One of the biggest blessings of my road trip from Greensboro, AL to Omaha, NE is the realization, again, that the United States of America is a beautiful place. Of course I started my trip thinking that my home state, California, is the most beautiful. I might have even expected that other places were going to be a little bit ugly. This is not based on lack of exposure. When I’ve driven from say Boston to Washington, DC, there are long stretches of unattractive industrial landscapes.
Not so in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa. First, it is super green. The snow and rain that flooded the Missouri and Mississippi rivers also keeps middle America verdant. Wow! The planters at gas stations and strip malls were bursting with coleus and flowers–plants that couldn’t survive outside in our Mediterranean climate of California. There are also great swaths of trees along most highways. The dead animals along the roadways are a kind of confirmation that there is a lot of life in the woods of middle America.
There are ways we can be better in taking care of the land–especially our soil–and water. America is still so open, so rich in resources, with relatively little population pressure. We have a lot to be thankful for and a lot to see. I have two states left to visit and I will have been to all fifty! Montana and South Dakota in 2020!
Project Horseshoe Farm (PHF) in Greensboro, Alabama celebrated the 10th Anniversary of their Community Health Fellowship program. The best and brightest of their generation–young people interested in medicine and public health–apply to come and work for a year in rural Alabama and learn what holistic, community medicine is all about.
This year 19 fellows joined the Project Horseshoe Family. I was able to be there for the celebration, sing-off and party. It is inspiring to speak with the fellows–like Winona who is heading off to medical school next fall. I also met a few of the women who live in the supportive homes provided by PHF and lots of the community members who support the program, including by serving dinners to hungry fellows.
Congratulations Dr. John Dorsey and the growing happy band of alumni!
It was also the kick-off to my #MiddleAmericaTour. I pointed my rental car north and I’m excited to see what I can see in the next week.
If you are looking for a small town experience that matches the romantic notion of small town life, look no further than Greensboro, Alabama. So many small towns in America are dying or struggling to survive. Greensboro was almost dead 12 years ago and is now on the rise.
Some small town southern cliches were actually walking around on four legs. This is Fred the bloodhound and the locals said he goes where he wants. As dog people, we thought he was a great ambassador.
The Pie Lab was the first restaurant to open on Main Street, perhaps the first business too. Seven years ago it became an important gathering place for the Auburn University Rural Studio architecture students and the Project Horseshoe Farm fellows. Plus people in town who were driving to Marion and farther flung places for dining out.
We stayed in this five bedroom AirBnB. The girls were THRILLED with having a room of their own and LOVED the pool. It was good to remember what it was like to travel when you are 9 or 12 years old. They also were interested in local history.
We visited the Greensboro Safe House Black History Museum on Saturday by prearranged tour. Then on Sunday we walked around the grounds of Magnolia Grove. The latter stately home was a wealthy mansion (not a plantation home) in town and has volunteers staffing it Tuesday-Sunday (but not in the morning when everyone is in church).
There is a fabulous coffeehouse, The Stable, also on Main Street. They have a bookshelf (take one, leave one) and the library is less than a block away. I could envision a relaxed week of reading, swimming, cycling and eating. I’m betting on Greensboro’s future.
Some people questioned why we were traveling to Alabama either because of their shameful track record with recent voter suppression or their abortion laws. We actually encourage coastal folks to visit en masse! We can learn and they can learn. And we can agree on pie and coffee!
I’ve launched my #MiddleAmericaTour. I landed in Birmingham, Alabama, picked up my rental car from Alamo, scooped up friends Petrea, Dia, and Romy, and headed to the bookshop, Alabama Booksmith.
It is featured in the postcard collection of best bookstores in the world. The painting on the postcard is accurate–that is very plain. Until you walk in. Then, voila, a beautiful collection of books, all signed by the author. If you look at the top shelf in the photo above you’ll see a blank spot where we bought the last two copies of City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Even though I’ll be going to Parnassus Books in Nashville later in my trip, I bought a signed copy of the book Lambslide by Ann Pachett. I would have gladly bought more! Romy and Dia each separately picked out a YA book by the actor Octavia Spencer. They are sharing on their road trip.
Stocked with books to read, and fueled with coffee, we headed out to Greensboro, Alabama for our next adventure.
P.S. I’ve started the hashtag #BookStrong to support independent bookstores.
The day we observe Martin Luther King Jr. day in California is a day for marching, a day for service, or a day for relaxing. Some people still have to work, but most have a 3 day weekend. In Alabama, where Reverend King began his ministry and his public service to the civil rights movement, they celebrate a day for King and a day for Robert E. Lee. Yes, sad isn’t it?
I took the time today to reread Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from Why We Can’t Wait (1963). Like the Apostle Paul, Reverend King wrote from jail to his fellow clergy both a clear argument for why he joined the direct action in Birmingham, and he invited them to join them, as men of conscience, as men of faith, as citizens. Here are some sparklets from his letter:
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live in the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
May you find the inspiration for creative action and the courage to always do what is morally right.
On our last day in Alabama, we had a full Monday to explore. Alas, many places including the Sloss Furnaces and the Museum of Art are closed on Mondays. We were staying at a Hampton Inn close to Mountain Brook. Birmingham is a relatively new city formed after the Civil War to take advantage of the ore deposits in the tail end of the Appalachian mountains. Mountain Brook is one of the first “planned communities.” If Birmingham (B’Ham) has a specialty, it might be producing real estate marketers.
I was thirsty for a real cup of coffee, so I looked for a coffee shop near me and hit the bonanza! Church Street Coffee and Books offered two of my favorite things (it’s just missing yarn). I found my way there and enjoyed both the coffee and the latest Brene Brown book. Most of the books offered were either ones I’d read or ones I’d like to read. Whoever does their book list is my kindred spirit!
I zipped back to the hotel so Phyllis and I could go to Vulcan Park. We followed a class field trip of 4th graders up the elevator to the spectacular view at the top of the Vulcan statue monument. Then we took in the small museum that tells the story of Birmingham.
We were also close to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and we decided to spend an hour looking at the beautiful gardens. My favorite was the native woods. The gift shop was fun to browse in too.
Birmingham is a place that visitors could enjoy even if you weren’t focused on civil rights places and events. We were ready to go home to California, and we enjoyed our time in Alabama.
While Montgomery and Selma seem stuck in the past, Birmingham is positively forward facing with a robust economy. Birmingham experienced significant civil rights related strife in 1963, including the Children’s Crusade. The downtown is in the beginning of a renaissance and the Civil Rights scars appear to be healing. We started our Sunday at church.
After worship we sought sustenance in the form of brunch. One of the parishioners recommended a restaurant and we walked several blocks only to read the notice that it is permanently closed. The sign suggested we try Mr. Z’s Take Away. We went off in pursuit and ended up deciding to dine at Roots & Revelry, a newish restaurant in a bank redone as apartments and cafes. My chicken and waffles was divine. I’ve added a rule, besides trying pie whenever the opportunity presents, I am going to try fried chicken when in the South and it is on the menu.
My friend made the mistake of wearing fashionable shoes and we’d done a lot of walking already. We were determined to visit the Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park was just alongside both the church and Institute. Ingram Park has most of the stops along the Freedom Walk. There are multiple moving statues that tell the story of the Children’s Crusade. Even with the visual aids it was hard to imagine turning fire hoses and dogs on young children (until the recent tear gas at the border on women and children seeking asylum). Some things change and some things stay the same.
When we saw for ourselves the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church location at one corner of the park, we could better understand how it was used by the children as sanctuary and then how it became a target. This is the church that was bombed resulting in the death of four young girls.
Sometimes when I am sitting towards the back of our big sanctuary in Sacramento, I think of how safe I think I am–how little I worry about someone with violent intent coming into our midst. This is a luxury of a mostly Scandinavian Lutheran congregation. With the Charleston shooting, and church burnings, and then more recently the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I begin to understand what a violation it is to attack a “sanctuary”–a place where we go to worship God and fellowship, a place were strangers are made welcome. The events of 1963 are still relevant.
We did arrive in time to visit the Civil Rights Institute. It offers a comprehensive timeline of the Civil Rights movement. I wished this was our first stop instead of the last on our crawl. We spent quite a long time reading the exhibits and left just before the museum closed. The sidewalks were starting to roll up, so we made our way to the hotel.