Life has a funny way of pushing you in strange directions.  And even though you don’t understand it at the time, when you look back you can’t imagine life transpiring any differently.

When Jess and I began applying for graduate school back in the fall of 2009, we initially applied to two schools – West Virginia University and the University of Tennessee.  Later, as a sort of backstop, we applied to Louisiana State University and Auburn University.  I got into Tennessee and LSU; neither of the horticulture departments at those schools had funding available for Jess.  Jess got accepted to West Virginia; I didn’t.  That left Auburn.

Like a lot of people probably would, I had my reservations.  Before April of 2010 I had never set foot in the state of Alabama; I’d actually never gone south of Turner Field on I-85.  But I’d taught the Civil Rights Movement in U.S. History enough times to know that I never wanted to live there.

After my first visit, though, that began to change.  Auburn isn’t a big town my most measures, but it has enough modern amenities to not feel too provincial or backwards.  The university campus, around which the town revolves, is gorgeous.  The downtown area is fun.   And two years later, on the verge of leaving, I’ve come to realize that there are tons of things about this place that I’m going to miss.  Some of those, in no particular order, are:

The Rubbermaid trash can dispenses sweet tea. Your argument is invalid.

1. The barbecue.  I just laugh now when I hear my fellow North Carolinians take part in the western vs. eastern barbecue debate, because Alabama barbecue beats them both.  Price’s Barbecue House has the best breakfast I’ve ever had, and Mike & Ed’s Barbecue, in addition to having some fantastic pig, has the best sweet tea jug of all time.

2. Central time.  This obviously isn’t exclusive to Auburn, but I love having all my TV shows on an hour early.

3. The football.  I’ve been to a few college football games in my day, but coming from a undergraduate institution that doesn’t have football (yet), I was utterly unprepared for the spectacle of SEC football.  The tailgating here starts three days before the game.  The sound of 87,451 fans screaming in Jordan-Hare Stadium is unlike anything I’ve ever heard.  The game, bookended by the flight of the eagle and the rolling of Toomer’s Corner, is more than just a game – it’s an event that brings the whole town together.

4. The comically cheap alcohol.  Alabama has a strange law forbidding day-specific drink specials that last all day.  Drink specials in bars are outlawed after 9 p.m., but that means that you can go to a bar and practically drink for free before 9.  On Wednesday nights, for example, every bar in town serves 32 oz. well drinks for $3 from 5 to 9.  Yes please.  And with apologies to Picasso’s Sports Cafe in Charlotte, Halftime Sports Bar is my favorite such establishment I’ve ever encountered, with its every-night-is-pint-night mantra and cheap bloody marys on NFL Sundays.

5. The sidewalks.  I’ve never seen a town this small that was so pedestrian-friendly.  Sidewalks line all of the downtown streets, and Toomer’s Corner is a mere 15-minute walk from our apartment.  This and #4 are related.

6. The people.  I couldn’t possibly name them all without missing a few, so I won’t try, but I’ve met a ton of great people who will hopefully be friends for life.  And even people you encounter while going about your day are painfully friendly.  The people are what make Auburn such a pleasant place.

January 10, 2011: The best of times.

This isn’t to say that Auburn isn’t without its flaws.  For one thing, I will never again take living near a major airport for granted – Atlanta’s airport is 90 minutes away – and a lot of people’s views on race aren’t exactly what one would call forward-thinking (although Auburn is far more progressive than most other areas of the state).  But I get incredibly annoyed when I hear people say, “Oh wow, you must be really excited to be leaving Alabama!”  Well, no, I’m not.  Sure, I’m excited about moving back to North Carolina and being closer to my family.  But as I said in a recent post, Auburn is a very tight-knit, caring community that I feel honored to have been a part of for a short time.  With its great schools, parks, and neighborhoods, we would’ve been perfectly happy living here long-term and raising a family.

Even though we won’t be staying, Jess and I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend two years here.  I’ve learned to never judge a place solely on its reputation again – unless that place is Mississippi.  I’ve learned that a small town can have as much charm and fulfillment for its inhabitants as a big city.  And I’ve learned that a place can get into your bones and shape the way you view people and life.

So farewell for now, Auburn.  We’ll be back for some barbecue and a football game soon.