Day 1: Destination Huntsville, Alabama—457.4 miles
Note: I drive a hybrid car, so we easily made it from the Virginia mountains to Huntsville on one tank of gas with a quarter of a tank to spare.
I had to include a photo of "The Big Guitar" ... when they were little my kids used it as a landmark to denote the halfway point to relatives in Tennessee. As you enter Tennessee from Virginia, it is directly across I-81 from the Tennessee Welcome Center. It's been there since at least the 1970s but has seen better days. "The Big Guitar" is a large building. Does it contain a guitar store? I don't know!
I’ve traveled all over the United States by car since I was but a few months old. Needless to say, my parents love to travel, and it’s obvious I’ve caught the bug from them. I’m always struck by regional differences in this big country of ours. Sure, every place has McDonald’s, and Walmart is now ubiquitous. Most American malls have the same stores; I’ve often said, you could plunk an American down in any mall in the United States and that person would be on familiar ground. But each region still retains its own flavor, that is, what makes it different from other regions. When I traveled to New England in the spring of 2008, I was impressed by how “picture-book perfect” everything was. All the houses were tidy, and it was rare to see a mobile home. Many of the houses looked old, really old, but not decrepit or in disrepair. While I’m a Yankee by birth, I’ve lived in the South virtually all of my life, though I’ve oft said that I had to move north to Virginia to be in the real South, as I was raised in Florida, often thought of as “Yankeeland”. For many reasons I love the South, but I still have to chuckle at some of the sights I see in my home region. Across the South one sees things not evident outside of the area. This does vary a bit from state to state, though. As an example, fireworks are not readily available in Virginia except for specific times of the year like the celebration of America’s birthday in July, However, in both Tennessee and Georgia, the sale of fireworks is big business year round evidenced by the multitude of signs and shops screaming “FIREWORKS” in huge red letters. I suppose these places count on tourists for most of their business, as it is fairly common to sneak fireworks into states other than those that freely allow them. Another sign you are in the South is “sweetea”, a concoction made from boiling tea and then adding a ton of sugar while the tea is still hot so that it dissolves fully. The tea is left to cool, and then is poured over a mountain of ice cubes. Glasses containing “sweetea” sweat … a lot. People in the South drink gallons of it, and restaurants refill glasses again and again for no extra charge.
One of the many, many fireworks stores I saw. This one is huge, but it is hard to tell from the photo.
We traveled a lot when I was a child, always by car, so I am accustomed to keeping my eyes peeled for the wonders and oddities that make the South such a special place. I often chuckle at some of the things I see, but always respectfully. It’s like your family. You can poke a little fun at family members, but woe be unto anyone outside of your family who does it. So, anything in fun I poke at the South is done lovingly and as an insider.
I’m not the driver today. My traveling companion agreed to do that for me so that I could try to take pictures along the road. TRY is the operative word. Barreling down an Interstate highway at 70 mph makes it tricky to capture the interesting things we pass. Slowing down on the Interstate to snap photos is not an option, but I’ve done the best I could under the circumstance. One thing I have not been able to photograph are the many cars with deer antlers sticking out of the windows (on either side like football fan flags) and a big red nose affixed to the hood. I’ve seen several of them so far. I doubt this is a Southern phenomenon so you may see them too, no matter where you live, considering this is officially Christmas week.
When we left Virginia, the temperature was in the low 20s. As we crossed the Alabama border from Tennessee, I checked the temperature and it was a balmy 47. According to www.weather.gov we should be enjoying temperatures in the low 70s by the time we get to New Orleans. Considering how cold it has been in the mountains of Virginia lately—single digits when the wind chill is factored in—it will be quite a respite to need only a light jacket, if any outerwear is needed at all. (I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the latter.)
By the time we crossed into Alabama, we were no longer on the Interstate, but instead were on a US highway. I well remember days before the Interstate system, and US highways were, at that time, the way to go. The roads are still a viable option. Most are in good repair and are four lanes with the highway divided. But it can be difficult to maintain a steady pace even with the lower speed limits because there are intersections and small towns to contend with. Interstates have exit ramps and there are no roads that intersect, so you never have to slow down except when traffic warrants it. On the US highway system, the going is slower, but sometimes the scenery is more interesting.
As we headed down US 72, I noticed a lot of small travel trailers in RV parks along the highway. At first, I was surprised because it seems too cold to be camping out. But this is the South, and it is fairly warm, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at all. Besides, the campers are probably Yankees enjoying what for them is balmy weather. The few swimming pools I’ve spied have been covered for the winter. I have to remember, though, that in the deep South, cold can be gauged as anything below 60 or even 70. As a child growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, I well remember little dogs wearing heavy sweaters once the weather dipped below 70. A terribly cold winter was one where we had to wait until the end of February to resume going to the beach.
You can readily tell that farming is common in the South because you see a lot of tractors, barns, tractor supply stores, and feed and seed stores. That said, I haven’t seen many fields that look like crops grew in them last summer. There were a few, but perhaps farmland is off the beaten path.
If you’ve ever watched the TV show, American Pickers, the term, “pickers’ paradise” should mean something to you. We’ve passed many such places, but we were traveling too fast for me to snap any pictures. What looks like an acre of rusted junk to people like me holds real treasure for people who are pickers. If you’ve ever been to a Cracker Barrel restaurant and have seen all of the antique signs and curios on the walls, you can guess that a picker probably supplied them. It’s an interesting life, that of a picker. He or she travels around buying up old “junk” and then resells their finds for a profit.
Late in the afternoon we arrived in Huntsville without incident, checked into our hotel, and zipped over to U. S. Space and Rocket Center to see the place from the outside. The light was fading fast. I had only ten minutes until the sun set for the day. After taking several photographs of the exterior exhibits, we came back to the hotel to download the pictures to see which of the photos I had taken all day were keepers. Sadly, almost all of the ones I took from through the car’s windshield were terrible, so I ditched all but the one of the fireworks store (above). The photos that were good enough to post are here for you to see.
Tomorrow when I tour the U. S. Space and Rocket Center I hope to find out why Huntsville, Alabama was chosen as the location for some of NASA's work.
This big baby is a Saturn 5 rocket similar to the one that took our astronauts to the moon in 1969.
The Davidson Center for Space Exploration. I'll tour this facility tomorrow.
Have you ever wanted to go to Space Camp? This is the place!
As I was crossing the parking lot taking these pictures, I saw an older man carrying a cut-out of a stick figure. I immediately knew what he was up to. "Hello!" I called to him. "Is that, by any chance, Flat Stanley?" He looked a bit sheepish and finally replied, "Yes ... from Rhode Island." Not wanting to embarrass the fellow, I looked away, but every now and then I would sneak a peek of him posing Flat Stanley in front of bushes and other features on display. I figure he's someone's grandpa doing his bit for his grandchild's education. If you don't know about the Flat Stanley Project, you can find out more here: http://www.flatstanley.com/
An A-12/SR71 Blackbird Spy Plane. It was widely used in the early 1960s. The fastest plane in the world at the time, it could travel from New York to London in less than two hours.
Before NASA sent humans into space, it sent monkeys. Ms. Baker was one of the first.
This is a monument to Ms. Baker, one of the monkeys NASA sent into space.
Here I am at the Visitor Center sign. Tomorrow I'll find out what is inside the museum. I hope they will allow me to take a lot of photographs.
After we tour the U.S. Space and Rocket Center tomorrow morning, we will leave Huntsville and drive to New Orleans. I'm thrilled that we decided to stop here instead of pressing on to Birmingham.