Gulf Shores, Alabama
It’s February, so that means it’s time to escape to the beach! This was our first visit to Gulf Shores and it was a great choice for a winter getaway. Their motto is Small Town, Big Beach and that really sums it up. Gulf Shores is the right size town with not a lot of traffic or crowds, especially in the off-season. But there’s plenty to see and do here.
Traveling for a week on the Natchez Trace Parkway was one of the best trips we’ve taken in the RV. We had only a loose plan, no reservations, and all the time in the world to enjoy ourselves. We drove about half of the Trace, some 200 miles out of its total 444, from Nashville to Tupelo. And we took about a thousand pictures.
When the gray skies of February become too much to bear we look to the South for sun and surf. For us the closest beach is the Florida Panhandle. It’s a couple of states away and a long drive on Interstate 65.
This morning we were waiting at Camping World when the doors opened to have our rear tire checked out – the inside dually on the left looked soft to me. Camping World didn’t have our size in stock, so they sent us to a tire store some 6 miles away. There a young fella walked around the coach, kicked the tires a bit, and proclaimed everything A-OK.
Well, I felt like a complete fool. I was a Nervous Nelly last night and insisted we stop in Nashville because I thought we had a bad tire.
Many apologies were issued to my forgiving husband and we headed south again. It poured all day. Nasty, stormy weather with me trying to shake off the tire anxiety. And then a couple hundred miles later … the tire blew.
Happened just as we passed the exit for Birmingham. Right on the overpass. Only it was the right hand dually, not the left one that I had been suspicious about. BLAM! Thumpa Thumpa.
We pulled over immediately, just above a spot on the highway embankment where a tow truck was retrieving a car out of the ditch. An elderly couple had slid off the road in the pouring rain. I flagged down the tow driver and in short order he was examining our shredded tire. Needs to be replaced was the obvious verdict. At a tire store, he said, pointing across the interstate.
Lights flashing, he led us slowly down the wrong way on the highway ramp, blocking oncoming traffic, and right into the Firestone dealer.
After a long wait in the Firestone parking lot, a new $188 tire was installed. By then it was well after dark and the worst of the storm front was bearing down on us with lightening and buckets of rain. So we slid down the road a mile or so on new rubber and pulled into a WalMart parking lot. Most WalMarts permit overnight parking for RVs and truckers, and there was already small enclave gathered in the back lot when we settled in for the night.
This sure has been a lot of fuss just to get somewhere fun!
I met Alabama’s most unique folk artist today. Joe Minter greeted me at his Birmingham home wearing a decorated hard hat and an elaborate necklace of chains and padlocks.
Joe is a junk sculpture artist, and has spent the last 20 years building the African Village in his backyard. It’s a testament to African American struggles, and divinely inspired as his life’s work.
Mr. Minter lives on a quiet side street, next to a large segregated cemetery with a 200 year history. At first glance his place looks like a jumbled junk yard. But Joe is quick to point out the monuments – the tragedy section, the reformation section, the hope section.
As you pick your way along the maze-like paths you begin to comprehend the collections and artistry. There are grottos and crèches, huts and gazebos, sculptures and paintings. And endless inspirational messages and psalms painted on surfaces or constructed of found objects.
I arrived early in the morning, and the neighbors were quick to point me towards Joe’s house and even ring his bell for me. Joe and his wife live on donations, and I gladly bought his book and a tee shirt in exchange for a look around.
The sculpture garden evoked a myriad of unexpected emotions. I felt sadness and hope, despair and gladness, sinned and redeemed – all at the same time. It was a marvel to wander and wonder at this artist’s massive productivity, which Joe claims all started with a couple of abandoned cars on the property when he purchased the home. Then he received his calling to expand and expound.
Should you find yourself in Birmingham, stop by and see the African Village on Nassau Street. It will be worth the stop.
Tonight I am working my way toward home. It’s been a great winter break. Loved Florida’s Emerald Coast, had a splendid time camping in the motorhome. And the dog may forgive me once I get him home.
Yesterday I was considering an excursion to Dauphin Island, which would have involved a ferry ride with the RV. But Florida has turned cold and inhospitable, so I have pointed the coach toward home. And today I’m driving through Alabama again.
There are limited campgrounds along the Alabama I-65 corridor, and very few would offer a comfortable overnight stay by myself. Even with all my careful reviews and cross-references, I still ended up in the Deliverance Swamp Camp last week.
So I targeted a swell-looking campground in Clanton, Alabama which was a good day’s drive from Pensacola. Pulled off the exit, had a late lunch at Durbin Farms Market, and went looking for the campground. And looked, and looked, and looked. Couldn’t find the blessed place. All the GPS systems failed me – they couldn’t locate it either.
So back on the interstate I reluctantly went, desolately thinking I’d have to drive another 2-3 hours further north to Decatur where I camped last week.
Half an hour later I stopped for gas at a random exit and spotted a sign for Oak Mountain State Park – only 2 miles away! I checked my Park App, and it turns out this is Alabama’s largest state park, with a golf course, equestrian park, big lake, and year-round campground. Sweet!
So I’m settled in for the night, spared from driving after dark and camping in unsavory places. Special thanks goes out for guiding me here!
I spent the day driving the length of Alabama, and can confidently report there’s nothing to see from the highway. The interstate is neatly hemmed in by a wide margin of pine trees. On all sides. From north to south.
In Kentucky and Tennessee, it’s possible to be a passive Peeping Tom. The landscape is wide open to peer into little villages and hollers, and down on a lazy creek or comely pond as you cruise by at 65 mph. Homestead farms line the sides of the interstate, and you can squeeze a guess at people’s lives from the clapboard houses, double wide trailers, and prim little brick homes. Each has an antique barn a few steps away, with old boards peeling julienne-style and galvanized roofs sporting crimson splotches of rust. You can catch a glimpse of lopsided swing sets, puttering tractors, and cattle wandering home. It all sets the mood.
But here in Alabama the margins are thick and wooded. There’s hardly a peek at what’s behind the ever-present pines, Could be a cotton field or a golf course or a space shuttle landing strip. You just don’t know. All that’s visible in a day’s drive is an endless corridor of asphalt and trees. So it’s hard to get a sense of the place.
The day provided only two good diversions. First at the Peach Tower where I stopped for an in-coach sandwich lunch. Peach and fruit stands were situated on the side roads, but alas it’s the wrong season and all were closed for winter.
The second side trip was on the way to Sweet Home Alabama campground. It’s 25 miles off the highway, down a couple of lakeside roads so remote that the GPS gave up. I was a little apprehensive about this place when I arrived – the campground office is also the bait shop and I seemed to be the only guest this evening.
But owner, Tom, was pleasant and generously guided my backing-in efforts. He was also a great help when an outside bin jammed up. The bin holds the power cords and water hose, items I would definitely like to use tonight. The water hose had shifted in transit and the metal end wedged between the sidewall and the bin lock. Tom’s shim loosened the snag, and I was a happy camper again.
I’m sure there’s plenty of good reasons that Alabama is considered the Heart of Dixie, but regrettably I didn’t see anything heartfelt or charming from the highway today. Perhaps I’ll get a better feel for the state tomorrow.
Dash Cam Highlights
This morning my horoscope read –
“You’re ready for a fearless and freewheeling adventure.”
So I threw the dog in the motorhome, kissed the hubby goodbye, and pointed the nose cone south.
I felt that little tingle of excitement that always rises at the start of a new journey. The sun was shining, skies pale blue, and a wispy half-moon hung low in the morning. It was promising to be a beautiful day, and I knew I’d find myself bored and stiff from the drive later in the afternoon, so I relished the moment.
Tim has been called up for jury duty, so rather than go adventuring with me, he’ll be performing his civic duty in the stuffy Hall of Justice and get paid a whopping $12.50 a day for his trouble. I believe that will cover about an hour of downtown parking and two miles worth of gas.
As I left town the winter grass was the color of shredded wheat at the bottom of a breakfast bowl, and just as soggy after months of snow and ice. A couple hours later, traveling a chippy 61 miles per hour – hey, I’m driving a house here, it’s built for comfort not for speed! – I passed a series of little towns and attractions who make their living off tourism crumbs that fall from Mammoth Cave National Park.
Signs announced exits for Horse Cave, Cave City, Lost River Cave, and Kentucky Down Under – which astonishingly isn’t a cavern tour at all, but a zoo filled with animals from Australia. Go figure.
Further down the road is Bowling Green where the Corvette plant churns out swanky sports cars. This is also the home of The Corvette Museum, recently in the news because a giant sinkhole opened up under the showroom and swallowed about a dozen prized and irreplaceable Corvettes. Pictures from the site looked like a gargantuan toddler had thrown all his toy cars in a giant toilet, added some rocks and gravel from the backyard and held down the flush handle. Cars lay jumbled and crunched in a hole of such immense size that the bottom couldn’t be found. I’m sure many a serious car collector shed a tear and then scrabbled to his own garage to check the floor for cracks.
So naturally I had to stop by and see the mess. Sure enough, there were stern looking contractors in hard hats shuffling around the rim of the hole, just barely visible from outside the iconic bright yellow dome where I stood with a couple of other gawkers.
The directors of the Corvette Museum have vowed stoically to carry on, and will rebuild the showroom – get this – in the exact same location! I can only imagine how this decision was made…
Say, Earl, what do you think we should do now?
Geez, Bob, why don’t we toss in a couple metric tons of concrete and lay some rebar on top. That should do it, don’t ya think?
Great idea, Earl! Cos’ there’s nothing wrong with the big yellow dome.
I guarantee if you talked to any farmer in these parts he’d tell you sinkholes don’t scab over and heal themselves. They only go two directions – wider and deeper. And usually a hundred feet away a couple of new holes open up and start gobbling up the landscape like country cousins.
While I was standing in front of the Visitor Center pondering all this, a woman came up and requested a picture of the dog. Our Siberian Husky attracts a lot of attention, so this was nothing new. But Shadow, in an uncanny sense of timing, began twirling around on the end of the leash preparing to make a large deposit on the pristine sidewalk. I scuttled him over to some rose bushes just in the nick of time and heard the faint click of a camera behind me. I’m sure she’ll be very proud of that picture when she gets home.
The dog and I beat a hasty retreat, not just because we had despoiled the landscaping, but also it crossed my mind that another sinkhole could easily peril the parking lot and the motorhome might be swallowed whole.
We cruised uneventfully through Nashville and then the remainder of Tennessee, stopping for an occasional stretch of the legs and to photograph the colorful redneck population. It wasn’t until we reached Alabama that I finally spotted the first true green grass, a good sign that warmer climes are ahead.
Tonight we are resting in Point Mallard, a swell and pleasingly priced campground near Decatur. Supper has been enjoyed and the Olympics are playing on a crystal local channel. Time to tuck in.
Dash Cam Highlights: