State Park Memories & Mama

By Joe Watts, President-Elect

thefalls, Joe Watts mother

The falls at Chewacla State Park, Joe Watts’ mother

There’s really no other way to say it. When I think of the views off of Cheaha Mountain or the rush of the water over Desoto Falls, I think of my mother. And I smile. I smile a lot.

We grew up deep in what Mama always called the Garden of Eden of Alabama: Marengo County, surrounded by farm lands. I spent a lot of time in the woods growing up. Days on end were spent exploring the deep hardwood thickets, coming home after a full day of diving into blackberry brambles, wading into shallow creeks or just lolling beside a fallen log and reading. Mama, who was 46 years old when I was born, would typically join me in many of these adventures. I look back on those days and marvel at how she had the energy to keep up with a wild-haired young boy at her age. But she did and she thrived on it, and so did I.

All that time in the woods and you might imagine that an ideal vacation for the Watts family would be somewhere with lights and restaurants and action, if for no other reason than a change of scenery. Not my mama. She loved the scenery of Alabama’s natural places, so we’d pack up the car—my dad, my mother, me and as many sisters as could fit—and we’d head north. North to Mama meant anywhere north of Montgomery, of course, so we didn’t have to travel far. But we did travel often.

Her favorite place was Desoto State Park. We’d visit there every year, usually renting out a chalet or a cabin. The cabins were, and still are, rustic. Chalets, too, but they had sleeping areas you could only get to via ladder. Slipping up that ladder and having that space all to myself was a special treat for a young boy who had five older sisters.

As magical as that sleeping area was, the real magic was found on the trails. Even the trails leading between cabins held a surprising ability to captivate my young imagination. Plants that seemed mundane on our farm suddenly became fascinating. Birds that, sad to say, might have fallen prey to the BB gun if spotted along a fence row at home soared overhead, no longer targets but marvels of feathers and flight.

And the wildness. That’s what Mama brought us to experience. There were plenty of people in the world, but not enough wild places. Mama believed we needed to understand the wild places in Alabama to appreciate our home state. And she was right. Her appreciation of those wild places kindled a love for all of Alabama’s wild things—from the birds to the trees.

I grew up interested in hiking and backpacking. I hunted, too, as a teenager, and I’ve hiked all across America. But nowhere could ever be as special as those times I spent walking the trails in Desoto State Park, running around the bend to see what was ahead until I was too tired to walk back. And there was Mama, always able, bad back and all, to carry me home.

We could all learn a little something from my mother. Those visits to our state parks kept her strong and made her love Alabama more and more. And she always—always—believed that our state parks deserved the love and affections, and protection, of everyone, because they are, after all, for everyone to enjoy.