Even if you're native to Alabama, you probably haven’t heard of towns like Luverne, Brantley, or Opp. If you have, it’s probably for one reason only: to get to the beach from just about anywhere in the state, you’re probably going to have to drive through at least one of them. For someone like me that was raised in Huntsville, which a big city by Alabama standards, driving through these rural communities seemed more like stepping into a bizarre tableaux of the past. Tractors, cow fields, a few gas stations, some houses, not a Starbucks within a 100-mile radius… small town middle-of-nowhere Alabama life just doesn’t seem like it could exist so close to my own reality. In the summer, most the people you see in these communities are just passing through, either going to or returning from a beach vacation. These towns are rarely the starting point or the destination; they exist in most of our minds as in-between places. When you're so determined to reach a destination, visiting them is a chore.
Splitting my time between Montevallo, Alabama and Santa Rosa Beach, Florida means that I've driven through these places more times than I can count. I’m more familiar with certain areas of them than I am with my own city, but I only recently realized how bizarre it was that I’ve never considered them as anything more than scenery for a drive. Though small, these communities are living and breathing; their residents all have stories. On recent trips to Florida, I decided to do something I've never done before in my 4 years of constant back-and-forth: actually stop at some of these businesses and roadside attractions to talk to locals about why they do what they do, why they’ve chosen small-town Alabama as their home, and what living in this in-between space means to them.
Kathleen and her husband live near Opp, Alabama on Route 331, a commonly trafficked backroad leading directly to Florida’s beaches. They’ve been here since 1989 and wouldn’t dream of leaving. Now, their property is home to a general store and a vast collection of signs, mile markers, and kitschy statues that passers-by can wander through and photograph. They don’t have children; instead, they live with Kathleen’s brother and their animals, 5 dogs and 4 cats that have shown up on the property over the years.
According to Kathleen, the biggest benefit of living in the middle of nowhere is that nobody bothers them. Also: “we’re very thankful cuz Obama will never visit us.”
But for two people who value their privacy, Kathleen and her husband know people from all over- Canada, Australia, England, Germany, and Sweden, and Spain, just to name a few places. Their shop is a stop on something called the “Blues Tour”, a yearly tour of the south.
“They fly into airports and they call it the ‘blues tour’- of the South- and this just happens to be one of the roads they take,” says Kathleen. “They do it every year. I like the ones- we couldn’t understand a word they said- they were Spanish, from Madrid? I can’t remember. They all flew into New Orleans and they all had Harley Davidsons and did the blues tour. Mostly they just take pictures of themselves. But Australia is my best- they’re fun.”
Adds her husband, “Germans are more friendly than anybody.”
Kathleen agrees and says with a smile, “You know, it’s fun just to listen to ‘em talk.”
If you’re driving to the beach on Highway 231, you’re likely to spot a collection of log cabins and old houses just off the highway about 15 minutes South of Montgomery. This place is called Pioneer Shopping Village, and it was founded by a 91-year-old local man who moved back to the area after retiring. The village is comprised of historic houses that now function as miniature stores selling everything from food to homemade jewelry to clothes and more.
Frances and Susie are a mother-daughter duo who are just setting up their little house, a shop they call the “House of Plenty”. In it, they display and sell a vast and eclectic assortment of trinkets they’ve collected over the course of their lives. After the death of her husband, Frances was at a loss for what to do- she lived in a 3-story Victorian house and was forced to sell most of her things in an estate sale. Originally, Frances lived north of the place and passed it on trips for 20 years without giving it much thought. One day, while driving down the road and wondering what she was going to do next, she spotted Pioneer Village and decided to rent a cabin. So far, it’s been a great experience for both her and her daughter.
“We have a lot of people stop off 231. It’s a main road to Panama City,” Frances tells me. “Recently, I think the one that fascinated me the most was one from Switzerland- a man and woman that was taking a trip to the US and they had flown into Birmingham, rented a car, and was out riding and stopped by here.”
The House of Plenty proved to be a perfect outlet for both women, as Susie has a passion for collecting oddities. One room of the house is devoted to bottles, another to Barbie dolls, and another to various miniature tchotchkes such as glass figurines and salt shakers.
“I like weird stuff,” Susie told me. “I’ve been collecting since I was 13. It’s hard to come off it cuz I love all of it.”
“She was just lookin’ at this room in tears- it’s fascinating and she hates to turn it loose,” Frances adds. “My family was very angry at her for spending so much money on some of this stuff but she just kept doin’ it. I participated with her because I didn’t care- if it makes you happy. But you lose control and it could go either way- it can go collectors or it can go to hoarding.”
Susie spots a ceramic frog on one of the shelves and picks it up to show me. “I used to kiss this frog every night lookin’ for my prince,” she says with a nostalgic grin. “Never found him.”
About 30 minutes South of Montgomery in Highland Home, Alabama is It Don’t Matter Family Restaurant, specializing in good old fashioned buffet-style Southern cooking. Fried chicken, mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy, fried okra- it’s all here, and according to both the tourists and the locals, it’s all delicious.
Says Cindy, “I’ve lived here my whole life. Come to school here, graduated here- my kids went to school here, graduated here. I’ve been here since ’51. I’m satisfied where I’m at.”
The draw for Cindy is simple: she likes the people. “You usually find someone to help you somewhere- just ask. One of our managers is moving- all she had to do was ask. She’s an older lady. Some of the school kids came over to help her move. Just ask.”
The restaurant is a draw for locals and travelers alike. “Most of the time we have a register people sign- some people come back and forth- they stop on the way to the beach and coming back. We’ve had folks from all over the world, and we have our regular hometown folks that just come in every day. One of those that sticks out would be Miss . She’s a sweet lady- she eats all her meals here. Most of the time, crispy bacon and toast. Sometimes she’ll get a cheese omelette in the morning.”
It’s pretty hard to miss the brightly colored food truck on the side of the road a few miles south of Troy, Alabama on Highway 87. Its owner is J’ean "Mama Jay" Collins, a retired chef from the Bahamas who now runs a messianic jewish outreach program and ministry called Workers of the Word. In addition to working with the homeless and holding services, she, her husband, and her 3 home-schooled children run a food stand during the summer, sell donated goods for the outreach, and grow most of their own food.
Being in such a highly trafficked location has its perks for Mama Jay, and she meets plenty of people in the road. “They come in and some donate, and some just buy a drink. We try to have something going on as often as possible because you never know when somebody’s going to stop. We have family breakfast on Sunday mornings, and I’ll make pancakes or something that stretches- if people show up, they show up, or my kids will eat it. Then we have confessional- whatever happens or is spoken, stays.”
Mama Jay cooks, works with the children, and keeps up with the property, and her husband is the pastor. Together, they’ve managed to form their “We’re trying to be self-sufficient and raise funds to buy a bigger property so we can do our . Sort of like a halfway house for people who have no home and families who were displaced can stay. That’s why we have the extra trailer- we got to the point where families were staying in the back of the temple. Whatever you donate- we use that. People donate the trailers and we use them even though they’re falling apart, but they don’t leak, so that’s cool. I used to live in a three-story house and now that trailer there is my home. People are always in need.”