Road Trip East-some observations
October 13, 2021
I wrote recently about southern cooking based on a recent road trip to Georgia. The road trip was 4,000+ miles through 15 states and eight days of driving. My wife and I had never visited some of the places we passed through and others we had visited but not for nearly a quarter century. Here are a few observations about places we revisited and things we saw that caught our interest.
Trends we saw heading east
The further east and south we got the more traffic and congestion we encountered. I'd say from about Kansas City on traffic got heavier, drivers got more aggressive and what was once wide open spaces was being gobbled up by housing developments, malls, factories and an ever expanding interstate system. Drivers on I-70 headed east for St. Louis seemed to get more agitated the further east they went and the number of semis increased exponentially with trucks greatly outnumbering passenger cars.
Kansas City was expanding its interstate system in the metro area with most new highways going in several stories over the city. We'd planned to skirt metro St. Louis to cross the Mississippi River and avoid the downtown crunch. Whoops. Electronic sign board warned "downtown bridges jammed, take alternate routes." I'd worked in St. Louis with the coal company and recalled ways to avoid downtown and still cross the river to Mt. Vernon, Illinois, our destination for that night. We zigzagged north on several multi-lane highways and crossed the Chain of Rocks Bridge on the north side of St. Louis.
After a rest day in Mt. Vernon with my wife's sister and her family we started the last leg south to Georgia. That used to be an easy day trip years ago. We did a slight jog over to the Evansville, Indiana and got lost, got back on track and breezed through Nashville, TN with no slowdowns.
Just north of Chattanooga I-24 crosses the Cumberland Plateau. The east slope is a five mile stretch down to the city with a 6% grade. That 2000-foot descent is described as "particularly hazardous to truckers." The truckers must have read that warning as there were three lanes solid with semis all using jake brakes and crawling down the mountain. Had a few stops and starts through Chattanooga proper but still made good time toward Atlanta.
I had carefully laid out a plan to drive around Atlanta. The last time we were there, 20 years ago, the traffic was awful and likely had not improved. We left I-75 above Atlanta and headed east, through the mountains, toward Watkinsville (near Athens, GA), where our friend lives. I expected two lane, twisting mountain roads. What I did not expect was how many people had discovered living in the pristine mountains of north Georgia. There was development that reminded very much of the suburbs of Seattle. Whatever those people had tried to leave behind had followed them and it was very slow going. Instead of showing up at our friend's house for supper as expected, it was near 8pm and totally dark by then.
Changes in the parts of Georgia we knew
When we moved to Georgia in 1967 the state's population was four million with a density of 80 people per square mile, in 2020 the population had swelled to 10.7 million and the density was 186 people per square mile (for comparison, the population density for Montana for that period nearly doubled but is still only 7.4 people per square mile, ranking us as 50th so far as population density). We were staying in a suburb of Athens, GA, home of the University of Georgia. Our first year at UGA in 1967 the university had just over 8,000 students, last fall there were nearly 40,000. There's still a lot of rural area in Georgia, but the major cities continue to expand and explode with development.
One thing that hasn't changed in Georgia is the kudzu. Introduced from Japan in 1876 as an ornamental and forage crop, the invasive plant can grow as much as a foot a day in ideal conditions. It will grow over power lines, abandoned structures and even railroad tracks to reach light. It's pervasive shade kills all the understory plants. Asked in a TV interview for his advice on reaching 100 years a southern centenarian said, "Watch out for the kudzu, it's taking over the world."
Taking a different route home
We wanted to see how some other parts of the country had changed so we headed due west from our hostess' house in Athens. We left her house at 4am to avoid the Atlanta rush since we had to go right through the middle of town on I-20. It worked, no stops, no slowdowns but by 6am the inbound traffic as we headed on west was building.
We spent the first night of the return trip in Lowell, Arkansas.
North Arkansas is another boom area that I didn't know about. Nearby is the University of Arkansas, overlooking the Ozarks around Fayetteville. Lowell is headquarters for J.B. Hunt Trucking and Walmart's corporate office is in Bentonville, just up the freeway. Morning drive time, even on the interstate, was pretty hectic.
The mining company I used to work for had mines in northern Alabama, near Jasper. It was always a chore to get there. The last leg from Birmingham airport seemed to take forever. Now that area is serviced by interstate I-22. Holly Springs, Mississippi, years ago just a wide spot in the road, was where I broke down on a Sunday afternoon trying to drive to the mines rather than take the complicated flying routine. At the outskirts of Holly Springs I told the guy with me, "I'd hate to break down in this dump." The words were no more out of my mouth before the radiator hose in the company car blew. What a deal.
A nice surprise was a dumpy motel in Chamberlain, SD. We were in the great "middle of nowhere" of South Dakota and it was getting dark. My wife called several motels but they either didn't answer or were full. We drove down to the Bridge View Motel along the banks of a lake made by damming the Missouri River. We were the only people in the motel...sort of unnerving. But at the end of the parking lot was an overlook with a little table and some chairs. We made a picnic from our cooler and watched the sunset and the lights come on across the lake. It was spectacular.
The next day we made Miles City and decided to spend one more night on the road. I couldn't remember ever being in the town but quickly learned its famous for the bucking horse sale each spring, their western art and artists and the Range Rider Museum. The latter turned out to be quite a deal...probably the most varied collection of cowboy and western memorabilia I'd ever seen. It was started by some locals who and runs only on donations and support by creative fundraising, no tax dollars. It's worth a stop but don't plan on seeing it all at one time. There are about ten buildings with everything from a cowboy boot and hat collection from living and dead locals to an iron lung.
The next day we headed for home. Stopped for another picnic in Roundup and watched the smoke from a wildfire starting to kick up. Oh, and that lonely highway from Roundup on home, it sure felt welcoming. We were glad to be back in familiar and calmer territory.