Thursday, June 17, 2010

Today's Tom Sawyer: Camping Under an Alabama Moon

Excerpt From: Alabama Moon by Watt Key, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Tourism Attraction: Talladega National Forest
Location: West Alabama
Photos: Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

(Special Note on Photos: All of the photos in this feature, except the one from Nantahala, are from the National Forests of Alabama. The photos show the wide diversity of real attractions and activities for outdoor tourists in Alabama's National Forests. Click on any photo to enlarge.)

One of my fondest memories of reading as a boy is of a rainy day at my grandmother's house when I opened up The Adventures of Tom Sawyer for the first time. There wasn’t much to do that day, but she did have a small shelf of some literary classics.

Not all of them made a strong impression. Let’s face it: Little Women, and even Little Men, didn’t necessarily inspire my imagination as an eight year-old boy. But finding my way through a cave while being chased by a dangerous bad guy? Or riding down the mighty Mississippi River on a raft with no parents to cut off my fun by announcing bedtime? Now that was inspiring!

Imagine my surprise in discovering that many new classic children’s characters in literature are still being born into books of the twenty-first century. The fictional Moon Blake is just such a character in Watt Key’s debut novel Alabama Moon. Moon is just ten years old, but he has already learned to easily survive alone in the wilderness of Alabama's Talladega National Forest.

However, when his radical isolationist father dies, Moon has a great deal more trouble finding his way through civilization when he walks out of the wilderness for the first time. It doesn’t take long before Moon is captured and sent to a state boys’ home. (Movie producers also didn't take long to snap the story up and adapt it to film; watch the movie trailer by following the link in the Tourism Guide below).

Moon makes a daring escape, and his new friends are eager to escape their prison with him, although one friend is not so convinced of Moon’s self-described survival skills . . .

Towards late afternoon we had traveled a few miles across hills and down several valleys and through their creeks. I came to the top of a ridge and knelt to examine a track. I’d only seen one such track ever before, but there was no mistaking it. Kit and Hal caught up to me and stood over my shoulder.

“What is it?” Kit asked.

“It’s a puma track,” I said. “Pap told me that a puma needs thirty square miles of territory with no sign of people.”

“That means we’re far away from civilization?” Kit asked.

“That’s right,” I said.

“Great,” Hal said. “In the middle of nowhere with a mountain lion.”

“It won’t hurt us. Pap said I was too big.”

“That boy in Old Yeller was about your size,” Hal said.

“That’s just a made-up story. Pap knew about animals.”

“All right, you fight it then,” Hal said. “With that knife of yours.”

Kit and I smiled at each other and started down the other side of the ridge. Just before the sun fell below the forest canopy, we stopped and sat on a log to rest. I looked around and studied the trees.

“This is a good place,” I said. “We’ll camp here.”

“Finally!” Hal said. “What’s for supper?”

“Snake and dressin’.”

Hal looked at me. “Snake!”

“Snakes are good,” I said. “There may be some out since it was so warm today. I’ll make some pine-needle tea to go with it.”

Hal spit at the ground. “I ain’t eatin’ any damn snake. It was bad enough eatin’ fish out of your old sock.”

“I’ll eat some,” Kit said.

“Come on,” I said to Kit. “You can help me. Hal, there’s a white oak tree over there. You collect some acorns from under it while we’re gone.”

“More acorns . . . What about real meat?” Hal asked.

“We’re gonna get some soon,” I said. “We’ll have all the good food we need once I rig some weapons.”

Hal rolled his eyes and sighed. He got up and dragged his feet in the direction of the oak tree with the dogs following. Kit and I set out through an open stand of old pine trees. After a while, I found what I was looking for. I showed Kit a longleaf pine filled with holes starting about fifty feet from the ground. From each one of the holes sap ran down the tree, making it look like a giant candlestick.

“Those holes were made by a red-cockaded woodpecker,” I said, pointing at the top of the tree. “Sometimes, there’ll be a snake climbin’ up to get the woodpeckers. He’ll get to those sap runs, and they’ll make him dizzy. He’ll fall to the ground. If you catch him after he falls, he’ll usually be stunned. You can just pick him up by the tail and knock him against a tree.”

“I don’t see any snakes,” Kit said.

“Poke around in the grass and we might find one. Be a corn snake or a rat snake prob’ly.”

After some kicking around, I found a black rat snake. I grabbed it by the tail and knocked it against a tree. Kit wanted to carry it, so I gave it to him, and he dragged it back with us.

Hal was sleeping against a log when we returned. He opened his eyes and winced at the snake. Kit swung it towards him, and Hal rolled over and shouted, “Hey!”

Kit and I began to laugh. “It’s just a black rat snake,” Kit said confidently.

Hal held up his fist and shook it at us with wide eyes. “I’ll trade a black eye for a black snake! You keep that thing away from me.”

I showed Kit how to make a slit down the belly and around the neck and peel the skin back like a sock. Afterwards, we removed the head and intestine and stuffed the stomach cavity with a paste made from white oak acorns, cattail roots, and thistle.

I found a piece of dead wood nearby and dropped it in front of Kit. “You remember how I started that fire?”

Kit nodded and took the bow drill from me.

“I need a bath,” Hal complained.

“Sweat cleans as good as swimmin’,” I said.

He looked at me and didn’t say anything.

The sun set and the birds became quiet as the forest grew dark. I left Kit and Hal and the dogs and walked downhill to look for a creek. I hadn’t gone far when I found one of the giant loblolly pines leaning over so I could walk up its trunk and stand high above the ground, which sloped away beneath me. I could hear water down below and the tops of the trees swishing to the breeze. I imagined that I would be able to see a long way with daylight.

When I returned, Kit was still drilling on the wood and faint curls of smoke drifted up from the bowl. I had brought some juniper bark back with me, and I shredded it and laid it in the bowl. I blew on it gently, and a tiny flame appeared.

“I found a creek down there,” I said. “We’ll call it Kit Creek. Got to have names for things.”

Kit smiled and I could tell that he liked having a creek named after him. We cooked the snake and dressing on a spit and ate it like sausage. Kit claimed that his was better than anything he’d ever had at Pinson. Hal didn’t eat his share. He put his back to us and chewed on some of the leftover cattails.

After supper, I suggested we go drink from Kit Creek. Hal said he would go later, so Kit and I set out alone. I showed him the tree I found and we walked up into it.

“This is where we’ll live for a while,” I told him.

“Up here?”

I nodded. “And underneath. We’ll make a lookout up here and build our sleepin’ room down below. We’ll start tomorrow. We’ve got water below and plenty of forest to the east. Hardwood down below and pine forests up top. That’ll give us all kinds of plants to eat.”

Kit looked around like he was imagining us there. “I’ll bet you can see a long ways from here with daylight,” he said.

I nodded. “That’s what I was thinkin’. We’ll be able to tell better tomorrow mornin’.”

“And you can whip up on anybody who climbs this tree trunk.”

“You’re right,” I said. “Somebody comin’ up here’s gonna get a butt-whippin’.”

Kit became excited and laughed.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go get some water.”

--Excerpted from ALABAMA MOON, Copyright © 2006 by Albert Watkins Key, Jr. All Rights Reserved

After reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as a boy, I was just dying to go explore caves and raft down rivers to experience the adventures for real. I can easily imagine a boy today reading Alabama Moon and wanting to go camping in the Talladega National Forest. In fact, the Talladega National Forest offers camping venues from primitive to lodge-style comfort. Alabama's National Forests offer a huge range of outdoor activities and sports. Please visit the web links below to learn more about how your son or daughter can go have a real adventure in the beautiful National Forests of Alabama.

I wouldn’t suggest that you let them and their friends try it alone. A great place to start is Payne Lake, where the fictional characters started their trek into the forest.

For those who love to read, there is no better place to connect with literature than in the peace and quiet of a National Forest, where civilization is literally miles away. Also, as cool as it is that new technological innovations like the Wii actually get kids to move their arms and legs as well as their thumbs, no game system can compare to the rich, healthy experience of camping in the great outdoors. If your kids would rather sit in front of a Nintendo or Playstation than go outside, try this novel out on them. Chances are, they might beg you to take them camping afterwards.

I first started exploring literary tourism for young adults with a profile and excerpt of Kerry Madden’s Maggie Valley series based in North Carolina. Just as Kerry’s fictional character of Livy Two could easily have been friends with Scout Finch, Moon Blake would have gotten along great with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. However, I want to emphasize that these new characters are not merely remakes of classic literary characters; they both have unique personalities, new challenges to face, and timely stories to tell. Check out Kerry’s feature, “Vampires vs. Pancakes,” below:

Classic literature for young adults should never be dry. Alabama Moon offers mud riding, deer hunting, fishing, living in the wilderness—and escaping from a prison. Watt's amazing storytelling skills wrap all these up within classic themes, which is quite a literary feat.

Another thing that impressed me in Alabama Moon was the way that Watt did not idealize the wilderness way of life. Neither did he cast civilization into an evil thing. Despite the constant humor in the story, all of the real-life dangers and discomforts of the wild were presented in a balanced way against the pros and cons of civilized life. Moon experiences powerful, life-changing struggles when he steps out into the real world for the first time.

You might expect that a novel like this would teach readers not to take modern conveniences in our life for granted. However, you might be surprised that the real focus of this novel is to teach us not to take the people in our lives for granted.

Watt Key’s next novel, Dirt Road Home, will be released this July. I am eager to follow Hal’s life when he is recaptured and sent to a juvenile boys’ home. I can only imagine where Hal is going next—after escaping, perhaps?

“In order to write a book like Alabama Moon, I had to locate a large area of contiguous wilderness. These days it’s hard to find this type of place outside of a National Forest. I chose the Talladega National Forest mostly because it was closest to my home. The first time I drove into it, I was not expecting to do more than a little research. However, I should have known that the moment I drove onto park lands I would feel that refreshing lung full of air that I’ve breathed in at Yellowstone, Yosemite, Custer, Badlands, Wind Rivers, and all the other National Parks that I’ve vacationed to.”

Watt is not the only novelist inspired by the majestic beauty of our National Forests. The first feature I published on a national forest was Sallie Bissell’s suspense series set in the Nantahala National Forest of North Carolina. The beautiful shots of the mountains there are incredible. Check out the Nantahala feature here:

Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina: Photo by Kevin Childress

Go to the U.S. Forest Service link below to learn more, such as the brochure “100 Places to Visit in the National Forests of Alabama.” Alabama’s National Forests provide a wide range of activities all across the state, including everything from fishing, hiking, horseback riding, swimming, boating, camping, mountain biking, and hunting, to name just a few. The U.S. Forest Service also has maps of each of Alabama’s National Forests available for order to better plan your trip. Each National Forest has a District Ranger Office for more local information, available at the U.S. Forest Service website below.

Watt Key’s website (order the books) and read his great inspiration for Alabama Moon

Talladega National Forest (Oakmulgee Division) U.S. Forest Service
Note: the division based in the book is in the western part of Alabama

U.S. Forest Service: Alabama

U.S. National Forest Campground Guide
This couple has researched all the National Forest camping sites in the country and offer ebooks for order on their website. Just go the Bookstore when you log on. The Talladega National Forest is included in the Southern book.

Learn about everything Alabama has to offer tourists at the state’s official tourism site

Let's Move Outside: learn more about how to find nearby forests and parks in your area

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (learn about other great books by the publisher of Alabama Moon)

Join SELTI on Facebook and invite others to join:

Check out more of Kevin Childress' photography at his website:

I’ve often been reading a novel and thought to myself: this would make a great movie! Fortunately, this time I was vindicated; check out Alabama Moon the movie:!/pages/Alabama-Moon/189785646899

And watch the trailer with John Goodman here: