Sweet Home Alabama – the Trip

9 May

We just got back from a wonderful driving trip to Alabama for a week-long vacation. Time to blog!

This is the first of what will be a few posts in a series – I have to see how the thoughts come to me, of course, as my dear ‘ol blog is always done on the fly, extemporaneously, off the top of my head, pulled out of my ass, etc. That said, there seems to be a few topics to cover – the trip itself, the people we saw, and the places we went and food we ate. So, this one will be a light one – the trip itself.

Our trip was yet another version of the great American Road trip, similar to the one I just took with my sons in early April for their spring break. While that one was “one lap of Ohio – a trip from Chicago to Cleveland, to Dayton, and then back to Chicago, this one was a bit more linear, and more desitination-oriented. Specifically to Rainsville, Alabama. Population: 5000. Their civic motto? The Crossroads of Sand Mountain. Why Rainsville? Well, it’s not like we played darts or anything – instead it happens to be the home of some dear friends of ours, Keary and Lisa, whom we met in Cancun in 2007, then stayed in touch, met up again on a beach on Grand Cayman in 2010, and then joined them again for a week in Cancun last year. We met a bunch of their friends through that second trip – Chris and Sharon, Brian and Leslie, Tammy and Jerry, and now are fast friends with the lot of them. We’ll cover that in my next post – on the people.

As we were planning this trip, people were saying to us “Why Alabama?” We’d explain the friend connection and they’d say “oh, well, OK. Couldn’t they meet you somewhere else?” Obviously they hadn’t been to where I’ve now been and will return to many times more. As northerners, I think we’re conditioned that if you think of visiting a rural place in the deep south, you envision ramshackle tar-paper shacks, dirty kids running around throwing sticks, old coon dogs on the porch (which is peeling, sagging and gray) rusting yard cars, and people with no teeth. Not the case at all. Rainsville, and its nearby companion county seat, Scottsboro, AL, are tidy rural towns that would fit right in in any state in the union. They are agricultural – Rainsville sits up on a geological formation called Sand Mountain, which is a 1500 to 1700 foot above sea-level ridge that is about 25 or so miles wide and hundred or so miles long on average and is some of the highest ground in Alabama. Its sandy soils are supposed to be great for growing tomatoes. Leslie and Brian sent us home with a tomato plant set in Sand Mountain dirt – which is light brown and sandy. They say it grows the best tomatoes – so we’ll see if we can get “Bubba The Big Boy” to grow on our Chicagoland patio.

The trip was basically a 675 mile-long straight shot south – our route went down I-65 from the Gary, IN area to Nashville, then onto I-24 towards the NE corner of Alabama where you pick up US 72 into Scottsboro, hang a left, cross the Tennessee River and Guntersville Lake and up onto Sand Mountain and Rainsville. The next town southeast of Rainsville is Fort Payne, AL, made famous by the country Supergroup of the 1980s, Alabama. 675 miles is about 10 ½ hours of driving. We could have done it in one day, but half the fun of a road trip is stopovers, so we made our stopover on the way down in Nashville – about 8 hours from Chicago, and one the way back, made our stop in Louisville, which is exactly half way almost to the mile from between Rainsville and Buffalo Grove.

The driving from Chicago to Indianapolis is miserable. Dead flat, devoid of scenery. Like driving on a treadmill.   About the only interesting thing to see is a gigantic wind turbine farm near Rennselear, and the only good stops to make are at Fair Oaks Farms at Winamac and to eat at Triple XXX Drive In at West Lafayette (see my other post about Triple D restaurants). After Indy, it gets better – starts being more wooded and rolling and then south of Louisville, it gets downright beautiful – mountains and hills, big rock cuts for the Interstate – woods everywhere. Gorgeous! South of Nashville, it really gets interesting– with true mountain driving featuring 6-8% grades for miles at a time, steep turns occasionally, beautiful scenery. And once off the interstates and onto US 72 headed into Alabama, you follow Lake Guntersville and things are truly spectacular.

Our friends Keary, Lisa, Brian and Leslie joined us in Nashville – we stayed at the Marriott Courtyard which is in a beautiful converted bank/office building right in the heart of downtown and only 4 blocks from the Broadway music strip. Just a few steps away is the Ryman Auditorium, which Brian (who is a walking/talking Chamber of Commerce guide for both Nashville and his own area around Rainsville) liked to call “the Mother Church of Country Music” – the

original site of the Grand Ole’ Opry. We hadn’t been to Nashville in ages – I have been there about 3 times for business, and Robin only once for business, and each time we were there between us, we’ve just stayed at the Opryland Hotel. I did make it downtown once before to tour the music scene, but it had been ages. Thus, this was a real treat, made only better by our Alabama friends driving the 3 hours up on their Harley Electra Glides to join us.

The music scene in Nashville, as one would expect with the moniker “Music City” is fantastic. If you’re a fan of live music, this is the place for you. Downtown features at least 50 or more live music clubs playing everything from Country (lots of it), Rock, Blues, R&B, and even alternative and ska (as we saw from some places we passed on our morning walk the next day). After a brief and pretty good dinner at Demo’s Italian-style Steakhouse, we started up Broadway, with our goal being Tootsie’s Wild Orchid Club and a show from country music up-and-comer John Stone, a native of Fort Payne, AL and friend of our friends from Rainsville. Each live music club has a wide open front door and generally the stage is right at the front of the room – you walk past, turn around to watch. No cover charges anywhere – just a tip jar and a tradition of “pay to play” – you want to hear something played, you pay – $20 is the general medium of exchange. We hit at least three places – the final being Tootsie’s Wild Orchid – and danced and enjoyed a fun mix of country, rock, country/rock and country/ska. The experience at Tootsies was amazing – when we arrived, the early band was still on stage and rocking the room – two guitarists, a drummer, bassist and this beautiful girl playing a hot fiddle. Their focus was mostly country. The fun thing there was people kept offering them $100 and $200 tips to play additional songs, so they played an extra 20 minutes or so. A quick change of gear, and John Stone’s band came on – I think he called his band the Trailer Trash Trio or something funny like that. These guys rocked it though – great harmonies on the country stuff, played some great scorching rock including a fantastic rendition of Highway to Hell by AC/DC at the request of a Brit in the room. The place was jam-packed – it seems like fire marshall attendance laws haven’t caught on here. Downtown Nashville overall seems to be in a big renaissance phase with big high-end hotels being built, a new sports stadium and more. It is very impressive and we will be back.

Onwards to Rainsville, Sand Mountain and Lake Guntersville. Rainsville is a classic “crossroads” town of two major state highways that earn the town’s one primary traffic light (or “redlights” as they call them there) with businesses lining the two roads for about a mile in each direction, and the residential areas fanned out from there. The town is quaint, tidy and nice – a few too many shuttered storefronts of course, and some of the requisite chain encroachment including McDonald’s (but no Starbucks!!), but the usual – a couple of grocery stores, the usual service businesses of hair, dentists, cleaners, etc., auto parts stores, furniture, etc. While of course like any rural town, there are run down homes here and there, but for the most part, there are nice, tidy homes of smaller to average size. The town has an “all grades” school – Plainview  (Go Bears!) – that has about 1600 students spread from K-12. And a big business there, the Rainsville Funeral Home, where our good friends are the owners. Keary and Lisa’s funeral home is a huge, beautiful, stately building that’s beautifully furnished on a large tract of ground that includes a cemetery.

Rainsville and the whole area experienced a seriously defining moment on April 27, 2011 when the NE Alabama tornados tore through the town and the surrounding counties. That day, dozens of tornadoes went through the general area, and in Rainsville in particular, the largest one hit – an F5 that turned into a quarter-mile-wide monster, dropping down near the high school, destroying a large portion of that, tearing up the town’s civic center, then flattening dozens of businesses and homes and killing more than 20 people in Rainsville and the nearby area. We took a tour of the area and it is really eerie to see – the area is generally pretty wooded and there is a clear path you can see where the trees are all torn apart and every building is completely gone. There is rebuilding going on, which is great, and there are things that will never be rebuilt. The community, led by some of our friends – specifically Lisa and Tammy, recently erected a beautiful monument to remember those killed in the tornadoes.  The impact of this is unmistakable. Rainsville will clearly mark time for generations to come in terms of “before and after the tornado”.

 

 

We left Rainsville on Friday to head to

Keary and Lisa’s lake home on Lake Guntersville. Lake Guntersville, is one of the biggest competition bass fishing lakes in the southeast, and is just immense – something like 75 miles long and up to 2 miles wide at certain points. Nearby is a big state park, which I did not see, but featured a beautiful lodge on a bluff about 400 feet above the river. We saw eagles, cranes, pelicans, fish of course and much more. Keary and Lisa’s home is on a beautiful point toward Guntersville with sunset views. Just really didn’t get prettier. And there’s tornado damage there too – in fact the tornadoes took out a bunch of trees on his property, and damaged the house as well. Behind the house and in some other places around the lake you could see paths that the tornadoes made through the trees. We stayed out at the lake until Sunday around sunset, then back to Rainsville for one more overnight and then headed home, this time by way of Louisville.

We overnighted at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel – thanks Hilton HHonors for the free room! The Seelbach is a beautiful old property right in the middle of downtown Louisville. The 4th Ave Market is right next to it – an entertainment “district” of a block or so of restaurants and bars – with a covering over the street – very manufactured, but I’m sure quite fun. It has been at least 10 years or more since I was last in Louisville and it is impressive how much the downtown area is revitalized since then and is still coming up. This was a really dynamic place and there’s lots of good dining, hotels and fun to be had there. We walked to the Garage Bar – which turned out to be a much, MUCH longer walk east on Market Street than the hotel concierge made it out to be, through an area that, well, hasn’t been through the revitalization yet. While it didn’t feel dangerous in the 7:00 PM daylight, I’m sure it would be in the midnight darkness. I’ll write about the food in another post.

We got on the road after a wonderful breakfast (again, food details to come), and headed for home, stopping at Fair Oaks Farms for ice cream, and making a decision to come through downtown Chicago, even though rush hour traffic was building, just to enjoy the big city sights after being in the rural areas.

Our little VW GTI shined again for us – eating miles at a prodigious rate (cruise set about 80 mph most of the time), handling the mountain roads like it was born in Europe (wait, it was), blasting up slopes, burbling down them, hugging the curves and hauling it down fast when idiots without knowledge of the concepts of rearview mirrors would cut us off. All while turning in an average 29.8 mpg. The total: (which includes a fair amount of time driving around in Alabama): 1576 miles driven, 27 hours and 0 minutes spent in the car, 58 mph average speed with the 29.8 MPG. Fantastic.

Love our road trips!

And we loved Sweet Home Alabama.

As you were,

Stew

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One Response to “Sweet Home Alabama – the Trip”

  1. susan glazer May 9, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    ok, now it really is time to take a road trip together to memphis!!!!!

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