FORT PAYNE, Alabama — The gas stop in Gadsden led to two unexpected choices.
While pumping, what little breeze there was sent the most pleasant smoke wafting my direction. It was coming from a small pipe serving as a beacon to its affixed food truck. “RACK UP BBQ,” it read in fading black letters. A man, about early 60ish I would guess, was hawking the menu to the woman who had been pumping gas before me and was hooked in just like I was.
Alabama BBQ doesn’t get its proper due. When I lived here I was shocked at how much pork they do instead of beef. Brisket wasn’t in any grocery store. Alabama is a pig-growing state, so it makes sense. And what its cooks and backyard grillers can do rivals anything you’d find in Fort Worth or Kansas City.
I ordered a pulled pork sandwich from the man and his wife, who cooked up orders behind the camper’s screened window. “It’ll be a few minutes,” the man said, sort of dismissively. I think he saw my out-of-state tags. Or maybe he could hear my drawl was from some other part of Down Yonder. Another guy drove up behind me and placed his order. “Y’all add the sauce to it?” he asked. “Alright, light on the sauce. I like to taste the smoke.”
While waiting, I saw a sign at the intersection for “Lookout Mountain Parkway.” My day’s goal, had I not overslept by two hours, was to zoom up I-59’s path between mountain ridges to Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain. By 11 a.m., that seemed too far. I keyed in the parkway on my smartphone, which seemed to take its sweet time on the weakened signal but produced web pages about the multistate parkway I never knew existed. It would be only the second time I veered off the main highways on this trip, but the thought of what scenic treasures it held as opposed to whizzing through pretty country at better than 70 mph was alluring.
I ate the sandwich and the fries — I’d give it a solid ‘A’. Meat was excellent but I’m not a fan of sandwiches soaked in sauce. I’ll take a cue from my fellow customer next time so I can taste more smoke.
With all due respect to Ike, I decided to skip the smooth, wide pathway he arranged for us 60 years ago and take the old road. For the first several miles, I wish I hadn’t. Mostly, I’m OK with the 45 mph speed limit on country roads but the first several miles of this one, while beautiful, looked like any other. There were little country churches, little country homes, little country gardens, little country volunteer firehouses and big country farms.
Then it got interesting. The pavement rose and fell with some astonishing hills with grades just steep enough to give a roller coaster sensation. It felt like forever but may have only been about 15 miles or so when the highway took a sharp bend and signs warned about speed.
I’d reached Little River Canyon. It was hard to tell that at first until the occasional glimpses of the opposing canyon rim through a thick line of brush and trees. And that’s the thick line of brush and trees that are the only things keep drivers from careening hundreds of feet to certain death.
Little River’s story is worth a mention. The ordinary countryside Lookout Mountain Parkway courses through actually is the top of the ridge that runs northeast into Georgia and Tennessee to become the Lookout Mountain that gives such spectacular views of Chattanooga. The mountain is part of the system of ridges and valleys that form the Appalachians.
Little River runs atop the Alabama portion of Lookout Mountain. Its claim to fame is it’s the longest mountaintop river in the country. Whether (and how) that’s verified I have no idea. But for thousands of years, Little River and its tributaries have chipped away sandstone layers, carving a treelined, U-shaped valley more than 800 feet deep. Thanks to the W.P.A. of the Depression era, a road travels the rim from the beginning down toward the canyon’s mouth.
And that road ain’t for the faint of heart. There are steep grades that make San Francisco look like New Orleans. Oh, and no guardrails except where they had to build bridges. Again, those trees will break a fall. I took advantage of the overlooks, some at the end of short trails with signs warning of bear dangers, to catch my breath after tackling a particularly rigorous segment.
I tried to follow the canyon rim road down to the park at the canyon mouth. I chickened out. It as a beautiful drive with steep dips and some beautiful homes built by residents of Cherokee and Dekalb counties. But that last dip to the river — nope. It appeared almost vertical.
I turned around and ascended the rim then followed the trail to Little River Falls at the head of the canyon. There’s a walkway at the falls that takes visitors down to the river to wade among the craggy sandstone chips and rushing waters.
I stayed at the peaceful falls overlook for a bit, while a family splashed in the river’s pools and small rapids hundreds of feet below. The scenery made it easy to tune out their echoing chatter and the vehicles on the Alabama 35 bridge.
A hawk soared and hovered on air currents as it scanned for prey. The falls in the distance and water tumbling past rocks created a shallow roar — the same sights and sounds from thousands of years ago.