Monday, December 28, 2009

Stop the Presses (Pascagoula, MS)

Brandon, Marie, her dog Paris, me and Laura near Ocean Springs, MS on Monday night

My three week dance with Alabama ended Monday morning. I entered the state on Sunday, Dec. 6th knowing no one. I leave it 22 days later, with scores of friends and a truckload of stories indelibly etched into my consciousness.

Before I got to Alabama, I had only two small newspaper articles written about my journey over the course of over three months. In the next three weeks I was covered by two large newspapers, three smaller ones and had three news pieces broadcast on regional TV stations. I never desired that this trip be publicized and I never reached out to any news organization except for the tiny Greenville Advocate, but somehow in Alabama it took on a life of its own. I held to the decision I had made before I started. I wouldn't seek out the press, but if they reached out to me I would be happy to engage them. In retrospect, I probably couldn't have found all the hosts I did in Alabama without the publicity. All things happen for a reason.

On Monday I started the morning in Grand Bay, Alabama and by the afternoon I was in Pascagoula, MS. I hadn't been at the library for two minutes before I got a call from John Rogers at Fox 10 News in Mobile. He wanted to drive out and do a story on me. I guess I must have had one space left on my Alabama media dance card. So be it.

John and his camera man couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating. Without exception the press has treated me wonderfully. We talked and shot our piece and then, as if on cue, my host Marie Davis pulled up to the library to meet me with her daughter and son-in-law - Laura & Brandon Gross. We greeted each other and hugged and the cameras kept rolling and then John came over to talk with her about why she chose to be a part of this journey. We pulled out from the library and waved goodbye to Fox 10 news. Inside of me I knew that was it. It was time to stop the presses. I had said what I could say in that format. Save these last few blog entries before I get to New Orleans, the rest of what I want to share will be of a very different type. I will spend the better part of the next 9 months trying to write a collection of very honest essays about my life experience, inspired by this walk.

I drove home with Marie and her family and it sunk in that only a week separates me from Jackson Square, New Orleans. The four of us spent a wonderful evening together. They took me out for Chinese food and I got the distinct pleasure of getting to talk with Brandon and Laura about New York City. They live in Queens and work in midtown and all the familiar references made me feel closer to a home I haven't been in four months. After dinner we sat around the living room, chatting and laughing and sharing the simple pleasure of companionship that has marked so many evenings of this journey. I even managed to stay up and see if my story made the Fox 10 nightly news. It did. We all watched it together and then I went to sleep. It felt like a fitting close to the Alabama chapter of my trip.

From here on out it will just be me, my thoughts, the Gulf Coast and my hosts. The presses have been stopped, but I thank them for their help and enthusiasm. And thanks to Marie Davis, one of the small handful of people who called me solely from seeing me on TV or in the newspaper and offered me a place to stay, no questions asked. I hope the experience hosting me rewarded that trust.

Note: Some of you might have noticed that I took myself off Facebook. I still want to be in touch with any of you who were connected with me on that site. It just means that I have decided not to use that venue. I would love it if you called me should you want to say hi. My phone number is listed on the right hand side.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

There Was Room at the Inn (Fairhope, Mobile & Grand Bay)

Mark, Benjamin, Tiffany & me on Christmas Eve in Fairhope

Noah, me, Karen & Chris on Christmas Day in Mobile

Stephanie, Matthew, Mark and me in West Mobile on Saturday night

Me & the Providence Presbyterian Church in West Mobile on Sunday morning

Larry & Debbie and me in Grand Bay on Sunday night

When I was planning where I might be able to stay over Christmas I sent emails to three Presbyterian churches in the Mobile area. The subject line was "Seeking room at the inn" in a not so subtle reference to the connection between hospitality and the birth story of Jesus. I am happy to report that two of those churches - Central Presbyterian and Providence Presby - replied with an enthusiastic yes and their pastors offered to have me stay with them personally. The third pastor, who I'd asked about finding a host for Christmas eve, could not be of help but did send a gracious note. After all the churches I have contacted only to get no response, even that was very much appreciated.

Luckily, someone else filled that gap on Christmas Eve on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Mark Moseley and his wife Tiffany heard about my journey through a co-worker and reached out to me by email to say I would be very welcome to spend Christmas eve with them and their son Benjamin. Mark & Tiffany did a lot more than give me a place to stay. Christmas Eve day was ridiculously stormy in the southern Alabama region and sitting in Bay Minette I wanted no part of a 18 mile walk in wind and rain. Given that it was the holiday season I decided to give myself a gift. Well, rather to accept the gift that Mark was willing to give - a pickup in Bay Minette and a ride down to their place in Fairhope.

In that way I stayed dry and happy and in the Christmas spirit. Tiffany is a labor & delivery nurse and had to work that night, but Mark, Benjamin and I lounged around and did our best to do justice to the holiday. For me that meant watching my first ever Star Trek movie. Verdict? Not too shabby. Or, as Larry David would say, pretty ... pretty ... PRETTY good.

On Saturday morning I walked around Fairhope, marveling at what a charming place it is, and then Mark gave me another automotive assist through the pedestrian-prohibited tunnel that leads into Mobile. He dropped me off downtown and I walked along Government Street the rest of the way to the home of Chris & Karen Bullock.

In both Fairhope and Mobile some streets are lined by huge live oaks which often form canopies across the street. Click on my slideshow from last week on the top right and see how they dominate the landscape along Government Street. Chris & Karen live just off of Government in a house they only moved into a few weeks ago. They are joint pastors at Central Presbyterian Church, having started their call there this past summer. For having moved in so recently, their house was remarkably put together. It is an old house with beautiful high ceilings, in a way reminiscent of the manse where I grew up in West Hebron. Chris cooked an absolutely wonderful supper of low country shrimp and grits with a spinach salad and an almond pound cake for dessert. We ate at 3pm and I wasn't hungry for the rest of the night. That is how we rolled in downtown Mobile. One of the highlights of our conversation was discovering that even before meeting them, we were connected by only one degree of separation. Both of us know a preacher near Cape Town, South Africa named Spiwo. I stayed with Spiwo back in 1996 and they stayed with him more recently, proving once again the world can be a very small place. Especially when riding the Presbyterian hospitality train.

The next stop on that train was at Mark & Stephanie Renn's house in West Mobile. Mark had been the first to respond to my email and not only invited me to stay with them but asked if I would be open to speaking at church the next morning. Mark does a great job of bringing fresh and innovative ideas into worship, so he decided that he would preach on hospitality and then bring me up as a surprise guest after playing a clip about me that was featured on the news. With a mini sermon looming the next day I thought I'd better carbo load. Any excuse for gluttony. So Mark cooked dinner and I feasted on his shrimp and pasta and homemade bread along with him, Stephanie, their son Matthew and their friends Tom and Laura.

Come to think of it, that made three straight nights of meals made by husbands, the last two of those being Presbyterian pastors. My dad must have not gotten the cooking memo. I think the only time my Dad ever cooked for me and my brother he managed to scrape together a gourmet dish of scrambled eggs and toast. And then only barely. The meals Mark, Chris and Mark made were all delectable. If I entered Christmas down only five or six pounds for the trip, I'm afraid to step on a scale now. I fear I might finish in New Orleans weighing more than when I departed West Hebron.

Having dinner with the Renns on Saturday night I mentioned that I still didn't have a host for Grand Bay the next evening. It is amazing how nonchalant I have become about finding places to stay at this point in my trip. I have a quiet assurance that something will fall into place, even up until the last 24 hours when nothing has yet turned up. Sure enough, Mark got on the phone and a few minutes later told me a family in his congregation had agreed to host. Done and done. Back to eating, socializing and watching the University of Michigan indoctrination DVD Mark got his son Matthew for Christmas. Da da ... da da da da ... da da da da ... da da da da. Every time I hummed this fight song for Matthew at the dinner table he would crack a huge smile. Obviously his dad's plan is working.

On Sunday Mark's plan for the worship service went off without a hitch. He preached, then played my news clip and then announced I was there and would talk about my experience. The congregation seemed genuinely surprised. Even before I spoke everyone had treated me with a welcome befitting a king. A kinder, more enthusiastic congregation would be tough to find. So after the service most of us gathered up front and took a group picture. It marks a moment in time where I came the closest to following in my dad's professional footsteps. Even then, my 8 minute infomercial was only as close to a true sermon as my dad has come to cooking a full meal. Which is to say, not very.

After church I walked out to the Simmons' house in Grand Bay. They gave me their address at church and it only took me about four hours to get there. At this point in my trip, that is a mere stroll. They took great care of me, we had dinner with another couple from the church and their dog competed fiercely for the title of most talkative canine of my trip.

I know I usually wrap up these posts in a neat little thematic knot, but this one will just have to stand as is - a brief accounting of what happened in Mobile in Christmas 2009. This was a Christmas like none I have ever had or will probably ever have again. I was 1,500 miles from home, a bit physically and emotionally exhausted, but cared for by my 92nd, 93rd, 94th and 95th host families of the trip. That number is staggering. I seem to have tapped into a vein of human compassion that is inexhaustible. What isn't inexhaustible is my energy. It's fading, but people keep lifting me up, one day at a time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oh Beautiful Star of Bethlehem (Brewton through Atmore, AL)

The Huber family in Atmore, AL on Tuesday night

Herbert & Dorothy Heller in Flomaton, AL on Monday night

John & Mabel Gehman and two of their grandchildren in Brewton, AL on Monday morning

Caroling with the Calvary Mennonite Church in Brewton, AL on Sunday night

"Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies."
~Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

When my grandmother's mind had been overtaken by dementia and she had lost most of her ability to speak and remember, she still responded to song. My mom or dad would sit next to her and start a familiar gospel song from her childhood. Nonnie's distant gaze would become slightly more focused. She would sometimes look around, as if searching for the song in the air. A light of recognition would form behind her eyes. She couldn't join in the song right away, but by the time the chorus came her mouth would move along with the words and she could softly sing a refrain that had been with her since she was a little child.

Standing, standing,
Standing on the promises of God my Savior;

Standing, standing,
I’m standing on the promises of God.

There is a resilience to musical memory that isn't available to other forms of language. It touches us on a different level. In my grandmother's case, it defied the destruction of synapses in her brain and remained one of her last ties to her lived history right up to the very end of her life.

I lived with my grandmother for three years during her struggle with Parkinson's disease and dementia. I saw her steady decline, experienced her weakness and vulnerability and by being one of her caregivers ultimately came to a greater peace with the the process of dying than I had before.

I would often take the Sunday morning caregiving shifts so my parents could go to church. During the Christmas season I would play a CD of hymns and carols and that had a calming effect on Nonnie. It wasn't just for her. I liked hearing them as well. These songs were also a soundtrack to my childhood and their familiar refrains jumped as easily to my younger mind as they did to Nonnie's aged one. She and I might not have been able to go to third floor, as we did when I was a child, and play the Blue and the Gray together, but we could still share that music.

For this reason the opportunity of visiting the elderly and singing them carols at Christmas time was quite exciting when John Gehman mentioned it me on the phone. I had contacted John and his wife Mabel from the Mennonite Your Way directory about staying with them in Brewton, AL on Sunday night. That afternoon coincided with the Calvary Mennonite Church's annual caroling program. He invited me along and I enthusiastically accepted.

Our group of about 25 met at the church at 3pm and went forth in a caravan of cars around the greater Brewton area, visiting the homes of the elderly and favoring them with our Christmas melodies. We had a makeshift hymnal with the words to all the different carols, but most were as familiar to me as a cherished children's book. There was only one I hadn't heard. By the end of our caroling I had sung it about seven times and it had become my favorite. It was "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem". Its chorus goes like this:

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns
Give us a lamp to light the way
Unto the land of perfect day
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

Like that now familiar refrain, two memories from caroling will stick with me for a long time. One was our trip to the assisted living community. About 15 of the residents gathered in the living room to hear us sing and there was one older woman sitting just off to my left who kept looking at me with the sweetest smile. I would smile back and I could tell that she was really enjoying the moment, the room full of people, the air thick with familiar melodies. The second memory is of the house we visited immediately before that. We went to visit the grandmother of one of our carolers. As we piled into the room where she was laying on a bed I saw a familiar face. She looked so much like Nonnie. Her mouth was slightly open, her white hair lovingly combed, her eyes in a far off stare. Her granddaughter sat next to her as we filled the room with song. For my part, I felt as if I was singing to Nonnie. As I think about it now, my memory goes to an earlier time when she was younger and healthier. She is in our house in West Hebron with many of her brothers and sisters. Everyone is gathered around the piano and all are singing the hymns they so loved. Those songs that would be one the last things she could outwardly share with others.

Back at his house after the caroling John Gehman and I talked about the importance of family. Pictures of his and Mabel's children and grandchildren were everywhere. On Monday morning I awoke to two of their grandchildren with us for breakfast, enjoying a week off from school. That made me think about Nonnie even more. After her faith, nothing was more important to her than family. It was her bedrock on this earth - her parents, her brothers and sisters, her husband, her kids and her grandchildren. To steal from W.H. Auden, family was her North, her South, her East, her West, her working week and her sabbath rest.

As I went on from Brewton, down to Flomaton on Monday and into Atmore on Tuesday, I kept being reminded of the importance of family in our lives. I stayed with the Hellers on Monday night and their house was filled with beautiful antiques. Likewise, with pictures of their children, and their children's children. Their daughter, who lived down the street, joined us for dinner. At Lester & Goldie Huber's in Atmore, that refrain was repeated. When I arrived with Lester three of their daughter's children were there and joined us for dinner. After dinner their other daughter, their son-in-law and their three kids arrived as well.

Family and friendships are only as vibrant and rewarding as the time we put into cultivating those relationships. I've learned a lot of lessons on this trip, but none will serve me better to remember than this: relationships are the currency of a joyous and abundant life. Who I choose as my partner in life, the friends I choose to spend time with, the way I relate to my family, even the willingness I have to reach out to strangers in need - this is the interpersonal capital that will dictate the richness of my lives.

I am glad that at the end of her life I had a chance to be a part of Nonnie's final song. Even when she could no longer sing it, the melody and lyrics of her life were so familiar to all us who knew and loved her that we could pick up the song for her. And unlike Silent Night, which I utterly failed to sing correctly for the 36th year running, Nonnie's song was in the most beautiful and accessible key of all - love. That's a note anyone can choose to hit perfectly.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Story Town (Monroeville, AL)

Me, Hilda & Tom Butts in Monroeville, AL

Marsha, me & Hunter Lindblom in Monroeville, AL

The crescendo of the book To Kill A Mockingbird is a scene where Bob Ewell, drunk and trying to exact revenge upon their father, attempts to kill both Jem and Scout on their way back from a school play. They are saved by the reclusive Boo Radley, who had hidden in the shadows of the children's lives until it was a matter of life and death, then emerged the reluctant hero.

I chalk it up to coincidence that the penultimate scene of my walk before arriving in Monroeville - the home town of To Kill A Mockingbird's author - involved a drunk man threatening to kill me and a rescue by a stranger who came out of the mist in a shadowy black pick-up and carried me to safety.

It is human nature that we often assign one primary label to a place or a person. Likewise, with a journey. We associate it with one primary story which leaps quickest to mind. I accept that when people think of my walk my close brush with danger on the road to Monroeville will probably be that anecdote. It doesn't encapsulate my trip in any form or fashion, but danger tends to cleave to our memories stronger than kindness. Maybe it is a self-preservation mechanism.

The town of Monroeville is in a similar boat. Outsiders associate it with one primary story. Every year it holds a Spring festival where To Kill a Mockingbird is reenacted at its historic courthouse. Tickets sell out well it advance, a testament to the enduring impact of Harper Lee's book and the simple human truths it contains. But what happens to all the other stories of that town? Do visitors take the time to think that there are other storytellers in that place?

I was lucky enough to be hosted by one of those other storytellers. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts is the pastor emeritus of the United Methodist Church of Monroeville and a repository of a lifetime of stories culled from preaching and traveling and counseling and loving others. Traveling around town with Dr. Butts I got the distinct impression that he knows just about everybody in Monroeville, including his friend Miss Nelle (Harper Lee). I didn't get to meet Miss Nelle but I did get to meet Tom's wife Hilda, and if love and devotion where what made people famous maybe their would be a festival each year devoted to her story.

Tom and Hilda have what I've found to be one of the key ingredients for the practice of compassion - a spirit of gratitude for how amazingly blessed their own lives have been. In hat spirit they welcomed me into their home after a very traumatic day and before long all my tension had melted away the warmth of Hilda's home cooked meal and Tom's colorful stories. Unfortunately, other people's stories are often like other people's jokes. I hear them and think to myself, I gotta remember that. A few days go by and then I can't remember the details which gave the story or the joke its particular resonance. Maybe it is for the best. Stories are meant to be told by the people who lived them, and hearing Dr. Butts' stories from me would be like drinking watered down lemonade ... sort of refreshing but ultimately unsatisfying. You should meet him and hear them yourself. Then you will have a fuller experience of what it was like to have a cross burned on your lawn by the Mobile KKK in the late 1950s or to have met Martin Luther King Jr. right before his star became the firmament of the Civil Rights Movement. He should really write a memoir.

The one story I feel qualified to recount is my own. On Saturday morning Dr. Butts gave me a chance to do just that in an interview with Mary Tomlinson of the Monroe Journal. We conducted the interview upstairs at the old courthouse. It is in that courtroom where each year the fictional Atticus Finch so gallantly defends Tom Robinson against the charge of rape. I joked that I would have preferred sitting at the defense table for my interview, but we sat at the prosecution side instead. In a way, it is kind of fitting. The life lesson I have always taken from that book is that I should resist the urge to judge others by the standards of my own life. How is it fair for me to judge someone else's actions when I haven't walked in their shoes or had to endure the same experiences that shaped their character and outlook? When I read that court scene in To Kill A Mockingbird my inclination is to scoff at the jurors, the prosecution and the whole Ewell family. How dare they, I thought, and voila, there comes the judgmental attitude. So the prosecution table was an apt reminder to me that the path is in surrender ... of my judgments.

My very full Saturday continued with lunch with Terri and William Carter and some of their family at the South 40 restaurant in Repton, a tour of William's grandfather's country hospital which they have restored to a museum, and then dinner at Hunter and Marsha Lindblom's house back in Monroeville. Tom joined me for dinner at the Lindbloms and then I stayed with them for the night. They are members at the Methodist Church along with Tom and Hilda and were wonderful hosts and great storytellers in their own right. This night the backdrop of the stories wasn't the Civil Rights movement but rather World War II, where Marsha's father worked closely with General Einsenhower and briefly became acquainted with Winston Churchill while he was North Africa.

On Sunday morning I went with Hunter to the Methodist Church's men's breakfast, then to worship and then to a joint Sunday school class where again I had a chance to tell my own story. Not surprisingly, my tale of the drunken man with the shotgun caused the greatest reaction. After all, it was only two days old and still fresh. But afterward and since, as I have told this story to others, I have begun to wonder if I am not doing a disservice to that troubled man I encountered on the side of the road. Do people walk away from hearing that story and judge him? Do I judge him?

Here is something I haven't mentioned. When I was in the sheriff's office they told me that the gentleman who threatened me is one of the nicest guys I would ever want to meet when he is sober. I don't doubt it. Nor do I doubt that, if I would have lived his life, walked in his shoes through Vietnam, seen and done some of the things he was forced to do, that my outlook on life would be very, very different.

At the very end of To Kill a Mockingbird Scout turns to Atticus after seeing the humanity of Boo Radley for the first time. Up to that point Boo had been her bogeyman.

"Atticus, he was real nice," she says.

"Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."

That is the story I want this journey to tell.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Places In Between (Conecuh County, AL)

In January 2002 a British man named Rory Stewart decided to try and walk across Afghanistan and write a book about his experience. Those he informed, both in Britain and in Afghanistan, were flabbergasted. They told him straight up, "If you do this, you will die." Rory did the walk and he survived to tell the tale, but a few times he came perilously close to being killed. He entitled his book, "The Places In Between". That is where he took his life in his hands. While he was in a village or town, the Afghani people fed and cared for him as called to by their religion. In the places "in between" those towns, it was a lawless country beyond the confines of strict religious observance and the kindness of strangers.

Using Stewart's title for my book of essays wouldn't make a lot of sense. My walks from one town to another have been physical taxing at times but largely uneventful. For the first three and a half months I have walked along, alternating between my thoughts and my podcasts while 100 days, 1,300 miles and tens of thousands of cars went by. Hardly anyone stopped. Virtually no one talked to me.

It has been a different experience since Tuskegee. Getting some coverage on TV meant that a few people recognize me from time to time and pull over to say hi and encourage me. Other times they stop and ask if I need a ride. I always appreciate the concern and support. Not until Friday did someone pull over and eventually threaten to kill me with a 12-gauge shotgun. But that did happen ... in one of the places in between.

In a trip of over a hundred days and thousands of kindnesses offered to me by people all across the Eastern United States, it saddens me a bit to have to focus on something this potentially dangerous. Yet it happened and I'm fine, so I feel like I need to tell the story. I've had a couple days to process it and I now understand the context in which it happened, so I can write about it with a kernel of humor, as I am apt to do. In the moment, however, it was quite unsettling.

It was a dark and stormy night. I've always wanted to start a story that way. In this case, it is fundamentally true. Thursday night was dark and stormy but I slept safe and sound in the Williams family cabin just outside of Evergreen. Friday dawned raw and still rainy, so I wasn't anxious to get on the road. Instead, I dawdled around Evergreen. I had breakfast with Marc and Sharon Williams and their friends Greg and Jan White at Famous Floyd's. I met with Lee Peacock at the Evergreen Courant newspaper. Then I waited out the last of the rain at the local library, catching up on email correspondence. By noon the library shut down so its volunteers could attend the city Christmas Party.

Route 84 runs west from Evergreen toward Monroeville. Since Monroeville was a bit of a side trip, I had planned to walk about 12 miles and then get picked up by Rev. Thomas Butts around 4pm after he finished attending a funeral for his brother-in-law. Twelve miles from Evergreen along Route 84 would have put me about as far as Repton. I never made it that far.

A mile or so before getting to the town of Belleville I heard a car honk a few times and pull up into a small cutout right where I was walking. As I said, cars pull over from time to time to say hi, but something about this felt wrong right from the start. They don't usually honk when they do so, and they usually roll down their passenger side window so I can talk to them. As I approached this car I saw the passenger side window had duct tape all around it. The car itself was in rather poor condition.

I briefly thought of ignoring it, but when you are walking you are a vulnerable target. If someone in a car is insistent on talking to you, they will. I stopped and looked in. The driver indicated that I should open the door. When I did I saw a white man in his early 50s, bedraggled, drunk, with a 12 gauge shotgun laying across his passenger seat.

At that moment a certain word flashed through my mind with an exclamation point attached to it. I won't type it here but I think you can probably fill in the blank. I knew right away I was in a precarious situation. When the man started talking, it only got worse.

"What are you doin out here," he yelled at me, his drunkenness making itself even more self evident.

I remained outwardly calm even though inside I was repeating exclamatory word to myself ten time over. "I'm walking to Monroeville," I said as friendly as I could.

"You are walking to Monroeville?" he repeated, looking confused.

"Yes. I'm on a walk across America. I've been walking for the past three months."

"Are you a Christan man?" he asked suddently, cutting me off as his mind reeled in a different direction.

"I am," I replied. He could have asked me if I was a one-legged Zoroastrian at that point and I would have said yes. I wanted to say nothing to anger him as I calculated my options.

"I'm a sinner," he screamed loudly as his head fell toward the steering wheel, fighting off tears. His head snapped back up, "We ALL are sinners." With that he looked directly at me.

I continued my role as yes man. "Yes we are," I said. "Well, I better be heading on .."

Again, he broke in. "I saw you out here and I know God sent you to talk to me."

No God didn't I thought to myself. The only person who sent him out here to harass a stranger was Anheuser-Busch. As he said that he was peering at me intently, straining his head to see where my left hand was. It was resting on his roof. He saw me looking worriedly at the shotgun laying next to him.

"If I wanted to kill you I would have done it already," he said matter-of-factly.

Great. That makes me feel better, I thought. You always want to throw the word "kill" in there when tying to put someone at ease.

"Get in," he said, moving the gun a bit closer to him to make room.

Ah, that wasn't about to happen. Not in this lifetime and not in the next. I've watched 20/20 enough times to know that John Stossel expressly discourages anyone from going anywhere with a potential captor. Whatever is going to happen, let it happen in public.

"We can talk here," I said. "I'm here to listen if you need to get something off your chest."

"I'm a sinner," he repeated. "And God sent you to come talk to me today." The volume of his voice continued to fluctuate wildly as alcohol played with his mind. "My house isn't far away so get in and you can come talk to me."

"I'm not comfortable with that. I need to keep walking this afternoon. We can talk right here."

"No," he said. "Get in!"

I sensed this encounter was coming to a conclusion. He was getting increasingly insistent and I was at the point where I knew I had to make a move. I kept focused on him, deciding within myself that if he went for the gun I was going to grab it first. With him being 10 sheets to the wind drunk, I had the reflex advantage.

He yelled at me to get in a couple more times and I politely declined each time. Then he looked at me wildly and yelled, "Get in the car or I'm going to fucking kill you."

Yeah, not what I wanted to hear. I don't remember even thinking it through in the heat of the moment. As soon as I heard that threat I pounced, reaching into the car, snapping his shotgun off the seat and running back into the road. A black pickup truck was coming down the road. I knew that I had to stop it and get help. The drunk man was starting to get out of the car, reacting slowly to what had just happened. For all I know he had a handgun with him as well.

I now know the driver of the pickup truck was a man from Auburn named Tim Dunnam. He is the hero of this story. I must have looked some kind of crazy running out into the middle of Route 84, shotgun in my right hand, jumping in front of his oncoming truck and waving at him to stop. Thankfully, he did. Without any time to spare, I looked at him as sincerely as I could and said, "I am walking and this drunk guy just threatened to kill me. I took his gun and I need to get out of here."

"Jump in the back of the truck," Tim said. I did, holding the shotgun awkwardly, and we sped off. Looking back I saw the drunk man walk out into the road, gazing off in our direction. Four miles down the road, after Tim had a chance to digest what happened, he called out his window.

"Where are you going?" he asked. "Monroeville," I replied. "All right, I'm gonna pull over. Come jump in with me and leave the gun in the back."

Together in the cab of his truck we got acquainted and I told him the whole story. Neither of us knew the area well so we wondered where the nearest Sheriff's office was. The closest we could find on our GPS systems was all the way in Monroeville, so we went there. Leaving the shotgun in the back of his truck, we went in to tell this unlikely tale.

The sheriff's office in Monroeville was as helpful as they could be. The situation was complicated by the fact the incident happened across the county line meaning they didn't have jurisdiction. Within 30 minutes it was decided that they would drive me in a sheriff's car back to the county line and the Conecuh County sheriff would meet us there and I would be transferred to them to give a statement and start the investigation.

I thanked Tim profusely and he went on his way after the sheriff took the shotgun from the back of his truck. When I was transferred to the Conecuh County sheriff's car I learned that the shotgun had been loaded and a shell was chambered. Yikes.

While waiting in the sheriff's office in Monroeville my host Tom Butts had called me. I filled him in on what happened and he told me he would meet me at the Evergreen sheriff office. Tom is well known in the area and personally knew both sheriffs in question. It is always nice to have the help of well connected people, especially when you are a stranger in a strange land.

At the Conecuh County sheriff's office in Evergreen I learned the wider story. I wrote out my statement and picked out the man from a picture of people the sheriff's office had on file who fit my description. My ID didn't surprise the sheriff deputies one bit. One, they knew the man to be a troubled veteran with a history of alcohol abuse and run-ins with the law. Secondly, and somewhat more humorously, he had called and reported his gun stolen shortly after he had threatened me.

When the sheriff deputy had gone out to take his statement about the stolen gun (before they heard from me at the Monroe County sheriff) they had found him at his trailer, stone drunk. Alabama state law prevents law enforcement from taking a statement from someone who is drunk, so they left. Upon hearing my story, they filled in the blanks and voila, the case was solved. The gun they got from me was the same one he had reported stolen.

Given that his gun was legal and his threat only a verbal one, I could have pressed charges against him for a misdemeanor menacing offense. The sheriffs told me that if I chose to press charges they would arrest him Monday and I would later be subpoenaed to come back to testify. I didn't want to do that. They explained what they knew of the man and that what he really needed was psychiatric help. Sober he was a really nice guy. Drunk, and reliving the demons of what he had seen and done in war, he was, as I like to say, a hot mess.

I asked them if me pressing charges would aid them in forcing him to get psychiatric help. They said no. They could use my statement either way to try and convince a judge to commit him for psychiatric treatment. But in Alabama that isn't easy to do absent help from a family member, and he had none in the area. Regardless, I decided to let it be. I had seen in his eyes that he was a troubled man. I felt sympathy for him and my only hope for him is that he get help, not be punished. They assured me he wouldn't get the shotgun back and then they wished me well and took me out to meet Tom Butts who was waiting for me patiently in the lobby.

The lobby of a sheriff's office is quite a bit for a first meeting, but Tom was as cordial and friendly as could be. He had a full weekend in Monroeville planned out for me. I was just happy to no longer be in a place in between. I was with new friends and they were looking out for me.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Week That Was

I have hit a bit of mental exhaustion this week. I'm not sure if it was passing the 100 day mark of my trip or the constant challenge of finding host in an unfamiliar part of the country, but my mind has hit a bit of overload. Consequently, I haven't found the time and energy to yet attach stories to my five days in Lower Alabama, trapsing through Lowndes, Butler and Conecuh counties. Suffice it to say that despite the uncertainty of just over a week ago, I was able to find places to stay in each small town.

For now I will just say thanks to those you see pictured below: the Paulks, the Caseys, the McCanns, the Mullins (for lunch), the Keens, Buford Scott, Dalton Campbell (for walking with me Thursday), and the Williams. Without each of them I could not made it through this part of rural Alabama with such ease and joy. If I find time this weekend I might fill in some stories from the week that was, but chances are I will be busy in Monroeville and spending my time trying to confirm my final five homestays of this trip. Until then, enjoy the pictures of me being a college sports bigamist. War Tide!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lowndes, Butler & Conecuh Counties (Lower Alabama)

Me, Marc & Sharon Williams in Evergreen, AL on Thursday night

Buford Scott, me & Hank Williams Sr. in Georgiana on Wednesday night
The Keen family: Jody, Ann, Roy, Mary Avery, Mason, Jenny, Gloris, Misty & me in Forest Home, AL on Tuesday night

Me with my hosts the McCann family and their friends in Fort Deposit on Monday night

Me with the Casey and Paulk families in Hayneville, AL on Sunday night

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Sense of History (Montgomery, AL)

Tim, me & James on Saturday night in Wetumpka, AL

In the beginning of August I got an email from someone I had never met - Rev. Woody Eddins - offering me help when I eventually got to Alabama. That was still far off in the distance. Woody is my aunt Nancy's pastor in Simsbury, CT but he grew up in Monroeville, AL. He promised that he would try and make some contacts for me when the time got closer and possibly find me a couple of hosts. At the time, he was the only Alabama connection I had.

Woody was a man of his word. More than four months and 1,300 miles later I walked up to Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL and met a former high school friend of Woody's, James Turberville. James and his partner Tim were going to host me for the weekend just north of Montgomery in Wetumpka. But first things first. James handed me a gift the moment I arrived. It was an Alabama Crimson Tide hat. Time to blend in with the locals. Sorry Phillies hat, but you have been retired. I bleed crimson red now ... at least until I cross the Mississippi border.

I had suggested we meet at Dexter Ave. Baptist because it has a special place in my consciousness. When I read Taylor Branch's three part account of the modern civil rights movement the first chapter of the first book concentrated on this very church. In it he painted a colorful picture of Rev. Vernon Johns, the pastor who preceded Martin Luther King Jr. in this pulpit in the late 40s and early 50s. What drew me to the account of Vernon Johns was his outspokenness and his willingness to speak hard truths to an audience afraid of disturbing the status quo. Every village, town or city needs a few of those people. On top of that, Vernon Johns was a wanderer like me. Both before and after his time at Dexter Ave. Baptist he was a traveling preacher, often only taking so much as a paper bag with those things he needed in it to hit the circuit for weeks on end.

I don't know anything about Montgomery, so I am in no position to be a voice from the wilderness, crying forth uncomfortable truths that people in this city need to hear. James, however, has lived here for the better part of 30 years and probably could dig up a constructive criticism or two in memory of Vernon Johns. Any such insights, however, could wait for a nice meal and a glass of wine. For now, I happily settled for a drive around town and a crash course in some Montgomery history.

First stop, the civil rights memorial. Across the street from the imposing Southern Poverty & Law Center there is a beautiful but understated memorial to the 40 people killed during the modern civil rights movement, 13 of whom died on Alabama soil. As an amateur historian of this time period I had read about the stories of most of these 40 martyrs before. The children are always the most painful to consider. Emmit Till and his grossly disfigured face. The four little girls killed at the church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. Virgil Ware, 13, shot on his bicycle the same day as that bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Others caught my attention as well, either because I hadn't known their stories or because of their relevance to my walk. I had read before of William Moore, a postal worker from Baltimore, who was killed in Alabama in 1963 on a one man walk against segregation. I hadn't heard of Willie Edwards Jr, a truck driver from this very city who was killed in 1957 when a group of men forced him at gunpoint to jump off a bridge into the Alabama river because they thought he was dating a white woman. Three days before I had seen a picture of Rev. Jonathon Daniels in St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Auburn. In 1991 he was sainted in the Episcopal Church for his actions on the day he was shot and killed in Haynesville, AL in 1965 trying to protect some others who had just been released from jail with him.

After visiting that memorial we stopped by a memorial of a different type - the first Confederate White House. I'll have to admit I didn't even know this existed. I thought the capitol of the short lived Confederate States of America was always in Richmond. Turns out that its first capitol was Montgomery and that it was from here that Jefferson Davis sent the orders to fire on Fort Sumter, thus kicking off the Civil War. The house is now a stately relic to a bygone era. On this afternoon a really nice Czech woman was working there and was enthusiastic about answering all my questions. Standing in the foyer she told me that my comment upon seeing a large oil painting of Jefferson Davis wasn't at all uncommon. "A lot of people say that he looks like Abraham Lincoln," she confirmed. And he really did. He was a better looking Abraham Lincoln.

We walked around the rooms and James fawned over some of the pieces of antique furniture. I, most decidedly, did not. The only thing I coveted was an appropriate piece of seasonal decoration on the front door. It was a Christmas wreath ... made entirely of cotton.

James and Tim live on the north side of a long ridge, the other side of which looks south onto Montgomery. They own a five bedroom, four bath house decorated beautifully with lots of folk art along with trimmings of the Christmas season. Two pets share the space with them - Sister, an arthritic dachshund up in years who circles her food blindly before eventually bumping into it and Elvis, a male cat they found outside and eventually relented on making a house cat. Elvis was a sneaky little thing, intent on pilfering my deer jerky. We played cat and mouse, er, human all weekend.

James and Tim did their absolute best to fatten me up for the winter months and I did my best to let them. On Friday night James treated us to dinner at Casa Napoli, a great Italian restaurant in Wetumpka owned by a couple from New Jersey. It was nice to hear those accents again. Then, on Saturday night, Tim cooked an absolute fantastic dinner for me, James and their friend Frank who is a realtor in the area. It was my first introduction to Boston Butt and I must say, I'm a fan. It was so tender and almost just dissolves in your mouth. Why did I not know about this sooner?

In retrospect, Saturday was the perfect day to choose as a rest day. It rained all day, much like it did during my rest day in Auburn. I have Mother Nature on speed dial. Saved from the cold, wet elements I caught up on my writing, contacted some possible hosts and enjoyed meeting James and Tim's friends.

When I parted from them near the Montgomery airport on Sunday morning, I was ready to face the rest of Southern Alabama with a renewed focus and a little bit more of a paunch around my stomach. Perched on top of my head was my Alabama hat, a symbol that I come in peace. The night before Mark Ingram had become the first Alabama player ever to win the Heisman trophy. Coincidence? I think not. You can thank me later Alabama. And you might want to invite me back January 7th.

As for James and Tim all I can say, as usual, is thank you. I hope you enjoyed the weekend half as much as I did.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Impact Report: Southwestern Alabama

My friends Shamalia and Siyumi both work at Global Scripture Impact. They are research analysts, trying to measure the impact of programs taking place all around the world, many of which international bible societies have submitted to the American Bible Society for possible funding.

This week I felt their impact a little closer to to where I am - in southwestern Alabama. Siyumi connected me with her cousins Pathum Mendis & Kanchana Weerakoon in Auburn where I spent Monday and Tuesday night. Then Shamalia took the baton and put me in touch with Helen Snipe in Tuskegee and Frederick & Linda Tippett in Eastern Montgomery on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

When a project that GSI researches is completed, the researcher writes an Impact Report to submit to the organization who funded it. Given that Siyumi and Shamalia are the reasons I had roofs over my head this week, I submit this Impact Report to them.

Pemsith, Pathum, Kanchana & me in Auburn on Tuesday night

War Eagle!

This year Auburn is suffering from a bit of an inferiority complex. All the college football attention is on their rival Alabama. 'Bama is undefeated and preparing to play for the national championship on January 7th. Auburn, meanwhile, is scheduled to play in the Outback Bowl. I've eaten at Outback twice on this trip and I'm not saying anything bad about their food, but if you are playing at a bowl game named for them, chances are you are not one of the top 10 teams in the nation.

What amounts to salt in Auburn's 2009 wounds is that they would of, could of, should of beat Alabama two weeks ago. But didn't. So when I walked into Auburn on Monday, eight days after that fourth quarter collapse, the energy was definitely subdued. Add that to the fact that it was finals week and College Street had kind of an old west feel to it. I kept a keen eye out for any tumbleweeds.

Just because Auburn had a down year doesn't mean they don't have a long and proud football tradition. I have become fascinated by school fight songs and football traditions on this trip. From putting my arms around fellow fans and swaying to the fight song in Charlottesville, to belting out Rocky Top while at UT, I love to learn about how a fan base celebrates the triumphs of their warrior kings. I turned to my host Pathum, who is a doctoral student in physics at Auburn, to shed some light on the traditions here.

Before the beginning of each game an eagle is released at the top reaches of the stadium. As soon as the eagle is released the entire stadium starts a long, drawn out chant of "war". The eagle flies around the stadium a time or two and then swoops down to a designated spot on the 50 yard line and when it does the crowd screams "Eagle, Hey!" Self congratulatory fervor ensues. Pathum said that during one game early this year the eagle called an audible and flew out of the stadium for a few moments, leaving everyone in limbo with their "warrrrr" chant. To their credit they kept it going, the eagle returned and the fans got the sweet release of the "Eagle" yell. I gotta tell you, it sounds like fun.

Pathum should know. Not only is he a big sports fan, he's also a doctoral student. Given that doctorates take only slightly less time to complete than FDR's presidency, he's been around Auburn for a while. Despite this being their current adopted home, he and his wife Kanchana are most decidedly not Alabama born and bred. They both grew up in Sri Lanka - Pathum near the capital of Colombo and Kanchana in the hill country near Kandy. Whatever traditions they have brought from Sri Lanka, hospitality seems to be at the top of that list. Even though they only need two rooms (Pathum's brother Pemsith is their roommate), they have a three bedroom apartment. It doesn't take a doctoral student to do the math ... I got my own room. War Eagle to that!

On the night I arrived they were also playing host to Kanchana's brother Pujitha and had invited two other undergrads over for dinner. One was a fellow Sri Lankan and the other was from Nigeria. I loved having so many people around. As I have written many times before, this trip is all about people, so the more the merrier. Maybe I wouldn't be saying that if I had to cook. Kanchana fulfilled that duty and it was ger-reat. In case that word doesn't appear in your dictionary, that is one level above great. And there was dessert. I would have yelled out War Eagle again but I was too stuffed to emit a sound. When I am that full and have travelled that far, sleep is the only siren song I want to listen to.

I had planned a rest day in Auburn because I desperately needed to do some planning for upcoming nights. I had an opening on Thursday and then no places to stay all next week south of Montgomery. Gulp. So on Tuesday morning I went back down to College Street and set myself up at a coffee shop to do some work. The previous morning I had sent an email to the tiny Greenville Advocate newspaper south of Montgomery asking if they might write a story about me that could help me find some hosts in the area. It was my first time contacting the press. I had decided before my trip that I wouldn't seek out publicity unless it was to help find hosts. Now I needed that help.

The Greenville Advocate did end up writing a small article and that resulted in a family in Fort Deposit contacting me and offering a place to stay. Little could I have guessed how that small spark would grow in the next three days. As for that day, it was pouring and I was just thrilled to be under a warm roof. I spent the morning at the coffee shop and the afternoon using wifi at St. Dunstan's Episcopal church across the street from campus. It was there that I got a call from the Montgomery Advertiser asking for an interview. Deciding I could use all the press I could get with so many empty nights on my schedule, we chatted for a while before I went back to Pathum & Kanchana's apartment.

On Tuesday night the crowd had thinned and it was just the three of us for dinner. Kanchana had returned victorious from her depatment's Christmas party. She had won first prize with her chicken fried rice and was now $50 richer. Whenever you win first prize in a food contest, you can't expect to have any left. There wasn't. Instead she cooked a pasta dish that was undoubtedly just as good and we watched UEFA Champions League soccer matches on cable TV.

I learned a lot of things that night. First, I learned that the Sri Lankan school system is almost identical to Zimbabwe's, right down the power hungry prefects preying on Form One students. Second, I learned that the wedding photography industry in Sri Lanka might be a good one for me to seek my fortune. After flipping through their two beautiful wedding albums and asking them a ton of questions I think I might also be qualified to write a book called "Sri Lankan Wedding Traditions for Americans". Thirdly, I learned that if you pronounce my name in Sinhala it means "journey". How appropriate. Unwittingly, we also discovered that Kinchana's written Sinhala is a little sharper than Pathum's. If anyone notices the mistake in the picture below - who was not born in Sri Lanka - I'll walk back from New Orleans.

Garth's journey

My two nights at their apartment flew by. I felt so at home there I almost went down to the university and asked for a job. I'm not sure what skills I have that they are looking for, but I'll tell you this much, if something mysterious happens to the eagle handler in the next few months, I should probably be considered the lead suspect.

Me & Helen Snipe in Tuskegee, AL on Wednesday night

Joel Osteen in my living room

The small town of Tuskegee is exactly 19 miles from Auburn. From a urban point of view it is quite literally out in the middle of nowhere. From a rural point of view, I guess it is in the middle of it all. Beliefs do rely on one's perspective. What isn't subjective is this indelible fact: Helen Snipe was ready and waiting for my arrival.

Helen works for the city of Tuskegee but had taken the afternoon off to cook and prepare for me coming at 4pm. It was a warm day in the low 70s, so I "slowed my roll" as the kids say and took my time strolling through the Tuskegee National Forest. For an hour or so I really felt like I had set aside any obsessive thought patterns and was just existing in the moment. That is always a beautiful experience.

Once I was back on a busier street - Route 80 to be exact - I got a phone call from a reporter at Montgomery's NBC affiliate. He wanted to come out and do a story on my walk for that night's 10 o'clock news. I was a bit taken aback, never having considered that a TV station might be interested. But I have this motto I have been living by on the road: When an opportunity arises, don't over think it, just say yes.

The only problem is that being on the phone with him meant that I had walked right past Helen's street. Luckily, people look out for people in Tuskegee. Helen's son had noticed me pass on by and told his mom, who jumped in her van and tore after me. She was there in a flash and scooped me up to take me the few hundred yards back home in the opposite direction.

To say Helen had cooked a feast for me wouldn't be doing it justice. This was a textbook southern meal that could have fed King Arthur, his roundtable and any jesters hanging about for scraps. Baked chicken. Fried chicken. Rice. Collards. Turnip greens. Cornbread. Creamed corn. Deviled eggs. Salad. Sweet tea. Bundt cake. I looked around expecting half the block to be preparing to eat, but she had made it all for me. It was so thoughtful.

The best way for me to describe Helen is simply to say she has a heart for Jesus and leave it at that. What more do you have to say? The NBC reporter came, we shot some pieces in downtown Tuskegee and then we came back to her house so that he could interview her and get some other footage. When he asked why she had been willing to take a stranger in, she gave a fitting reply.

"I don't know who he is," she replied. "He could be Jesus. You just gotta love everybody." Can you imagine how different this country would be if every Christian treated the person in front of them at any given moment as if they were Jesus?

Helen was using hyperbole to good effect. She knew I wasn't Jesus, she was just treating me as such. She knew I was the friend of her nephew Kenyatta's (she calls him Kenny) wife Shamalia. Furthermore, she knew exactly who she thought I resembled. Friends would call and she would tell them humorously, "I have Joel Osteen in my living room."

I have never heard that before. I've heard Norm MacDonald (not so flattering). I've heard James Franco (I think a little over flattering). But I've never heard the gold-tongued preacher from Texas. But hey, I'll take it. I told her I just hoped she wasn't expecting any impromptu sermons in her living room. That is my father's department.

With the food eaten, the TV piece taped, some of Helen's friends and family met and visited with and Helen assured that every single need I might have had been satisfied, I repaired to bed. Part of me wanted to stay up to see if the piece made the newscast, but the rest of my body pleaded exhaustion and won the argument. I fell asleep by 8:45 and slept peacefully all the way until .... 10:19.

With my substantial powers of deduction I have figured out that 10:10 is when the 2-minute piece on the NBC must have finished airing. At that very moment my cell phone started blowing up. I was groggy so I let them go to voicemail but I said to myself, "I guess they ran it ... and included my phone number." As they rolled in one after another, I resolved to return them all - in the morning.

Frederick, Linda, me, Frederick Jr., & Joshua in Eastern Montgomery on Thursday night

A Day in the Life of a C-List Montgomery Celebrity

Thursday dawned like any other day on my trip. One minor difference. For the first time thousands of other people knew who I was. Helen served me a breakfast and then took me to Tuskegee University so I could use their library and look around a bit. Then it was time to hit the road again.

Let me back up and say a quick word about learning not to worry. I had forgotten to mention that as late as Wednesday afternoon I still didn't know where I would be staying Thursday night. Shamalia had asked around and called and emailed and done her best but nothing was confirmed. In the beginning of my journey I would have been very worried. By now I knew from experience that something would likely turn up. It did.

Shortly after getting to Helen's I got a call from Professor Fred Tippett. Fred chairs the Department of Pathobiology at Tuskegee's Veterinary school and had known Shamalia's husband Kenyatta in his Tuskegee days. He offered me a place to stay the next night and we arranged for how we would meet. I thought to myself, "See. There was no need to worry." There never really is.

I left Tuskegee for the 18 mile walk to where I was meeting Fred, headed in the direction of Route 80. As soon as I got to 80 I saw G & S Restaurant. The owner is a friend of Helen's who had stopped by the night before and I mentioned that I might stop in for lunch. Even though it was a little early, I did just that. A couple guys were in there, one of whom recognized me from the telecast the night before. "I've got him'" he told Helen's friend, indicating he would pay for my meal. I was greatly obliged and I sat and had lunch with him before pushing back off.

On the road the cavalcade of cars pulling over to talk to me commenced. Between Tuskegee and Shorter about 10 cars stopped to ask if I was the guy from the newscast walking to New Orleans. One woman was intent on writing me a check to help me on my journey. I eventually talked her out of it, but the thought was very much appreciated. All the hellos, the offer of car rides and the dozen or so more calls, emails and texts that came in as a result of being on the news meant a lot to me. It just goes to prove my point. There is a deep vein of kindness everywhere. It is just about tapping into it. The NBC piece was a big, long needle and that Thursday I pulled deep from that vein in a way I hadn't had a chance to before. I certainly wouldn't have wanted every day to be like this, but given my need to network and find more places to stay, it was the perfect gift at the perfect time.

Later that night I would get another round of calls and texts. Apparently a Biloxi, MS station re-aired the piece and people from the Gulf Coast were starting to call and offer their help. All in all, in the space of 24 hours I probably found 6 different hosts and connections to possibly many more because of the coverage. Even if it hadn't, it would have been worth doing. The young reporter was a really nice guy and put together what I thought was a very concise and accurate depiction of my mission and vision.

My four day push from the Alabama border to East Montgomery ended in the warmth of the Tippett's house and in the pleasure of some great fellowship around their dining room. Fred picked me up in Shorter just after dusk and drove me to his house where I met his wife Linda and their two sons Frederick Jr. and Joshua. I am particularly indebted to Fred and his wife for their welcome because, by their own admission, this request could not have come at a more inconvenient time. Their sons go to school 40 minutes away and need to be driven, Linda's car has recently been totaled and Fred is in the middle of finals week at Tuskegee. In short, it was a perfect storm of reasons not to host a perfect stranger.

Yet Fred and Linda shared with me that as the day of my need drew closer, they both felt God impress upon their heart that they needed to do this, despite the inconvenience. So Fred called me and voila, I had a place to stay. Before we ate dinner the Tippetts and their kids went around the table and each recited a Scripture verse by memory. When it came to me I had to paraphrase, but now having the help of some research, here is the verse I wanted to share:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." - Matthew 6:34

That was the lesson I learned from their hospitality. Undoubtedly, they had their own experience and their own learning. Together we were both blessed and we spent an evening together sharing the simple human fellowship which makes life so rewarding. They set me up in a spacious guest room with its own bathroom and I slept like a baby, safe from the plummeting temperatures outside. It was clearly meant to be that I stay with this wonderful family and take shelter in their welcome. If I would have worried and panicked and paid for a hotel room before hearing from Fred and Linda, I wouldn't have received this blessing. As it happened, I didn't worry, they didn't succumb to the inconveniences of hosting at a very inopportune time and what happened? We shared the love of God and the peace that passes all understanding.

Thus ended a rather surreal but gratifying four day experience. If you read this blog regularly you aren't surprised that it was marked by amazing human kindness and set after set of open arms. If it wasn't so beautiful to experience I would say that my life has gotten a bit predictable. I wish you all to be so predictably blessed.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Striking a Deep Vein of Kindness (LaGrange, Ga - Cusseta, Al)

The Robinsons and Ledbetters and me in Cusseta, AL on Sunday night

Jerry, Shadow, Tammy, Morgan & Michael Ledbetter in West Point, GA Sunday morning

Jerry & Tammy with me and some youth from the church at the "Best Mexican Restaurant in the country" (located in Lanett, AL) on Saturday night

Gene, Adam & Mardi Schaufler in LaGrange, Ga on Friday night

Von, Griff, Bernice, me, Tony and Mama Dean at Captain's Cove in LaGrange after dinner on Friday

My entire experience with mining consists of a defunct gold mine tour with my nephews Ivan & Marco in Julian, CA. I have two memories. One is of being borderline claustrophobic in the deep, narrow passageways of the mine but trying to act cool so as not to make them scared. The other is seeing examples of how miners would search for and then follow rich veins of the precious metal wedged in between the mountain's rock. The old grizzled tour guide looked at us and said, "Once you find a particularly good vein, you follow it as far as it goes."

I found a rich vein of my own in Western Georgia. His name is Rev. Jerry Ledbetter and through him I got in contact with two other hosts and many more amazingly kind people who became a cherished part of my journey. In other words, I followed that vein of compassion as far as it could go.

Let me back up for a minute and explain how I got in contact with Jerry. This is what I do when I am planning for a town where I don't know a soul, and nobody I know knows a soul. I go to Google maps, type in "church near West Point, GA" for example and then take a look at the results. I first look for churches that have websites. That way I can read a little bit about them and hopefully find a pastor bio. Once I find a church that I feel would be open to my request, I send them an email explaining my journey, providing references and asking for their hospitality.

My last line usually reads, "if you don't mind I will give the church office a call in a couple of days to introduce myself and confirm receipt of this email." That is designed to give them some time to process this unique request and figure out if they can help. I'm trying to remember if there has been a single time that the pastor has reached out and contacted me before I followed up with a phone call. I can't think of one. Until Jerry, that is. He emailed back within an hour, saying "We would love to host you." When you put the long hours into searching for places to stay each night, I can't tell you how good it feels to have a host agree so readily to help out.

Having found the vein, I was intent on following it. I asked Jerry if he had any pastor friends or contacts in the surrounding areas -LaGrange, GA to the east and Cusseta, AL to the west. Sure enough, he did. He put me in contact with Rev. Tony Dean of the Loyd Presbyterian Church in LaGrange and then also with his sister Wendy Robinson and her family in Cusseta, AL. Just like that, I had people looking out for me for three successive nights. What a blessing.

One thing about mining is that it takes a few blasts in a number of different locations to find a promising vein. My experience in western Georgia was the same. I tried a "blast" inHogansville , GA by contacting the Presbyterian church there, and Jerry tried to help as well by calling their church office on my behalf, but there was no response. I am sure that there are plenty of hospitable people inHogansville . I simply wasn't able to get my story in front of them to consider. Churches are run from the top down, so if you don't find a responsive a pastor, those in the congregation never get a chance to help.

That mean I had to stay in a motel in Hogansville, but LaGrange, GA was waiting for me with their arms wide open. When Jerry's friend Tony Dean heard about my need, he sent out an email to those in his congregation, asking for volunteers. He didn't just get one yes. He got three or four.Mardi Schaufler was the quickest on the draw. She and her husband Gene have an obstetric practice in LaGrange and just happened to have a weekend when they weren't on call. Instead, they got to host me and give birth to an altogether different kind of experience. After all, I am about as far from a pregnant woman as you can possibly imagine.

Tony Dean and some other members of his congregation met me first and took me out to dinner before I went to the Schauflers. They took me to the Captain's Cove restaurant where I ordered the catfish filets, a backed potato, slaw and hush puppies and washed it all down with ... what else ... sweet tea. It was a wonderful time of conversation andfellowship . Bernice talked with me about New Orleans, her husband Griff gifted me some deer jerky and we all swapped stories of walking and hitchhiking and everything else. I hadn't been inLaGrange more than two hours and I was already up to my neck in new friends. This is what it is all about.

My list of new friends grew from five to eight as soon as Tony dropped me off at the Schauflers. In addition to Mardi and Gene their son Adam was home and we made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed some late night conversation. The Schauflers have a beautiful house in the country, replete with their own tennis court, so naturally I drew Gene into a conversation about tennis. I had only a short walk the next day, so I gave myself the luxury of staying up late and talking with them some more. Two days after learning just enough about piloting to be dangerous, I learned the same about obstetrics. I can now probably sound like I know what I am talking about even though I don't. It is a fascinating field. I mean, what is more elemental than helping women bring new life into the world? Behind the glory, however, laysome c old, hard facts. The one that shocked me most was that 80% of all babies born in the state of Georgia are to single mothers. Wow.

The Schauflers have another son and a daughter both at college, so I got the daughter's room looking out on acres and acres of beautiful Georgia pasture. In the morning I was able to sleep in, do a little computer work, have Gene show me around their property a bit and enjoy a wonderful brunch thatMardi cooked. If I didn't have a date with the city of New Orleans on January 5th I could have stayed there a long time, traded in my hiking boots for tennis sneakers and started planning my assault on the ATP tour. Alas, that wasn't a possibility. On top of that, my footwork sucks.

I walked a pittance of 10 miles to West Point, Ga where I met up with Jerry, the originator of this beautiful vein of hospitality. He is a former Methodist pastor who now serves the First Presbyterian Church in West Point, right on the Georgia/Alabama state border. Thus I officially crossed the state border in a car instead of on foot when a group of us drove over to Lanett to have dinner at a Mexican restaurant with some of the youth from the the church.

Much like I did when I was at UVA, being at that dinner forced me to realize I was no longer a member of the younger generation. Jerry is just four years older than I am and he has three kids - Micheal, 17, Morgan soon to be 16 and a adult son serving in the military. He also has one granddaughter, Shadow. Any of those teenagers at the table were young enough to be my child. I did find out, however, that at least my taste in TV has remained cutting edge. Three of the six teenagers said their favorite TV show is "The Office." My favorite show is one and the same. And since two of those respondents were women I can factually report, "That's what she said!" I've been wanting to work that into this blog for a long time. It feels good to get that off my chest and do so in a decidedly non Michael Scott-ian context.

After dinner we took a driving tour of the Christmas landmarks in the tri-cities area: the nativity scene in front of the Valley City Hall, the Madonna and Child light display and a winter carousel ride. I learned a couple of things. One, either the nativity scene is meant to be viewed at a distance or this version of Mary is considering a gender reassessment surgery. Two, it can get really cold in Alabama at night. Really cold. The rest of the night was spent sans youth. Jerry, Tammy and I went to the house of another couple from the church and watched the Georgia Tech/Clemson ACC championship game. Well, at least the first half of it. With church waiting early in the morning, we went back home and I crashed. Even though Tammy was a Clemson fan, I wassecretly happy to discover Tech had won the next morning. I know my former host Rod is somewhere smiling.

Sunday was my last day to bask in the prodigal kindness of the LaGrange - Cusseta vein of hospitality. I attended church with Jerry and his family and was warmly received by the congregation. After the service, and then later going out to lunch with a small group ofparishioners , more than one person came up to me and not only give me their well wishes but also slipped me a $5 or a $10 or a $20 to help with my journey. I was a bit taken off guard. Part of me didn't want to accept it, but a bigger part of me was touched by the extent of their care for me. Since my whole philosophy on this trip is to say yes to life and to the serendipitous situations which unfold in front of me, I didn't refuse it. I simply made a pact to myself to use it in a situation where I was helping out others and not just myself.

After lunch I finally got to step foot in Alabama the way I do it best - along the shoulder of the road. I had a leisurely Sunday afternoon stroll that took a mere two hours. Given that I crossed into the Central Time Zone during that walk, I guess it only took one. My abiding memory of that walk will be two adolescent boys riding by on their bikes, a dead squirrel regally laid out on the back of the lead bicycle. "I killed a squirrel," the one rider announced as he pedaled by. Then, almost as an afterthought, he decided his friend deserved a share of the credit too. "He stomped on its head," he called back to me after he passed. Just in time, I thought. I was beginning to think his friend was a total slacker.

Jerry's sister Wendy, her husband Mark and their four children live in Cusseta. Cusseta is literally a crossroads town. There is one main crossroad, a small post office, a Baptist church, a cemetery and then houses scattered here and there. The Robinson's home is a beautiful structure, constructed in the beginning of the last century with high ceilings and beautiful wood accents. Jerry and his family made a surprise (to me at least) appearance and we got to all eat together. That is all 12 of us in the picture above on the staircase, glowing from a tasty meal of collards, chicken fried steak, biscuits, black eyed peas, rice and ... pickled green tomatoes. All I needed was one bite of that uncommon delicacy and I told Mark, "these here are making the blog." Deservedly so. I can't say I have ever had a taste experience quite like that. I felt like a kid given his first taste of a lemon. My eyes tightened and my mouth pursed. But I liked it. It was a new taste for my first night in a new state.

I had followed a beautiful vein of compassion and kindness from LaGrange to Cusseta. Now it was time to find a new vein, and more new tastes, all the way to New Orleans. Auburn lay ahead and with it a rest day. And with that ... BOOM! ... I'm caught up in my blogging. How do you like 'dem pickled green tomatoes?

Thanks to Tony, Mama Dean, Bernice, Griff, Von, Gene, Mardi, Adam, Jerry, Tammy, Michael, Morgan, Shadow, all the folks at First Presby West Point, Wendy, Mark, Katie, William, Benji and Josh for a great three days. I'll never forget it.