Greetings – or should I say, howdy? We have arrived in a rainy and chilly Lone Star state, our home for the next five weeks – first, here in Austin, and then Alpine, in the heart of West Texas. Our drive here Sunday was a fairly grueling one of about ten hours, leading Morgan and me to conclude that Texas is simply too big, and something needs to be done about it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, our trip to Mobile last week was a delightful one, as far as driving with your entire life, including a drugged-up cat, goes. Like last week, we skipped the shortest route along the incredibly dull (other than cows, and something Morgan is convinced was a dead tiger) Interstate 10 and stuck along the coast. This was partly out of our desire to see more of the gorgeous panhandle (surprising, I know) but also another result of our time-traveling back into central time and the need to not show up at our Mobile Airbnb too early. So the scenic route it was, once again.
Crossing into Panama City Beach, it was obvious we had left the jungles and fishing towns of the Forgotten Coast behind. For miles and miles, there was nothing but high-rise condos and hotels, tourist shops, and bars and restaurants. I found it a bit claustrophobic, but Morgan got a thrill recognizing spots from the reality TV show Floribama Shore. Destin was mostly the same, with a healthy dose of Florida strip mall culture, though Okaloosa Island was beautiful and Fort Walton Beach had a charming little downtown. There was even the adorably named Mary Esther, which Morgan (accurately, I think) labeled a “grandma town.” Pensacola slipped by, and suddenly we were back on the interstate and less than an hour from our destination.
We arrived in our new home, an almost ridiculously spacious two-bedroom apartment along Government Street, just outside downtown. Truly, Mobile (pronounced mo-BEEL, not MO-beel, as we’ve learned) is a hard city to get a handle on. Some of the homes on our street (incidentally, an extremely busy commuter route) looked rivaled Garden District New Orleans. Others looked like Tara toward the end of Gone With The Wind, including a preposterously ornate, boarded-up plantation-style house next door.
People have compared Mobile to New Orleans. Ok, I get it. There are lots of wrought-iron balconies and that certain type of French/Spanish architecture. There’s a water feature. They even do Mardi Gras (Mobile is the oldest Mardi Gras in the Americas, as they are fond of letting you know)!
But walking down Dauphin Street, in the heart of downtown, at various times of day and night, my best comparison is New Orleans, but as if it were the beginning part of 28 Days Later.
We had yet to figure this out on Sunday as we began our preliminary explorations of the area. Honestly, we were too hungry. But that didn’t last for long, thanks to some of the honest-to-goodness best barbecue I’ve ever had at Moe’s Original BBQ. Yes, we are now in one of the barbecue capitals of the world – but Mobile held its own, as far as Morgan and I were concerned. The best evidence is the lack of pictures – we just dove in so fast that by the time we realized we should take a picture, it was half gone. And no one wants to see half-eaten barbecue.
Afterward, we strolled Dauphin Street, checking out the many murals and grabbing some exceptional chocolate from Three Georges. We eventually made it all the way downtown, where we caught a lingering sign of one of Mobile’s weirder traditions. On New Year’s, instead of lowering a ball to mark midnight, the city of Mobile drops a giant Moon Pie. You may find yourself saying, as we did, “Hmmm.. that’s odd. I guess they must make Moon Pies here or something.” But, like us, you would also be wrong. They’re made in Tennessee – they just really, really like them here.
Thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Morgan and I were lucky enough to enjoy an extra day to explore the city, which we used to hop in the car and head an hour southwest across the state line, into Mississippi. I like to think we’ve become somewhat Gulf connoisseurs, and Morgan’s recent bonus had her itching to gamble, so Biloxi seemed like a perfect choice. In my mind, it is the Atlantic City of the South. For me, that’s tepid praise – your mileage may vary. Swap out one group of old retirees for another and rednecks for guidos, and the resemblance can be a bit uncanny. To Biloxi’s credit, there were plenty of open spots at tables and free slot machines, which are as good as gold on holidays in AC.
This extends to the town itself, too, in the sense that you do not under most circumstances want to wander into Atlantic City, and there’s simply not much of a town to wander into in Biloxi. Morgan and I followed the signs pointing to downtown, which seemed to lead to a few empty streets, with more signs that gradually brought us in a circle with no more than a handful of actual shops, restaurants, or businesses of any kind. Things even got a little tense between us with a Twilight Zone-style, there’s-no-way-this-is-right type vibe.
At the end of the afternoon, Morgan was the big winner among the two of us, and by that, I mean the only winner as I got killed on some strange variety of blackjack I’d never played before. Morgan developed what seemed to be a sixth sense for picking winning penny slot machines, so I followed her around and tried to steal some of her luck, with modest success. It’s been clear for a while now that she’s the breadwinner in this household. However, I didn’t expect this to extend to things as squarely in my wheelhouse as gambling.
Back to Mobile, it’s abundantly clear that this city would simply have no reason to exist if not for Mobile Bay, a shallow, surprisingly gorgeous, up to 20-mile-wide stretch of water created by five rivers meeting a few miles north of the city. I spent a lot of my time on bay-related activities this week, including visiting what seemed to be the central attraction of Mobile – the USS Alabama. This decommissioned battleship was turned into a museum in the 1960s, and I have to admit I was surprised at how much fun I had exploring this thing.
It’s essentially a floating city – with everything from soda fountains to ship newspapers onboard. While several field trips worth of military school kids marveled at the big guns and engine rooms, I was weirdly excited to see the kitchens, the bakery, and the radio station. It was also a fairly spooky place, especially as you descended deeper and deeper into the ship or peered down closed-off hatches into blackness, leading who knows where. The dummies did not help the creepy vibes.
It all brought back memories of staying overnight on a similar battleship, the USS Massachusetts, with the Boy Scouts when I was a kid. These memories are mostly of struggling to get some sleep in an obscenely noisy and uncomfortable ship compartment but also running around, tripping over high door sills, and just generally causing havoc around the ship. Good times.
The grounds surrounding the USS Alabama were also littered with a variety of planes, helicopters, tanks, and other military equipment that looked like a giant toddler had gotten bored of his toys and forgot to clean up. You could spend an entire day looking at every one of these things and reading all of the exhibits, but I’d already spent more hours than I’d planned wandering the ship, so I said farewell and headed back into the city.
The other big attraction along Mobile’s waterfront is the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know if this museum is supposed to be geared toward kids. But I also don’t care, because it was incredibly fun playing with all the exhibits, driving the boat simulator, docking the model tankers, and learning all sorts of stuff about the shipping, fishing, and natural heritage of the Gulf. It was even built inside a container ship replica! The whole visit went nicely with my most recent themed book for our trip, “The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea,” which I’d highly recommend for anyone interested in history or science.
We’ve been in the southeast for a while now. Besides a very pork and sausage-based week and a half in Helen, we have been eating a lot of seafood. Like, A LOT. How many hundreds of shrimp, oysters, crab, and other fish have met their demise at our hands may never be known. But despite overindulging on oysters last week, we still figured we wanted to treat ourselves to one final delicious seafood meal before we head into the desert and the land of barbecue and tacos. We got that Felix’s Fish Camp, located on one of the small islands out along the highway in Mobile Bay.
On Saturday, we headed back across the bay one final time to check out the small town of Fairhope. It was founded as part of some strange tax scheme experiment that by all accounts didn’t really work but resulted in a lovely downtown lined with shops, restaurants, and historic buildings. I have to put a word in for Tamara’s Downtown, which had an absolutely exceptional crab cake served on top of fried spinach, the most delicious thing you never knew you needed until now – not to mention a gluten-free French dip, which is something I’ve yet to encounter in 5+ years of wheat-free life.
One of the highlights was Fairhope Pins and Pints, where we spent a fun half-hour sampling some local beer from Fairhope Brewing and playing some pinball and classic arcade games. Morgan played some solid Ms. Pac Man, but I had the Galaga game of my life. The Avengers pinball and vintage baseball game were also a great time, as was watching Morgan play Simon.
Fairhope also has a nice waterfront and pier, including a little bayfront beach. You could see the delta and the Mobile Skyline across the bay, and it was generally beautiful. I hope the pictures convey that. What I don’t think they can convey is quite how hellaciously strong and cold the wind was off the bay. With temperatures already in the 40s, this was not the southern winter I was promised.
All in all, Mobile was fine. It was…fine. Throughout the week, I kept telling Morgan things that I found myself prefacing with “I don’t want to sound like I’m trashing Mobile, but…”, followed by some true but unflattering fact about the city or area.
Still, I need to give some credit to Mobile for something very unexpected – probably the best gluten-free bakery I’ve ever been to. This is not an exaggeration. I’ve eaten plenty of gluten-free baked goods from major cities, big corporations, and baked them myself, and nothing has come close to Guncle’s, which was only a half-mile down the street from our Airbnb. My mouth may have actually dropped open when I saw some of their selection because the staff seemed pretty amused at the two giant orders I placed within a few days of one another. But hey – are you going to skip the cheddar herb biscuits, or the berry cake, or the banana bread, or the raspberry friand? The answer is no. You’re not going to skip any of them.
Overall, we had a good enough time in Mobile, and it served its purpose – a stopover we’d never been to on our way from Florida out west. And here we are – out west! I couldn’t be more thrilled to be back in Texas, exploring a city proud of its weirdness and with a taco truck on every corner. We’ve got a running taco count already – whether or not it will be disclosed on the blog is still to be determined.
From deep in the heart of Texas,
Nick and Morgan