The last time my friend Andy and I went on a road trip together was 17 years ago, right before our fifth year of college. Along with another friend, we took a semester off to work and save money and then spent eight weeks driving across the country. On our way through the South, we were really anxious to get to New Orleans, so we sped through Alabama in a day, not seeing much of anything. Now, we're both excited to return for a long weekend in the state to explore its rich and complex history.
We're also both huge barbecue fans, but because we live in New York, getting the real deal—Southern barbecue—is next to impossible. As soon as our flight lands in Birmingham, we drive north to Cullman to eat some meat at Johnny's Bar-B-Q. Andy orders a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw—"the classic," as he calls it. My meal sets a high bar for the trip: a baked potato topped with barbecued pork, cheese, sour cream, and bacon bits. Much to Andy's amazement, I still have room for a slice of lemon pie at the end.
After lunch, we head over to the Ave Maria Grotto, a park where a monk named Brother Joseph Zoettl spent 46 years building 125 miniature replicas of churches and well-known structures from around the world, such as St. Peter's Basilica and the Colosseum. The actual grotto is decorated with bits of colored glass and hand-carved marble; in the center is a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. We'd been prepared for a high kitsch factor before we came, but I find it moving. Zoettl's commitment to his faith was so deep that he devoted his life to creating this unique place of worship.
The next order of business is tracking down a place to stay. On our way into Decatur, I notice a motel with a cool 1960s-era sign, but when I mention it to a woman we stop on the street to ask for advice, she sounds less than enthusiastic. "It's often in the papers, if you know what I mean," she says.
Andy and I decide to stay at the Country Inn & Suites in Decatur's historic district instead. As for where to eat dinner, there's no discussion at all—we haven't yet satisfied our barbecue craving. We make our way to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, which has cooked its tender pulled pork the same way for more than 75 years, smoking the meat at low heat for 18 hours. What makes the dishes special, though, is Big Bob's famous white sauce, made from mayo, vinegar, horseradish, and cayenne and black pepper. Andy loves the tangy sauce so much, he buys a bottle online when we get back home.
Before turning in, we have a beer and play a game of cribbage at Simp McGhee's, a bar named after an infamous 1900s Tennessee River boat captain who, according to legend, had an extremely colorful vocabulary, liked to play pranks on fishermen, and drank with his pet pig at the pub. Andy and I wonder if the stories about him are true: Simp looks more like a dapper banker type in his portrait hanging behind the bar.
Country Inn & Suites
807 Bank St. NE, Decatur, 888/201-1746, countryinns.com/decatural, from $72
1401 Fourth St. SW, Cullman, 866/468-6527, johnnysbarbq.com, barbecue pork potato $6.25
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q
1715 Sixth Ave. SE, Decatur, 256/350-6969, bigbobgibson.com, pulled pork sandwich $3.25
Ave Maria Grotto
1600 St. Bernard Dr. SE, Cullman, 256/734-4110, avemariagrotto.com, $7
725 Bank St. NW, Decatur, 256/353-6284, simpmcghees.com
Deep in the countryside of northern Alabama, the Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum is not easy to find—we miss the turnoff from the highway and have to stop to ask for directions. When we finally make it there, Andy and I are amazed by the reproduction of the 20-by-40-foot sharecropper's shack where the four-time Olympic track-and-field gold medalist lived with his parents and nine siblings in the early 1900s. After seeing how cramped the space is, I'll never complain about my 700-square-foot New York apartment again.
It starts to rain as we leave, so Andy and I ditch our plans for a hike and drive south to Newbern to see some of the homes built by students of the Rural Studio. Part of Auburn University, the studio was founded to teach students how to create affordable houses for the poor that don't sacrifice on quality or high design. Those who sign up for the program live for a semester in western Alabama—one of the poorest regions in the country—and build homes on budgets as low as $20,000. The houses are then sold to residents at a below-market rate through a subsidized program. To save money, the students find innovative ways to use unconventional building materials, such as carpet samples, tires, and bottles. The homes are the highlight of the trip for Andy and me—the idea of creating such cool-looking spaces for the social good is truly inspiring. My favorite structure is a chapel in the town of Mason's Bend that has a wall made out of car windows—layered on top of one another, they look like fish scales.
With the sun setting, Andy and I hurry east to Selma to find a place to stay for the night. I start to get nervous after we pass a series of uninviting motels in strip malls, but then we find the St. James Hotel downtown on the Alabama River. Built in the 1830s, the stately hotel played host to Confederate officers during the Civil War, when Selma was an important arms depot for the South. It was then abandoned for a century before being renovated in 1997. Andy and I can't believe our luck: The hotel looks just as grand as it must have when it first opened, with a wide, wraparound porch, gas lamps in the courtyard, and red-velvet curtains and 12-foot-high ceilings in the rooms.
St. James Hotel
1200 Water Ave., Selma, 334/872-3234, historichotels.org/hotel, from $105
Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum
7019 County Rd. 203, Danville, 256/974-3636, jesseowensmuseum.org
Morrisette House, Newbern, 334/624-4483, cadc.auburn.edu/soa/rural-studio
Selma is a relatively sedate place today, but it will be forever remembered as the site of one of the most violent clashes of the civil rights era. On March 7, 1965, a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, about 600 civil rights activists were attacked by police with nightsticks and tear gas as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march to the capital, Montgomery. Two weeks later, some 3,000 protesters set off from Selma on the same route. This time, the police didn't stop them, and their numbers swelled to 25,000 by the time they reached the capital. Months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There are exhibits detailing the civil rights struggle at the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, including cards with handwritten, personal stories from the marches. Andy, a history professor, says this is the kind of thing he likes to bring into his class—the voices of people who witnessed, and made, history.
From there, we visit a site from further back in history: the ruins of Cahawba, the state's capital from 1820 to 1826. Cahawba has been deserted since just after the Civil War, when the railroad was diverted away from the town and it suffered a devastating flood. All that remains are dilapidated buildings, brick foundations, and two cemeteries (one for whites, one for blacks). As we wander around, we try to imagine what the glory days were like, when new homes were being built and shoppers filled the streets.
Soon, though, hunger gets the better of us, and we're off to Montgomery for food. Feeling nostalgic, we decide to return to a place where we ate on our drive through the state years ago: Chris' Hot Dogs, a lunch counter from the early 1900s. We order two hot dogs loaded with the works—mustard, onions, sauerkraut, and chili sauce—and watch locals chat with waiters behind the counter. It's evidently still the hot lunch spot in town.
Chris' Hot Dogs
138 Dexter Ave., Montgomery, 334/265-6850, chrishotdogs.com, hot dog combo $6.25
Edmund Pettus Bridge
Rte. 80, Selma
National Voting Rights Museum & Institute
1012 Water Ave., Selma, 334/418-0800, nvrmi.com, $6
County Rd. 2, 334/872-8058, cahawba.com
There are reminders of the civil rights era everywhere in Alabama—especially in the state capital. At the Civil Rights Memorial Center, sculptor Maya Lin has created a poignant monument to those slain in the movement: a circular black-granite slab inscribed with the names of the victims and a timeline of important events. Water bubbles up from the center of the table and flows over the edges. Behind it is a black-granite wall that's engraved with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Presented in such a stark and beautiful way, King's words seem to carry extra weight, a testament to Lin's design.
When we arrive at artist Joe Minter's yard in Birmingham, it initially reminds me of the Ave Maria Grotto, because it's filled with a staggering amount of stuff. But Minter's yard is very different—he has spent 19 years creating a memorial to black history out of found objects such as dolls and toys, scrap metal, wood, and household items. Minter tells us he uses ordinary artifacts that have been discarded in part to symbolize the rejection that many blacks have experienced in their lives. "I want my work to tell the story of a people who have been here 400 years and are still invisible," he says.
Civil Rights Memorial Center
400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, 334/956-8439, splcenter.org/crm, $2
Joe Minter's yard
931 Nassau Ave. SW, Birmingham
FINDING THE WAY
Interstate 65 is the quickest way north from Birmingham, but Highway 31 is a much prettier route. Heading south, the most scenic drives are along secondary roads like Highways 69 and 61 through the countryside. When you hit Highway 80, it's a straight shot east to Montgomery.