Category Archives: Alabama travel

Lost in Montgomery, Literally – Airport Version

Have you ever left something on an airplane?

Air travel can be hectic, sometimes confusing and harried, with flights delayed and high levels of fatigue. Although experienced travelers, this was our first time getting off the plane without getting one of our bags from the overhead compartment. But surely this sort of thing happens all the time. Right? A phone in the seatback pouch? A wedding ring? A coat forgotten in an overhead bin? Some paperwork from your job, left in there with the Skymall catalogue?

Ours was a paper shopping bag from Powell’s Books, full of treasures that we had acquired on New Year’s Day in Portland’s most famous bookstore. We also had acquired a few other books from Portland’s super-cool Cameron’s Books and Magazines. Seriously, if you are ever in Portland, do NOT miss that place. Our flight from Oregon brought us home to Montgomery, but first we had to go through Atlanta. Our precious books made it to Atlanta with us, and we purchased a pair of pants from the airport Brooks Brothers (the sale was too good to pass up) and we stuffed those into the bag with our books.

Our flight to Montgomery from Atlanta was delayed four to five hours. We were tired from New Year’s Eve and cross country travel. Although our bag of books went into the overhead, we got off the plane in Montgomery without it. We even left the airport without it. We realized what happened as soon as we pulled into our driveway, sometime around midnight.

If you’ve ever been to the Montgomery Regional Airport at 11 p.m. or midnight, you know that it’s pretty shut down. When there are no longer any outgoing flights scheduled, the last arriving flights are greeted by a complete skeleton crew. Exhausted, we decided that our bag would have certainly been found by the people cleaning the airplane, and decided to contact the airport first thing in the morning. Huge mistake. Huge.

The next morning, the Delta desk in Montgomery said that the plane had already returned to Atlanta, where it was cleaned. The Delta rep in Montgomery said that although they didn’t clean the plane until it returned to Atlanta, that there was no Powell’s bag in the lost and found in Montgomery. He was confident that the bag would have been discovered in the plane’s overhead compartment in Atlanta, and would be placed in a lost and found there. Here’s where the story begins to fall apart.

We were given a phone number for Delta’s lost and found in Atlanta, and encouraged to file an online claim for a lost item. We did that. Keep in mind, losing a personal item on the airplane is not the same as losing a checked piece of luggage. They track your checked bags with a number issued when you get your boarding pass. Lost carry-on items are given a claim number after the fact. This number makes it seem like Delta is paying attention to your bag. Though we’ve always been able to locate our checked bags with Delta, our experience with our lost carry-on makes it clear that they’ve got a ways to go before their system for finding lost bags passes even a basic muster.

A few questions we’ve been asked since we lost our bag:

Why did you leave the bag on the plane? A rare lapse in judgment. We’d been traveling for more than 15 hours when we finally got on our flight to Montgomery, itself delayed by more than 4 hours. We were pretty fried, and we’re lucky we remembered to grab our coats.

Couldn’t a fellow passenger have stolen the bag from the overhead compartment after you got off the plane? Yes. Technically that’s possible. But we were close to the back of the plane, so it’s unlikely.

Couldn’t the cleaning crew have seen the bag up there and stolen it? Yes. Technically that’s possible too. At this point we should mention again that there was nothing of real value in the bag, which looked like a beaten-up paper sack of books.

If you are one of those well-regarded high-status frequent travelers, does Delta give you any better customer service? Evidently not. One of us has had high Medallion status for years, and conversations mentioning this fact on Twitter with Delta have gotten us nowhere. Well, that is, they’ve gotten us the number for Hartsfield’s lost and found office. Where nobody ever answers the phone.

Would someone really steal a bag that contained a few worthless pulp paperbacks about UFOs, a bunch of critically-acclaimed but invaluable volumes of modern fiction, and some old issues of Doctor Strange comic books, plus a pair of pants that don’t fit? Seems unlikely. I mean, it’s not like we left a Rolex or iPhone on the plane. This paper shopping bag from Powell’s ought to have held minimal appeal for unscrupulous opportunists. This is why we think that the bag was probably turned in at some kind of “lost property” desk within the greater Delta hierarchy.

What’s going to happen next? One of us is going to be flying through Atlanta this week. She’s going to see if it’s possible to get access to what we imagine is a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style room of lost personal property. This may not work, but it’s worth a try. Since we’ve already left messages at all of the relevant numbers and hit up Delta repeatedly on social media, we’ve not got many options left.

Here’s the cold reality, folks: If you leave something on a plane, you don’t have a chance of getting it back. People leave TONS of stuff on airplanes all the time, and it’s clear that Delta (at least) does not seem to care at all about getting these things back to their owners. If they did, they’d have our paper bag full of books (and pants). We didn’t leave something nondescript like a blue coat, a cell phone, or key ring. We left a paper bag with a very specific logo on it. We can describe all of the contents. We were the last flight into ATL from Montgomery that night, so we know the flight was cleaned before people got back onto the plane. We are pretty sure that nobody would have let the plane take off again with a mysterious paper bag on board. Ergo, our bag is somewhere at Hartsfield. But there is nobody at Delta who’s willing to take our case or even speak to us as humans about this matter.

The lesson? Don’t leave anything on the plane. You’ll probably never see it again. And even if you’ve got a decade of Delta loyalty, they’ll probably treat you just like everybody else.

Ave Maria Grotto

Prologue: Exit 308

We’d taken the Cullman exit off of the 65 many times, always for a singular purpose: to consume an artisanal work prepared by members of a religious sect. Pickles. More specifically, the spicy garlic Amish pickles sold at Smith Farms (also sold at the creepy Pioneer Village on the way to Troy).

This time, to celebrate our nation’s independence, we decided to consume a different kind of religious craftsmanship: the Ave Maria Grotto. If you’ve never heard of the Grotto, you’ve probably never browsed many state tourism brochures. Sure, it’s not a site that our PR experts market as heavily as, say, the Rosa Parks museum. And it’s not a privately owned advertising juggernaut like De Soto Caverns. But still, it’s something unique to our state that has always struck us as not to be missed. We have a bit of an Alabama “bucket list,” you see – things we’ve agreed that we’d see or do together before one or both of us left the state.

If our skin was a different color, not too long ago we’d have been made to leave Cullman before the sun went down. In any case, we left long before dusk. On arrival, it was clear that despite the optimistic two-day itinerary suggested by the folks at the Grotto, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in downtown Cullman. Maybe because it was a Sunday? Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend? To get some pre-Grotto energy, we ate at a place called “All Steak.” Sure, they didn’t serve only steak. And probably they didn’t serve all of the steak (though we didn’t see anyone try to push them in this direction). But other things distinguish the spot. Mostly, the sheer volume of extra food we did not order that came with our meal. It started with cornbread and rolls. We take a bread course for granted, like chips and salsa at a “Mexican” restaurant. But it’s still, technically, food that you do not order.

What happened next was entirely outside of our range of shared experience. Our waiter, who had to be reminded by a peer that he was legally prohibited from serving us beer on Sundays in Cullman, deposited plates in front of each of us that contained a substance so foreign to us that our facial expressions must have conveyed a particularly unusual horrified bemusement – the kind you might expect to emote when confronted by, say, a lizard dressed as Bette Midler or a Groupon for a deeply discounted jalapeno-flavored lubricant.

“What is this?” We asked.
Congealed salad,” he replied. Perhaps seeing that this answer was unsatisfactory, or at least incomplete, he explained that this was given to every guest, free of charge. We nodded an uncertain assent.

Your first kiss; the death of a parent; being lost in a foreign country. These are things that are nearly impossible to describe. We could plausibly add our congealed salad to this list of rarities. It was sort of pinkish-orange. It was vaguely square. Of its own volition, it appeared to liquify over a relatively short amount of time. It may have contained some kind of ground nuts and fruit. When poked, it retained coherence. We politely took a few bites. It was citrus by way of carpet freshener.

At the end of the meal, we were delivered slices of pie and two of the restaurant’s “famous orange rolls.” A total of seven different extra and unordered food items. We marveled at the economy that allowed the All-Steak to lavish so many complimentary calories on its guests. We enjoyed our veggie plates and left an extra large tip.

Brother Zoetti

IMG_2547Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there was a time when the Catholic Church had a monopoly on Christianity. Sure, they had some hard times with multiple feuding popes and what not, but they were basically the only game in town until they overreached and Martin Luther showed up to make with the schism already. Schism after schism has left us with a rich array of Protestantisms, from the basically-Catholic C of E/Episcopalian variants to the God’s mouth-to-my-ear DIY experiments of the Pentacostals and, yes, the Baptists. Of course, all manner of rituals and beliefs separate these, but one is mediation. Who, if anyone, gets to mediate your relationship with the sacred? With the profane? With society? Are you a free agent, constrained, or somewhere in between?

Modernity doesn’t concern itself particularly with these questions, although they define every part of our experience from the mundane (“Do you want fries with that?”) to the profound (“Can I make the world better?”). In the American South, the question of mediation is especially poignant. When people talk about the particularly prickly attitudes of Southerners, what’s really under the glass is this people’s relative lack of mediation, the way their resistance stems from the sense that their hands are, if not directly on the levers of power, at least proximate enough to compel movement as they wish. Alienation happens when this power feels stripped away (see also: Trump), even if it never really existed in the first place.

Luther’s aftershocks still reverberate in the Deep South. Here, people still resist the idea of mediation. Why should any person, let alone any institution, stand between themselves and their God, much less their community? And others exploit that, as they can, for power and money (as far as those are separable), and other pleasures even more perverse. They want to watch Southerners in their designated holding area, pacing their oddly shaped cages, engaging in practices that others find alien and frightening – in short, a particular version of Orientalism. Some come to watch and wonder, to buy the goods on offer, to tell their friends back home that they survived a kind of Freedom Ride. Others want to see the oddities. They make Butch Anthony possible; they take friends from NYU and Columbia to see the Cross Garden and its promises of hellfire. In this way, enduring brunch stories are secured and passed forward for generations (or at least another round of mimosas).

The monastic experience is particularly far from most of us, North or South. We think of monks and nuns as hangovers from the distant past, their decision for a cloistered life as something ancient and constrained. Or else we valorize it, this idea of people who are so much better than us that they choose beer, or preserves, or prayer, or anything at all, really, except for the pleasures of the flesh that consume us. We forget that once monasteries existed essentially to serve two purposes. First, to get rid of inconvenient non-heir male children; and second, to create prayer buffer zones so that the rest of us might be able to have a resort or two before we went to hell. During the Crusades, wealthy families could have a kind of draft deferment by donating to cloisters in lieu of marching to Jerusalem, or Constantinople, or even the south of France.

And the nunneries? Arguably, a convent was your best bet if born a woman for much of the last 2,000 years. At least you’d probably not be raped; at least they’d probably teach you to read; at least you’d not die in childbirth. Convents have died off in recent memory. Literally. Fewer women want to marry Jesus, as they’ve just got the option to be not married at all (much less the option not to bear children). Meanwhile, nuns have become somewhat notorious for being politically active.

Here in Cullman (or, more precisely, Hanceville), the nuns are also known for political activism – just in their own way. While cloisters in California and Great Britain have chained themselves to fences arguing against nuclear weapons and climate change, Alabama’s nuns have taken a slightly different focus. They became globally notorious for the especially venomous opinions of one Mother Angelica, whose sisters assembled the Church’s most obvious and suspect tenets into a global media tapestry that resisted picking and re-weaving past her recent death. We did not visit the convent.

Instead we entered through the gift shop at St. Bernard Abbey. This is a Benedictine Order monastery, and if you’re confused about what that means, consider that the previous pope was keen enough on their core ideas to take their patron saint for his pope-name. Tickets for the grotto were $7 each. We were advised by the cashier to “enjoy our walk.”

Some background is in order here. Once upon a time, the French settled what became Louisiana. They built North America’s first cathedral in Mobile. They even had to import wives. Some immigrants came. They were Catholic. They had spiritual needs. In the 1890s, the Benedictines sent some folks to make a new monastery in what would become Cullman. The larger mission to convert the heathens and give succor, etc., was well under way.

And then something strange happened. In the early part of the new century, a brother joined the monastery from Europe by way of a few places elsewhere in the so-called “New World.” Brother Joseph Zoetti had been moved around, an immigrant with little English, to eventually take control of the electrical facilities at the Cullman monastery. What did he think of this strange place where the summers suffocated and incomprehensible insects took root in your small parts at odd hours? Did the other monks make fun of him for not speaking the language well? Was he already a touch afflicted with the need to see beyond liturgy, to the more demanding and tactile components of lived religion? Had he grappled with the limits of doctrine? Had he seen these limits as opportunities to be glazed and sparkled? Was he simply enamored of concrete and its ability to be shaped into anything God might command?

There is a movie about this in the gift shop. It cost $20. Because this was beyond our price point, we may never know. There are some clips from the film online. In one of them, beloved Alabama historian Wayne Flynt talks eloquently about how God does not see time; about how Joseph’s efforts transcended time and space in ways that followed a divine, rather than human, sense of the possible. We’d not seen this clip before we took the tour, but we’d seen a few others and had come to expect a set of eloquently crafted miniatures – faith embodied in the reflection of the human world, set meditatively among the trees and stones. We readied ourselves for the transcendent and stepped into the Alabama summer.

The Grotto


It is important to be honest about what you will see on the path. Do not expect, as we did, shockingly ornate craftsmanship. Or do, but don’t expect that it will conform to your particular ideas of “ornate” or “craftsmanship.” Do not expect to be transported to Rome, to Jerusalem, to Spain. Do expect to marvel. Do not be disappointed when this marveling takes you in unexpected directions. Remember, as you struggle, that to be human is to desire. Recall, if you can, the Buddha’s great insight that desire is suffering. We struggle against want, but in the end it pulls all but a few of us down, again and again, until we stay on the wheel forever or else push past it and therefore past the constraints of mortality. The ancient Zen stories make no sense. They are not meant to, at least not in the way that we conventionally understand meaning. But we are built to seek meaning, which makes encountering something like the Grotto especially hard.

An admission: We desired the Grotto in a particular way. Which is to say that we understood its meaning in a particular way. What is meaning if not the creation and reflection of desire? We entered with the subject position of art consumer; of tourists accustomed to navigating the irreducible distance between viewer and viewed. We wanted it, even if we didn’t admit as much to ourselves, to take our breath away. We wanted to be transported. We wanted to feel like Alabama was better than they say, better than we sometimes think in our low moments. We wanted the claims to be true, that there was this magnificent jewel in Northern Alabama, that believing required seeing.

The path leads you through a “self guided tour.” The path goes one way, although of course it is always possible to backtrack. Nobody does. There is a moral here if you look hard enough. It is lost on the bored children pretending to appreciate frayed and weather-worn models from another age. There is a brochure, which mostly repeats the content of the small plaques that accompany the exhibits. Mostly the plaques supercede the brochure. Mostly you wish to possess neither the plaque nor the brochure. Information can destroy beauty in an especially faithless manner foretold by a hundred erased Catholic mystic martyrs. The Grotto provides no exception to this rule.

But first. But first you begin at Bethlehem, a cage built around a conventional manger scene. You peer through the bars. You notice that the letters above have been decorated with colored glass. This is a taste of what is to come.

IMG_2516After the much-attended birth of Jesus, the exhibits begin in earnest. They are placed up and down a winding path, some set aside on their own, others clustered together. They are not arranged chronologically in terms of human time or time of construction (fitting, as these things have little to do with divine time). It turns out that the exhibits have been moved – that this is not their original location, that they may not have always been surrounded by manicured gardens and staffed by people who remove fallen pinecones and stray leaves.

The miniatures come in two kinds. The first kind aspires to representation, to verisimilitude. You may never see St. Peter’s or the Coliseum, but you can see them here – a kind of artifice that feels ancient enough to pre-date not just photography but the printing press. When you consider that the other people on the path may never themselves see these wonders in person, but may think they have via the magic of the Internet, you may feel a unique brand of sadness. You consider the plaster, the concrete, the fragile construction of the cheap-looking models, and they make you sad. Not because of any intrinsic inadequacies, but because of the failures of representation itself, the tragedy of desire and its failed collision with the human experience. You admire the water features. You pause to see if a frog is real or a statue.

To understand the Grotto, you’ve got to interrogate your idea of what it means to be “real.” Representation is the most baseline manifestation of the idea of the real, and there’s no question but that all of the miniatures represent something. Some have “real life” correspondents. Others seem to draw purely from Brother Zoetti’s head. There is the fictional Crucifixion Tower. There are the Hanging Gardens. Then there are the Biblical images – the Ark, for example, an especially poignant and lovable display in light of Kentucky’s new multi-million dollar boondoggle.

Yes, yes, but what are they like? How can we be 2600 words into this blog post and not know yet what the sculptures are like? Reader, you should know that they are not nearly as magnificent as you may have been led to believe. Full stop. There is no point in pulling punches on this matter. As you wander on the path, you get the feeling that Brother Joseph was the kind of person who scavenged broken shards of plates out of the trash; who hoarded bags of marbles; who begged pieces of tile from construction sites. How you react to this will define, in a very fundamental way, who you are.

Consider that the sculptures themselves are not exactly high art. Which is to say, more precisely, that they are mostly composed of concrete globs with various bits attached. Depending on the artist’s stated goal, some of these attachments represent the familiar (e.g., The Leaning Tower of Pisa). Others are more abstract (e.g. The Temple of the Fairies). While all tend to include some element of sparkle, there is a sense among the more imaginative works that the artist felt free to merge a set of sea shells, a few globs of cement and a set of marbles together for effect. Overall, many of the works contain less artistic innovation than grade school enthusiasm.

It hurts your heart to say it this way, but really, there is a sense where the rows of shells, with concrete, with embedded marbles feel more manic than inspired, and more sad than depressive, and in any case less impressive than you’d thought, so it’s best to move along. They are displayed individually, or else in groups (even though the grouping is suspect along lines of time and place, as Flynt points out). Sometimes they are crammed up on a hill, with manicured gardens between. Other times, you’re left to consider their meaning alone. There are no individual pieces that induce a “wow” reaction. This is important to know, if you decide to go. The propaganda materials for the site make it seem like you will be absolutely blown away. You will. Just not in the way you thought you’d be.

Art and religion have much in common. In the first place, they are relational. For beauty to exist, there must be something beautiful. Belief cannot be described without something in which faith is instilled. Our paths, all “self-guided,” diverge as we age. Some of us calcify and describe this as commitment. Some of us haven’t thought that much about it. Some of us reach wildly about as death feels more near, as beauty feels far away and faith ever further. Still others are called, evidently, to glue things to other things in an attempt to reconcile the dark distances between love, highest purpose and creed.

There is a way to tell the history of the church that is a story of struggle against the strange and unknowable. The core texts are declared and collected, the others shunned or called things like “apocryphae.” Persistent oddities are brought in and made dicta – God is three but also one; bread is body; wine is blood but also not wine at all but something considerably less heady. Pieces of saints – robes, bones, hands – are preserved for worship and wonder across the world. Our own stories aren’t so different. We push away what doesn’t fit into our theories of the world, or else we seek to contain and categorize the inconvenient and wild, the odd and disturbing. We organize ourselves against death, we imbue the objects around us with meanings that are often inscrutable to others. Whether we believe or not, we still feel doctrine’s push and pull. Slowly, it will bring pieces of us out to sea no matter how we twist and turn.

If you leave the Grotto trying to understand why Brother Zoetti made these objects, you are doing it wrong. If you leave without curiosity, or feeling like you’ve wasted $7, you are also doing it wrong. There is no right approach along the path; there are only shells, and glass shards, and broken plates, and marbles, and elaborate hillsides where the probable nestles next to the improbable.

Epilogue: The Gift Shop

Afterward, your body sweltering from the heat, your mind spinning from the uncomfortable juxtaposition of mysticism and the concrete (also the actual concrete), you have the opportunity to purchase many God-themed items. These include an improbably large variety of Catholic tchotchkes: crucifixes, anglo-Jesus portraits, spreadable monastic preserves, golf balls, childrens’ books, rosaries, license plate covers declaring that GOD is your CO-PILOT, and – oddly – sports cards. Which are “pay as you wish” to benefit mission trips. If this does not strike you as incongruous, having stared too long at “HANSEL AND GRETEL VISIT THE CASTLE OF THE FAIRIES,” you have no soul.

Kymulga Cave (DeSoto Caverns)

We knew that there would be a friendly conquistador mascot.

His paralyzed rictus leered at us from billboards scattered across the state. His grin beneath his conquistador comb morion said “genocide” to us but nonetheless offered family fun to potential tourists around Alabama.

P1060421We were pretty sure we’d be troubled by some parts of the two-day Native Heritage Festival. The billboard at the gas station by our house promised a special event at DeSoto Caverns — a Native American Festival of some sort. We were familiar with the blurred lines between “offensive” and “fascinating” that accompany so many ostensibly educational opportunities here.

We also knew that Alabama had some beautiful caves. Some are featured on the “Caves of Alabama” episode of the indispensable show “Discovering Alabama” (which can be seen in iTunes here). Some are, like DeSoto Caverns, privately owned, like the sadly-recently-closed Sequoyah Caverns.

So, yeah, we had some expectations.

Then, upon arrival at the cave outside of Childersberg, we encountered the following words: “laser light show is Biblically themed.” Six simple words printed on a laminated card next to the gift shop cash register. Six words that changed the game.


First: laser show. You drive an hour and a half to see a cave mentioned on billboards all over the state. Marvels of nature are a particular category of thing, linking us to the scores of humans that across the eons have gawked at some waterfall or geyser or hole in the ground. But there’s going to be a laser show? Will the enormous men on mobility scooters (themselves marvels of nature) clad in bald eagle print shirts survive a laser show? Will the multiple American flags affixed to said mobility scooters?

Second: Bible-themed? Why? What did this have to do with one of Alabama’s most famous caves? Our stomachs slid as we forked over almost $25 apiece to see the cave. We also received ten “credits” to be used for visiting the park’s other attractions, which were mostly assembled out of some country fair’s leftover bin — as if the majesty of God’s Cave™ were alone insufficient to justify dragging the kids away from their video games.

We decided to pass on the “pedal-powered go-karts” and mini golf. We immediately got in line for the 2:30 cave tour. This was less a line than a hundred sweaty people bumping into each other due to their inability to simultaneously text and guzzle giant cups of sugar water. Seen from above, it might have been a fractal. Seen from human-level, it was a showcase of all the worst tee-shirts imaginable. Amid the usual “Bama gear,” there was a Deadpool-themed basketball jersey and a tank top that contained an image of every single AC/DC album.

Among us there wandered a few upbeat high school students wearing official green DeSoto Caverns “staff” shirts. They used a pen to mark off physical tickets brandished by random passers-by. This seemed ineffectual. Say what you will about the modern American theme park, but most are fairly efficient at dealing with the whole “buy the ticket, take the ride” part of the experience. DeSoto Caverns was free-forming it, perhaps awash in unusually large crowds. It was the day of the Native American Festival, after all, whose drumming we heard as we waited in line for the cave tour.

As the previous tour filed out, the caving rules were explained loudly by our bored teen guides. No smoking, no eating, no touching the rocks (because the “olls” (rhymes with “tolls”) in our hands would “stop the moss from growing.”)

We’ve seen some caves before. Last year we made reservations at Carlsbad Caverns. The National Parks Service online registration system offered several choices of tours organized by length and strenuousness. We booked a tour for a specific time, ensuring that no tour would be over-crowded. We could pay online with a secure service. Despite the many claims we hear in Alabama about the comparatively crisp efficiency of private industry relative to its idiot government cousin, the privately-owned Desoto Caverns website offers none of these things. You just buy a ticket at the gift shop, along with a slab or three of award-winning fudge, maneuver your stroller into battle mode and ignore everyone else around you. You can go on any tour you want, as long as it’s the same one as everyone else. Depending on the day and time, some may be intimate while others are massive stampedes.

While waiting to enter DeSoto Caverns, you might kill time by staring at the mural leading into the cave entrance. It depicts friendly Conquistadors (the titular DeSoto) and an accommodating Native American pointing into the cave. The corrugated tunnel leading into the cave may remind you of the mailed-in parts of locally run haunted houses. It leads onto a ramp that is not as slippery as advertised. The descent is pretty brief. The cave is implausibly tall and almost vaulted in the matter of European cathedrals. At this moment, however, your job is not to wonder. It is to find a seat in the 16+ rows of cold metal bleachers. The movie is about to start.

A giant television tells us that nobody really knows how Earth’s caves were created. It says that one popular theory is that they were caused by a giant flood. Our ears prick up. Perhaps not only the laser show is bible themed? The video on the cave’s history features a syrupy accented actor playing Hernando De Soto. If the movie is correct, the famed Spanish explorer sounded a lot like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.

The film talks vaguely about the people living here before De Soto rolled in with his megalomaniac bloodlust. The history of DeSoto Caverns is really told mostly from a kind of corporate promotion perspective, including a friendly introduction to the current CEO and a look at the prior owners’ strategy to exploit the cave’s resources in various way. The film does not say how old the cave is. We find this odd, until we remember that we’re still waiting on the Bible Themed Laser Show.

Then they turn the lights off. We had been hoping for a few minutes of primal pitch darkness. The idea of not being able to see, of the uniquely immersive experience of cave dark, appealed to us. Complete darkness is biological and irreducible. Unfortunately, appreciation of inky silence is evidently too unnerving for the modern teen tour guide’s psyche. Within seconds of extinguishing the light, the jokes broadcast over the PA system began: “Wave your hand in front of your face. Touch your nose. Now, touch your neighbor’s nose without picking it.” This was evidently needed for the crowd to relieve the tension generated by the agonizing sensation of temporary absence of visual stimulation.

Relieved of the need (or capacity) for introspection, we awaited the next spectacle. First we were treated to the opening lines of the Old Testament. The lights emitted from behind the inflatable screen that had just shown us the information-free film, from a formation that seemed to be slightly modified to resemble popular illustrations of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead of ghosts, streams of colored water were sprayed at suitably momentous intervals while lasers did their thing against the back of the wall through lazy bursts of smoke. Then, ooh, ahh, the blue laser MUST be God traveling over the firmament, and everyone gets the point that we are totally talking about the Wonder of Creation here.

But then it goes on. And on. Genesis as sledgehammer. All of the days of creation, each enumerated and detailed. A voice intones that each day had a morning and a night. Some people applaud when it’s revealed at the end that God rested on the last day.

Seeing this low-rent razzle dazzle in explicitly Biblical framing helped us to understand more about why the flag scooter people parked outside the gift shop’s bathrooms (“Chiefs” and “Maidens”) had been ranting so vociferously about the need for greater militancy in the ongoing struggle of the War on Christianity.

We are brow-beaten. The lasers die off and we stand up, confused, lurching into sub-groups loosely defined by the numbers of un-numbered bench rows. Still reeling, we meet our guide, Caitlin.

“This is our wishing well. Also known as the Confederate Well.” We look at each other to see if she just said that last part. If we’ve already gone full monotheistic cave history, we might as well hitch our carts to some kind of polemic about the War of Northern Aggression.

People dutifully pitch change through the roped-off steel grate into the beautifully clear illuminated water below. We are led into a spectacular part of the cave full of low overhangs that weave toward a surprisingly vibrant waterfall and the roped-off back part of the cave.



Caitlin tells us that there once maybe was a bootlegging tunnel that led all the way to Talladega (12 miles away), and that there are lower caves that “only the professionals” go into. We will never be introduced to the vocabulary word “spelunkers” or any other actual parts of cave exploration on our visit. Seriously, you can (and will) do the entire cave tour without knowing that there are people in this world that engage in recreational cave exploration, much less study them in a variety of academic contexts. Interestingly, the site’s online educational materials designed to lure students there on field trips are quite detailed on the scientific foundations of the cave’s formations and nowhere mention young earth creationism.

Our next stop on the tour contains some bootlegging equipment. Evidently, Caitlin tells us, “they” think that the cave functioned as a distillery and night club during prohibition (first the “Cavern Tavern”, and after a series of horrific underground barroom brawls, “The Bloody Bucket.”) Caitlin’s shoulder shrugging, “nobody knows” ethos seems at odds with her claim that actual people have showed up at DeSoto Caverns and told stories about how it used to be an illegal club. For Caitlin, the myths about the cave are just about as accurate (and vague) as the established facts.

We proceed a few paces to the left. Here we see a rock with “WRIGHT 1715” scratched into it. It looks as if there are human remains sitting here. Caitlin tells us a story about an 18th century trader who wandered into the cave seeking shelter only to be killed by the locals on account of it being a sacred burial site. She notes that these are “fake bones” next to the rock.

Indian burial ground. The game changes again. Stephen raises his hand to seek clarification. “I’m sorry, did you say that this is an Indian burial ground?” Caitlin seems nervous. She is worried about going off script. We will have to sit through an overly-detailed explanation of Confederate gunpowder manufacture in the caves before we can hear more about what seems to have been the oldest and most important use of the cave. All of a sudden the whole rest of the tour takes on a horrible and obscene cast. We’ve been marched down a ramp, subjected to terrible promotional materials and an EXTENDED READING OF PART OF THE CONQUERING RELIGIOUS TEXTS WHILE LASERS SPARKLED, and only now do we learn that all of this has happened in a sacred burial site? And today is the Native American Festival?

Are we walking on graves? The tour’s explanation of the discovery of the human remains makes virtually no sense – they’ve just finished telling us a story about some guy who sought shelter in the cave for a night in 1715, carved his name in the wall, and was killed for invading and desecrating a holy site – and now the story is that “until recently” nobody knew this was a graveyard? It’s clear that they used to display bones. “Then they decided they didn’t want that,” says Catitlin. Never mind that we don’t now know who “they” are — presumably the relatives of the people who lived here for a thousand years before “we” arrived and deported them to Oklahoma. It’s notable that the matter of grave desecration (and robbing?) was framed as something that is to be “liked” or “not liked.”

So here’s the upshot: In 1965, archeologists from the University of Alabama entered what was then known as Kymulga Cave and discovered a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site that held the remains of (at least) five people. At some point afterwards, these bones were on display for tourists to gawk at. At some point after that, representatives from a tribe came and buried the bones somewhere in the cave, presumably behind the rope barrier blocking us from going up some steps to the area where the remains were found. No further information about this is provided.

We were standing in a sacred cavern which had been used for burials. This cavern is now both a privately-owned money-making scheme and a crass effort at spreading religious dogma. We were now staring at the cave tour’s second plastic skeleton.

Before you get too cynical about the private holding of a natural wonder (to say nothing of the genocide part), it’s also worth noting that the cave’s first white owner was a pretty impressive woman. Long after the natives had been expelled (leaving behind a few of their ancestors), and long after the Confederate gunpowder had been cooked up, Ida Mathis and her husband bought the cave. And she was a pretty impressive lady!

It’s for the best that their plans to mine the cave for onyx went bust. It’s probably not for the best that her relatives (still owners of the cave) changed the name of the place from Kymulga to DeSoto in 1976. And the current incarnation of the place as the host to the Native American Festival? Well, you’re 2200 words into this piece, so let’s talk about that.

We weren’t sure what to expect from the festival, since the DeSoto Caverns website offers more typos than substantive information. All we could gather in advance was that this was the 50th year of the festival, and that there would be five tribes present. Alabama has only one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creeks (Andrew Jackson having gotten rid of just about everybody else some time ago). We were interested to see what other groups/nations would be represented. But the park offered no leaflets, educational materials or other documentation. There was just a sign with the day’s schedule – several performances repeating from 9-5 on the big stage. On the way in, we’d seen tents that seemed to be set aside for tribal members to sell wares that included bows, arrows and dreamcatchers.

This last made us cringe. We’ve always associated dreamcatchers with a particular vein of products and representations that both appropriate Native cultures for commercial consumption while flattening them out to homogenize the many peoples who used to live across the Americas. The dreamcatcher is in fact a meaningful part of Ojibwe culture (they’re up around Lake Superior and also extend into Canada), most often seen these days hanging from the rear view mirrors of folks who may also wear airbrushed “wolf howling at the full moon” shirts and overly-dangly earrings with feathers and fake turquoise. In the first instance, if you’re dreaming while in your car, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the second, what is up with people who don all kinds of “Native” apparel and affectations? Sure, there’s the racist name of the Washington pro football team, and the racist name and chants of the Atlanta baseball team. There’s the horrible racist-sexism in Peter Pan. Those are the easy prey. There’s also “Native” as fashion statement – Urban Outfitters selling “Navajo” print underwear, people wearing replicas of ceremonial headdresses to music festivals (or here at DeSoto Caverns, where hundreds were for sale in the gift shop). Nothing says dominant group privilege like being able to adorn yourselves with the bits and pieces of groups your people systematically subordinated.

We emerged from the cave desperate for refreshment. Next to the stage where the Native American dance program was happening, we found a cart selling popsicles from Birmingham’s excellent Steel City Pops. We sat at a picnic table in the tiered outdoor amphitheater. While a child bounced behind us and massive people waddled by with precarious tubs of fried food, dancers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians took the stage. We can’t judge whether they were good or not, because we’ve never seen any Choctaw dances before. We did like the dancers’ seeming enthusiasm. Some of the dances seemed like they might even be fun to do, and we could see how they performed unique social functions. But sitting there watching the tribe’s dance performance unit go through its paces on a stage just a few yards from the entirely desecrated burial ground of a related tribe just felt wrong somehow.

A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s fantastic National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. The day we visited, a musical expert was leading a seminar in the main hall. He played a repeating four-note drum beat familiar to most people living in the US. He said that comprehensive study proved that this was actually not a beat or chant that existed in Continental Native cultures. It was entirely invented. It was also the first sound we heard at DeSoto Caverns.

Unless you are some awful brain-dead idiot and/or withered chainsmoking super-patriot, something is wrong with you if you don’t feel at least a little conflicted watching a nearly-exterminated people perform their ancestral dances for your edutainment. It’s troubling that our representations of indigenous Americans are always stuck in the past. Imagine if whenever we saw Mark Zuckerberg it was in the clothes of his ancestors, performing their sacred rituals. It’s also troubling that we are on the “prevailing” side of said genocide, able to choose what will be suitably entertaining and therefore worthy of applause while summoning colonized people for occasional entertainment.

The willing and conscious performance of dancing can also be seen as a willing and conscious performance of roles in a script, a script authored and engineered by centuries of violence. As consumers of their cultural offerings, we had our own prescribed roles in the script too.

The line between education and entertainment is always fuzzy, but downright wooly here, with so much depending on how you define exploitation and where you draw the line. “Entertainment” contains multitudes, some horribly offensive to the sturdiest sensibility. Other examples of “entertaining” cultural learning involves sharing delicious food or having horizons broadened. And the edgiest examples of the genre may well change the way you think about everything.

Of the Mississippi Choctaw’s dances, we liked the Snake Dance the best. It seemed like it might be the most fun to do, a shoulder-bumping series of tight spirals performed in a single-file line. But we’d reached our limits: too much heat, sacrilege, and uncomfortable suspicion. We were pretty alienated from our fellow tourists, and we had a lot to chew on.

P1060422We decided to cruise through the rest of the DeSoto Caverns theme park before returning home through Historic Childersberg. After discovering that the gift shop contained no books or pamphlets about the history of the cave, we decided to check out the “attractions.” The Butterfly House was only a disappointment for those who had hoped to see actual butterflies. We did see an exhausted woman almost abandon a three-year old, but family unity prevailed, at least while we were watching. We struggled to take in the Gyroscope, the Climbing Wall, the Pan for Gold, the miniature pony rides. The disc golf course was bleak and abandoned. Children screamed, splashed, ran, earnestly sifted wet sand, posed for pictures. Every step felt static, the world scrolling past us as it must.

We mused about the geologic wonders beneath our feet and headed home. As we get in the car to leave, we reflected on Alabama’s vast natural beauty, whether state parks or private land. What we layer on that natural beauty is often disturbing. We’re pretty sure that everyone at the park loves Alabama. So do we. But it’s how you love Alabama that really matters.

Presenting an Alabama driver’s license or other testimony pretty much elsewhere in the world will often earn you a cry of “Alabama!” You will likely hear this in the same pitch and register as “Honduras!” or “Ebola!” You’re slotted into the role of the exotic other, the pivot point where the progressive and triumphalist history identifies the real possibility of escape velocity. Here at DeSoto Caverns, Alabama residents are freed from this burden. They are surrounded by others at all sides and comforted by their friendly domesticity (not to mention squirt guns). Meanwhile, the “exotic other” lies literally under their feet, while their descendants perform an annual showcase of ancient rituals.

If this layered meaning seems confusing to you, consider that our state can’t even agree on whether CSA flags should be allowed in a Union Springs cemetery, much less whether the bones should be moved to be closer to a water gun fight maze. Some mazes can’t be resolved with water guns. Some caverns are deeper than Kymulga.

Notes From the Waste Stream #1: World’s Fair Ticket Plate

Collinsville Trade Day is a good place to take the temperature of the struggling American economy. Every weekend in northern Alabama’s DeKalb County, thousands of people converge on rows of stalls and crowded parking lots. Within these acres you can buy everything from goats to grey-market cell phone covers in a rich mix that includes popcorn machines, chipped yellow plates, children’s clothes and leaf blowers. It’s overwhelming, especially with cold lemonade in hand and the smell of funnel cake in the air. It’s not a fixed market, but an organic commercial ecosystem that seems to shift by the hour as people come from miles around to sell things out of their vans and trucks, on card tables and blankets. Although some of the vendors are selling modern plastic goods still in their original boxes, the basic principle is as timeless as an ancient souk or bazaar.

Someone made these things, most likely far away. Then someone bought them. And now, perhaps many owners later, they’re available for sale. The collapse of the American manufacturing economy isn’t news, but it does seem that we don’t make much any more. Our parents, and especially their parents, worked in jobs where goods were made. Durable goods. As in, not Big Macs. At Trade Day in rural DeKalb County, some things are made: soaps, tea cozies, lemon bars and, in a strict sense, the goats and puppies. But as the name suggests, it’s about trade.

They used to make things in Fort Payne, just a few miles from Collinsville. More specifically, they made textiles and (weirdly) opera. While both industries are defunct, each has museums open to visitors at odd hours. Also, there are shops that sell socks by the pound. The enormous mills of Fort Payne, once famous as the “Sock Capital of the World,” died out and at least one eventually re-emerged as an “antique mall.” Jobs in the sock factories dried up with outsourcing. Now antique and junk shops traffic in the remains of the faded prosperity.

America is full of cities that have learned to define themselves not by what they make but by what they sell. A few hours south of Fort Payne, the small town of Brundidge rebranded themselves in the 1990s as “antique city,” only to see the various secondhand stores shut down a few years later. As the guys on American Pickers say, there may be “rusty gold” in people’s trash, but the gold standard has always had its limits – especially for poor and working class people.

After a few years in Montgomery, when you’ve seen all the museums and the monuments and stacked them up against your lived experience, official history starts to seem both heavy and unsatisfying. This has increasingly sent us looking around the margins for the unofficial versions. It’s always risky to reach outside of canon. In the first place, there’s the stuff generally left out of history books, like Paul Robeson and Bayard Rustin. That’s important. But that’s what rises to the top. If you really want to dig deep and understand how people live and how their families have lived, you’re going to have to step out of the museums and into the state’s best (and free) museums – its junk shops and trash piles.

We were in DeKalb County for the scenery. We’d been staying in a cabin in the hills that pass for Alabama’s mountains. On the way out of town we decided to check out local junk offerings. It was a Sunday, which limited our options. Evidently Jesus was not a fan of, or at least did not want to compete with, junk shopping. So we drove around. A shop with OL’ BUZZARD stenciled on the side in three-foot high letters caught our eye. Getting in was tricky – we’d arrived in the middle of a complex operation involving several well-muscled young men and a huge grand piano that looked dubiously balanced in the back of a rusty pickup. A tall man offered to give us a discount on anything we found inside if we could help to get the piano indoors. We agreed to the deal. While the men tried to thread the shop’s needle with an 1890s Steinway, I poked around indoors.

There are two major ways to taxonomize junk shops: the identity of the merchants and the place of the merchandise in the overall junk economy. Shops are either solo operations or group ventures. The solo shop can be full of absolute crap or tastefully decorated with expensive things. As you browse, you come to believe that you’re exploring a kind of reflection of the owner’s mind. Pick up a doily. Consider that it’s been grouped with a pig-shaped cookie jar and a ragged book about the Knights Templar. Why these particular objects in these arrangements at these particular prices? It’s like a walkthrough MRI. Of which parts are for sale, perhaps for negotiable prices.

If a solo shop is an autobiography in capitalist cross-stitch, the collective approach is social history in a small town phone book. Within the country’s former big box stores and defunct furniture factories, collectible-minded folks have found each other and mustered their various wares in partitioned and leased sections. Each stall has its own number, pricing scheme, hidden rules of negotiation, and theme. Although stalls compete with each other for your attention, they also cooperate to keep the lights on while vigorously blurring the definition of “antique.” This Life magazine with the missing back page? This 16th century English stoneware? Pitcher shaped like an astonished frog? Jimmy Carter and family paper dolls? All antiques. Because this is an antique mall, that’s why. No more questions. But there is a discount if you’re paying cash.

Trash is something destined for a landfill. An antique is something that someone will pay a lot of money for. Everything for sale in every junk shop in America occupies a place in this spectrum between liability and worth. What place, exactly? Like most interesting questions, the answer is: It depends. The owner of a pawn shop (themselves unique niches in the second-hand universe) taught us some things about worth. An expert in collectable coins, he explained that value to numismatists depends on supply, demand and condition. In that order. Some people fetishize objects in mint condition, and robust debates can ensue about perceived flaws in any object and how that impacts value. But the condition of an object doesn’t matter if there are enough out there to meet the demand.

All of which is to advance a universal truth about any commercial transaction, but especially true of America’s antique and junk economy: A thing is worth exactly what someone’s willing to pay for it. The effort to separate buyers from their money causes junk shops to sort items up and down the trash ladder. Some stores are sad and damp, the kind of places where cast off clothes change hands as “new for school,” and the moldy book shelf is mostly composed of self-help and romance novels, the reading of one genre perhaps leading to the reading of the other. On the trash ladder, you’re close to the yard sale and the dump, where the most valuable things are old Nintendo cartridges (hipster nostalgia) and chipped glass-top dinette sets (lake house).

At the high end of merchandise, you get posh and crisp (think Victorian, Colonial) or hip and therefore expensive (mid-century modern, ironic 1970s kitsch). If you’re engaged in that most American of pastimes – trying to get something for close to nothing – neither end of the ladder is likely to whet your whistle. What you want is someone in the middle. Preferably, this will be someone who doesn’t really know what they have or care to price it effectively despite the Internet’s copious advice about “real value” (whatever that is). Often these are sellers for whom eBay and Craigslist either expose fundamental Internet illiteracy or reflect a series of stories of betrayals.

The man supervising the piano lifting turned out to be the actual Ol’ Buzzard. His shop was somewhere in the middle of the junk ladder, perhaps because he’d only been open for a few months. This inspired hope in our buyer’s hearts, as it might not have been long enough for the predators at the top of the junk ladder to buy out the good stuff, either for keeping or re-selling in tonier shops. There was a lot to look at, curated but still several steps above the junk ladder from the bargain bins at Trade Days just a few miles away. The piano eased in the door with much huffing as I weaved between stacks of National Geographics, three decades of vinyl, a dozen pewter trophies and kitchen machines that defied description or need.

photo 1 photo 2High up on a shelf I saw a piece of metal covered with small versions of an iconic American image particularly familiar to fans of The Simpsons – the Sunsphere from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. A closer look showed that the plate, about two feet wide and a foot and a half high, was engraved with admissions tickets to the Fair. This was likely to be a souvenir rather than a plate used to actually stamp tickets, but it was still awfully cool – and after our piano-moving discount, only $20. Sold.

I’ve been interested in the history of the World Fairs since reading Erik Larson’s marvelous Devil in the White City. While the scope and ambition of the Chicago World’s Fair is amazing in historical hindsight (the first Ferris Wheel! An ice pavilion!), it’s not that different than what we’d seen at Trade Days. Under its varnish of global citizenship and culture, the World’s Fair was essentially a set of vendors with big names like General Mills and Ford. The brass tickets I bought symbolized a profound optimism for the global economy. But even the most visionary World’s Fair booster probably could not have conceived of a world where a monkey playing cymbals made in Taiwan (in its original wrapping) would be for sale next to a live pig and a dented crescent wrench.

What was the brass plate worth? Exactly what I paid for it to sit on my mantle. The Internet turns up no images or auction records for something like this, but I’m not looking to sell. Each carefully numbered ticket reminds me that someone’s always trying to sell me something, especially if they can dress it up with monumental sculpture, the promise of an exotic provenance, or at least some cold lemonade.

Montgomery and the River

We were wandering around some Swiss city a while back. Our guide was giving us the tour and made an offhand remark about how the city developed along the river, much as, he was sure, our American cities did.

“Sure,” I reflexively thought. “Obviously.”

The more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became about our home city. Clearly, the Alabama River played an important role in the development of Montgomery. Why put the capital city here, on the banks of the river, instead of, say, somewhere else? Duh. Shipping. Transportation. Security. All of the same reasons that have led people to settle near water for the whole of human history.

But do we actually use the river? Is it a featured highlight of our city?

In almost any number of cities, rivers are amazing attractions, where the highest-priced real estate clusters. People want to see the water, or walk alongside it. You probably know about the Riverwalk in San Antonio, but you could fill a book with stories and photos about how major cities (and some not-so-major ones) utilize their rivers, making them a place for recreation and tourism and incalculable civic value.

Here in Montgomery? We spent a bunch of money fixing up our city’s “Riverwalk,” and we have some events down there like the Dragonboat Races and the Wine Festival and New Year’s Eve Countdown. But that’s just one tiny city-owned strip (and even that strip struggles to get people down to the weird accessible-by-pedestrian-tunnel promenade). You’d certainly be hard pressed to describe the real estate alongside the Alabama River as among the “highest priced.” If you drive back behind the Biscuits Stadium and down around the Capitol Oyster Bar? You’d think that you were in one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the states, a sort of abandoned industrial warehouse zone

What are your favorite places to get a view of the river? It’s a pretty short list and it probably involves driving and parking and getting out and walking. The river isn’t integrated into our lives, whether you are talking about the tiny bit that touches downtown, or the entire rest of the massive coastline where the mighty Tallapoosa merges with the majestic Coosa. The river mostly exists as a depressingly-polluted abstraction, hidden from nearly every view, featured in public conversation whenever somebody has a hare-brained scheme to hold a triathlon (click that link for an idea of how such river-based events are promoted).

So, confident that we must be missing something, we set out to discover the parts of our city’s river that we might be otherwise overlooking. We do not have a boat. So our idea was to jump in the car and use the magical power of Google maps to find all of the places in nearby driving distance where we might in some way interact with this neglected treasure.

If you thought that was a long intro, fasten your seatbelt. We’re about to take you on a 2,000-word tour of your city’s river … and the difficulty you can have trying to interact with it.

The Alabama River is like a giant “S” sitting due Northwest of the city. Using that letter as the metaphor and working backwards from how you’d draw an “S” on paper (and the flow of the river), the “bottom” of the “S” abuts federal property (Maxwell Air Force Base) and is largely inaccessible to those without security clearance. The first curve of the “S” is the part that touches downtown. It arcs away from the city northwest towards Prattville and Millbrook before boomeranging back almost to the Northern Boulevard.

Here’s the map:

The points on our adventure. Follow along!

The points on our adventure. Follow along!

So we started up at Overlook Park and, yeah, you can see the river from there, along with the “urban farm” and the Montgomery Advertiser headquarters with their cool giant globe sign. But we were interested in interacting with the river in some way, not in seeing it from afar way up the hill alongside a weird giant steel reproduction of a Wright Brothers airplane.

The river from Wright Brothers (formerly Overlook) Park

The river from Wright Brothers (formerly Overlook) Park

We went down Maxwell Boulevard and tried to go to Powder Magazine Park, which we wrote about way back in 2009. Not a lot has changed since then. The park still seems sort of closed. There’s no information telling you what to do or what features the park has. The only difference is that the giant abandoned housing projects (Riverside Heights) have now been torn down (with prison labor!)

We did manage to creep our car down an overgrown and winding road (which you can see on your Google map as “Riverside Drive”) and found a boat launch and a few pickup trucks down there. But this had the atmosphere of an amenity-free private club of some sort, a utilitarian spot for good ol’ boys to get on the water and that’s all. Park benches and informational plaques are for the weak (and the kudzu).

Powder Magazine Park boat launch

Powder Magazine Park boat launch

Nonplussed, we were disappointed not to be able to access the parts of the river that abut Maxwell. The base has been closed to the public since 9-11, so we are allowed to praise the Air Force, but not look at their museums and scenic river views. It’s not like our tax dollars pay for their private beaches or anything.

So we curled back down through downtown and went past Biscuits Stadium into the aforementioned semi-scary part of town where Capitol Oyster Bar lives (in the building that used to be The Marina). For more on our 2010 trip there, click here.

We looked at where the COB touches the river and, well, um, they’ve got a stage and a marina where some people are docking boats. And there’s a big muddy patch where the COB’s riverboat sank and leaked oil into the river and had to be pulled out over the course of a multi-month fiasco. So, to put it politely, it’s not the kind of place you probably want to hang out near the river … and it may also be private property. Unclear. It’s probably pretty decent if you have a boat, but otherwise you kind of feel like you are trespassing in someone’s parking lot.

It's the river! And a stage! Warning: Do not touch river or stage.

It’s the river! And a stage! Warning: Do not touch river or stage.

Next, we cruised along Parallel Street, which you can see if you are following along our adventure on the map (and we hope you are). It is so crazy back here. We always thought it was funny that the street on the way to the Capitol Oyster Bar was called Shady Street, because it is a little bit sketchy. But really, it’s more depressing than fear-inducing.

From Parallel Street, we went down to the very end of State Dock Road and wandered around down there.

If you find yourself driving around in these semi-industrial areas, you can see some amazing things. These things may not make you think “this is a beautiful use of riverfront real estate,” but it’s interesting nonetheless.

If you've ever wondered where the Black Kingz gather...

If you’ve ever wondered where the Black Kingz gather…

Who owns these buildings that are within a stone’s throw of our beautiful river?

Commerce in action! Alabama River adjacent!

Commerce in action! Alabama River adjacent!

We accidentally ended up amid the railyard that you can see on the map. So, we got an up close look at how pine trees are exported from our state and turned into paper (or whatever). But not much of a look at the Alabama River. We wanted boats, not trains.

Dead trees. Future paper. Alabama's timber.

Dead trees. Future paper. Alabama’s timber.

Still, it was fun to feel like we had ended up somewhere that we weren’t supposed to be. We went connected with the Northern Boulevard and went north up Jackson’s Ferry road. What better way to learn about the Alabama River than to drive on the Alabama River Parkway?

We ended up out near the Montgomery Expressway, which is a racetrack. It does not feel like you are still in Montgomery.

We first saw an island in the river with a road leading to it. It turns out that this is a private island and there is a gate across the road. As the photo notes, you have to be a member. We are not members. Alabama River access denied.


Yeah, well, we’d welcome YOU to our private island. Maybe.

By this point, we were getting hungry. Since we were cruising around with eyes glued to Google maps (well, the passenger was … the driver was keeping his eyes squarely on the road and hands at 10 and 2 o’clock), we noticed something called “One More Lounge.” Located at 4330 Riveroaks Road in Millbrook, this place turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

One More!

One More!

This place is right on the river. When we were there, it was incredibly chilled out, although you get the impression that it could get rowdy when it fills up with “the right people.” The bartender was super friendly and the beer was super cheap. It was perfect.

They have a patio that overlooks the river, and a boat dock so that you can pull your boat up, grab a round of drinks or some ice or whatever and keep on truckin’. While we were admiring the view, a seriously sunburned party dude stumbled off his boat to check in on the happenings at the “One More.” He probably had a few more.

What did we learn?

Our city sits on one of the state’s largest rivers. It was a life-sustaining engine of everything for native peoples that settled here. It has been a key piece of the economy and commerce. And it’s being promoted by the city as some kind of stage for water ski contests and country music fireworks extravaganzas. Yet, there is not (as far as we can tell) a single restaurant in Montgomery that has an outdoor patio that overlooks the river. There is no beautiful tree-lined space where you can sit and watch the water roll by. The best thing we could find was a bar attached to an RV park in Millbrook where folks go to play pool and sing karaoke.

This is no way to treat a river. It was fun to drive around and have a day-long adventure looking for access points, but we didn’t come any closer to being able to answer our European friend’s questions about the Alabama River.

“Why is everything so far away from the river? Are you scared of it? What’s wrong with your river?”

I have no idea. If the river is too polluted for swimming, we shouldn’t be having triathlons in it (or jet ski contests or Dragon Boat races or anything else). And if it’s got too much freight and cargo traffic, can we have a public conversation about that? And why hasn’t that stopped other cities from developing the properties around their rivers? Is part of the river a flood plain? Aren’t there engineering solutions to such issues? If we are going to leave so much of the riverside undeveloped and poverty-stricken, can’t we just make it undeveloped and a nature preserve?

I have no answers to these questions, and it’s possible that we missed some prime spots. It’s possible and we’d love to be corrected if we’re wrong. But I get the feeling that we gave it a fair shot. And I sure do wish the river named after our state, the one that runs through our capital city, was a bit more of a revered centerpiece instead of an afterthought. Until someone steps forward with ambitious ideas for integrating our city into the nature that it was built on top of, visitors to Montgomery are going to remain like the Alabama River — just passing through.

Here are some more pics from our adventure:

Picture(s) of the Week – 2/10/13-2/17/13


The Santa on Display in the ABC liquor store on Decatur St.


The Santa on display in the Governor’s Mansion’s gift shop.


The Santa on display in front of a condo in Panama City Beach.

We’re a little late with this one, but that’s how things have been lately with Lost in Montgomery. But we have been saving this one, because it’s a Tale of Three Santas. And let’s keep that Christmas spirit going year ’round, yes?

Montgomery Airport, Continued

We once wrote about the charms of flying out of the Montgomery airport. But sometimes, it can be less than charming. And lately, it has been downright annoying, sliding into an experience that one might reasonably call “unpleasant.”

It is nearly Thanksgiving, and it is already the holiday corridor when our nation’s skies are full of the most people and our airports are most crowded. As such, consider the following concerns about the local airport experience.

The airport likely has little control over TSA agents, who are federal employees and obviously free to make travel as unpleasant as possible. The airport can’t control the situation in Montgomery when one agent says to hold your hat in your hand, while the other tells you to send it through the x-ray machine. The airport isn’t in control (we assume) of the irradiating machines and the surly, bored jerks that rifle through your stuff and march you around telling you to “hold your hands up higher.” The airport itself doesn’t do the hiring and firing or the training of the sad losers drunk with power, herding rubes through a bottleneck.

But the Montgomery airport does employ the cops circling the single paved loop out in front, wasting gasoline and enforcing the ludicrous 15 m.p.h. speed limit. The Montgomery airport police officers make campus cops look like FBI agents.

And the Montgomery airport is also responsible for the wireless network, which is free but inoperable at least a third of the time. We’re glad it’s free, but hate that it is poorly maintained. The airport’s local strategists are also behind the unavailability of a bar after you clear security, and the airport is responsible for the monopoly of the crazy Christian and militaristic cartel’s coffee shop that doesn’t seem to understand how to provide decent snacks to hungry travelers.

The airport is bereft of any art or humanity. It offers virtually no choice of airline carriers, and is astonishingly bad in the department of flight delays and even outright cancellations on the mandatory leg to and from Atlanta. Increasingly, we experience exhilaration and delight when we get wheels up leaving Montgomery in a timely manner. And although we are often glad to be coming home, it is often with a sense of looming regret that we’ll spend an additional half hour or 45 minutes waiting for the lethargic baggage crew to unload a single arriving plane onto the  single baggage carousel.

Nine times out of ten, I’ll take slow-moving laid back apathy over an aggressively hostile and militant efficiency. I’m just Southern like that. But sometimes, people getting on an airplane are going someplace laden with stress, and the loafing and gossiping of every employee in sight is maddening, especially when things are delayed and there seems to be no interest in crisply getting you where you’re going.

So, again, it’s not the fault of the Montgomery airport that the TSA decided to do a special secondary screen at the gate, demanding photo ID from the same people that had already passed through security 200 yards away. And it’s not the fault of the Montgomery airport that those agents are on pathetic power trips, making people take off sunglasses with unpleasant demands (“Let me see your eyeballs”). Those agents are clearly saving America from terrorism.

But again, unionized federal jobs aside, it’s important to focus on the accountability parts that we can control: It is the fault of the Montgomery airport that flight departure and gate information is not updated on the screens. With only six gates (and usually one flight leaving at a time), it’s not hard to walk up and down and try to figure out where you need to sit. But it’s also not hard to update a screen, especially if there aren’t going to be gate agents present to let people know what’s going on.

And the fault lies with either the airport or the airlines (or both) when the same plane that has been sitting empty on the tarmac for nearly an hour isn’t refueled until after everyone has boarded. Nothing adds frustration to a planeload of delayed passengers like seeing a fuel truck pull up next to the plane after the doors should have already closed.

These anecdotes are from a single recent outbound trip through Montgomery Regional Airport this week. May your future adventures be more enjoyable.

Scenes in an Airport

“I bet she’s really good at softball.”

I was just thinking to myself, as one does, adrift in my own casual thoughts at the airport, waiting for a flight to another continent.

I was noting her broad shoulders, powerful biceps, and was perhaps unfairly biased in favor of prejudging her softball acumen by her Washington Nationals baseball cap. As she walked by me to her flight to parts unknown, my gaze traveled down, simply hoping to catch a glimpse of what we sure to be thigh-sized calf muscles.

One monstrous calf met expectations, but the other leg surprisingly ended in a metal prosthesis from the knee down, terminating in a brightly colored cross trainer sneaker. Within micro-seconds, my brain struggled to make the transition from “I bet this woman is a power hitter” to “Her leg looks like it is made of part of the Terminator.”

She had a pin on her backpack that said Wounded Warrior Project, and I then went from thinking about her potential softball skills to the staggering human cost of war.

This won’t become a polemic about war, or even the morality of the particular military actions our nation continues to wage. There are plenty of people who truly believe in their heart of hearts that our current wars are “for freedom,” and, hell, the woman with a metal foot may well believe that too. I certainly wasn’t going to ask her if she ever played softball, much less whether she thought it was “worth it” to have a detachable leg.

But a missing limb is in some ways a perfect reminder of what is happening overseas, where proxy armies, private contractors, and robots do so much of the fighting, and where maiming the enemy is often the most that our over-matched armies opponents can hope for. We don’t get to see the bodybags from the wars our taxes fund, but every once in a while, we get to see a hobbled soldier who will get a Purple Heart in exchange for never playing softball again. And for all of the talk about sacrifice every Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the ever-present “just helpin’ the troops” celebrities, we sure do seem to be suffering from collective cultural amnesia about the Walter Reed scandal or the fact that about 3.7% of all veterans experienced homelessness in the five years after leaving the military. Oh, and more than half of all homeless veterans had been diagnosed with a mental disorder before leaving the military, with the rate of diagnosis increasing to more than 80% by the end of the study period in 2010, about twice the incidence rate found among non-homeless veterans.

And those thoughts made me think about the news from recent headlines, that the Air Force is cancelling its conference in Montgomery. Form the 6/5/12 Montgomery Advertiser:

With an eye on a tighter travel budget, the Air Force has canceled its 2012 Information Technology Conference, one of the largest annual gatherings in Montgomery. It’s a decision that is expected to save the government $1.4 million, but it could prove costly for the businesses of the River Region.

The story is shallowly framed as a loss for local economic developers, largely consisting of direct reprints from the Air Force press release. The event allegedly brought more than 5,000 people to town last August. Business owners and the mayor are wringing their hands about the loss, while right wingers are using the cancellation as some sort of proof that Obama is weak on terrorism and likely planning on scaling back the U.S. military to just the Coast Guard.

But there’s no sense that there’s any real perspective about “the largest IT conference within the DoD,” featuring “seminars and demonstrations by government leaders and some of the top figures in the technology industry.” Is this conference crucial to American power projection overseas? According to the Advertiser, “The event has been held annually in Montgomery since 1983, but it was also canceled amid budget concerns in 1985, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 2005.”

And that’s probably important to note: There’s no connection between our city’s (likely temporary) loss of the AFITC and the wounded veterans that are products of our $700 billion-$1 trillion annual military spending. The Air Force may or may not spend $1.4 million in any given year to send a bunch of computer nerds to Montgomery, Alabama. It’s all a drop in a bucket that is too large to even fathom. Except maybe when you put a human face on things and maybe make a fast and incorrect assumption about someone based on a baseball cap and a set of powerful-looking shoulders.

Road Learnin’

We just finished up a pretty epic drive to Albuquerque and back for the holidays. It’s a long ways, about 1,300 miles if you take the northern route (Memphis, then the 40) and  a good bit longer if you go to Houston and the 10. We’d done it once before since we moved here, but this time we got the advantage of a super-luxe borrowed car with the following major advantages: 1. Lots of space for our dog to pace and sleep; 2. Satellite radio, allowing us to listen to Finebaum every day; 3. Heated seats, especially important since we were Driving Into The Great Storm of 2011 (which was played on television as a major blizzard but which seemed to have consisted of a dusting of snow by the time we got to the Home of the 72 Ounce Steak the next day).

We’ve posted here a few times about learning from other cities, including a recent trip to Minneapolis  – this time, a few things we learned traveling and one thing we learned from our destination city.

First, the road trip itself. We took the dog, which presents a whole set of challenges. She loves to go, but taking her means stopping more frequently, not totally blasting your music all the time and generally being more humane about the road trip experience than you might be if it were just you humans in the car. The advent of spacephones greatly helped with our dog travel experience. We used our phones to find dog parks on the way. It turns out that when you enter Oklahoma going east, the rest stop has free coffee, palatial marble restrooms and a fenced in dog park. Just across the freeway, evacuees are rewarded with the opportunity to stroll through the set of The Road and pee in a metal hole. The Internets also helped us to find hotels that would allow the dog to stay with us by laying them out on a map near our current location, even if we were in Van Buren, Arkansas.

Mapping in general is kind of awesome; having the mobile Internets allowed us to find cool place to eat so we were able to avoid chain restaurants (sure, we hit a Taco Bell one time, we’re only human, but it was in Moriarty – surely that counts a little toward our indie cred?). On the way there, we ate at the Sawmill Cafe in Arkansas – not through the Internet, just because it was the only non-chain at our stop and we were starving. Plus, we dimly remembered that we’d eaten there before and that they sold comics in their weird little gift shop (Jesus! Slightly crinkled James Patterson thrillers!). The buffet is pretty good, but also a bit overpriced – you’re lucky to get out of there for less than $30 for the two of you.

On the way back, we used mapping to find vegetarian food in Amarillo and Memphis, cities that are both nationally-known temples of animal slaughter meat culture. Our alternative to Amarillo’s 72 ounce steaks was vegetarian chili and a bagel pizza at The 806, where a display case of local art featured necklaces made of human bones ($50). It was cool to see part of Amarillo that we’d never seen before, an otherwise awful-seeming city looking like it has a scene after all. Much the way some people probably feel when they come to El Rey. It made us reflect on the way sometimes creative types end up retrenching in their own little areas of town. We are all challenged to take over our cities, not just hide out in enclaves. Truly great cities are big, sprawling canvases extending beyond a small neighborhood.

In Memphis, we ate at a vegan restaurant so good its own review is forthcoming – Imagine. It was in the Cooper-Young district of Memphis, the kind of neighborhood you drive through and know you’d love to live in. Next door at Goner Records, we bought an album by super weird Memphis music scene icon Tav Falco, then walked to get coffee at Java Cabana. It was advertised as the best coffee in Memphis. We concur, even though it’s also the only coffee we’ve ever had in Memphis.

One cool thing about Cooper-Young is that they publish a surprisingly large and well made neighborhood newspaper, the Lamplighter, every month. This is how we learned that two Memphis neighborhoods competed against each other last year in a contest to see which neighborhood could reduce their energy use the most – The Smallest User. Check out the website here, and there’s also a blog. I think this is the kind of thing that would be able to get our neighborhoods interested in a little friendly competition. Anyone game?

Our destination, Albuquerque, was warmer than usual despite the Great Storm. This allowed us ample opportunity to sample the Duke City’s ample off-leash dog parks. We know that Montgomery is going to (knock on wood) open its first of these in 2012 over at Blount, but may we humbly suggest that the Capitol of Dreams look west for some inspiration as it expands opportunities for dog recreation? Albuquerque’s approach is to use odd plots of land – the place right up against the freeway where nobody wants to live or own a business, the odd-shaped triangle behind baseball fields – and convert them into low-maintenance dog parks. Several are covered in mulch, rather than grass, so they don’t need a lot of mowing.

All in all, blogging has been light in the last piece of 2011. Look for more to come in 2012. Thanks for staying with us and thanks for reading. Happy New Year!

Cooter’s Pond Dog Park

It probably goes without saying that one of the themes of this blog is alienation. Hell, the title of the thing is Lost in Montgomery, so it makes sense that it would constantly touch upon the idea of being adrift in a bewildering world not of our making.

Yet, despite being optimists committed to relentless world improvement, we sometimes slip into the trap of low expectations. Worse, those low expectations are sometimes still not met by a universe staffed by the chronically inept and lazy.

Such was the case when we got a radical idea in our heads: We wanted to take the dog to a dog park other than the one single tiny dog park in our city (which, actually, isn’t technically a dog park).

A little Internet poking around convinced us that there was a good dog park in our neighboring city just to the north, Prattville. Since the dog loves road trips, this seemed ideal. Off we went to Cooter’s Pond.

And while expectations were low, what we discovered was just pathetic. First of all, the place isn’t exactly easy to find. Sure, there’s a sign at the turn off that directs you to Cooter’s Pond, but there are no follow up signs that tell you to keep right and go past the water treatment plant. Consider yourself thus warned.

Bear to the right and you’ll see the entrance sign for the Cooter’s Pond park, but nothing distinguishes for you the difference between, say, the parking area amid the pickup trucks and professionally sponsored fishing boats seeking to use the boat ramp, and the, well, dog park. The boat ramp is easy to spot, but you don’t find the dog park until you loop around, turn right up a side road, pass some areas that appear to be impressive scientific exhibits on out-of-control kudzu overgrowth, and continue on past some pavilions where people are having birthday parties. Then, just past the playground equipment that evokes pity for the children touching the sun-scorched metal, beyond the tipped over trash cans, there lies a rectangle of fencing.

You park, glancing around in hopes that some other rubes have also decided to take their canine friend to this Godforsaken patch of barren land. There’s no shade. There’s no bench. It’s just a rectangle of fence, filled with dying grass that crunches underfoot like some kind of breakfast cereal that has been left out in the 95 degree Alabama June heat.

The dog looks up at us as if we are crazy.

“You took me out of the air conditioned car, with the window that I can stick my head out of … for this?”

We poured her a bowl of water and threw a few tennis balls, cringing at the sun that was pounding us relentlessly. Why did we come here in the daytime? Why can’t that kudzu creep a bit faster towards us and cover us with its leafy shade?

Evidently, this dog park is relatively new, some sort of city project. There’s a sign donated by Leadership Autauga, which almost certainly has no idea how desolate their dog park has become. Someone donated some trees, which are humorously anchored to the ground with enormous straps, ensuring that they will grow straight and true, providing shade to some humans and dogs in the year 2040. Sadly, we missed the hilariously named “See Pick Eat Nut Grove.”

It is possible that the dog park is more enjoyable in less apocalyptic heat. It is possible that other humans and canines go to the dog park at times, creating the desired effect of dogs playing with one another, exercising, as their owners make awkward small talk. It is possible that we simply went at the wrong time and it’s possible that what seems out of the way and bewildering to us is, in fact, quite convenient to the people that live in Cooter’s Pond, the rental pavilions, or the water treatment plant.

At some point Montgomery will have a dog park. Because that’s what real cities have. Not a quarter acre fenced off somewhere for weirdos to roam shiftily after their poor (and poorly shaved) dogs, but a real dog park. Because the city’s trying to get all New Urbanism on us, and those people have dogs, and dogs like to hang out (in general) with other dogs.

So the real question is: what should it look like? It should be big, first of all, with enough room to walk a little trail or otherwise have a fun experience for the human. What keeps people coming back to dog parks is their enjoyment, not just their dogs’ interest in chasing and sniffing a few butts. It’s not going to kill the city to make a nice big park and designate it off-leash. They can even pave the trails with shredded Christmas tree leavings like they do in Seattle. There should be shade and benches. There do not need to be a bunch of “dog fountains” and other tricked out dog niceties that dogs will ignore.

And it should be somewhere where people are actually likely to go. Often. Not some weird place up in the sun out in the middle of nowhere.