Ouch, sorry, it’s been a while since I last posted on FB, so this is a looong one, indeed Alabama is now done and dusted. I was put up by so many trusty locals here I’ve lost track. Whether in Mexican restaurants or church halls, funky lakeside apartments or mobile homes in the woods, Alabama has been very good to me.
Last night I camped in the tiny hamlet of Smiths Station, where I was dazzled by hundreds of Chinese fire lanterns floating overhead, but will save the last part of Alabama for another time.
Crossed the bridge into Columbus, Georgia, earlier today. So like Ray Charles, Georgia is on my mind: not in my vision though as it’s been enshrouded in mist and cloud so far. Look forward to embracing the Peach State tomorrow despite weather forecasts predicting the sort of rain that will boost ark sales.
Koko leaving Tuscaloosa and heading north to Birmingham
Day 137 to 138
Today had more twists and turns than a week of Brexit negotiations.
First thing, I struck out from Tuscaloosa over several bridges and finally bade farewell to beloved Highway 82 which, bar a few forays down country trails, I have followed since Texas.
Over time it has morphed from wide and super busy to single track and near deserted. In whatever guise, it has served me well. Thank you 82!
Continued 19 miles down lovely, undulating, forest fringed roads, some of them hard sand, as joyous as Bilbo Baggins in The Shire. Not even the gloomy skies could dampen my spirits. Well, until I reached the village of Brookwood.
Wanting to be responsible, I dropped into the local fire station to ask the best place to camp, the town park an obvious choice.
The team there were very helpful but said only the cops could give permission.
They called the police for me and, for the first time since Arizona, I was told I couldn’t camp anywhere on town land. End of story. I’d need to leave the area. The police so far on the walk have been great, so this rather blindsided me.
I walked on, pissed off, unsure what to do, in a funk. By now it was near dark and I was knackered. I trudged on. Then, there it was, a sign, La Casa Crimson, a little Mexican restaurant. My heart lifted.
Sure enough, within minutes, Cuco, the owner, said I was welcome to camp out back.
Before setting up, I ate some fish tacos (delicioso!) and then Cuco told me it was due to rain and instead, I could sleep in a shelter where some kitchen staff stayed next door.
La Casa Crimson team in Brookwood
Not only this, when I left, I was told that Madison and Eve, the two teen waitresses, thinking I was homeless, had paid my bill.
Trying not to well up, I paid them them back and later had a jolly chat with them and Lolo and Gonzalo, two more of the kitchen team.
My mattress bed
Now lying on my mattress bed, amazed, yet again, how fortune can swing so fast, so wildly, and inspired by Cuco and two big hearted teens.
Us oldies rail too much about ‘the millennials’. If they are anything like Madi and Eve, we’ll be just fine.
Day 139 to 141
Martin Luther King towering over the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama
Took this shot of Martin Luther King last night after walking into the city of Birmingham.
King’s statue towers over a park opposite the 16th Baptist Church, where, on September 15th, 1963, four young girls were killed by a bomb planted by white supremacists.
This brutal act, in what was then America’s most racially segregated city, sparked outrage across the world.
Birmingham, where King had recently been jailed, became the crucible for the Civil Rights movement and 1963, the year it really took flight.
Koko lost in the woods near Bessemer
The last two days getting here have gone from full on rustic – Google Maps took Koko and I on a wonderful wild goose chase through some private woods – to intensely urban.
Bessemer, the first part of Birmingham I walked through, suffers from some of the highest crime rates in the country, but, Brie’s Cafe, where I stopped for Gumbo Soup, couldn’t have been friendlier.
Miles later in central Birmingham I checked into the Tourway Motel, run by an Indian gent called Raymond. Nearly all budget motels in the US are run by Indians. Raymond worked as a phone engineer in Birmingham, England, for 20 years, before moving to Birmingham, Alabama, after his son got a job as a doctor here.
‘Now I’ve got a Hindi, Brummie drawl,’ he joked. ‘I’m 77 years old and still work 7 days a week. Martin Luther King is my hero with his policy of non violent resistance. Gandhi was one of King’s heroes.’
Beautiful tribute to the four young girls brutally killed by white supremacists at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963
Walking around the 16th Baptist Church, which I had to myself, and the statues of King – assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis in 1968 – and the four girls was a moving experience, the monuments both respectful and redemptive.
Later I saw another sign commemorating King.
Words by Martin Luther King. BE STRONG, LOVING, FEARLESS.
King, though far from perfect – his love life was chaos – lived heroically by these three words and encouraged all of us to do so.
That’s quite a legacy.
Now striding off from this troubled, friendly city, its streets still raw with history, chasing the miles east before my visa expires in mid-March.
Day 141 to 142
Put up by these four lovely strangers last night – Gigi, Stan and rescue dogs Tucker and Layla.
Gigi, Stan, Tucker and Layla, who put me, a complete stranger, up for the night near Birmingham
It’d been quite a day walking out of Birmingham. First thing, I bumped into Thor and Co competing in a Superhero 5km.
Superheroes and heroines about to run a 5km race in Birmingham
Then I caught up with Chris and Ginger, a dynamic couple, who’d put me up during my mule trip in 2001 and now had tracked me down walking in the Birmingham burbs.
Ginger and Chris Senn, who had put me up during my mule trip through America 18 years ago
All those years ago, I’d been about to set up camp near a cemetery in tiny Calera, but Ginger and Chris had insisted I stay with them – Browny my mule grazed on their lawn.
We’d had a great night. Chris is a blues guitarist and drummer, who had played with BB King, and Ginger is a singer.
When Chris asked me what has changed about America since my mule walk I told him that the people are as kind as ever but there is more fear now.
‘The fear is often about drugs,’ said Chris. ‘Heroine, crack, opioids. Such a shame.’
I’ve seen a bit of the sad impact of hard drugs. In San Diego I passed an elderly man smoking on a crack pipe. In an RV Park in Arizona, in the trailer next to my tent, a 20 something girl, a drug addict, had fatally shot herself two days earlier after a row with her boyfriend.
In Texas I met a man whose toddler son had licked a table in a newly bought RV and nearly died of a meth overdose. Breaking Bad, perhaps not so fanciful after all…
Anyway, enough, late yesterday, I was desperate to find somewhere to stay in the still very urban surroundings. Wal-Mart told me I could not camp in its car park so I tried the Greystone YMCA (YMCEEA-AY!).
Here, I met big hearted teacher, Gigi, who told me she lived nearby with her sculptor husband, Stan, and I could stay with them. A lovely, trusting gesture.
We all had a great yarn about the differences between the US and the UK. Stan thought it was hilarious we used stone to measure weight, not kg.
After looking at photos of my portly physique before I started the world walk, Stan joked: ‘You weren’t a stone back then, buddy, you were a boulder!’
More kindness was shown today too, but I’ll save that for next time.
Day 142 to 145
Mitch and Harriet Williams, who put me up near Camp Hill
Got drenched yesterday but thanks to this splendid crew was able to dry out, warm up and fill my belly.
Walking down Highway 280 three days ago Nikita (pink top) stopped to chat. She had seen a report about my walk on the local news.
Lennis, Lanier, Nikita, Alison, Robert and Dolly – wonderful posse of teachers
‘Couldn’t remember if you were on TV for doing something fun or coz you were a criminal,’ she joked. ‘I took my chances!’
Nikita tried to give me money, which I always refuse, so then called her friends to see if anyone could put me up.
This led to me sleeping at the Eastside Baptist Church where Preacher Joe, a Vietnam vet, gospel singer and chef (with dog, Bibi) let me stay and kindly cooked me breakfast with his wife, Sandy.
Preacher Joe at the Eastside Baptist Church in Sylacauga
I also met local good egg and Mr Fix It, Lanier, and his wife, Lennis – sons Logan and Ethan – and friends, Robert, Dolly and Alison. A top bunch who all teach at the nearby Helen Keller School, for children with special needs, in Talladega. (Trailblazing Helen Keller, writer, activist, teacher and the first deaf-blind person to gain a degree, was born in Alabama, and often lived here until her death in 1968). Inspiring to meet a group of teachers so dedicated to their work and the children they teach.
As some kids at Helen Keller School have autism the wonderful Puzzle Centre one of the UK charities I am walking for, sparked interest.
Yesterday I walked through crazy rain for 12 miles before being lashed into submission. One kind driver, Joe, even pulled over to give me a bigger anorak.
Big hearted Joe Stringer who gave me his heavy duty hi-viz anorak
I was later picked up, sodden, by Lanier, who drove me to his family’s mobile home in the midst of beautiful woods near Sylacauga (I’m allowed odd short lifts to stay with locals as long as I’m dropped at the exact spot I stopped walking the next day).
Had a hearty Southern meal, including divine sweet potato cobbler, washed down with sweet tea. No pigs’ feet, fortunately, which I’d seen in a local store.
Taste bud tantalisers
After all the recent rain (and mooted tornado) today’s walk to Alexander City was sunny with a lovely tailwind.
Thank you, good people of Sylacauga, I won’t forget you.
Ok, quite enough from me, now must focus on hot tailing it to Savannah on the East coast before my visa is kaput on March 13.
Huge thanks over the last two weeks to Mitch and Harriet Williams near Aubern, Lanier and Lennis Corbitt, Preacher Joe and Sandy at East side Baptist Church in Sylacauga and Nikita, Robert, Dolly and Alison at the nearby Helen Keller School, Chris and Ginger Senn, Gigi and Stan Copeland in Chelsea and the Greystone YMCA and Cuco, Lalo Rodgrigez, Gonzalo, Madison and Evie at La Casa Crimson Mexican Restaurant in Brookwood, who offered me shelter in my hour of need.