I drove through the hills of Alabama and Mississippi as the brisk winter air rushed in the window. Patches of snow and ice dotted the landscape but my mind was on the past. For the first time since Road to Freedom 2.0 began, I was retracing this particular segment of my epic solo bicycle trip from 2013.
I passed the McDonalds in North Gadsden where I’d taken refuge from one of the worst thunderstorms in history. The nearby church pavilion where I’d spent the night looked different in the daylight. I prayed that since my visit the members of that church had learned to be more accepting of strangers. They hadn’t realized I was on God’s errand and had passed me off as a vagabond.
I double-clutched my way through town and wondered how I’d managed to ride my bicycle loaded with gear along this busy road. I was also grateful there was no bicycle in the path of my big rig. Familiar buildings and landscape flooded my heart with memories as Sand Mountain came into view.
My truck lugged upward, dragging the 43,000 pounds of cargo behind it. I’m sure if a stranger but fellow cyclist named Norman hadn’t stopped and insisted on ferrying me and my bike over the mountain, I’d have strained more than my truck.
I cut through the outskirts of Huntsville where I was born. During that trip, I’d wondered if that would be where God would have me settle. But, now knowing it is not home, I trucked on without an emotional attachment to the city of my roots. I made my way west, riding parallel to Tennessee, my new home and where my heart now is. When I pedaled this same road three years ago, I had no idea where home would be. Today I am proud to call Tennessee home.
I passed Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s childhood home. I could clearly see its well in my mind’s eye, the place on the property where Helen’s life changed. I laughed as I passed the Coon Dog Cemetery, recalling the lavish memorials owners had erected for their hunting canine companions.
Finally, it came into view. I changed lanes and made a left turn into the place I’d been watching for. I backed my truck into what could have been a parking space, climbed down out of the cab and hurried into the store. There I saw him. My heart sang. The man behind the counter looked up as I approached. His eyes grew wide.
“Reba! You returned.”
“You remember me?” I was astonished.
He ran around the counter and pulled me into a hard embrace. “How could I forget the bicycle lady who introduced me to her God.”
Tears bubbled up in my eyes but through them I could see his tears as well. For the next half hour, he told me how different things were in his family and with his wife since we first met. (read the original blog post from 2013 here). He no longer blames himself for his misguided anger toward her he’d displayed early in their marriage. He realizes he was a victim of his own culture and upbringing. He finally forgave himself. I could tell he was at peace.
I finally and reluctantly said farewell and headed west, thanking God that not only had He reached the heart of this victim/perpetrator of violence, but had allowed me to see the fruits of my labor. This man had come to America as a child to find freedom, only to go into bondage. He was bound by his tradition where men are superior and women are treated poorly. He was bound by not knowing the true and loving God. But God set him free and just seeing him on Saturday, there is no doubt that he is free indeed.
The heartbeat of America is alive and well in rural Alabama.