Category Archives: day trips

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.

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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.

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MA WISH FOR CHARITY

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.

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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.

IMG_0784

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:

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!

Rusty Nail – New Orleans

Saturday is coming up. And then, after that, another Saturday. And then another, on and on, beating against us like the ceaseless tide.

Speaking of the Tide, that is the football team we pull for in the great Sunni-Shiite football wars of this state. [Sidebar: I have used that analogy multiple times to characterize the depths of the religious passion felt by college football fans in this state. It is useful to convey strong passion and the sense of the either/or binary. However, it has also resulted in several people asking me whether Bama represents the Sunni or the Shiite in the analogy, leading to some pained expressions of ignorance regarding Islamic theology, not to mention the political situations in any number of foreign countries.]

So, we pull for Bama and we happened to be in New Orleans. Perhaps you will find yourself in a similar boat, hoping to spend some part of some Big Easy Saturday in some sort of place with a television, in whose hypnotic light you hope to bask while pulling for your beloved Crimson-clad unpaid workers.

May we suggest that you find your way to 1100 Constance Street, to a bar called The Rusty Nail?

I only learned of the place when wearing my Bama shirt around town on Saturday morning. I was responding to various “Roll Tides” and such in my usual genial way, hoping not to be too much the tourist as I took the St. Charles trolley line for the first time. A woman on a bicycle not only gave me a RTR, but stopped to ask if I was going to watch the game at the Rusty Nail.

“The what?”

“Oh, dear,” she said with all of the empathy of a concerned mother, “you simply must go.”

It was as if she were ashamed of my ignorance. So I went. It was within walking distance of the place that I was standing when I received her suggestion.

Dude.

A bar with bleachers. Yes!

They have bleachers in the bar. They have an amazing patio. They were grilling food on said patios, including veggie burgers. The bartenders were wearing Bama shirts. They had a half dozen TVs, all showing college football until the 2 p.m. game (versus Arkansas), at which time all TVs were flipped to the Bama game. The bar owner (named David, I think), is a Bama grad who not only stands there watching the game with the massive crowd of fans that assemble, he (and this is important) actually mutes the commercials during the breaks in the action.

It’s all well and good that this bar is where the New Orleans chapter of Bama alums likes to gather. That’s nice and it’s wonderful to watch the game with like-minded fans, wearing crimson and shaking shakers. It’s as close to a game day environment in a non-Tuscaloosa bar that I have ever experienced. But the fact that the owner mutes the commercials and plays the Alabama fight song, along with topical music, well, that’s just over the top. James Brown was in heavy rotation, and the commercial break after a Razorback TD brought us Cee Lo’s “Fuck You.”

The bar was nearly full, but not so crowded as to be uncomfortable. In case you’re wondering, yes, people really do pack out the bleachers. I didn’t take any photos (other than the one above of the empty bleachers) because I was busy getting drunk and watching the game. Folks were lively, but not out-of-hand, fueled by a steamroller of a Bama win and healthy pours from the bartenders. Did I mention that they have an immense collection of rare scotches?

Truly, this is the best bar for watching Alabama football in the nation. This owner, these bartenders, they know what’s up. I cannot highly enough recommend

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.

Victory (for dogs) at Victoryland!

We’re not ones to celebrate the loss of jobs for folks in this economy, particularly folks in vulnerable communities. But we have to say that were very happy this morning to read Grandma Advertiser’s announcement that VictoryLand is ending live greyhound racing. Evidently they relied on “bingo” games to subsidize their systematic dog torture racing, but now that the morality-loving State of Alabama police and government won’t let them run “bingo” games anymore, they can’t afford to have live dog abuse racing.

Alabama, as one of seven states where the practice is still legal, is well acquainted with the senseless brutality of dog racing. In 2007, VictoryLand’s broken heating units caused 23 dogs to die in its kennels. Last year, 32 dogs died at a track just across the Alabama border in Florida, after “an adoption operator at the Ebro dog track reported the smell of decaying animals coming from the neighboring kennels.”All this after a 2002 investigation found the remains of more than 3,000 “retired” greyhounds on a farm in Lillian.

In 2004, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that exempted racing greyhounds from existing animal torture laws (making the practice a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison). Then-Baldwin County District Attorney David Whetstone told the Mobile Register that the law is “dog-specific. There’s no doubt that it would exclude the “Gucci Law”, or the Alabama animal cruelty law, as it applies to greyhound dogs,” he said. “It effectively reduces the greyhound dog to a beast of burden… A junkyard dog has more protection than a greyhound dog under this statute.”

Look, let’s be blunt: Alabama as a whole could care less about the welfare of greyhounds. While many people are dog owners and maybe did rally to give some money to various animal shelters after the recent tornadoes, it’s just an example of the classic “we care about individual victims” (the poor homeless puppy) but ignore institutional atrocities (a for-profit dog murder-race factory).

One good example of our general disinterest could be seen back in February of 2010 when Carey Theil, Executive Director of Grey2K USA, came to Montgomery to speak in opposition to a bill expanding bingo gambling in Alabama. Theil got about three sentences out, explaining that he was against gambling because it was often linked (as it is was at Victoryland) to greyhound racing, which is cruel, barbaric, etc. At that point, Theil got cut off by a pretty hostile legislator, who informed him that his stupid blather about the poor abused racing dogs had no bearing on bingo in Alabama.

Frankly, we’re not that invested in taking a side on gambling here at LiM. On the one hand, it can be fun to gamble. On the other hand, it’s a pretty sad pathetic economic development strategy. It would be nice if our economy could be based on making something other than fruity drinks for poor ladies blowing meager paychecks in a depressing smoky rural hellhole. We’re not going to gloat over the loss of jobs at VictoryLand, but we are awfully happy that there won’t be any greyhound racing there any longer. And if that’s a loss for economic development the gambling oligarchs, that’s fine.

Here’s hoping Alabama joins the ranks of modernity by banning the practice of dog racing sometime in our lifetimes.