The only other time I was in Alabama was in March 1974, almost thirty-five years ago. It was cold in Wisconsin during the spring break so I decided to hitchhike to Florida. I memorized a map, but I got it wrong and ended up two days later in south Alabama. It took me that long to figure out that I didn’t have enough money and no plan, so I turned around and headed home. This trip was my first big adventure and the first time I understood that being on your own was not always much fun.
I got a ride all the way from Nashville to Alabama state highway 10. This was a very local rural road back then. A guy in a pickup truck picked me up. He talked to me for about ten minutes, and I understood not a word. It worried me. It was like being in a foreign country. He dropped me off about two miles down the road, where a farmer was out working in his field. He came over and talked to me (people were very friendly). He had an accent, but it was easy to understand. I mentioned my earlier problem and he just laughed. “That’s old James. He’s the town drunk. Ain’t nobody understands old James,” he told me.
My turn around point was a cemetery near Brantley, Alabama on the way to Opp. I found the place and you can see it up top. I spent the night there, actually right outside. That was not my plan. I was talking to some guys at a local gas station. They warned me about the poisonous snakes in the tall grass. Now I understand that they were just giving me a hard time. As I walked out of town in the dark of early evening, I saw nothing but tall grass, until there was some short grass. I thought it was a roadside, so I spread out my blanket and went to sleep.
In the morning, I saw that it wasn’t a roadside. I was sleeping near the tombstones not far from a graveyard. Had I known where I was, I think I would have slept poorly. As it was, I spend a peaceful night with the quiet neighbors but that was enough. I was hungry and lonely and I wanted to go home. I took a picture near the spot where I think I was. Those leyland cypresses were not there yet. There was just I was grass and some bushes. Just being there brought back the feelings of those days. I did lots of stupid things when I was nineteen, but I think this was the stupidest, on balance. Above and below are pictures are Brantley what used to be the business district thirty-five years ago and some houses along the road.
I started to hitchhike back north from the spot on the top picture outside Brantley, Alabama. (For the last thirty-five years, I have believed that I turned back south of Opp. I remembered that name because it is odd and I saw it in writing. Now, however, I am 99% certain that the spot above is indeed the high water mark of my first lonely travel adventure.) I made it to Nashville by that night.
I might have gotten there earlier. I had a ride going all the way up there, but I got out near Decatur. The driver was drinking whiskey. He claimed that he was going to kill his wife and his former best friend. The wife had run off with the friend. This didn’t seem to bother the guy too much, but they had also taken a couple hundred dollars of his money. This pissed him off. His story sounded a little too much like the words from a Hank Williams, Jr song. I remembered the words of the old Roy Acuff song, “Whiskey and Blood on the Highway” (There was whiskey and blood all together; mixed with glass where they lay; I heard the moans of the dyin’; but I didn’t hear nobody pray) so I bailed. I tried to pay attention to the news the next day and didn’t hear about any spectacular murders, so I figure he was just talking … and drinking. People who picked up hitchhikers often were just looking for someone to talk at and they often are not serious. But guns, booze, anger and cars are not things you should mix or mess with if you can avoid it.
I spent my last $7 on a bus ticket from Nashville to Evansville, Indiana. I didn’t particularly want to go there, but that was as far I my money would take me. What I really wanted was a warm & reasonably secure place to spend the night and the bus was the best I could do. I arrived in Evansville just about dawn and set off up Hwy 41. It was 5 below. They had an ice storm the day before and then it got really cold. Hitchhiking was hard and I picked up only short hops. The worst was when some A-hole dropped me off directly in front of a sign that said something like, “Rockville Prison. Do not pick up hitchhikers”. I later found out that it was a woman’s prison, but the sign didn’t specify.
I got up to Chicago about the time it was getting dark and a really nice guy drove me all the way home to Milwaukee. It is probably not a good idea to depend on the kindness of strangers, but I was glad that I ran into some good people. Besides the Rockville Prison guy and the homicidal boozer, everybody I met treated me okay, some were very friendly and shared lunches with me. I would have been a lot hungrier if not for that.
The whole adventure lasted only four days, but it made a deep impression on me, so much that a half a lifetime later I can still recall details. This was the first time I was really alone and unconnected. I realized that a guy could just disappear. I remembered how it felt to be “homeless” as I drove back from Brantley to my reserved room at Courtyard in Troy, Alabama. It is comforting to have a place to go. The most disturbing part about wandering is looking around for a place to bed down at dusk and hoping that it doesn’t rain or you don’t get rolled. It is nice to be able to come & go when you want, but in the words of that great country philosopher Kris Kristopherson, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
It was a good lesson and not a very expensive one for me. It was good to learn it early, but it wasn’t smart to set off with no map, no plan and almost no money. I can’t even put myself back in that stupid young-man mindset. I make much more sophisticated stupid old-man choices today. I have always been lucky and luck can substitute for intelligence and foresight … until it doesn’t.
I didn’t stop hitchhiking, BTW. That is how I and many car-free students got around in those days. And I subsequently hitchhiked around Europe. But I prepared better.