Monday, May 10, 2010

Warrior Bricks

Northern Alabama offers the mountain traveler a unique respite from walking uphill and downhill and uphill. With the exception of a few topographical minutiae, your feet will only take you forward. That is, straight forward in a slight arc accounting for the curvature of the earth's surface.

I told my wife and her family that I was going to go work on Saturday afternoon. This meant that I was going to attempt to find a small and rather pretentiously artistic hovel that served coffee in the midst of yet another American town being slowly eaten by Walmart (or, if you're in my household, That Which Must Not Be Named). And I told them I was going to walk. Only Katrina was not astounded. So I packed up the laptop and took to my feet through the streets of desperately manicured lawns beside forgotten gravel lots and lovely Victorian houses converted into law firms. It's always the same kinds of businesses that circle dying Southern towns. Law firms, tanning and nail salons, used car dealerships, bondsmen, and junk shops, once held in check by the indigenous population, now flourish in the hole left in the economic food chain. There are precious few distractions for small-town young people, and it is disconcerting to know that certain distractions can support four branches of Joe's Bond and Loan in a five mile radius.

So I walked past the town square, glad to see a bakery, a gym, and a jewelry shop holding down the fort. I went by a world-famous secondhand shop (truly, it is world-famous) and only found an autobiography of U2 that seemed worth the ballooning price. My feet took me down a street called Willow. I have a habit of scanning trash on the ground with my eyes. It has a story to tell, in its fashion, of the ones who left it there. Amid the refuse along the sidewalk, a brick caught my eye. Depressed into its baked and weathered sienna was a single word:


I had to pick it up, of course. I carried it with me with all intentions of giving it a good home and use back in Knoxville. But we didn't go by to pick it up later. If you pass through Scottsboro, Alabama, it's sitting by the telephone pole at the corner of South and Willow. Use it well. Such a brick could be to you the reminder of what you are as you leave your house to succumb to the illusion that your life and job are banal realities. We all need reminding of what's at stake.

I walked on down Willow, hoping to find a suitable place, or to give up the ghost and come eventually to the parking lot of That Which Must Not Be Named, where stood a Huddle House, a dependable fortress of coffee and bacon grease. The problem was, I had forgotten that there was a turn I was supposed to make. I walked past it, imagining that I had perhaps forgotten each unfamiliar landmark. The heat of the sun shooed me into the shelter of a place called the Dairy Bar, where I received a treatise on salvation by grace through faith and a fantastic peanut butter and Reese's Cup milkshake. Southern people are truly fascinating when you give them the chance to be. That sounds like I'm not one, but just let me get tired or angry, and out slips the drawl. No doubts there.

I left the Dairy Bar and continued down the highway past the municipal airport (read: strip of pavement and a hangar). Finally, I came upon the steeple of a Baptist church that I knew I had not passed. I went inside to ask directions, and was told to go back the way I had come. The fellow spoke as if his tongue had been stung by a bee. He had been mowing after all. I asked him if I could simply cross the ridge behind the church to get back to the highway. I could hear the sounds of trucks beyond the trees, and certainly I would get my bearings from atop the land. Sure, he said. I could do that. So I, minus one machete, entered the scrub and bramble behind the church building. After struggling against the first briar patch and watching a neon green snake slither over my shoulder and drop to the ground, I considered my decision. Then I kept going, trusting my Carolina upbringing to see me through the undergrowth.

There are patches of land in the Smokies referred to as "Hells" because of the difficulty in getting through them. They are justly named. This was just as bad, except no one had made a path around it. I pressed and stamped through walls of blackberry and thorny vines unnamed until, fifty yards into the ordeal, I came to my senses. Then came the problem of getting out. After a passionate use of the "saw" on my Swiss Army Knife, and a lightsaber-like wielding of a stout rod of maple, I emerged from the wilderness and back into the sun.

If there is a gleaming moral to this story, it is that, though I am an idiot, a good seven-mile walk will do even an idiot some good. I did sit down to get some writing done finally. It was at an Arby's over a tall plastic cup of iced tea. Sometimes pretentious artistic environs must give way before utility. Warrior bricks are often found in the unlikeliest places.


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