It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about the holidays, but rather the time of year when I’m reminded I have not taken a vacation, and time is running out.
For years, at least with this job, it is always around the month of November when I’m approached by the boss, who asks, “So, when are you planning to use those vacation days? You realize if you don’t use them, you lose them.”
Planning a proper vacation can often take time, and lots of it–for planning, for putting money aside for things like airline tickets, hotels and all the fun stuff you hope to check out. Not to mention, a good vacation should always include lots of good food.
But when time and a big budget aren’t the sort of luxuries you have to work with, you can either spend the time off “staycationing” at home, or simply travel somewhere that’s a little cheaper and closer in distance than, say, Disney World or Cancun. Last week, I chose the latter, and it wound up being a much more rewarding experience than I initially expected.
Ever since I was a kid, I had grown up hearing all about Muscle Shoals, Alabama, usually in relation to its rich music history. Yet, I’d never taken the time to visit the area and pay my respects to places like the historic FAME Studios, where legends like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Little Richard cut some of their biggest hits.
The best part is that it’s only about an hour-and-a-half drive from Columbia, and one that doesn’t require getting on the interstate. Along the way you’ll pass through places like Lawrenceburg, where you can make a few added stops at antique shops, pay a visit to Amish Country or simply gaze at the rural landscapes as you make your way south of the Tennessee border.
The cluster of towns in Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia have a lot more to offer travelers than the area’s musical past. My ignorant self didn’t realize it was also the place Helen Keller lived, and you can visit her home, as well as the childhood home of “The Father of The Blues” W.C. Handy. There is also the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the Rosenbaum House designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright and lots of unique local restaurants.
Superhero Chefs in downtown Tuscumbia, for example, was founded by celebrity chef Darnell Ferguson, who has been featured on several Food Network shows and competitions. I recommend The Aquaman quesadilla, which features a mixture of smoked salmon, shrimp and a hot crab spread. The Rattlesnake Saloon is also a standout worthy of a visit, mainly because it is a restaurant/venue built inside of a cave.
Strolling through downtown Tuscumbia felt a lot like an afternoon spent in Columbia’s downtown square, with its local shops, eateries and “old town” architecture. The nearby Spring Park also features one of the largest manmade waterfalls constructed out of 2,000 tons of sandstone. The park also has a piece of petrified tree stump on display that’s supposedly more than 300 million years old.
What initially began as a simple few days out of town away from the news world quickly evolved into a full week’s worth of sightseeing, trying new foods and making new discoveries, something a well-rounded vacation should be. And again, it was an area you can visit, roam around and make your way back using only about a half a tank of gas.
Without turning this into some kind of travelogue that’s little more than a glorified TripAdvisor review, the reason I chose to write about this trip was because of how much it seemed relevant to what people have been doing in 2020, and that you can still have a good vacation even during COVID times.
Much like quarantine gave some people a deeper appreciation for having more time spent at home with family, I believe taking shorter local trips like this can create a deeper appreciation for the place you live.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are working less and making less money, which means vacation budgets are being cut short. There is also the risk of traveling by plane or to largely populated cities. It’s not really a fun vacation when you have to deal with all that extra stress, on top of everything else 2020 has managed to throw our way.
With growing concerns about money, time and safety, more people are choosing to spend their vacations at locations within reasonable driving distance, in smaller towns and places that are much more affordable.
And it’s not just about the expenses you save, but by vacationing locally you’ll discover there are many worthwhile things to experience all around you. You probably just didn’t notice them before since the idea of “vacationing” likely consisted of trips to the beach, or big-ticket destinations like New York and Europe.
The benefits of vacationing locally reminds me of a Tennessee history class I once took in college, and how most of the discussions included historical facts, major events and places I didn’t realize were so important. The best part was realizing most of these sites weren’t very far away if I wished to see them for myself. It was something that gave me a better appreciation for the state I lived in, while also providing a long list of places to visit the next time I need a few days out of town.
However, I wouldn’t have gotten that kind of exposure had it not been for the fact I was enrolled in a college course. It made me think about how many people might take those kinds of places for granted, or are probably unaware they even exist. That and staying local isn’t exactly what comes to mind when someone says, “I need a vacation.”
The last thing you need when you get home from a vacation is to worry about how much money you spent, or how much risk of catching COVID-19 you might have just put yourself in. You want the fulfillment of rest, relaxation and the appreciation that you took some time for yourself without putting your loved ones, and your wallet, in jeopardy.
That’s why vacationing locally makes more sense these days, because you get all of the benefits of traveling without having to spend too much, and without venturing too far from home. You also just might discover a few new things you wouldn’t have otherwise.
Jay Powell is a reporter for The Daily Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JayPowellCDH.