Grand Canyon(s) of the South - Spring 2003

Cheaha Mountain Summit

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

GZ250 & rider - early morning at campsite

Peace, tranquility, and inspiration. Those are the words one motorcyclist used to describe an uphill, sweeping right-hand turn on the road to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. She said this one curve alone was worth the ride, worth any excuse to get there on a motorcycle. I've never ridden the north rim of the Grand Canyon, but somehow I believe her. After weathering a long cold winter here in Nashville, I could use a little inspiration.

But the Grand Canyon in Arizona would require too much time. Vacation, unfortunately, must be allocated sparingly in small doses to seek the peace and tranquility needed to make it through the rest of the work year. So what to do? Here in the South, we have canyons and rivers and even waterfalls, but most are well kept secrets. There's the Little River Canyon in northeast Alabama which is twelve miles long and six hundred feet deep. It's also home to some very beautiful waterfalls. And we have Providence Canyon in southwest Georgia which is three hundred feet deep in places, but it's more like a series of colorful eroded columns similar to Bryce Canyon. The two canyons together could make a Grand Canyon, at least in appearance, but some height is also needed. Alas, Cheaha Mountain in Alabama - it's only twenty five hundred feet high, but it's the best mountain we've got in Alabama. Although it's three thousand feet short of the real Grand Canyon rim, I could ride up it twice to make up the difference.

So here's the plan... I'll visit Providence Canyon in south Georgia, then Little River Canyon in north Alabama. I'll start from Nashville, ride through the Talladega National Forest in central Alabama, and camp out at Cheaha Mountain in Cheaha State Park. And I'll choose the most curvy, most remote roads possible to get to all those places. I'll leave on Friday and come back on Monday, so I'll need only two days off. And the very last requirement - I have to be on Pensacola Island in Florida for a beach party Saturday night! My wife is attending a work-related conference at the Hilton Garden Inn on Pensacola Beach, so I couldn't possibly travel that far without visiting her (and having a FREE place to stay for the night).

What a plan!!!

The weather for this ride is beautiful. Friday morning starts out cold but by afternoon warms into the sixties with clear blue spring sky and bright sunshine. Throughout southern Tennessee and northern Alabama the dogwood trees are in full bloom, their blossoms peppering the distant hillsides in scattered white patches. The leaf buds on the hardwood trees haven't yet unfolded into the full leaves of summer; they're still tiny specks of pale green, making the trunks and branches visible through transparent smudges of color.

In keeping with the most curvy route possible philosophy, I ride south to the western edge of the Talladega National Forest. Nearby on the map, there's a little town called Sweet Home, Alabama. I contemplate riding through it just because the sky is so blue today. Then, in addition to saying that I've actually stood on a corner in Winslow Arizona, I could also say I've been to Sweet Home Alabama where the skys are so blue. But Cheaha (Chee-a-ha - it's a Native American word for high, hard or enchanted place) Mountain is beckoning in the distance; Sweet Home will have to wait for some other day.

On the map the western route to Cheaha is marked with a jagged line leading to the park, but the line has no name or number. It should be easy to find, though; it appears to be the only road headed east of Highway 21 between Anniston and Talledega. Wrong!

I search for an hour trying every road headed east between the two towns. They all turn into rural winding roads that appear to be headed nowhere. I eventually get so lost I can't tell north from south and don't know which direction I'm riding; the sun appears to be setting in the wrong direction. I hate the thought, but it seems I'm going to have to ask directions.

At a rundown repair shop for lawn mowers and small engines in the middle of nowhere, I pull into the clay dirt parking lot and cut the engine. At least I assume it's a repair shop; there's only one sign in the whole place - an 'Open' sign placed in a dirty window.

Riding lawn mowers are scattered everywhere in various states of repair and decay. Most have seen their final days, but the ones that have been pulled to the edge of the dirt parking lot could have a fighting chance. Or maybe they're repair donors, it's hard to tell. I park the GZ250 among them and smile - it looks right at home. The GZ has a strong relation to these old lawn mowers with their little single cylinder air-cooled engines; they could all be cousins. This IS the South... the guy inside may be MY cousin!

Turns out the proprietor is a country music fan (big surprise). Seeing as I'm from Nashville (although I don't know much about country music), we talk for a while. When asked how to get to Cheaha from here, he displays a fleeting look that seems to say, "if you're headed there, how'd the hell you'd get here?" His slow and circuitous directions involve statements like, "go down this road until it dead-ends then turn left about a half a mile before the dead end. If you go back past the Methodist church you've gone too far, that road dead ends into another road and you turn left by a Baptist church, but you can turn right if you want to by the Church of Christ, but if you turn left..."

After leaving, I was actually able to follow his instructions for two or three turns before becoming hopelessly lost again. After about six more turns and twelve churches of not having a clue (which translates to about twenty miles), a sign at a turnoff stated "to Cheaha State Park." I followed the signs and eventually got there... exactly how, I'll never know.

It's becoming windy and dark as I wait at the closed (it's after 6:00 PM) campground store for a ranger to come by and register me for a campsite. The ride up the mountain was really nice but I would have enjoyed it more had I not been disoriented the whole way. Even now the park "feels" as though it's in the wrong place and the map I've been using is no help at sorting it out. When I leave, do I turn right or left to get to Florida? I still don't have a clue.

The ranger drives up, glances at my bike, and surmises without a word that I need a campsite. I follow him into the store, where he asks if I'm staying just for tonight. When I answer yes, he quickly grabs a map and says, "I've got a great place for a little 'motorbike.'" He shows me the summit road along the mountain top. "Camp anywhere you like up there," he says, "you'll be the only one - the gate closes at 9:00 to keep the cars out."

Cheaha Campsite

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

Early morning

Robert Persig said, "The flowers and the trees grow on the sides of the mountain... not the top." But he wasn't talking about slow, laid-back, enchanted, southern mountains like this one. Flowers and trees grow everywhere up here. Mountain tops are great places for inspiration - so is traveling alone on a motorcycle.

It's cold and windy at the top, though. I choose an area on the downwind side in a flat spot among some scraggly trees and rocks. Everything is unpacked quickly and the tent is set up in the fading light and gusty wind. By the time I'm done and the last item has been placed inside the tent, there's an almost full moon rising above the mountain. The sun has set far below the other side in an array of colors.

Except for the cold wind howling through the trees, it's perfectly quiet inside the tent as I try to fall asleep. A million stars are visible outside even in the bright moonlight. But I remain buried in the sleeping bag where it's warm, just listening to the wind.

The ancient Greeks believed the future could be predicted from listening to the wind. How is that possible? It seems absurd that the inventors of science and logic would claim such a thing. But maybe it's true; there's so much we don't know...

The wind howls through the distance. Sometimes it takes seconds for the gusts to arrive and rattle the tent. At other times the harsh sounding gusts never arrive at all, only the sound. Occasionally the wind arrives violently without warning. At times the sound and gusts arrive simultaneously. Every once in a while it's perfectly quiet with no sound or wind. All these combinations are completely random and, furthermore, occur at totally random intervals in time. After listening long enough, I realize the wind and the sound of the wind are not related in any form or fashion whatsoever. Can that be possible?

Traveling alone on a small cycle and sleeping on an enchanted mountain top can alter reality in such a way that it's possible to gain profound insight into things never contemplated before. That night, alone on the peak of the highest mountain in Alabama, I learned how to predict the future from the wind. It's not logical, but neither is life. As I lay there all night listening to the wind reveal each and every aspect of the future in exacting detail, of this I was certain: for as long as life remains unpredictable, I know the course of the future revealed to me on that enchanted mountain top will remain completely accurate.

But maybe once the mountain reveals the future, it never lets you leave. That's what I was beginning to believe the next morning after turning right on Highway 281 out of the park heading toward Florida. It's a beautiful highway similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway leading through gorgeous woods and mountains for many miles. Then it ends suddenly without warning or explanation. The only choice is to head back up the mountain and turn the other direction out of the park. Highway 281, the same highway, down the other side of the mountain is equally beautiful. But this time I'm headed north. And IF it dead ends again, it will be beyond enchantment; it will be the Twilight Zone - a state park with no way out.

Fortunately, a few miles down the highway, I see a sign that says Highway 49. It goes south out of the park, and I take it. Whew!!! What an adventure. I still don't know how I got in, but at least I got out!

I really wouldn't have minded spending the rest of my life there, if the mountain had wished me to stay... but I told my wife I'd be in Pensacola Beach at 5:00 PM today. And she has precedence over any mountain I know of.

Headed south the scenery changes and the land becomes flat. The foliage takes on a more summer color. The dogwood trees either don't exist here or are past their blooming stage, as are the redbud trees that were so rich in iridescent color in the mountains. As if to make up for this absence of color, the azaleas in southern Alabama are in full bloom.

I'm making good time down Highway 9 and pickup Highway 31 in Montgomery easily with very little traffic. At Brewton AL, I fuel up and turn south on Highway 29 toward the gulf city of Pensacola FL.

The Pensacola Bay Bridge out to Gulf Breeze is awesome - the longest bridge I've ever been on, on a bike. I've heard people who live in ocean towns talk of how scary it is to ride a motorcycle across a long, windy bay bridge. And I must admit, that I thought they were being a bit wimpy. But I'll not think that again. With the unwritten Florida law (?) that requires mini-vans to drive in the left lane at 20 MPH under the speed limit, and SUVs to pass rapidly in the right lane 20 MPH OVER the speed limit, there are no good places for motorcycles on windy bridges!

Then there's the final, comparatively short, bridge out to Pensacola Beach (Santa Rosa?) island. At the end is a toll booth where fifty cents per axle is charged to get onto the island. I tried to pay the attendant fifty cents to let me in, and he wanted a dollar!!! Same as a car! I was incensed, but then looked at my watch and to my horror discovered that it was 5:03 PM and I was THREE minutes late, already. Lucky for him.

The Hilton Garden Inn is easy to find; it's about the largest building on the island. As I rode up, there appeared to be a Hum-Vee convention going on in the parking lot. Shinny, brand-new, spotless, Hum-Vees were everywhere, as were men in black ties and women in evening dresses. Neat, I thought. There must be some sort of concours d'elegance contest for obnoxious, overpriced automobiles going on here! But it turned out to be just a charity event in the hotel lobby.

The Hilton Garden Inn in Pensacola Beach FL is quite elegant, made even more so by the hordes of beautiful people in formal wear on this particular evening. As I ambled through the lobby carrying a bug splattered tent, sleeping bag, bed roll, and assortment of motorcycle odds and ends, I'll admit I felt a bit self-conscious. I got into the elevator quickly, amazed that I hadn't dropped anything. Then, half-a-dozen or so men and women in formal attire, plus one bellboy pushing a cart load of expensive Eagle Creek luggage, piled into the elevator just as the door was closing. I was trapped in the back. Of course when my floor came up first, just about everyone had to pile out of the elevator to let me by. I did make it as far as the door before accidently dropping everything into a big pile in the third floor lobby. My startled audience all took a step back, not knowing exactly what to do. "It's ok, REALLY," I said. "I'll be camping here tonight!" Some laughed, and some looked shocked.

Three pools, a view of either the bay or the gulf (your preference when making reservations), and drinks on the beach for about five dollars each. I have to admit, this is a pretty nice place. I realize now why they charge a dollar to get onto the island; it's to keep people like me out!

There is NO beach party tonight - my wife told me that so I'd be here at 5:05 PM TODAY, and not sometime tomorrow, or the next day. She knows me well and she's crafty like that. John D. Rockefeller once said of his employees, "I cheat my boys every chance I get; it keeps them on their toes!" I think she read his book.

She makes up for it though. After a shave and shower, we go out for a nice dinner at a seafood restaurant on the boardwalk - her treat!

The next morning, it feels good to be zooming away from Pensacola Beach at warp speed on a motorcycle. I hate leaving my wife behind on the island, but I've got things to see and places to be. And warp speed, by the way, is a relative term - this is, after all, a 250cc bike. But in about five hours and two hundred seventy miles, if all goes well, I should be standing on the edge of Providence Canyon in southern Georgia.

Blasts of cool refreshing air radiate up from the bay as the Pensacola peninsula fades into the rear-view mirrors. I enjoyed my stay at the beach, but am glad to be leaving. The people there are just a bit too ostentatious for someone like me: someone who can predict the future from the sound of the wind.

Providence Canyon

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

View from main entrance

Providence Canyon is in the middle of nowhere. At least it appears to be when you arrive having traveled from Eufaula Alabama, Dothan Alabama, and Pensacola Florida, respectively. My bike is parked in the parking lot and I'm reading a large sign in front of the canyon that says...

During the ice age that occurred during the Late Proterozoic glaciation, the southern portion of the supercontient Pangea was at the south pole. The result was extensive glaciation resulting in excessive plate tectonic forces which created what is now known as Providence Canyon in southwest Georgia.

Ok, ok, ...that entire last paragraph, I confess, is false. I made it up. The lovely canyon that stretches before me, know as Providence Canyon, was only 150 years ago, a five-foot-deep ditch that began forming in a Stewart County farmer's back yard. It got this huge due to soil erosion and poor farming practices. But I ain't saying I just rode eight hundred miles to see a ditch, so if you don't mind, I'll stick with my own explanation of how it got here.

It's a very beautiful ditch indeed, though. And being a ditch isn't a bad thing. You could call the Grand Canyon a big ditch. But if you did, you'd have to call Providence Canyon a smaller ditch; it looks pretty much the same, but on a less grand scale.

Providence Canyon

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

View from visitor's center

I snap a few pictures, none of which do it justice. Late afternoon or early morning light would really bring out the depth of the canyon and the many colors. It's possible to walk all the way around one edge of the canyon from the entrance to the visitor's center and even beyond - a trail leads into the canyon itself. Many beautiful pictures of the canyon can be found on the Internet. But for now, I'd like to get as far north as possible before night falls, so that tomorrow I'll have plenty of time to see Alabama's little grand canyon, the Little River Canyon. I reluctantly bid Providence Canyon farewell until we meet again, start the bike, and ride off to the North.

Columbus Georgia, which is due north of Providence Canyon, is suppose to be an interesting and historical city, but I take the I-185 bypass north to Highway 27 and miss just about all of it. No big deal, I have different aspirations for this journey.

Nightfall gets me as far north as Rome, Georgia. After checking into a cheap motel, I unpack and go out for dinner. I had planned on camping tonight, but instead decide to ride as far as possible so I'll be closer to The Little River Canyon tomorrow. Back at the motel, after dinner, I calculate some mileages and distances from the log book. I've traveled 1,005 total miles thus far. Today, I've traveled 450 miles, the longest day yet. Rome Georgia, where I am now, is about 200 miles from Nashville and 35 miles east of the Little River in Alabama, so I should have plenty of time to explore tomorrow. Fuel mileage has been close to 72 MPG on average, with 62 MPG being the lowest, and 79 MPG being the highest. I've spent $19.89 total on gas so far. The Weather Channel is predicting still more beautiful weather for tomorrow. I go to bed early and get a good night's sleep.

Little River Canyon Falls

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

View from Alabama Highway 35 overlook

The Little River Canyon begins about twenty miles east of Fort Payne, Alabama with the Little River plunging over a water fall. From Little River Falls the canyon extends southward for eleven miles at a depth of six hundred feet below the canyon rim. It isn't nearly as colorful as Providence Canyon, but it does have a river, a number of waterfalls, and a mountain-like ambiance that make it unique.

The Little River Canyon

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

View from one of the many overlooks

I've ridden parts of the canyon road before that runs along the west rim, but never all of it. Today, from the map I got at the falls overlook, I hope to ride all the way around the entire length of the canyon.

Canyon Rim Road

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

Alabama Highway 176

Canyon Rim Drive (Alabama 176 according to the map) has some of the most coarse pavement I've ever been on. It's very scenic, though, with lots of overlooks and turnoffs. The dogwoods are in full bloom again at this higher latitude and elevation. There's no traffic on the road and a bright blue sky above, making for a beautiful ride.

The Little River Canyon

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

View of one of the scenic turnoffs

Beyond Graces High Falls and Eberhart Point, the highway turns very rough with many steep hills and dips, and bad pavement. Some of the inclines are so steep, probably more than thirty degrees, I have difficulty maintaining momentum even in first gear. And some of the downhill sections are so severe that on several occasions I bottom out the suspension while braking over rough spots. The views and the scenery make it all worthwhile but, still, the trip beyond Eberhart Point would be better suited for a dual sport bike or an SUV, than a little cruiser loaded with luggage and camping gear.

Graces High Falls

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

View from Canyon Rim Drive

Eventually I arrive at Canyon Mouth Park which is at the southern-most point of the canyon. It has taken me almost three hours to ride from one end of an eleven mile canyon to the other! I could have walked the distance much faster, I think to myself, then look down at the odometer and realize I've actually ridden closer to thirty miles. That makes me feel a little better. I did stop often at the overlooks, and even once to clean all the dead bugs off the fork tubes in an effort not to wear out the fork seals. I'm sure most of those extra miles were due to hills and turns, as opposed to checking out the overlooks though. I've ridden parts of three separate county roads along the western edge of the canyon to get here, and the last two roads consisted more of holes and patches than pavement! All things considered the GZ250 did pretty well as a trail bike.

Canyon Rim Drive

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

Watch that big rock in the road!

I exit Canyon Mouth Park and travel one last stretch of county road to pick up State Route 273, the quick route back to the north entrance of the canyon and Highway 35. This time I cover the distance in about twelve minutes.

One final stop... Desota Falls north of Fort Payne near Desota State Park, then the final trek home. Alabama Highway 117 will take me over the Lookout Mountain chain in Alabama, then to the top of Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee where I'll pick up Tennessee Highway 41A to Nashville. It's a route I'm familiar with, with many curves and switchbacks.

Desota Falls

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

Near Desota State Park

Approaching home on this beautiful spring day, I look down at the odometer and calculate that I've traveled one thousand two hundred sixty seven miles. Some might say that's a long trip for a 250, that a bigger bike might be better.

I'm reminded of the first 35mm camera that I ever owned. It was a simple instrument with totally manual focus and exposure. It took forever to make a photograph, but I learned more of the art of photography, and of life, with that simple camera than any of the others I've ever owned. Its lack of sophistication forced the photographer to slow down, to understand and appreciate not only the fundamentals of operation, but also the condition of the heart, mind, and soul necessary to make a great photograph. In my opinion, this little motorcycle is no different.

I sold my first camera to a European guy who didn't mind slowing down to take great photographs. Everyone said I needed a better one, but I haven't made a great photograph since.

May your travels bring peace, tranquility, and inspiration; and may your journey be enriched by the condition of your heart, mind, and soul.

When you find an instrument that allows all these things to happen, use it. No matter what anyone says.

On the Road

Photo by Pat Henry, 2003

Pat Henry

Copyright 2003