A Road Re-traveled
The particular stretch of interstate 20 between Alabama and Georgia bookended my marriage. In our early years, we traveled the road when we moved from Texas to Georgia. We packed our entire lives into a 15 foot Ryder truck. I sat crammed in the front seat, the cat, drugged into slumber, in her crate under my feet and our pug sitting on my lap, barking at every overpass. We were young, overjoyed to be reunited after 7 months apart, and filled with excitement over our future. We made most of the journey in one 22 hour push (slow going thanks to the governor on the truck and the car towed behind). We finally stopped for a brief respite at the Alabama-Georgia border, stealing a few hours of sleep while we waited for the Atlanta traffic to clear.
The next time I traveled on I-20, my marriage was over and I was undertaking a journey to place one of its innocent victims, our youngest dog, with new owners. The tone of that drive was very different; I still had a dog on my lap, but this time it was one I was saying goodbye to. We made the transfer at the same rest station where my husband-to-be and I had stopped 11 years prior. The same welcome center that greeted my married life signaled the loss of the same.
Today, I traveled that highway for a third time. Today, the road held no particular meaning. Today, the rest stop simply was a place to stretch and get a drink. Today, the road carried me not into a new life, but simply to a new city for a weekend. A city that is as filled with contrasts as that road was for me.
My first stop upon entering Birmingham was the botanical gardens. I was immediately smitten with the naturalistic eye of the designers. Unlike the Atlanta gardens, this park is not filled with carefully cultivated and perfectly placed plants. The herbaceous growth was allowed to get a little wild, to grow unrestrained in places. It was a delight to see the freely spreading phlox and trilliums ignoring the boundaries, coloring outside the lines.
I grinned in delight as I entered the fern grotto. Ferns have always been one of my favorite plants, they seem to lower the air temperature 10 degrees simply with their presence and they always fill me with a sense of calm and peace. On the bridge, overlooking the ferns, I met an elderly gentleman who visited the park every day. He had lived in Birmingham his entire life and told me stories of the area and of the garden while he led me on my own impromptu tour of the park.
We came upon a large stone table. He mentioned that this was his gratitude table and that every time he passed it, he paused to give thanks. I was surprised to hear this from him, as he seemed to be a stoic southern man of a certain generation, who does not speak of this such as emotion. He then proceeded to shock me further by describing an encounter he had one day at that table. While he was giving thanks, a young nun in a full habit came up. They entered into conversation and he mentioned his view of the table. She laughed, and said that she had always viewed the table as a sacrificial altar where she would pause to surrender. One table, two views.
Civil Rights & Hillbillies
In the city center and the art museum, there were signs everywhere of the city’s complicated past with human rights and desegregation. Based upon this, I expected to find a city still stuck in the Old South. Although I have seen elements of that, I have also been surprised at the liberal side of the city bleeding through the fabric of tradition. I stumbled upon a lovely St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Five Points neighborhood. It had a small town charm, with the requisite cars full of the city’s young beauties and not-so-young makers and shakers and waving at the crowd. I roared with laughter when an Old Alabama truck came by, complete with a character straight out of the Beverly Hillbillies.
My laughter was soon swallowed in shock as I realized that an exuberant drag queen was prancing behind the pickup truck, followed by Birmingham’s very own gay pride group. The crowd’s cheers grew even loader. My jaw dropped even lower. This is certainly not the old South. The civil rights movement here continues on…
Celtic Southern Vegans
I plan to end my lovely day with some further contrasts. I am going to hear Celtic music at a vegan/vegetarian venue in this Southern town. I can’t wait to see what I find next…
Days like this remind me that life cannot be neatly categorized. People and places are neither black nor white, but exist in the spaces between. It is another reminder to let go of expectations and see the world with wide-eyed wonder.