Have you ever been driving down country road, perhaps through the middle of a little country town, and seen a shirtless old guy, leathery brown skin all puckered around his belly, riding an inappropriately small kids’ dirt bike? His knees bow out to the sides to keep them from hitting his wrists while he pedals, and every so often he spits out to the side as if to mark his way, like Hansel and Gretel did with the gingerbread crumbs. Have you ever wondered about this guy’s life, and how he got to a mental place of feeling comfortable weaving all over the country road, sucking on a plastic Sprite bottle and riding an uncomfortably small kids’ dirt bike? Well, over in Alabama this guy works for the Department of Transportation. He’s their road engineer.
Because I love cheap junk and odd people, a student who knows a bit about both suggested we head over to Collinsville and check it out sometime. Collinsville is not that hard to find—just start out toward Centre, Alabama, find a truck with a bed full of puppies, chickens, or rusty farm equipment and then follow that truck. You’ll wind up in Collinsville, along with a good number of tough-looking country folks who look like they could kick the swine flu’s ass. Along with the livestock, farm equipment and grown things, trade day in Collinsville also offers a variety of “things that fell off the back of the truck.” Rows of white socks stacked like marshmallows, industrial size rolls of commercial toilet paper, and poorly shrink-wrapped DVDs and video games cover aged plywood tables. Husband and I talked our trusting son out of a few “bargains,” but we did spend $4 on used books. Books. How elitist are we?
After Collinsville, we got back in the van and headed towards Lake Guntersville to meet some friends. According to the shiny, only moderately grammatically correct brochure on fishing in Alabama, Lake Guntersville is the largest lake in the state. I wonder, then, why the heck it is so hard to find? At the largest lake in the state, one would think we’d just keep driving that direction and eventually fall in the damn thing. Apparently the old guy on the dirt bike had other plans, and his roads took us every direction except toward the lake.
After giving up on GoogleMaps and our 1998 state map of Georgia with a tiny sliver of Alabama on the side, we stopped somewhere on 227 and asked a couple of guys working on the side of the road if they were familiar with the largest lake in the state, and whereabouts it might be located. They were extremely helpful tanned gentlemen who I guess also work for the Department of Transportation—they seemed to be working hard to take down every road sign at the intersections along 227. One of them gave simple directions like “go up a hill and then down a hill and turn where the car dealership used to be,” while the other preferred an alternate route. He suggested we backtrack some, then look for the signs to some other town, then go through that town until we came to a road that could be 431 or 441 or 414, he couldn’t remember quite which, and then turn one way or the other on that. Again, he couldn’t recall, but he was pretty sure it was a left turn.
After a few more turns and several up-and-down hills, we came up to an intersection with a traffic jam the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the Collinsville Trade Day parking lot. Three or four cars in each direction, and all we could see were red lights flashing. I assumed an accident had occurred, as I think most drivers would, and I slowed down out of concern. In fact, it wasn’t an accident at all. With two fire trucks parked on the embankments, the local VFD had stopped traffic in all directions to ask each car for donations to their cause. Worse than Shriners! I pulled up and started to get out some money, because even though I resent this type of fundraising, when you are lost in Alabama the last people you want to offend are the firefighters. Since we seemed to be paying for it anyway, I asked the woman firefighter holding her boot for further directions to the Lake. “Lake?” she said. She had a fluff of gauze hanging out of her right ear, and a trail of what looked like yellow betadine solution dripping down her neck. “LAKE GUNTERSVILLE?” I repeated.
After some back-and-forth, with several lines repeated due to her compromised hearing and the honking of cars behind me, we headed on to the lake based on her revised directions, which involved “heading over to the four way stop and then turning left.” I like it when people say things like “four way stop” when giving directions. It clears up any confusion that might come with phrases like “major intersection,” or “the corner where Pappy used to sell his vegetables before he died back in ’93.”
We finally did make it to the largest lake in Alabama, and once there enjoyed several other adventures which I will share at a later date. My fingers grow weary, dear reader. Of course, once there, we had to make it back. Since we did not have any real clear idea of how we got there to begin with, we decided to go home a different way. We asked a camper in the park for suggestions. That camper asked her neighbor, who consulted with a friend, who suggested another map, which lead us to a ranger station, then a Sheriff’s deputy, then, at dusk, on our way on 227 with directions to “stay straight.” Whatever we did, we were supposed to stay on 227 going straight back to Collinsville.
Who ever heard of a guy on a kids’ dirt bike heading straight? There is no straight. Straight isn’t even an option.
Eventually we gave up, ate dinner in Gadsden, and followed a federal highway up to a familiar road. The feds can’t do much right—we all know that. But when it comes to roads, they’re doing a lot better than the guy on the bike.