It’s probably safe to say that most people don’t think much of Alabama. Alabamans, don’t be offended- we know people think (or rather, don’t think) about our home state of Minnesota in much the same way. And, like you, we know our state to be full of treasures unknown to the rest of the world!
We imagined Alabama as one of those nondescript southern areas sandwiched between places we know more about; we are mostly familiar with it in its relationship to civil rights, as the home state of Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. Needless to say, we weren’t expecting a whole lot. But as we’ve traveled over these last several weeks, people have recommended places in Alabama to us along the way (specifically, the city of Birmingham, and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville further north.) We’d originally planned to stick to the southern edge of the state to save on mileage, but we soon realized we’d have to go deeper to cash in on those recommendations and have a more varied Alabama experience.
We began winding up into the state from the Florida panhandle. The main road cut through flat, dry land that stretched for miles in every direction. Truly, the only notable things from this part of the journey were a series of shoe billboards with intriguing vintage artwork and a fast food joint that had been converted into a roadside church. We stayed overnight in Montgomery at an ironically named RV park (“The Woods” had approximately zero trees and was located off the highway next to a car dealership). The weather was rainy and gray, so we took the opportunity to catch up on work and movies.
Next up was Birmingham. Dubbed “The Magic City” in the late 1800’s due to a burst of industrial growth, Birmingham’s been getting a lot of buzz lately as a hip, up-and-coming town. It feels like a city with plenty of history and equal amounts of personality. We did the requisite touristy things like visiting the statue of Vulcan and eating BBQ at Saw’s (Carl and I are deciddly almost done with southern food, since we’ve eaten so much of it. However, it’s so good, we’re not calling it quits yet.)
We especially loved discovering the Birmingham Museum of Art— it’s free to the public (suggested $3 donation) and houses a fresh and unique collection that we both couldn’t get enough of. Albert Bierstadt’s painting Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865) is particularly breathtaking, and smartly placed as a focal point at the end of the main hallway. An exhibit of Vodoun Haitian flags was also pretty rad, and we left wishing we could keep them all for ourselves in their sparkly, intricate beauty. On our final night, we went to find the rainbow tunnels we’d heard about, which turned out to be a series of LED lights underneath the highway coming into downtown. We found a way to enjoy them even though it was pouring rain (as it essentially was the entire time in ‘B’ham’, as locals call it.)
Just before leaving the city the next day, we made a stop to see artist Joe Minter’s piece African Village in America. Joe has turned his backyard and the adjacent property into an enormous display of sculptures made from found and donated objects. Political and biblical in nature, they engage with events both past and present relating to the American and African-American experience. Several nod to police brutality and all of the recent violence surrounding it. We found the use of discarded, everyday items structured in such a jarring, political way to be haunting and affecting. Unfortunately, the rules seem to have changed for whether or not you can visit Joe’s work— in the past, sources have said that there is a passive agreement that visitors can enter the property during the day. Joe wasn’t there at the time we arrived, but his wife noticed us and invited us in to walk through. Joe came home while we were there, and told us that it was too dangerous to be in the yard. I wish we could recommend going to see it, because it’s difficult to convey the power of this work on camera; alas, it seems for the time being that the art is (mostly) off-limits to the public.
We then headed towards Huntsville to the north. As we wound up further into the state, the terrain changed remarkably from flat to hilly and mountainous. This makes sense- Tennessee borders Alabama to the north, and we often think of Tennessee as being more geographically dynamic. We took a detour on our way up to visit the Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard Abbey- a tiny blip on the map that indicates the grotto’s status on the historic register. Just outside of an unassuming small town sits the Abbey, and adjacent is the grotto’s entrance. Completely camouflaged from the outside, the grotto (and accompanying collection of miniatures) covers an entire hill down beneath the abbey itself. Nearly everything on display has been built by one monk, Brother Joseph Zoettl, over the course of sixty years. Not only is the grotto itself an achievement, but the hundreds of miniatures surrounding it are full of their own quirky magic.
I found myself experiencing a real cognitive dissonance taking it all in, having never seen a grotto before (and not being very familiar with them). It’s so odd to see religious structures made from seashells, marbles, cold cream jars, chandelier pieces, ornaments and dolls. We bought raisin bread and church basement coffee from a dour-looking monk before saying goodbye.
Our final stop in Alabama was the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (“A Smithsonian Affiliate,” they frequently emphasize). Both of us have romantic imaginations in regards to outer space, and jump at any chance to learn more about it. Unfortunately, this museum suffers from old theme park syndrome- yellowed signs, rusty models and outdated technology— elements that suggest a huge investment at one point in time that has been subsequently abandoned and left to fend for themselves. That said, the museum’s crown jewel (the Saturn V rocket, broken into pieces and on display in its own massive building) was everything it was cracked up to be. It was also, as always, amazing to look at space memorabilia. We especially loved the full-scale space station model that you can walk through— several video tutorials scattered throughout the capsule star Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoretti as she walks you through the process of living at the station. She even spends several minutes making a complicated space taco (we dug up the video, here). It’s funny to see how much work goes into making life a little more normal for astronauts. We loved learning about Baker and Able, the first monkeys to return safely home from a trip to space. Carl also reminisced about going to Space Camp with his Grandpa when we was a kid; the rocket center has their own Space Camp program.
We drove out of the state through the town of Muscle Shoals (home of the Fame recording studio), and Florence, connected by a massive dam and bridge. We aimed towards the Natchez Trace trail to take us into Mississippi and all the way down to the town of Natchez.
In the end, Alabama turned out to be far more interesting than we’d given it credit for— and, dare we say, it’s a place we’d recommend visiting someday.
More next week on our travels in Mississippi!
US Anywhere is a year-long, cross-country documentary project by newlyweds Carl and Anna. They are taking the 52 weeks of 2016 and are using them to travel the country and make short films about all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.). The project will seek to illuminate the states and the hugely diverse urban and natural landscapes of the US. They hope to inspire others to dream, travel, explore, and connect with the United States.