Fairhope, Alabama’s Southern Comfort

Memorist Rick Bragg finds forgiving soil along the brown sand stretch of Mobile Bay

"It would be a lie to say I feel at home here," says Bragg (the Fairhope French Quarter known for its shops and galleries). "It is too quaint, too precious for that." (William Starling)
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It is the water, too. The sand is just a path to it.

Here are the black currents of Fish River, highways of fresh and salt water, big bass gliding above in the fresher water, long trout lurking below in the heavier, saltier depths. The Fish River empties into Weeks Bay, which, through a cut called Big Mouth, empties into Mobile Bay. Here, I caught a trout as long as my arm, and we cooked it in a skillet smoking with black pepper and ate it with roasted potatoes and coleslaw made with purple cabbage, carrots and a heaping double tablespoon of mayonnaise.

Here is the Magnolia River, one of the last places in America where the mail is delivered by a man in a boat, where in one bend in the river there is a deep, cold place once believed to have no bottom at all. You can see blue crabs the size of salad plates when the tides are right, and shrimp as big as a harmonica. Along the banks are houses on stilts or set far back, because the rivers flood higher than a man is tall, but the trees still crowd the banks, and it looks like something from The African Queen—or the Amazon.

Then, of course, there is the bay. You can see the skyscrapers of Mobile on a clear day, and at night you see a glow. I pointed to a yellow luminescence one night and proclaimed it to be Mobile, but a friend told me it was just the glow of a chemical plant. So now I tell people Mobile is "over yonder" somewhere.

You can see it best from the city pier, a quarter-mile long, its rails scarred from bait-cutting knives and stained with fish blood, its concrete floor speckled with scales. This is where Fairhope comes together, to walk, hold hands. It is here I realized I could never be a real man of the sea, as I watched a fat man expertly throw a cast net off the pier, at bait fish. The net fanned out in a perfect oval, carried by lead weights around its mouth, and when he pulled it in it was shining silver with minnows. I tried it once and it was like throwing a wadded-up hamburger sack at the sea.

So I buy my bait and feel fine. But mostly what I do here is look. I kick off my flip-flops and feel the sand, or just watch the sun sink like a ball of fire into the bay itself. I root for the pelicans, marvel at how they locate a fish on a low pass, make an easy half-circle climb into the air, then plummet into the bay.

I wonder sometimes if I love this so because I was born so far from the sea, in that red dirt, but people who have been here a lifetime say no, it is not something you get tired of. They tell you why, in stories that always seem to begin with "I remember..."

"I remember when I was about 10 years old, maybe 8, my mother and sisters and I went through Bon Secour and some guy in a little boat had caught a sawfish," said Skip Jones. "And I thought this thing can't be real—like I felt when they walked on the moon."

A lifetime later he is still looking in the water. "Last year I went out on the walk one morning at about 6 o'clock, and I looked down and there were a dozen rays, and I looked harder and they were all over the place, hundreds of them. Well, we have a lot of small rays, but these had a different, broader head. And I went inside and looked 'em up and saw that they were cownose rays that congregate around estuaries. I called my friend Jimbo Meador and told him what I saw, and he said, ‘Yeah, I saw them this morning.' They came in a cloud and then they were just gone. I don't know where. I guess to Jimbo's house."

I would like to tell people stories of the bay, the rivers, the sea, tell them what I remember. But the best I can do is a story about cows. I was driving with my family to the bay, where a bookseller and friend named Martin Lanaux had invited us to watch the Fourth of July fireworks from his neighborhood pier. As we passed the cow pasture, the dark sky exploded with color, and every cow, every one, it seemed, stood looking up at it. It was one of the nicer moments in my life, and I didn't even get my feet wet.

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