Point Clear, Alabama. Alabama State Route 225 in Baldwin County connects the towns of Stockton and Spanish Fort. On my annual trip to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, just south of Fairhope, I leave I-65 to travel 225 to its southern terminus at U.S. 31. Just before arriving in Spanish Fort, there is a bridge at a fish camp and, if one looks to the right across the brackish waters that mark the start of Mobile Bay, the Mobile skyline appears – dream-like and fuzzy in the distance on a foggy day.
Sense memory is an acting technique that I taught through the years. It basically requires the actor to store up personal emotions that can be triggered to create an authentic emotional response onstage. I have taken this trip to Point Clear so many times that I have sensory triggers practically every mile of the way. I have written about this trip so many times that I realize there’s not much else to say. I have documented the sights and smells, the sunsets and fog horns, flora and fauna, my favorite culinary haunts (food memory is a very powerful tool), the churches and vernacular architecture to the point that the archived essays pretty much tell the story.
I started making this annual escape to Mobile Bay in 2003. In 2004, the resort was still recovering from Hurricane Ivan and services were severely curtailed. The property was closed in 2005 in the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the COVID pandemic forced me to regretfully cancel my 2020 reservation. This year’s trip was iffy due to personal demands, but family members rallied to the cause and I was able to make the trip.
I suspect that if I had started coming here when I was younger, I would have found the place a little staid and boring. But coming here at a time when I craved a respite and a more relaxing pace made me a fan forever and I will probably continue the December tradition for as long as I am able.
It has become a standing tradition that never gets old, providing memories that see me through challenging days. When I was teaching, I would have to sit through endless faculty meetings and faculty-staff convocations – ask almost any teacher and you’ll learn that faculty meetings are the worst thing about the job. At one particularly grueling convocation, as the university president was droning on with an acrostic, a colleague leaned to me and said, “How are you staying so calm and content during this?” I leaned back to her and said, “Oh, I’m replaying my last trip to Point Clear and just got to the warm stone massage. I haven’t heard a word he’s saying.”
A college friend, tiring of my natural skepticism, once demanded, “I insist that you become sentimental.” He didn’t realize that I harbored sentiment all along – the skeptical cynic I presented myself as was, I’m sure, a defense mechanism, forged in my teenage years when I was the perennial “new kid” in a succession of schools. A school bully in Nashville, impressed, I guess, by my riposte to an insult he hurled, warned me that I was a “small man with a big voice” and that I better watch out as that mouth would get me in a lot of trouble one day. My dad gave me the same warning back then. He didn’t realize what the Nashville bully did – the smart mouth was there to waylay abuse.
I wonder if people who knew me back then remember the cynicism I used to affect and if that’s how they think I’ve turned out (if they even remember me). I was hosting a small get-together at an apartment in another city many years ago and remember overhearing someone who knew me in my college days tell another guest, who had complimented my apartment, that “You should’ve seen where he lived while he was in grad school – it was a dump.”
She was right. But I wonder if people who haven’t seen me since grad school envision me still living in a hovel in some student ghetto somewhere.
My reflective driving soundtrack on this holiday trip is always George Winston’s classic piano solo recording, December. I only listen to it in its titular month – another sentimental habit stretching back over decades, and it inevitably conjures a memory of a cold December midnight, sitting on a dock in New London, Connecticut. It had been a challenging day on a theatre tour of A Christmas Carol; we had to let a technician go that day and I needed a chilly late-night walk and George Winston’s calming music to fortify myself for the next days to come.
These are some of the memories that come to me every December on my trip to Point Clear. The Grand Hotel was an aspirational goal for me when I first heard about it as a teenager from a neighbor in Jackson, Mississippi. She and her husband had been there for a business conference and her photographs of the place were spectacular. I vowed to go there one day, but I never envisioned its necessity in my life.
It’s a place where I still feel compelled to dress for dinner, even though the dress code has loosened and almost anything goes. That hovel-dwelling cynic that some may remember from my college days would have sneered at the idea of being required to dress up for dinner, and probably would have avoided any place that enforced a code. More recently, however, having dinner at Arnaud’s in New Orleans, I bristled when a party came in with one of their number wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts; they let him in and I was appalled.
So, I still dress for dinner (but, alas, no tie) at the Grand’s fine Southern Roots dining room as a sign of respect and as a nod to the tradition of a resort that has existed in this same spot on Mobile Bay for 175 years. When I first started coming to the Grand, each room still had a valet stand – a handy piece of furniture for setting out your day’s wardrobe. I used it even if it was just for jeans, a tee-shirt, and sneakers, and I miss it in these spiffily updated rooms now. A piece of furniture called a “valet stand” – these are the kinds of things that those who never learned cursive writing will never even know to miss. But it’s their loss, I reckon.
This trip is so tradition-bound for me that I always stay in the same room in the spa building. When I arrived at my building a few days ago, I unwittingly parked next to a couple misbehaving in a Corvette in the parking deck under the building. I noticed and then made a great effort not to look their way as I unloaded the car. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed a different state of deshabille each time I returned to gather my things from the car. On my last trip down, they were walking toward me in the corridor on my floor. I glanced back as I turned the corner, hoping that they would not be in the room next to mine. To my relief, they continued down the hallway past my room. On the elevator down, I wondered If they had a room, why were they compelled to utilize the Corvette for playtime?
I’ll never know, but that’s one memory of this place that I’d rather not trigger in the future.
Merry Christmas, everybody.