State by State

Apparently there is an entire country between Boston and San Francisco.

alabama

by Natalia

It's only about 150 miles from Thomasville to Birmingham. But I feel like we've travelled from Mars back to Earth. We spend one night in Sunset Inn in Thomasville and the next in Hotel Highland in Five Points district of Birmingham. In Thomasville we can't find a place to get a decent coffee (google map suggests a place only 20 miles away).

In Birmingham we stay in a designer hotel, have dinner in a stainless steel and polished concrete restaurant named Twenty Six and conclude the evening listening to Glen and Libba in the hotel bar. They play in Highland every Monday and if you are in the area don't miss it: Libba's voice and Glen's guitar are quietly explosive combination. The entire neighborhood looks like Cambridge and we feel at home. The price tag is probably around half of what we would pay in Boston. We don't even mind the temperature that refuses to fall even long after the sunset. I can't believe it's the same Alabama which is last in the nation by any measure (Glen's words, not mine).

Before we stumbled upon this urban enclave in the middle of the rural south we visited the site of the first Alabama capital - Old Cahawba. An abandoned city in the middle of nowhere. Things would be different if we had won the war says helpful guide in the visitors center only half joking. There is only one war worth mentioning around here and it does not even have a number. It never seems to be far from people's minds. We kind of understand: Poles have long list of long list of things would be different, if topics. What's strange about Cahawba is how rapidly it grew and how fast it declined. The lifespan of the city is less than 50 years between 1820 and 1870. Today you see couple of isolated columns, cemeteries, artesian wells and struggle to imagine a city with big houses and wide streets that it used to be.

The nearby Selma is where most of Cahawba's inhabitants and businesses ended up but we cannot shake the feeling that Selma is also in the process of emptying itself. Our daily struggle to provide Damian with his caffeine fix takes us to a single coffee shop (Selma is a city of 20 thousand) - but it looks like it went under not long ago.

In Birmingham we first stop at Vulcan statue. The fans of our -est tag would be happy to know it is the largest cast iron statue in the world. According to our Lonely Planet guide "A lookout tower under Vulcan's butt cheeks offers well-rounded views of the city. Pun intended." Do I need to say more?

Next day we opt for an interstate to leave behind flat rural south and find scenic roads again. The southern tip of impossibly long Appalachians, that we have seen a more than a month ago in North Carolina, provides a much welcomed diversion. We visit Cheaha - Alabama highest peak at 2,413 ft (735.5 m). State park around it has lodges, cabins, chalets, swimming pool and a restaurant. We spot a deer which behaves as if it knew the traffic rules. While Cahawba's archeological preserve protects a huge expanse of grass and trees hiding a few remnants of once busy town, Cheaha resort park attracts crowds to a pseudo-city in the remoteness of a mountaintop.

rights

There is very little moralizing going on in Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Just cold facts. I walk through the exposition. Read city ordinances implementing Jim Crow laws. Browse newspapers from the 50s and 60s. Watch documentaries and interviews. It's all there: separate movie house entrances, bus boycott, integrating schools and universities, restaurants sit-ins, voting registration, marches, police actions. From tragic events in Selma to grotesque banning of a kid book on the grounds it presented white and black bunnies playing together. And yet it's so hard to imagine this was happening. So recently. So near. I should not be surprised. I've read about it. I watched Spike Lee movies. But somehow all these photographs, newspapers and recording make it very real and very moving.

battleship

After seeing all those airplanes in Pensacola we haven't had enough of the Navy and went to see USS Alabama battleship in Mobile. I say diving USS Vandenberg and USS Spiegel Grove was much more comfortable, if less informational, experience. And becoming an artificial reef may be a better fate for a decommissioned ship: less danger of attracting scouts by way of overnight adventure of same-sex groups.