Navigate / search

Earn points for free or discounted travel

You can earn airline miles with specific airlines, eMiles, travel websites and credit card rewards points.
Photo courtesy American Airlines

By Marilyn Jones

One of the best ways to earn free or reduced-price travel is by saving points. Hotels, airlines, credit cards, internet advertisement websites and other businesses offer memberships entitling you to earn points. But there are tricks to growing those points. 

  • Stay loyal to one or two airlines and hotel brands if they are the best choice when making reservations
  • Look for free programs where points don’t expire
  • Look for participating merchants where you can add points to your travel accounts
  • Featured here are six rewards or points programs that I use and can recommend.

Best Western Rewards:

  • Points never expire
  • Members are often offered exclusive member rates
  •  Worldwide free night redemption
  • Matches the status of other hotel loyalty programs
  •  Instant rewards
  • Partners with select car rental agencies, airlines and merchants
  • One point per dollar spent. Special promotions will double and triple points as well as offer bonus points
  • Redeemable for free night’s stay, gift cards and merchandise start at 2,500 points
  • Best Western credit card available for additional point opportunities
  • Sign up at www.bestwestern.com/en

American Airlines AAdvantage

Frequent Flyer Miles:

  • Earn miles when you fly on American Airlines, oneworld affiliated airlines and other participating airlines, as well as more than 1,000 other partners including car rentals, hotel stays and dining
  • Oneworld includes British Airways, Finnair and Japan Airlines as well as other non-oneworld airlines including Jet Airways, Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airline
  • Use miles for flights, upgrades, vacations, car rentals and hotel stays
  • Flights begin at 7,500 points each way
  • Sign up at www.aa.com

Venture Miles Rewards Credit Card:

  • Unlimited Rewards
  • Earn two miles for every dollar spent on purchases
  • Use Venture card to make travel purchases including any airline, any hotel and rental cars. Once a travel purchase is made with Venture, miles are redeemed as a statement credit toward the cost
  • Rewards don’t expire for the life of the account
  • No transaction fee when making purchases outside of the United States
  • The downside – $0 intro for the first year, $95 a year fee after the first year
  •  For more information and to apply: https://www.capitalone.com/credit-cards/venture

e-Miles.com:

  • Earn airline and hotel points
  • Email notifications are sent with new offers
  • Watch ads, sign up to free services, make a purchase or complete a survey to earn points
  • Earning offers include charities, sweepstakes and other website visits
  • Miles don’t expire
  • Miles can be redeemed for United Airlines and Delta Airlines miles, Hilton Honors and other hotel points, and Starbucks and other gift cards
  • Travel deals offered through the website
  • Apply at www.emiles.com/app/earn

MyPoints.com:

  • Points never expire
  • Go through the website to make online purchases including retail stores, travel websites like Expedia, car rental companies and specific hotels, and purchase gift cards for a specific number of points per dollar
  • Go through the website to search the internet and earn points
  • Download grocery coupons for points
  • Complete surveys and watch videos for points
  • Exchange points for gift cards including gas stations, restaurants, airlines, hotels and retail stores
  • Rewards start at 480 points
  • Get started at www.mypoints.com

Expedia

  • Points never expire
  • Points can be redeemed for all services and reservations on Expedia including flights, hotels and car rentals
  • When using Expedia+, you may still be able to earn your airline frequent flyer points and credit card reward points as well as Expedia+ points on bookings
  • You can use Citi ThankYou and American Express Membership Rewards on Expedia by linking accounts to redeem points on hotels and flights plus earn Expedia+ points
  • No blackout dates
  • Book travel for yourself or anyone else with your Expedia+ points
  • Book family and friends though Expedia+ account to earn points. Each individual still earns their airlines’ frequent flyer miles
  • Service is free
  • Sign up at www.expedia.com

Disease- carrying ticks widespread across Alabama

A collection of ticks found in certain areas in Alabama. (Photo by Emily Merritt)

By David Rainer (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources)

 As a turkey hunter, I am keenly aware of the threat posed by sneaking through the Alabama woods. And I’m not talking about the danger of encountering a member of the serpent family.

I’m talking about something much, much smaller but possibly just as harmful.

It’s the family of ticks that turkey hunters dread each spring, and the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks is becoming more evident each year.

Emily Merritt, a research associate at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, has been working on a project since 2015 to determine the species of ticks in Alabama and their ranges.

Merritt said a study on ticks and tick-related illnesses hadn’t been done since the early 1990s, and it was very limited in scope. The study that started in 2015 was to update and expand that research to include field collection sites for ticks.

The most commonly collected ticks included the Lone Star tick, the Gulf Coast tick, the black-legged tick (aka deer tick) and the American dog tick.

The Lone Star tick is the most common tick in Alabama and can transmit a host of diseases, including the alpha-gal red meat allergy, Southern rash disease (a Lyme-like illness), tick paralysis and spotted fever diseases that are closely related to Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

“We found that the Lone Star tick and the Gulf Coast tick are the most aggressive,” Merritt says. The Lone Star tick is found primarily in hardwood stands, while the Gulf Coast tick, which is a little larger and transmits similar diseases, is found primarily in more open areas with shrubs.

The tick that has gained the most notoriety because of its association with Lyme disease is the black-legged tick.

“It is the main culprit for spreading Lyme disease, but it also can spread other illnesses, like anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis and tularemia,” Merritt says. “We find black-legged ticks equally in pine and hardwood stands.”

Merritt said the American dog tick also can transmit all the diseases associated with the other tick species.

“As the name implies, they bite dogs a lot,” she says. “We find them in people’s backyards, especially if they’ve got a nice, green lawn and a nearby wooded area. Obviously, people’s dogs are at risk. If their kids play in the backyard or if you’re gardening or landscaping in the yard, people can come in contact with the American dog tick.”

Anglers, hunters respond

One aspect of Merritt’s research includes a survey conducted through the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The survey was sent to hunters and anglers to ask about their experiences, knowledge of and costs associated with ticks and tick-borne illnesses.

For those who spend time outdoors, Merritt said the project research found that the most effective deterrent for tick attachment is a spray that contains permethrin.

“You don’t apply it to your skin,” Merritt says. “You spray it on your clothes, boots, hats, socks, backpacks, basically any fabric. When I go camping, I spray my tents and tarps with it. Depending on what brand you get, it will last anywhere from two weeks or two washings to six weeks and six washings.

“More so than bug spray, we found that the products with permethrin significantly reduced the amount of ticks we encountered. It also works well on other biting insects like chiggers and mosquitoes.”

 Although the likelihood of contact with ticks is higher during the warmer months, Merritt said the insects are active year-round in Alabama.

“Be on the lookout, not only on pets, but your children, your loved ones and yourself,” she says. “If you go outside, there is the potential to come in contact with ticks. When you come back inside, check your clothes and gear immediately to see if there are any crawling ticks on you, your pets or children. Then take it a step further and check your body thoroughly for ticks. If you need to use a mirror or a partner, do that. Ticks can hide in all sorts of areas that are hard to see.

“And the longer a tick is attached, the better the chances are to get a tick-borne illness if that tick is harboring that illness.”

Removing a tick

If you do find a tick attached to your body, Merritt said don’t haphazardly try to remove the insect.

“Don’t try to pick it off with your fingers or burn it off with a match or anything like that,” she says. “Get tweezers and get as close to the skin as you possibly can. Firmly grasp the tick where it attached to your body and start pulling with steady, even pressure until it eventually releases. It might be uncomfortable and a little painful, but you want to get that tick off as soon as you can.”

Merritt said tick-borne illnesses may cause symptoms as early as a couple of days, but symptoms could also occur as late as a couple of months after the exposure.

“If you start to experience flu-like symptoms, like aches and pain, or you see an expanding red rash, sometimes spotted and sometimes circular, you need to see a doctor,” she says. “It’s normal for a bite to be red, but if you see an expanding rash or it seems to be spreading to other parts of your body, that’s a clear indication that you do have a tick-borne illness.”

Merritt said if the tick is found it can be saved for testing by taping it to an index card, placing it in a freezer bag and storing it in the freezer.

“But don’t wait for test results,” she said. “If you think you have a tick-borne illness, your doctor should go ahead and start treatment. For most tick-borne illnesses, that involves treatment with antibiotics. For tick paralysis, it’s removal of the tick. For the alpha-gal allergy there is no treatment. You just have to avoid eating red meat, and that’s terrible.”

For more information, go to www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-2315/ANR-2315.pdf or www.alabamalymedisease.org, the Alabama Lyme Disease Association’s website.

Meet the electric John Deere

In 2017, John Deere showcased the first, fully battery-powered tractor. This technological innovation is truly the first of its kind. Nicknamed SESAM, for Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery, this all-electric tractor is modeled after John Deere’s 6r series tractors.

Green and yellow are arguably the second-most American set of colors, behind red, white and blue, of course. This rings true particularly for those who operate John Deere machinery on a daily basis, as the growth of our nation is supremely dependent on the country’s agriculture industry, including the good folks who support it.

Technology in recent years has been the catalyst for the boom and bust of many industries. In the past decade or so, advancements in farming technology have primarily been focused on automation and precision, but with the automobile industry moving towards electric vehicles, the ag-industry is following suit.

John Deere showcased the first, fully battery-powered tractor in 2017 at SIMA, an international agribusiness tradeshow in Paris. This technological innovation was given a ‘special mention’ as it truly the first of its kind. Nicknamed SESAM, for Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery, this all-electric tractor is modeled after John Deere’s 6r series tractors.

In a press release by John Deere, SESAM is said to have all of the same “features and functionality of a ‘conventional’ tractor while offering the benefits of electric power.” This emissions-free tractor runs at a lower noise level than other traditional tractors and is operated using two independent electric motors. The electrification of this tractor simplifies the moving parts and thus, greatly reduces the need for maintenance.

These two motors power an adapted DirectDrive transmission, producing 130 kilowatts of continuous power with a peak output of 400 horsepower, according to Farm-Equipment.com. The website also affirms that the tractor takes 3 hours to fully charge and can run up to 4 hours in the field with speeds ranging from 2 to 30 mph. As a comparison, the Tesla model 3 may have a capacity of up to 75 kilowatt hours of battery storage (kWh), providing a range of about 310 miles. The SESAM has a capacity of 130 kWh with a range of about 34 miles, which means that this tractor uses a lot more electricity in a shorter period of time.

In order for the SESAM to take off, the battery capacity will need to expand to support the sun-up to sun-down longevity of farm work. In fact, the President and CEO of Autonomous Tractor Corporation, Kraig Schulz, purported that a 200 horsepower electric tractor would hypothetically need about 1,500 kWh of batteries to complete a full day’s work. As energy storage technology continues to advance, it’s only a matter of time before John Deere manufactures a tractor that can meet this need.

Although SESAM’s battery technology may not yet be practical for a full day of farming, the all-electric tractor is a very exciting development for the agriculture industry. This is one of many future steps in the direction of electrifying agricultural machinery and integrating this equipment with renewables. As the press release stated, “The SESAM tractor is a major part of John Deere’s vision of the energy-independent farm of the future.”

This push towards electrification of farm machinery in lieu of using fossil fuels directly supports the beneficial electrification movement. This concept, known fully as “environmentally beneficial electrification,” is gaining traction among a growing number of groups in the U.S. including local electric cooperatives. Frequently promoted as a means to reducing greenhouse gases and helping the environment, beneficial electrification also helps consumers by providing products that are cleaner, quieter and easier to maintain. John Deere’s SESAM tractor does just that.

Kaley Lockwood writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives.

Set to trap a catfish

Eugene Hendrick displays some of the catfish traps he’s built.

When this Brantley, Alabama native wants a fish fry, he grabs one of his fish traps and heads to the river.

Story and photo by Ben Norman

Several years ago, Eugene Hendrick decided he would try his hand at fishing with wire fish baskets.  But he had very little luck.

“One day I was checking my wire fish basket and when I pulled one up, someone had thrown a wooden slat box trap over my basket and they had become entangled,” says Hendrick. “His trap was full of fish and I had nothing in mine.  I had my measuring tape on my belt and so I measured the dimensions and decided I would build one of my own.  The first box I built was the same dimensions as the one tangled in mine.  I soon realized that this box was too big and bulky and I could catch just as many fish in a smaller scaled down version.”

After much experimenting, Hendrick settled on a box 14 inches square and 4 feet long with a built-in bait box with double throats or muzzles.  “These are what the catfish go in to get into the box but the limber slats close up and prevent the fish from getting out,” he says. “I build all of my traps with either red oak or white oak strips.  I actually like red oak better because it is tougher wood and retains the bait odor longer.  I use galvanized staples, as I found they are better than nails or screws.”

Hendrick is a well-known sign painter in Crenshaw, Covington and Coffee counties area. Those who know him well know that he is quite a perfectionist especially when it comes to painting signs or building fish traps.  Hendrick says when he sells someone a fish trap he likes to give them a lesson on where to place them and how to use them before they leave. 

“I like to use an old head from a V8 motor for an anchor and about 50 feet of green nylon cord attached to the trap,” he says.  “I construct a simple three-prong grab hook that I can throw out and draw across to snag the line so I can retrieve and pull the trap up to the boat.  I like to fish my traps in water that is 10 to 12 feet deep.” 

Hendrick says it is a fallacy that you can’t put them on sandy bottoms, but you do have to check them more often to make sure they don’t sand in. “For bait, I recommend spoiled cheese that I purchase at Ron Smitherman’s Bait Shop in Clanton.  Although I think cheese is by far the best, some people have good luck with cotton seed meal cake, rotten cabbage, lettuce, bananas and other produce.”

Hendrick says after much experimentation, he builds a small bait box to put his cheese in that slowly oozes downstream and attracts the fish.  He also says rather than having a small door, he builds his traps so that one complete side can be removed to facilitate baiting and fish removal.

“I fish my traps year-round but the best time I have found for catching catfish in a trap is October to April.  If you fish them in the summertime, you need to check them every day, but you can get by checking them once or twice a week in the winter.”

Most Alabama counties permit the use of wire fish baskets after you purchase a tag for each basket.  But state law requires you to have a commercial fishing license to use a slat basket in the public waters of the state.

“I keep my muzzle tapered down to 4 inches and I have caught fish that would weigh seven pounds that were able to get through the muzzle,” says Hendrick.  “I have caught close to 100 pounds in my traps on occasion.  They are constructed in a way that game fish can escape through the required one and one eighth-inch gap between the slats.  I recommend being a good conservationist and if you catch more fish than you can use, release them back into the river and catch them again another day.  And everyone knows a needy family that can use catfish.”

Hendrick invites anyone interested in purchasing his traps to contact him at 334-303-9389 or at Hendrick Signs, 673 Elba Highway, Brantley.  He charges $60 for a single trap and $50 for two or more traps. Contact your local game warden if you have questions about fishing with fish traps.

Hardy Jackson’s Alabama: Food for thought

We Southerners love our food.

But now, according to recent studies, it seems that the cuisine for which the South is famous is leading Southerners to an early grave.

Not long ago it was reported that anyone who wants diabetes should move South and start eating. According to a 2017 study, the highest adult obesity rates are in the South, with Alabama and Arkansas tied for third place (West Virginia and Mississippi were one and two, respectively). And in another study, Alabama ranked right up there with West Virginia with the highest percentage of folks with diabetes.

Like so much that is Southern, our eating habits can be traced to our history. For about as long as there has been a South, culinarily speaking, a good part of the population has had to get by on the poorest cuts of meat and the most forlorn vegetables.

So Southern cooks set out to make the bad at least taste better. What they accomplished has been nothing short of miraculous.

For proof, I refer you to the late Ernest Matthew Mickler’s 1986 classic book, White Trash Cooking, a loving tribute to what southerners can do with traditional staples like fat pork, corn meal, molasses, garden greens, Ritz crackers, Cool Whip, Velveeta and whatever else happens to be handy.

This sort of cooking and this sort of eating has survived almost intact in the rural South or among rural Southerners who moved to cities like Birmingham and Montgomery. But rather than take our eating habits as an indication of how isolated and unsophisticated the deep South remains, I contend that what we cook and consume is just one more bit of evidence of just how cosmopolitan southerners actually are.     

Consider my buddy Jim, who taught Southern history at one of our fine Southern Universities. A scholar recognized both at home and abroad, Jim was invited to lecture at the University of Vienna.

As a gift for his hosts, Jim carried cans of Vienna Sausage to pass around. The sausages were a big hit, as was Jim’s explanation of how Vienna was properly pronounced (“Vi – eeee – nah”).

Now I don’t know, or really care, how Vienna would rank among healthy cities in Europe. And from what Jim tells me, the Viennese don’t know or care either. They enjoy food fixed the way they like it fixed.

Same as down in Dixie.

“Foodies” in places like New York City and San Francisco can go on about experimenting with ingredients and approaches, but we can match ‘em with dishes like “Uncle Willie’s Swamp Cabbage Stew,” “Freda’s Five-Can Casserole,” and a “Kiss Me Not Sandwich” (White Trash Cooking, pp. 11, 41, 73).

As for discovering that most of the cities in the Southern heartland are not healthy places to live well, if you can’t have it all, I’d rather have mine with “Ham-Lama Salad” and some “Soda Cracker Pie,” thank you very much.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University and a regular contributor to Alabama Living.  He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

Social security: How the retirement rules work for you

Retirement doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. Some people plan to retire and never work again. Some people plan for second careers in occupations that wouldn’t have adequately supported their families, but they do the work for pure enjoyment. Some people, whether by design or desire, choose to work part-time or seasonally to supplement their retirement income.

Retirees (or survivors) who choose to receive Social Security benefits before they reach full retirement age (FRA) and continue to work have an earnings limit. In 2017, the annual earnings limit was $16,920 for those under FRA the entire calendar year. In 2018, it is $17,040. If you earn over the limit, we deduct $1 from your Social Security monthly benefit payment for every $2 you earn above the annual limit.

In the calendar year you reach FRA, which you can check out at socialsecurity.gov/planners/retire/ageincrease.html, you have a higher earnings limit. Additionally, we will only count earnings for the months prior to FRA. In 2017, the limit was $44,880. In 2018, it is $45,360. In the year of FRA attainment, Social Security deducts $1 in benefits for every $3 you earn above the limit.

There is a special rule that usually only applies in your first year of receiving retirement benefits. If you earn more than the annual earnings limit, you may still receive a full Social Security payment for each month you earn less than a monthly limit. In 2018, the monthly limit is $1,420 for those who are below FRA the entire calendar year. The 2018 monthly limit increases to $3,780 in the year of FRA attainment.

Once you reach FRA, you no longer have an earnings limit, and we may recalculate your benefit to credit you for any months we withheld your benefits due to excess earnings. This is because your monthly benefit amount is calculated based on a reduction for each month you receive it before your FRA. So, if you originally filed for benefits 12 months before your FRA, but earned over the limit and had two months of Social Security benefits withheld, we will adjust your ongoing monthly benefit amount to reflect that you received 10 months of benefits before your FRA, and not 12.

Most people understand that if they work while receiving benefits before FRA, their benefit may be reduced. What most people do not consider in their retirement planning is that we recalculate your Social Security monthly benefit at FRA to credit you for Social Security benefit payments withheld due to earnings over the limit. Explaining the earnings limit is another way that Social Security helps secure your today and tomorrow.

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.

Rural health: Drones offer exciting promise in rural Alabama

A drone delivers medical supplies to the annual Remote Area Medical (RAM) in Wise County, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Tim Cox

Rapidly emerging new technologies offer a reason for excitement in caring for the health of Alabama’s rural areas.  Alabama faces a great challenge to provide adequate and quality health care for one of the country’s most unhealthy populations.  The use of drones (also called unmanned aircraft systems UAS) is one such promising technology that we need to be prepared to embrace and develop plans for using.

Military and smart phone technologies have played major roles in the rapid development of drone technology and capability.  Having the ability to inspect from above and move in straight lines offer many advantages that surface bound travel does not have.  This technology continues to advance at a rapid pace with drones getting faster, being able to carry heavier cargos, and travel greater distances without the cost of gasoline.  The futuristic city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is even considering the use of passenger-carrying drones that are manufactured in China.

Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based company, has been transporting medical supplies and life-saving blood to and bringing back specimens for laboratory testing from dozens of remote hospitals in Rwanda since October 2016.  Lighter air traffic allowed governmental restrictions to be much less restrictive in Rwanda than in the U.S.  Zipline has announced plans to work with state governments across the country to launch its medical drone delivery in the U.S.

This will not be the first such use of drones in the U.S.  Since July 2015, The Health Wagon and Remote Area Medical have partnered to provide medication delivery in the Appalachian area of Wise County in far southwest Virginia.

Drones are already being used for purposes in addition to health care in the U.S.  There is much promise for agricultural applications, including crop inspection and treatment.  Package delivery, search and rescue activities, aerial photography, parking lot and other security monitoring, damage surveying, and firefighting are only a few other examples.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Birmingham office, two waivers allowing the use of drones in Alabama have been approved.  These waivers allow for drones to be used for weddings, parties, other events, boating and water sports, video production, construction, construction inspection, roof inspection, agriculture, surveying, mapping, and other such applications.  No health-related services are being provided.

Safety and legal concerns appear to be the major obstacles.  Safety issues involve birds and areas with heavy airplane traffic.  There are a number of legal issues, including that of personal privacy.

Alabama’s leadership and other stakeholders involved in the future use of drones in providing health-related activity are encouraged to start preparing for the use of this promising innovation.

Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.

Alabama snapshots: Gone fishin’

Jeff and Laiklind fishing in Cullman. SUBMITTED BY Janice Casey, Cullman.

SUBMITTED BY Michelle Burnham, Brewton.

Earl Reed “Gramps” and Karl Taylorson just shy of Gramps’ 96th birthday. SUBMITTED BY Emily Taylorson, Seale.

3-year-old John Curtis trout fishing with his daddy, David, below Smith Lake Dam. SUBMITTED BY Brenda Landers, Cullman.

Iris’ first fish, caught at Little River in Dekalb County. SUBMITTED BY Mike Elkins, Gurley.

Rusty and (baby) Rhett fishing at a pond in Burnt Corn. SUBMITTED BY Rusty Salter, Daphne.

Avery Menefee fishing at sunset. SUBMITTED BY Heather Menefee, Pine Level.

Mason Hodges caught “the big one” in his PawPaw’s pond and now it’s mounted on his bedroom wall. SUBMITTED BY Tim Tuggle, Danville.

Submit Your Images! August Theme: “First day of school” Deadline for August: June 30. Submit photos online: www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124. Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.

Restoring the roar on Lake Guntersville

Photo by Chris Denslow

By John N. Felsher

After more than 30 years of absence, boat races will return to the largest lake in Alabama when the Guntersville Lake Hydrofest comes to the northeastern part of the state on June 22-24.

“Lake Guntersville has a long history of boat racing with many world records set on these waters,” says Katy Norton, the president of the Marshall County Convention and Visitors Bureau in the town of Guntersville. “Races have been held on the lake since the lake formed in 1939. We had annual boat racing events all the way through 1986. Because boat racing had such a history on the lake, we felt it would be a great time to bring the races back during the state bicentennial celebration.”

After the qualifying events on June 22, two types of craft will race across the waters for the next two days. Sometimes called “NASCAR on the Water,” H1 Unlimited hydroplanes propelled by turbine engines producing more than 3,000 horsepower can hit speeds exceeding 220 miles per hour as they race around a two-mile oval course. These powerful boats can throw “roostertails,” or streams of water that can reach 60 feet high and a football field long.

“This is the first year that we’ve brought the boat races back to Lake Guntersville since 1986 and this will be the first time we’ve had the H1 Unlimited Hydroplanes here since 1969,” Norton says. “We’re really glad to see this type of event come back to Lake Guntersville.”

The famed Miss Budweiser, the boat that won the 1969 races, will be on static display. Normally, people who want to see this historic craft must travel to a museum in Seattle, Wash., but for three days, people can climb aboard it on the shores of Lake Guntersville and take photos of themselves at the controls.

Guntersville Lake Hydrofest will kick off another season of H1 Unlimited hydroplane racing in the country. Drivers only race these craft in five cities. Besides Guntersville, the smallest venue on the circuit this year, the boats will race in Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, the Tri-Cities area of Washington state and Madison, Ind.

“We’re the smallest community by far that’s going to host the races this year, but that’s a testament to the quality of the lake and the history we have here with boat racing,” Norton says. “It’s our goal to make this an annual event and bring back boat racing to the lake as part of our summer activities.”

Drivers in smaller hydroplanes will also race against each other in front of the crowds gathered along Sunset Drive on the lake shoreline in the town of Guntersville. These “Grand Prix World” hydroplanes measure about 24 feet long and 12 feet wide. With 1,300-horsepower engines, they can hit speeds topping 170 miles per hour.

When not watching the boats zoom across the waves, people can participate in many other activities on shore. Wakeboarders will give demonstrations on the lake. Vendors will offer food and refreshments. Children can enjoy visiting a special area and activities set aside just for them. Besides Miss Budweiser, people can also see static displays of various boats among other events and activities on tap for the three days of celebration.

“People don’t want to miss the opening ceremonies, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 23,” Norton says. “The National Guard will do a water jump, parachuting into the water. We’ll also have some flyovers.”

At 7 p.m. that Saturday evening, a country music concert will be held at the Lurleen B. Wallace pavilion. Rising star Suzi Oravec will open, followed by the headliner, A Thousand Horses, a band known for its hit song “Smoke.”

Norton said she expects to see more than 20,000 people come to hear the roaring engines and enjoy the other festivities in a town normally with a population less than half that size. Some people might come a few days early to fish the famed bass lake that spreads across 69,100 acres and stretches 75 miles along the old Tennessee River channel. Others may simply relax before the big event or partake in some other recreational activities available in the area. For area information, see www.marshallcountycvb.com.

“We expect people to come from all over Alabama, across the Southeast and from many other states,” Norton says. “We’ve had calls from people coming from as far away as California and Washington. Some people will come a few days early to enjoy the lake and the area before the races begin and stay through the weekend. This should be a major economic boon to the town of Guntersville and the surrounding area.”

For schedules, event maps, ticket information and other details, see www.guntersvillelakehydrofest.com or the event page on Facebook. People can also call the Marshall County CVB at 256-582-7015.

Photo by Chris Denslow

Making visitors feel welcome in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’

Grand Bay staffer Becky Clark hands a visitor a copy of Alabama Living. Copies of the magazine are sent to each center every month.
1 Ardmore Welcome Center, I-65, Elkmont
2 Dekalb Welcome Center, I-59, Valley Head
3 Cleburne Welcome Center, I-20 E, Heflin
4 Lanett Welcome Center, I-85 S, Lanett
5 Houston Welcome Center, US 231 S, Cottonwood
6 Baldwin Welcome Center, I-10, Seminole
7 Grand Bay Welcome Center, I-10 E, Grand Bay
8 Sumter Welcome Center, I-59, Cuba

“Welcome to Alabama!”

If you’ve walked through the doors of one of Alabama’s eight State Welcome Centers, those words no doubt would have greeted you.

“We don’t know if they’re from Alabama,” says Trisa Collier, center administrator, but every employee makes sure each visitor is welcomed warmly and enthusiastically. “Some will say, ‘I’m from Alabama,’ or ‘I was born in Alabama and I’m back to visit.’” Others will have come from as far away as Germany, Canada or Mexico. They may not speak English well, if it all. No matter. The welcome centers are there to help.

Last year, a record 1.3 million people visited the centers, on their way to Alabama and points north, south, east and west.

The centers are owned and maintained by the Alabama Department of Transportation, and the lobbies are staffed by the Department of Tourism. The number of tourism representatives at each center varies from five to seven, depending on the traffic.

“Grand Bay has seven because their center is so big,” says Collier. “It was built to be a staging area for storms so they could accommodate more people.” The center, on I-10 East at the southernmost tip of Mobile County, was rebuilt and expanded in 2016 and displays original art, including carvings of beach scenes in the brick exterior walls and a large fiberglass oyster painted by Mobile artist Lucy Gafford featuring sites around Alabama.

A welcome wave from Cleburne Welcome Center staff, from left, Lucy Bachus, Courtney Nelson, Kathy Freeman, Tabetha Akins and Lora Walker.

“Our oyster is called ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” says Grand Bay tourist promotion representative Emily White. The oyster is part of the Oyster Trail, an educational scavenger hunt through coastal Alabama to support the Mobile Bay Oyster Gardening Program.

Each center is stocked with brochures about sites throughout the state, divided by geographic regions. And representatives, wearing their trademark “Sweet Home Alabama” shirts, are equipped to answer questions about destinations, both in their area and beyond.

“We want them to feel that this is the best place they’ve been to, when they come to our centers,” says Collier. “You know the old adage, ‘people may not remember what you say but they’ll always remember how you made them feel’? That’s what I tell my staff.”

Before employees are hired, they must first be certified through the state Personnel Department, Collier says, and she sits in on all interviews. “We’re looking for people with customer service experience, who have worked directly with the public,” she says. After hiring, it’s “mostly on the job training” she adds. “Then after they start, we do familiarization tours where we take them to different parts of the state, because if you’ve been there, it’s easier to tell others about it.”

Each year the employees have a retreat at a tourist destination, such as the OWA Amusement Park in Foley in 2017. They’ve also been to Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Eufaula, Birmingham, Montgomery and other cities.

“We get a lot of international visitors,” says Gerlena Hall, manager at the Sumter Welcome Center in Cuba, off I-59 in west Alabama. Many of them want to know about the civil rights movement and the sites associated with it.

“We get a lot of traffic from Louisiana and Texas during summer breaks,” says White, with most heading for the beaches in Alabama, Florida or to Disney World.

International visitors, meanwhile, usually aren’t beachgoers but are looking for historic sites. Some are visiting all the state capitals.

Visitors to the Ardmore Welcome Center enjoy having their photo made in this lobby display, as demonstrated by staffers Jessica Jackson, Bernice Hobson and Asheley Harris.

Visitors have questions, they have answers

Sometimes visitors ask unusual questions, depending on where they are from. “A lot of people from the north ask, ‘What is Mardi Gras?’” says White, who is only too happy to explain the annual celebration.

Becky Clark, another employee at Grand Bay, was once asked, “Where is Greenbow, Alabama?” referring to the town where Forrest Gump lived in the movie of the same name. She explained it wasn’t a real town, but that Bayou La Batre is a real town not far from the welcome center, where they could see scenes and shrimp boats from the movie. “They were very excited to buy some fresh shrimp right off the boat!” White says.

At the Cleburne Welcome Center off I-20 East in Heflin, manager Kathy Freeman says they are often asked for restaurant recommendations. “They don’t want chain restaurants, but something local,” she says. “If I’ve eaten there, I’ll tell them about it. We want them to stay in Alabama and leave their money here.”

The Welcome Centers have had their share of famous visitors and even animals. Some years ago, the Budweiser Clydesdale horses, likely on their way to an event in Birmingham, stopped at the Cleburne center for a break. Comedian Jerry Clower, musician Bret Michaels and Penny Marshall of “Laverne & Shirley” fame have visited the Sumter center.

Every center has had its share of visitors with health emergencies. “Medical emergencies happen infrequently,” but staff have a plan in place, says Collier. They can call 911 and an oxygen machine is available if needed.

Some of the most popular items the welcome centers provide to visitors are copies of Alabama Living. Two hundred copies are shipped to each center every month. “Travelers want recipes and we show them the recipes in the magazine and all the other good information,” says Freeman. “They love Alabama Living.”