an alumnus of the University of Alabama, I have mixed feelings about all of it.
But it’s a quick trip and I didn’t come to complain. In fact, I came to celebrate Alabama authors at the latest induction of eight writers into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. And that makes it all worth the effort. This induction ceremony was postponed due to the pandemic so it was especially nice to be among a crowd gathering for a special purpose.
The purpose of my attendance was to write about the festivities for Alabama Writers’ Forum. I will share that piece on this site after it’s posted to www.writersforum.com.
I was struck, though, with the stirrings I had as I watched attendees of the Hall of Fame dinner and induction ceremony walk toward the gathering at the Bryant Conference Center. It has been three years since I was able to attend such gatherings; previous efforts have been tentative at best, with reduced crowds and caution dominant. A string quartet playing Vivaldi’s “Spring” as I entered the pre-dinner reception reinforced that sense of awakening; a violinist wearing a mask was a reminder that the threat is not quite over yet.
Saturday – Hwy 82
With fresh and inspiring memories of the Hall of Fame induction, I’m heading out of Tuscaloosa early to spend the day in Montgomery. To be honest, I think I’m most excited about traveling Highway 82 to get there. The Highway 82 route between Tuscaloosa and Montgomery was a well-worn path for me when I lived in Montgomery and my parents were still in Tuscaloosa. It takes you off the interstates and out of city traffic, past swamps, fields, and prairies through farmland in the southernmost Appalachian foothills. Best of all, it takes you along what I call the “Peach Highway” – a series of farm and peach stands along the two-lane stretch of 82 that goes through Chilton County.
In years past, the highway took you through the Bibb County town of Centreville. A new section now bypasses Centreville after crossing the Cahaba River. That stretch was new to me and when I spotted the back of an old wood-framed church off the highway, I took the next road off the highway to check it out. I soon got to the church and saw that it was the Sandy Chapel Church – the church that inspired my series of country-church themed Christmas cards more than twenty years ago. In fact, it was the image on my first Christmas card of the series. I was used to seeing it from the front on the old road, but it also provides a striking glimpse as you travel down the newer highway.
Past Centreville, the highway looks the same, but there is more clear-cutting going on than I like to see (or think about). Abandoned and decaying buildings that always intrigued me are mostly still there, and some have disappeared altogether. They remind me of some of my favorite subjects by the artist William Christenberry, whose Hale County is not far away. Sedate farm houses and their attendant barns and outbuildings appear along the way, as do churches, mobile homes, country stores, and an occasional place to eat.
Peach orchards begin to pop up as the highway nears Chilton County. Peach season is still a couple of months away and an erratic winter may have spoiled parts of it, but there are trees in early bloom and I look forward to my first trip down to Harrison’s Fruit Farms’ roadside stand around Mothers Day.
On this March Day, the farm stand sits serene and quiet at the place where County Road 15 ends at Highway 82. Mr. Jimmie Harrison, the patriarch of Harrison’s Fruit Farms, passed away last fall. Because of my own family emergencies, I wasn’t able to make a “peach run” in summer 2022 but I still have baskets in the trunk from my visits in 2021. I stop by the abandoned stand and leave the baskets to be re-used in the next season. I remember “Mr. Jimmie” and look forward to seeing his family back there soon.
The road finally takes me toward Prattville in Autauga County. But first, I make the quick detour to see if W.C. Rice’s Cross Garden installation is still intact. Mr. Rice was inspired to create a garden of crosses and warnings of damnation (HELL IS HOT HOT HOT) on his property spanning what is otherwise a quiet suburban street. Rice died in 2004 but the rambling, weathered remains of his “garden” are mostly still there. I think about taking pictures, but not this time; I find Mr. Rice’s grim Pentecostal fatalism focusing only on the most frightening parts of scripture to be a little depressing, but I admire his commitment to his message and vision.
On to Montgomery.