Saturday, April 28, 2012
Alabama coast (3/25 - 4/7)
Well, I have to confess to being a negligent blogger. We've had a great time since we left Florida we've had a terrific time and seen some wonderful places. I'll try to catch up on this post, which might be kind of long. When last we checked in, we had decided on a whim to travel to Dauphin Island Alabama for a two-day bluegrass festival. We planned to keep our options open and either stay longer in Dauphin Island or move on to Gulf State Park, which we had heard great things about. After traveling the three-hour drive to Dauphin Island, some of it through a driving thunder storm, past Mobile (Mo-BEEL as they say here) and down the western shore of Mobile Bay, we crossed the 3-mile-long bridge (built in 1952, the year I was born) to the island. We quickly found our campground on the Eastern tip of the island and walked to Fort Gaines for the festival. Mobile Bay was the site of a major civil war naval battle ("Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead", which of course it doesn't seem Admiral Farragut actually really said) and there are two forts on either side of the wide entrance. Fort Gaines was a very cool venue for a festival, with high brick walls and a large grass expanse inside. This festival, the first annual "Seagrass Festival" was partially supported by BP in their efforts to restore Gulf tourism in the wake of the oil spill. We saw some great acts, highlighted by Sara Watkins and her brother (two thirds of the extraordinary and groundbreaking band Nickel Creek) and one of the heavies of all time, Ricky Skaggs. The moon was brilliant, the weather was pleasant and the music floated out to sea and up to the stars. The next day, we explored the length (8 miles) of Dauphin Island and walked to the beach near our campground. It was a really interesting place, with most of the houses up on stilts and half of the island basically just sand dunes, but we decided to move on to the Alabama gulf coast for two weeks, where the water and beaches were nicer and there was more to do. Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama, was hit with a double whammy this decade. First hurricane Ivan in 2004 flattened much of the park and closed it for quite a while, then last year a forest fire destroyed 1000 acres of forest. We weren't sure what we would find in this state park that was so highly-rated by online reviewers, but we weren't disappointed. Yes, there were a lot of areas where the trees were broken and burnt, but there was also a lot of renewal and bright green shoots covering the landscape. The vistas were more clear and the swamp areas were more visible now and we saw some of the most amazing sunsets of our trip so far. Gulf State Park has miles and miles of paved bike trails, over a mile of unspoiled beaches and very well-developed campsites. We met a lot of people who had wintered here--the park is much more "snowbird-friendly" than the Florida state parks where stays are limited to two weeks max. We did a lot of bike-riding, exploring the coast and historic sites of the area. Fort Morgan is directly across the bay from Fort Gaines and is a much more extensive site, with many gun placements and a lot of informative exhibits about the Civil War battle fought in the area. I have to say something about the people we met in the Alabama gulf coast area. Alabamians (yes, that's what they are called) are very nice people (except for the occasional redneck truck emblazoned with Confederate flags and gun racks!) and have a simple outlook and lifestyle that is appealing. The Alabama accent is so pure and melodic and their sense of humor is humble and self-deprecating. We felt very comfortable here--and of course LOVED the seafood, especially the shrimp. We found a type of shrimp called Royal Reds that were so sweet and buttery that they reminded us of lobster (I know, a heresy for New Englanders). One thing we didn't appreciate before is how French southern Alabama is. The early settlers were the French and Mobile was actually the capital of the Louisiana Territory at one time. The only smudge on the area are the oil and gas rigs visible offshore from some areas, but we didn't see any sign of beach damage, two-headed shrimp or oil slicks. We'd definitely go back to this area as a less-developed alternative to the Destin-Ft. Walton Beach area. Our next destination was Nashville, where we had concert tickets for April 10th featuring our favorite musician, Keith Urban, but first we had to get there, almost 500 miles and 8 hours drive due north through Alabama. We decided to break it into two days and stop in Birmingham to see the Civil Rights Institute museum there. THAT was an experience. Through an immersive combination of photographs, tv news stories on 60s-style sets, recordings, newspaper accounts and artifacts, we heard the story of the civil rights movement--of which Alabama was in so many ways the epicenter. We had to fight back tears at some of the amazing events that we were only barely aware of at the time--school children being attacked with fire hoses and dogs or being blown up by bombs. All of the self-justifying talk of the leaders at the time sounds ridiculous today. The Institute itself is across the street from the Baptist church that was bombed, killing 4 little girls. Sitting in the park across the street from that was an incredible experience.