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.