Tag Archives: travel

Words, words, words … Eat

Photographer Celestia Morgan and SFA Director John T. Edge at 2019 SFA Winter Symposium

Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) was born in Birmingham in 1999, spearheaded by a letter from author John Egerton inviting fifty representatives of every facet of southern food and food culture to convene at the Southern Living magazine headquarters. At that meeting, they chartered the organization, named John T. Edge to be the director, and SFA became a part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Frank and Pardis Stitt hosted their fellow founders at Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) on that first night.

Since then, SFA has become a major advocate for dispensing knowledge and research into all aspects of food culture of the American South through symposia, oral histories, films, and publications such as the award-winning quarterly, Gravy. SFA uses food culture to examine social issues of past, present, and future. Its events are inspiring, challenging, and community-building. The philosophy of the organization makes a place at the table for everyone. And, needless to say, there’s always good food to be had.

Birmingham is the permanent site for SFA’s annual winter symposium. The 2019 theme is “Food Is Work.” With the Birmingham symposium, the SFA launches a year-long examination of the labor that transpires at all levels of food service and production.

The intrepid John T. Edge remains the director of SFA and he and the tireless staff serve as hosts for the event. Edge’s generosity, humor, and razor-sharp observations are the ideal representation of everything the organization has come to mean for the region and the wider food culture. John T. has the uncanny ability to make the connections, whatever and wherever they might be. His ability to remember people is impressive, as is his infectious curiosity.

Good People Brewing (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com) was the site of the reception on Friday night before the symposium. Feizal Valli of Birmingham’s funky and ersatz Atomic Lounge (www.theatomiclounge.com) was serving beverages built from a base of Good People’s Coffee Oatmeal Stout. Critics’ favorite John Hall, of Post Office Pies (www.postofficepies.com), offered a tasty bite of a red snapper crudo with grapefruit, radish, celery, and mint.

The main event on Saturday was at Haven (www.eventshaven.com), an event space on Southside. Attendees were greeted with treats from two Birmingham stalwarts – a bag containing two tasty Hero Doughnuts (www.herodoughnuts.com) and freshly brewed Royal Cup Coffee (www.royalcupcoffee.com) sourced from Kenya. Each participant took home a bag of the coffee in its bright purple bag marked ROAR.

The symposium’s morning presentations were mostly Birmingham-centric and a good introduction to the city for the many people who were visiting for the first time. After the requisite greetings by SFA staff, Feizal Valli offered tasting notes for the beverages that would be offered at the closing happy hour.

The morning’s presentations began with poetry by Birmingham native Ashley M. Jones, author of Magic City Gospel and the just-released dark // thing. The poetry Jones shared was based on food and food memory and was a contemplative start to a long day. Next, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald’s presentation, “The Labor of Birmingham,” began by focusing on Birmingham’s gritty industrial beginnings as an iron and steel center and the role of Greek immigrants in feeding “the city that was a melting pot that prospered because of melting pots.”

The presentation morphed into a paean to Birmingham-style hot dogs, which are hard to explain but are delicious and distinctive and are undeniably a “thing” in the Birmingham area. During Archibald’s Q&A, Frank Stitt recalled memories of bags of Birmingham tamales that his parents would bring back to Cullman after visits to the city in the mid-20th century. At that point, John T. Edge elaborated on Mississippi Delta tamale culture and how pockets of tamale culture are scattered throughout the region. That’s one of the great things about SFA – the tracks of one discussion always lead to a related train of thought for further exploration.

The final morning session was especially relevant to me as Ben and Ryan Ray, entrepreneurs of Millie Ray and Sons baked goods (www.millierayandsons.com), spoke with SFA’s Annemarie Anderson. My mother had served Millie Ray’s orange rolls the night before and had expressed interest in the story of the company and its namesake. I had recently read that Millie Ray had died, so it was a happy coincidence to hear her sons tell the story of their mother and her baking first-hand the very next day. Their story of a food company that started in their mother’s home kitchen making orange rolls for her garden club in 1979 was a lovely way to end the morning; all of my mother’s questions were answered, to be shared with her later that day.

The afternoon began with the premiere of Ava Lowrey’s latest SFA short film, “Mac’s One Stop,” about a service station / convenience store / lunch counter in downtown Birmingham. Mac’s, in the middle of the medical center, is a place I’ve passed without notice hundreds of times. Now, thanks to the SFA doing what they do, I will pass it – and probably stop by – with a new appreciation of what it means to food and to its community. SFA’s many outreaches are valuable tools for illuminating the stories that are off the beaten path or, in the case of places like Mac’s, hiding in plain sight.

At lunch time, the always innovative SFA staff decided to try something: Each symposium-goer’s nametag was stamped with an image from a food group: carrot, catfish, chicken, cow, pig. When it was time to go in to lunch, we were lined up by food group in an effort to encourage networking. Of course, my food group was the last to be called, but the experiment worked as I met and had a nice conversation with an engaging young couple from Savannah, visiting Birmingham for the first time, and in the process of opening a tech device-free restaurant. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Lunch is always special at SFA events and is an opportunity for chefs to showcase their cuisine to a broad national audience. The 2019 winter symposium lunch was particularly special to me since it was provided by Rusty Tucker and his crew from Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) in Leeds, USA, just east of Birmingham. I sat with Rusty at last year’s winter symposium and have since been to his restaurant several times for some of the best barbecue in the area.

For the SFA meal, Rusty’s barbecue offerings included chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and – as a vegetarian option – jackfruit. Barbecued jackfruit was new to me and, apparently, to many of the other diners. It was hearty and delicious. The sides were excellent and traditional but Rusty’s distinctive touches raise them above the norm. For dessert, there was a silky banana pudding from pastry chef Beth Tucker, Rusty’s wife.

After lunch, I stopped by to view an exhibition of photographer Celestia Morgan’s thoughtful portraits of Birmingham people at work in various area eateries.

The symposium took a darker turn in the afternoon with sessions that addressed the realities and pitfalls of careers in the food industry. “Restaurants in Crisis,” moderated by Nashville-based pastry chef / writer Lisa Donovan, began with a litany of headlines documenting the recent fall of restaurant industry icons. After that sobering intro, Donovan addressed crisis and emergency management within the industry with psychologist Patricia Bundy and Melany Robinson of Birmingham-based Polished Pig Media. The discussion included hard statistics and even more difficult realities of the struggles behind the hospitality façade. It was difficult to hear, but necessary, with advice to benefit those in any field.

At the end, Robinson shared a simple but timely quote she had photographed on a sign outside an auto shop in Birmingham’s Homewood suburb: IN A WORLD WHERE YOU CAN BE ANYTHING / BE KIND.

Next, Hunter Lewis, editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine, had a conversation with Steve Palmer, restaurateur and managing partner of Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group (www.theindigoroad.com), overseeing close to two dozen discrete restaurants throughout the southeast. The session, “Evolution of the Restaurant Family Ideal,” explored Palmer’s evolution in the food industry and his philosophies for creating a restaurant concept and managing employees, including an admirable initiative to assist restaurant employees with home mortgages. The humility and passion of Palmer were striking, particularly when he discussed his founding of “Ben’s Friends,” a food and beverage industry support group for those with substance abuse and addiction problems.

During a break, after the Steve Palmer session, I told my journalist friend Bob that I may have “hit the wall” after two such probing and occasionally troubling sessions.

However, as is so often true with SFA events, the best was yet to come.

The final session of the day, entitled “Promises of a Female Led Restaurant,” featured the amazing and fearless Raleigh-based chef, Ashley Christensen (www.ac-restaurants.com). Christensen and her food made me a life-long fan after two exceptional dinners at the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence, Alabama. Christensen’s presentation was memorable and powerful as she passionately spoke about issues of identity, inclusion, and hope. It was a courageous and masterful presentation, laying bare the soul of a woman who cares about the communities she serves and about her own place within it.

Ashley Christensen had me on the edge of my seat, proud to be a witness.

At the end, the audience rose in prolonged ovation for the singular moment of a singular day.

We had a chance to catch our breath and say our goodbyes at the happy hour which closed the SFA’s 2019 Winter Symposium. Faizal Valli once again had his bar set up with an Atomic Lounge sign and a vintage ‘60s lamp that I envied for the memories it conjured. Alabama Peanut Company was set up to serve the roasted peanuts that have earned it a devoted following at the Peanut Depot (www.alabamapeanut.com) on Morris Avenue since 1907. Merry Cheese Crisps (www.merrycheesecrisps.com), a cheese straw in medallion form, were fetchingly displayed in cut glass trays to the side.

When I left Haven, Faizal was still busy shaking his newly minted “John T. Edge” cocktail, a Maker’s Mark-based concoction “garnished” with a John T. Edge removable tattoo.

It was one of the coolest party favors ever.

Remembering Highland Avenue


Independent Presbyterian Church

Highland Avenue meanders along the north slopes of Birmingham’s Red Mountain for a couple of basically east-west miles. It starts at the business end of the Five Points South community and ends at Clairmont Avenue in Lakeview, beside the Highland Park Golf Course.

The area around Highland has always struck me as the epitome of a great urban neighborhood. By the 1960s, many of Highland’s grand houses had been split up into apartments, but now, many of those houses have given way to new development while others have mostly returned back to single family dwellings or event venues. What once were trolley tracks are now well-planted raised beds which run down the middle of most of the drive.

Donnelly House

Highland Avenue was conceived as a main thoroughfare through real estate development in the town of Highland before the town was annexed into the city of Birmingham.

Nowadays, the area is a mix of commercial and residential with high-rise apartments and condominiums among the houses and townhouses. It’s a surprisingly charming architectural mix with late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture co-existing comfortably with contemporary high-rises. Three cozy parks – for relaxing, playing with dogs, or shooting baskets – provide respite among the bustle of the avenue’s traffic. The street has a casually elegant feel – a mixture of contemporary with doses of a more elegant time past; it’s still easy to imagine trolleys and carriages moving along the avenue, and people leaving their calling cards at houses during Sunday strolls.

Avalon condominiums

The last time I lived in Birmingham, my apartment was up Red Mountain from Highland and the area was a regular walking spot for me. The neighborhood always relaxes and inspires me with occasional glimpses north to the Birmingham skyline, a sighting of Vulcan to the southwest, or the grand houses of the Redmont neighborhood along the Red Mountain crest.  If I am anywhere near the area, I will usually take a quick detour over to Highland rather than a more direct route.

A long-gone Birmingham-based chain of cafeterias called Britling had locations throughout the city, but I always thought the Highland Avenue location, which was known as “Britling on the Highlands,” somehow stood apart from the rest. That “on the Highlands” tag gave it a sense of elegance to my young mind.

Temple Beth-El

Temple Emanu-El

South Highland Presbyterian Church

Impressive houses of worship are scattered along Highland Avenue. Temple Beth-El and Temple Emanu-El are just a couple of blocks apart. South Highland Presbyterian Church is located near the west end of the avenue and the neo-Gothic Independent Presbyterian Church is situated near the east end, across from the golf course. The two Presbyterian churches started out as South Highlands; Independent formed after a doctrinal split in the early 1900s.

Chef Frank Stitt’s Bottega and Bottega Café, his Italian-inspired dining spots, are housed right on the avenue in the Bottega Favorita building, a limestone charmer with visual as well as culinary distinction. Other notable restaurants along the avenue are Galley & Garden in the old Merritt House, and Hot & Hot Fish Club, half a block down and behind Highland Plaza, an art deco shopping center anchored by locally-owned Western Supermarket. Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill, 2018’s James Beard Award winner for Most Outstanding Restaurant in America, is located just a couple of blocks from Highland Avenue, in Five Points South.

Bottega Favorita

I was saddened to learn recently that Western Supermarkets are going out of business after over seventy years. The Western on Highland was the closest grocery store to my Southside apartment in the ‘90s – and the only grocery store near downtown at the time. I frequently stopped there on the way home from work and often walked down early on Sunday mornings to pick up the Birmingham News and New York Times. The closing of the supermarket coincides with the purchase of Highland Plaza by a developer, with rumors of a major overhaul and redevelopment of the site in the works – another beloved landmark that will soon bite the dust.

Galley & Garden restaurant with Vesta apartment construction behind

Traveling past the Highland Plaza toward Temple Beth-El used to be one of my favorite quick glimpses of the Vulcan statue overlooking the city. That particular vista is gone forever with the construction of the high-rise Vesta apartment complex now obscuring the view.

The former Town and Gown Theatre is nestled just off Caldwell Park, which also used to be the front yard of sorts for John Carroll High School. John Carroll has moved to the suburbs, making way for more house construction, and Town and Gown has morphed into Virginia Samford Theatre, still a destination in the city for theatre-goers. I still have fond memories of auditioning for a juvenile role in a Steve McQueen movie at the old Town and Gown in the 1960s.

Highland Plaza

Despite considerable changes – and more to come – Highland Avenue retains its character and still feels like a neighborhood, a calm and shady retreat from the city center only a couple of miles away. It’s still one of my favorite streets to drive. 

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

Shadows and Light: Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall

IMG_1244   Just off the Natchez Trace Parkway, near the place where that historic road moves from Tennessee into northwest Alabama near the Shoals, is a man-made wall commemorating a moving story of the “Trail of Tears.” The “Trail of Tears” was an aftermath of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the episode of American history which forcibly removed Native Americans from their homes in the east to the Oklahoma territories.

Tom Hendrix has built a monumental stone wall to honor his great-great-grandmother, Te-lah-nay, a member of the Yuchi tribe, who walked with her sister and others from her home near the Tennessee River – the Native Americans called it “the Singing River” – to Oklahoma. According to family lore, the young woman was disappointed to find that the waters of Oklahoma did not sing and resolved to walk back to Alabama and her “Singing River.” The journey home took five years.IMG_1254

Mr. Hendrix, who is now in his 80s, has been working on the wall for over thirty years. It is estimated that there are 8.5 million pounds of stones in the project. It is reputed to be the world’s longest memorial to a Native American and to a woman. It is the longest non-mortared rock wall in the United States. Mr. Hendrix, the maker, says that it honors not just his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay but all Native American women. IMG_1247

Mr. Hendrix, inspired by the stories and journals passed down through his family, began to build the wall with stones he had brought to the site at his home a few yards from the Natchez Trace. Each stone, he says, represents a step of Te-lah-nay’s journey. Now there are paths along well over a mile of wall, each stone placed by Mr. Hendrix. It is a spiritual and peaceful place with curves, benches, levels, and prayer circles. At some places the wall is high and at other places it is low enough to sit on. At some places it is tight and closed in and at others it opens out. People have sent stones to Mr. Hendrix from all over the world to be placed in the wall. Occasionally a seashell appears along the path. IMG_1246

When I arrived on a warm late winter afternoon in mid-March, Mr. Hendrix greeted me. From his driveway, there are paths going in either direction. He told me the path to the left represents Te-lah-nay’s walk to Oklahoma and that the path to my right represents her return home. I asked which one I should take first and he said it didn’t matter. I chose the path to the left.

IMG_1237That part of the path was closed in. At the end there was a bench. I sat at the bench for a moment but felt the need to move on. Upon arriving back at the entrance, Mr. Hendrix said “That was the dark path. The other side is completely different.”

Taking the path to the right, I soon moved along a wall of rocks with what appear to be spirits peering out. Continuing along the path, there are openings, areas of benches and congregation, a single gourd hanging from a tall tree. IMG_1248 I was a short distance from the first path, but the feeling was much lighter and more free. At times the wall meandered off and the sunlight through the still bare trees glistened and darted in the slight breeze. Again I sat on a bench in the path and this time I relaxed and stayed for a while. IMG_1241

The memorial is called “Wichahpi,” which means “like the stars.” The path’s symbolism comes from an elder who told Tom Hendrix that ultimately “all things shall pass. Only the stones will remain.”

When my journey along the wall was complete, Mr. Hendrix was there to answer questions and explain. He has written a book about Te-lah-nay’s journey called If the Legends Fade and copies are available for sale at the site (www.ifthelegendsfade.com). Also available are stone carvings by Mr. Hendrix including spiritual images, images of animals, and benches and birdbaths.

I asked him how far the site is from Te-lah-nay’s “Singing River” and he directed me nine miles southwest to the place where the Natchez Trace crosses the Tennessee. It is a lovely and peaceful spot and the river is wide there. IMG_1260_1Mr. Hendrix says that the song from the river is more faint now that the river has been tamed and industry crowds much of its shores. But there is no sign of these things at the spot where the Natchez Trace bridge crosses the water; Mr. Hendrix says he still hears the river’s song almost every day.