Neon clock at Bogue'sSeldom do I take a real vacation, and recently I did just that for two weeks, most of which was spent on the West Coast. Not wanting to spend my last few days away from work back in Kansas City, I decided I still had enough time for a short road trip. I had never experienced the South firsthand – unless you count a college trip to the Georgia coast, but that was spent entirely at an isolated conference center and so I didn’t get to mingle with the natives. Since I have a couple of friends around Birmingham, Alabama, that’s where I headed.

Ribs at Costa'sI seem to have developed a taste for what I call the minor-major cities – large urban cities that once were key centers of industry and commerce, but which at some point lost their star players to New York, Los Angeles, or even to cities abroad. To me these are heavily-populated ghost towns, where dead warehouses have become lofts. And in some towns, trolleys, interurban rail lines, and even inclines, if they remain at all, exist more for tourists than for working commuters. Kansas City is one of these places; so are Birmingham, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, etc.

The twelve-hour drive from Kansas City (as plotted by my GPS computer) gets interesting as soon as you hit St. Louis (which means you have 3.5 hours of mind-numbing boredom, unless you’re a Mizzou fan and think it’s fun to pass through the prairie wasteland that is Columbia, MO). As the Arch bids you farewell (“Now leaving The West – please come again!”), you cross the Mississippi into southern Illinois, with tree-lined freeways and gently rolling hills. In about three more hours, the hills get steeper as you enter Paducah in western Kentucky, where the trees foming thick lines along the freeway struck me as surprisingly tall for being that far south. This landscape continues on into Tennessee, but the forest only seems to thicken, and then suddenly you’re out in the open, with the Nashville skyline a few miles ahead. Unless it’s rush hour, it takes less than an hour for the trees to re-envelop you and for the road to steepen even more, and then it feels like you’re driving downhill most of the time as you pass Huntsville and end up in Birmingham at a modest 620′ above sea level.

In just two days, I feel like I covered a lot of ground. The first morning, I made a beeline for the Birmingham Museum of Art, where I was pleased to find an impressive collection of Precolumbian art, in addition to a few local artifacts from Alabama’s frontier era. But for me, the biggest surprise was the printmaking collection, which includes (what is generally regarded as) Rembrandt’s most famous print. Who’d have thought I’d find something like that here?Costa's exterior

Since I’m a cheapskate, I brought a lot of my own food, but doing so would never preclude at least some sampling of the local cuisine. Having grown up with a predominantly Southern diet, I was right at home. Some quick research led me to Costa’s Famous BBQ, where I ordered a half-slab rib dinner. I don’t think I could have done better. The ribs were huge, juicy, smoky, and were served alongside a large bowl of the house sauce.House sauces at Costa's This was a ketchupy-red concoction, heavy on tomato flavor but with just enough vinegar and brown sugary flavor to be interesting – much like KC-style sauce. Big bowl o' red BBQ sauce at Costa'sThey also had a lighter-textured dipping sauce on the table, which interested me even more. This stuff was more brownish in color, sweeter, and had an addictive, smoky/savory tinge to it. Both sauces were good, but I think I Collard greens at Costa'sliked the dipping sauce better. I finished all of my greens, and managed to snarf down half the ribs and corn bread before totally Ambience at Costa'srunning out of steam. Oh, and one minor point of culture shock was that I didn’t realize that when you ask for iced tea, you automatically get sweet tea……not that I complained, of course. (I felt like a kid again, when I’d dump pancreas-numbing avalanches of sugar into my tea.)

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Inside Bogue'sOne thing that’s almost nonexistent in KC is a good plate of grits. It’s so simple, yet I Bogue'shaven’t found anyone at home who can prepare grits properly – they’re either too runny, too dry, too rubbery… I wasn’t about to leave town until I had grits done right. Again, it took only a brief search to find a listing for Bogue’s, a breakfast/lunch diner that locals describe as a town icon. I didn’t need anything fancy; I Grits & everything else at Bogue'schose a simple ham and cheese omelet with grits and toast on the side, and a remarkably good pot of coffee (bold and not too acidic). All of the items proved satisfying, but it was hard to keep from inhaling the grits in under a minute. They came to me perfectly salted and buttered, with a perfect consistency – they held their shape on my spoon, but were moist without losing the uneven, gritty texture. I dared not add anything else to them.

Tiny, austere rock clubs are a common fixture in the South, but perhaps one of the most infamous is The Nick, a mere shack of a building oddly situated between a quaint, wooded subdivision on a hill and a freeway bridge. I have desperately wanted to see this since I heard about it four years ago. It was early in the day when I found it, so I could only gawk at the exterior. But it looks so out of place that you have to see it in person to get the full effect. In any case, The Nick has long been the prime venue for both local and national acts, everything from rock and pop (in all of their permutations, including a personal favorite, Friends of Sound) to country and western.

Other highlights of my trip include the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a media-rich monument to the struggle by Southern Blacks for social equality. If you are at all sympathetic to that cause, this place hits you hard. One older Black lady in my tour group walked silently through the exhibits and occasionally, stoically, dabbed her eyes with a tissue, and I have to admit that seeing her do that caused my own eyes to moisten a bit. Regardless of how you view the civil rights era, the institute is a must-see for any history enthusiast.

No trip to Birmingham is complete without a trip to Vulcan Park, the hill atop an old iron mine where a bronze statue of Vulcan (Roman god of the forge) surveys the city in homage to Alabama’s steel industry. You can read about the statue’s significance for yourself (it’s an interesting story). But I will say that when I took the elevator to the top, thinking that this would be the penultimate moment of my trip, I couldn’t make myself set one foot on the observation deck. The floor was made of a loosely-woven steel screen, which allowed for a dizzying view all the way to the bottom. So I clung to the railing and then rode back down, not two wuss-infused minutes later. Had it not been for the Vulcan Park museum next to the statue, my trip up that hill would have been a waste of $7. (Like I said….. cheapskate…)

On a social level, I found Birmingham to be full of the most warm and hospitable folks. People say thank-you and you’re welcome there. And perhaps my perspective was shaded by my joy in discovering a new city, but for some reason I felt reasonably safe wherever I went. I can’t say the same for just anywhere in my own town.

It turned out I wasn’t able to see any of my friends while there, and that did sadden me. But I felt welcomed by this old steel town, and I look forward to going back……someday. If you are in love with Kansas City because of the magic place of jazz, film and industry it used to be, you will probably love the equally fascinating ghosts of Birmingham. If nothing else, you’ll eat well.