Monday, July 13, 2009

Great Balls of Lightning...heading to MOA Rally

When the bolts of lightning were striking the ground just ahead of me, I began looking for an exit. When the balls of white light were flashing in my peripheral vision and the hairs on my body began to tingle, I started to get desperate.

Such was the case this morning after leaving Tuscaloosa to continue my trip toward Johnson City and the MOA rally. I delayed my departure this morning as the heavens opened up and dumped enough water to bring tears to the eyes of a North Texas rancher. I waited it out, until the rain became a light drizzle. On the radar map I could see a slot between the red clouds that ran southwest to northeast, and the storm was moving in an east-southeast direction. If I could time it just right, I could ride in that slot all the way to north of Birmingham, out of the moving thunderstorms.

Unfortunately, I ran right into it about 40 miles east of Tuscaloosa. That's when the balls of lightning began to appear. Thankfully, there was a rest area just a mile up I-20 and I pulled off and took cover as claps of thunder pealed from all directions. I didn't have to wait too long; the storm was moving rapidly.

Once back on the bike and onto 459 around Birmingham, the rain became light to none, but I could see the aftermath of foolish drivers. Not to far up 459 after the interchange with I-20, a car was on the left shoulder pointed in the wrong direction. A little further on, a red sedan had taken a nose dive into the deep ditch in the median. Several cars had pulled over and a police car had its lights lit to warn oncoming traffic. Then, just before the merge with I-59, an 18-wheeler had slid off the entrance ramp from the other direction and had the entire road blocked. Traffic was backed up on southbound I-59 for miles. Slow down, folks! Our greatest danger on wet roads is auto drivers going too fast for road conditions.


I-59 is such a pretty highway north of Birmingham. The mountains are like green cones poking up above the landscape and the green in summertime is startling for its lushness. North of Gadsden, though, and I-59 becomes a state highway department embarassment. What's the deal: Low-ball contract bidding gone bad?? This stretch of road between Gadsden and Fort Payne makes I-10 through Louisiana (before it was completely resurfaced) feel like a bowling alley. I bingety-bangitied all the way to my exit at Fort Payne, where I got gas then headed west on AL-35.

This state highway really had a surprise waiting for me as it gently curved to the right and revealed gorgeous glimpses of the Tennessee River from high bluff overlooks. The road carves along the edge of the bluff, with the greatest heights off to my right and the river down below to my left. Some nice curves brought the road down to river level and to the bridge that crosses the river.


My route north on US-72 followed along the river valley until I turned off to head for Russell Cave. So many times I've come so close to this national park but never took the detour to see it. The cave reveals itself under a rock ledge and one need not enter too far to get the sense of how far it reaches into the mountain. I watched the short video and learned that Paleo Indians (descendants of ice age dwellers) first inhabited the cave. Down through the ages, evolving Indian tribes - ancient indians, Woodlands, Mississipian - lived here in this area. I had a lovely chat with the Park Ranger, who seemed knowledgeable about mound sites. She and I compared notes about some of the ones that I'd ridden by on my way through MS and AL. I definitely want to make a special trip some day, just visiting some of these archeological mound sites.


The "puzzle pieces" continue to fall into place as I visit so many national parks. I have just finished reading a book that I purchased at the De Soto National Monument. Now here I stand, staring at a cave that was occupied by Indians at the time of De Soto's expedition through the area. Archeological indications are that the cave ceased to be occupied or used sometime in the 16th century. It is known that many tribes were decimated by old-world diseases against which the Indians had no natural resistance. Tribes nearly wiped out by disease migrated and merged with other equally decimated tribes for safety and economy. It is generally believed that these merged tribes are the forerunners of the later Choctaw and other Indian tribes.

This national park is set up against a long mountain ridge that runs generally north-south along the west side of the Tennessee River. I backtracked to US-72 and continued north to I-24 East to Chattanooga, where I picked up US-27 north toward Wartburg TN.

US-27 on the north side of I-40 narrows and starts to gain elevation through a series of nice sweeping curves. It brought me from 800 ft to 1300 ft above sea level into the pretty little town of Wartburg TN where I visited the Obed Wild & Scenic River Visitor Center.

Passport book stamped, I chatted with the park ranger, first asking him if he knew how the town got its name. No doubt from a German settler, he said. He added that the county is named after the revolutionary war hero, Officer Daniel Morgan, who led three companies in the invasion of Canada and the Battle of Quebec. He led troops in several other revolutionary war arenas, as well, and ultimately defeated the British at Cowpens.

The park ranger at Obed noticed the Russell Cave leaflet in my ziplok bag and exclaimed that he tried to find it one time, 3 or 4 years ago, with no success. Guess he didn't refer to the NPS website, which has excellent directions and maps for all of their parks. And he certainly didn't use a GPS. GPS "Jill" had no trouble finding it.

I'm just an easy 30-40 miles away from my hotel for the night and have a very pleasant ride down US-62 toward I-40 and Knoxville.

Tomorrow: Arrive at the BMW MOA rally grounds...

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