Monroeville, Alabama

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About 15 years ago, I was zipping down I-65 South, headed toward a press convention that was being held on the Alabama coast.

A mile ahead, I saw an exit sign: Monroeville, Alabama. I hesitated, perhaps two seconds, then barely hit the brakes and slung off the interstate for a black top, gentle road that would lead me to one of the most renowned towns in the South.

Let’s be honest: if I had known the town was a good 20 miles or more off the interstate, I would have kept going. Even halfway there, I almost turned around. But I didn’t for two reasons: 1) I knew I would always regret being so close yet not seeing it 2) My friend, Stevie Waltrip. She has always, in the 35 years I’ve known her, longed for a signed edition of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

If I could find one for her then I’d give a treasure to someone who has been a treasure to me.

Harper Lee — those who knew her — called her “Nelle” was still alive then. She and her sister, Alice, never missed a Sunday of preaching at the Methodist church or lunch afterwards at a local home-cooking diner. They liked to be normal and they didn’t like anyone messing with that normal.

I did not find Harper Lee (the town’s people were keenly loyal in keeping her whereabouts a secret) or a signed copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

A gift shop clerk said, “One day, Nelle was in here, picking out a birthday card. A woman recognized her and asked if she would sign her copy of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ Nelle never said a word. She looked at her then turned and walked out. She never came back and got that card either!”

After a fruitless search, I was about to leave Monroeville when I decided to stop by the town’s newspaper office and speak to the publisher. Graciously, he explained that Nelle liked to be left alone so “we just leave her alone. This is her home and we’re glad she still comes down her from New York City and spends time.”

“When was the last time you saw her?” I asked.

He pursed his lips, focused on something laying on the desk then slowly shook his head. “I don’t know,” he scratched his cheek. “Maybe four or five years ago.”

The receptionist, whose desk looked straight out the front glass entrance where a newspaper box set, had been listening to our conversation.

“Well, I see her every Wednesday,”

“You do!” he exclaimed.

“Yes. Every Wednesday, she walks down here, and buys a copy of the paper from that box.”

The publisher’s eyes widened then he looked back at me. “I never had a clue.”

Last summer, on the way back from Mobile, I decided to drive the beautiful Alabama backroads to the other side of Montgomery. I stopped at a Monroeville diner for an early lunch then ate quickly so I could give my table to Alabama Power linemen. They took off their hats and thanked me.

Every person in that diner said grace before taking a bite.

From the diner’s parking lot, I took a photo of the town’s water tower then I preceded downtown. In the center of town is its crown jewel: the courthouse that is identical to the one from the movie — inside and out. Director Robert Mulligan brought a set designer from L.A. with the directions, “Recreate this courthouse down to the last stone.”

In the courthouse is a museum celebrating Miss Nelle, and her childhood pal, Truman Capote, the inspiration for the eccentric Dill who, during a childhood summer, taught Scout (Nelle) the power of imagination and storytelling.

It’s a visit well worth taking for those who like quiet towns — even famous ones — with hospitable people who say, “We’d be mighty glad to have you come back sometime.”

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]