The positives and negatives of traveling never cease to be an inspiring part of vacation. I recently spent more than two weeks away from the comparatively friendly confines of the Azalea/Port City, visiting the Florida Keys and Austin, Texas, and as is usual when I dare to leave this area code, the distance offered some perspective as to where Mobile is as a city.
Sure, there were the usual aggravations of travel — my father driving negative 13 mph on the interstate, overhearing a guy describe a camera lens as “buttery” while eating lunch in the Atlanta airport, eating any type of food, period, in an airport and typically sharing my row with the biggest dudes on the plane. But there were also exciting things I learned along the way.
For instance, one plane I was on had computer Texas hold ‘em that allowed me to play against other passengers and potential terrorists. That was a much better way to pass the time than indulging the conversational excesses of the lady next to me. On the long drive back from Austin I was treated to podcast listening and learned a good bit more about duck penises than I’d ever hoped to know.
I return to Mobile as not only a man with a greater respect for ducks, but also as one frightened by what other bizarre podcast possibilities are lurking out there.
While I’ve been to the Keys several times, the trip to Austin was a first, and one I was looking forward to since the city was essentially the inspiration that brought Lagniappe into being. My co-publisher, Ashley, returned to Mobile 14 years ago itching to start a newspaper after falling in love with the Austin Chronicle while living there.
Newspapering was the reason for visiting the Texas capital last week, as the Association of Alternative Newsmedia was having its annual convention and Lagniappe was nominated for one of its bigger awards — race coverage. (No, not the kind with Dale Earnhardt Jr. smashing into a wall at 250 mph.) I got to spend four days chatting up publishers, editors and writers from other weeklies across the country and listening to their takes on their own cities and publications.
Once most of them got over their initial shock that someone from Alabama can actually speak in complete sentences — even after a drink or two — most were impressed by the story I told them about Mobile. Jaws kind of dropped when I mentioned Airbus cranking up production and the University of South Alabama’s growth. And as newspaper people, they were envious of Lagniappe being in a town where the daily paper had dwindled to three days a week.
Still, many couldn’t resist working in an Alabama dig or two, even if they’d never been to our fine state. Let’s just say Gov. Bentley’s antics and our ex-speaker’s misfortunes have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the country.
While the newspaper crowd is always a fun and interesting one, I was also excited to see Austin itself. The city is one of the places hipsters face when they’re too cool to pray, so I wanted to see what the hubbub is all about. They had a pretty cool entertainment strip with lots of bars and restaurants, and certainly the city was fairly bursting with great places to eat.
Everything was pricey by our standards, but there was plenty of variety and — being a hipster haven — most dishes contained free-range, gluten-free and judgment-free meats, cheese and veggies. Being Texas, most dishes were also huge.
If anything threw me off about Austin it was the very eclectic way buildings are organized. There appeared to be no unifying style of any kind, so there were very odd-looking modern buildings right next to blah ‘70s-style apartments, etc. It’s the kind of mix that gives urban planners severe heartburn.
The city’s real appeal showed up as we rolled across a bridge over an elongated lake. It was filled with people kayaking, swimming and paddleboarding. I have to admit it looked like a blast, especially as it was 95 degrees. Austin also boasts numerous bike and jogging paths that at least some of the participants at our convention were unimpaired enough to try out.
Sharing an elevator with a couple of ladies from Atlanta’s Creative Loafing newspaper, I heard one gushing about how amazing all the public water activities looked and complaining that the Big Peach has nothing comparable. I said we have a similar issue, even though Mobile butts up against a river and bay and is webbed by numerous creeks.
It struck me how much even people in a huge city like Atlanta crave the kinds of water features Mobile could so easily provide.
Yes, there’s progress on making Three Mile Creek the kind of place that could support a good bit of paddling and other water activities, but it’s still shocking to me there isn’t any plan on the table for securing the lands that would give this city an amazing bayside park that could serve Mobile for generations to come.
Even as we’re still in the midst of finding a way to spend the oil spill money on all manner of non-environmental projects, there needs to be a serious look at doing something truly transformative with the money instead. As I’ve written before, the shuttered USA Golf Course at Brookley could be this city’s Audubon Park if the money could be gathered and the USA Foundation would agree to sell rather than following current plans to develop the property.
Having a big waterfront park just five minutes from downtown, complete with a huge public fishing pier, would improve life for all Mobilians. It’s easy to imagine scores of people getting out to paddle along the bay or spending their days catching fish from the pier. It would be so nice not to have to drive into the crowded tunnels or travel nearly an hour to Dauphin Island to enjoy the water that is so tantalizingly close.
After being away, I think we’re holding our own cuisine- and entertainment-wise, and the future looks bright economically. Now if someone can figure out how to make the water part of our daily lives, we might just be living in the next really cool place.