I grew up in the Alabama foothills, landlocked by red dirt. My ancestors cussed their lives away in that soil, following a one-crop mule. My mother dragged a cotton sack across it, and my kin slaved in mills made of bricks dug and fired from the same clay. My people fought across it with roofing knives and tire irons, and cut roads through it, chain gang shackles rattling around their feet. My grandfather made liquor 30 years in its caves and hollows to feed his babies, and lawmen swore he could fly, since he never left a clear trail in that dirt. It has always reminded me of struggle, somehow, and I will sleep in it, with the rest of my kin. But between now and then, I would like to walk in some sand.
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I went to the Alabama coast, to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, to find a more forgiving soil, a shiftless kind that tides and waves just push around.
I found it in a town called Fairhope.
I never thought much about it, the name, till I saw the brown sand swirling around my feet under the amber-colored water ten years ago. A swarm of black minnows raced away, and when I was younger I might have scooped one up. This is an easy place, I remember thinking, a place where you can rearrange the earth with a single toe and the water will make it smooth again.
I did not want sugar white sand, because the developers and tourists have covered up a good part of the Alabama coast, pounded the dunes flat and blocked out the Gulf of Mexico and a large number of stars with high-rise condominiums. You see them all along the coast, jammed into once perfect sand, a thumb in the eye of God. What I wanted was bay sand, river sand, colored by meandering miles of dark water, a place tourists are leery to wade. I wanted a place I could rent, steal or stow away on a boat.
A town of about 17,000, Fairhope sits on bluffs that overlook the bay. It's not some pounded-out tortilla of a coastal town—all tacky T-shirt shops, spring break nitwits and $25 fried seafood platters—but a town with buildings that do not need a red light to warn low-flying aircraft and where a nice woman sells ripe cantaloupe from the tailgate of a pickup. This is a place where you can turn left without three light changes, prayer or smoking tires, where pelicans are as plentiful as pigeons and where you can buy, in one square mile, a gravy and biscuit, a barbecue sandwich, fresh-picked crabmeat, melt-in-your-mouth beignets, a Zebco fishing reel, a sheet of hurricane-proof plywood and a good shower head.
"Now, you have to look pretty carefully for a place on the coast to get the sand under your toes without somebody running over you with a Range Rover," said Skip Jones, who lives on the same bayfront lot, just south of Fairhope, his grandparents built on in 1939. "We may be gettin' to that point here, but not yet."
It would be a lie to say I feel at home here. It is too quaint, too precious for that, but it is a place to breathe. I have a rambling cypress house five minutes from the bay and a half-hour from the blue-green Gulf—even a big cow pasture near my house is closer to the waterfront than I am—but every day I walk by the water, and breathe.
It is, as most towns are, a little full of itself. Some people call it an artist's colony, and that is true, since you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a serious-faced novelist. And there is money here, dusty money and Gucci money. There are shops where ladies in stiletto heels pay Bal Harbour prices for outfits that will be out of style before low tide, but these establishments can be fun, too. I like to stand outside the windows with paint on my sweat pants, tartar sauce on my T-shirt and see the shopgirls fret.
It had to change, of course, from the sleepy town it used to be, where every man, it seemed, knew the tides, when the air smelled from big, wet burlap bags of oysters and the only rich folks were those who came over on a ferry from Mobile to watch the sun set. But everybody is an interloper here, in a way. Sonny Brewer, a writer, came here in 1979 from Lamar County, in west central Alabama, and never really left. It was the late-afternoon sunlight, setting fire to the bay. "I was 30 years old," said Brewer. "I remember thinking, ‘God, this is beautiful. How did I not know this was here?' And here I stay."