Harmony, Alabama is a small rural community tucked away in the northeast part of the state right along the border with Tennessee. Settled by white people pouring out of Georgia and South Carolina after the American Revolution, it grew up strong from God-fearing seed. Outside events seem to pass the town by, from the War of Northern Aggression to the Great Depression and through the Civil Rights Movement. There are no stop lights, one general store, a gas station located just outside town on the highway to Scottsboro, and most of the houses are simple plantation style homes maintained over the past century and a half. Cotton fields take up most of the cleared land, with patched two lane roads bumping between the fields. Life there is slow and methodical, and besides some of the modern amenities visited upon it during the Great Depression, nothing much has changed.
Storms of change wreaked havoc on the neighbors of Harmony because they didn’t know how to live right with the Good Lord.
Stan Heit was such a resident of that sleepy town. His daddy was a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Harmony, and his mama was lead singer in the church choir. He had a brother and three sisters, all older than he was. Mama always told him that Stan was God’s gift to her for believing in Him her entire life.
Stan lived an idyllic life in Harmony. Growing up he rode in the back of the family pickup to church, staring out the side of the bed at all the wide snowy fields of cotton seemingly set on fire by the Sun. His brother told him that it was God smiling on their crops. The open sunlight warmed Stan and made him happy, and he agreed with his brother that it must be true. Every year he got to watch the cotton get planted, sprout, and grow up to embrace the warm light. It made life predictable, easy, and straightforward. Just like God intended.
But not every place in Harmony was happy for Stan as he grew up. There was a road leading west just past his family’s house, a road that went out of Harmony to another town. It had bright yellow and white lines painted on it, and crews always were out repairing it with hot asphalt. Sometimes he’d ride on his bicycle in the summer out to that road, but he’d only get so far as the intersection where the painted lines began and his family’s land ended. He’d wonder what was down that road, not knowing if it was good or bad. Maybe it went to Heaven, he thought, or maybe it went to the bad place where sinners all went.
One day when he was about seven Stan asked his daddy about that painted road that smelled like tar. His daddy knelt down to where he was eye-level with his son and told him in his serious voice, “Forget about that road, Stan. Not everywhere in the world fears God, and that’s why He had to create a place called Hell. That road leads to a place where there’s pain and suffering, and life isn’t as it should be. Promise me you’ll never go there.”
Stan’s daddy only used his serious voice and looked him in the eye when he was sure about something and wanted to make it clear to the boy. So Stan nodded soberly and promised his daddy he’d never go down that road. He didn’t want to sin, and he didn’t want to make God angry. That night he prayed to God that He never would let him go past that road again.
Trying to avoid it, Stan still sometimes had to go by that road on his way to school. Each and every time he passed by, he noticed different things about it. Trees grew tall and thick next to the shoulder, and crews had to mow the weeds growing right next to it since nobody owned the land. A year passed, and then another, and all the time the road grew a little darker and scarier.
Stan was happy his daddy warned him against it.
Life went on. Stan graduated high school, but instead of going to college on a scholarship he decided to help out his daddy and brother on the cotton farm. There was no resentment of his family because he loved them, and God commanded that sons help their families in times of need. Hired help was hard to come by, so he rolled up his sleeves and worked out in the sunny fields.
From time to time he’d go by that road and look down the shady avenue. This time around, though it didn’t look as terrifying as he remembered growing up. Patches of sunlight shone through the rustling leaves and dappled the painted lines and freshly pressed asphalt. In fact, it was kind of inviting, and Stan grew tempted to turn his truck and drive just a little bit westward. He’d get closer and closer, his palms sweating on his steering wheel, his foot trembling a little on the gas pedal.
And then he’d pass the road by.
At church he asked some of his friends about the road, and they sat him down after the Sunday evening service and prayed with him. When they’d laid hands on him and anointed him with oil, they sat down in the pews for an honest chat with him. “Stan,” they told him, “nothing good ever happened to anyone that went down that road. The Devil wants you to go driving down, out of Harmony, and out to where he can get his claws into your back. Don’t listen to Satan! Stay here where God wants you to be!”
Stan thanked them all for praying with him and helping him see he was wrong to want to go down that road. He drove back to his family’s house that night, and prayed again like he did when he was younger. God never gave people a burden heavier than they can bear, and he wanted to show the Good Lord he was capable of carrying his own fair share. Praying for an hour, Stan begged the Almighty to help wash away his sinful thoughts of wanting to leave Harmony.
God answered his prayers. His family noticed it was like a weight got lifted off Stan’s shoulders, and he worked harder every day to further his relationship with Christ. When he had to go by that shaded avenue, he could swear the Almighty let him look upon it with true vision. The weeds grew taller, the trees shrouded out more of the sunlight, and it looked more like a tunnel going into the Pit of Hades than a road leading to the outside world. Stan sure was glad he didn’t follow through with his sinful desires.
More years passed, though, and Stan’s resolve began to wane again. A few years short of his thirtieth birthday, Stan was driving a load of cotton out to the Harmony cotton gin. Driving by that same road, the “Street to Hell” as he thought of it now, he caught a glimpse of light miles away. Rubbing his eyes, he looked again but the light was gone. It could have been anything, he told himself. The avenue had gotten a fresh resurfacing and bright layers of paint. It didn’t look as scary as he remembered. Stan shook his head and went down to the cotton gin. This was no time to be thinking about such things.
When he got to the gin the trucker who drove the loads to market in Atlanta was waiting. Leaning out the window of his cab, he called over to Stan. Although Stan had been by the gin plenty of times over the years, he only met Mr. Prometheus, the trucker, in passing. There was a long line of trucks carrying raw cotton, and Stan realized he had a golden opportunity. Since he was going to have to wait anyways, he decided to hop out of his truck and go chew the fat with someone from out of town. They exchanged pleasantries, asking about each other’s families.
Then Stan scrunched up his face and chewed his lower lip. “What is it?” asked Mr. Prometheus.
“I don’t want to be a bother or nothin’,” said Stan.
“Something’s on your mind,” replied the trucker.
“There’s a road leading out of town that I go by every time I drop off cotton to the gin here. It’s always getting fussed with, but I’ll be damned if my entire life I’ve avoided driving down it to see where it led.”
Mr. Prometheus laughed. “It’s just a road,” he said. “I know which one you’re talking about. All the other locals bitch about it too from time to time. The way they tell it, that road is cursed or something. But I can tell you that it’ll just take you west, and nothing more. If you don’t like where it goes, you can always turn around.”
Stan thanked the trucker politely and walked back to his own truck. He waited a little more, and then he finally dropped off the load of cotton at the gin. As he pulled out to start heading home, he saw Mr. Prometheus waving. Stan waved back, and continued pondering what he heard. He went down all other streets, driveways, parkways, and paths in Harmony. Why was this one road any different? It all seemed silly to him now, and he laughed like Mr. Prometheus did.
The next morning Stan went out to his pickup instead of the fields to help harvest the rest of the cotton. They could make do without him for one day, he told himself. Driving down the end of his family’s property, he sat there at the intersection he’d passed a thousand times before. All he needed to do was turn right, and he could go exploring. Closing his eyes, he wanted to pray, but nothing came out.
It just didn’t seem appropriate.
Turning the wheel to the right, he pushed on the gas and started down the shady path. For the first mile, the trees seemed too thick and the weeds too close. He searched constantly for a deer or other animal to come jumping out in front of him. Things broke up a little after the second mile, and he could see the rays of sunshine playing about on his windshield. A third mile passed, and then a fourth. By now the trees were sparse indeed, and he could see wide open fields of other farmers in the nearby town. Some grew cotton, others corn, some grew soybeans, and some grew tobacco. All the sights and smells and different things amazed Stan, and he became saddened at the fact he never came to this place before.
He drove for another twenty miles before deciding he needed to head back. He filled up his pickup at the local gas station, and turned around for home. When he got back, his entire family was outside waiting for him. They asked where he’d been, what he’d been doing, why he hadn’t been helping on the farm today. He told them he drove down the road and went to the next town. Every single person there, people he’d lived with for almost three decades, looked like they’d been slapped. How dare he travel to a place of iniquity, they told him. How dare he not trust the word of his parents and break the promise he made to them as a child. How dare he break his covenant with God.
Stan was told he needed to leave Harmony forever. They couldn’t abide a sinner living with them.
So Stan left Harmony in his worn pickup truck, travelling down that road he was so afraid of. Going ever westward, he found new experiences to enjoy and new friends to enjoy them with. Life wasn’t perfect living out of Harmony, but as Stan thought more about it life wasn’t perfect living in Harmony either. It was all about perspective, and his had changed for the better. Sometimes he wished he could bring his family with them; he loved them dearly even after they turned him away. But he couldn’t force reality on someone who refused to accept it. Instead he did the next best thing.
He became a traveler and connoisseur of life, and he promised himself that he would no longer refuse to go down a road without at least seeing where it went first.