As I write, I sit at New York Pizza, one of my favorite haunts. No, it’s not in Manhattan. It’s not even in the state of New York. It is in Homewood, Alabama. And while it isn’t the Piazza San Marco, it’ll do. It’s sunny and hot — and getting hotter. Spring, it seems, is over. Welcome to the American South, international readers!
If you’ve never been here, the South is a lovely, much maligned place. Indeed, it is my home, and no matter where I go, it is always to here that I return. I like the beauty of the hills and trees; the smell of wisteria and honeysuckles after a summer rain. And it increasingly feels like one of the last free places on earth.
For the whole of our marriage, Lauri and I, like many couples I know, have talked about having a house situated on some beautiful acreage. Perhaps it is something rooted in the American psyche. The Jeffersonian ideal.
With the approach of Zachary’s graduation from college last year, Lauri and I began looking around at properties. Do we move out of the city to a farm or a lake as we have always talked about or just downsize and remain in town? We didn’t know. We just knew we were ready to sell our house that was backed up against a noisy interstate and in a neighborhood that had lost tremendous value since the collapse of the housing market.
Finding a map, I drew a circle around Birmingham and included everything within a one-hour drive, the distance we were willing to commute if we found the right place. I spent hours looking at properties online. It was a good distraction from everything else. My agent drove me everywhere. She showed me beautiful lake homes, old farm houses, and hilarious redneck villas as we traversed parts of Alabama I had never seen before.
Then we found a 43-acre ranch that had been on-and-off the market. The owner, a retired Air Force veteran, was finding it hard to maintain the place in older age and had bought a garden home. It was in Cullman County (right on the edge of our circle) giving us the added advantage of being closer to my aging mother. My agent, knowing my specifications, told me she thought I’d like it. The man had built his house right in the center of the property, it sat along the beautiful Duck River, and was very near the new $100-million Duck River Reservoir where a park and hiking and mountain biking trails were being developed.
Our interest piqued, Lauri and I drove out to see it.
For our international readers or others who haven’t been in “red state” America, Alabama is a poor state. We jokingly say that our state motto is “Thank God for Mississippi” for the simple reason that where Alabama ranks 49th in so many categories, Mississippi ranks 50th. Like any state, poverty is visible in our cities. In rural Alabama, there are no building codes thus a smelly chicken house might be constructed next to a gorgeous home. So, if you don’t want that, you had better buy sufficient acreage around your home to suit your preferences. It has been decades since I have spent any time in the rural South. It is … eclectic. There are extremes of poverty and wealth; the charming and slightly alarming; great BBQ and beauty.
Driving down the almost mile-long driveway, my initial pessimism gave way to a smile as heavy hardwood forest opened up to green pastures. Hidden and private, the property had a little bit of everything: a deep hollow with a meandering creek; old outbuildings and farm equipment; rocky outcroppings and clusters of shady old trees; and enough barbed wire fencing to stretch to the moon and back. We loved it. A vision for its development began to form in my mind.
Regular readers of this blog may recall that Lauri and I greatly benefited from the ministry of Marble Retreat Center. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, it is a place of safety and recovery for those in crisis. While the world continued to convulse around us with all of its intrigues, we withdrew from it and went to Marble on three separate occasions in 2018, always coming away wondering why there aren’t more places like it.
A year on, Duck River Ranch is now our home. Much has happened in the interim. Bulldozers crawl around the property creating trails, recovering decades-old roads, terracing the land, and laying culverts. Seemingly endless truckloads of junk have been hauled off. Tree service and landscaping professionals come and go. Updated water and electrical lines have been laid. Horses populate the pasture. And a romantic little cabin has been constructed for guests.
Last week Lauri and I sat on the porch with friends and watched as high school and college students explored the property, rode horses and ATVs, shot skeet, and roasted marshmallows into the wee hours of the night. Joy filled our hearts at the sight of it. Hospitality has always been something that we, as a couple, enjoy providing, and to none more than the searching or the heartbroken.
In the coming weeks and months, we will introduce you to the various characters at Duck River Ranch and the place of safety that we hope will be of benefit to the hurting among you.