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.
Glenda E Hulbert - July 12, 2022 6:48 am
Some days, I just shake my head in wonder, others I just smile/thank u so very much for your beautiful posts!
Nancy E Hood - July 12, 2022 7:38 am
Love Ms. Hulbert’s comment. You never disappoint. Oh, and I sure hope you talk just like you write.
Go have some sweet tea and bless your heart for keeping us grounded in this Southern dirt.
Steve Winfield (lifer) - July 12, 2022 7:51 am
Ed (Bear) - July 12, 2022 8:36 am
Nice soliloquy! Seems to me that you knew exactly where you were going.
Ann Thompson - July 12, 2022 10:05 am
Ah, the freedom to have such a wander. A luxury…my kind anyway. Add in some water-a lake, river or a waterfall and enjoy. Some good food and you’ll have some stories to share with us.
Latane Barton - July 12, 2022 10:21 am
Many, many years ago, back in the “stone ages” of my life, my husband and I traveled route 11 from his Navy base in Md. to visit our folks in Alabama. He’s gone now, I live in Va, not Alabama. One day, not so long ago, my daughter drove me over some of that route of my early marriage. The memories brought tears. There just isn’t a road more special than those you have traveled in “stone ages” when you are young, happy and in love. Thanks for the memory, Sean.
Lander - July 12, 2022 10:31 am
Yeah…, “Blue Highways,” the color state highways used to be depicted on old paper maps, will take you places you never expected to go, but just may offer you a labyrinthine adventure that leads to places you love as it eventually guides you back to the center, back home. At least that’s something like what William Least Heat Moon said in his book by that title. Enjoy the ride and the people who will welcome your answer when they ask you where you’re headed.
Sonya Tuttle - July 12, 2022 1:29 pm
Lander mentioned the book I was referencing in my mind. “Blue Highways” meanders like that, and I want to be able to do that one day. But now, I just go to where my offspring live. Delaware, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia. Your travels will take me along.
Steve Jones - July 12, 2022 10:41 am
How dare you not mention my home state of Maryland (between WV and PA)!
Brenda - July 12, 2022 10:58 am
Loved your ride to nowhere. Nothing better to clear the mind then to jump in the car and head out of Dodge to no where and enjoy the country scene.
Debbie - July 12, 2022 11:09 am
Are you still in Georgia?!? Stop by and I’ll ride with you….. My nine-year-old grandson was fascinated to look at a map and realize that roads went so far. Now I’ll pull out the road map and we’ll trace Highway 11 and re-read today’s story. You make it sound like magic!
Harriet White - July 12, 2022 11:11 am
Jeremy - July 12, 2022 11:31 am
The place you crossed the state line going into GA from AL is where I grew up on Hwy 11. Sulphur Springs, AL and Rising Fawn, GA. A slice of heaven. I ride through there every chance I get, letting the memories flood in. Another slice of heaven. Glad you had a slice as well.
Te - July 12, 2022 11:32 am
Odd that you mentioned Sand Mtn. Hadn’t thought of it in years. My grandfather, a stern-faced old gentleman from his photos, was a Methodist minister there, oh, must’ve been about 1916. He died when my father was about 5. But one time my dad took the notion to take a look, so we piled into a ’54 turquoise and white Chevy for a long drive. I was maybe 9. It’s a shame we didn’t have a camera. I’m sure it’s the same ramshackle, dilapidated, virtually abandoned place it was then. Love lost places. Wouldn’t be surprised if your readers have memories sparked by mention of a place they, too, had long forgotten. Good road trip, Sean. That was fun.
Tmitsss - July 12, 2022 11:35 am
Today I learned that there is an Alabama town named for South Carolina’s Battle of Eutaw Springs. I bet one of the veterans of that battle brought the name with him. I wonder if they still pronounce it correctly.
Paul McCutchen - July 12, 2022 11:49 am
I love traveling the back road, when possible. My wife and I stopped at a little station on the back roads of Georgia to get some gas and noticed they had fresh dipped ice cream. The owner gave us two big scoops that were so big he put a cup on the top. He said he needed to finish the tub out. We sat on a bench outside and a local dog was trying to convince us he was there to help us eat the ice cream. I really miss those trips.
Leigh Amiot - July 12, 2022 11:51 am
I share your disdain for the Interstate system, Sean. I, too, enjoy a drive on the backroads. I haven’t done a cross country trip, but do have a dream of a drive along part of the southeastern United States, stopping at coastal towns in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Until I do that, the canopied roads in south Georgia and north Florida are my favorite to discover, drive, and photograph. As I ride by old home places covered in vines, I briefly try to imagine the lives lived there. Somehow this sets a skewed perspective aright again.
Laura - July 12, 2022 12:02 pm
I know the Virginia portion of US 11 very well, having lived in several cities and towns near and along its path in my younger years (Staunton, Lexington, Fincastle, Roanoke). It remains my preferred north-south route to the hellscape better known as I-81 when traveling through western Virginia.
Bkr - July 12, 2022 12:19 pm
Man! If you headed south you would right through the big city of Epes Alabama! Just east of Livingston and west of Eutaw! Safe travels!!
Shana - July 12, 2022 5:34 pm
I went to school in Livingston when it was still Livingston University. We used to go hang out in Epes at the river, if memory serves.
john miller - July 12, 2022 12:23 pm
just a little nit picking ,those WV towns you named are all in MD. Your right about the ambiance of our highways I lived in a town of 500 on rt 40 in MD as a child .The history of the Old National Pike is fantastic
Sean of the South: U.S. Route 11 | The Trussville Tribune - July 12, 2022 1:09 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
MJS - July 12, 2022 1:28 pm
This made me smile, and immediately brought back memories of taking a girl scout troop from suburban Washington DC to visit Winchester, Va…with a stop at the Route 11 Potato Chip company in Stephens City (not far from the still-standing drive-in movie). The small potato chip factory has since moved a bit farther south, but still not far from its namesake highway.
Tara Robinett - July 12, 2022 1:34 pm
I would love to make this journey. I’ve lived around “highway leven” all my life and it would be really interesting to see the rest of it.
David - July 12, 2022 1:36 pm
This is why Cars is my favorite Disney movie and “Take Me Home Country Roads” one of my favorite John Denver songs.
Cathy M - July 12, 2022 1:52 pm
This was a breath of fresh Air. I felt as though I was riding with you. I love back roads and share your dislike of the interstate. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I enjoyed the ride👏
Linda Brunton - July 12, 2022 1:55 pm
If you came up highway 11, you passed my house in a tiny hamlet called Reece City, just outside Attalla, AL. I love the backroads too.
Mosby - July 12, 2022 2:10 pm
Route 11 was the first macadamized road in Va., asphalt right before the War Between the States. It was a toll road then, and the armies used it. A lot.
Karen - July 12, 2022 2:13 pm
Sean, you made me want to jump into my car and head for route 11. It is now on my list. I am a kindred spirit when it comes to traveling on old highways. My husband prefers interstates. I do travel route 11 sometimes to my daughter‘a in Christiansburg, Virginia. I love seeing folks going about their lives in the small towns.
Suellen - July 12, 2022 2:20 pm
Some of our favorite days were spent in the car just going up one road and down the other to see what’s there. One trip my husband decided to stick as close as he could to the Ohio River from Louisville KY to Cincinnati OH. That’s how we discovered Rabbit Hatch (KY) General Store and it was like stepping back in time. Sadly we heard they had a major fire a few years back but I digress. We had a marvelous time except for when my husband started to turn down a gravel strip that was literally feet from the river that wasn’t even a proper gravel road more of a beach. No thank you to that one.
Nancy Laird - July 12, 2022 2:24 pm
Sean, you sound like you enjoy traveling very much like I do—screw the interstates, give me the old highways and the towns and townships and villages along the way. Have you read John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’? How about ‘Blue Highways’ by William Least-Heat Moon? Both of these books whetted my love of traveling, and I won’t travel any other way than in my own four-wheeler (except to get to Alaska, which I did, otherwise I haven’t been on a plane since 2002).
I loved today’s column and even went to Google Maps to find that highway and follow along. I’ve traveled a large chunk of–and live only 10 miles off of–Route 66, and I have traveled the PCH (CA-1) several times. One of my favorite highways is US-64, which wanders from western OK through Tulsa, into Fort Smith and rambles across Arkansas to Memphis, thence across the lower part of Tennessee to Chattanooga. That drive is almost mesmerizing, and I’ve taken it every time I have had a chance.
US-50 outside of the DC area is also a good one.
H. J. Patterson - July 12, 2022 2:45 pm
I want to do this exact thing. Write north, south, east and west on four pieces of paper, drop them in a hat, draw one out and head out on the closest, least traveled road. God I love America.
Patricia Gibson - July 12, 2022 3:25 pm
Love Hwy 11 but did not know it extended that far. Very interesting. I agree with you about interstates💚
Gail Ehrhart - July 12, 2022 3:27 pm
You just made me feel like getting into my husband’s 1970 Corvette with the t-tops off and heading up to North Georgia. Thank you for always making me see the things I normally take for granted.
Dan - July 12, 2022 3:43 pm
You should have called me. I’da gone with you. Next time, let me know. I’ll bring my kayaks. We’ll go fishing up at the Big Chick.
Nita Grinstead - July 12, 2022 5:17 pm
What wonderful memories you brought me this morning! That was one of the things I liked best about going for a ride. My husband and I often packed a lunch then just took off on whatever road we hadn’t been on before. We had some very interesting happenings, great stops for fishing and met some wonderful people. We often just stayed the night at wherever we got to that day and took a different route home the next day. He is gone now so I am content to stay home with my memories but oh do I miss the ‘spur of the moment’ jaunts!
Steve McCaleb - July 12, 2022 5:27 pm
Always remember…..no matter where you go, there you are. Profound wisdom from the bottom of a glass.
Nancy Carnahan - July 12, 2022 5:44 pm
After 18 years running a B&B, we sold it and took off from CA to VA for a son’s wedding. We did a lot of regular tourist stuff–DC, Yellowstone, Rushmore, and stops in between. A couple of years after that, we bought a RV and have gone coast to coast twice. On the west coast, towns are -villes. On the east coast, they are -burgs.
We avoid interstates also. The roads are rougher, but you don’t get blown around by big trucks so much. We tried to avoid fast food and go to mom-and-pop eateries, but it’s almost imposssible to find them.
We’ve done such things as stop to watch a little league game and stop at Bubba’s Fruit Stand somewhere in Georgia. People talk to me. Bubba liked to talk and told me he marched with Dr King and belonged to the Black Panthers for a while. He was shot three times. He showed me one scar from a bullet wound but told me he couldn’t show me the other two. I was okay with that.
Chasity Davis Ritter - July 12, 2022 6:05 pm
Sounds like a fun place to take a Road trip. My old Boss man from when I was in my early 20’s was from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I think of him whenever I hear the name. His name was Bill Davis (no relation) and I worked for him and his family at Davis Catfish Corral. They drove up here to Oklahoma once a week to run cattle and we had the restaurant open Thursday-Saturday nights. It’s was fun few years. Then the sold the restaurant and I got married and moved away. I miss it sometimes. Definitely miss the food and listening to Mr Bill tell stories. He reminded me of you in that way. Have fun on your trip. I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about it this week. Be safe!
Globetrotter - July 12, 2022 6:23 pm
You don’t know it but I’m travelling along with you in the backseat. Love travelling , love your articles keep up the good work
Beryl - July 12, 2022 6:25 pm
Or, “You’re only lost if you care.”
Alice - July 12, 2022 7:15 pm
I love the road less traveled, too. My husband thinks I’m nuts and eventually we get lost at least once, but that’s part of the fun. He has gotten used to hearing the phrase ‘I wonder where that road goes . . .” Laughed at your description of the Flying J, but I think it is slowly being replaced by Buc-ee’s . . . If you’ve never been to one, you must go!! Safe travels!
Linda Moon - July 12, 2022 8:58 pm
I like your art from the roads you’ve travelled. I feel like I’ve just been on one, and I’ll send My Guy on one with you if your wife sends you away again. Hey Jamie, let’s make a deal on that and we’ll get a “twofer”…two husbands away at one time!
Keith Tetstone - July 12, 2022 11:17 pm
Sean if you haven’t traveled A1A in Florida you need to sometime. I promise when you do you’ll go to the Pandora app on your phone and tune into the Jimmy Buffett station. Enjoy your ride!
Peggy ALEXANDER - July 12, 2022 11:24 pm
Hagerstown is in Maryland so he mentioned a Maryland town🤣
Francina Fluker - July 13, 2022 12:25 am
The next she sends you off into the great unknown, try The Lincoln Highway. Or see how slowly you can drive from NYC to along the famed Cannonball Run route. I was waving when youpassed through Chattanooga on your way north, but you didn’t wave back, guess youwere too busy eating twinkies?
Steve McCaleb - July 13, 2022 1:05 am
North, east and west are directions on a map. The south is a living, breathing thing. And by the grace of God, I pray that it always remains so.
Nancy J Cunningham - July 13, 2022 1:11 am
Did you notice the dressed skeleton on a bicycle, I think past Springville? We always look for her!!
Mark Stewart - July 13, 2022 1:31 am
I grew up in Ft Payne and traveled 11 a lot. In those days there were a lot of chenillle bedspreads hanging along the way for sell. Its been a long long time ago. Also a lot of Burma Shave signs along the road side. Fun reading!
Barbara L - July 13, 2022 3:00 am
Next time take a detour off 11 to Buc-ee’s in Leeds. Amazing
joseybell - July 13, 2022 1:08 pm
I love driving on Route 11, Especially through Virginia and West Virginia. I love the little towns and most of all the little family eating spots. Deliver me from fast food and interstates. When my husband and I were many years younger, one we left home not knowing where we were going and it turned out to be quite an adventure. We started out going north from Maryland and after many twists and turns, we ended up in Toronto Canada. To tis day, it was one of our most enjoyable trips. There’s a sense of freedom in not knowing where you are going. It eliminates all expectations and deadlines.
Judy Riley - July 13, 2022 2:51 pm
I envy you! You are doing one of my favorite things to do! I grew up long before interstates and my family drove from KY to OK and Kansas every summer to visit Grandparents. I have this crazy “inerd” feeling those old hiways (41 and 66) belong to me…..but I’m willing to share!
Donna Rotenberry - July 13, 2022 8:27 pm
I was riding along with your description as I live within a mile of Route 11 in the dear Appalachian Mountains. And Sundays was always a afternoon drive thru some of the most beautiful country known to man. Farmland, mountains and valleys, forests, rivers, small towns with local owned diners.
Laura - July 19, 2022 10:12 pm
If you make it as far north as Cicero, NY be sure to stop in at the Red Wing Shoe Store on Rt 11 and we’ll extend some upstate NY hospitality!
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 26, 2022 8:38 pm