Hello everyone! It’s starting to get warm here in Alabama which means it’s about time for me to start heading north. And I guess I have! It’s been a great week here in Northern Alabama which started with music and history in The Shoals and is ending in the beauty of nature in Little River Canyon. I’ve jammed out in FAME Studios, been moved by the actions of the Freedom Riders and swam in a clear mountain river. This has been my last full week here in Alabama, and it’s about time to turn my headlights towards home for a while. I must say that Alabama has been one pleasant surprise after another. It’s clean, friendly and I’ve had a great time here. Whatever preconceived ideas I had or stereotypes I bought into have, as they have everywhere else, been shattered by the time I’ve spent here. And that’s really been the point of this whole trip - to see things with my own eyes and interpret them with my own mind and heart and come away with my own understanding. And it’s been amazing. HERE is this week’s map if you want to follow along.
After I posted last week’s This Week, I worked until the library closed at 7, trying to get some photos edited and published and a few other things done. Afterwards, I went to downtown Florence and had a nice walk around the city and took some photos. Then, in the mood for some live music, I went and saw Katlyn Barnes sing at The Boiler Room in the basement of The Stricklin Hotel. The show was good and Katlyn really has a soulful voice and personality. When she was done, I headed out to Swampers Bar and Grille at the Florence Marriott to see Hank Erwin play. They’ve done a really great job with this bar which is full of old guitars, photos and memorabilia from the glory days of Muscle Shoals. Hank was great and this was a good place to round out my evening.
Thursday I began my real exploration of The Shoals, a quad-city area in the northwest of the state on both sides of the Tennessee River. It’s definitely an area known for its music, probably mostly through FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, but it is also the hometown of W.C. Handy and Sam Phillips of Sun Studios fame. I was up early and off to W.C. Handy’s Birthplace and Museum which I found really fascinating. I know a bit about Handy’s later life in Memphis and New York, but was interested to learn more about the boy that became the man. It seems his father was against all of that “devil music”, but W.C. loved it and pursued it first to Chicago, then on to St. Louis where he ended up living under a bridge. After returning to Alabama and living here for a while, he moved in Clarksdale, Mississippi which is where he started to hear the music sung on cotton plantations and at train stations. Eventually, he moved on to Memphis where he was inspired to write down some of the rural music he heard in the Delta and was the first to introduce the word “blues” into the music lexicon. Apparently his father came to see him perform later in life and was duly impressed.
From there I went out to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia, which was an interesting and inclusive museum of many Alabama musicians from all different genres. The centerpiece is the first tour bus used by the band Alabama which was apparently donated before the museum existed, so the museum was literally built around the bus. I liked this museum and learned a lot about musicians I knew and those I didn’t.
My last stop for the day was at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield. This was definitely the highlight of my visit to The Shoals. Resurrected after years of serving in other capacities and restored to its 70’s era appearance, they now offer regular tours of the facility. The tour lasted about an hour and was both informative and entertaining. Chase, our guide, was excellent at explaining everything that had happened there and playing many of the great songs that had been produced in their studio. This was probably the best studio tour I’ve done in my travels, beating out even Sun Studios in Memphis. I would definitely recommend seeing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio if you’re ever in the area.
A day of straight sightseeing isn’t something I’m used to, but I really had a good time exploring the area. In the evening, I went to see a local production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at The Shoals Theater in Florence. I got a front row seat for only $15 which was a real bargain and the show was a lot of fun. Local theater is such a wonderful thing and it is such a great addition to any community. The show was introduced by Stella Parton, sister of Dolly Parton, who had performed in this play hundreds of times. It was fun to listen to her talk about the production and her experiences with it.
Friday I began my day with a tour of FAME Recording Studios, where it all started. FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprise) is still a very active recording studio, so they only offer tours during the week at 9 a.m and 4 p.m. Our guide was exhausted, having been at the studio until 4 a.m. and while he had some interesting information, the tour really suffered because of it. I can’t fault him if he was at work, but really must fault the studio for that occurring. I also thought it was weird that a school trip was put on the regular tour with us instead of having one just for them. The weirdest part was that while he rattled through a whole list of songs and artists’ names, there wasn’t a single second of music played on this tour. At the end of the day, it was cool to be there and see the studio, but the tour itself was lacking in many ways. It’s always disappointing when I am somewhere that many would see as a pilgrimage location that has no concept of the distances some people travel to get there. If you’re in the area, go see it, but if you had to choose I’d go to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio instead.
After FAME, I went to my last stop on my visit to The Shoals at Ivy Green, the Birthplace of Helen Keller. This was an interesting place to learn about this remarkable woman who overcame such incredible obstacles in life. It really is inspiring and kind of shows that the excuses many of us make on a day to day basis are really just that. It was cool to see the pump where Anne Sullivan made her breakthrough in teaching Helen to talk and some of the mementos sent to Helen from people she had inspired around the world.
From there I went to the library to catch up on some work, and then headed on out of town. I stopped in at the Strawberry Festival in tiny Moulton, Alabama. This was just okay. There was live music and vendors and festival food, but hardly a strawberry in sight. I got some strawberry shortcake at one of the food trucks, but the strawberries were of the frozen, syrupy variety. I’m not sure who has a strawberry festival without strawberries, but it was still nice to stop in on.
I headed on to Decatur, but didn’t see anything which perked my interest to stay, so I moved on to Huntsville. I got in after dark so popped in for a quick beer at the Green Bus Brewery downtown. They had a mulberry imperial cream ale which was really good. So good I had two. Then I headed on to see some music at a basement bar called the Voodoo Lounge, which is a great spot. The music was good, the beers were cheap and the crowd was a really diverse mix of people. Perhaps best of all it was smoke free, something I really appreciated. I stayed for an hour or so, but we were expecting big storms overnight so I wanted to get myself situated before they hit. They rolled through pretty loud in the night, but their bark was worse than their bite.
It was supposed to storm all day Saturday, so I didn’t make any big plans other than getting to the gym and getting some work done. I slept in a bit and then did just that, but the weather cleared up pretty well so I ventured out in the afternoon to have a wander around town. Every time I took my camera out though, it would start to mist. Not enough to get us wet, but just enough to keep me from taking photos. I finally gave up and headed over to Mad Malts Brewing to have a beer and work on my podcast. I stopped in to Big Oh’s for some dinner - a big steamy bowl of Korean ramen which was perfect in the cool, rainy weather. Then I headed back down to the Voodoo Lounge for a few beers and some good conversation. While the band wasn’t as good as the night before, it was still a great place to be.
Sunday started out as grey and dismal as the rest of the weekend. I didn’t get many photos of Huntsville, but it is a pleasant enough city. They also had this really cool keyboard near the courthouse which when you played not only did you hear the sound, but lights in the trees came on. I stood there for 15 minutes playing with it and smiling. I love finding weird little things like that in places. Leaving Huntsville, I made my way down to Lake Guntersville for the afternoon, and as I was driving down, the weather really cleared up for me. I went to visit my friend Christine’s parents who have a lovely house on the lake. While Christine herself is teaching in Vietnam, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to stop in and say hello. Her folks really took good care of me and took me for a wonderful boat ride out on the lake. The weather just got better and better as the day went on, and we had a wonderful boat ride together. We pulled in for a late lunch/early dinner at Fire By The Lake and I thought is was so cool to just tie up the boat and go for a meal. I had a massive plate of fajitas in honor of Cinco de Mayo and we had a nice chat about travel, working for the tour company that Christine and I both worked for, and their plans for retirement. I haven’t seen any friends since I left Mobile, so it was nice to have some company for a change. After our meal, we headed back to their place and I got the grand tour before heading off down the road.
It had turned into such a nice day that I didn’t want to leave the lake though. I took my chair down and sat on the shore and wrote until the sun went down and it was too dark to see. Then I headed over to The Brick for a cold IPA and the opportunity to get a little more work done before bed. It was a cool place to hang out, and I loved chatting with the people working there and getting some pointers for some hiking opportunities when I head back north. People are always so interested in what I’m writing when I’m writing. It’s actually pretty funny. I think I may just bring my clipboard into bars all the time just so people come and talk to me, because inevitably, they do.
I was up nice and early on Monday and made my way all the way down to Anniston to visit the Freedom Riders National Monument there. While this is a relatively new National Monument and is still in the development phase, there was definitely some good information on the wall at the both the Greyhound and Trailways bus station locations. These buses were part of the initial Freedom Rides in 1961 which met violent and terrible ends when they crossed from Georgia into Alabama, a state which wasn’t interested in integrated public transportation. The Greyhound bus was set on fire 6 miles down the road from Anniston after it departed the station and what small amount of police protection that provided. The Trailways bus was boarded and the Riders were beaten and physically moved to “their part” of the bus. It was a pretty awful chapter in our nation’s and the state’s history, and while i hate seeing these things, I think it is important to learn about them. I look forward to visiting this monument again when they get it developed more.
I was surprised at how pretty a downtown area Anniston had, and decided to stick around for a couple of hours and take some photos. When I was satisfied with what I had, I made my way back north to Gadsden. I spent a few hours in the library in the afternoon and then headed out to take some photos around town. I have been to Gadsden a few times on cross-country tours with my tour company, but it’s been many years since my last visit. I really enjoyed the downtown area and it was such a beautiful day out that I tried to make the best of it and just moseyed around town until the sun set. I had some dinner and then headed for bed.
Tuesday I headed back into town to take a few more photos and then headed on up to Little River Canyon National Preserve. It is really nice to start seeing some changes in topography as I head north and east towards the Appalachians, I’ve been in the flat lands way to long. I stopped in at the Visitors Center to get some information on the park and then headed out to explore and find what I could find. The park surrounds Little River Canyon which is interesting because it flows along the ridge of Lookout Mountain, considerably higher than most rivers in the region. Because of this, there aren’t many human-tainted sources which flow into the river, leaving it clear and clean. The canyon it has cut is up to 600 feet deep and is really quite stunning.
I visited Little River Falls and Little Falls and then took the scenic drive down the canyon, stopping at lookout points along the way. I thought the Wolf Creek Lookout had the best views, and I also really loved Graces High Falls, one of Alabama’s highest. I took a hike through the woods to see the Beaver Pond, which wasn’t much of a pond but the walk was nice and quiet. It was great to be back in the woods again and I had a great day in the park. It was really peaceful out there and I heard nothing but bird song all day and the constant rush of the river in the background. I saw tons of beautiful plants and flowers, butterflies and dragonflies, frogs, lizards and even a rabbit scurrying off to find cover. It was nice to be surrounded by these plants and critters again and feel like a part of the world, not just an observer of it. I ended my day with a steep hike down the Eberhart Trail and a brief but refreshing dip in the cold, wonderful river. From there I made my way out to Fort Payne for the night, hometown of the band Alabama. It’s a cute little town, but I was pretty tired so I grabbed some dinner and headed to bed.
Today is another beautiful day, and I’m going to get out and enjoy it as soon as I’m done with this post. I want to go visit a few more waterfalls in the area before I go and it looks like it will be a beautiful day for it. Sometime in the next day or two I will make my way up to Chattanooga though. I want to catch a baseball game and get my brakes checked there before starting the long ride back home to Washington D.C. I’ll be home by the weekend - I want to spend Mother’s Day with my mom so I have to get moving here soon. Next week will be full of fun things like jury duty and doctors appointments and getting my van inspected, but when you’re only home a few weeks out of the year those are things that have to get done. I am looking forward to being off the road for a few weeks, cleaning Shadow Catcher out really well and fixing some things I’ve been putting off. I can’t wait to see my friends and family and get some real “people time” for a while. I’ll be home for a little over three weeks and then I’m going back to work for the summer, but don’t worry, I’ll still be posting here and bringing you beautiful photos from around the country. More on that next week though, so be sure you tune in for the season finale of This Week on the Road. At this time next week, I will be coming to you from my home in D.C. Until then, enjoy the spring weather, get out and explore a state park near you and spend time with your family and friends. And don’t work too hard out there. Have a great week y’all and we’ll see you right back here next week to wrap things up for a while.
Thanks, as always, for reading.