Tag Archives: travel

The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand

One of my earliest essays on “Professional Southerner” was about the peaches of Chilton County, Alabama, and the family-run peach stand of the Harrison family. I made my first “peach run” of the season last week and, in honor of the 2015 peach season, I am going to revisit that 2014 essay.

Professional Southerner

100_1927  I get a little reflective as the Alabama peach season draws to a close. The state of Georgia, of course, has appropriated all of the peach titles and has done an admirable job of marketing its peaches as if they are something special. But a growing number of Southerners have discovered the rich and considerable delights of peaches grown in Chilton County, Alabama. On a May morning in the French Market in New Orleans a few years ago, I was pleased to hear a local shopper ask a vendor if any Chilton County peaches had arrived yet. He replied that he didn’t have any but that the lady a couple of stalls down had just gotten her first delivery of the season that very morning – “and they sure are good this year.” The shopper grinned like a child on Christmas and rushed to buy a basket.

I have…

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The Cahaba Lily

IMG_1753 I always forget how spectacular a Cahaba lily is until I come upon a stand of the flowers on a gentle bend in Alabama’s Cahaba River. The Cahaba lily is a rare lily that only grows in a very few spots in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina under very specific conditions. There must be swiftly flowing water over rocks. There must be abundant sunlight.

IMG_1752The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge near West Blocton, Alabama, is a prime viewing spot for the lilies during their brief growing season from May into June (roughly Mother’s Day to Father’s Day). Each of the fragrant flowers blooms in early evening and only stays for one day. The flowers go through their pollination cycle, dropping seeds into the stream where they become lodged in the rocks and shoals and await their vibrant display a year later.

There are a couple of significant stands of lilies visible from the narrow dirt and gravel road through the wildlife refuge. The water rushes over rocks and through tall grasses and hundreds of stunning white lilies show off their elegant beauty. It never fails to take my breath away.

IMG_1734The Cahaba River is one of the most significant of Alabama’s abundant natural treasures. At almost 200 miles long, it is the longest free-flowing river in the state and provides water for a quarter of Alabama’s population. Its path takes it from St. Clair County, through the suburbs of Birmingham, and into rural Alabama and the Black Belt where it empties into the Alabama River at the ghost town of Cahaba near Selma.

IMG_1742According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cahaba River is home to 131 fish species – more per mile than any other river in North America. Eighteen of these fish species are found only in the Cahaba River and Mobile River Basin. The refuge is a habitat for at least a dozen threatened or endangered species including migratory birds and bats as well as assorted fish, mussels, snails, insects, and plants.

IMG_1754In addition to being a star in its own right, the Cahaba lily is significant to the area because its beauty and popularity help draw attention to the other aspects of the Cahaba River, its watershed, its significance and dependents. The ever-growing popularity and fan base for the lily help to draw attention to the support groups like the Cahaba River Society (www.cahabariversociety.org) which strive tirelessly to protect this rare and beautiful place.

Beyond all of that, the Cahaba lily in bloom simply belongs on every nature lover’s list of things to see. IMG_1746

Exploring Little River Canyon

IMG_1690 The trip to Little River Canyon from my house involves a drive through profoundly rural areas of northeast Alabama and a few small towns and communities. It feels at times like time travel but it takes less than a couple of hours.

The road passes the Paint Rock Valley before the backwaters of the Tennessee River and Guntersville Lake appear and then the town of Scottsboro. There, the Tennessee River is crossed and the road immediately climbs a steep grade to the top of Sand Mountain, a sprawling sandstone plateau near the southern end of the Appalachians. The myths, mysteries, and culture of Sand Mountain are legend in the rest of Alabama and I’ll admit that even though I have been to various parts of Sand Mountain several times and have been aware of it most of my life it remains a mystery to be unraveled for me.

After driving across Sand Mountain, the road drops again to a valley containing I-59 and the town of Fort Payne. A quick ramble through Fort Payne leads to another steep climb to the top of Lookout Mountain.

Little River in northeast Alabama mostly flows along the top of Lookout Mountain. This feature of the untamed river flowing along the mountain top is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. The canyon starts to form past DeSoto Falls at a wide plummeting Little River Falls and gets deeper, wider, and more steep as it moves down through the mountain.

On a recent mid-May trip, the water level was fairly low but the sound of the rushing rapids could be heard from the west rim even when the lush green canopy made the river invisible far below. The canopy also helped to block the view of houses encroaching on the east rim. IMG_1701

Since I was scoping out hiking trails for future trips, I mostly stayed on the Canyon Rim Drive which is part of the Little River Canyon National Preserve and meanders for eleven miles along the west rim. It passes a number of trailheads and provides a good opportunity to inspect the challenging terrain.

Regular overlooks provide scenic views into and across the canyon. Trails afford steep access to the river and the canyon floor. Grace’s High Falls is visible across the canyon from an outlook on the drive. A dramatic 133-foot plunge during the rainy season, Grace’s High Falls was just a trickle during my recent visit. As the weather gets less humid it will dry up altogether.

Canyon Rim Drive affords quick and easy access to the canyon’s majesty and mystique. A little farther upriver are an informative visitors’ center and DeSoto State Park with additional backcountry trails and accommodations. The National Park Service operates a boardwalk and trails on the east side of Little River Falls which provide access to the river and a close-up view of the falls.

Little River Canyon is wild and feels extremely remote but it is actually centrally located in the region and only a couple of hours or less from Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. A quest for this year is to continue to find great outdoor opportunities close to home. The bounty of Little River Canyon and the surrounding area definitely fits with that mission. IMG_1723

The Authentic Vision: Brother Joseph’s Ave Maria Grotto

IMG_1617  Authenticity in folk art (“outsider” art, self-taught artists – whatever the current designation of choice may be) is a topic that has long intrigued me. There are any number of phonies – some of them the off-spring of the real thing – who try to cash in on the folk art market. The idea of the authentic artist who creates art from an impulse that comes from within is what I seek in the work of “outsiders.”

IMG_1614Brother Joseph Zoetl (1878-1961), a Bavarian-born monk who spent the bulk of his life at St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama, is an example of that inspired authenticity, I think. Brother Joseph had no training as an artist but created historical and fantasy structures that are a lasting tribute to inspiration and faith. His Ave Maria Grotto (www.avemariagrotto.com) is nestled on the Abbey grounds along with the still active monastery and the St. Bernard Preparatory School which replaced St. Bernard College when it closed in 1979.

IMG_1631Brother Joseph’s impressive installation in the abandoned quarry of the Abbey includes at least 125 structures created out of stone, cement, and discarded items. The centerpiece of the four-acre park is the large Ave Maria Grotto but its focal points are structures – real and fantasy, sectarian and non-sectarian – taken from world culture. The structures span the globe but a large number of them are based on buildings and sites in Rome and Jerusalem. When I was growing up everybody referred to Ave Maria Grotto as “Little Jerusalem.”

IMG_1637I first saw the place as a young boy in the days of “roadside attractions” before the interstate system was ubiquitous. I remembered it fondly as a kitschy place with edifices constructed of concrete and broken glass, broken marble and colorful discarded gaming marbles, costume jewelry and cold cream jars.  IMG_1602 One fanciful monument is topped by green Irish fishing floats. I remembered a miniature Noah’s Ark installation with plastic animals and a fantasy piece called “Hansel and Gretel Visit the Temple of the Fairies” complete with a fierce dragon bound by a chain underneath. A life-size statue of Pope Pius X is just down the hill from a miniature Egyptian-style pyramid. A miniature section of the Great Wall of China hovers close to touching memorials to “St. Bernard Boys” who died in various 20th Century wars in which the United States was involved. There are a 48-star American flag made with marbles, glass, and cement and a replica of the World Peace Church, the Catholic Cathedral at Hiroshima. IMG_1647

All of these things are still there.

Brother Joseph’s first structures were crafted around 1912 and his last, an impressive replica of the Lourdes Basilica, was built in 1958. I remembered the place as a quirky roadside attraction but on a recent visit I was struck by the level of craft and artistry, spirituality, and personal mission represented in the little monk’s life’s work. He was not a world traveler and had only personally viewed a handful of the structures he created – those from his Bavarian home town of Landshut and those on the grounds of the Abbey in Cullman. The rest were composed from photographs, the Bible and other written texts, and his imagination. Brother Joseph started constructing the buildings in his spare time when his job was to shovel coal at the Abbey’s power station. IMG_1627

A few structures have been added to the installation since Brother Joseph died including a life-size bronze statue of Brother Joseph facing his monumental Grotto. After one has toured the installation, a shaded path with the Stations of the Cross leads to the Abbey Cemetery where the monks, including Brother Joseph, are laid to rest. A small stone chapel stands watch over the cemetery. It is a quiet and reflective place, conducive to meditation and contemplation. IMG_1685

The Paint Rock Valley and “Green, Green Grass of Home”

IMG_1474  It was a soggy Earth Day 2015 event at Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville on Sunday, April 19. It was raining when I arrived shortly after the noon opening and the early attendance was sparse with some exhibitors either absent or late for set-up.

IMG_1473Even so, my favorite local goat cheese purveyor, Paul Spell of Humble Heart Farms in Elkmont (www.humbleheartfarms.com), was open for business and busy giving out samples. I bought my usual, Humble Heart’s Tuscan blend, and a package of the French blend. At another booth I picked up some herbs – chives, mint, and rosemary – to continue to pot up this year’s herb garden in the back yard. I already have some mint and lots of basil growing back there.

Despite the rain, I hit a few of the tables and booths that were set up and had a chat with Steve Northcutt of the Nature Conservancy. One of the reasons I made a special effort to get to the Earth Day event this year was because my friend Judy Prince from Birmingham planned to be there to recruit support for her initiatives and clean-up projects serving her native Paint Rock Valley in northeast Alabama along the Paint Rock River’s winding path to the Tennessee River. Because of health and the weather, Judy was not able to attend and in her absence Steve was handling a drawing for a Paint Rock River canoe trip. I am planning two canoe trips for this year — the Paint Rock River and the Cahaba River.

IMG_1483After leaving the Earth Day event, I wandered through the park, winding up at a scenic overlook that also has a small museum and memorial dedicated to the Civilian Conservation Corps of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. At a time when Alabama’s Republican elected officials seem to be on the verge of closing down a number of state parks, it was a reminder of how much this part of Alabama owes to FDR and his Depression-era recovery policies. Every town in the Tennessee Valley should have a monument to Roosevelt.

As I left Monte Sano, there was a break in the rain and more people seemed to be arriving at the Earth Day festivities. Since the Paint Rock Valley was on my mind I decided to make the short drive to Jackson County and drive through the upper Paint Rock Valley for a while.

The Paint Rock River meanders for about sixty river miles from its origins in northernmost Alabama to where it enters the Tennessee next to a spectacular bluff known as Paint Rock. I saw the Paint Rock on a boating day trip along the Tennessee from Guntersville Dam to Decatur a couple of years ago. It is only accessible from the river and is worth checking out if you get the opportunity.

IMG_1506My Sunday drive, however, took me into the upper reaches where the headwaters come together and form the small but ecologically significant Paint Rock River and its surrounding valley. Due to recent rains and storms, the river was flowing fast with a lot of mud and debris and was beginning to overflow its banks. There are a number of places along the two-lane highway through the valley where the road goes alongside the river. The area is sparsely populated and there are abundant farmland and animals grazing in pastures along the river’s course. IMG_1486

Occasionally you pass through a more settled area. The towns of Princeton and Trenton huddle close to the road. My afternoon drive took me as far into the valley as the town of Estillfork. One of the things that struck me along the drive is the way most of the houses, stores, and churches are right on the road, even where there was space to build farther back.

My friend Judy Prince is a psychotherapist based in Birmingham but her roots are in the upper Paint Rock Valley and in Estillfork, where her family ran a country store for decades. Judy has been active with various projects to enrichen the valley and preserve and pay homage to its beauty, community life, history, and heritage. It is through visits to the area in conjunction with Judy’s Paint Rock Valley History Project and Connect UP (CUP) initiatives that I have been introduced to the upper Paint Rock Valley. There are multiple goals, part of which is building connections and community with the area’s Appalachian and Native American cultures. “Building community” has become a theme for me lately, it seems.

Judy has been active in using a “rolling store” to dispense heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato seedlings and seeds. The rolling store idea is in honor of her father, Pete Prince, who once operated a rolling store in the valley in addition to his stationary store in Estillfork. IMG_1491

Judy has ongoing plans for a History Store and Working Farm as a wellness and healing center to serve the community and people in need from the community and beyond including those with physical and mental challenges, veterans, the elderly, and youth. One of her goals is to utilize the projects to connect residents of the area with those from outside the community and to increase interaction and exchange from diverse communities. Judy speaks passionately about all of these projects and her enthusiasm is contagious. She wants to bring more visitors into the valley while also enabling those in the community to venture forth and seek broader exposure to other options of doing and living.

IMG_1500Highway 65, the curving road that follows the Paint Rock River through the valley, is named “The Curly Putman Highway” in honor of songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman, the Paint Rock Valley native (Princeton) who wrote “Green, Green Grass of Home.” That song, written in the 1960s, was an often covered tune that was a country hit for Porter Wagoner and later an international hit for pop star Tom Jones.

As I drove through the Paint Rock Valley with Curly Putman’s plaintive song in my head, I was reminded of a road trip I took many years ago through another mostly rural area of central Alabama. I was with a friend who was visiting the area from Los Angeles. At one point, I veered off the main road to show her a quaint small town that was just off the highway. She was quiet and gazed out the window as we drove down the street that ran through the middle of the town, past neat little houses and a docile town square surrounded by a few small local businesses and a few shuttered storefronts. After a moment, she turned to me and said, “Why would anyone choose to live here?”

I was caught off-guard and didn’t have a ready answer at that moment but I have often thought about her question over the years. Why does anyone live anywhere? And how many of us have the luxury of choosing where to live? I have lived all over the country and I don’t think I ever really got to choose. You live where you were born and then you live where life, family, education, career, circumstances, and serendipity take you.

There are people who live in the upper Paint Rock Valley. Some stay there their entire lives and some leave as soon as they are able. Some return at some point and some never come back. Others come and stay or come and go. For some it is “home” and for others it’s just a place along the road. The country is full of communities like those along the Paint Rock River. They deserve our discovery, our attention, and our respect. They can learn from us; more importantly, we can learn from them.


(For more information about Joys of Simplicity Wellness Adventures and the Connect UP Program, and for contact information for Judy Prince, check her website at www.tinyurl.com/lutybme).


IMG_1370 Mooresville, Alabama, was incorporated as a town in 1818, the year before Alabama became a state (www.mooresvilleal.com). Its location in Limestone County, just off Wheeler Lake and the Tennessee River and between Huntsville and Decatur, is an area that is rapidly growing. The expansive farming fields of just a few years ago are giving way to more prosaic development. I have lived in north Alabama for more than twelve years and am still astonished at how much farmland has disappeared from the area in just the past decade.

All of Mooresville, however, is in the National Register of Historic Places. It retains the feel of a village from another time and is worth the short exit off the interstate when you are in the area and have time for a breather. Its residents are good stewards of their community and the town is well-maintained, protected, and cared for. IMG_1337

Only a few dozen people live in Mooresville and it is small enough that one can park the car and walk the entire village in a fairly short time. There are large houses of note and smaller houses of charm; lovely private gardens; and ample green space. IMG_1327


Two particularly great old church buildings are located in the town. Mooresville Church of Christ has held services since 1854. Future president James A. Garfield preached a sermon in that building when he was stationed nearby as a federal soldier during the Civil War. It is a simple white clapboard building with Greek Revival basics and minimal adornment.

IMG_1377The Old Brick Church, built in 1839, is a Greek Revival brick structure with an elegantly sculpted hand at the tip of its steeple pointing directly up to the heavens. The Old Brick Church is available for weddings and special occasions but lacks modern conveniences and no longer holds regular services. IMG_1373

There are other small businesses in the village including the 1818 Farm (www.1818farms.com), a fairly recent enterprise with various happy farm animals and a strong organic orientation. When I was a boy and a ravenous reader of history and historical trivia,  I first heard about Mooresville as the site of the oldest still operating post office in the state. I am happy to report that the Mooresville Post Office is still there and still operational. IMG_1382

The whole village covers just a few blocks but some of the town’s roads continue on into the woods and backwaters of the lake and the river. I stopped to take a photograph on one of the backroads on a recent visit and realized that I was parked next to an ancient and overgrown cemetery. Tombstones from the 19th century, some of them broken, were scattered through the trees and brambles and provided intriguing history of the area.

Whenever I go to Mooresville, I try to head over to Greenbrier and Greenbrier Restaurant (www.oldgreenbrier.com) before I head back into town. From Mooresville, you cross over the Interstate and take the road past Belle Mina (the name of both a 19th century mansion and the community that surrounds it). Turn on Old Highway 20, go past massive fields and farmland to the four-way stop at Greenbrier, and Greenbrier Restaurant is on your right at the stop sign. It’s known for its barbecue but I’m partial to the fried catfish. The fish is flaky and moist in the middle with a peppery crisp crust. The place also has the finest hushpuppies I have ever tasted and a generous portion of succulent hushpuppies comes with the meal.

I sometimes grab a catfish plate to go. The order will come with a paper bag of hushpuppies that I put on the seat next to me and pop as I head into Huntsville. The hushpuppies are always gone by the time I pass the Space and Rocket Center and re-enter the 21st Century. IMG_1403

Unexpected Repose at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament

IMG_1318   My pick for one of the most unexpected attractions in Alabama is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. It’s near the town of Hanceville in Cullman County north of Birmingham. My mother’s family hails from Cullman County and for that reason I tend to think of the area as a Protestant enclave of Scotch-Irish descendants. In reality, though, the town of Cullman was founded by Germans and its German Catholic roots are deep. Indeed, the Cullman skyline is dominated by Sacred Heart Catholic Church; St. Bernard Abbey of Benedictine monks and the Saint Bernard School are prominent in the town. Ave Maria Grotto and its companion “Little Jerusalem” replicas of world religious destinations on the Abbey grounds have long been Cullman’s best-known tourist attraction.

A little farther south of “Cullman town,” past Hanceville, the Shrine is the vision of Mother Angelica, the doctrinaire nun who started Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), now the largest religious media network in the world, out of a garage in 1981. EWTN is headquartered in Irondale, a Birmingham suburb. I am not now nor have I ever been a Roman Catholic but curiosity and fascination with the scope of the network would drive me to occasionally look in on “Mother Angelica Live,” Mother Angelica’s daily show in the early years of EWTN. Mother Angelica has a certain charm, sharp wit, and charisma and is to be admired for her drive and commitment but sometimes her dogmatic proclamations and venomous rebukes made her sound a bit like a Christopher Durang creation. Still, it is an amazing thing that she started and the network continues to have massive global influence today.

As the network grew and began 24-hour non-stop Catholic programming, Mother Angelica began to search for a place to relocate the monastery away from the bustle of the network. IMG_1279 In 1995, she was able to acquire acreage to build a monastery and small working farm in Cullman County north of Birmingham. Soon, though, her modest plan exploded into a massive vision as she felt divinely called (by a voice emanating from a statue of the Divine Child in Bogota, Colombia) to build a Shrine.

The result is a mind-boggling and somewhat surreal achievement in the rolling hills and valleys of north central Alabama. One exits the interstate and passes through Hanceville and drives past farms and country stores. Eventually, at the turn to the Shrine, there is a long curving drive lined with white fences. There are small guest houses for those making an extended visit to the Shrine.

At the main gate, a sign advises visitors that the grounds are under video surveillance and that armed guards are on the premises (‘kumbaya,” right?). The farmland and pastures come into view and finally the buildings. IMG_1278There are substantial barns and farm buildings, and occasional religious sculptures, and then the main church, chapels, and related buildings are visible in the distance.

Currently there are a substantial working farm; the cloistered monastery for the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration; the main church, The Temple of the Divine Child; a Shroud of Turin Display and Lower Church; massive colonnades and Stations of the Cross on either side of the main piazza; a life-size Nativity inside a small chapel; a small castle, Castle San Miguel, containing meeting rooms and the Gift Shop of El Nino; the John Paul II Eucharistic Center; and a replica of the Lourdes Grotto in France along the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. IMG_1295

It’s a Roman Catholic Disneyland.

And it is truly a magnificent and peaceful place. Standing in the middle of the huge piazza and looking at the large Romanesque-Gothic main church, the bell tower, and the surrounding colonnades inspired by 13th Century Franciscan architecture, one can’t help but be reminded of the great pilgrimage destinations of the world. The marble, limestone, and granite construction, the bronze doors, the gilding throughout, the magnificent statuary inside the various buildings and throughout the grounds, and the German-crafted stained glass windows add to the site’s sense of commitment and purpose, regardless of one’s spiritual stance. IMG_1292

There are regular reminders to “remain silent out of respect for those in prayer” and throughout the place there are opportunities for quiet reflection and meditation. On the occasions when I have visited, there have been vehicles from all over the country in the parking lot and tourists and pilgrims from all over the world but it never seems rushed, noisy, or crowded. IMG_1306

Walking down the path to the river and the replica of the Lourdes Grotto is probably my favorite part of the visit. The imposing rocky structure looms with the marble statues of Our Lady of Lourdes on high and Bernadette kneeling below. IMG_1305Votive candles burn on several levels against the curving back of the structure. The only sounds I heard were the waters of the Mulberry Fork rushing over rocks in the riverbed, birds singing in early spring, and bees busily buzzing among the spring blossoms.

Mother Angelica, who had the vision and doggedly plowed it through to fruition, is almost 92 now and lives in the monastery she envisioned. Reruns of “Mother Angelica Live” still air on EWTN but Mother Angelica is silent. She suffered a severe stroke in 2001 and her speaking ability was greatly impaired. According to her fellow cloistered nuns, she moves her lips in prayer, takes meals in her room, and often watches EWTN when she’s awake. IMG_1311