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Let Us Now Praise the Back Roads of Alabama

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By Clay Risen
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's true: Even the Birmingham airport smells like barbecue. And it's true that there is no better football than November's Auburn-Alabama game, a.k.a. the Iron Bowl. And of course it's true that the state is bounded, at its northern and southern edges, by two great tourist draws: the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, just below the Tennessee border, and the USS Alabama, docked permanently in Mobile Bay.

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But there is a lot more to Alabama than pork and pigskins. Despite the proliferation of suburbs and highways, vast pockets of the state have managed to hold onto their roots, and even develop new ones.

Such appreciation doesn't come naturally to me as a Tennessean. In the same way Northerners look down on Southerners, as a general rule northern Southerners (we call it the "Mid-South") look disparagingly at our lower-state neighbors. When I was a kid, trips into Alabama were like surgical strikes, hitting only the most cosmopolitan places: the bright lights of Birmingham, the gee-wizardry of Huntsville.

But my attitude changed a few years ago, when I ventured down to Fairhope, a small town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Founded in 1894 as a utopian community based on the fair-tax theories of economist Henry George, the town has long been a magnet for intellectuals, Southern or otherwise; Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair and Clarence Darrow all spent time there. Even today, long since subsumed into the greater Mobile metropolitan area, it remains a popular place for writers, painters and craftspeople to set up shop.

In what has become an annual pilgrimage, I was there for Southern Writers Reading, a pre-Thanksgiving literary festival that draws heavily on the local arts community. Organized by author and cultural impresario Sonny Brewer, the festival has featured Rick Bragg, Bret Anthony Johnston and Winston Groom, among others, and its proceeds benefit the town's literary nonprofit group.

Downtown Fairhope, just a few blocks in from a bluff that offers striking views of the bay, is a warren of boutiques and cafes, galleries and restaurants. When in town, I make a point of visiting Page and Palette, the premier local bookstore, and Guy's Gumbo Shack, a recently reopened local culinary landmark, as often as possible. The Gumbo Shack doesn't have an immense menu, but what it does have (gumbo, of course) it serves better than any place outside New Orleans.

On my most recent trip, taken with several old high school friends, I spent a day exploring the western side of the bay south of Mobile. Past the city suburbs, the scenery rapidly turns to bayou, more Cajun Red than Crimson Tide. The major industries are still waterborne, a mix of boat repair and crabbing. In recent decades it has added an Asian flavor as well, as Vietnamese immigrants, many erstwhile fishermen, have set up shop. For a long stretch of road, we saw more Buddhist temples than churches.

Our first destination was Mary's Place, a crab shack with a renowned buffet in Coden, about 30 minutes south of Mobile. The lunch buffet is offered seven days a week, but on Sundays a church bulletin in hand will get you $1 off. Open since 1935, Mary's runs the $9.55 all-you-can-eat lunch, featuring local oddities such as deep-fried corn on the cob and such crowd-pleasers as grilled oysters, in addition to a full menu. Some say Mary's has gone downhill a bit since its founder, Lotty (Mary) Branch, died back in 1979, but $9.55 ($9.20 during the week) for all you can eat is hard to beat.

Few outsiders realize how far the bayou extends into Alabama, but it's in full bloom south of Coden. Little arms of brackish, reedy water creep alongside the roads. Inlets off the bay are choked with trawlers: The area was home to Forrest Gump's buddy Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue, he of shrimp-boat fame.

Our goal, though, was Dauphin Island, a slip of land between Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Accessed via a three-mile causeway, Dauphin Island was the original capital of French Louisiana but, once the government moved to the mainland, it became an isolated community, for centuries reached only by boat.

History and military buffs all, we headed straight to the eastern end of the island, site of Fort Gaines. A link in the immense chain of coastal fortifications built from Maine to Texas after the War of 1812, Fort Gaines played a critical role in the early stages of the Battle of Mobile Bay, in which Union Admiral David Farragut blockaded one of the South's major ports during the Civil War. The fort is today an open-air museum, and we spent the good part of an afternoon clambering along its battlements and exploring its cavernous galleries, supported by complex brick barrel vaulting.

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