North America

A Great American Road Trip: Alabama to Michigan

America may not be perfect, but we have some great wonders and some of the best road trips in the world. Not only is the countryside extremely diverse, but we have extensive interstate freeways and scenic highways. The distances are vast and we are blessed with wide-open spaces. I have driven long trips from Miami to north Alabama and Helena (Montana) to Jasper (Alberta), so I’m no stranger to 12-hour journeys. My most recent trip may not have the splendor of the Rockies or the coastal views, but I love the unique scenery and culture along the 660-mile drive from north Alabama to southern Michigan.

Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham, Alabama

Leaving the eastern suburbs of Birmingham on I-20, I took the I-459 bypass to I-65, one of America’s great north-south interstate freeways. It starts in Mobile, Ala., before ending in Gary, Ind., right on the south shore of Lake Michigan. I am lucky to have traveled every mile of this highway and I can honestly say it connects some of the best cities in the United States: Mobile, Birmingham, Nashville, Louisville and Indianapolis.

The Deep South and the Midwest are two distinct regions, but they are actually not that different. Both are home to the nicest and most hospitable people in the United States. In the Deep South it means being greeted by perfect strangers, a sparkling glass of sweet tea and “y’all.” In the Midwest it means being welcomed with a smile, honesty and kindness. Strangers never seem to be strangers in both regions and people look out for their neighbors. The Pacific coast may be more glamorous, the northeast may be more cosmopolitan and the Rockies may be the most beautiful, but these two regions have the nicest people, hands down. Here are some of the nicest people anywhere in the world.

After leaving Birmingham on my 11-hour journey, I passed the enormous construction site of America’s newest interstate freeway, I-22. It won’t be finished until later this summer, but when it’s completed, it will connect Birmingham to Memphis. It will provide quicker access from Atlanta – the South’s capital – to the Mississippi River. But it will also make Birmingham very unique with five interstate highways. That will surpass larger cities such as Houston, Memphis, Nashville, Miami and Charlotte and make it equal with Atlanta. I was impressed how the enormous trusses and overpasses are coming together. Maybe it is true? Highways are the cathedrals of our time and will be here centuries after we are gone.

The new I-22

The new I-22

Apollo rocket in north Alabama

Apollo-era rocket in north Alabama

I left the scenic Appalachian foothills behind as I cruised through beautiful north Alabama. The blue Alabama skies were a sight to behold as spring was beginning in the Tennessee River valley. I crossed the river with the group Alabama’s song “Tennessee River [and a Mountain Man]” playing in the back of my mind. Not long afterwards I passed the iconic Saturn 1B rocket off the side of the interstate in the small town of Elkmont. Apollo-era rockets were proudly built by NASA at the nearby Marshall Space Center to take mankind on its first journeys away from Earth’s orbit. From the rockets to the famous jazz song, it’s why many say “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

Not much later, I left Alabama behind as I crossed into Tennessee, one of my favorite states. You have to pass through the hill country surrounding Pulaski and Lynchburg before arriving in Nashville. The latter town is home to the world’s most famous whiskey – Jack Daniels – but more surprising is the elevation climbed around here. My GPS registered more than 2,000 feet before Pulaski. In fact, I find the geography all the way from Birmingham to Louisville to be both hilly and fascinating.

I made good time through Nashville, one of my favorite places in the South and America’s music capital. I’ve spent countless memorable summers there with my grandparents and family over the years and it’s great to see Nashville finally getting its international recognition. But I secretly fear that it will lose its southern qualities like Atlanta as people pore in from all corners of the world. However, your concerns will be put at ease if you stop for a southern meal at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant downtown or at the Loveless Café off the Natchez Trace Parkway. Visiting the old honky tonks like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge off Broadway Avenue will also take you back in time to Nashville’s musical past while connecting you to the future.

Nashville skyline from I-65

Nashville skyline from I-65

Pit stop in Dixie: Moon pie and Milo's sweet tea

Pit stop in Dixie: Moon pie and Milo’s sweet tea

Leaving Nashville behind, it wasn’t long before I arrived in Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. It’s also one of the prettiest states in the interior of America. I stopped in Bowling Green for a little less than an hour to visit family in Bowling Green. This town is famous for sports cars, as it’s home to the assembly plant for one of the world’s iconic automobiles: the Chevrolet Corvette. The city made world news recently for a sinkhole that swallowed several vintage Corvettes at its famous National Corvette Museum. In fact the disaster tells a perhaps more interesting angle about Kentucky’s geology.

After leaving my aunt’s house, Kentucky’s geology really struck me. Most people think of Kentucky as rolling meadows of bluegrass and thoroughbreds, but it’s a hilly state. In fact, traveling on I-65 north through the central part of Kentucky, the rocky terrain ebbs and flows as the interstate snakes through the hills. More than 50 percent of the surface rocks in Kentucky are limestones, and it’s one reason why Kentucky has more caves than any other location on earth. It’s also the reason why a sinkhole ate those millions of dollars worth of Corvettes for an early breakfast one morning. The limestone may also have one other effect. Some say distillers claim limestone water distinguishes Kentucky bourbon and makes the state home of the word’s best bourbon.

Downtown Louisville

Downtown Louisville

Around twilight, I arrived in Louisville, one of America’s most important interior port cities and home of perhaps the greatest sports star of all time, Muhammad Ali. But it’s most famous as home to one of the world’s greatest races – the Kentucky Derby.

As the sun went down, I drove on to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge and crossed the Ohio River into Indiana. Leaving the South behind, I began the longest part of my journey across the Hoosier state. After passing through the northern suburbs of Louisville in Indiana, the rain started to come down and traffic stopped due to construction. I used my GPS, which took me on to a rural highway and around the traffic. I cruised down Highway 62 to the tiny town of Charlestown before taking scenic Old Indiana 160 as it winded through farmland and small hills. It was quite a fun drive in my sports car as it hugged the turns with no traffic. After arriving in the small city of Henryville, I rejoined I-65 around dusk.

The JFK Memorial Bridge across the Ohio River

Crossing Louisville’s bridge into Indiana

Once I completed the 115-mile trip from Louisville to Indianapolis, I finally had made it to the Hoosier state’s capital. The city is known internationally for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500. Its skyline is gorgeous at night and it’s a much bigger city than many first-time visitors expect. I didn’t have any time to spend in Indy, so I took the I-465 bypass east to Carmel and exited on US-31 on my last major stretch of Indiana.

Indiana is certainly well described as part of the Midwest, but I think the state’s motto describes it better. Indiana is known as the “Crossroads of America.” It certainly feels like a transition land between the Midwest to both the southern states and eastern states. The flat farmland of the interior of Indiana seems to go on forever. It’s pretty by day, but pretty boring at night on the 140-mile drive from Indianapolis to South Bend. Not only that, but the Indiana State Police and county police set speed traps all the way up I-65. The good news is the drive is much quicker now that the state built the new bypass around Kokomo. It made me so happy to save time that I started singing the Beach Boys song of the same name as I zipped closer to my final destination.

As I arrived in the cold of northern Indiana, I finally made it to South Bend. I took the bypass on 31 around the city. South Bend is well known nationally for the nation’s most prestigious catholic university and one of the prettiest campuses – the University of Notre Dame. The name of the city reflects a geographical fact – it’s the south bend of the Saint Joseph River before it flows back north into Michigan. And where does it end? It empties into Lake Michigan by finishing its journey in Saint Joseph, just like the last leg of my trip.

Back in Michigan

Back in Michigan

On the home stretch of Highway 31, I thought about the first time I had ever driven this long journey. I had traveled along these same roads past the vineyards and fields of southwest Michigan a few years earlier. That first trip, I saw a breathtaking shooting star dip on the horizon in front of us. I felt like at that moment that I was making a great move in my life. Ever since I have thought this is a special part of the nation on America’s third coast. It certainly well represents the best of Michigan tourism’s Pure Michigan hype.

Around 12:45 a.m., I arrived back home. And just so you know, here is an interesting fact about that last stretch. Highway 31 starts in Mobile, Ala., on the Gulf of Mexico. I have traveled to its northern terminus which ends at the Mackinaw Bridge, where the two peninsulas of Michigan meet. Its name up here is the Old Dixie Highway, and it just so happens to connect many of the places I love.

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