We started the new year in Saks, a small community just north of Anniston near Fort McClellan. The three-bedroom brick house the old man rented was on the main road, down the street from a convenience store.
When we moved in, the utilities hadn’t been turned on yet. Our furniture was still in transit, so we only had what we’d packed for the trip. We spent the first couple evenings huddled around the fireplace in the empty living room trying to stay warm. The cold was shocking, having lived our entire lives in the moderate climate of Southern California.
During the day, we explored the town and countryside. I absorbed my new surroundings from behind glass. I knew Saks was going to be small, but I wasn’t prepared for just how remote it was. We drove through abbreviated pockets of civilization scattered far and wide, separated by hills and long stretches of thick forests. Trees, trees, trees… as far as the eye could see. There were so many trees, they formed canopies over the roads. When the woods gave way to farmland, we traveled through wide-open fields littered with bales of hay, tractors and dilapidated barns overwhelmed by vines. Along the highway were rows of mailboxes far from any visible house. Even though it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere, we passed BBQ joints and other roadside establishments that sold everything from mufflers to hairdos to religion. In Alabama, the churches resembled warehouses, with signs that announced denominations I’d never even heard of: Assembly of God, Church of God, Church of Christ, New Home Missionary, Open Door Fellowship, First Congressional Methodist, Pentecostal Assembly Covenant Life Ministries… I’d never seen so many crosses in my life.
There were almost as many crosses as there were trees.
And white people.
Everywhere we looked, in the other cars on the road, in stores and at restaurants, there were more white people than I’d seven seen in one place besides TV. Alabama was a two-tone world of back and white. No Mexican. No Chinese. No Filipinos. No Koreans. Just white people and black people. But what was even more astounding was how excruciatingly friendly they all were. Although we were strangers in these parts, when we entered an establishment, we were greeted with the sing-song drawl of a welcome: “How y’all doing?” Everybody sounded like extras from the TV show Hee-Haw. Not that our accents didn’t stand out as well. All we had to do was open our mouths and we’d get, “Y’all not from around here, are you?”
The main part of town, which was only slightly more congested than the countryside, was a four-lane highway lined with shopping centers and fast food restaurants. After noticing the lack of foot traffic, I figured out why: there were no pedestrians because there were no sidewalks to walk on. Just ditches on either side of the road. This was a huge disappointment. How was I supposed to get anywhere? Back in Rosemead, our former stomping grounds were so ingrained in my memory, I could move through the streets and alleyways in my imagination without ever getting lost. I could count the number of houses on our street and name each occupant. The Baudrey Boys wandered far and wide. The day we realized we could go past the four block radius of the folks bailiwick and we wouldn’t fall off the face of the earth, we never looked back. We explored the depths of my neighborhood on foot and on bike. And if a destination was further than we could manage by tread of shoe of tire, there was always the RTD.
In Alabama, there were no buses on the road. Just big rigs among the pick-up trucks that outnumbered cars twofold.
Even the dirt was different. All my life I’d thought the universal color of dirt was brown. But in Alabama, the ground was red.
Our new home.
The differences were both intriguing and frightening.
–from A Masque of Infamy