May 16, Metairie, La. – We are on the edge of New Orleans. My laptop is covered in powdered sugar that falls from beignets like snow cascading off a shaken branch.
Yesterday we went looking for the vanished town of Vienna, Alabama. Vienna (they say Vy-enna down he-yah) sat on the Tombigbee River in Pickens County in western Alabama. To be fair, the Tombigbee River’s not here anymore, either. It’s now part of the Ten-Tom (Tennessee Tombigbee) Waterway, a man-altered water system that includes 10 dams, a series of locks and alligator-infested backwaters. Perhaps “infested” is a bit of hyperbole.
As to how we got on the trail of Vienna, Alabama, that’s a typically convoluted story. I was in the Alabama Room of the Anniston public library on Tuesday afternoon when I was accosted by a genial southern fellow named David Hodnett. David has a bit of an obsession about Vienna. His family, you see, once owned most of Vienna. David has written two books on the bygone steamship port, and he is working on another.
Anyway, that’s how we got Vienna on our minds. Yesterday we drove up and down Alabama 14 from Eutaw to Pickensville in search of Vienna. Then we tried Alabama 17. No luck.
We circumnavigated Aliceville a few times in our fruitless search. We were so inept we couldn’t even find the library. (And yes, Kenny Via, I remembered Aliceville as the hometown of perennial NFL Pro Bowl tackle Walter Johnson.)
We got lost and we got lost and then we got lost again.
And then we got found.
We parked the Behemoth on Broad Street and wandered over to the Aliceville Museum, which chronicles the town’s role as host site for German POWs during World War II. I walked in and asked Martha Horton, a retired public-school history teacher, if she knew the whereabouts of old Vienna. She didn’t.
Now, I had asked the same question of the woman at the Tom Bevill Lock and Dam visitors center in Pickensville.
“No sir, I do not,” she said.
At that was the end of it. Not so with Martha.
Darn if she didn’t repair to the back room and start making phone calls on our behalf. In less than five minutes, Everett Owens walked through the door and offered to take us on a tour of Vienna.
Everett Owens is Vienna nowadays. His family bought the Vienna site in 1960 and farmed here until Everett retired a year ago.
Anyway, I’ll have lots more on David Hodnett, Everett Owens and our search for Vienna later, just like I’ll have much, much, much, much more on our visit to Tallapoosa and our subsequent trip to Anniston, Ala.
Our Tallapoosa odyssey began before we ever crossed paths with Anthony and Audrey Williams. We drove into town on 78 Highway and pulled into the parking lot at the Piggly Wiggly. We bought two Piggly Wiggly T-shirts and had a nice chat with our checker, a sweet woman named Barbara Anderson.
She noticed the Maine on my T-shirt and asked if we came from Maine. She’s been there, she said. It was on her bucket list. As far as bucket lists go, Barbara’s is most intriguing. I’ll get back to her later, too.
As for Anniston, in addition to meeting David Hodnett, we also ran across Terry Paschal. Terry owns the Wine Cellar on Quintard Avenue.
The sign on his door says he closes at 6 p.m. It was well past 6 when we entered. These people, the Williamses and the David Hodnetts and the Terry Paschals and the Everett Owenses, I can’t quite account for their generosity. It never fails to startle me.
Terry’s a retired Army engineer, and has operated the Wine Cellar for eight years now.
Things have been rough since the bottom fell out of the economy.
“Back in 2005, people were spending money willy-nilly,” he said. “Now they’re tighter. And they have to be.”
Terry asked if we’d been to Cheaha State Park, which features the highest point (2,413 feet, in case you were wondering) in Alabama. We said we hadn’t. He insisted we go there. Immediately.
Having already figured us for dilly-dalliers, he selected a wine for us and ushered us out the door so we’d arrive at Cheaha in time for sunset.
On the way out, I was greeted by a nice couple, Jacqueline and Randy. She asked if she could come with us, wherever we were going. I think she was joking.
Despite our deadline, I found time for small talk. I asked Randy how things were going. He said they were going OK, in spite of trials that were implied but unmentioned.
“God is good to me,” he said. “Even when I’m bad to myself.”
I bade them adieu, and we rushed off in search of the highest point in Alabama and a sunset that would match the color of our rose wine, as Terry promised it would.