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From spine-tingling tales to faces in the trees, Alabama trip puts Kansas in perspective

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From spine-tingling tales to faces in the trees, Alabama trip puts Kansas in perspective

Aug 10, 2022 | 4:11 am ET
By Clay Wirestone
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From spine-tingling tales to faces in the trees, Alabama trip puts Kansas in perspective
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Whimsical carvings decorate trees in Orr Park in Montevallo, Alabama. Opinion editor Clay Wirestone walked the park on his recent visit to the state. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Roving with Clay Wirestone

Our opinion editor travels Kansas and beyond for stories off the beaten path. Read them all here.

I was driving along an Alabama backroad with my mother-in-law, hearing about various Southern Gothic deaths that had befallen residents of her neighborhood, when I realized something simple yet important: This country is vast.

The contiguous United States stretches more than 2,500 miles from coast to coast. Our 50 states go from sapphire blue to ruby red politically, with other shades interspersed. Yet we so often compress how we think about this country and the people in it to binary opposites.

Democrat or Republican. Liberal or conservative. Rural or urban.

There’s so much more.

My trip to Alabama was part of a long-delayed family vacation. We meant to visit my husband’s parents in the summer of 2020, but the pandemic scuttled our plans both that year and the next. They love to see our son, however, and we finally took the plunge last month. The drive took at least 13 hours each way, and I watched Kansas turn into Missouri, then Illinois, then Kentucky, then Tennessee, then Alabama.

I noted the political complexities along the way. You saw signs for rock-ribbed Republicans in much of Missouri, then billboards promoting U.S. Rep. Cori Bush in St. Louis. On the outskirts of Nashville, we passed a “Nashville Loves President Trump” sign.

“I doubt that’s true,” my husband said.

Indeed, Davidson County, which includes Nashville, went for Biden in 2020 by 65-32.

At convenience stations along the way, from the Midwest to the Deep South, we also noted people wearing face masks. No one hassled the wearers. It wasn’t a big deal. Apparently Americans take infectious disease control in stride these days. (You could see more face masks in Tuscaloosa, too.)

From spine-tingling tales to faces in the trees, Alabama trip puts Kansas in perspective
A sign outside Nashville makes its support for former President Trump abundantly clear. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

 

Third party dreams

After arriving in Alabama, we settled into a converted garage at my in-laws’ home. Our 11-year-old enjoyed being spoiled rotten by his grandparents. My husband decided to paint and remodel the bathroom. I read and napped and thought and chatted.

Repeatedly, my husband’s family members asked about the possibility of a third party. Their disdain for Trump, even in rural Alabama, was palpable. Both of my husbands’ parents are retired educators and welcome their gay son and son-in-law. Do the math. But in a state so dominated by the Republican Party, they wondered whether Democrats had what it takes.

It made me wonder.

Why should folks in Alabama be represented by the same party as folks in Kansas? Their issues and concerns are different. Their surroundings and backgrounds are different. Why shouldn’t we embrace more political diversity? Certainly Democrats in Kansas and Alabama are different than Democrats in New York and California. Republicans in New Hampshire, where I lived for 11 years, were dramatically different than Republicans here.

Why should we call them all the same party? Why scrunch them all into the same tiny box?

I understand the political science arguments. With a winner-take-all voting system, parties gain power by representing more people. That means they work to enlarge coalitions (Latinos for Trump, anyone?) rather than carving out niches. There’s a cost in today’s highly connected world, though. We lose nuance and regional variation.

Which brings me back to driving down a twisty road, attempting to follow my mother-in-law’s directions. We were taking my son to a park, and she was navigating while simultaneously painting a blood-soaked tapestry of neighborhood murders, maulings and car accidents.

It was hilarious, gruesome and deeply Southern.

On one hand, this lovely woman is much like my own late mother. She taught for decades, loves children, gives back to her community, handles health challenges with grace. Yet in another, she is vastly different. She has lived for decades in Alabama. Her experience of the world — family, religion, politics — is different.

We live in a nation of 330 million people. Each one has their own perspective, their own intellect. Our cramped political system can’t possibly represent them all.

 

From spine-tingling tales to faces in the trees, Alabama trip puts Kansas in perspective
The Orr Park carvings were created by artist Tim Tingle in dead or dying cedar trees. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Wandering through the park

Toward the end of our stay, my brother-in-law took us to Orr Park in Montevallo.

Throughout the park, artist Tim Tingle has transformed dead or dying cedars into fantastical creations. Faces peered through trunks. Dragons surfaced in others. A variety of mythical creatures greeted us as we logged the circular trail, and I tried to capture them all through my iPhone’s camera.

In those twilit seconds, I saw a new, surprising place. We stood apart from time and politics. We were away.

It was only a moment, true. In Washington, D.C., senators were slogging their way through a massive, inflation-fighting reconciliation package. In Kansas, campaigners knocked doors for and against an amendment removing the right to an abortion from the constitution. In the Washington Post, Andrew Yang and some centrist Republicans were trying to get a third party off the ground. The wheels turned, and our massive country rolled along.

We drove back to my in-laws’ home that evening, speeding by vacant lots enveloped in kudzu. I watched the countryside pass, dipping further and further into darkness. No streetlights here.

In a couple of days, we would be back in Kansas.

We would see what happened with the amendment and the D.C. vote. We would go back to work, back to a familiar context, back to a new school year. I would write columns explaining what it all means. I would tell others about driving along with my mother-in-law and listening to her bloodthirsty tales.

Yet at the moment, I embraced a place that was different. I appreciated Alabama, and all of the variations it implied from one coast to another. How little we know and appreciate, really, about other people and this fantastic, horrible, bombastic, subtle country.

There’s so much more.

Everywhere.