First of all, anyone who bet that Mary didn’t get on the treadmill last night lost that particular wager. Although there is no photographic evidence—much like the Yeti—and Rick doesn’t believe it.
Secondly, although the falsehood in yesterday’s teaser was that Mary was drunk on Faulkner’s grave, Mary does in fact have a problem: her addiction to hotel amenities. At virtually every hotel we’ve stopped at, Mary will take them and hide them in the hopes that the hotel turndown will supply some more… which she will then take. Then she goes into Rick’s room and takes his. Rick has told her that they are going in the bag with the rocks and the books. (Mary: “But they are lavender! And lemon verbena! And sometimes, they are shaped like little ducks!”)
If anyone knows of a 12-step program that addresses this kind of thing, please send us an e-mail right away.
We left Tupelo pretty early and went to Cullman, Alabama (new state! Number six!). Our first stop was the Duchess Bakery because we heard they had excellent donuts and one seldom needs a better reason than that to drive a hundred miles to a small town. In fact, there was discussion of getting up at 3am so we could be there when the place opened at 5 so we could get them hot and fresh but cooler heads prevailed.
The order, as shown in the photograph: one glazed, one glazed strawberry, one creamy chocolate frosted raised, and one chocolate frosted Bismarck with custard and cream together! An excellent innovation! They were devoured quickly and we can officially vouch for the Duchess’ reputation.
We were horking them down and took a stroll to get a brief feel for the town. We were delighted to see that it is a rarity in our small town tour, attractive and apparently thriving. Good for them.
Our main objective for visiting Cullman, however, was the Ave Maria Grotto at the St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of town. The Grotto is an incredible piece of folk art, entirely constructed by an elderly hunchbacked monk, Brother Joseph, an immigrant from Bavaria. He spent 60 years (until shortly before his death in 1961) constructing miniature models of famous Biblical sites, holy shrines, and significant world spots featuring everything from landmarks of ancient Rome to the missions of California to a “fairy temple visited by Hansel and Gretel.”
You’ll see many photos, but trust us; they don’t do it justice. Some of the models are more or less scale detailed replicas simulating the stone or whatever construction of the original; some are more primitive, using found objects and trash (shells, glass bottles, old cold cream jars, even floats from a toilet tank, and the glass balls from a fishing net).
It’s flatly remarkable, such a labor of love, and such a clear way for this man to meditate and connect with his God. It’s set on peaceful forested hillside that should be photographed and placed in the dictionary next to the word serene.
Lest you think from our previous reaction to Christ of the Ozarks that we are irreverent secularists who wouldn’t know spirituality if it stole our donut, it was here at this simple spot that we felt the presence of the numinous. Despite the no-doubt spiritual relationship between the attraction's visitors and creators and the Ozark attraction itself, it was obviously intended primarily as a commercial venture whereas the Grotto was an act of love. And therein lies the difference.
The Ave Maria Grotto was one of the best things we’ve seen on the trip. We are grateful to the people of Columbus, Mississippi for not having the Tenneessee Williams Festival when they said they were going to so our last minute revision to the itinerary included this place.
Back on the road, we realized that if we didn’t act soon our donuts would be our lunch, not that that’s a bad thing, but even so. A quick glance at the helpful pamphlet “101 Places To Eat in Alabama Before You Die” directed us to Decatur and Big Bob Gibson’s Barbeque.
More ribs for Mary, and for Rick, a baked potato the size of a small planet topped with butter, sour cream, chives, bacon bits, cheese and barbeque chicken.
“Wow, there aren’t any fat grams in that,” said Mary.
Actually it came out like “Mwrah, fleh moweh crupple bry twah sme grat” because her mouth was full of barbecue pork ribs.
Rick even bought some of the sauce, it was that good, although we’ve now given up rating barbeque against each other. It’s all just too different and too good in its own way to do it justice.
Next stop: Huntsville and the US Space and Rocket Museum. This facility is located adjacent to the Marshall Space Center, a major NASA facility that has been involved in everything from early rocket testing to some Space Shuttle mission control responsibilities. You may also know it as the home to Space Camp, where budding astronauts can fulfill a fantasy or three.
The museum focuses heavily on the science and innovation of the space program, which left Rick a little disappointed since he was hoping for something more philosophical in terms of the nature of why man wants to reach out to the stars. True enough there are other museums devoted to that but they weren’t on the Plucky Survivors itinerary and extended dissertations on propulsion systems just don’t fit into the theme of our trip.
But no matter, it was still fascinating with a historical timeline of the space program and actual artifacts from the small (a moon rock) to the epic (a Saturn V rocket out back).
On the way out, Mary noticed a series of rock climbing walls (it had something to do with Mars, we don’t know). This was something she had tried for the first time with adequate success not many months before her latest cancer bout, and since no one was looking she decided to try it again despite figuring that her noodly arms wouldn’t really be up to the job.
The very sweet attendants directed her to the easiest wall and assured her that many people can’t even get up that one, “so don’t feel bad if you don’t.” But she did! She fell on her rear trying to rappel down (the picture makes it look like she did a face plant but it was just an unfortunate timing issue) but she got to the top and that’s what matters!
Then feeling full of Everest conquering vigor, she tried the intermediate wall and only got part way up, but did she mention she’s sick?
Rick, who normally is too secure to need to display machismo decided that since he’s forty and death is imminent anyway, he would go for it too. Please treasure this photo; it won’t be happening again. The secret, the height-phobic Rick says, is an oft-repeated one and in fact was one of the tunes played on our first day… “Don’t Look Down.” (BB King)
As we left Huntsville, we were secure in the fact that we were less than ninety minutes of a straight-forward drive to our hotel down Interstate 65. We totally knew what we were doing and we knew what exit to take. Then it started to rain.
Observant readers will recall that the only other time it rained on this trip was when we got lost trying to leave the evil clutches of Branson. Cue ominous music here.
So we’re driving in this epic, biblical proportion flooding rainstorm through a neighborhood with no working traffic lights due to a presumed power outage saying things like “Yep, we’re right here on the map. Yep, that’s the street. Okay, it’s the next street, turn here. Okay, it should be right up ahead. Why aren’t there any signs? Shouldn’t there be signs? And would they really put a big resort and golf course in a sleep bedroom neighborhood of three bedroom split-level ranch homes?”
Turns out the answer is no. See there’s a difference, Microsoft Streets and Trips, between Grand BLVD and Grand AVE, in Birmingham. One’s NORTH of the city and one’s SOUTH of the city. Please remember the next time you advise some Plucky Travelers on how to get to their hotel.
After we got the real directions from the hotel staff, we got back on the road through Birmingham and noticed that almost immediately the rain stopped and sun peeked through the clouds. We’re totally not making this up. Two times it has rained and both times was when we were heading in the wrong direction and then it promptly stopped as soon as we were back on track. The Weather Gods are watching out for us. Maybe next time we’ll listen.
This ordeal partly explains why, once we got to our hotel we took a look around and decided Birmingham may be a nice city, but we weren’t going to find out until the next day.
The Ross Bridge Renaissance is not actually a hotel but a resort, as they insist on calling it and rightly so. The hotel itself is in the shape of a famous Scottish castle, nestled in wooded countryside overlooking hills and a golf course. Inside there’s a superb spa and health club, the rooms are spacious, the beds squishy, the balconies perfect for lollygagging (Room service! Flat screen TV! Turn down service with chocolates on the pillow!). Not only did all of that quickly add up to putting off Birmingham until tomorrow but it is tempting us to barricade the door and just stay here for the rest of our trip. Or lives. Whatever.
Mary was treated to a massage administered by an amazing local man whose father was an assistant pastor at Bethel Baptist church when it was bombed during the Civil Rights movement (he told of sitting in the back of the bus and other tales from that time) and who is currently a minister himself. The ensuing theological conversation turned the massage into an even deeper and renewing connection.
Meanwhiile, we have picked up a Plucky Passenger, Mary’s friend Jessica who used to go to grad school with her. Jessica says her mom is from Rome, Miss, “which isn’t even there any more,” and that she lived right near the prison where Elvis’ dad served his time, and that they “used to get butter knives and say they were going to hunt prisoners.” So in one anecdote, Jessica ties together our twin themes of vanishing small towns, and Elvis. Now, we just have to figure out how to modify Cow to accommodate a third player, but we think we have an idea.
Speaking of which… today’s score in Cow: 0-0. But not because we didn’t see any. Damn those last minute cemeteries.
Tomorrow, we see Birmingham (we promise) and then on to Selma and Montgomery as we head toward the finish line.
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