By WENDY HODGE
Home of the Vikings football team and the actor who played Merle Dixon on the Walking Dead, Jasper, Alabama, is quiet and quaint. We might never have known it existed if I hadn’t planned a guided fishing trip on Smith Lake for Tim’s Christmas gift. Jasper sits a few miles this side of Smith Lake, so we had reservations to stay there overnight before our early morning appointment on the water.
On this breezy April weekend, that had been marked on our calendar since well before last December, we drove through Birmingham’s busy highways and on up Highway 22 until we saw the ‘Welcome to Jasper’ sign.
“Maybe we’ll see where Merle from the Walking Dead lived,” I said.
Tim rolled his eyes. He is NOT a Walking Dead fan.
Upon check-in at the local Hampton Inn, we were greeted with a friendly smile and a tour of the 2-foot by 2-foot Treat Room that sat adjacent to the check-in desk.
“Two dollars for a Snickers?” Tim whispered, glancing a sideways look at the over-priced junk food and miscellaneous toiletry items for sale. “I’m not going to be visiting the Treat Room.”
We rode the elevator to the third floor and found our room. There’s something about checking into a hotel that still excites me, even at this age. Once you close that door behind you and set down your bags, the possibilities are endless — sightseeing, room service, sleeping late with no alarm set …
“All those things are great,” I told Tim, unzipping the suitcase, “but what I really like is that I feel absolutely no responsibility. Nothing to clean, no chores on the schedule, no consequences for being a slob. I can throw my towel on the floor and it won’t be my problem anymore.”
“You have a really low threshold for what you find thrilling, don’t you?” he responded with a smile.
He’s right, I suppose. It’s the simple things that make me sigh with contentment.
Dinner time came at 4:30 because we are no longer young and because we said so. Downtown Jasper consists of several streets centered around the courthouse square. There are a few boutiques and several restaurants. Mostly there are lawyer’s offices, though. In fact, every third building on the main street does, in fact, belong to an attorney.
And each corner boasts a very large statue of a donkey. Some are painted a vibrant shade. Some are covered with a mosaic of stones. One or two actually have a name hand-painted on the side.
“What’s up with the donkeys?” I wonder aloud as we strolled toward the restaurant we had picked ahead of time.
“No idea,” Tim answered. “Attorneys and donkeys … there has to be a joke in there somewhere.”
Halfway down the sidewalk, we had arrived at Warehouse 319. Right outside the door stood a neon-painted donkey named Molly.
“As long as Molly isn’t on the menu, this looks like the place!” Tim opened the door, and we were greeted with the lovely aroma of steak and the laughter of friends and family gathered around tables.
An hour later, after feasting on a dozen oysters each followed by shrimp and grits and mahi mahi BLT’s, we leaned back in our seats and groaned.
“Can I bring you dessert,” the waitress asked. Her nametag read ‘Maisy.’
“No thank you. Do you have any pants in the back that are a size bigger than mine?” I asked, laughing.
“Girl, if we did I’d already be wearing them,” she gave us a tired but friendly smile and started clearing the table.
“Why do we keep running into donkeys on every street corner?” Tim asked.
“That sounds like the beginning of a dirty joke,” she answered. “It’s actually really interesting, though. Jasper was a mining town way back in the 1800s. Men found the coal, but it was the donkeys who pulled it out of the ground. We owe this whole town to those strong little guys.”
“You’re from here?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said.
“What can you tell me about the history of Jasper?”
“How long do you have?”
In answer to her question, I pulled out a chair and asked her to join us.
“Just for a minute,” she said and slid into the seat.
“Sgt. William Jasper was a Revolutionary War hero. The town was named after him, but he never lived here. In fact, he was dead before the town ever existed. Apparently, the founding fathers thought it would be respectful to pick a dead soldier to name our town after. Most folks don’t have a problem with it — it just gets confusing to newcomers.
“We’ve had our share of famous citizens over the years. Tallulah Bankhead was a famous actress ages ago. Her entire family is from here. There’s still streets and banks and buildings named after her daddy and her uncle.
A couple of pro football players grew up here and a basketball player too. Did you know Merle Dixon from The Walking Dead grew up here?”
“Yes! I love him!” I answered.
“I know his cousins,” she replied.
Tim rolled his eyes so hard this time they almost got stuck in the back of his skull.
We chatted a bit about the charm of small downtowns and how we’re glad they’re making a comeback all over the south. We talked about football, and children and local breweries. After a bit, we all grew quiet. Good food will do that to you, creep up on you and make you so sleepy all of a sudden.
“I should get back to work,” Maisy said and stood reluctantly to her feet. “It’s been real nice talking with y’all. We don’t get many people interested in our little town’s history anymore.”
“She’s a writer,” Tim said, smiling at me. “Everything interests her.”
We tipped generously and headed to the car. This time we stopped by each donkey and I got a picture.
“How many donkey pictures do you need?” Tim asked.
“Apparently one more,” I answered, laughing.
Back at the hotel, we prepared our clothes for our early fishing trip and set the alarm for 4:00 a.m. and then settled in to watch movies. Within five minutes, Tim was snoring. I, however, was wide awake.
I finished the movie and then finished the book I was reading. Still not even the least bit sleepy, I made my way downstairs to the Treat Room and gladly paid two dollars for a Snickers. Back in the room, I took a Coke out of the refrigerator and tried to eat as quietly as I could.
“How’s that $2 Snicker?” came a sleepy voice from the other side of the room.
“Definitely delicious,” I answered.
“Can I have 50 cents worth?” he asked.
“You can have a whole dollar’s worth,” was my answer.
I closed my eyes and pictured the donkeys in downtown Jasper, standing vigil in the silent darkness of night. Our long-awaited fishing trip was just a few hours away, the chocolate was as good as I remembered and all was right with the world.
TO BE CONTINUED….