Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

The Road to Moundville

Find a slice of the South along the highways of West Alabama

Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson

It’s hard to wax poetic about the 80-mile drive from Columbus to Moundville, Ala.

There are no gravel-voiced, whiskey-washed bluesmen mourning its decline; there are no coffee table books touting its glossy promise. In today’s world of bigger, better, faster, more, there seems scant demand for the utilitarian, the functional, the ordinary. And yet, this unassuming route has a lot to say about the South in all its hope and hardship.

The majority of the trip is on U.S. Highway 82, which began in 1932 and now encompasses 1,609 miles, from Georgia to New Mexico.

My first stop is Reform, Ala., where I find myself wading through a mud hole — quite literally. I have my doubts as I pull into the waterlogged driveway and park beside a stack of old windows. The thrift store, named appropriately The Mud Hole, seems to hold the usual flotsam and jetsam — glass bottles, rusted tins of Prince Albert smoking tobacco, costume jewelry and other castoffs.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

At the cash register, a hand-printed sign catches my attention:

Small Red Worms         $3.00
Large Red Worms        $3.75
Brown Worms              $3.25
Nightcrawlers              $3.99
Crickets Tube             $3.99 – 1/2 $2.50

They sell a lot of live bait, store owner Jeanne Epperson says. Fishermen swing by on their way to Pickensville Lake.

Epperson and her husband, Robbie, opened the business six years ago, starting out first on Main Street before moving to their present location, which Epperson says was the old cotton gin. Five months after they arrived, a storm destroyed the store and they had to begin anew.

Now they’re thriving, with merchandise piled high inside three buildings and stacked outside. I point to a curious object hanging from the ceiling and learn that it is a yoke, most likely used for mules.

And this is when I realize that there is more to this trip than a random agenda of sights and sounds. This is history.

On First Street South, I cross the railroad tracks that changed everything.

Legend has it that in 1819, a Methodist preacher came to town for a revival, but he became so agitated by the rowdy locals that he jumped on his horse and fled, shouting, “Reform!”

By the end of the century, the Mobile and Ohio railroads moved in, and the city was incorporated, taking “Reform” as its moniker. The population quickly grew, swelling from 200 in 1900 to 1,000 by 1920.

These days, most of downtown is vacant, but approximately 1,702 residents — and 16 churches — still call the city home.

Down the road, the city of Gordo has a similar history. The vibrant business district has dwindled to only a few shops, and if you’re looking for a non-chain breakfast, you’ll have to get it at Cheeky’s, which opens at 5 a.m. every day except Sunday. If you arrive around lunchtime, you can get a Cheeky burger — an odd concoction of grilled chicken, drenched in Buffalo sauce, ranch dressing and mozzarella cheese, sandwiched between a pretzel bun.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

By the time I get to Northport, I wish I’d skipped lunch, because there are two special places I want to go — Mary’s Cakes & Pastries and Archibald’s Bar B.Q.

The bakery, tucked in an alley between the railroad trestle and Main Avenue, looks promising. Children are running and laughing, waiting for the results of a cookie-decorating contest. Inside, I discover heaven in a cup — cake shots, which are bits of cake and filling, crammed into a shot-sized cup and topped with frosting. The lemon is particularly good, like the marriage of a lemon-filled doughnut, lemon cake and lemon frosting. The strawberry is similar — a strawberry shortcake, strawberry cupcake hybrid. The chocolate is also good — chocolate pudding, chocolate cake, chocolate frosting.

Next door is Mary’s Cupboard, a bakery consignment shop. Manager Suzanne Gray keeps me laughing as I try to identify the items on the gadget table, appropriately labeled “the weirder, the better.” One contraption is so unusual that so far, no one can guess its name or purpose.

It’s tempting to spend the rest of my day exploring Northport’s quaint downtown and shopping in Tuscaloosa, but I resist. I’ll come back to them another day. For now, I head to Archibald’s, where locals say the barbecue is as good as, if not better than, Dreamland. One look at the shabby, cinder block building — and the line of people outside — lends credence to the claims. Inside, there is room for only three tables and three stools at the counter.

It’s standing room only, and all eyes are fixed on the woman tending the barbecue pit. From time to time, she sprays the pit with what appears to be a garden hose.

The sauce is vinegar-based, with the meat laying atop two sauce-drenched slices of white bread, covered by two more slices. There are no side items.

I decide to work off the calories exploring the University of Alabama campus. It’s changed a lot since I was a student. There are new buildings on every corner, and everything seems bigger and more imposing than I remember. The Strip, long a haven for the party crowd, is spiffed up and re-branded, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your college memories — or lack, thereof.

I keep walking until I reach the Quad — 22 acres of green space used for everything from Homecoming bonfires to Sunday afternoon mud football. A man and woman pose for a picture in front of Denny Chimes, and I can’t help but smile. Some things never change.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

I’d like to linger, but I want to make it to Moundville before nightfall, and rush hour traffic can be a nightmare. Moundville Archaeological Park offers respite, with meandering nature trails and a museum filled with more than 200 artifacts unearthed from mounds on the site, all telling the story of the area’s early Native Americans. It’s a nice place to enjoy a bike ride or watch the sunset.

I return to Tuscaloosa, driving through the wasteland of the April 27, 2011, tornado. The rubble is gone, but scars remain. In places, the land is still violently scoured, with jagged tree trunks rising from the soil like defiant sentries. Vegetation covers abandoned homes. Concrete slabs tell the story of businesses that did not return.

But there is something else — hope. Everywhere I look, there are new businesses. New houses. New faces. Walking trails along both sides of the river — downtown Northport and Tuscaloosa — offer spectacular views of the sunset.

I’m overwhelmed by the rising tide of optimism in Tuscaloosa, where pain has been the catalyst for rebirth.

And somehow, this seems worth celebrating. I decide to check out Five Bar, a restaurant-bar-coffee shop with an upscale, casual feel. There are chandeliers, but they are shabby chic and mismatched. There are people dressed in business attire and students wearing jeans. And there is my charming server, Alison Trout.

She explains that diners choose from five entrees, five white wines and five red wines. I’ve polished off the pimiento cheese and five pepper jelly crostini and I am savoring the bone-in pork chop with macaroni and cheese and “uptown sauce” when Trout tells me a secret: That sauce I just declared the best thing ever is made with eel — and some other things I can’t remember five minutes later, because I’m still hung up on the idea that I ate EEL. And I thought it was divine.

Since it’s the end of my trip, I order a cocktail — the Destin — a pink concoction of Tito’s vodka, grapefruit and cranberry juice, and prosecco, served in a glass rimmed in sugar and salt. I’m driving back to Columbus tonight, so I reluctantly get mine without the alcohol.

But later, as I point my car westward and backtrack through Northport, Gordo and Reform, I think about how this ordinary round trip packed such an extraordinary punch. From the rustic charm of The Mud Hole to the blank facades of once thriving Main Streets, from the culinary surprises in Northport to the sun-kissed trails in Moundville, from the storm-ravaged desolation of a city still hurting to the boundless promise of a city recovering — it was an emotional roller coaster.

And in this moment of reflection, as my car slides through the Alabama darkness and chases the Mississippi night, Highway 82 bestows its final gift. I roll the windows down and switch off the radio, relaxing into the drive. The sounds of the frogs and crickets envelop and gently lead me home.