While walking a golf course in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in mid-May, the mother of a golfer from Southern Charleston University struck up a conversation with me. Filled with pride over her son and the school playing in the NCAA Men’s Golf Regional, the very nice woman liked to talk. Eventually, the conversation led to my travels to get to Alabama. I explained that I had not come directly from Kansas but had been in Berkeley, California, for NCAA Women’s Tennis Regional for three days ahead of the golf.
“So, you have been in the land of ‘fruits and nuts,'” she blurted out.
It took restraint to keep me from laughing over her blunt statement. The fact is my travels over eight days had taken me from the University of California, a school steeped in radical free thinking, protest and alternate lifestyles, to the University of Alabama, where conservative beliefs, football and a legendary coach continue to rule. It was quite a trip and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Travels have frequently taken me to Cal. Set on a series of hills that climb upward from the Berkeley downtown, the setting is absolutely beautiful. The climb through the campus leads to the massive football stadium with a fabulous view of the Bay area. The quality of the education is beyond reproach. There is a saying that it is harder to get into Stanford than Cal, but easier to stay in Stanford than it is to stay in Cal.
With open arms, Cal embraces life styles that often can not find a place in cloistered minds leading to such a comment about the area’s “fruits and nuts.” The same might be said about many people’s views of a school set in the deep South where a deeply conservative view on life remains at Alabama.
I grew of age in the late 60’s and early 7o’s when hippies and the Black Panthers dominated the Northern California area around Cal. Meanwhile, former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace vowed “segregation forever” and blocked the door to keep blacks from enrolling at the University of Alabama in 1963. Though those efforts failed and life styles changed at both universities in their own unique ways, the prevalent opinions remain in the minds of anyone standing at distance with no true idea of people being judged from afar.
To walk through Berkeley is a quick journey around the world. There are so many ethnicities, so many varied food choices, so many alternate life styles. In one block I could have dined on Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, Jamaican, Greek, Japanese and Italian foods. Every block seemed to have a yoga studio. One even offered “dog yoga.” I am not sure what that involved but the thought of Rocket, our 14-year-old black lab, showing off his downward dog as his equally aged master strained to strike a pose seemed hilarious. In my younger days, I walked along those same streets with the haze of marijuana so prevalent every pedestrian received a free high. In one store, where years ago I sought out rare and the latest LP’s, a crossfit gym loomed with a giant gorilla painted on the entrance.
On my way from the airport to the hotel, Seabreeze Market & Deli offered me the perfect California start. Set next to the bay, the simple old building in a gravel parking lot each day opened a series of garage doors for the coolest convenience store ever. The grill area offered a wide variety of food all adorned with locally grown produce that proved to be outstanding. I ordered a salmon burger and settled in at a picnic table to enjoy the sweet smell of salt water wafting by on real sea breezes.
The KU women’s tennis team returned to NCAA action for the first time in 17 years. Making it more amazing, injuries reduced the team to only five players late in the season. That meant they were already down a point in the best-of-three-match doubles competition and forfeited a singles point.
Despite that handicap, the women fought to tie their opening match against UC Santa Barbara at three-all. However the team’s lone senior, Maria Cardona, was on the verge of losing in straight sets. Down 5-2, Cardona battled back to win the second set after fighting off nine match points. The third set was just as dramatic with a long tie-breaker before Cardona succumbed. The emotion of the moment drained everyone. Cardona’s teammates quickly kneeled around her in quiet support. The significance was lost on no one, making me believe I will photograph more NCAA tennis in the years ahead.
With my work for KU completed, it was time to fly for myself early the next day over the Oakland Bay Bridge through San Francisco and down Highway 1 along the California coast. Gorgeous views of the Pacific, surfing and fish tacos filled the day leading me to the great surf town of Santa Cruz. The only thing keeping the day from being perfect was not having Laura riding shotgun with me.
The best stop was Mavericks, the famed gigantic big wave surf spot at Half Moon Bay that was long thought to be unrideable during winter’s big wave season. At 17, Jeff Clark dared to try. For 15 years Clark was the only rider willing to surf the monstrous waves. Now one of the most popular spots in the world, the waves were far from huge on my visit, but just standing there at the site I have seen in many movies and documentaries was a thrill.
By Sunday night, my California life gave way to a new adventure in Alabama. Having only passed through the state on a few trips, I was looking forward to spending time in the fabled football world at the University of Alabama. As I drove into Tuscaloosa from Birmingham, it did not take long to begin to realize how much one man means to the city and the university.
Driving along Paul W. Bryant Drive, I passed the Paul W. Bryant Museum to reach my hotel which was just blocks away from Bryant-Denny Stadium, another short distance to the Paul W. Bryant Hall which also houses the Bryant Grille and Bryant Bistro, along with a massive athletic academic center. Everywhere there seemed to be some reference to the man better know as Bear Bryant, the state’s idolized former football coach.
During the 25 years Bryant coached Alabama, his teams won six national championships and 13 Southeastern Conference titles. Having played at Alabama, and after coaching for three other universities, Bryant returned to Tuscaloosa in 1958 because, “Momma called. And when Momma calls, you just have to come runnin’.” His legendary run concluded in 1982 when the heavy drinker and smoker retired at 69. Four weeks later, Bryant died from a massive heart attack, but obviously in the hearts of ‘Bama fans everywhere, he will never die. In every restaurant I entered, photographs of Bryant abounded. One had an entire giant wall dedicated to Bryant. The school’s current coach, Nick Saban, has won three national championships, but to this visitor he seemed to be an afterthought.
All this led to the story of Dreamland Bar-B-Que. This famed barbecue spot was a must stop since everyone I asked told me it had to be a must stop. It proved to be the kind of spot, like Seabreeze in Berkeley, that I love. The years of smoking meat seems ingrained in every piece of wood. Arms and elbows of customers that knock back beers after every bite of the hefty ribs, covered with best sauce I have ever tasted, have worn and seasoned the wood of the long bar. Picnic tables and booths needed for the game day crowds filled the place I can happily call a “joint.”
The story of Dreamland tied in perfectly with my time in “Bryant World.” From the menu:
Over a half-a-century ago, a brick mason, John “Big Daddy” Bishop, prayed to God asking if there was another way to support his family as he grew older. Mr. Bishops says that God came to him in a dream and told him to build a bar-b-que cafe on the land beside his home and that’s just what he did.
Mr. Bishop built this building in 1958 (the same year Paul “Bear” Bryant came to coach the Crimson Tide) and opened Dreamland Cafe with his wife Miss Lily. At first they sold everything from sodas to postage stamps, but the hickory-fired ribs that he cooked on his pit were what everyone was talking about. His ribs soon became legendary and crowds would line up on game day to get their slab.
I finished my ribs, beans and way more white bread than I have eaten in years because the tangy tasting dip was too hard to resist. I stuck around to talk with the bartender, a young black man with long, braided hair and a brilliant, wide smile as I overindulged with another “must have,” the banana pudding. He shared the history of Dreamland, what it is like on game days in Tuscaloosa, a bit of the state’s infamous civil rights battles and what it all means to him today. Good food and an education to go along with dessert. All the elements that make my travels so rewarding.
Unfortunately, the rewards of the three days of golf were not what the team planned. Men’s golf returned to NCAA play for the first time since 2007. Playing in a stacked regional loaded with top teams from the Southeastern Conference, KU never got rolling. The Ol’ Colony Golf Complex in Tuscaloosa, a long traditional-styled course was thickly lined with pine trees. The fallen needles, carefully manicured into what became huge sections of secondary rough, required deft touch to escape. However, the subtle rolls and mounds of the greens proved to be the greatest challenge. Pins could not be directly attacked. Approach shots needed to be played off banks allowing the ball to roll to the hole. Some putts had to be misdirected up banks and then down to the hole. It was a course that needed to be played often to score well.
After three days of walking the beautiful course, it was clear KU would not be advancing to the nationals. When I began the trip, there was a chance I would be moving on from Alabama to another site to cover KU’s softball team in NCAA play. I kept myself mentally ready for another three to four days on the road. Once that possibility passed, I found myself sitting in my room at the Hotel Capstone working on photo galleries and drifting off into my own dreamland.
The hotel on campus, recently remodeled into a “boutique” hotel, featured a huge red, vinyl ottoman anchoring my room. I found myself staring at that ottoman pondering all the fun Laura and I could have. In my dream, that was God telling me it was time to come home to my wonderful wife. I loved all the “fruits and nuts” of California and my time in Alabama and “Dreamland,” but I loved holding my wife in my arms again way more.