One of the reasons that I love living in the South are the two-lane country roads, which were shown as blue lines on the old highway maps. The best day off to me is to fire up the Ford on a hot summer day and hit the road to parts and places unknown. You will see things that you never imagined –like the two story concrete tepee in Pocahontas, Mississippi; the world’s largest peanut in Ashburn, Georgia; or the giant chicken in a chef’s hat that welcomes visitors to the Shady Lawn Truck Stop in Elkton, Tennessee. I take to this stuff like biscuits take to gravy, or how gravy takes to my shirt.
On a sweltering August day a few years back, with my windows down and the radio loud, I wandered eastward into the state of Alabama. When you don’t have a destination or a deadline to meet, your car just knows where to go–it just feels right. There’s plenty of time to ask yourself, “I wonder what’s down that-a-way?” Partly dreaming and partly driving, I found myself stopped at a red light in Muscle Shoals. It’s a little burg of a town that meets the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. If you are a music fan, you’ll know that Muscle Shoals is the home to both FAME and Sound Studios, which together recorded the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and about a million other music legends. So I did more than stop at the light, I genuflected.
I drove south of Muscle Shoals on Hwy 247, mostly because I haven’t taken it before. The road rose steadily up into the Appalachian hills and was blanketed in oak and pine forest. I had just passed the Rattlesnake Saloon when I saw the sign for Coon Dog Cemetery road. Not one for missing an adventure, I swerved onto the two lane gravel road that seemed to rise up into nowhere, and kicked up dust and gravel. The four mile long road felt like it stretched to forty, and a little metal sign with a painting of a dog announced that I had reached the “Coon Dog Cemetery.” I’m in the middle of nowhere without a building in sight, perched at the top of a ridge with stunning views of the Alabama countryside, at a lonely roadside monument dedicated to a man’s best friend–ah, this is the South. The cemetery had a little gravel parking area and walk that led me to a two-story concrete statue of a tree trunk surrounded by two life-size baying hounds. It was a work of masonry that would easily surpass, let’s say, a giant chicken in a chef’s hat. And surrounding this monument were dozens of handmade headstones and monuments. Some markers were ornate statues of sleeping dogs, complete with biblical quotes, made as well as one would find in the fanciest mausoleum; while others were simple plywood signs scrawled upon with Sharpies. The landscape was littered with fading blue and pink plastic flowers, sandwich bags wrapping photos, and cast off dog collars. ‘Hammer Tyme Red’ was memorialized on an engraved native stone that read “If he treed in a mailbox you’d better open it and look because he’s got em;” while “Bragg” was simply described as “the best east of the Mississippi River.” It was a heart-rending tribute to the loyal dogs who would risk life and limb to hunt for their owners, and the grief-stricken men who deeply loved their best animal friend. Oh all right, these dogs weren’t friends, they were family.
Author William Least Heat-Moon wrote in his travel book Blue Highways, that there’s a “rule of the blue road: Be careful going in search of adventure—it’s ridiculously easy to find.” Maybe that’s why I like taking these two-lane roads, some story always unfolds that will later be told. And as any storyteller knows—called an “interpreter” by some, or a “liar” by others—you need stories to tell. And, by my experience anyway, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Especially when it comes to the South– you couldn’t possibly make this stuff up. So the next time that you have a choice between the red line or a blue line, choose the backroad. As David Mitchell wrote “…there ain’t no journey what don’t change you some.”