The first thing that comes to mind when you think of Alabama is… rockets. Not really. Nonetheless this is where the rockets that took Americans to the Moon were built: Huntsville, Alabama, aptly nicknamed the Rocket City. The team of Dr Wernher von Braun was brought to Huntsville when German scientists and engineers came to US as spoils of World War II. Von Braun made a pact with the devil - two devils in fact: German and American military - to realize his lifelong dream of flying to the Moon. He contributed to production of military rocketry hoping that developing missiles will one day transform into building spacecrafts. Ironically the Soviets, whom von Braun escaped by surrendering to Americans, gave his dreams the necessary push. Having launched the very first Earth satellite - Sputnik 1 - they put America in a frenzy to catch up. And von Braun could finally concentrate on creating a vehicle for manned exploration of space.
Despite all the talking about inevitability of its flow, time is actually quite a flexible concept. We are driving east on the interstate 90 and out of a sudden there is a sign: Central Time Zone. We didn’t cross any state borders and - judging by the total blackness on both sides of the highway - we are in the middle of nowhere. And without much warning one hour of our day is gone. I suppose middle of nowhere makes sense for a time zone change. And the hour that we just gave up wasn’t ours to keep. We borrowed it in July when driving through similarly empty Texas. Although why in South Dakota the time zone change line isn’t straight is beyond me - there are only 4 states in the Union with fewer people per square mile.
There are people who believe taking photos steals small pieces of their souls. And there are museums that contend taking pictures devalues works of art that they own. There might be good reasons to restrict photo snapping. Sometimes you just want to look at something without the risk of tipping over a crouching photographer, or maybe you want to concentrate for a while without constant noise of cameras. By the way: many point-and-shoots nowadays do not really have to make all that noise but surprisingly few models let you configure a silent mode. And even if they do most people do not bother opting for annoying clicks, beeps and recorded shutter sounds.
We travel along Natchez Trace Parkway built roughly along the old trail used by boatmen to return home after floating down Mississippi river. It’s a strange road maintained by National Park Service. Driving it is like driving through 400 miles of park. You are easily fooled thinking you are in the middle of nowhere, but most of the time you are in the narrow green strip of trees isolating the parkway from farmland and subdivisions. Better this than nothing.
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.
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).
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.
We escaped to Mobile trying to get away from Pensacola’s Blue Angel’s weekend. We don’t like crowds and it turns out that if you prefer solitude Mobile is a perfect destination. There are absolutely no people here. They probably all went to Pensacola for the weekend. Mobile has a big problem. You cannot really research it on the internet. Try googling for mobile life music or mobile restaurants or mobile night life and you’ll see what I mean. One has to wonder why city officials did not take advantage of the anti-French sentiment and change the name to something less ambivalent - may I suggest Verizon, Alabama? French are to be blamed for establishing the city here (in 1702), and christening it (after a native tribe), and naming most of the streets (after various French things and catholic saints). Later Spanish changed all the names but when the city finally was taken over by Americans they changed the names back to French. This is strange: as if Canadians took over New York and changed its name back to New Amsterdam. But in any case, the town even today is supposedly quite catholic so we expect good food and some entertainment (think New Orleans or Montreal)