By Sheri Oneal

I love shooting editorial assignments and travel photography is by far my favorite thing to cover as a photographer. When the folks at the magazine “American Heritage” contacted me for a photo assignment, I couldn’t resist.

My assignment was to spend two days traveling through northern Alabama photographing 100+ year old churches along what is known as the Hallelujah Trail.  Having never heard of this trail and with the excitement of a two day travel assignment, I did as much research online before hitting the road on my expedition.

The Hallelujah Trail consists of thirty-two churches throughout parts of Alabama that are all at least 100 years old, are still in their original site, and are still holding services. The trail winds its way through sixteen counties in the northern part of  the Appalachian Region of Alabama.

On a limited client budget, my assignment was to shoot as many churches as I could in the two days of travel. I started by putting a plan together to best utilize my time. With a state map in hand, I plotted the best route along the trail where I could cover as many churches as possible. My choices were based on choosing the ones with the most interesting architecture and history along my two day path so I didn’t waste a moment of exploration. It was a challenge with very long days alone driving in rural areas but I was able to shoot twelve churches within the allocated time.

In a strange turn of events, it so happened that the week I was assigned this job, hurricane Gustav blew through the southern part of the US. It was not until around 6:30 PM of my first day of travel that I realized how hard it was going to be to get a room for the night. Due to all the evacuee’s heading North from the Gulf region, all of the hotels were maxed out. After going to literally every hotel in the town of Decatur, Alabama I could not find a vacant room after my long work day. I was hot, tired and ready to sleep in my car (although not happy about it). I really needed a shower and something to eat.

When I walked up to the counter of the last hotel and asked for a room, the handsome young man sitting behind the desk replied, “I am sorry miss, we are full.”  I smiled and said, “you know I have heard through some music friends of mine back in Nashville that most hotels keep a few extra rooms open for special reasons. I would be really grateful if you could check and see if there might be one available, I don’t care what it cost, I have been working on an assignment all day and really don’t feel safe sleeping in a strange town alone in my car with all my gear. Would you please check for me, otherwise I need to ask for permission to sleep in my car in your parking lot.”  With a smile he went to the computer typed in a few lines and said….”ok miss, I think I have one left.” And I was relieved to have a room, a shower and to get a good night’s sleep.

I left the hotel at sun up and had a wonderful day of shooting with interesting small town views and hospitality. In one area, as I was driving from one town to the other I came across this really old run down row of apartments in the town of Courtland.  I drove by them 3 times scared to get out because there was a little store with a lot of rough characters hanging out about 2 blocks up the road. On the third pass I had to stop, I was fast, I was able to park where I could stand right outside my car door and shoot. It took all of 3 minutes and I was in my car, doors locked driving away. As always these random shots while shooting an assignment often get lost in the mix. 

Overall my Hallelujah Trail assignment was a favorite in the books as a photographer. Anytime you get paid to travel it is a blessing in my book! I love what I do and feel so fortunate. Stay tuned for my next adventure….

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