Our Alabama medical appointments were all caught up so it was time to say goodbye to our friends in the Huntsville area and head south. We had one final dinner with the gang the night before we left and what a memorable evening. Gail had suggested we meet at the Schnitzel Ranch for an early dinner. When we got there, the sign stated they wouldn't be open for another thirty minutes but the manager pulled in as we were in the parking lot deciding what our Plan B was. When Gail explained that their website still stated their hours at 4 pm, he let us in to enjoy a glass of wine until the dining staff was ready for business. We noticed a crew with cameras and found out that they were from Germany and filming a future episode of Goodbye Deutschland, a popular German reality TV program that follows folks who have emigrated from their homeland to other countries - why they moved, where they moved to, and what they are doing, with updates every few years.
Owner Renya and her family had moved to Huntsville five years ago and opened up the Schnitzel Ranch. We lucked out and had Renya herself waiting on us - she is a hoot to be around and had us all in stitches, and of course, the camera crew was filming the entire time. What made us particularly film-worthy was when Andrew added ice to his beer, something unheard of and almost sacrilegious in Germany. As we were leaving, Renya told us she really needed the laughs and the distraction on that particular day. Five weeks earlier, they had lost their 17-year old son Chris in a tragic accident. Earlier that afternoon, Chris' school planted a tree in his honor and Renya had just come from that. We got a group hug as we left with plans to make this an annual event when we are back in town.
What is interesting about November is that we managed to get in visits not only with our longtime friends but also with three sets of friends whom we'd 'met' through their respective blogs.
First up were Chris and Alex (Around the Bend), and their rescued greyhound Pilot. We met them online many years ago and finally got to meet them in person in 2011 in Washington state. Recently, Lucille had posted a question about the military campground at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. Chris saw the post and emailed that they'd be there at the same time, having just gotten work done on their Phaeton motor home in Red Bay, Alabama. And the email included an invite for dinner the day we arrived - wotta deal and what good friends! Little did Chris and Alex know that they'd have to rescue us when we got to Maxwell. We got lost once we got on base because signage was lacking and the directions confusing. We called them for help -- they didn't even hesitate and came out in their car and led us to the RV park.
After we got parked and set up, we joined them for happy hour, then a great meal of pulled pork sandwiches and all the fixings. The evening went quickly as we caught up on our respective happenings since seeing them last year.
We lived in Huntsville for over sixteen years and many times, we made the trip south to the Gulf area and its beaches, always bypassing Montgomery. This was the first time we took the time to visit and found out there is so much to see and do in Montgomery and the surrounding area. While we were there, we took a trolley tour of the city, visited the state capitol, Rosa Parks Museum, Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the Hyundai plant, and in Tuskegee, the Tuskegee Airmen Museum and the Oaks, Booker T. Washington's home - and we barely scratched the surface - we'll have to return!
The Hyundai plant (no photos permitted) offers tours of their manufacturing facility several times during the week but reservations are a must. When we checked online, all tours were booked till December, and we'd be gone by then. However....we checked often and saw there was a cancellation one afternoon - we hurriedly locked that in and headed that way. What an awesome tour lasting about 90 minutes. A short video kicks off the tour, giving you Hyundai's history and what the area looked like before they got to Montgomery - cows everywhere! After the film, you hop onto a shuttle that takes you through all the plants - no walking necessary. Headsets and safety glasses are provided. Our driver narrated the tour as we went through the plant. There is so much to see and absorb, your head is turning this way and that trying to get it all in - definitely worth a repeat visit. The robotics are awesome. Two different sedans are built there - Sonata and Elantra. Thanks to computer technology, the robots know exactly which model is coming up next and will add the proper equipment for that car. We watched as dashboards for each of the cars were placed, without error.
Some factoids we gleaned from our tour:
· The 3.2 million square feet facility, located on 1,744 acres, had its grand opening May 2005.
· Plant capacity is 350,000 vehicles/year, an average of 1,500 cars/day coming off the line, 24/7. To accomplish this, they practice the 'just-in-time' parts delivery with only four hours of inventory on hand at all times. Trucks are coming and going constantly, bringing in more parts.
· The facility is so huge, you can fit 20 Disneylands on its campus.
· Located on the campus is a two-mile test track on which all cars get test-driven and put through their paces.
· Hyundai is the only manufacturing plant in the US that also builds its own engines.
· Hyundai employees, called team members, work two hour shifts, take a break, then work at another task, avoiding boredom and repetitive stress injuries. We saw lots of smiles and waving as we drove past.
One day was spent touring Montgomery. There is free parking available behind the visitor center at Union Station, where we watched a film of the area's attractions, then hopped a trolley for a 45-minute narrated tour. Ray did an excellent job of describing what we were seeing and gave us recommendations of where to eat lunch.
After lunch, we visited the Rosa Parks Museum, joining a very well-behaved church youth group as we followed Rosa and others on a multi-media presentation of the events leading to and after she refused to give up her seat on the bus. The buses had segregated seating for blacks and whites but there was one section in the middle that if a black person was sitting there, they did not have to give up their seat. The driver asked Rosa to move as more white folks boarded the bus and when she refused, he called his supervisor, who advised him to do what was necessary. The police were brought in and the rest was history. The ironic thing is that Rosa was sitting in that part of the bus that did not have to be vacated when whites came on. The bus driver got it wrong and it went downhill from there.
We were impressed by the non-violent and organized methods that were used to continue the bus boycott so that folks could still go on with their lives. We both remarked that we didn't remember any of this when it actually happened but during that time in 1955, New England was reeling from damages from the Flood of '55. We certainly didn't know about the alternate transportation arranged during the year the boycott lasted- several carpools were started with stops in central locations until the city made things difficult, making them get livery licenses for the 'taxis' they rounded up to transport folks to their jobs and such. The livery licenses were procured, then the city insisted on having them have insurance but no one in the US would insure them so they ended getting insurance at Lloyds of London. One ingenious workaround was the 'rolling' church. Station wagons with church logos were dispatched from the area churches to provide taxi service. Because of her actions, Rosa Parks is considered the mother of the civil rights movement.
Next stop was the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the only church that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored when he was young. The docent gave us a personal tour, starting with a short video clip on the history of the church. This is still an active church - the docent challenged us to find the baptismal font pictured in a photograph. We couldn't find it so she pointed out that the pulpit moves aside and the font is sunk into the church flooring.
Just a short walk up the hill is the Alabama State Capitol building. We were able to freely visit the house and senate galleries as the politicians were not in session that day. This historic building was the first Capitol of the Confederacy. What is unique about Montgomery is that it was not only the Cradle of the Confederacy but also the start of the Civil Rights movement- a curious juxtaposition.
The Tuskegee Airmen National Museum was a short ride away. In July 1941, thirteen young African American men arrived at the Tuskegee Institute to begin training as Army Air Corps pilots. Up until then, the aviation field was mostly closed to them, but in 1939, with growing international tensions, Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act to turn out large numbers of pilots, training at colleges across the country, with the intent they could move into military aviation if needed. In May of 1940, the first class of pilots completed their elementary flight training. The program was so successful, it was expanded to include more advance programs and became the center of African American flight training in the South. By the end of the war, 992 pilots, later known as the Tuskegee Airmen, had been trained. Their deployed squadrons gained a reputation as excellent escort units, with their crews known as "Red Tail Angels" because they were known to never abandon bombers in their care.
Our next stop in Tuskegee was to visit the George Washington Carver Museum but it was closed for renovation. We took a tour of The Oaks, home of Booker T. Washington, the 1st president of Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee Institute is an icon in African American history, the brainchild of former slave Lewis Adams. He was instrumental in establishing a Normal School for Colored Teachers at Tuskegee, with its first teacher, Booker T. Washington. Adams believed he could best improve the living conditions of African Americans by teaching them practical job skills or helping those who were farmers become more self-sufficient and productive. Instructors, such as George Washington Carver, taught carpentry, bricklaying, printing and other trades. Early on, students raised their own food, made their own bricks, and built facilities designed by faculty architects. As word of the institute spread, benefactors Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and others helped the school grow.
The Oaks, built entirely by students, was constructed of bricks they'd made and lumber they'd milled. The home was considered a state-of-the-art building because it incorporated steam heating, plumbing, and electricity, all unique to the area. We were the only ones on the guided tour so we peppered our guide with lots of questions. The workmanship is stunning, the inlaid floors beautifully preserved. Our guide pointed out the shorter than normal railing and stairs leading to the second floor. Mrs. Washington was quite short and had trouble negotiating typical stair height so these stairs and the railing were designed with her in mind.
The next time we are in the area, we'll visit this historic campus more in depth, including visiting the Carver museum.
We enjoyed a last get together with Chris and Alex before they left, enjoying a final dinner together at Fried Tomato Buffet, taking advantage of their senior special. Wotta deal - the cost of the meal included drink and dessert as well as anything on the buffet line. The fried green tomatoes were particularly tasty and worth going for seconds.
While we were parked at the campground at Maxwell Air Force Base, we took a multi-day trip (car only, no motor home) back to the east coast of Georgia to help Yvette celebrate her 60th birthday. We made arrangements to stay in one of the guest apartments at Magnolia Manor, where Lucille's mother lives. This way we could hang out with Mom and also provide transportation for Yvette's party. A good time was had by all - it was a treat seeing Richard and Murielle, who flew down from Nova Scotia and whom we'd just seen last month when we were in Halifax. We also enjoyed visiting with Pat's family as well as Yvette's friends. And of course, the low country boil that Pat fixed was awesome, as were all the dishes others brought.
As much as we would have loved to have visited more of Montgomery when we returned from our mini-vacation, we were both exhausted from our whirlwind trip to the Savannah area and back. We caught up on laundry, car maintenance, errands, emails, and got ready to head south two days later.
Our next destination was the Escapees' Rainbow Plantation in Summerdale, Alabama. Here we were to meet another blogging couple, Paul and Margery (Living our Dream), and their furkid Freeway. We have been following their blog for quite awhile and were particularly interested in getting to meet them in person and check out the refrigerator conversion Paul had done recently, Larry's major project this winter. They came over to introduce themselves the evening we arrived (just by chance, we ended up parking right next door). We hit it off as if we'd known each other in person for years and not just cyber friends.
Some other blogging friends, Greg and Jan (Our RV Adventures), were parked at Gulf Shores State Park. We had last seen them in Cody, Wyoming in 2011 and were glad to get in a quick visit before they headed back to Texas, their winter home. We enjoyed a good meal at Big Daddy's Grill, taking advantage of the lunch time special. Our waitress, Susan, is also the pie lady (we got some to go), told us that had we ordered the same meals after 4 pm (the end of the lunch time special hours), we would have paid considerably more for just two more shrimp - early dining pays off! The day was quite pleasant so we sat on their outside deck overlooking the Fish River - a wonderful time with friends, a good meal, and beautiful scenery - life is good!
Rainbow Plantation honors its veterans annually and we were there in time to attend this very moving ceremony. Members were asked to stand as their branch of service was called - one of the attendees was in every branch of the service except the Army - impressive! We also learned the history of how the Plantation got started with many dedicated volunteers back in 1991. Norm Payne put together a slide show which we saw afterwards - it is amazing to see how the cotton fields were transformed to the beautiful park it is today.
We Escapees members like to eat - we didn't pass up a chance to enjoy any of the weekend breakfasts. It's not just for the food but the fellowship with other members. We inquired about any mountain dulcimer players at the Plantation and got directed to one member who referred us to another. Pat told us about two dulcimer clubs that meet in Foley - we attended one of their get-togethers one day, as audience members only. We also got to jam with Pat and Ann over at our site one afternoon.
Thanksgiving dinner with fellow Escapees was pretty special. Sign-up sheets are available for the 18+ tables of 10-12 guests/table. You sign up for an available table and are contacted by the host of that table coordinating what dish you'd like to contribute for your table. The club provides the meat for $2/person and each table is responsible for all its own sides, as well as decorating the table. Dottie and Gene were our hosts - we had a double celebration - it was also Gene's birthday. We enjoyed meeting Lee and Arley, Roberta and Keith, and Teresa and her husband (whose name we've forgotten - sorry.) The dinner was very organized - promptly at 2 pm, the meal started. One person from each table went up to the serving line to get their table's portion of meat and gravy (one of many trips if needed) - no long buffet lines as found in pot luck dinners.
While in the Summerdale area, we visited the winter home of Klondike friends Bob and Loretta in Lillian. They are practically within spitting distance of Florida and Pensacola Bay - quite a nice place to spend the winter. We also drove to the Mobile area to visit longtime friend Norlando, meeting her for lunch at Cracker Barrel, then going on to see her new home. We enjoyed freshly squeezed lemonade that her sister Janie had prepared as we visited for awhile before heading back home.
The Gulf is a newly opened restaurant in Orange Beach on Perdido Bay. We made arrangements to meet Paul and Margery there, and their friends Pat and Mike. Built of several shipping containers, it offers a limited menu of freshly prepared seafood and specials but the biggest draw is its ambience and locale and view. All seating is outdoors, some under umbrellas. There are also comfortable lounge sofas on the beach for those wanting to enjoy watching dolphins and marine traffic pass by. We noticed a web of fishing lines across the top of the dining area - this is meant to deter seagulls from flying in and bothering the diners - it works! We watched several gulls cautiously approach the area but they never got close enough to be pests.
The Shrimp Basket is another popular seafood restaurant - we grabbed an early lunch there on the day we left Summerdale. Lucille ordered the clam strips but she and Larry both preferred the shrimp he had. The cole slaw has tiny shrimp in it and is very tasty - definitely worth a return trip at any of their Gulfside locations.
One afternoon, we visited Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Weeks Bay Estuary (a semi-enclosed body of water with fresh water mixing with salt water) receives water from both the Magnolia and Fish Rivers and is connected to Mobile Bay. Weeks Bay encompasses approximately 1,178 acres with an average depth of 4.8 feet.
A few factoids about an estuary:
· 90% of the fish, shrimp, oysters and crabs caught by commercial fishermen use the estuary for spawning, nursery or feeding grounds.
· Coastal wetlands act as natural water purifiers.
· Nearly 350 species of resident and migratory birds use this site as a breeding, nesting, feeding and wintering habitat.
· Flood damage can be minimized because Weeks Bay can temporarily store flood waters .
· The wetlands vegetation serve as a buffer to stabilize the shoreline.
· Numerous plants and animals, some classified as threatened or endangered, live in the habitat.
· And last but not least, these wetlands offer a great place to bird watch, hike the boardwalks, and observe the local flora and fauna. There is a boardwalk at the visitor center that we walked, as well as one at the nearby Pitcher Plant bog that was also enjoyable. Lots of the plants were still in bloom - pretty awesome to see.
We were at the visitor center for feeding time for the critters on display in several tanks. The baby gator, who gets fed weekly, snatched up the food pellets. The four resident snakes were fed mice. If you're squeamish, skip to the next paragraph! We learned that live mice are so expensive now (over $3.50 each!) that they are using frozen mice, still expensive at $2.25 a piece. The snakes each eat one mouse every two weeks - who knew those pesky little critters are so expensive. Hmmm.....we could have made a bundle with all those mice we caught up at Klondike this past season! The frozen mice are thawed out and warmed up - what respectful snake wants to eat a mouse-sicle? These snakes have been rehabbed from the wild - there is a learning curve in eating prey when the snake doesn't have to stalk and catch - again, who knew! One of the snakes didn't quite get the hang of it but we didn't stick around to see how the caretaker was going to encourage it to eat. We also learned that an alligator gar recently committed suicide - huh? Well, it turns out that the gar normally isn't a jumper so there was no screening across its tank but something got it excited one evening and it jumped out of the tank and landed on the floor. When the staff came in the next day, they found it but it was too late to save it.
We enjoyed our visit to this reserve and the best part - it's free but donations are welcome. We snagged a couple of geocaches while there - overall, a pretty good afternoon's entertainment.
Our next destination was also one of our favorites - the campground at Fort Pickens, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. This was our first destination when we hit the road in December 2003. The seven mile road to Fort Pickens has been breached at least twice by hurricanes and rebuilt - it is a never-ending job to keep the two-lane road clear of drifting sands. You almost forget you are in Florida when you see a plow removing sand from the road and not snow. It even sounds like driving on snow-packed roads but with temps in the 70s, we knew we hadn't taken a quick trip back up to New England.
Pensacola is our official domicile address - we took care of some legal business while we were there, but most of the rest of our week there was spent enjoying walks to the beach and on the nearby trails, some bike riding, and a visit to the new museum on Fort Pickens. Opened May of 2012, it has several displays on the barrier islands ecology - plant, wildlife, marine life, as well as an interesting video on the history of the fort.
Next up in December: A few days' stop in Americus, Georgia, hanging out with Habitat friends Dave and Mary and getting Lucille's Habitat laptop tuned up; Savannah for a week; Camp Carr through the end of the year and part of January. The only firm plans so far are to be in Sunrise, Florida the last week of January then on to Sabal Palms in Palmdale where we'll meet up with Karen and Galen for our two months' stay there.