According to my driver, at some point in the ‘60s a locally connected guy somewhere north of Birmingham went to his county commissioners and told them he wanted to handle carving out about 20 miles of the route that would eventually become Interstate 65. The kicker was the guy offered to do it for free — as long as he would be allowed to keep anything he dug up to get the job done. The commissioners jumped at the chance, of course.
But as we zipped along north on I-65, my friend Tony, who was telling the story, pointed to the dark wall of rocks alongside the road. “See that?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s some of the most pure coal in the world.” He explained how the man pulled tons and tons of some of the most desirable coal in existence out of the Alabama hills and sold it for a massive profit — tens of millions of 1960 dollars.
I got this Alabama history lesson from Tony as we headed up to Nashville Monday night to see the best thing northwest Alabama has produced in years — singer/songwriter Jason Isbell — at the historic Ryman Theater. A classic road trip and a great break from the trials and tribulations of helping run a weekly newspaper.
Of course the heyday of road-tripping is your late teens and 20s, when your back doesn’t hurt and you don’t have to pee as often, but even at my advanced age there’s still something great about getting out on the road with a good friend and going somewhere.
As we rolled through the hilly part of the state where the leaves are changing, we both talked about how great it would be if there was some kind of railway system we could take instead of having to drive. We’d sit in the bar car until they asked us to leave and be delivered stress-free and over-served to Music City, we imagined.
Instead we plowed through the remains of Hurricane Patricia that somehow made it across Mexico and drenched the entire Southeast. But that’s the nature of a road trip — you must overcome the elements, road construction and greasy diners to get there. Overcoming the weather, dumb people, bad drivers, construction and inconsistent food is what makes the road trip great.
Tony and I have known each other for about 25 years and have both seen our fair share of ups and downs, so there’s plenty to talk about. But as we’re out to see (and hear) great music, that’s the main subject. We’re both musicians — although he’s far more talented — and he’s also into producing, so the conversation was wide-ranging. I played DJ while he drove and we discussed the qualities of our various favorite acts.
After a while I wasn’t so sure train travel really would be all that great a replacement for road tripping after all. Trains are great in many ways, but they don’t have the same magic of getting into the car and taking off. People always say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had trains like Europe?” And there’s a point, but I’ve traveled around Europe on trains and it’s really nothing like taking a road trip.
Trains are loaded with strangers, which means no yelling profanities or laughing at the top of your lungs, unless you want the conductor in your grille. And interaction with all the strangers isn’t always the best.
I once had a guy in Czechoslovakia put his smelly feet up in my lap, causing me to take my shoes off and return the favor. Another time in Europe the train was so crowded I had to sleep on the floor and woke up with a man standing on my chest. So yeah, trains have a down side.
One of the great freedoms associated with being an American is getting your first car, gathering up some friends and going somewhere far enough away that you have to pool money to pay for gas. It adds an element of danger if your car is a piece of crap and might break down in some desolate area full of hillbillies.
My first real road trips were in college. For some reason I ended up driving on a couple of really long trips, including once to Cincinnati and a couple of times to Miami. The Cincinnati trip was complicated when a friend and I went to borrow my father’s truck and he decided the driver’s seat was too short and might endanger me in the event of a rear-end collision. (Don’t ask.) I had to change our seat, but accidentally broke a bolt, which created a situation in which I had to hacksaw the seat out. My buddy was not impressed by the five-minute-turned-three-hour vehicle transfer.
No doubt the best part of road trips is finding somewhere bizarre to eat along the way. Even national chains somehow seem exotic when they’re in a town where the interstate appears to be the main provider of economic stimulus. Trust me, Waffle Houses in Tennessee and the Florida Panhandle are filled with all manner of people who could pass for recent prison escapees.
But getting chased by angry Tennessee bikers is more of a young man’s kind of run. Tony and I are, of course, more mature and haven’t been chased out of a fast food restaurant in years. Now we drink water on a road trip instead of “Coca-Cola,” and listen to far less AC/DC.
Driving 14 hours in two days to see America’s greatest working songwriter may not make sense to some, but it somehow made the show even better and gave me time to clear my head, hear a few new tunes and even learn about some good ol’-fashioned backroom wheeling and dealing. Long live the road trip.