Before we officially hit the road for #JourneyxJourney, we were often asked which stops we were most looking forward to seeing.
And there were plenty to choose from; we’d first begun planning our route nearly a year prior, and by the time we were ready to go, we’d built up a carefully scheduled itinerary of more than 20 stops across three weeks.
But within this precise schedule, we’d also been careful to leave space for the unplanned; time for serendipitous discoveries or detours toward our followers' suggestions. And to be honest, it was sometimes the unexpected parts of the journey that we were most looking forward to.
We just didn’t think the unexpected would find us so soon.
Birmingham, Ala. was our first stop, and we couldn’t have asked for a better day one. From having Coca-Cola fried chicken with Chef John Currence, to experiencing history at the Negro Southern League Museum, our whirlwind tour of the town introduced us to so many people’s stories – including a few people whose stories found us.
At Rickwood Field, America’s oldest ballpark, we rolled cameras as executive director David Brewer took us through the field’s history and restoration, connected its story to the community's, and explained how the field is maintained and kept in active use today. Brewer also made a point of emphasizing the importance of his coworker, and Rickwood Field’s only other employee, groundskeeper Alvin Harris.
Harris wasn’t on our shot list, however. When you’re filming a 30-second-or-less overview of Rickwood Field’s official history, Brewer’s passion and depth of knowledge makes him your guy. But while the large cameras and the overhead drone were being packed up, we introduced ourselves to Harris to express our appreciation for his beautiful work. He welcomed us to his "home."
And then, in what turned into one of those conversations that gift you with a brief walk through someone else’s memories, he told us his story.
Harris grew up in the neighborhood, and would climb the fence to sneak into Rickwood field as a kid. His family worked at the same park (his brother managed the visitors’ clubhouse, and he sometimes helped clean it “too well,” better than the home team’s), and now he works every day surrounded by personal history. Harris and Brewer’s combined dedication to Rickwood Field and its significance to the community are what keep it so alive today.
We had originally intended to leave town after our tours through Birmingham’s baseball history. But just the night before, one fan’s message to the team had us making one heck of a detour.
"I have a huge Coca-Cola collection in Birmingham," wrote Cal Darnell, via ourroute suggestion uploader. "Probably one of the largest in the southeast... Would enjoy if you would make it part of your journey."
He attached a few photos, which did seem to show a large personal Coke collection. But the photos couldn't have possibly prepared us for how blown away we were when we stopped by to see it in person.
We pulled our JXJ caravan up outside Cal's house (with admittedly some trepidation... we had just been invited down into a stranger's basement, after all), and knocked on the door to introduce ourselves while the camera crew got ready. Cal and his partner Steve welcomed us into a beautiful home, and we made friendly conversation and discussed how the shoot would go. Then it was time to actually see the collection itself.
One by one, we went down the stairs.
And one by one, every single one of us stopped dead at the foot of them as we took in the enormity of Cal's collection.
There were trays on the ceiling, bottles on the walls, multiple working vintage vending machines, custom lamps and folk art and even a life-sized cutout of a traffic crossing guard, all covering every spare inch of every surface. It took a while to get to the actual on-screen interview, because we were all so preoccupied with taking it all in. Cal's collection had not been anywhere on our map... but as we discovered, it's definitely map-worthy.
All together, we were in Birmingham for barely 24 hours. We've got a lot of ground to cover in three weeks, after all. And, yet, in that short amount of time, we'd already stumbled across some amazing stories we hadn't even known to be looking for. These moments of discovery were everything a storytelling road trip should be, and we couldn't have had a better start to our journey!
Because as any good road trip goes, you can't always predict what you'll find along the way.