“Who’s driving that little red car?”

He speaks with a distinctly Alabama flair. His faded navy mechanics jumpsuit has name etched onto the left pocket. Earl or Merle, hard to tell when you’re trying not to stare. He came sauntering in about halfway through breakfast and obviously noticed my red Prius in the sea of lifted Silverados and truck-bed-chained dogs.

Shaw’s is just the type of barbecue joint you’d hope to find in Steele, Alabama. Small, run down looking, white paint and neon sign that declares: OPEN. The owner/operator behind the counter rattles off orders and platitudes while his short order cook fries bacon with the authority of a woman who’s eaten plenty of bacon in her day, and knows when it’s done just right. Locals almost shut the place down come lunch break—road crews, truck drivers, and (one would assume) aspiring politicians. As such there is a sitcom silence that deafens when we walk through the door, two strangers invading a local watering hole.

The genial murmurings and greetings pick up again in muttered gossips after Nate and I sit down to order. A few minutes later Earl/Merle shuffles in and offers his opening salvo.

“That would be me sir.” I volunteer two fingers in the air, all too aware of my bright green Patagonia, scraggly mustache, and Chacos—not quite the requisite uniform in the land of oversized denim and confederate flags.

“You’ve got a bike on the back of that thing.”

I’m not sure if that’s a statement or a question. Well, I’m actually very sure it’s grammatically a statement, but it’s voiced with the incredulity of a question, like he can’t seem to understand why someone would have both a bike AND a little red car. I decide to respond neutrally.

“Yes, sir, I do.”

Nailed it.

“You ride that thing?”

It should be noted that the entirety of Shaw’s has gone sitcom quiet again. You get the feeling they’re waiting for their elder statesman to pass a type of judgment. Normally, I’d have attempted some type of biting remark. Churchillian in its wit and brevity. But I’ve seen Deliverance one too many times to shake the echo of dueling banjos, so I keep it short and polite.

“Yes sir, I try to. My buddy and I here are on a climbing and biking trip just up the road at HorsePens. We figured we weren’t in good enough shape to do exclusively either—so we’d have a shot at both.”

That normally gets a chuckle, but I’m pretty sure that he’s trying to size up if Nate and I are “a couple of those homosexuals” or just climbing partners (though I’m not sure if there’s distinction in his mind). I don’t know if he comes to any definite conclusions, but he seems to want to wash his hands of the matter.

“Well, you boys picked a good place to eat.”

And with that the small murmur is picked up again.


The Mississippi shows in Jeremy’s voice and his turn of phrase. He’s the type of guy you invite to a campfire simply to ask questions: as curious to hear his stories as the different combinations of words he strings together. The grades on our climbs will serve to just take our confidence down a notch he says, “don’t look at them, they’ll just hurt your pride.” A diver and steelworker, he runs an artist collective named after the elusive alpine bigfoot of legend: the yeti. His mohawk finishes off with beaded dreads and his gnarly forearms seem to be formed just for hanging onto tiny crimps.


Chris went vegetarian five years ago, right before he through-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I think all the vegetarians currently in Alabama reside in HorsePens 40, the climbing mecca in the middle of the Deep South. You get the feeling that vegan is a dirty word that doesn’t quite translate to an Alabama drawl and that if they could choose one location for a nuclear strike they’d throw a false vegetarian convention and invite all known climbers to participate. We met enough vegetarians on this trip to put the whole state of Alabama on edge—if only they knew what was hiding in their midst.


Joe has a mustache and van, but that’s a terrible way to describe him. Joe has a mustache and van but is not the type of guy you’d associate with both. Scratch that—he’s exactly the type of guy who should have a mustache and a van: both noble institutions that could use redemption in the eyes of the general public. Joe has the type of mustache that would make him an eligible bachelor in Victorian England and the type of van that certainly must make him an eligible bachelor for the type of chicas who prefer life on the road to the white picket fence and half a dog. He also has a self-effacing humility and slight Texas undertone—disguising his ability to send V10s while I’m “warming up” on 0s and nursing split tips.


Anthony speaks mostly in short sentences and mumbles but jumped the Prius with a golf cart that could probably beat my little red Japanese import in a race three times out of five.  He wears a lot of camouflage and probably has a real tree or mossy oak preference, but it didn’t occur to me to inquire about it until right about now. He did contain some wisdom about local breweries, though he’s more into bands than craft beer. He’s not at all into craft beer actually. And I can say with certainty that Anthony is not a vegetarian.


Jon and Ruth’s home is imbued with a little bit of magic. It may be the location (a street named Blueberry Hill, right outside Nashville) or the nostalgia of a near perfect wedding overflowing into the makings of a damn near perfect home. Or perhaps it’s the intentional aesthetics—dialed into the importance of physicality and discarding trends as dirty words, instead pursuing design with value honor and integrity. But I think it comes down to the warmly welcoming combination of natural hospitality and laughter—from gut busting to giggling and all the variations in between. Few things can make a home more inviting than the near presence of joy: not in excessive giddy quantities, but in a fluctuating constant, near the surface and ready to be summoned at will. A good dog like Hank—with his aggressive cuddling and wiry kisses—certainly doesn’t hurt.

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