I remember the old saying my fourth-grade teacher taught us: “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will get you there.”
It always seemed like such a wistful phrase. An axiom that blatantly encouraged aimlessness. Which is an art form I have always been particularly skilled at.
Thus it was, I left Alabama this morning with aimlessness as my only traveling companion. I drove north on Highway 11, riding toward a little place called Wherever The Heck I Stop.
My wife is busy this week and she sent me away. So I left home with a gym bag full of T-shirts and Levis. I brought snacks. Little Debbies. Sweet tea. Funyuns. And I took to the open highway like a stray dog.
You can pick up Route 11 a few miles from my front door. This romantic American highway will carry you 1,645 miles, north or south, whichever direction you choose. It spans from New Orleans to New York, where it eventually crosses the Canadian border and all the highway troopers start talking in French.
I love this route. Namely, because Route 11 is the under-appreciated highway nobody pays attention to. The Ringo Starr of highway routes.
It’s not the glamourous Route 66, plunging through the untrammeled West like a Marty Robbins song. Neither is it the Pacific Coast Highway, snaking across steep cliffsides and the beer-commercial mountains of Big Sur.
No, Route 11 is like the redneck cousin you always see at family reunions. The cousin who always stands in the corner, silently drinking his Miller Lite. Most folks forget he’s even there. Which is too bad, because if you were to actually talk to this cousin, you’d realize that not only is he pretty interesting, and polite, he also know A LOT about monster trucks.
That’s Route 11.
The 10-state highway whisks you across the loveliest parts of the Southeast, past the faded hamlets of rural America, and twines itself through the most arresting sections of Appalachia.
Begin your journey at the southernmost terminus in Louisiana and you’ll start by hugging the Norfolk Southern Railway line, riding north through sleepy places with names like Irish Bayou, Eden Isle, Slidell and Pearl River.
Next, hop the Mississippi border and ease through towns like Picayune, Poplarville, Purvis, Hattiesburg, Walters, Pachuta, and Meridian.
Congratulations. You’re in Alabama now. Travel through charming one-mule towns like Cuba, Livingston, Eutaw and Fosters. Get a sandwich in Tuscaloosa. Develop a cardiac infarction in Birmingham rush hour. Stop in Collinsville to use the john.
And you’re still just getting started.
In Georgia, you’re in God’s country. You’re surfing through the verdant valley between Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain, a place so pretty it will make your teeth hurt.
In Tennessee, you’re motoring past Chattanooga, Cleveland and careening over the mirror-like Hiwassee River.
Once you’re in Virginia, the highway follows the “Old Carolina Road,” the historic colonial route that was once the heaviest traveled byways in eighteenth century America.
Next comes West Virginia. Here, you’ll traverse the wild Potomac. You’ll pass towns like Williamsport, Hagerstown, Maugansville. You’ll also cross the Mason-Dixon Line, so make sure you holler like you’re at a Winston Cup Series.
Pennsylvania lies ahead of you now. A state with a whole bunch of pierogies and crummy imitation “faux-Amish” paraphernalia for sale at random Shell stations. Here, the communities don’t call themselves towns, but “townships.”
Guilford Township. Greene Township. Penn Township. Middlesex Township. East Pennsboro Township. Reed Township. Watts Township. Liverpool Township. Monroe Township. Montour Township. South Centre Township. Plymouth Township. La Plume Township. New Milford Township. Great Bend Township.
Welcome to New York. Now hand over your wallet and nobody gets hurt.
Just kidding. The New York section of Highway 11 weaves you through bucolic majesty that many folks don’t associate with the Empire State. Here, the towns are longer called “townships. Now they are “villages.”
Village of Marathon. Village of Homer. Village of Tully. Village of Adams. Village of Philadelphia. Village of Governeur. Village of Canton. Village of Potsdam. Village of Malone. Village of Chateaugay.
And that’s all. You’re done. Bienvenue au Quebec, mon ami. Would you like some beef gravy on your French fries?
Highways are my thing. The old roads of this nation enchant me. Crumbling highways. Ancient pavement.
Interstates do nothing for me. I feel the same way about interstates as I feel about, say, Soviet missile silos. Your most aesthetically pleasing landmark on an interstate is the occasional Pilot Flying J Truckstop, lit up like a distant nuclear reactor in the darkness.
But on US Route 11, you see an unsung part of this country.
Like I did this morning. I crossed the Georgia line and saw thick quilts of mist, hanging low over the the Appalachians. The fuzzy green mountains seemed almost too good to be true.
I pulled over just outside Trenton to take in the magnific scene. I bought a bag of salt peanuts at a gas station.
The kid behind the counter asked me where I was going. I said I didn’t know.
“You don’t know?” he said.
I shook my head.
“That kinda reminds of that old saying. Remember? How’s it go? ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, then you’re totally screwed.’ Or something like that.”
Something like that.