Alabama, at Last (November 9 – December 31, 2020)

Hurricane Sally ravaged the Gulf Shores, AL area in September, resulting in the delayed availability of our site at Gulf State Park until November 12.  On Monday, November 9th, we finally headed to Alabama.  We drove 159 miles to Cullman, AL and spent the night at Cullman Campground.  Although the road leading to the campground was quite rough, the campground itself was quite nice. 

That afternoon, we drove into Cullman and visited the Ave Maria Grotto on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, the only Benedictine monastery of men in the State of Alabama.  The Grotto consists of a landscaped hillside of 125 small stone and cement structures, the handiwork of Brother Joseph Zoetl, a monk of the Abbey for almost 70 years.

We began our visit by viewing a 15-minute video on the life of Brother Joseph.  We then strolled through the Grotto.  Brother Joseph was born in Bavaria in 1878 and came to the newly-founded St. Bernard Abbey in 1892.  When not shoveling coal into the furnaces of the Abbey power house and spending four hours a day in prayer, Brother Joseph took time to construct miniature replicas of historic structures using stone, concrete, and unwanted donated materials (e.g., broken plates, costume jewelry, ceramic tile, beads, marbles, seashells, etc.).  Of all the replicas constructed, he had only actually seen about six.  All the others were constructed from photographs or from printed descriptions.

On Tuesday, we drove 255 miles to Atmore, AL where we spent two nights at the Wind Creek Casino RV Park.  The RV park consists of 28 pull-though sites and was quite nice, especially given the already low rate that was discounted another 25%.  The casino offered $10 food vouchers for each new Rewards member so we headed there for our free dinner.  After eating at the Grill, we tried our luck on the slot machines, with mixed results.  We returned to the casino on Wednesday, again with mixed results on the slots.  However, considering the $20 in food, the two days netted us a loss of only $8; not bad for two days of entertainment.

That evening, we heard from Gulf State Park.  Although they confirmed our site availability on Thursday, they informed us that the site wouldn’t be ready until 4 pm.  This was a problem since we were only 82 miles away.  On Thursday morning, we waited until the last minute and left the Wind Creek Casino RV Park at 11 am.  Even with a couple of stops along the way, we arrived in Gulf Shores at 1:30 pm.  We parked at Wal-Mart and killed time until 4.  When we were finally able to check in, we discovered that most of the nearby sites were unoccupied.  This made it easier for us to get into our back-in spot and provided us with great views of the lake.

Saturday was the 40th anniversary at Tacky Jack’s and they were offering food specials and prizes.  We decided to head there for an early dinner but it turned out not to be as early as we had planned.  There were plenty of others who had also decided to come for the celebration,  We were told it would be an hour-long wait for a table.  It was a beautiful day and we waited on the deck overlooking the bay.  Unfortunately, the great weather kept people at their tables longer than expected and our predicted hour-long wait extended to two hours.  We wouldn’t have stayed had we known the length of the actual wait but, after investing an hour, we decided to stick it out.  To make matters worse, we didn’t even win a prize.

Over the next week, we dodged a health scare.  Jan developed sinus congestion, a bad cough and a headache that lasted for days.  She lost her voice several mornings.  Phil had similar symptoms, but not as severe.  Although the symptoms were consistent with the common cold, many of them were also consistent with COVID-19.  We also learned that Jason’s housemate, who we had hosted for dinner our last night in TN, had caught the virus.  Since we had family coming for Thanksgiving, we decided we should get tested for COVID.  We found two CVS stores in Pensacola where we could get tested for free on Wednesday.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t both get appointments at the same store.  After Phil got tested at the first store, we drove four miles to the next store where Jan was tested.  Phil got his results two days later and it was negative.  Jan had to wait another two days but also got a negative result.  We both continued to feel under the weather but were relieved to know it wasn’t COVID.

Phil had continued to experience discomfort in his left shoulder, seriously impacting his ability to sleep.  The condition had started in September 2019 but had gotten more painful in recent months.  He had seen an orthopedic surgeon when we were in Gulf Shores in November 2019 and scheduled an appointment with him again a few days after our arrival this year.  Unlike in 2019, the orthopedic surgeon now considered it likely that Phil had a rotator cuff tear and it would require surgery.  On Thursday, November 19th, Phil had an MRI on the shoulder.  The following Monday, Phil returned to see the doctor and was relieved to find out that there was no tear.  The doctor prescribed several weeks of physical therapy while we are in Gulf Shores and then a regimen of at-home exercises after that.  We are hopeful that that will help. 

Although the campground was about 20% occupied when we arrived on November 12th, the occupancy continued to build over the following week.  While the occupancy was still well below the same period in 2019, more than half of the sites appeared full as we approached Thanksgiving week.

Phil researched pickleball venues in the area and settled on the Orange Beach Rec Center.  They have six indoor courts, with four dedicated to intermediate players.  He purchased a 15-visit pass and enjoyed playing most weekday mornings from 9 am to noon. 

On Wednesday, November 25th, Jason, Jarrod and Jess arrived to spend Thanksgiving weekend with us.  They had originally reserved a regular campsite at Gulf State Park, just a few sites away from ours.  However, when Jan checked out the site, she discovered that it would have been unsatisfactory for tents.  As an alternative, they booked a tent in the primitive camping area of the park.  We hadn’t even been aware that this area existed.  The primitive area consists of three large canvas tents and cots on wooden platforms, pit toilets, a water pump (although not drinkable) and a shower with unheated water.  The other challenge was that these sites are not accessible by motor vehicle and are a 16-minute bike ride from our site.  Although primitive camping wouldn’t be our thing, the kids enjoyed their stay there (except for the bug bites).

We had a turkey for Thanksgiving that Jan had arranged to get smoked at Moe’s BBQ.  Moe’s offered a smoked turkey for $50 but, as an alternative, we bought our own 14-pound turkey at Publix for $7 and paid Moe’s $25 to smoke it for us.  Combined with numerous side dishes and two pies, we had quite the Thanksgiving feast.  The weather cooperated and enabled us to eat at the picnic table.

Jason, Jarrod and Jess rented bikes at the campground store.  We made numerous rides around the park over the next few days.  We saw quite a bit of wildlife on our rides.  We visited The Wharf on Friday afternoon.

We got up early on Saturday morning to watch the kids run in a 5K race at the Orange Beach Sportsplex.  Due to COVID concerns, the start was staggered.  One 5K runner and one half marathon runner were started at three second intervals.  Despite not training for the race, Jason and Jarrod came in first in their age brackets and Jess came in third in hers.

Jason fell very ill on Sunday afternoon and spent the night with us.  He was feeling well enough on Monday to join us for an early dinner at Mikee’s Seafood to celebrate Jan’s birthday.  The food was good and the portions were very large.  After Mikee’s, we picked up individual cheesecake slices at Hope’s Cheesecakes to be eaten later that evening.  Phil then drove Jarrod and Jess back to Pensacola airport for their flight home.  Unfortunately, Jason had a relapse Monday night so Jan took him to Urgent Care on Tuesday morning.  After a couple days of rest and medication, he was feeling well enough to work from our home the rest of the week.

On Thursday, December 3rd, Jan’s girlfriends came to Gulf Shores for four nights.  Jan had rented a condo several months earlier.  After Hurricane Sally battered the area, Jan had called the management company and was assured that the condo was still going to be available.  Then, a week before the girlfriends were scheduled to arrive, the management company called Jan and told her that the condo was not yet habitable.  She spent the next couple of days searching for another condo and managed to negotiate another one for the same cost.  On Sunday, Jan took a break from her girl time and we drove Jason back to the Pensacola airport for his flight home.

On Friday, December 11th, we went for a 3-mile walk along the beach.  We began at the pavilion and walked to the pier that had been partially destroyed by Hurricane Sally.

On Saturday evening, we parked along Canal Road and watched the Christmas Boat Parade.  Although a lot of boats that had registered for the parade did not show up due to the heavy rainstorm at the start, there were still 20 boats that did participate.  We stood on the bank of the canal and waved to the people on the decorated boats as they passed by.

On Friday, December 18th, we went to Flora-Bama to play bingo.  Unfortunately, it was not as entertaining as in 2019. After the first game, we headed upstairs to the Main Room and watched live music by the LeaAnne Creswell Duo.  On Saturday evening, we headed to Papa Rocco’s for pizza and entertainment by Bo Grant, formerly of The Platters. We had seen him twice in 2019.

The cooler and windier weather over the next week kept us close to home.  Phil continued to attend physical therapy twice a week. Jan did manage to discover some wildlife on one of her bike rides.

Jason arrived on Christmas Eve and stayed with us for six nights.  After having breakfast and opening presents on Christmas morning, we headed to the movie theater at The Wharf and saw the new Tom Hanks movie, News of the World.  Then, we headed home to our huge Christmas dinner, consisting of Honey Baked Ham and lots of side dishes. On Saturday, we went to the OWA entertainment complex and attended the Legends in Concert show, A Merry Country Christmas.  The cast included impersonators of Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Elvis Presley.

On Monday, Jan and Jason went for a long walk on the beach.  We all then went for dinner outdoors at LuLu’s.

Jason worked from the trailer on Tuesday and Wednesday and we got ready for our departure on Thursday.  On Wednesday evening, we drove back to Pensacola to drop Jason off at the airport.  His flight was delayed several times so we had time for a farewell dinner at Whataburger and a trip to Sam’s Club.