Tin Can Travels
Scottsboro — Bats, Caves, And Unclaimed Baggage
In 1931, the 9 black “Scottsboro Boys” were accused of raping 2 white women (a capital offense in Alabama at the time). In a landmark reversal, the Supreme Court ruled that jurors could not be excluded because of race — and that defendants must be provided with not just counsel, but EFFECTIVE counsel. Groundbreaking jurisprudence aside, this little town would never have been more than a wide spot in the road, had they not decided to start reselling people's misplaced suitcases…
The Unclaimed Baggage Center
Since 1970, the Unclaimed Baggage Center has been buying up lost luggage from the airlines and reselling the contents (as well as the bags!) It's basically a huge thrift store, filled with a little bit of everything imaginable — clothes, books, electronics, sports equipment, jewelry, toys, you name it. Depending on the day, you might find a 40.95-carat natural emerald, a full suit of armor, a saddle, a live rattlesnake, or a rowing machine (who carries this kind of stuff with them when they fly??) At least when a $250,000 F-16 guidance system showed up on one of their trucks, they returned it to the Navy! In addition to the used items, Unclaimed Baggage also buys cargo shipments of overstocks and seconds, so you will find a few new items in their store, as well.
Like any thrift or consignment shop, a visit to Unclaimed Baggage can be hit or miss — but I've always had luck there. I love this place because I seem to find unusual items that you just couldn't pick at your local mall or Goodwill. I am especially impressed with their selection of “international” clothes — if you want saris, salwaar kameez, sarongs (anything that starts with an “s”), this is the place to go! When I traveled to India a few years back, I desperately wanted an embroidered sari, but the price tag was just too high (even with the devalued rupee, I would have spent more than $100 U.S. dollars). But a few months later, I found a gorgeous crimson sari with the most intricate gold embroidery and beading at Unclaimed Baggage for just $15 — God bless all them “furniners” who misplace their luggage!
It is definitely an impressive enterprise. Founder Doyle Owens started out with $300 and a used pick-up truck – the store now takes up 40,000 square feet and stocks 7,000 new items EACH DAY, and that's after they have donated one-third of each shipment to charities around the world. Over one million items pass through the store annually, about 60% of it clothing (don't worry — there are plenty chairs for you husbands and boyfriends!) Here are a couple of tips if you do make a trip Scottsboro:
- closed on Sundays (in this day and age, it's amazing that anything but a liquor store is actually closed on a Sunday, but this is still the buckle of the Bible Belt — from a purely commercial standpoint, it's a bit silly, though, considering that Unclaimed Baggage is the major destination for this area and a good many people work during the week — I guess they rely almost entirely on tourists who are vacationing and make a special trip to northeast Alabama)
- watch the prices (unlike a Goodwill or Salvation Army, these people know what their stuff is worth — while you can find some great deals and I was very excited to buy a whole pile of Tony Horton DVDs for $1 each, don't expect to walk away with a set of Ping golf clubs or a Coach bag for next to nothing — a purse that cost $600 new will be priced at about $200, which is still a bargain if that's what you're in the market for, but I personally wouldn't spend that on a bag in the first place!)
- buyer beware (most of the merchandise at Unclaimed Baggage is in better-than-average condition — it makes sense considering the source of their stock — I mean, you wouldn't take an outfit with holes and stains or an iPod that didn't work on a trip with you! — but like any thrift store, you need to examine the items you buy carefully for wear, damage, and missing parts — discounted cameras and laptops may seem like a good deal, but if they stop working, you can't just complain to the manager — remember, no warranties on “as-is” items, no cash refunds, and things like CDs and movies can't be returned at all)
- plan to spend a couple of hours (if you make a thorough but speedy sweep of the entire store, it will take you about an hour — if you're like my mother and have to sift through every bin, finger every rack of clothes, and read the back cover of every book, you could be there for days!)
- pret-a-porter (unlike most thrift stores which put out clothing that smells funny and needs to be laundered before wearing, everything hanging on the racks at Unclaimed Baggage has been cleaned and pressed before it hits the floor — they operate the largest dry cleaning and laundry facility in the area)
- find a middle ground (while Unclaimed Baggage claims that people will pay for an airline ticket to fly across country and shop at their store, I'm not sure I would agree that it's worth a lengthy trip — if you happen to be in Alabama, Georgia, or Tennessee, take a drive and have fun shopping — but I don't think you're going to save enough on anything to want to go more than a couple of hours by car)
- first Monday “trade days” (try, if you can, to be in Scottsboro on the first Monday of the month — then you can not only check out Unclaimed Baggage, but also go to “trade days” — this is a huge flea market filled with antiques, crafts, and funky second-hand finds, a tradition since the mid-1800's — also be sure to stop in at Payne's Soda Shop on the square, serving the best malt in the area since 1869)
- protect your own belongings (people wonder if the airlines might not be intentionally “losing” people's luggage, so they can sell it to Unclaimed Baggage and make some extra money — that's doubtful, considering that they have to pay travelers for each misdirected bag — but if you don't want your valuables to end up on their sales floor, be careful with your stuff when you travel — don't check it if you don't have to, and put a piece of paper with your contact information on it INSIDE of each bag, in case the tags are ripped off — then do like the lovely flight attendant suggests, and check around your seating area and in the seat pocket before you get off the plane — I'm certain that's where most of the iPods, Crackberries, and DS systems come from!)
I'm a caver, so I appreciate the fact that this part of Alabama is also karst country. A karst landscape is created when rainwater falls through the atmosphere and picks up CO2 — this combines with H2O to form a weak carbonic acid which drips through the ground and dissolves the underlying limestone (didn't know you were going to get a chemistry lesson here today, did ya?) This means lots of sinkholes and caves — there are actually more than 2,000 caverns throughout the state, and you can visit several all within the same day, just a short drive from Scottsboro.
Cathedral Caverns State Park (south of Scottsboro in nearby Woodville) is one of the better run “show caves” I've ever visited — a National Natural Landmark that holds 4 world records. They have the widest entrance of any commercial cave (a 25' tall and 128' wide hole in the rock that seemed perpetually shrouded in mist when we visited, as the cold cave air met with late summer southern humidity), the largest column (Goliath, which stands at 45' tall and 243' in circumference), the largest flow stone wall (a “frozen waterfall” 32' tall and 135' long), and the most improbable formation in the world (a 3″ diameter stalagmite that rises at a 45 degree angle from a rock formation to the cave ceiling 25' above). The 3-acre stalagmite forest and the “Big Room” (where you can see 700 feet in either direction) are both impressive — but unfortunately, the crystal room isn't actually open to the public.
If you go north of Scottsboro toward Tennessee, you can visit Russell Cave National Monument — a very OLD school tourist attraction on the National Register Of Historic Places. The cave is 7.2 miles long, the third longest mapped cave in Alabama — but you can only enter it as far as the first 50 yards or so. Don't expect electric lighting or paved sidewalks — this is a natural cave that exists more for research than entertainment. Russel Cave's significance does not come from its formations, but its history as a shelter for Indians starting as far back as 9,000 years ago. We took the tour, politely looked at all the exhibits, and we probably won't ever need to go back again. I hate to dis an educational experience (because they've found some amazing artifacts that have greatly advanced our understanding of prehistoric society) — but the presentation is kinda dry. This is a perfect example of why most people skip national landmarks when they travel. Too bad, really…
My favorite cavern experience (outside of actual wild caving) in North Alabama is Sauta Cave. As you drive down Highway 72 and get to mile marker 131, you will see a dirt road with a gate across it that seems to go off into nowhere. There are no signs, and it's clear that the public is discouraged from visiting the cave en masse. But if you walk down the road about a half a mile, you will start to notice the most horrible stench — when you can smell the reek of bat guano, you know you're getting close. On the right, you'll see a cave entrance that is blocked off by iron bars, placed close enough together that people can't get in, but far enough apart that the bats can. This is one of only a few caves in the U.S. that produces the right underground climate for the endangered gray bat. It's a National Wildlife Refuge and one of the largest bat colonies east of Mexico — and at sunset during the summer, between 200,000 and 300,000 bats fly out in a cloud of wings and squeaking to feed. Don't worry about them smacking into you — the viewing platform is well away from the cave entrance. Just be sure to bring a flashlight, and you can watch them snacking on mosquitoes and gnats for an hour or two!
Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream with The Husbert and two fur-babies. Learn more at GettingOrganizedAToZ.com and RamonaCreel.com.
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