The Valley of the Shadow


It is Coleta Valley on the map.

I passed this way a few days ago.  Stopped for a photo and a memory.

Once upon a time three boys wandered into this spot in an old Jeep Scout.  The Scout is no more.  Neither is one of the boys.  The other two are worse for wear.

The day that old Scout clanked into the valley the driver immediately christened it “the back side of heaven.”   It was the most beautiful landscape they had ever seen, and the name stuck, part and parcel of the bond between them.

In their boyhood journeys together it became the end of the line.  The turning-point back toward home.

The mountains in the background are a part of the Talladega National Forest and the Hollins Wildlife Management Area.  The boys spent countless teen-age hours in those mountains, learning to hunt white-tailed deer.  Never any success, as deer were not abundant in Alabama in those days.  They might see less than ten a season between the three of them, and they never managed to kill one.  That was not important.  Still isn’t.

In other seasons they bounced along Bull Gap Road on Friday and Saturday nights, straight through the heart of that country between home and Coleta.  Spot-lighting deer without guns when that pastime was legal in Alabama.  The thrill of eyes reflecting back like stars from the beam of the white light gave hope of success for the next deer season.

Occasionally they brought a girl or two along for the ride.  Jokes told.  Tales of nocturnal killers that roamed those woods, always useful if the girls wouldn’t scoot over a little closer.  Zeppelin, Skynyrd, and “Do you feel like we do?” blaring from the Scout’s tinny speakers.

Conversations eventually turned spiritual.  Always.  What Jesus said here, what He did there.  What it all meant now.  The driver had plans to be a preacher of the Gospel.  In truth, he already was.

A couple of hours later Coleta, then the trip back toward home.

The boys grew up and went their separate ways, as boys do.  Contact became less frequent, then not at all.

The preacher got his flock, but his life unravelled, the thread picked and pulled until the fabric was unrecognizable.  His journey down the road of life ended, leaving a shadow on that valley that blue skies and wispy clouds cannot overcome.

He once reminded us that Jesus said “the road to heaven is narrow, and few find it.”

I know that the road to Coleta is also narrow, but there was a time when three boys travelled all the way to the back side of it.





They call it an “estate sale” in real estate lingo.  In layman’s terms it is nothing more than a house with a deceased owner and an unpaid mortgage.  No family willing or able to make a claim or settle the books.  A faceless bank with no need for a house.

I accompany my favorite realtor, the Redhead, to show this house at the end of an isolated country road.  I am the protector on rural properties, well-armed and well-schooled in matters of country dangers.

A potential buyer is to arrive in 30 minutes, allowing my charge just enough time to open doors and conduct a quick inspection.

I stroll the grounds.  A small lawn with woods alongside.  Well-tended once, southern standards now fading away from neglect:  knockout rose, dogwood, camellia, and crepe myrtle.  A bird-feeder in the likeness of a covered bridge hangs precariously from a frayed string on a maple limb.  A stone walkway from front door to back, now crooked and askew.

No sign of the customer, so I wander inside.  The rooms are mostly ransacked, an overturned chair here, a broken end-table there.  A large stack of old VHS tapes on a table catches my eye.  Handwritten labels:  “Aus Bitburg In Der Eifel” and “Lustige Musikanten.”  A few titles in English:  “A Journey from the Alps to the North Sea.”  Even some American films in the pile (if you consider “Robocop” a film), but the German tapes predominate.

A closet holds other surprises:  a faded envelope with a postmark that reads “Deutsche Post.”  A brightly colored pint-size paper box in the shape of a cottage.  Two children on one side, a grotesque witch on the other.  I turn it over:  it is a container for lebkuchen, a kind of gingerbread Christmas treat.

A black car pulls-up in the drive, but it is not the overdue customer.  It is the Law around these parts.  Muscular, heavy-set Black man, the kind that would not have to say “get down on the ground” twice.

Convinced that we are not robbers, introductions are made.  The Redhead offers a tour, but he says he has been here before.

I must ask:  “Did you know this lady?”

“Oh yes, I stopped by to check on her whenever I was in the neighborhood.”

“Did she have family?  Friends?”

“No, she didn’t have nobody as far as I know.  Didn’t even know who I was down toward the end.”

We talk more.  I ask about the German angle.  He says there are lots of people of German descent in the area.

“Do you know of any others around here that are completely alone like she was?  Someone who might need some company?  Some help?”

“Yes I can think of about ten off the top of my head.  You want some names and addresses?

“Yeah, I think I do.”

“Stop by the station next week and I’ll have you a list.”

He drives away.  The customer finally arrives 30 minutes later, now over an hour late.  His name is Jesus, but he is not my Saviour.  I stay outside and keep my mouth shut.  I am just the guard dog.  I do not bark or bite unless commanded.  Good boy.

Jesus’s pick-up truck is a tricked-out lowrider.  Big money in that ride.  I notice four soldered-over bullet holes in the radiator.

A few minutes later agent and customer emerge.  Agent provide  information about sources of financing, but Jesus always pays cash if he decides to buy.

The Bible says you should tell people about Jesus if you know him.  I might mention him to my new friend when I stop by the station to get the list of loneliness.

Later that night I sit on my porch and have a vision of Ursula in that little house at the end of the road.  She sits alone, illumined only by the light of a television, remembering happier days at Zuhause.





It always starts with good intentions.  A hopefulness that something will fill the empty spaces where something else has been lost.  Entanglements ensue, and soon the solution is worse than the problem.

Southern soil, worn-out and stripped of nutrients by King Cotton and the Great Depression.  Summer downpours on sandy-clay became rivulets, ditches, gullies.  Worthless hardscrabble land swept along the current to the Gulf of Mexico.

As with most bad ideas, a solution came from the government.  Import a vine from Japan to shelter the soil from the impact of the rain drop. Growth so fast a man could almost hear it.  Green tendrils and wide leaves with late-summer purple blossoms hanging in the scorch like little clusters of grapes.

Initial trials went well.  If a little was good, a lot must be better.

A million acres were cultivated by farmers in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Hope and dollars in short-supply back then.  Paid-out at the rate of eight dollars per.  Better money than cotton or tobacco.  Better money than most anything.

Stopped the erosion, but it would not stop.  Covered trees, pastures, roadsides.  Anything it could cling to.  A little sunlight and a little space and a little time lead to a big problem.  Nobody knows how many million acres today.

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  The roads in Alabama are lined with them.

No longer able to pay eight dollars per acre, the government simply plants it for us as they mow the right-of-way.

kudzu spread