Most folks would stay on the interstate rather than getting off I-65 at Atmore to take Highway 31 to continue south to Baldwin County. Interstate 65 is the main southern route from Alabama’s capitol city Montgomery to its main port city Mobile, but it is also one of the most boring roads you can imagine, skirting nearly every town it passes: Fort Deposit, Evergreen, Monroeville . . . The seat of Butler County, Greenville, is the only exception, though the truth may be that the town grew toward the exit on purpose. So, instead of enduring 150 miles of pine tree-laced boredom, it made more sense to me to exit at mile marker 58.
The city of Atmore, Alabama, which is the name on the exit sign, is known for two things: a casino operated by the Poarch Creeks and Holman Prison, which houses Alabama’s death row. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians opened their gambling operation on tribal land in 2009, while Alabama’s anti-gambling types could only stand at the gate and watch. The endeavor has made the group wealthy, and they’ve also become one of the state’s main benefactors to charitable causes. That other, darker institution, Holman, was opened in 1969 and has had to expand to accommodate an ever-growing number of inmates. It currently holds 167 people on death row, and its most recent execution was held on October 21, less than a month ago. While a driver will see the high-rise Wind Creek Casino from here, Holman is nearby but nowhere in sight.
Leaving Atmore on Highway 31 leads to Nokomis, a place almost no passerby would be familiar with. Nokomis is a tiny community very near to the Florida line, and it is the hometown of Albert Murray, one of Alabama’s greatest writers. Best known for his jazz criticism and for his 1970 book The Omni-Americans, Murray was born in Nokomis, though his main childhood locale was nearby Magazine Point, which served as the setting for his novel Train Whistle Guitar. Few people would think of this speck on the map producing a great jazz critic or an important thinker on the subject of race, but it did.
Then, if one were to follow Highway 31 through the hinterlands, the next town would be Bay Minette, the home base of the late James H. “Jimmy” Faulkner. Another figure who is lesser-known outside the region, Faulkner was a south Alabama newspaper publisher and politician whose signature accomplishment was a community college, founded in 1964, that he originally named for William Lowndes Yancey, the Civil War-era secessionist. That changed in 1971, when it was renamed for Faulkner himself. (More recently, the college was consolidated into a nine-campus system that blankets south Alabama.) Since he was an avid member of the Church of Christ and a supporter of education, Montgomery’s Alabama Christian College was also renamed for him and became Faulkner University in 1983. Today, the university is a beacon of the evangelical right wing, hosting an annual fundraising dinner whose keynote speakers have included George W. Bush, Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee, and Chuck Norris.
After Bay Minette and somewhere south of Stapleton, I had to leave 31 and take other rural routes – 59 and 90 – to my main destination that day: Fairhope, another place with an interesting tale. Founded in 1894 as a single-tax colony by the utopian EB Gaston, the small town has morphed from a progressive outpost into a wealthy bedroom community. (Baldwin County is today very Republican.) But before that changed, it drew in an array of characters, including Clarence Darrow, writers Sherwood Anderson and Upton Sinclair, and the hermit of Tolstoy Park Henry Stuart. As an aside for those knowledgeable about Southern history and historians, EB Gaston was the grandfather of Paul M. Gaston, author of The New South Creed. As another aside, this one for music fans, Fairhope is also the hometown of singer Jimmy Buffet, who gave us “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
My point in mentioning all of this background is say this: sometimes, the narratives we create about places are so empty and generalized as to be basically false. Who would realize, leaving the interstate to take a shortcut through cotton fields and small towns, what they were surrounded by? Maybe a traveler gawks at a high-rise casino that has nothing even remotely its size around it, then later stops at the Wendy’s or the Arby’s in Bay Minette to eat a sandwich on the way to the beach. Maybe somebody else stops at the Burris Farmers Market in Loxley, gets a “How y’all doin’?” then buys a few cartons of veggies and moves on. Would those folks have any idea about our death row or a great jazz critic or a powerful Church of Christ leader? Probably not. Their narrative would probably center instead on these being places you simply pass by on the way to somewhere worth being. And once they arrived, would their narrative include a utopian colonist or a progressive historian? Again, probably not. In all fairness, those narratives might be most likely to include margaritas or cheeseburgers— because of Jimmy Buffet, though? Who knows.