The backside of beach traditions

By Gary Lloyd

Our trips to Gulf Shores were always packed with more tradition than that pregame hype video that plays across the jumbotron screens at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The buffet at Hazel’s was always a must. I ate enough popcorn shrimp to keep a shrimp boat deckhand working all summer. Finding 18 holes of mini-golf, anywhere on the Gulf Coast, was how we’d spend at least one night. Racing go-karts at The Track was always my favorite event of the week.

It was the beach so, naturally, there had to be time in the sand. We’d build sand castles, dig holes, search for unbroken shells and avoid jellyfish stings. I waded only waist deep into the Atlantic Ocean, because anything too deep to see to the ocean floor was disconcerting. How, knowing that jellyfish, stingrays and sharks lurk in those waters, do you swim 100 yards out in that green water and just stand there? I’ll never understand. This is what the pool is for.

Anyway, I recently drove south to Gulf Shores by myself for a work trip. Alone at a buffet? A group of one at mini-golf? Spinning out 12-year-olds from Knoxville at The Track? None of the traditions I grew up with seemed to make sense by myself. In my free time, I had to find something new, and I found it on the backside of all the attractions.

My fifth-floor room faced away from the ocean, but I could still see a large body of water. It took me walking through the parking lot and across a pedestrian bridge over five lanes of speeding tourists to learn what it was. It was called Lake Shelby, and it was my favorite part of my trip. I visited every day.

I sat atop a picnic table five feet from the water my first evening there, and I quickly realized that there wasn’t a single person within a football field of me. In Gulf Shores. In May. In sub-80s temperature. Kids swung and climbed at a nearby playground. A man taught his black Labrador to catch a Frisbee.

I went to the same place the next morning at sunrise. On my last full day in Gulf Shores, I walked four miles around the lake. Talk about a place to recenter and just be. I was on the backside of the beach, of some massive waterpark, of every one of the 917 souvenir stores that sell toddler-sized airbrushed T-shirts for the same price as the grilled snapper at LuLu’s.

I saw a man teaching his daughter to snag crabs from the water with a net. I saw a brown rabbit that was blissfully unafraid of me, and a heron that I swear wanted to kill me. The minnows in the lake allowed me close enough to record a slow-motion video of them.

All week I thought it was odd that, despite being by myself on the trip, I didn’t take a go-kart for a couple laps at The Track, that I didn’t putt a bright red ball around 18 holes on green carpet.

I suppose I started a new tradition.

Gary Lloyd is the author of six books and is a contributing writer to the Cahaba Sun.

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