For Spring Break, we drove down to Dauphin Island at the head of Mobile Bay in Alabama. I love these back roads excursions. I love being surprised by things I did not know or which I did not comprehend.
On the way down we passed through Mobile and stopped for groceries. I knew of course that the city existed; knew of its historical significance vis-a-vis the naval battle for Mobile and Admiral Farragut's "Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead."
What I did not comprehend was how sizeable the city was, how many beautiful old neighborhods there were, and how big the port was.
On the return from Dauphin Island, we drove back roads through most of southern Alabama, meandering our way up to Monroeville, childhood home of both Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird and of Truman Capote of In Cold Blood among other works.
What a panorama of visual delights. Small towns with all sorts of local and global manufacturing facilities. Fields with the stubble and whispy white remains of King Cotton. Downtown facades so evocative of the rural prosperity following World War I. Old barns and farm out-buildings being slowly reconsumed by mother nature in distant corners of remote fields.
Not all was uniformly cheering of course. There were signs of the downside of the population move away from the country into cities as well. While some small towns clearly have sustained themselves or even found niches of growth and prosperity, others have become anemic and wasted. One small town through which we passed was emblematic of this hollowing out. Of twenty or so downtown 1920's brick one and two story commercial establishments, only a couple were occupied. One lonely commercial hold-out being a branch of an insurance company, the other being some sort of retail jack-of-all-trades. Of the remaining eighteen buildings, a couple were burned out, some were shuttered, cobwebbed and piled with junk and a couple were completely hollowed out - no glass in the windows, no furnishings, interior fittings or even floor or cieling; just the four brick walls. And finally there were a small handful of buildings that looked like someone had turned off the lights, turned the key and left some summer evening in 1963 and had never returned. Signs still in the windows, product around the interior, some retail Mary Celeste waiting for its crew to return. Eerie, fascinating, heart-wrenching evidence of wasted dreams and hopes.
And then there are the towns like Monroeville - communities still and determined to make the best of the hand dealt them. What a charming little place, anchored on its lovely central court house and on its literary off-spring; Lee and Capote. The court-house is basically a literary museum and an homage to To Kill a Monkingbird with summer theatrical renditions being offered annually. The very essence of a thriving, spirited, small town community.
Having Merlin, our boxer dog, with us, we were of course seeking fairly flexible lunchtime dining arrangements. As an aside, I felt well and truly enmeshed and welcome in small town Alabama, as I was greeted, while walking Merlin around the town square by more than a couple of nods from front porches and park benches and "Fine looking dog you got there."
We found a good traditional greasy spoon on the road out of town with the menu highlights painted on the cinder block walls. Having determined that there was something everyone might enjoy, and having seen an open lot next door where we might picnic and let Merlin stroll, we ordered and moved over to the next lot. There we discovered the foundation brick walls of some old building and then looking roadside read on a brass marker that this was actually the site of Truman Capote's childhood home with the Fauks. So that is how we had lunch, everyone reading, eating, perched in the literary ruins as it were (and of course with Merlin keeping a sharp eye for any falling scraps.)