Cheers erupt throughout the worn, velour interior of the dated Astro van as each delirious passenger lays eyes on the words they endured 26 hours on the road to read–Welcome to Gulf Shores.
Cruising through the rolling plains of Kansas, the scenery blurred into a sea of beige by the time the Astro van reached the all too frequent tolls of Oklahoma, hour 10. Night approached as the caravan hummed underneath the big sky of the east and western corners of Texas and Arkansas, hour 15. Into the darkest hours the van observed the stars under the Louisiana sky awaiting the dawn, hour 20.
The world wakes to the mist of a Mississippi sunrise full of every color under the rainbow and a jungle of trees lining the never-ending highway, hour 25. Cross a bridge over the crystal waters of the gulf that expand over the horizon, hour 26. Welcome to Gulf Shores.
The caravan of 15 restless and wide-eyed students clapped and giddily bounced as each car pulled up a gravel driveway. The teal paint of their beach house chipped from the winds wear. The quaint home stood proud on stilts overlooking the water.
They were scrambling for their bathing suits before the car could be put into park. Deprivation from large bodies of water is a common ailment plaguing many Boulderites. Running through the white grains of sand to the sea’s edge they screamed in awe at the beauty the state of Alabama held. A beauty unknown to many in the west.
Understanding our interpretation of the south can only be achieved through recreating a few scenes we experienced while in Gulf Shores. Occurrences that changed our perception of what it meant to live in Alabama.
“Roll tide roll.”
Within in hours of arriving at our destination these words echoed in our ears. Much more than a football rally chant, these words bind the citizens of Alabama in an unspoken way.
They are used in legitimate sentences frequently and are like a password to a secret club. A saying that those outside of the culture can only pretend to fully understand its true meaning.
Strangers pass on the beach and nod smiles—roll tide. Make a new friend whose company you enjoy—roll tide. Exit a restaurant—roll tide. Dig a massive hole on the beach—roll tide.
After a week on the shore, it was gathered that these words can mean anything from nice to meet you, see you around, share the love, respect, goodbye and go team.
From an outsider perspective, any situation seems appropriate to let it slip. It is hard to believe voicing ‘Go Buffs’ in every situation would be nearly as uniting for Colorado natives or understood as widely as the cryptic rolling of the tide.
It is beyond just an appreciation for the University of Alabama football team; the citizens of Alabama are onto something, state pride.
They have so much pride they can’t seem to stop expressing it. It is difficult not to find reasons they should be proud of their state. Beautiful and white sandy beaches that stretch the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, green grass pastures roll for miles and genuinely nice people everywhere you go.
“Y’all mistook my kindness for weakness.”
Two fluorescent flashlight beams shine into the pit of sand that took all day to dig. Six dumb-founded students sit shamefully giggling, eyes staring into the beach fire they so desperately attempted to put out. The first time, they got off easy, it did not sound like this time they would be as lucky.
Two young police officers shone their lights, gave their orders and escorted the students back to their home. With a warning that they did not enjoy not being taken seriously, yet again they let the students off.
It seems the kindness of strangers in the south extends much farther than expected. Boulder and the people who inhabit it are grounded, relaxed and seem to be caring to their community members. They most always smile nods of hello and hold the door open for anyone who follows but this kindness is nothing compared to the scale in the south.
Southern hospitality is everywhere. Pass people on the beach and they will strike up a conversation no matter how far from them you are walking. Checkout at a grocery store, the checker seems genuinely interested in where you are from, why you are here and what you are doing. Even the law enforcement can’t seem to say a word too negative.
Southern hospitality reaches much farther than a simple smile or how’s your day going that one would receive in Boulder. It is a deep, respect for all that surround you and shown through polite words shared with anyone you pass.
“I’ve worked here for nine years and I’ve never eaten here.”
Tish, the Waffle House server replies indifferently when asked for a recommendation. She rolls her eyes and flicks her pink tipped false nails on a notepad as she waits to take our 15 orders.
We should have taken her hint.
The food arrives looking about as good as it costs. And when each person paid an average of $4 for a full meal that isn’t very good.
Half melted slices of imitation cheese lay over runny, colorless grits. The menu described elaborate varieties of hash browns which could come smothered, covered and stuffed when in reality a few chopped jalapeños accompanied by more cheese squares top a pile of soggy shreds of potato.
Thin white squares of chewy toast that could be eaten in two bites lay on the side of each plate, they appeared to cost about a penny each. After one bite of an unimpressive and wilty waffle, I had no room for more.
Listen to your server or learn your lesson the hard way and never eat at the Waffle House.
Living in the obsessively health conscious Boulder culture where one can get any meal gluten or dairy free and never have to worry about living a vegan lifestyle gets annoying but it is better than having to beg a server to put something green on your plate.
Fried food is the specialty in Gulf Shores. Hush puppies, corn fritters, fried fish, fried shrimp, really anything your heart desires you can get battered and deep-fat-fried. But adding a side of fresh or grilled vegetables puts confused looks on the server’s faces accompanied by ‘that will cost extra’ and ‘do y’all want ranch with that?’
By the end of one week stomachs rumble for a vegetarian entrée, a salad, a plain grilled chicken, anything as long is it is not fried, breaded or off a Waffle House grill.
“You might be old enough but you sure as hell ain’t big enough.”
The liquor store attendant’s boisterous laugh fills the small room as he watches two young women, who just pass the five foot mark, struggle to confidently lift massive packs of beer onto the counter.
IDs were scrutinized extensively in every state once the group left the Colorado. No one seemed to believe that we were of age. I have never been carded with such disbelief or questioned more frequently than during my stay in the south.
One tired gas station checker stopped up the line and made a scene for the packed store to see. Deb could not believe the 22-year-old’s ID she held was real. Her squeaky drawl exclaimed she did not understand how we could possibly look so young. Asking what it was about Colorado that yielded such naïve looking specimens—the water? Her blackened teeth spat out confusion loud enough to cause quite the commotion, almost not selling the alcoholic beverage to the confused and embarrassed student.
Maybe it is the water, the food we eat, the exercise we subject ourselves to or maybe it is mile high elevation that keeps us looking youthful. One factor that was noticeable was that the visitors from Boulder appeared to use significantly less beauty products to enhance their facade.
Regardless of the reasons, it was clear from the beginning that everyone knew we were not from around them. We did not belong. Apparently Boulder students do not present themselves in a way that associates with the southern U.S.
Our mixed, fast paced and loud accents disrupted the slower way of life. Our make-up free faces did not fit in, but that is not to say they were not welcomed with open arms.
“I feel like we are the most educated people here.”
A surreal feeling clouded the students, as the realization of their level intellect was made clear to them. This is bound to happen as one leaves an academic atmosphere for a small beach town, but their misconceptions regarding the south were not completely validated.
Stereotypes were discussed prior to the trip regarding the politics, racism and intelligence of people living in the south.
These stereotypes exist for a reason because people fit them. Acquaintances were made with middle-aged adults who had not graduated from college, teenage mothers, people overly ignorant in regards to their political participation and young adults dropping racist remarks nonchalantly and frequently.
Yes, these people do exist but educated, interesting, diverse people who work hard and have created successful lives for themselves also exist in Alabama. People that are curious and globally conscious also reside in this part of America. Just because sometimes they speak slower does not mean their intelligence level is less, it is just different.
Stereotypes associated with the people who inhabit the bubble of Boulder are present as well. It is widely spread that the majority of the population of the university is white, ignorant rich kids. That the town is plagued with crazed liberal hippies and obsessive, in-your-face environmentalists.
Each of these people exists as well, but there exists diversity in race, politics and economic status in Boulder. Misconceptions surrounding unfamiliar cities are common and rarely are rejected until one visits the city in question.
“I wish Spring Break could last forever.”
To our dismay, all great things come to an end. The morning of the return home each traveler stuffed the car with messy haste, piled in and left with much less motivation to pass through middle America.
Bodies itched with the layer of sand that covered them and everything they owned. But they left with an open mind about the smaller corners of American society.
They left with less misconceptions and more appreciation for the country as a whole.
Gas tanks filled reluctantly. Eyes watched as lines full of hopeful lotto winner’s stretch out the doors of gas stations, slowing down the rate of travel. Exhausted heads slumped into a trance watching the green pastures blur back into the sea of beige and finally fade into darkness.
Minds awoke from a daze to the scenic panorama of the Rockies welcoming them back to their home. Back to the ‘greenest’ city in the U.S., back to their stomping ground and back to the books.
With only the beach in their minds, the friends vowed to live each of their remaining college days with the happiness they felt in Gulf Shores.
Hayley is studying journalism, politics and international media at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In between juggling school and various jobs, she makes time to snowboard, travel, write and craft. She surrounds herself with people that motivate and embrace her as she strives to make a difference in anyway she can. Follow her on twitter.