It would happen that by the time I re-learned to love Alabama, I would be packing up my car to leave the state.
Never have I ever lived elsewhere, a fact I deeply resented as I moved into my dorm room on Auburn's campus. I felt robbed.
Having skipped around East-Central Alabama for a few years, like a rock on a lake, Prattville was the town in which my family fell into a more long-term residence when I was 5 years old.
Looking back on those first years of slippin' slides in neighbors' yards and splashing through the ditch at our cul-de-sac's end, finding mockingbirds' nests in our bushes, and picking berries off the invading privet shrubs, riding razor scooters with friends, running around with our dogs through the bahia grass behind our house or planting carrots in our backyard garden, no dislike for the land reveals itself, no itch to be off to a different state.
My sisters and I grew up traveling around the state, carried along by our mother to our father's hobby of umpiring baseball games. She would always try to find the adjacent natural wonder to whatever college we visited. And since my mother's family lives in northern Alabama, we were always driving north on 65 and visiting cool spots on the way. From Mt. Cheaha to Chewacla to Oak Mountain to Monte Sano to Orange Beach, I have run the trails, walked to the overlooks (lol), built sandcastles, and ridden my bike. We enjoyed sunsets and sunrises and waterfalls and rolling hills and the tubing on Lake Martin.
But we traveled to other places too. We slept on a hillside in North Carolina and drove through the mountains of Virginia. Rode ponies at the Kentucky horse park and drove down into the deep scar of Yosemite Valley. And when I was eight years old, I played on my Nintendo DS as we were born on metal wings over cookie cutter plains to the land of Colorado. We were going skiing, and I fell in love under the blue sky and aspen trees, and the seed of discontentment was planted like a kernel in my heart.
Loving Colorado did not in itself cause me to resent my home state. Life is never idyllic and when I charted up a list of negatives in my life, I (with a strong hope towards a change of conditions) marked them up as the fault of location and not the general brokenness of the world.
Alabama does have some strokes against it. The sweat-trenching furnace that heats the air during my birthday month of August, causing candles to slide down cakes, the humidity that leaves you dripping, even under the shade of a tree, has never helped to reconcile the location to me. The fast food wrappers decorating the waving grasses on the roadside have never appealed to my taste. Outdoor recreational opportunities can seem few. Weeds and bugs and heat and tangled forests can seem many.
And the people of the state who were very unlike me could seem many too. We had many family friends that I loved and respected, but, as my head moved further up our marked door frame, it seemed that I had less and less in common with my peers. My school friends didn't care to camp, to bike, to hike, to adventure. To them, being out in nature was a thing of childhood. And I watched my long-time neighborhood friends giving up "the woods" (our version of "the outdoors") as well as they hit preteen years. They gave it up "the field" and "the creek" for electronics and computer games, and so, I carried on mostly alone, walking the quiet forest paths where laughter once rang out, where we once carved seats into clay cliffs and talked all afternoon long.
By the time it came to choose a college, I couldn't wait to drive my car across the state border. Auburn University was on my list, but at the bottom of the page. In my mind, Colorado was the promised land, and I would escape the trials of my life when I escaped Alabama. I would get away from the falseness of certain southern smiles. The horrible casseroles at the church potluck (I'm a picky eater). Sionora, sweet tea and sour discontentment. Here was a foolish notion.
Going to Auburn was difficult at first. I had to watch my Plan A shatter and suffer a hundred carefully-crafted life expectations. But I am so thankful the Lord kept me in Alabama. As new hopes and relationships were forged and bloomed, I was given eyes to see the beauty around me. Instead of pressing the gloom of internal circumstances onto Alabama's green pastures and brown streams, I began to see the good, to learn the names of the flowers. There has been no richer time in my life.
We moved elsewhere, and that home became a haven and a basecamp, from which to roam and ride my horse. And it wasn't tainted by the shadows of my old friends. The constellations gained names. I grew familiar with the mottled face of the moon. Now, when I pass the fields on Wire Road, I increasingly know the names of the trees and the weeds. Shepherd's Purse is the plant by the fence. Crimson clover sprays the hillside and highways with deep color. The brilliance of the fall colors in the forest behind our house became a personal investment. The growing places of honeysuckle earned a spot in my mental record. Through my college job, I explored Alabama in a deeper way, biking long on its hills and sleeping in tents, kayaking out to an island and watching the horizon burn like fire.
Remember Rick Bragg, the guy with the page-long article in the very back of Southern Living, where he reminisces about relatives and southern tradition, about old church ladies and casseroles and fire ants? All my life, I've read his articles, and now I began to treasure my solidarity, my similar background. I didn't have to be just alike the people around me, these Alabamians, didn't have to care about football (or whatever cliche you put on Alabamians) to love the people of Alabama. I could be different, and yet love my friends and neighbors. I could love Colorado and Alabama. I could enjoy where I was, and where I wanted to go.
And now I am going.
Away from this land I know, the pine trees, the clinging clay, the 100 degree days, the white sand, and the crumbling backroads, with ivy growing on the porches of old shacks and dogs barking at passing cars, with tilting mailboxes and cows grazing among buttercups. Away from cotton fields and heavy oaks and thick spanish moss. Away from a hundred moonlit walks and campfires with my family and friends. I move away from these things in time, and now I'll move in space, for a little while at least.
And so, I want to say that I love you, Alabama. And the thought that I might never sleep on windy Cheaha again, may never bound on bike around Pete's Sake in Chewacla, may never gallop down the long fields off Vaughn Road again, watching "Spencer" the hawk soar overhead, that I may actually begin to belong to a different landscape and beat paths under different canopies, and be forced to learn a different crowd of plants and birds, to know a different place, it starts to feel like betrayal, the breaking of a bond.
But I do not just go, but follow, and there's hope in that, having learned I don't know the way, don't know what's best for me. I follow my Shepherd, the Lord who created these woods and fields, the chimney swift on the power line above my window and the bluest sky, who I was ever so unhappy to follow to Auburn, but who there opened my eyes and gave me greater blessings than I could have dreamed up in any wildest hope. He taught me to be still and to see the good. In taking away "the land of my dreams," He taught me to love where I had long stood. And He calls me elsewhere, to that very land! I'm off to Colorado for a while, but always I'll be coming back, and having stayed a few more years than I planned, I can now say with sincerity of soul, "Sweet Home Alabama."
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