Where is it? I know it's around here somewhere. After all the pictures and movies, it shouldn't be that hard to spot, yet for some reason it seems to be eluding me in the early stages of the tour. Oh well, they say patience is a virtue and I know Alabama is as good a location as any, so I won't waver in my quest. I've journeyed here to find the South, and I'm going to ride until I do.
Think about it. When someone mentions the South, what states pop into your mind? Georgia? Alabama? Mississippi? Louisiana? The Carolinas? Tennessee? Those are all valid choices but I'll guarantee that if you left that list on the table, you'd hear some vociferous objections from residents of Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Florida and several others. My point being - the South is a huge area encompassing as many as 12 to 14 states depending on whom you're with when the subject comes up. With so many laying claims to their own piece of the sweet potato pie, I've decided to take my search straight into the Heart of Dixie.
A Little North, A Little South
In the early going, as the miles tick away while riding north out of Birmingham, it's almost a letdown to be on Route 121's curves, all rimmed with tall trees, steep rocks, and fast moving creeks. Normally, geography and roads like this are to be coveted, especially when riding a corner carver as perfectly honed as Aprilia's Tuono. Strange as it may sound, this is not what I'm after. Today's quest calls for swamps, cotton fields, and the arrow-straight roads that accompany them. But, as any hunter can attest, you only see turkey when you're looking for deer.
Swinging north on Route 160, the ride begins to take more of a relaxed pace over rolling hills and pastures. The open fields are actually a welcome relief as the rising sun slowly begins to warm me. The easy ride and the smooth running Tuono allow the mind to wander. Just outside of Arkadelphia, a mountain with switchbacks and sharp curves literally pops up out of nowhere. Awakened by a legitimately nice stretch of road, I pull over, gather my wits and turn around. I'll need to ride that again. This short stretch of Route 191, ending at Route 69, has a little bit of everything for the sporty biker. I rode it three times just to wake myself up.
South on 69, the hunger pangs can be ignored no longer. In Jasper, the pull of the burger chains really rattles my chain, but I refrain. Near Cordova, a sign reading Special: Catfish Sandwich catches my eye. Now that's a southern lunch. The Frosty Mug Drive In has been around since 1950 and it's easy to understand why: The sandwich is delicious. Eating outside, I find a new friend in a stray kitten that happily shares my lunch. Is a catfish-eating cat committing some bizarre form of Darwinian cannibalism?
South of Cordova, the road signs become downright useless. Sheer luck lands me on Route 269. At a small general store with gas pump, the clerk and the patrons eye me cautiously as I ask for directions to Oak Grove. Despite my best good ol' boy accent, I feel I'm being viewed with an unusual level of suspicion. I pay for the gas, thank the man kindly and move on, quickly. Once in Oak Grove, I again have to ask for directions and again get a distinct vibe of wariness. Really though, how often does a solo motorcyclist riding an Italian sportbike roll through town? Luckily, I am able to ascertain that Routes 54 and 59 are actually Lock 17 Road and Groundhog Cutoff Road. A detailed county map would make things much easier.
Good curves and nice ridge-top views are closing out my riding day. Hustling to make it to Tuscaloosa, I round a corner and see what looks to be a huge coal-mining dragline shovel. Originally hailing from West Virginia, I know serious mining equipment when I see it, but what's it doing in Alabama? That question is soon answered when I come across the Blue Creek No. 5 coalmine near Brookwood. What I didn't realize is that Alabama is the twelfth-leading coal producing state in the nation. The men hunting coal in this mine do so 2,200 feet below ground in the deepest vertical shaft coalmine in the United States.
College towns are often great targets when you're looking for lodging and especially food. Home to the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide, Tuscaloosa is certainly no exception. My timing is impeccable. Had I rolled into Tide country a few days later, I would have been trying to find a room in the midst of the Iron Bowl, the annual football game between Alabama and archrival Auburn.
The cool fall morning is near perfect for riding and I have the feeling that I'm getting closer to my quarry. Route 43-11 breaks out of Tuscaloosa and leads into the low, flat farmland I'm looking for. A quick shift over to Route 2 shows a hint of swamp, and a slow, lazy river. I'm close - real close.