From Bass to Bong Hits

The drive from Dothan, Alabama to Charlottesville passes through Georgia and the sisters Carolina before nestling into the home of several founding fathers. More on that later, though.  If you’ve been following my earlier travels, Imelda and I had a turbulent ending. When I returned home the other night, my sixty-plus bar soap sculpture – courtesy of my chambermaid Imelda – had tumbled to the ground. Slightly disappointed, I scraped the pieces from the vanity and shifted them into the trash can. At some point, I found the note. “Looks like I lost the Jenga. Sorry. —Imelda” I can only imagine what she was doing with my sculpture. Perhaps placing a groom and bride figurine atop it, or maybe cleaning out a bedroom for an illicit tryst. Whatever the reason, Imelda wrecked my architecture. So, now I am stuck with a range of emotional upheaval. There is anger at a person who would destroy another person’s art. Too, there is sadness for the irony of a woman, who spends much of her life cleaning up, knocking down sixty bars of soap to make a mess. And finally, there is dismay, at the idea of poor Imelda, feeling the guilt and shame of wrecking the home she’d seen me build for us. Had I known it would come to this, I would never have asked for more soap. Live and learn.

As for the drive, various small towns pave the path from the lower south to Virginia.
Eufala is home of the big mouth bass, deer processing centers (I know!) and intellectual restaurant names like Pete’s Uh (guess what they serve?) Moving Northeast, old plantation houses transform into southern colonials and I get to row the recollective oar for my collegiate architecture class. There’s a municipal airport with a guy named Bill who holds up his sandwich to direct a plane’s approach. When you ask Bill if a certain type of sandwich is more effective, he doesn’t laugh. Beacon-bacon, tomayto-tomahto, I guess.

Several rivers snake their way through the landscape and hundreds of small boats sit upon placid lakes, which host dinner if you wait long enough. One lake appears to serve double duty as a Chevy dealership. At least four hundred pick-up trucks fill its bank, although there is one poor little Toyota set in near the end of the line
and you get the sense this car feels like the kid in the locker room who wants to wait ’til everyone else leaves before taking his shower for, let’s call them comparative reasons.

The tickle-belly roads offer a sense of liberty, restrained only by the intermittent speed limit signs which place a prohibitive shackle upon your freedom and provide a reminder that your government will never leave you unbridled. Eventually, the music changes from pick-up trucks and bass fishin’ to shady trees and couples kissin’ and you know you’ve entered a State with fewer gun racks.

This is Charlottesville, Virginia now. Monticello sits twenty minutes from my hotel and UVA’s rotunda and green lawn require only one-thousand uphill strides. As I leave my car to cross the campus, graduates and parents cover the quad. With an ear toward history, I eavesdrop upon the next generation’s political leanings. The conversations are not what I expected.

………“Dude, I’m gonna start a weed farm.”

………“You going to law school?” “No, the future is pot.”

………“If I did this again, I’d have gotten a degree in agriculture. Haha.”

It is a brave new world. I wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think.

By ccxander

When Travel Blogs go Awry

The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is over 450 holes of world-class golf sprawled out across the State of Alabama. Locals got so disgusted with folks flying through their state on the way to Florida, they built thirty plus courses to tempt travelers. Today on these courses, in a State where using the Lord’s name in vain is still considered blasphemy, you’ll hear more “Goddammits” than anywhere else in the country. Apparently, irony begins with irons.

Because of the limited tourist attractions in Dothan, Alabama, the Golf Trail is quite popular here. Players come from around the globe to participate in what has to be the world’s longest “good walk spoiled.” Factor in the multitude of barbecue joints pasted along highways adjacent to the courses and you have the makings of some pretty primitive circumstances. Picture this: Man swings club, curses twice and hurls club skyward, then meanders across the grass to the local food shack to consume a mouth -bloodying rack of ribs before he returns back across the fairway and grabs his club to grunt his way toward double bogey. Makes you wonder whether Kubrick was a fan of the links. Presumably, golf is the evolved gentleman’s game, but based on the setup here in ‘Bama, Geico should be shooting daily ads claiming, “so easy, even a Caveman could do it.”

Back on the tennis courts at Westgate Tennis Club, the tournament’s main draw continues today. With players ranked between 80 and 250 in the world, the competition is close. Fierce-faced ladies rip forehands and backhands in long rallies as the green clay transforms from a blank canvas into a Monet painting. The margins here are small, with less than a handful of points deciding most matches. This implies a twenty-second concentration lapse can cost you a match and that implication is true. At the elite level, the importance of mental skills is on par with physical ones. A random annoying fan in the stands, a car horn, a crow’s squawk. These are a few of the things which can alter focus. These external distractions can cause a player to lose thousands of dollars if they allow themselves to stray off task. As I sit here watching them perform, the facial ticks and body language often tell a far more intriguing story than the strokes.

Now on the home front. The soap construction has reached forty bars. Like a house of cards, it now stands sink-adjacent and is, frankly, pretty impressive. As I placed the finishing touches on this, I wondered if Imelda might get the wrong impression – that perhaps I am showing her the home we could have together, the sanitized house where we might raise our children. For Imelda’s sake, I hope not. After long days on the courts, sometimes we coaches just need a way to cleanse ourselves of the day, to focus our energy on something greater than our game. The soap sculpture offers that. I’m sure she will understand.

By ccxander

Alpha-Dogs and Chambermaids

The final round of Dothan’s 80K women’s tournament took place today. At this point in the event, 28 main draw players wander the grounds Alpha-dogging the rest of the playing field. Top seeds walk with a my-ranking-is-higher strut, while lesser-ranked players step right or left to let the seeds pass. At some point, they all hit the practice courts to feel the speed of the courts, to test the weight of the balls, the direction of the sun, the flow of the wind. During practice, they play from both sides of the court and note any elemental variations. The local stringer has strung many of the racquets and the players test their equipment before returning it to the stringer tonite for any requisite adjustments. The goal? To fine-tune the game for tomorrow’s competition. These players want to feel the ball on the center of the strings, to hit their best shots successfully and to get their feet flowing after long travel days – some have come from thousands of miles away.

The screaming and ranting now making its way across the facility is the first edge of a hurricane about to make landfall. Imagine knowing you are “off” your game and about to compete. Imagine knowing you’ve paid a thousand dollar plane fare, another thousand dollars in hotel fees, and traveled for fifteen hours to come to this American club where the local hotspots are Cracker Barrel and Walmart. Imagine your competitor is on the adjacent court repetitively ripping fantastic shots and fist-pumping faster than Floyd Mayweather on a training bender. You can understand the frustration.

As the qualies close, the screams continue. For three days, these ladies have played seven or more sets beneath a scorching Alabama sun. They are fatiguing, frustrated and furiously fighting. Four of them will enter the main draw. Four of them will compete tomorrow. Four of them will consider this week a success. The rest will be on planes again, looking back out over the wing to wonder “what if.” Those two words, “what if” are the toughest ones in this business. Regret, after all, has a long blade.

On another note, for those who’ve followed my previous escapades, you know I have a thing for chambermaids (see the towel fiasco in Mexico). It’s not sexual, but rather, more of an arm’s length flirtation to ensure my room stays upkept. Here in Dothan, her name is Imelda. With black hair tucked into a bun and a bend in her back, which suggests she may have a few decades on this job, Imelda wields a thick Guatemalan accent and one predatory eyebrow. Each morning, she places several tiny bars of soap on my sink. With them, I’ve begun constructing a soap house. Whether Imelda finds joy in this little homage to home will likely determine the level of my room service this week. We’ll know more this evening.

Note: Back in my room, Imelda has left me a gift. Twenty tiny soap bars now rest on my vanity. Clearly, she supports my architectural ambitions. Tonight I set my plans – a strong foundation with little risk of collapse, minor adjustments if things are not working as planned, and perhaps a few aesthetically pleasing additions. I’m assuming most of the main draw players will be doing the same.

By ccxander

On Peanuts and Players

Day Two:
Dothan, Alabama is the peanut capital of the world. I am not certain the world needs a peanut capital, but the 10-foot tall peanut which stands outside of the National Peanut Festival grounds and the helicopter rides which fly over the peanut festival grounds, and the twenty acres dedicated to peanut farmers and harvest season suggest otherwise. There are boiled peanuts, salted peanuts, plain peanuts, brittled peanuts, Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, peanut butters, Peanut the Puppet, odd peanut shells which hold three, four and even five nuts, and a thousand other varieties, which you imagine could bring anaphylactic shock to a whole host of schoolchildren. Unfortunately, Southwest Airlines’ peanuts are unavailable here as the size of your nut bag is apparently pretty important. It has been very difficult for me to walk around here without laughing.

Also on Dothan’s list of do-not-miss tourist sites, is the world’s smallest city block. It consists of a small gravel triangle with a stop sign, a yield sign, a street sign and a headstone which designates its title. I’ve considered remarking on this landmark but one of the Yelp comments summed it up better than I ever could, “The memory of this place will last a lifetime, or at least until you get back to your car.”

After taking the twelve requisite minutes to cover Dothan’s tourist attractions, I returned to the tennis tournament. Today’s second round of qualifying exhibited more error-prone power than a James Comey interview. This is an $80,000 event held at a public facility which boasts green clay the color of Kermit the Frog after a bender. An upper deck looks out over the courts and several cocktail-toting locals watch the tennis and make enough “oohing and aahing” sounds that you start to wonder whether something inappropriate is happening up there. Television camera crews stalk the grounds in search of good vantage points and if you happen to stray into their camera shot, they resemble those blow-up things outside the car dealerships.

In this tournament, 32 women will battle for four qualifying spots to join the other 28 competitors in the Main Draw. Getting through qualies is a bit like driving LA’s 405 toward the airport. If you can stay mentally tough and avoid accidents, it’s possible to navigate your way there. Even if you make it though, you’ll be exhausted and sore and annoyed with the journey. Your reward is the main draw, which is akin to getting through four hours of traffic to find out you have a 19-hour flight to Brisbane.

Today’s matches had women from Israel, France, Russia, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Chinese Taipei, and the US. Tomorrow, the survivors will battle in the final round before the Main. I imagine the rest of them will go home thinking Dothan is the quintessential American experience. That should terrify all of us, but if so, I hope they take some peanuts for the ride.


By ccxander

The Beginning of a Three-Week Journey


For the next three weeks, I’m traversing several states on a journey across America’s south. Along the way, I’ll provide obnoxious and cynical observations about local culture, relate humorous tales of human interaction and enlighten you on the world of professional tennis. Caveat emptor on the writing through. I’ve been known to deviate from the normal journalistic form and digress into rants about history and psychology and other types of literary mischief. If you are inclined, hoist and tilt that morning cuppa while I lift the window shade unto a strange world.

Day One:
The drive from St. Petersburg, Florida to Dothan, Alabama passes through the panhandle. There are cows and fruit farms and a sleek transition from palm trees to coniferous ones. As you leave the tropics, humidity turns into something cooler, dustier, as though the back woods are offering a welcoming breath, one which resonates with the stink of beached fish and tractor fumes. Too, advertisements change. Northern Florida trends conservative, with giant roadside rectangles shouting guilting religious phrases like “Abortion Breaks God’s Heart” and ‘Children are Not Meat.” That an Arby’s sign followed the latter billboard must be the world’s most disconcerting commercial irony. Entering ‘Bama, trees host crosses nailed to their trunks and Garth Brooks billboards join the ubiquitous auto racing signs.

As you travel through East Alabama, a waging of two contests appears. Whether the United States flag is more prevalent than the one supporting the University of Alabama is too close to call. The second battle takes place between cows and churches. Almost every home here hosts herded cows – some are pets, some are livestock, and some are dinner – and the smell is one of those wintry day smells when Papa lights the fireplace and the smoky scent permeates the entire city, only, more fertilized. The churches don’t smell, but the herding is similar.

In what has to approach a record for the nation’s most diverse sales kiosk, one roadside tent offers fudge ice cream, gator jerky and cow tongue. While the gator jerky was tempting, the cow tongue caught my attention because it answers one of my most profound childhood inquiries – Why do cows say Moo? The absence of a tongue means they are mute and, with the “moo,” I’m fairly certain they are trying to let us know that cutting out their tongues make them this way, but without being able to put the tongue on the roof of their mouth, they just can’t get there. That that took a seven-hour drive to discover, makes it all the more satisfying.

About twenty minutes before arrival, I pulled into a back road Alabama gas station. Smitty came out to greet me. I know this because the oval patch and cursive script which adorned his grey jumpsuit said so. The tobacco stains on his collar suggested potential dental issues, which were confirmed when he grinned. Smitty scrubbed my windows with a Miyagi-ish circular motion and then filled my tank by straddling and holding the hose as though taking a leak. Though he was very friendly, I think this was Smitty’s way of pissing on a world which had pissed him off. I was hoping I’d see a hound laying across a hose outside the service station, but fortune granted me no favor today.

So, now here I am in Dothan, Alabama, population 70K, most of whom appear to be related. There is a Subway, a Walmart, and a few BBQ places with names like Chuck’s or Slim’s or Bubba’s. This afternoon I intend to explore the local attractions. Based on first impressions, I’ll be cow-tippin’, finger-lickin’ and fishin’. Tomorrow, the tennis tournament begins.

By ccxander