Southern Highways

I’m on a two-lane highway.

I am leaving Florida, heading for Birmingham on important business. By which I mean barbecue.

My cousin is having a little get-together in his backyard. He is slow-smoking a large pork butt, serving homemade banana pudding, and his famous fall-off-the-bone ribs. I have been known to travel great distances for good barbecue.

I’m on a two-lane highway. It’s 99 degrees outside. The Florida weather is so hot that the trees are bribing the dogs.

I cross the state line, and I’m in Alabama.

The first town I pass is Florala. It’s tiny. It sits on Lake Jackson. Picture thick oaks with lots of moss, a small mainstreet, and Opie Taylor kicking a can on the sidewalk.

I once dated a girl from Florala. Her father hated me. One day he invited me hog hunting. Just the two of us. This was my cue to get off his porch before I had an unfortunate hunting accident.

You can follow Highway 55 upward for a breathtaking drive. Pass Lockhart, North Creek, miles of farmland, and soon you’re in Andalusia. Hank Williams got married in Andalusia.

Pass the country club, the Conecuh River, and you’re back on 55 again. Follow this through Red Level, McKenzie, and you really ought to stop in Georgiana, at Kendall’s Barbecue—a little shack beside a gas station. Thank me later.

While you’re in town, visit the childhood home of Hank Senior. Get the dime tour of the museum from a sweet elderly woman named Miss Margaret, who I keep hoping will adopt me.

After that, you will have a few routes you can take to Birmingham.

1. Interstate 65—a congested mega-highway with every SUV in the known universe riding your butt and trying to ram your tailgate if you don’t drive 125 miles per hour even though they have bumper stickers which read “Jesus is my co-pilot.”

2. Highway 31.

Ride the sleepy highway past Chapman, Bolling, and Greenville.

Most people associate Greenville with the Bates House of Turkey restaurant. But there’s a lot more than turkey in Greenville.

For one thing, they have the Camellia City Bakery and Deli. Try the grilled pimento cheese and bacon sandwich. And pick me up some chicken salad to-go. Tell Miss Ann that Sean says hello.

When you’re done with Greenville, you’re getting close to Fort Deposit. And I don’t want to tell you how to live your life, but if you don’t stop at Priester’s Pecans to buy some pecan fiddlesticks you are a Communist sympathizer who doesn’t love the Lord.

There’s also an itty-bitty barbecue joint off the interstate called Front Porch Barbecue. If you’re hungry, try the pulled pork. On a scale of one to ten, the pulled pork is a forty-six.

Follow Highway 31 through more pasture and uncut pines. You’ll see small unincorporated communities. I won’t say these towns are on the edge of the world, but you can see the edge from there.

Sandy Ridge, Davenport, Letohatchee—where my cousin and I once bought a gallon of moonshine from the trunk of a man’s car.

And Hope Hull—where my cousin’s girlfriend’s brother tried to kill us with a lawnmower blade.

The old highway crosses the interstate and you’ll roll past the hustle and bustle of Montgomery. Take a drive downtown. Visit the river, see a baseball game, tour the historic neighborhoods.

Some people will tell you that all the yuppies live in Old Cloverdale. Not true. They also have summer houses in Orange Beach they sometimes live in.

Keep driving the highway. Pass more country hamlets. Like:

Clanton—buy as many peaches as you can before the tourists get them.

Jemison—the Appalachian Mountains officially end here.

Calera—stop at Cowart Drugs and step back into the 1920s. Buy a Coke, or a pack of bubble gum. The Masonic Hall is upstairs.

Saginaw, Alabaster, Pelham, and Hoover.

Visit Oak Mountain State Park if you have time. I used to go camping in Oak Mountain once per year with the elderly Baptist men’s Sunday school class. These were righteous, upright men who avoided beer like the plague.

When their wives were around.

And now I’m in Birmingham. Young people on sidewalks stare at cell phones. People rush from place to place, carrying briefcases. Skyscrapers. Honking horns. The smell of exhaust.

It’s hard to believe that in 1865 there were only two hundred people living in Birmingham.

I pull over at a gas station downtown. An elderly man wandering by asks me for some money. I have a twenty on me. Before I give it to him, I ask why people call this place “Magic City.”

He just smiles. “People, man. People is magic.”

Works for me.

So it couldn’t be a nicer day in Magic City. It’s a little cooler here than my Panhandle home. And I love this town. In fact, I love this state. I love the highways, byways, historic drugstores, antique churches, foothills, and the lazy rivers.

I don’t know why it all makes me feel warm inside. Maybe because throughout my life I’ve spent more time in Alabama than I have at home. Maybe it’s because a lot of my friends are here. Maybe the old man is right. Maybe it’s people.

Either way, I guess it doesn’t matter. Because right now I am in my cousin’s backyard, holding a loaded paper plate.

I drove a long way just to eat this barbecue.

48 comments

  1. Celia - September 12, 2019 7:47 am

    Now, I’ve made that drive many times and I just have to wonder…how many days, weeks , years did it take you stopping at all those BBQ places, museums, Delicatessens, Peach groves, drug stores, and winding scenic vistas…yep…how long did it take you to get to Birmingham?

    Reply
  2. Andrea Murphy - September 12, 2019 8:28 am

    Love yr Blogt
    T

    Reply
  3. Betty King - September 12, 2019 8:52 am

    Don’t forget to stop at Archibald’s BBQ Northport on the way back. Their sauce is wonderful.

    Reply
  4. Steve - September 12, 2019 9:04 am

    I’ve driven 4 hours for barbecue. It was worth it. Barbecue has a powerful tug on me.

    Reply
  5. Sandi. - September 12, 2019 10:25 am

    I’ve never heard of most of the Alabama towns you mentioned, but it is indeed a lovely Southern state, Reading this post makes me soooo hungry for barbecue! Does your cousin have a special sauce for his? Did you save room for some banana pudding dessert?

    Reply
  6. Naomi - September 12, 2019 10:30 am

    I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, whose mother, along with her parents and her brothers and sister immigrated from Russia before and during WW I and my father, who immigrated from Poland with the rest of his family, but he grew up in New York City. He moved to Birmingham when he and my mother got married in 194 got . When I got married in 1962, my husband. got transferred to McDonald Aircraft in St. Louis and we lived across the river in a small town in Illinois for 7 years. However, most of my family remained in Birmingham. I only have my brother and sister-in-law, two of their sons and their wives and two cousins and their families left. I graduated from Ramsay High School, which was considered the best public high school in the state of Alabama from the time in was built in 1930 and for many decades later. It was built by a man named Erskine Ramsay, a man from Scotland but I don’t remember ever seeing a Scotsman wearing kilts in Birmingham. It’s also the school where Wayne Rogers (of M*A*S*H fame and Fannie Flagg, the comedian went. We had a wonderful BBQ restaurant in Birmingham but I don’t remember what it was called. My cousin bought a couple of Golden Rule BBQ restaurants in B’ham.

    Reply
    • Nancy - September 12, 2019 8:44 pm

      Are you thinking of Ollie’s, Naomi?

      Reply
  7. Elizabeth - September 12, 2019 10:39 am

    Your next book should be all the details of a slow meandering drive across Alabama. Makes me want to take a drive!!!

    Not a huge fan of bbq, but how was the banana pudding?

    Reply
  8. Beverly - September 12, 2019 10:51 am

    I am looking at these replies and evidently need more coffee. It is 5:47a.m. on 9/12/2019 yet these posts have times of 8:28 a.m. or later on same date. How is this happening?

    Reply
    • Sandi. - September 12, 2019 1:08 pm

      Beverly, the time stamp on all comments for Sean’s website are always ahead by three or four hours, for some odd reason! I’m typing this one at 9:08 EST, but it will not show up correctly!

      Reply
    • Pat - September 12, 2019 5:25 pm

      I think it’s all about Greenwich Mean Time…the article is probably posted on GMT which is 5 hours ahead of CDT.

      Reply
  9. Luna Prestwood - September 12, 2019 11:02 am

    They probably don’t serve barbecue there, but if you were in the neighborhood you really should have stopped by Sykes and Kohn. Amazing place.
    By the way, love your essays.

    Reply
    • Richard C. - September 12, 2019 5:04 pm

      My Mother’s maiden name was Prestwood. Bet we are distant kin.

      Reply
  10. Becky Hanks - September 12, 2019 11:22 am

    You know as much about Alabama as James Spann. Y’all should get together and write a book. He can handle the weather, you can handle everything else. Do you know who James Spann is? He is a good man who hates storm alert siren alarms and saves lives every year. When he takes his suit coat off during bad weather, everybody tunes into his weather forecast on the TV. You should give him a call while you are here in Birmingham. I will email him and give him your website. He may already know you.

    Reply
  11. Tonya - September 12, 2019 11:32 am

    And if you need to go to Mississippi – you can go by way of highway 78 where you can see Wesley’s B- -by Trap and have more great BBQ at Green Top Cafe. I’ll meet you there and buy yours and have a BBQ salad of my own!

    Reply
  12. Bob - September 12, 2019 11:36 am

    Florals has the best advertisement in the South right there on a building on US 331 – it reads “Betty Boops Fireworks for the best bang in town”

    Reply
  13. Mary Proctor - September 12, 2019 12:05 pm

    Next time in Greenville, go across 65 from Bates, and find Real Pit BBQ 334-382-8810.
    We stop when driving from Nashville to Pensacola. We call ahead to order-20 miles out.
    Their smoked turkey is so delicious and if you call way ahead, you can order an entire
    turkey. I get the large sandwich, with lettuce and tomato. Husband gets the regular pork.
    Don’t go past this exit-130 without stopping. Only down side is that they are closed on Sunday and Monday.
    Love your bbq tour- nothing better. We love Bunyan’s in Florence. Hot slaw on a radioactive red
    hot dog-it may kill you, but we’ll worth it. Miss Birmingham, but it’s friends I miss more than bbq-
    and I love bbq!

    Reply
  14. Connie Havard Ryland - September 12, 2019 12:31 pm

    I was born in Mobile Alabama and I have always thought Alabama is a beautiful place. Now that I’m old and know enough to hate politics, I cringe because I know the rest of the world judges us on that, without seeing the beauty, and the wonderful people who are here. Not in Mobile anymore but still in small town Alabama. Thank you for bringing light to the good things here. Love and hugs.

    Reply
  15. angie5804 - September 12, 2019 12:47 pm

    I am a Floridian who has lived in Alabama the past 5+ years. Though I long to go back home, I agree with Alabama having a special beauty. I have driven various routes numerous times, for good reasons and sad, over the past five years, from Birmingham to Jacksonville,Florida.I would love to do it just once at a leisurely pace, to stop at all the places I tell myself I’ll stop at “next time”.

    Reply
  16. Debbie - September 12, 2019 12:56 pm

    Florala is my hometown! My mother, my sister, and my brother-in-law still live in Florala. Our “forever” home is 2 blocks from Lake Jackson, which we can see from our dining room windows.
    Like you, I LOVE Alabama, especially the University of Alabama! Roll Tide!

    Reply
    • Debbie - September 12, 2019 1:01 pm

      I love your column, too! 😉

      Reply
  17. Joe Patterson - September 12, 2019 12:58 pm

    Thanks again you are right about 65 avoid at all costs

    Reply
  18. HT - September 12, 2019 1:06 pm

    It’s humid here in NJ this morning-mists hanging close to the river, condensation on the slider…cats fed, coffee close by…homesick for AL…your drive & sharing brought a smile. Thank you. Love to have some of that BBQ!

    Reply
  19. Jimmy Moore - September 12, 2019 1:23 pm

    I have tried several times to subscribe…put in my email…message says “success” go to email you’ll receive & confirm….but it never comes to my email!! Can you help me subscribe??

    Reply
    • Sandi. - September 12, 2019 4:22 pm

      Jimmy, make certain you’ve added Sean’s website address (Sean of the South) to your online address book so his daily posts do not land in your spam folder by mistake. That’s what I had to do.

      Reply
  20. Kathy Daum - September 12, 2019 1:27 pm

    Yes, you did travel a ways. My husband goes on back roads, visiting Ramer, Eclectic, Haynesville, Autaugaville and others every day. They are terrific.

    Reply
  21. Bill - September 12, 2019 1:31 pm

    Sean, I always appreciate your nice comments on my home state of Alabama. It truly is a beautiful state with some great people. Sadly, we have almost zero character and integrity in our current (and recent past) political leaders, of both parties. They continue to hold us back from a much brighter future we could have and deserve.
    Thank you for reminding us often of the positive things about our great state. I have made that same drive and enjoyed your taking us all back down those backroads.

    Reply
    • Brenda Dumas Gipson - September 12, 2019 6:09 pm

      Bill, I respectfully disagree about our state leaders. They are doing a great job.

      Reply
  22. Naro Ellis - September 12, 2019 2:25 pm

    Sweet Home Alabama. Awesome article .

    Reply
  23. Naro Ellis - September 12, 2019 2:27 pm

    Awesome 👏 Guy has good taste

    Reply
  24. Gordon - September 12, 2019 2:29 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful Alabama travelogue this morning, Sean. I am very familiar with many of the areas you spoke of this morning, including my hometown of Florala. I am so glad you “show your love” to the state of Alabama. I’m looking forward to seeing/hearing you in Selma next month (October). Kathryn Windham would be so proud that you are the featured guest at the Tale Tellin’ Festival again this year.

    Reply
  25. Mike - September 12, 2019 2:42 pm

    Enjoyed reading about all the towns along highway 31 in Alabama. I am from Alabama and have been to all those places many times. I now live in Montgomery. When in Montgomery, visit Hank Williams gravesite in Oakwood Cemetery. I went by one day and someone had left a six pack of beer on his grave. People pay respect in strange ways.

    Reply
  26. Maura - September 12, 2019 3:00 pm

    When you go through Jemison, stop at Petals from the Past! Even if you’re not into plants, it’s a great place to visit..and they have a wrap around porch. And sometimes fresh homemade lemonade. And always nice people!

    Reply
  27. Judy Wilson - September 12, 2019 3:01 pm

    “The trees are even bribing the dogs”! Love this word picture. We are looking forward to seeing you
    here in B’ham soon.

    Reply
  28. Edna B. - September 12, 2019 3:01 pm

    I’ve never been to Alabama, but it felt as though I were travelling with you on this trip. It sounds beautiful. Enjoy your bar-b-q. You have a great day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  29. Gene - September 12, 2019 3:24 pm

    Yankee brother-in-law wanted to know why we are always talking about food. It’s because it is just so darn good in the south!

    Reply
  30. Linda Moon - September 12, 2019 3:43 pm

    I have been known to travel great distances for Bob Dylan. I would travel to Florala to see Opie Taylor. I love this town of Birmingham and the people I grew up with here. If Miss Margaret of the Museum won’t adopt you, I might. The cats might object, however, so don’t count on it. You will be welcome to join the cats and me in my backyard here in Alabama after we’ve picked up some Bob Sykes BBQ from over in Bessemer!!

    Reply
  31. Richard C. - September 12, 2019 4:53 pm

    Sean, as always, I love your writings. I was extremely disappointed that you failed to mention passing through the little country community of Stanley on your trek to Birmingham. It is located about 15 miles up Ala. State Highway 55 after leaving the hamlet of Lockhart. Some of the finest folks in the world live there and on Sunday morning the saints gather at Judson Baptist Church. There use to be, when I was growing up there in the 50’s and 60’s, a couple of country stores, but I think they are closed now.

    Thanks for mentioning Lockhart and Florala. I attended W.S. Harlan School through the eight grade there and then finished up with four years of High School at Florala, before going on to that great Auburn University. War Eagle, by the way.

    One last thing, I just purchased your new book, Stars of Alabama, on Audible and I am enjoying you reading it to me.

    Keep up the good work and may God continue to bless you, your wife and family (the dogs).

    Richard Cotton

    Reply
  32. Brenda Dumas Gipson - September 12, 2019 5:33 pm

    I too love the beautiful state of Alabama. Gov. Ivy’s leadership has already brought great successes for the state. I was born in Mobile and where could you find a more historic and quirky place!

    Reply
  33. Patricia A Compton - September 12, 2019 5:51 pm

    Love the story and the history. What an adventure. Reminds me of my family and our trips home to GA to Cordele from the Panhandle. Good ol’ PC. Thanks so much for sharing..
    T. Compton

    Reply
  34. Shelton A. - September 12, 2019 7:02 pm

    Try some North Carolina chopped barbecue with the locals choice-it’s vinegar based with seasonings (varies by which hole in the wall BBQ joint you go to…avoid the chains). I can eat a pound of that with slaw and fried okra in no time.

    Reply
  35. Shelton A. - September 12, 2019 7:04 pm

    p,s, Went to a 4th of July ‘fireworks’ show in Florala. One about every 5 minutes…fired off a dock on the lake

    Reply
  36. Libby Murphy - September 12, 2019 8:13 pm

    I love the Communist sympathizers that don’t love the Lord. I have a couple of acquaintances that I will joyously
    Share with them. Simply because ..I think they are.
    Love reading your column everyday. It’s comfortable, funny and down home. Thank you for the great reads.

    Reply
  37. Lisa - September 12, 2019 10:09 pm

    Sean, love your blog!
    I know why you love Alabama, it’s the same as the Florida panhandle. I live not to far from Destin, but it’s all lower Alabama! (LA)

    Reply
  38. Myra G. - September 12, 2019 11:21 pm

    I never tasted banana pudding until we moved here to Alabama. Oh, all those wasted years! Pulled pork and fall-off-the-bone ribs are some of my favorite things, so I’ll definitely be checking out Kendall’s. Except. Like an old Fort Worth restauranteur once said, I refuse to offend a perfectly good piece of meat by covering it in BBQ sauce. 🙂

    Reply
  39. Johnnie Blackburn - September 13, 2019 2:53 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more Sean about loving Alabama and the beauty that is our state but my magic city is Tuscaloosa. Roll Tide! And the road going down to Florida is just as awesome!

    Reply
  40. Janet Mary Lee - September 13, 2019 6:54 pm

    Gosh…I am totally hungry now! Just had to say I loved your story ..and your magnificent drawing!!!!!.Good thing some rib joints and BBq are not far away!!! Smooch the wife and pups!!!

    Reply
  41. That's jack - September 15, 2019 2:45 am

    Some of ’em roads ain’t as purty as you describe. I drove a lot of ’em before interstates, some on purpose some by accident while stationed in Biloxi.
    Any way, I like some BBQ and some is good enough to drive that fur!
    I enjoyed the visit dude. take cre of yourownself.
    Sherry & jack Iffn I can find your address I will send you a good dog book!

    Reply

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