Technically we have already stayed in Alabama on this journey. Technically we could have skipped it on our trek southward. But something didn’t seem right about doing that. Our last pass-through the state was with Neil, our trailer on the flatbed behind us, heading for an engine rebuild in Minnesota. We took the interstate and stayed at a Home2 by Hilton in Decatur after securing a good deal through Priceline. Nothing about the one night we spent on the banks of the Tennessee watching reruns on a TV and DoorDashing food was authentic. Besides, the Natchez Trace clips the corner of the state and there’s a magical little place called Muscle Shoals I needed to see.
First off, the Trace is the way to meander into the state. Alabama is a lot less blurry than I remember. It is almost serene. Miracle and I have both vowed to slow down when the weather warms up and see museums and historical sites and whatnot (especially if they are free). We found a campground in Florence where we could spend the night—a little peninsula on the Tennessee River, the bridge into Muscle Shoals visible from on side, a giant bald eagle’s nest on the other.
“Rain here in a bit,” the man who ran the campground said.
Indeed, the skies were slate and roiling and the air itself was wet. We decided to stay in and explore the next morning. That was wise. We were eating dinner when the tornado sirens sounded off. That was an eerie sound on the river—echoey whoops up and down the river, bouncing off the stone banks. Us in the middle. Then the voice. The 1984 authority voice that buzzed in the air. “This is a Tornado Warning,” it declared. Then it began listing locales we didn’t know and how screwed they were. “Mobile homes will be destroyed or damaged.”
We ran down to the bathhouse. Which at this particular campground was a thing out of a horror film: band-aids, condoms, blood on the shower curtain (for real), mouse shit everywhere. We opted to hunker down in the laundry room, which was flooded and smelled heavily of mildew.
The warning came and went. We returned to our bus which had not been destroyed or damaged. Our site was still above water, which is more than we could say for some of the others.
The next morning we took turns playing “everything is lava” in the bathhouse and left that hellhole for Muscle Shoals. And that is where the magic starts. Muscle Shoals recording studio is rife with musical history. The Stones. Aretha Franklin. Dylan. Paul Simon. Bob Seger. Cher. The list is amazing. And the studio space—like a time capsule from the 60s—is equally amazing. Jagger did vocal work in the bathroom. The piano you hear at the beginning of Seger’s “Old Time Rock ’n Roll?” There it is. And it is in countless other songs. The tour guide says he counts the number of times he hears that exact piano on the radio each morning during his commute. This morning it was four times. It’s simply an amazing space. (Oh, and we owe a debt of gratitude to rapper Dr. Dre for singlehandedly preserving the building after we saw the magnificent little documentary, Muscle Shoals.)
From there we jaunted over to the WC Handy House—the man who pioneered and made the blues a thing. Even though we didn’t take the tour, we were able to walk around the property and read a little more about this man we first learned about in Memphis. Around the corner is the only Frank Lloyd Wright home in Alabama, where we got a nearly private tour. Then, at the end of the day, we jumped back on the Trace toward Mississippi, our 28th state.