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.


  1. I just heard about your journey and found your blog. Amazing! I hope you had/have a wonderful time in Auburn, my alma mater, and experience some great Alabama hospitality, my home state. (I'm now a unofficial yankee in New Jersey.)

  2. we loved hosting Garth! it felt like maybe the "old days" when there were more foot travelers, and you'd just have to chance it about what kind of stranger you might be putting up for the night. Garth was unbelievably fresh-faced, educated, and a pure delight to visit with. I can't imagine a more wonderful experience for 2 obstetricians who don't get to travel much themselves.

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