I wake up an hour before the alarm this morning. I can’t go back to sleep – too eager to ride. So I get up, get showered and dressed, and pack my gear. I load the Electra Glide, and then go back in to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Two Rivers Hotel & Suites for the free breakfast. Fried eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy, all on tap. A real Southern breakfast, and it’s included with my night’s stay. Now that’s BEST WESTERN PLUS.
While I check out, I ask the manager, Jay, for advice about what I should see before I leave Demopolis. Jay is a virtual Chamber of Commerce, whipping out a sheet of paper and drawing a map to several highlights in town. I asked the right guy!
I jump on the bike, and head toward downtown Demopolis. Demopolis (“The City of the People”) sits near the convergence of the Black Warrior River and the Tombigbee River (the “Two Rivers” that give the hotel its name). The whole town resonates with the water’s influence. As I reach the historic downtown, I’m immediately transported back to a quieter, more relaxed time, and a town square that could have been featured in “The Music Man.” There’s a gazebo next to the old fashioned City Hall, and a park with a graceful fountain and walking paths. I can just imagine hot summer nights in Demopolis, with the townspeople strolling and conversing. It’s lovely.
I drive past the two antebellum homes that Jay mentioned: Bluff Hall and Gaineswood.
Bluff Hall is a Federal-style home that was built in the 1830s, and it gives hints to what the high antebellum style was going to become. The house is owned by the Marengo County Historical Society, and tours are given Mondays through Saturdays. Today is Sunday, so all I can do is drive by and admire.
Gaineswood is larger and more unusual than Bluff Hall. The Alabama Historical Commission owns the mansion, and operates tours Tuesdays through Saturdays. Gaineswood was completed in 1861, on the eve of the Civil War. Designed in the Federal (Greek Revival) style, it is the only surviving antebellum mansion that features all three of the Greek orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian) and an asymmetrical layout. It sits on a larger site than Bluff Hall, impressively set back from the road. Since it is Sunday, I have to admire Gaineswood from afar.
I leave Demopolis in my rearview mirrors, and ride toward Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.
Alabama is in the heart of the Bible Belt, a term coined by H.L. Mencken in 1924 that is just as apt today. Churches seem to outnumber houses along US 80, and business is booming on this Sunday morning. Preachers dominate the airwaves, too, and I pass the time listening to snatches of sermons on the Electra Glide’s stereo system while I bomb along the empty roadway.
I arrive in Montgomery just after noon, and follow the signs to downtown. Montgomery is famous for its central role in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, most notably Rosa Parks’ famous bus ride. Located on the campus of Troy University, The Rosa Parks Museum has as its mission “to uphold and interpret for the public benefit, education and enjoyment, materials related to the events and accomplishments of individuals associated with Montgomery Bus Boycott.” A sign commemorates the actual spot in front of the building’s location where Ms. Parks began her famous ride.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which stands proudly across the street from the Alabama State Capitol. The city teems with history, important landmarks and echoes of significant times. I walk around with my camera, marveling at the elegant architecture, and mystified by how few people I encounter on the streets. Even for a Sunday, downtown feels empty. I take advantage of the solitude, standing in the middle of the broad streets to frame photos.
I find a pocket of activity, and investigate. It’s Wintzell’s Oyster House, a big seafood restaurant that’s part of a small local chain. My waiter twists my arm, and I order the Oyster Sampler, which includes four styles of oyster: Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters Monterey, Oysters Bienville and Wintzell’s Grilled Oysters. Sixteen oysters in all, and quite delicious every one.
Across the street from Wintzell’s, I discover the Hank Williams Museum. Hank Williams lived in Montgomery from 1937 until his death in 1953 at the age of 29. Williams is buried in Oakwood Cemetery near downtown Montgomery. The Hank Williams Museum is a small private museum, run by Beth Petty, the daughter of its late founder. The collection of Hank artifacts is kind of amazing, given the context. Most amazing (and a little morbid) is the 1952 Cadillac Convertible at the heart of the display. It is the actual car in which Hank suffered his fatal heart attack. Hank Williams, Jr. actually drove the car to high school for three years, which blows my mind. Thankfully, the vehicle survives in perfect restored condition. Also on display are the actual clothes that Hank, Sr. was wearing when he died, along with his leather slippers. Less morbid, but still very cool to see are several of Hank’s Nudie stage outfits, some furniture from his house and other memorabilia. The car is the star, though, guaranteed to send a shiver through the spine of anyone who has ever heard “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (the Hank Williams song that was on the top of the charts when he passed away). I left the museum and walked the two blocks to Perry Street to see the life-size Hank Williams statue on the plaza across the street from the Montgomery City Auditorium where his funeral was held. The building’s capacity was 2,750, but the streets were lined with 25,000 on January 4, 1953 when Hank was laid to rest, the largest crowd in Montgomery’s history, even to today.
I leave Montgomery behind, though I could easily have explored for hours more. I skip the interstate, and ride along US 80 through countryside and small towns. There’s some severe poverty in some of the small towns, with abandoned storefronts and broken down homes competing with farmland as dominant features in the landscape. Times are hard, and it’s impossible to ride through the area without feeling deep compassion.
The 14th Street Bridge carries me across the Chattahoochee River, departing Alabama and arriving in Columbus, Georgia. Columbus’s downtown looks inviting, decorating the riverbanks south of the bridge. I’ll have to explore that tomorrow.
I arrive at the BEST WESTERN Columbus, and breeze through check-in. My room is on the ground floor, and I’ll be able to park my Electra Glide right outside my door. Not that I’m worried about the bike – I’m happy about the ease of unloading my gear. My room is big and bright, and I’m bushed. Luckily, there’s a new Mexican restaurant adjacent to the hotel. I grab a quick dinner at Viva El Toro. I order a large Dos Equis to go with my Bistek Tampiqueno. When a 32-ounce schooner arrives foaming with Mexican beer, I’m relieved to know that I only have to travel across the parking lot to get back to my room.
I’ll sleep well tonight. More riding (and writing) tomorrow.
Miles ridden: 212
Next: Columbus, Georgia to Midway, Florida