On Discovering Michigan.

On the First of July, I and my six fellow small group ladies found ourselves in the great state of Michigan. We take a girl’s trip once a year, and whether it is hosted by an Irishman in Bugtussle, includes a contest to find the highest heels in Unclaimed Baggage, or involves the breaking of my elbow and finger, it always embodies adventure. This year’s girl’s trip was located in Michigan so that we could also help decorate for and attend the vow renewal of one of our small group couples, Kelly and Jon.

But we weren’t exactly sure what Michigan had in store for us, to be honest. There were dozens of lakes in south Michigan, but none of them seemed to have heard of the idea of renting out their lake dwelling to hoards of Alabama Moms. Finally, in an act of pure desperation, I rented the one and only place I could find within a 50 mile radius of our destination – and it was a farm.

I was more than a little nervous about this choice – none of us had ever stayed at a farm in the middle of nowhere and what would we do? Where would we get groceries? Would it feel strange?

Our first steps into Michigan were not great. We flew into Detroit and waited for over an hour for the rental car we had reserved months in advance. When they finally found a Tahoe (from another lot) and drove it around for us, her smell wafted before her, and a vapor surrounded her as if the entire board of the National Cigarette Lover’s Convention had ridden cross-country immediately prior. We quickly surmised they’d gotten her from the “Do NOT Rent These Vehicles Out” lot, and we named her Estelle.

So our hour drive from Detroit to farmland included all the windows down, six girl’s hair tangled up with each other, and double buckling – because no one could stand to sit on the back row of cigarette fog.

Our farm, however, was surprisingly gorgeous. The house was bigger than it’d looked online, and we found out that the adjoining Tennis Court and Indoor Pool were reserved solely for our stay.

The farm was owned by an enterprising couple who lived next door. He’d wanted to make some extra money, so he built a tennis court on which to give lessons. She wanted an indoor pool, so he built that for her, and since they were building a new building, they made it twice as long and also created an event space. I’m not sure when they added our rental house to their collection of buildings (and 200 acres of farm land), but their oasis in the middle of miles of crops was a fascinating and peaceful place for a bunch of moms to relax.

The indescribable quiet that comes from being a mile from your neighbors brings with it a sense of peace that we’d never experienced in Birmingham. And the back deck, shaded from the afternoon sun and perfect to enjoy the dry and cool July-in-Michigan air allowed us to watch the rabbits hop by. By the time we’d eaten dinner at 9pm (before sunset) on that gorgeous back deck, we’d made our decision: our small group definitely need to buy a commune farm and move to Michigan.

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After dinner, I announced that I was going on a sunset walk. It didn’t take long for everyone to follow me down the long, quiet, flat road.

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As the sun disappeared, we began noticing a good number of fireflies.

And then the magic happened.

As dusk descended over the miles of fields, we saw that there were millions of fireflies, flying and blinking in waves of astounding beauty. It was impossible to fully capture on video, which made it somehow all the more magical. I tried to photograph them, but it didn’t even begin to capture the sheer number of fireflies before us.

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At least one, and maybe more that one someones, might have cried a bit at the reverence of the moment.

It was such a simple, yet overwhelming beauty.

We started the next morning off with a walk / run / cross-training challenge.

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IMG_9164Pretty sure they were the first humans to ever do push-ups in that particular corn field.

To say running the roads around our farm were different than the roads in Birmingham would be an understatement. The gravel beneath our feet and the ability to see for miles at a time was bizarre and delightful. Each “block” was a mile on each side, which made running around the block ridiculous yet interesting.

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I even found my favorite roadside snack, a mulberry tree, so that at least was familiar.

IMG_9203Why yes I actually eat berries from trees on the side of the road. You would too if you knew how delicious mulberries are. Unless you confuse it with Nightlock.

Since we had an entire tennis court reserved for us, I decided we needed to use it.

I convinced Kristin to play with me, and we were magnificent.

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After a few minutes, we decided we’d keep score by “how many times can we hit the ball back and forth – who cares how many times it bounces first.”

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We set a high score goal of 10, but after 45 minutes and a bucket full of balls (many hit over the fence – home run!!), we’d only scored a 9, and called it a success so that we could go hop in the indoor pool to cool off after our super sportsing.

That night a storm came in and snatched the sunset away from us,

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but experiencing the drama of a storm in the plains was totally worth it.

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Our farm house looked like it was absolutely about to take off, and I felt more than a little bit like Dorothy.

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I passed our landlord on my walk, who said “It’s something, isn’t it? But it’ll pass right over and miss us. It always does.”

“But my radar shows it’s definitely coming right here any minute…”

“Yeah, but it won’t.”

I was sure he had to be wrong because my radar is always right in Birmingham. But he was not. All that drama and it barely sprinkled, allowing us a second night of firefly magic.

The next day was all about decorating for the Vow Renewal.

Or, more likely…decorating ourselves.

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Because when there are bushels of tulle lying around, someone is going to end up with a Bow Bigger Than Their Butt. It’s a rule.

At one point, the groom’s sister-in-law was unsuccessfully attempting to hang lights. They were heavy and not staying in place, and she asked if I knew where another ladder was so I could help her.

“No…but…I don’t mind cuddling with you.”

I mean we’d known each other for a whole five minutes so why not.

I climbed her ladder and nestled my face into her armpit to hold the lights up while she tied them off. I forgot that I have extremely unfortunate balance, and I started to fall straight backwards, guaranteeing to take the lights, the pole, the ladder, and the sister-in-law with me.

Just in time, a guy I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting yet stuck his arm out and caught me. And then stood there for the next five minutes, holding me up while I held the lights up while sister-in-law tied them off.

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About two hours later I discovered that this was Paul, the bride’s brother.

Hi Paul, nice to meet you.

Thanks for keeping me from breaking my everything.

After stealing greenery from roadside shrubbery and decorating until we could decorate no more, we went back to our farm and prettied up.

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The Vow Renewal was perfect and lovely,

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and we stayed on our best, most reverent behavior.

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We had “allowed” Jon, the groom, to come to our farm house two nights prior and cook for us and kill a wasp for us and do our dishes for us, so of course we had to get a picture with our Farm Boy.

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(We tried to convince our husbands that from here on out we would have to take one of them along to be our personal valet, but I don’t think any others were willing to hear and see and live through all that comes with Girl’s Retreat.)

Right as the reception got good and kicked up,

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Three hot air balloons happened to fly overhead.

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Michigan is, indeed, full of magic.

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We caught one more sunset on the way home,

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Lydia caught me catching said sunset,

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And I captured a couple of moments of our last evening, again filled with millions of friendly fireflies that avoided my camera lens.

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The next day we drove Estelle back to the Detroit Airport and gladly abandoned her for eternity, hoping that Michigan also has some sort of magical car rejuvenation process for her sake.

We found the legendary light tunnel in the airport, and I yelled out, “Quick! Do a Charlie’s Angels pose!”

Everyone ran out and posed, and at the last second, Lydia showed us her true hidden talent. Why yes, she’s had five kids. And yes, she can still do the splits.

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…which led to the star of the photo actually being Shocked Christen – and who could blame her. We all felt like Shocked Christen in that moment.

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Christen managed to hold it together for as second take, but it could never compare to the raw emotion of the first shot.

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As soon as we made it back to the Birmingham airport (where it was currently storming) and had our final group hug, we desperately wanted to be back in Michigan. Would we go back to the farm if we could? Absolutely. Would we live in Michigan if we could? At least for the summers.

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Dear Michigan: Let us know if you’re looking for a group of reverse snowbirds.

Stepping Into The Light.

Trigger Warning: Dear Mom, don’t read this post.

(I made the mistake of telling my Mom the some of the details of this adventure on Sunday. She asked me to please never ever tell her if I did this or anything like it again.)

Stephens Gap Callahan Cave Preserve (no relation to any Callahans or Stephens I know) has been on my mental bucket list for a few years, from the moment I first saw a photo of it. It is one of those surreal natural wonders that I a) couldn’t believe existed and b) certainly couldn’t believe existed only two hours from my front door. But it requires a permit, you must travel with at least one other person, and there was no way I could take my kids, so a full day where I could take on such an adventure requires a bit of planning to pull off. I tried last year while the kids were in camp, but Noah got strep. But this would be my year.

Oh and also – the whole thing is super dangerous. This is the “real” kind of cave – unlike the thoroughly safe DeSoto Caverns I visited earlier this year, this one is not lit or guard-railed to make it safe, does not have staff to show you what to do, and you have to sign all the waivers acknowledging that you may or may not survive. I very specifically did not Google how many people had died there until after the trip (the answer is three – that I found articles on, anyway.)

I recruited three people to join me – a photographer who interned with me last school year, Jake Marvin, his mom Kim, and his sister Anna. Kim came prepared. A backpack full of water and a bottle of liquid Benadryl – basically what every cave expedition needs (I mean, helmets and a flashlight would’ve been real nice, but Benadryl was just as well.) It was a mile hike to the cave, along which I got a text from my dear husband.

“I’ll always remember you.”

The cave is set up as such: there’s the “pit”, which is a 143 foot drop straight down with a waterfall running through it. The pit faces upward in such a direction that it catches light beams in a most magical way. To the left of the pit there’s a climb-down entrance. We arrived at the climb-down entrance first, and it was so steep looking that I said, “Okay – here’s the pit.”

…until we found the actual pit. At which point I realized that other hole had indeed been where we would have to climb down. This is the pit:

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After Jake and Anna completely freaked their mother out by getting way to close to the pit, we headed back to the climb-down entrance.

We began our descent, which wasn’t as steep once we got started. It was, however, quite slippery. There were streams and waterfalls in several places along the entryway, making rocks slippery and unstable. Just as I said “look at all these jagged rocks just waiting to break a tailbone!!”, I managed to slip and fall onto my tailbone. Thankfully I have enough cushioning back there to break the fall with no damage.

As we got lower into the cave, the dancing sunbeams took our collective breath away. As we rounded the corner where we could truly see the scene, we were all in awe.

This is what we saw.

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The sunbeams were alive, getting brighter and dimmer and sometimes completely disappearing, leaving the cave instantaneously dark. Sometimes they would fade just enough to allow the waterfall behind them to be seen.

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As water and waterfalls were coming from multiple directions (you can see another waterfall in the right of the above picture), it was impossible to keep our camera lenses dry, hence the droplets on many of the shots.

Since Kim was The Mom of our trip, I sent her to investigate the pedestal – the large round rock upon which the light beams were shining. It was perched on the edge of the pit, about 50 feet up from the bottom. Everything was wet and slippery, and we’d pre-agreed that no one would be going onto the pedestal unless we felt it was safe, even though that was the shot we had come for.

Kim and Anna inched their way around the top edge first, looking for a step down. There wasn’t a viable choice.

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Jake and I were busy setting up our cameras and getting our angles just right when they finally reported (or yelled, as all of the waterfalls made it extremely loud): the only way to the pedestal was from below. Which meant walking through a stream/waterfall, then climbing up the rocks leading to the pedestal.

Anna tried it first. I give Kim full credit for her allowing of this endeavor. But she made it look easy – somehow. And Anna was the first we got in The Shot.

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Starting in the bottom left-hand corner of this picture, you can see the rushing water that she had to navigate down. That rushing water goes straight into the pit, so slipping is not advised.  She stayed up there for a few shots, then climbed down and back up to us.

Kim went next – she wore her Wonder Woman shirt for the occasion.

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She couldn’t hear our photographical instructions over the roar of the waterfall, which led to this gem of a picture.

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As Kim made her way back up, I got a bad video of her navigating the water:

It was my turn. I would hate myself forever if I didn’t try this, no matter how frightening it looked from my angle. I set my camera up on the tripod and left it in Jake’s trusty hands. I brought a dress tied to my backpack – I untied it and draped it like a scarf around my neck. And I slowly began my descent through the waterfall. I shimmied from side to side, trying to find the driest rocks and the safest hand-holds possible, but still fully immersing my feet in the rushing water several times. There were thankfully some really polite rocks that offered perfectly contoured handles on the way down. But still, I admit it: I was a bit terrified.

I made it to the bottom of the pedestal and began climbing up. The rocks were of a size that made it fairly easy at first, aside from the fact that they were all covered in mud that was most likely comprised of 24 different types of bat guano. When I got to the final rock of the pedestal, I realized that there was no way up without a full marriage between my legs, hands, and butt and the fairly thick pile of guano mud. So I went for it. I received a full-body mud treatment, but I made it to the top.

I unfurled my dress and threw it over my workout clothes that were now covered in a wet layer of slop. My long dress dusted through the mud. I took out my ponytail and shook my hair loose. I heard cheering from the other side of the ravine – I’m sure it was for my super-glamorous model preparation.

And then I posed. And Jake got The Shot for which I had waited so long.

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As I looked up to the sky, it was every bit as surreal as one would imagine. The sun twinkling above me, waterfalls dripping and rushing from multiple directions, and rainbows dancing in the beams and mist – all only viewable from my current location. I wanted so badly to have my camera there with me – but the wet and muddy journey combined with the extreme moisture of the air around me prevented that option entirely. However, experiencing the moment – staring into that rainbowey, waterfalley, sunburstey canvas – it was about as close to heaven as one can experience on this earth.

This absolutely should be one of the most notable wonders of our country.

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Getting down was actually more terrifying that getting up – the foothold I’d used to get onto the rock was not accessible from a front-facing position, and I was not willing to slide down on my stomach. After sitting there for a few minutes not knowing if I’d ever leave the pedestal, I gave myself a pep talk.

C’mon Rachel. You’ve been doing planks and push-ups all year. You’ve even been lifting weights, albeit the lightest ones. You need to put some belief in your arms and lower yourself down. It’s the only way.

I planted both my palms solidly through the mud and onto the platform, then slowly lowered my body down to the next rock I could find footing. For a tenth of a second I thought I would surely slip and slide off into the pit, but I didn’t. My level of adrenaline was off the charts.

I had done something. Something that felt entirely unsafe, at least in my narrow construct of life.

Jake went last. I felt bad because by the time his turn came, my camera was hopelessly moist (something that was giving me no small amount of anxiety, considering I’ve already lost one camera to moisture), and all of my pictures of him had a slight smudged quality.

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Once even my camera decided to turn him into a ghost…which, honestly, is a pretty awesome mistake.

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The sunbeams “went out” once when he was up there – you can see what it looks like here with just the waterfall:

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But the beams returned, we got a few more photos, and then he began his descent back down.

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When we finally all climbed our way back out of the cave, I immediately texted Chris and proclaimed our survival. He was overjoyed that he would have more than just a memory of his wife.

As we walked back on the trail, the full extent of my personal moisture began to take hold. I very much realized what it must feel like to be a toddler walking around with a dirty diaper. Had I thought to bring a change of clothes? Of course not. And so, I drove two hours back, waited around an hour, picked up my kids from camp, and headed home – and a full five hours after emerging from the cave, still a good bit damp, I finally was able to begin the process of de-guano-ing myself.

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I’m positive that the long-lasting effects on my skin will be amazing. And I can’t wait to do it all over again (but don’t tell my mom.)

Hands-On Alabama History: The Conclusion.

From the beginning

1st-Day-of-school-2016s-3 I promise this was from the beginning of this school year. Ignore the wrong dates. I’m a qualified teacher really I am.

To the end.

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It was an absolute adventure.

And my most ambitious and longest school year yet is finally over.

Although we’d finished most subjects, we officially ended it all on May 24, toward the end of a two-day field trip to Huntsville when Ali and I mutually agreed that although we did not go to all the places in my giant Alabama History plan, we were both officially done. Two days later, after she finished her field trip reports on said trip, we were DONE done.

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We did a total of 36 field trips, some(crazy)how, over her fourth grade year. (Some were multiple trips on the same day, so it’s not quite as insane as it sounds.) The book she wrote about those visits…is substantial.

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It was a remarkable year – one that we all learned more than usual and we will all remember extraordinarily fondly, but also a busy year. And oh by the way, Ali grew just a bit.

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(Noah grew too and also Noah learned to read this year but poor kid – gets overshadowed by our giant history project. Someone clap for Noah! He can read! Hooray!!)

(Okay thank you. Now let’s continue.)

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I didn’t get all of our Alabama History adventures written about during the year, but Ali’s reports are so much better than mine, so I’ll just let her cover the ones I never got around to:

Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens: This was our least favorite trip – we went in December and it was really cold that day, so we didn’t enjoy the grounds. The admission price was high, and there wasn’t that much to see. The Christmas decorations were pretty, though, and the “A Christmas Carol” theme was fun. Ali and Noah made the best of it and slid down the very uneven floors in the Antebellum mansion. (The floors were uneven because plumbing was installed post-construction. Makes for a fun indoor slide.)

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Tuscaloosa – we went to the Bear Bryant Museum and the Children’s Hands-On Museum. The Hands-On Museum wasn’t exactly history related, but it was my favorite museum when I was a kid, and I wanted them to enjoy it again. As expected, Noah now asks me to take him back there at least every other day. This was our last field trip with Carla Jean, so it was a delightful, yet bittersweet, final opportunity to enjoy our perfect symbiosis of friendship and education.

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Southern Museum of Flight and the Birmingham Public Library Maps Exhibit: we took my Dad along to the Southern Museum of flight, which was fantastic, because he was able to teach the kids so much about the planes he’d worked on in the Air Force. Like their inappropriate nicknames and the fact that the switch that drops the missiles is called the “Pickle Switch.” Important information. The kids really enjoyed this museum – they had many planes to play in and several hands-on areas. The education director, Mr. Charlie, was a wealth of information and really fun to make and fly paper airplanes with.

Southern Museum of Flight and Maps Exhibit

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: This was one of our most important visits, but also ended up being one of our most risky visits. It is definitely geared more toward teens and adults, yet I was brilliant that day and invited friends to come with us. Needless to say, our group of 11 kids ten years old and under were greeted at the front door by a museum curator with strict instructions on how to behave and respect the museum. They did well, considering, but I wished I had left Noah with someone and just taken Ali. It was a grave experience, and there’s so much Civil Rights history that happened right here in Birmingham to absorb. The videos are quite graphic, as are the exhibits. It’s both a vital and painful piece of understanding Alabama’s history.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

U.S. Space and Rocket Center: Alabama played an important part in the Space Race. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is a fantastic campus (it’s way more than a museum) to learn about and appreciate that impact. They have actual vessels that have been on the moon – that alone is worth the drive. The staff there was extremely helpful and voluntary with their loads of information. They made the kid’s visit so much more fun.

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The Double Helix Park, EarlyWorks, and The Huntsville Depot – We did a triple take for our last field trip day (maybe that’s why we were so done by the end of it) – we first walked The Double Helix Trail in Huntsville, which is a really excellent .8 mile walking trail in the shape of a double helix. Along the way, you learn about characteristics that are on each genome and how they affect our genetic makeup. They also have an app that you can download and turn the walk into a Scavenger Hunt, which we did and the kids adored.

EarlyWorks is a Children’s Museum in Huntsville that, instead of being a science-based hands-on museum like McWane in Birmingham, it’s a history-based hands-on museum, specifically focused on Alabama History. It was an excellent place to spend an afternoon – the kids loved playing Mercantile, running through the River Boat, and setting off dynamite. Oh and their pile of stuffed dogs is AMAZING.

The Huntsville Depot had a fantastic collection of train cars that could be played on, and even had working buttons and switches that made thrilling noises. They also had a museum of old cars and a train museum. We didn’t make it in time to go into the train museum, but the kids enjoyed the rest of it immensely.

Huntsville Field Trips

Interviews – we didn’t do nearly as many history interviews as I’d hoped to. The fact that all the interviews would be in the latter part of the project (nobody’s still alive from the prehistoric days, after all) contributed to my failure in that area. By the time we got to the end of the year, I was just trying to desperately finish the field trip part of our project. We did have one interview event, however, that was seriously tremendous. Our famous meteorologist James Spann came and spoke to us and a group of about 40 other people who have been participating in our Alabama History project, or that just wanted to come and hear him speak. It was very off-the-cuff, and he talked about all sorts of fantastic Alabama stuff (such as the route one would take if they wanted to turn the four hour trip to the beach into a four day trip, going through every little town and eating at every tiny bar-b-q dive along the way.) He took questions from the kids, as well, which was really fun and quite hilarious. We talked about tornadoes and racism and small-town Alabama and everything in between. He was the perfect person to single-handedly handle the interview portion of our project.

James Spann Interview

And that’s it. I’ll see you again in four years, Alabama History.

If anyone wants the last version of my spreadsheet, they can find it here. I do plan on doing a seminar later in the summer for anyone interested in the details of how we made this year work. I plan on having a curriculum guide written up and copies of my spreadsheet ready to go, so let me know if you’d like to be a part of that.

I mean, I plan to do all that, but it is summer. And it’s been a mighty long school year. So feel free to nag if you don’t hear from me. Until then, I’ll be making like Noah and taking a nice, long, nap.

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