Birmingham is a city we’ve never visited before, which by all rights should be a good enough reason to come here. Added to that, we had a mission — to visit the Mercedes Benz factory in nearby Vance. I’ve been trying to get there for two years and it hasn’t worked out despite multiple attempts. With the SNAFUs on this trip (orthodontics, air conditioner) it would have been easy to skip the plant tour this time as well, but I really wanted to make it happen.
So we dropped in on Oak Mountain State Park, which is just south of Birmingham, and made camp for two nights. This is a large park, with a 5.5 mile drive from the entrance to the campground along a scenic and pleasantly meandering road. At the end of the road is a good campground by a lake with lots of fragrant evergreens and even full hookups in Loop A.
This morning we managed to get the whole crew into the car by 7:45 a.m., in time to make the 50 minute drive to Vance AL and make the first scheduled tour at Mercedes Benz US International ($5 per person, reservations required). The factory campus looks very clean by design, with stark white buildings set among a green, almost golf-course-like rural setting. They boast that 100% of the factory’s waste is recycled, and I’m sure the exterior design is intended to help give the appropriate impression.
This is where our tow vehicle, the GL320, was made. It’s the only plant that makes the GL, ML, and R-class vehicles, so here you’ll see cars with right-hand and left-hand drive on the same assembly line, destined for export all over the world. Even Germans buy Mercedes Benz SUVs made right here in Alabama. Yes, in America we still do make things that people in other parts of the world want to buy, and this one huge plant accounts for a billion dollars or so worth of exports all by itself.
As with the other car factory tours we’ve done (Corvette in KY, Nissan in MI), photos are not allowed so I’ve got nothing from the inside to show you, but I can say that the tour is really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing. Which obviously, I am.
This was also the first auto plant tour that Emma has been able to do, and she didn’t die of boredom during it, which counts as success given her pre-teen status. The photo above (from the Visitor Center, where photos are allowed) shows one of the things she was mildly interested in, an ML-class Mercedes from one of the Jurassic Park movies.
I was so excited about the tour that I had made no plans for the rest of the day, so we just swung into downtown Birmingham to see whatever it had to offer. Turns out that Birmingham has a pretty interesting downtown, with tons of Civil Rights-era history, great architecture, and much more that deserved a bigger investment of time than we gave it.
Besides, we were hungry, so the first stop was a Cajun restaurant on 20th Street. I wanted to get some Cajun in Louisiana, but now with our abbreviated trip plan a good stop seems unlikely there. This was a surprise find in Alabama, which is not Cajun country. We went nuts and split a half-muffaletta, blackened red snapper, a few side dishes, and a double order of beignets.
The staff, all related by marriage and coincidentally all escapees from other careers, were over the lunch rush and had time to chat us up about our travels. We were as interested in how they got from jobs like building contractor and CPA to restaurateurs, as they were in our nomadic life. They definitely were doing an excellent job, as the taste of everything they made was equal to places in the heart of Cajun country. They were a little disappointed, I think, that our 30-foot Airstream was not parked somewhere on the downtown streets of Birmingham for them to see.
Of course after that were weren’t in a great condition to do a ton of walking in the downtown (full stomachs), but we managed to browse a bit and run into some interpretive signs about Civil Rights era history. This gave us a chance to talk to Emma about what it all meant, which was actually kind of fun.
Back at camp this evening we were running all three roof vents to combat the mild heat and humidity when a massive line of thunderstorms came upon us with no warning. It was a real gully-washer storm, with several near lightning strikes, but we were high, dry, and safe in the Airstream, watching a movie as the storm played itself out.
This reminded me that we really do have to resolve our AC problem soon. I’ve got a plan in development now that looks like it will work out, although once again our route is going to change, to I-20 through Texas instead of I-10. Once I’ve got that nailed down I’ll post it here and try to figure out a few good stops along the way so it isn’t just a maintenance run. Fortunately, we have friends along the way and even if nothing else fun pops up it will be nice to see them again.