Category Archives: Alabama

Alabama Part III: The Beach

We left Wind Creek State Park one day early because of severe weather predictions. It is no fun traveling during a windy electric storm, so we wanted to get to Gulf Shores State Park and be set up before the weather caught up to us. We arrived late afternoon while the sky was still blue and sunny, and were lucky enough to get the last spot on the water.  As we were driving to #638 (yes, there are more than 600 camping sites at this park),  we discovered our neighbor Cliff from Joe Wheeler State Park was set up  across the street and two spots down from us. We were going to be neighbors again for the next couple of weeks! Mr. Cliff was a sweet retired railroad conductor from outside of Birmingham who had recently lost his wife to brain cancer after 33 years of marriage. I admired him because he continued to get out and travel on his own even though you could see he missed his wife Pat very deeply. After we settled in and watched the sunset with Mr. Cliff, we were watching the 10pm news before bed. This is when we discovered Kenny Chesney was scheduled to play a concert the next night in an outdoor amphitheater at a place called The Wharf in neighboring Orange Beach.

The next morning I told Mike we were going to the concert. He was not as enthusiastic about the plans as I was – first of all the weather we avoided was still on its way, and secondly the concert would surely be sold out. I looked at the map, located The Wharf, and took off in the car to scope things out. After some exploration of our new surroundings I found the place. The concert posters and website said “rain or shine”.  Judging from the 20+ semi trailers parked along the roads surrounding the stage, and the 12+ custom Prevost Motor coaches parked in the VIP area, Kenny’s crew was not worried about the weather forecast. I drove back to our place with even more enthusiasm for our evening plans. Mike still wasn’t convinced. No problem, we would go buy rain ponchos to battle the weather… and if the concert was sold out there would be scalpers near the gates. I finally talked him into going back to The Wharf with me to see what they said at the box office and scope out the parking situation for later. Guess what? They still had tickets available for sale! The place only sat about 5,000 people, so there were really no bad seats.

The Wharf is a resort destination in and of itself. They have stores, restaurants, a marina, a giant outdoor theme -park swimming pool, a hotel, a conference center, and the amphitheater. The concert was scheduled to start at 7, so we returned around 4. We parked ourselves under a covered outside table at a restaurant overlooking the marina and began our pre-concert festivities under cloudy and drizzly skies. Sure enough the skies opened up around 6’ish. A large group of homicide detectives and their wives from Atlanta had ordered their dinner on the outside patio under a flimsy umbrella. They were out of town in another state blowing off steam – which translates to ROWDY.  As the rain started blowing sideways, Mother Nature provided an intense lightening show. The APD crew abandoned their original table and joined us at our half-way protected location. They are the ones that told us the concert had been postponed for one hour. The rain was predicted to pass, and the music would start as soon as the skies started to clear.  They finished their meals, we all got drenched, shared a few jokes, and debated which job was more stressful: homicide detective or air traffic controller. The unanimous conclusion: professional golfer.

The concert was great, of course. We had a little bonus entertainment because of the couple on a date seated one row below us. The guy was nice and conservative while his girlfriend obviously made her living as a stripper. We got to watch a three hour pole dance, minus the actual pole – and Mike never even had to tip the girl! Grace Potter showed up to sing her duet “You and Tequila Make Me Crazy” (which Mike always dedicates to me each time we hear it), and then Sammy Hagar made a surprise appearance for a couple of head-banger songs. Kenny even brought Emeril Legassi out on stage to give him some kudos since he had apparently catered the event for the crew. We got home about 1:45 that morning, and spent the entire next day trying to recover.

As Friday afternoon approached we started feeling a bit stronger. I decided we needed a couple more drinks and some bar food to completely wipe out the boogie woogie flu. I searched urbanspoon.com for a place we could sit outside on the water and found a place called Pirate’s Cove. By land it was about a 45-minute drive away. After I found out they allowed dogs at the establishment it only took us about 5 minutes to pack up and get in the car. The place was exactly what we wanted: a grungy dive in a run-down marina at the end of the road – loaded with character and packed with locals. If we had arrived by boat, as most people did, it would have only taken us about 20 minutes to get there. They had picnic tables set up in the sand, the water was a clear blue, and everyone there had a dog with them. The greasy burger and pizza piled about 6” high with STUFF were just what we needed. This is where I discovered my love of bushwhackers, a frozen ice cream concoction with more types of hooch in it than I can list. We ate, did some people watching and bought the t-shirt before driving back home to hit the sack.

Gulf State Park is a long linear park along the Gulf of Mexico but not directly on the beach. As you move away from the water there is a strip of white silky sand, then there is a road that runs beside the beach (S.H. 182). On the north side of the road is more natural vegetation, a fresh-water lake (complete with alligators), and then the campsites begin. Mike had to have a fresh-water fishing license to fish in our “back yard”, and a saltwater license to fish from the surf. From our spot the beach was just a quick 10-minute walk, so it was the perfect location. One bad thing about the Alabama Beaches (the only bad thing) is no dogs, bummer. We walked Piper and Cessna around the park to stretch their legs, then locked them in the coach and headed for the sand and surf on our first Saturday in the area. Surprisingly, it wasn’t very crowded for a weekend afternoon. We spent a couple of hours watching boats trolling in the gulf, a guy fishing in the surf, and another couple flying a crazy kite that flew so fast and high it sounded like it had a jet engine attached.

There were so many wonderful restaurants in and near Gulf Shores that we did more eating out than we did cooking on this stint. One afternoon we went to Lulu’s at Homeport Marina. Lucy Buffett is Jimmy Buffett’s sister. I guess we could qualify as Parrot heads, so the only logical thing to do was check out his sister’s place and show her some support. I figured it would be a giant tourist trap, but wanted to see it anyway. They obviously did cater to tourists at the place, but the drinks were cold and I don’t know if I loved the marinated crab claws or cold boiled shrimp better. Both were fresh, delicious and plentiful. We rode our bikes a couple miles down the main drag to another little dive called Bahama Bobs which was right on the sand – the drinks were cheaper here and this is where I discovered that there is such a thing as blueberry vodka. We had raw oysters at a place called the Pink Pony – again located right on the sand. Our waiter was from Jamaica and gave us the nicknames of Mighty Mike and Empress Dina. By the end of our meal he had earned the title of Kickin’ Kevin. He wanted us to come back and join them for Karaoke later that night because he wanted to perform some David Allen Coe in our honor.

The day we were visiting Auburn we talked to a nice young couple who told us we HAD to go the Flora Bama when we got to the Gulf. Eager to follow any travel advice from ‘locals’, we stopped in after a drive over to Pensacola one rainy Friday afternoon. The place is gigantic, sits right on the Florida – Alabama state line. It is so big that it encompasses both sides of the street. On the beach side are several bars and the restaurant, while on the opposite side of the street you can find their marina and liquor store. We were lucky to find a non-smoking section with some live music so we settled in there for a bit and enjoyed the end of happy hour. Mike ordered the best cheeseburger I’ve ever tasted in my life. Apparently there is a ritual that the ladies leave their bras behind on any fixture or hook they can find. I wanted to fit right in, so I autographed mine and left it hanging above the booth where we ate that evening.  Another afternoon we found a place called the Shrimp Shack on the eastern side of town near a marina. We both ordered the shrimp po-boys which were enormous. I was so full after eating half of mine that I couldn’t even eat dinner that night, it was the best shrimp po-boy we had on our trip since we started in February. Our waiter was a 20-year old happy stoner, so everything was groovy and we found out “it’s all that” applies to anything.

One afternoon Mike was on his way out into the park with his chainsaw to look for firewood when our friend Mr. Cliff drove up. Turns out he carries extra firewood in the trunk of his sedan, so he gifted us enough stash to last the rest of our stay. One morning he also brought me about 3 pounds of fresh strawberries from a festival in nearby Foley. We had him over for dinner one night and fried him some of the crappie Mike had in the freezer from Lake Martin. We all enjoyed the fish with some fresh corn, sweet potatoes and coconut cream pie for dessert.

One of the most surprising things to me about Gulf State Park was the amount of wildlife we saw up close and personal. I hadn’t seen as many wild animals in all of the other places we had stayed combined as we did during our 12 days in Gulf Shores. Five minutes after we initially parked the bus a 30-pound possum came ambling up into our spot. We sprayed him with water and he would retreat for a few seconds, but then start coming toward us again. Mr. Cliff said he was after the persimmon on the edge of the water. There were signs all over the park telling us not to feed or agitate the alligators. We figured they were just precautionary until one evening we learned they were valid. Mike was fishing off the bank of our site when a couple of kids who were camping with their grandparents in a trailer a couple of spots down came running up to us yelling “an alligator is coming, an alligator is coming”.  Grandma followed with her camera. Sure enough here comes a 10-foot ancient reptile swimming along the current about 20 yards from us. We all pleaded with Mike to please step away from the water, but he didn’t want to miss any fish. The gator and the human had a bit of a stare-down before the alligator kept on swimming down the channel.

As I was riding my bike to the beach one day I almost ran over a 4-foot black snake that I’m pretty sure was a water moccasin. I tried not to panic as he saw me and freaked out. I was on a 3-foot wide pedestrian bridge at the time and I wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to get out of my way. I lifted both legs high up in the air as he slithered the other direction. Yikes. There were wild rabbits, armadillos, bald eagles, and osprey everywhere. One afternoon while Mike was fishing in the surf he caught a shark. Luckily it took the line out about 200 yards before breaking it off at the hook. Although Mike did snag a few perch in the fresh water, his second largest catch was an old turtle that he fought with for quite a while before he could get the hook out of his mouth.

A great thing about being out on the road is seeing old friends who have moved outside of Texas. My high school friend Dee Dee lives with her family near Mobile now, so she was nice enough to drive over one afternoon. We went on a long walk and caught up on the details of our lives since we last saw each other, then I took her back to Bahama Bob’s for lunch before she had to go pick up her kiddos at school. It is so nice to be with old friends when you can pick right back up where you left off without any hesitation.

There was so much to do in and around the park, we really only took one day-trip the entire time we were there. Between the beach, the walking trails, bike rides, tennis and golf, we never had big motivation to get out in the car for a long drive anywhere. One rainy day we took a field trip to the Naval Aviation Museum on the Naval Base in Pensacola. The place was amazing and once again, we didn’t schedule enough time to see everything. There were several huge hangars filled with every type of naval airplane ever flown. Some were on display on the ground while others were hanging from the rafters. Some of the Apollo aircraft were even on display. There were exhibits built to duplicate exact replicas of the insides of aircraft carriers, POW camps, a typical small town during WWII, and MASH units. There was an IMAX theater and an operating restaurant/bar built to look like a typical officer’s club. We wandered around for a couple of hours trying to absorb as much as we could before they closed the doors at 5pm.

Our last Sunday in Alabama found us back at the Flora Bama for church. Yes, we attended church in a bar and watched people sip bloody marys or mimosas in between hymns. The place was dog-friendly, so even Piper and Cessna got a little religion that day. After the service was over, we parked ourselves on one of the outside decks overlooking the beach and enjoyed some of those cocktails ourselves. One hour turned into six as we passed the time making new friends with all the people that sat at the tables next to us. We met a clan of brothers visiting from Illinois on their annual fishing trip, a group of 20-something kids drinking off last night’s hangover, and a sweet golden retriever-loving couple in town celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.

Sun-kissed and full of happy memories, we left Alabama for Florida a few days before May started. On our way out of town Mike said he could never live in a place like this. I was so surprised by his statement, but when he answered my question of “WHY NOT”, it made total sense. How could we ever get anything useful accomplished in a place like this? We would waste every day eating seafood and soaking up sun rays . We would be even more useless than ever… a point I could not argue.

 

Our 'backyard' at Gulf State Park

Our ‘backyard’ at Gulf State Park

An alligator on one of our hikes through the park

An alligator on one of our hikes through the park

One of the stages inside the Flora Bama

One of the stages inside the Flora Bama

Our view after church... you can see why we lingered for about 6 more hours!

Our view after church… you can see why we lingered for about 6 more hours!

Just one view of inside the Naval Aviation Museum

Just one view of inside the Naval Aviation Museum

The view after our 10-minute walk to the beach

The view after our 10-minute walk to the beach

One of the sunsets from our spot.

One of the sunsets from our spot.

Curing the hangover at Pirate's Cove

Curing the hangover at Pirate’s Cove

The view from the cheap seats at the concert

The view from the cheap seats at the concert

Waiting for the rain to pass so the concert could begin

Waiting for the rain to pass so the concert could begin

 

The view out my bedroom window

The view out my bedroom window

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alabama Part II: Lake Martin

As we studied the map in an effort to select our next stop, we found Lake Martin in East Central Alabama near Alexander City. It only seemed appropriate that The Martins should spend some time at Lake Martin while on the road. Our plan was to go there for a week and take day trips to Birmingham and Montgomery, both of which were a little over an hour away. The drive down the state was beautiful. We were lucky to be in the south during springtime. The greens of the trees, fields and grass were various shades of electrified neon. The azaleas were budding with brilliant reds, pinks and whites. The trees that weren’t green popped out of the landscape with splotches of white or pinkish red. The entire time we were driving to Alexander City I kept thinking I need to find an app on my phone that would help me identify regional flora and fauna. I would like to tell you what kind of trees and flowers I’m trying to describe, but if I say much more I will look extremely ignorant.

Wind Creek State Park is the largest state operated campground in the United States with 626 sites. A few days after we were there we learned that of all those spots, there were only 18 waterfront spots with water, power AND sewer. We were lucky enough to land in C24 which backed into a small cove across from the Park Marina. The park spans 1,445 acres along the shores of scenic Lake Martin which is a 41,000 acre reservoir perfect for fishing, swimming and boating. In addition to campsites, the park also had a fishing pier, hiking trails, boat rentals, horseback riding trails off of the equine camping area, cabins, and a sandy beach swimming area.

After we had settled into our spot we became very lazy with relaxing camping activities like lounging in the hammock, fishing off the banks, walking the trails and tending a campfire. We spent a lot of our time gawking at our neighbors camped out on the point across the water from us. There were four trailers of families that met at the park to spend the week together. One family had a giant lab/pit bull mix that loved the water. The family tied a rope to the dog’s neck and the other end to a green kayak. Then they put a kid in the kayak and threw out a bright orange hunting bumper to the middle of the cove. The dog would swim out to snag the bumper and back to shore while the kiddo enjoyed a free ride in the kayak. We worried along with our neighbors, Archie and Linda, that the dog would drown but the hound never tired. It was very funny and ingenious of the parents (wear out the dog and entertain the kid all at once).

I’m sure you can understand that this quality entertainment caused us to quickly lose all desire to spend time back in the car. We decided to cancel our plans to visit Birmingham or Montgomery. We are only on our third state, and I’ve already thwarted my goal to visit each state capitol! (We did drive through Birmingham on the way to the park and through Montgomery after leaving the park… so I’ll say we technically visited each city).

Since I am married to one of the most loyal and fanatic Texas Longhorn Fans in the universe, it is not surprising that we showcase some U.T. gear at our campsite. When you see the Longhorn emblems on the flag by the door, or on the chair by the fire, or on the license plate covers decorating the bus and car – you know what team we support. In Alabama, this isn’t the most popular position to brag about. All the Alabama fans still vividly remember when they rolled tide over Texas in Pasadena during January of 2010. We were there and I do remember all the Alabama fans being so gracious to us as we exited the Rose Bowl Stadium in a slightly different mood than we had just one year previously.

It was this rivalry that helped us snag a freezer full of crappie while we were at Lake Martin. A park host named Tommy that lived up at the top of Loop C noticed our team regalia one evening, so he stopped over to introduce himself and give us some grief. After we visited for a short while, Tommy had already invited Mike to go fishing out on the Lake and gifted us with a bottle of home grown apple pie moonshine. He and Mike ended up fishing one full day and brought home two limits of crappie. We fried a batch for dinner that night and they divided the rest for their freezers. The next day Tommy fished alone but came by our spot in his boat on his way back to the marina. Mike helped him get the boat on his trailer and clean his limit from that day – and we ended up with half the day’s catch in our freezer again! Since my birthday is a 24 we figured spot #C-24 would be lucky, and we were correct.

We did drive over to Auburn one Sunday afternoon. We took the dogs and walked around the campus which is very charming with red brick buildings and lush landscaping. The actual town is a tiny community of only about 6,000 inflated ten-fold by the university population. The campus is undergoing lots of major construction and capital improvements. It was obvious they had a recently winning sports program, since most of the money was being pumped into athletic facilities and student athlete housing. We saw the famous oak trees by Toomer’s Drug Store that were poisoned by an opposing fan. Turns out our timing was good because they are schedule to be cut down in just a couple of weeks. We had a snack and some drinks at a cute sidewalk café and then drove back home just in time for sunset.

We loved our time at Wind Creek State Park but we left one day earlier than scheduled to get down to our next stop at Gulf Shores ahead of some severe weather predictions.

 

Piper discovered the joys of lounging in the hammock. He had climbed half- way in before I knew what he was doing and I couldn't resist helping him get settled.

Piper discovered the joys of lounging in the hammock. He had climbed half- way in before I knew what he was doing and I couldn’t resist helping him get settled.

Spot # C24

Spot # C24

Sunset view from a tiny pier near our C-Loop.

Sunset view from a tiny pier near our C-Loop.

Lake Martin

Lake Martin

The view from our spot looking across the water at sunset.

The view from our spot looking across the water at sunset.

My view from the hammock

My view from the hammock

A typical view from one of our hike's within the State Park

A typical view from one of our hike’s within the State Park

 

 

 

Alabama Part I: Joe Wheeler State Park

We started our month of April in northern Alabama at Joe Wheeler State Park near Rogersville, about 50 miles west of Hunstville just below the Tennessee state line. After our last stay at the Good Sam Park in Tupelo, we were extremely excited to get back to a proper campground. We really loved our time here.  The State Park is a RESORT Park encompassing 2,550 acres along the Tennessee River which forms the 69,700 acre Wheeler Lake. Mike was also happy because it is touted as a fisherman’s paradise.

The park has a campground where we stayed in spot A23. It also has a lodge with 75 lakeside hotel guest rooms, a swimming pool, conference center, and restaurant with spectacular views of the lake and the marina. The marina has boat rentals, and the golf course is beautiful. They also have a dozen or so guest cottages along the waterfront, and about 14 miles away on the other side of the water, are 27 more modest guest cabins. After I list the rest of the amenities like the tennis courts, fishing piers, hiking trails, the sandy beach area, and beautiful views, you can see why we were so happy to make this place a stop on our trip.

We met back up with the spring breakers when we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon to a full park. The office assigned us spot #A9, but when we got there another motorhome had already occupied the space. Fortunate for us, we decided to take the first spot we could find and then get in the car to circle the rest of campground to see if anything better was available. It turns out the first spot we took was the only full hook-up pull-thru long enough for us to fit into regardless of what else was available. Our travel angels were on duty that day.

We arrived to a very nice section of neighbors on this stop. Two families from different parts of the state had converged at Joe Wheeler S.P. to celebrate spring break together. They had several kids with them, but we really only got to know Zane and Molly May. These two first graders were cousins and they spent many hours at and under our picnic table talking to the dogs. Zane was the cutest kid. He was all boy and every time he would show back up to our camp he would have another cut or bruise from falling out of a tree, or getting run over by another kid’s bike. He was always proud to show his latest camping scar. We met him when he followed us on our walk after we got settled on our first afternoon. I noticed he was trailing behind us so I asked him his name and we were friends from there. He didn’t really care too much about us, he just wanted to talk to the dogs as often as possible. Molly May spent many hours telling me about other state parks in Alabama – what there was to do at each and which ones sold ice cream. Her dad was a high school science teacher, H.S. and middle school coach, and part-time bus driver. When they all left on Friday morning, they gave us their leftover fire wood.

We only took a couple of day trips from our campground because there was so much to do inside the park. The Shoals area of northwestern Alabama is a pocket of four historical towns along the Tennessee River about 45 minutes to the west of the state park. The area is depicted in history as a thunderous stretch of shallow rapids where the Tennessee River flowed through the hills and valleys of the state. Mussels were found in abundance among the river rocks and American Indians used “much muscle” to power their canoes through the swift waters. That is how the area got the name of Muscle Shoals. Today, the shallow rapids are gone and the area is centered around Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Florence.

Muscle Shoals is a hot spot in recording music. Lyle Lovett even talks about it in one of his songs. Since we both love music we were looking forward to exploring the “muscle shoals sound” as we started out for the day. There are at least three famous recording studios in Muscle Shoals where everyone from the Rolling Stones to Paul Simon to Jimmy Buffett to the Oak Ridge Boys have created gold and platinum records. These places were open by appointment only, so we didn’t pursue that option other than taking a drive-by photo of FAME Recording Studios, Inc. We were very bummed when we got to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia to find it closed. The brochure made it sound very cool, but the building was locked up and there was no sign on the door or windows with information on operating hours or anything else.

We did stop at the birthplace and childhood home of Helen Keller in Tuscumbia. She was one of my idols as a child and I never really realized she was from Alabama originally. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see where she once lived and see the actual water pump where everything opened up for her. Mike was not so inspired by her life of miraculous accomplishments, so we parked under a large tree and he napped in the car with the dogs until I was finished. The estate was called Ivy Green, and there are only about 10 acres remaining of the original 640.The home was built in 1820 by her grandparents. Inside the home were hundreds of personal photos and letters/ correspondence on display. Most of the furnishings were actually original to the home including an exquisite 200-year old silver tea setting. After we (I) left Ivy Green we explored downtown Tuscumbia, drove through downtown Sheffield, and then parked in downtown Florence to grab a cocktail and some dinner at a great locally-owned spot along the main drag.

The main lodge at the park had a restaurant with elaborate buffets on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday brunch. They featured all-you-can-eat prime rib on Friday night. We went on Saturday for the endless crab leg and seafood buffet. I was tempted to go back to the Sunday Brunch on Easter after church, but I was still so full from all the crab meat and shrimp that I couldn’t consider it for long.

On our last day we drove over to Hunstville to check out the area and to specifically see the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. We stopped in historic Athens on our way to have lunch at a spot on the courthouse square. I enjoyed driving through downtown Huntsville and its adjacent historic neighborhoods. Everything was very clean and well-maintained. Huntsville boasts the largest collection of antebellum homes in the state, so there were plenty of wonderful structures to gawk at.

This is the day I learned that Hunstville played a role in America’s race to the moon. The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is recognized as one of the most comprehensive U.S. manned space flight hardware museums in the world.  The museum features almost 1,500 space artifacts from the U.S. manned spaceflight program, including the original Saturn V rocket an the Pathfinder orbiter displayed as the world’s only fully stacked Space Transportation System. The place is huge and has all kinds of simulated rides/virtual reality games for adults and older kids. They had a special exhibit on black holes while we were there. After our time reading the information on the exhibits, I was in awe of so many scientists and explorers that developed accurate theories and formulas for ideas and phenomenon they still cannot even fully comprehend or explain. It was overwhelming and inspirational at the same time.

On the way back home that afternoon we stocked up on supplies for the next week (groceries, dog food, liquor). The next morning we loaded up and headed to the middle of Alabama to spend some time on Lake Martin. It is not by accident that we thought this would be a good state park to investigate, we figured we would feel at home there!

The Park Marina with the Main Lodge and Hotel in the background

The Park Marina with the Main Lodge and Hotel in the background

The Golf Course in the Park

The Golf Course in the Park

Spot #A23

Spot #A23

One of the Guest Lodges at Joe Wheeler State Park

One of the Guest Lodges at Joe Wheeler State Park

Happy Hour

Happy Hour

A turkey lingered for about 3 days at the end of our circle in the middle of four campers while the park was almost completely full for Easter weekend.

A turkey lingered for about 3 days at the end of our circle in the middle of four campers while the park was almost completely full for Easter weekend.

SR71 Blackbird

SR71 Blackbird

U.S. Space and Rocket Center

U.S. Space and Rocket Center

The view from one of our hike's

The view from one of our hike’s

The Marina through the trees

The Marina through the trees

From a fishing pier in the picnic area

From a fishing pier in the picnic area