Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alabama Trip: Day 2 Recap

So, we're in Alabama. Where to?

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We started Day 2 (Saturday) at point E, just outside Gadsden. This put us about an hour away from...

Point F: Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in Alabama. This was pretty much a must as far as I was concerned. The nice thing about visiting state highpoints is that being mountains, they are often surrounded by some really nice scenery. (Except in Indiana.)

Here is Cheaha Mountain from a distance:

The thing with mountain pictures is that it's impossible to relay perspective. How tall is this mountain, anyway? Well...all I can say is that the mountains of northeast Alabama were a lot more impressive than we expected, and that the mountain roads were quite pleasant. You'll have to take my word for it.

Many highpoints, you at least have to hike a little to get to. Not this one. The parking lot is on the summit.

That's an old observation tower at the summit, which - much to my surprise - was open. Hooray!

It's unfortunate that the TV tower (licensed to the Birmingham FOX affiliate according to a posted sign) obscures the view. Did they really have to put the tower on THE highest point? Why not the next mountain over? Still, the second picture helps give a good idea of the lay of the land around here. There is basically one tall mountain ridge that towers above everything else, and down below, you have smaller hills and rolling terrain. So, no, I wouldn't call this "mountainous terrain". Hilly, with an occasional mountain ridge here and there, sounds about right.

(By the way, that may or may not be Talladega Superspeedway in the distance in the first picture. Hard to tell.)

Joining us at the highest point in Alabama on this fine Saturday morning were some runners participating in a 5K. Combining a 5K with roadgeeking is one thing, but combining a 5K with highpointing? That might be even better! This run was nowhere near as popular, however. Maybe 20 runners total?

This was my 6th state highpoint, and Marla's 2nd. (I've also been to the highest point in Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Indiana. South Carolina is the only one of those that I haven't visited with Amber.)

So, that's that. Time to get out of the mountains and explore "the other side of Alabama".

Point G: Middle of Nowhere, Alabama. This wasn't necessarily the plan, but most of the rest of the day would be spent in Alabama's Black Belt: originally named for the region's rich black soil, but whose name may now also refer to the predominant demographic in the region. It's a lot like southwestern West Virginia in terms of the economics: once a booming area (coal mining in West Virginia, cotton in Alabama) whose economy has sharply declined over the last few decades, leaving behind what is now one of the poorest areas not only in the state, but in the country.

So what does this mean for us? Well, it means that we could pretty much forget about finding a gas station with a diaper changing table. But that's alright. Rural Alabama is what we wanted, and that's what we got.

I thought - hoped - that traversing the Black Belt would mean that we would see lots of Piggly Wiggly stores. After all, there are more Piggly Wiggly locations in Alabama than in any other state. But apparently most of them are not in the Black Belt, because the only Piggly Wiggly we saw on the entire trip was in Anniston, just north of the highpoint. How disappointing! (We did see a "Piggly Wiggly Express" somewhere west of Montgomery, but that doesn't count, because it looked to be more of a convenience store.)

Well, in any case, we found this fine establishment across the street from the Anniston Piggly Wiggly:

Point H1: Selma. Selma is at the heart of the Black Belt, and has an important place in civil rights history. I thought it might be kind of interesting, although in hindsight, I'm not really sure why.

Yay, history! So, besides this here historical marker, what is there in downtown Selma, anyway?

Not much of anything, in fact. I thought there was supposed to be a riverwalk or some kind of walk or something (someone else did, too), but all we found was one little place where you could see the Alabama River.

We should have known downtown Selma wasn't really the place to be as soon as we parked the car. In downtown Selma, even the ILLEGAL parking is cheaper than the legal parking is in many downtowns. Oh well - hit some, miss some.

Point H2: Cahaba. Fortunately, we had a Plan B. (See? We did do some planning on this trip.) Just southwest of Selma is the ghost town of Cahaba (also spelled Cahawba): capital of Alabama in the 1820s, major cotton transporation center along the Alabama River in the mid-19th century, and then by 1900, completely gone. Today, it's home to the Old Cahawba State Historical Site (maintained by the Alabama Historical Commission), and inside this building, one very, very bored state employee. (Poor guy. He was so excited to talk to us.)

So, here's what Cahaba looks like today. Dirt roads, trees, and the occasional informational marker.

(For the record, that's not how we carry Marla on our walks. We had the same baby carrier we used on the Hanging Rock trip. They were just having a little fun when I snapped that picture.)

If you look hard enough, you can in fact find some remnants of old buildings.

Almost all of the buildings in Cahaba were completely dismantled and sold for materials. But according to the guy in the visitor center (did I mention he was very excited to talk to us?), these columns couldn't be dismantled and sold for scrap, or something. So, the columns remain, perhaps just to serve as proof that there actually was once something here.

This is the kind of place we were hoping to find in Central Alabama. Southern history! Way off the beaten path! Yeah! More importantly, it was a great place to get out of the car, walk around, and allow Marla to stretch her legs for a little while.

So, it's about 3 PM (Eastern Time - as I mentioned yesterday, we didn't bother changing our clocks to Central Time or anything). We had already decided that we'd be spending the night somewhere near Montgomery. I didn't want to just go straight there, though. So what do we do? Let's go county counting!

Point I: Near Uniontown. I saw on the map that by going about 30 miles west on US-80, and then a mile or two north on AL-25, I could pick up three very quick and easy counties. So, that's where we went. (County totals for the trip: I visited 21 new counties; my car visited 53 new counties; and Marla visited a whopping 56 new counties.)

Along the way to Perry, Marengo, and Hale counties, we passed through the town of Uniontown, and stopped to change Marla's diaper in the parking lot of the town's main gas station. (We've become accustomed to back seat diaper changes on these road trips. They're not ideal, but they can be done.) I didn't snap any pictures of Uniontown, but...let's just say the town is a bit impoverished. According to Wikipedia, nearly half of the town's population is below the poverty line. Many people wouldn't dream of going anywhere near a place like Uniontown, let alone stopping there. But when Marla needs a diaper change, she needs a diaper change.

Point J: Montgomery. After that little excursion, we turned around and took US-80 back to Montgomery, and found a hotel a few miles east of downtown in the suburbs. While much of the Black Belt is poor, Montgomery seems to be doing okay, at least where we were. East Montgomery is home to a relatively new shopping center and a bunch of recently built restaurants and hotels. So, Alabama is just like every other state, really: all of the new construction is happening in the suburbs of metropolitan areas. And in the rural areas, not much is going on.

On Sunday, we drove straight home on I-85 and didn't really stop and do anything along the way. So, that's pretty much that. But even after all that, I still can't really say that we've "visited Alabama" on the whole. We went to the state highpoint, and the central part of the state, but that's it. Along the way, we only went to one of the state's four biggest cities. We did not go to Birmingham, and didn't go anywhere near Mobile or Huntsville. But when you basically only have one day in a state, you do what you can. And we did enough driving as it was. I would guess that Alabama has some nice beaches, if they're anything like Panama City's beaches...but that's down there a ways.

Let's go through a few more items of personal interest:

Hotels with Marla: Amber and I used to go fairly cheap when looking for hotels on road trips. No more! With Marla, we definitely prefer to have a reasonably-sized room, and hopefully one with a fridge. So, yeah, road trips are more expensive now than they used to be.

License plates: I noticed something with Alabama's standard issue license plates. Wherever we were, most of the surrounding license plates on the road seemed to have the same first two digits. Could it be that the first two digits of Alabama license plates correspond to the driver's home county? According to Wikipedia, YES! If I had known that prior to the trip, I would have kept track of all the ones I saw, and then put a map together like this Nebraska one. Missed opportunity!

Mile markers: All federal and state highways in Alabama have posted mile markers that denote the full distance of the road within the state. But the road to Cheaha Mountain, AL-281, had mile markers in the 400s (e.g. Mile 481), even though the road is nowhere near that long. Why? Once again, Wikipedia has the answer! It's because AL-281 may be extended: "ALDOT uses Mile 500 as a "countdown" mile marker, since the eventual length of [State Route 281] is not known." (License plates, mile markers...yeah, these are things I can't help but notice when I'm on the road.)

Road construction: Prior to the trip, I said that in my experience, Alabama was like "Pennsylvania south" in how they handle road construction and the like (read: not well). What's my opinion after spending 36 hours there? Well...lots of work zones? Check. A ridiculous number of orange signs for every work zone? Check. Ridiculously low work zone speed limits? Check. Not much actual work going on? Check. There are subtle differences in how Alabama and Pennsylvania handle their construction, but generally, I think the approach is the same. If there's a road problem, put up a ton of orange signs, lower the speed limit, close a lane or more, and worry about the actual construction later. "Pennsylvania south" sounds about right. But I will say this: this wasn't always the case, but many of the roads we took in Alabama, including some of the state highways, were in excellent shape.

Well, that trip was fun, but it was also exhausting. We're not doing another one like that for a while, I think.

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