Friday, October 25, 2013

Southern misconceptions

Clairmont Springs Baptish Church
I didn’t get to spend much time in the South – my own fault, a job opportunity called me to the Midwest – but I loved my time there. People have a lot of ideas about the South. And many misconceptions.

I’ve lived in just about every region of our country: I’m from Alaska; about the only place I haven’t lived is the East Coast, but I’ve been lucky enough to stay and travel pretty extensively there too.

The most beautiful place I’ve lived is the South. And there is nothing more gorgeous than the northern end. Tennessee, Kentucky, and the northeast corner of Alabama, where Cheaha State Park is located, have a combination of mountains and trees unlike anywhere else.

Coming from the West, I never realized you could take a drive “of a Sunday” and see five or ten small towns, each with food to try, each with history not to be missed. I was used to markers of gold strikes and pioneers who made it to that particular place alive – that was the accomplishment. The South is full of markers of a much different sort: Battles waged over what kind of country we would become, and daring pioneers who struggled up a different kind of mountain. Often they did not live to see the top, but they are remembered no less fiercely for their fight.

When I moved, I prepared myself for racism and sexism. And it was there. But I also got to confront some of my own ideas about race for the first time. Just after moving to Montgomery and realizing I was the only white person in a packed restaurant, I was fascinated and excited to be living in such a place. I didn’t understand until much later that what I felt then was a luxury, a luxury not shared if I had been a black Southerner in that reversed situation.

A co-worker prepared me for the church question, for which I was eternally grateful. “The first thing everyone will ask you,” said Lenita before I left the newsroom in Nevada, “is ‘what church do you belong to?’” I have no religion, and have no interest in gaining any, so in that respect, escaping the South to the Midwest – where everyone is religious, but no one would have the bad taste to talk about it – was a relief. It’s always interesting to me that the people who have the most horrible things to say about other people, who harbor the most racism and hate, are also the ones who speak the loudest about what great Christians they are and seem the most concerned about other peoples’ souls.

But churches have another meaning in the South. They were a place where it was safe to meet, to organize, and to learn. There is a reason here the term is “church home”.  The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. King helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott and many other protests, is just feet from the Montgomery Capitol building. You can feel the strength of spirit and character coming off mere photos of protests that happened on this street; I can’t even imagine how overwhelming the actual feeling was on those days.

When I  was driving through downtown Montgomery on Sunday morning, seeing the men and women, dressed in their incredible Sunday best, hats every color of the rainbow, file into churches of amazing history and glory – I might have no religion, but I know what these churches mean. The hardest thing to understand about the South, is how Dexter Avenue itself didn’t change as much as it changed the rest of the world.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

ROADTRIP: Discovering Southern color

East Coast, schmeast coast. If you want great fall color, look to the South, specifically somewhere like Cheaha State Park in northeastern Alabama. Check out all the fun and beauty in the latest issue.

Cheaha is in the Talladega National Forest, and, as part of the Appalachian Mountain foothills, is the highest point in Alabama. Conveniently located, and incredibly gorgeous, Cheaha is a jewel Alabama parks has really taken advantage of fully.

There are numerous trails, and a handy Fall Color Report on the park website for tracking where to catch the best leaves. The photos in the main story here are from the Odum Scout Hiking Trail, but the whole area is beautiful. Other trails access a lake for swimming, waterfalls, mountain biking, and there’s an observation tower at the highest point in the park. All manner of camping accommodations, a restaurant and gift shop are also sprinkled throughout the park.

There is a $3 day-use fee ($1 for seniors) for some areas of the park. Cheaha is very dog friendly, and even has cabins dog owners can rent for an additional charge. I can't wait until the National Parks Service figures out it's better to be dog-friendly and charge/fine instead of trying to ban pets that are going to be brought along anyway.

While you are checking the Fall Color Report and activities on the Alabama Parks website, make sure you check the park history section of the site for some amazing archival film footage and photos from the 1930s.

Getting There
Cheaha State Park is located between Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, Ga., on Interstate 20 (I-20), and about 90 miles north of Montgomery, Ala., on Highway 231 (US-231). From either Birmingham or Atlanta, take exit 191 and turn south on Highway 431 (US-431). Take the Highway 281 (US-281) access road and watch for the Cheaha Resort State Park exits.

From Montgomery, there are two ways to go. The probably shorter way, and the way that takes you past the cemeteries, lake, goats and funny church signs in this issue (ok, the goats were hilarious too). I’m telling you my way: Take US-231 north to Sylacauga and turn right into Talladega National Forest (State 148). State 7 will take you north from there to Cheaha by way of Clairmont Springs Road and Talladega Scenic Highway. If you are interested in the shorter way see the Cheaha website.