Back to the South

Tuesday, 14 January 2014 15:30
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Alabama sunsetNorth through Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee



Coming out of the caves at Florida Caverns, it was a pretty quick trip up into Alabama. The terrain shifted from flat and swampy Florida to the beginnings of some hills and trees for a change, and I was a little surprised at how unusual that seemed after a few weeks in the squishy billiard table that is the Florida landscape. Other than that, it wasn’t a particularly memorable drive, and I pulled into Eufaula, AL (my random dartboard destination for the evening) just after nightfall.

My plan for the next day was to get to Atlanta, but as usual I opted for the scenic route, this time around Fort Benning and across parts of rural Alabama and Georgia before getting into metro Atlanta from the south. Before I got into the countryside, I wandered around Eufaula a bit on my way out of town. It was really nothing to write home about on the south side (the way I came in), but there was a really nice section of antebellum homes up along Eufaula Avenue north of Broad Street. The town had two pretty distinct periods of prosperity, the first in the mid-1800s from cotton plantations (after they kicked out the Creek Indians), then after they recovered from the Civil War in the early 1900s, again seeing a lot of wealth coming from cotton. Almost all of the nice homes and buildings in the area were built during these two periods (as well as a really nice Carnegie Library), and the area gradually declined as cotton production suffered in the 1920s from a boll weevil infestation and never really fully recovered after that.

Eufaula, AL This one is for sale for around $450K Neat porch
Great windows The Carnegie Library in Eufaula This one is for sale too; just under $1M
Another lovely home Every little southern town seems to have a Confederate Army memorial in the square This one is a fixer-upper

Leaving Eufaula, I drove up through some Alabama countryside and into rural Georgia, and stumbled across some more abandoned structures along the way. I also made a quick pit stop in Warm Springs, GA, home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Little White House”, his favorite spot when he wasn’t in Washington, and also where he died. They had a nice little museum there, and the house itself was preserved in almost the same condition it was when he was last there. After the history lesson, I continued on toward Atlanta.

FDR's Little White House FDR was also a fan of road trips The Little White House
FDR's study, with the line to Washington behind his chair A little different than today's headlines A pretty basic kitchen for a White House

Karma was apparently coming around to get me in the form of the dreaded Polar Vortex, which was rapidly moving into the Atlanta area (as well as a large chunk of the rest of the country.) I probably shouldn’t have sent all those pictures from Miami Beach to my friends in Calgary, as the local temps in Atlanta were dropping like a rock. By the time I got to my Airbnb stay in the city (a really nice house up near Piedmont Park), the thermometer had hit 13 degrees and was still falling.  I met up with my friend Elmer for dinner (who picked me up in the great-great-grandson of my car, a 350Z convertible), and we got caught up on some entertainment industry and club motorcycle racing news. After dinner, I went back to my room, did a little photo editing, and then hit the sack.

Incoming polar vortex. Not quite as nice looking as those maps from Florida...

The next morning, the local news said it was 7 degrees outside, and the thermometer in the car read a balmy 4 degrees. Amazingly, the car fired right up and idled just fine, even with the frigid temps. I had to give it a little more time to get the motor and the transmission oil somewhere out of the “molasses” stage, but with the classic “block the radiator off with a grocery bag” trick doing its thing, it stayed right around 170 degrees, which was also enough to get some good output from the heater. I was not too afraid of any further northward travel after that, as it’s unlikely I’ll see anything colder than the Vortex on the rest of the trip (but I suppose you never know.) I met up with Elmer again for breakfast, but as it was too cold to do some of the exploring around Atlanta that I was considering, I did some blog updating instead. I’ve spent plenty of time in Atlanta in the past, so the visit was mostly about seeing friends anyway. I did do some driving around the park area and downtown, though. Later that evening, I hit the non-polar Vortex (in Little Five Points) for one of their famous burgers, then made the icy drive back to the room.

Icebound rubber duck in not-so-Hotlanta Inside the Vortex, while inside the vortex WERA Roadracing worldwide headquarters

I was headed for Huntsville, AL the next day, but first I stopped in to visit Sean and Evelyn of WERA Motorcycle Roadracing in Canton, GA. I’ve raced motorcycles with WERA for…wow, 18 years now. Ten or so of those years were in the national series, with the most recent outing being in February before I started prepping the car for the trip. It’s still a lot of fun, although now I’m lining up against guys who are literally half my age. It was less fun in Canton, as Evelyn was battling incoming water from a broken pipe in the neighboring office due to the deep freeze, but that eventually got sorted out, and after a bit more semi-soggy visiting, I took off for Huntsville.

I was now in the southern foothills of the Appalachians, and the scenery was getting more interesting. I crossed over into Alabama again, and drove along the Little River toward Fort Payne until I came across a turnout for a waterfall. I figured crazy cold temperatures plus a waterfall could make for some interesting ice out there, so I parked the car and hiked back about a half mile toward the river, where I was most definitely not disappointed by the ice display. The waterfall itself wasn’t iced up, but all of the hillsides where groundwater and rainwater ran out of the rocks toward the river were completely covered in giant icicles, some up to 20’ tall or so. It took some trail-free hiking out through the underbrush to get to some of the cooler looking stuff, but it was completely worth it, as those sorts of short-lived phenomena are always fun to see when they’re in full swing.

I wasn't trespassing, I was sightseeing Gateway to the back 40 You always wonder what happened that places like this get abandoned
Back porch Still really liking a lot of the depth and texture of these kinds of places Remarkably graffiti or vandalism, just decay
Been a while since this pumped gas...13 cents a gallon, and only a single digit in the dollar column Heading into Fort Payne Sunset over the Tennessee River


Giant icicles over the Little River Ice from water seepage out of the surrounding cliffs and rocks Ice, ice baby
Ice wall in the middle of the woods The post-vortex melt-off was already starting; big icicles were falling all around More ice
So yes, maybe I was a little fascinated with all the ice Big icicles everywhere OK, that's enough ice photos

After my little ice hike, I got back on the road toward Huntsville. I was going there to meet up with Phil, a fellow Roadster owner (and a NASA engineer) who had graciously offered me both a place to crash and the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Marshall Space Flight Center. Conveniently for me, I got to Phil’s house right around dinnertime, and we all (me, Phil, his wife, and his daughter) immediately took off for some BBQ at “Dreamland”, which was really good. (As a side project, I’m trying to hit all the regional BBQ types, and this was the first one after my awesome Carolina experiences. I’ll be trying to hit BBQ styles in Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Texas, and anything in between as well.) After filling up on ribs, sides, and banana pudding, we went back to the house and naturally talked Roadsters for a bit, then turned in.

The Roadster likes sunsets and long drives on the beach

Huntsville is a very important part of the history of rocketry and space exploration in the US, although it’s one that most people forget about. The other NASA centers get quite a bit more press—the Kennedy Space Center in Florida is where the majority of the launches happen, and the Johnson Space Center in Houston is of course well known as the communication center for the astronauts (e.g., “Houston, we have a problem…”) However, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville is really where it all started, and it’s where an enormous part of the physical preparation work for space goes on. Marshall grew out of the rocket ordnance programs at the Redstone Arsenal (which Marshall leases its land from), and rocketry really took off (hah) when Werner Von Braun’s group of Operation Paperclip alumni was moved there in 1950. Marshall is NASA’s largest facility, and one of its primary missions is the development of launch systems. The Redstone rocket that put the first man from the US (Alan Shepard) into space was developed, tested, and built here, as was the mighty Saturn V from the Apollo program. The space shuttle main engines were developed and tested here, large chunks of the international space station were built here, the current SLS program rockets are being developed and built here…there’s an amazing amount of stuff going on at the facility.

The best kind of backstage pass

Phil had taken off work for most of the next day, so we started out by doing to the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. We actually started out by visiting the DaVinci exhibit, which was really cool—they had everything from his scientific and engineering drawings to working models of many of his inventions to a big display on the analysis of the Mona Lisa, where they took thousands of extremely high resolution photos in multiple wavelengths and were able to reconstruct the colors and appearance of the masterpiece at the time it was painted. After getting our art on, we moved on to checking out the rockets. The ‘rocket garden’ outside had many historic rockets, including a Saturn IB, an Atlas, and a variety of others, but the coolest thing out there was an F1 rocket motor, just sitting there where you could walk up to it and touch it. (The F1 is the main engine for the Saturn V; there were five of them on the first stage of each Saturn.) Up to now I’d only seen one at the Smithsonian and the five on the Saturn at Kennedy, but here was one just sort of hanging out in the open, which was all kinds of awesome.

It was quite a display of DaVinci stuff Some of his anatomical studies
Mona Lisa, under different wavelengths of light More Mona analysis

What the Mona Lisa would have looked like back when it was painted

Phil had a 1:00pm meeting, so while he went off to that, I took the opportunity to get a much-needed haircut. After we were both done with those, we met back up at the house, then Phil drove us over to the Marshall Space Flight Center, where I got checked and badged and we started checking out NASA proper. I knew this was NASA’s propulsion center, but I wasn’t really expecting to see as many rocket motors just hanging around as we did. The F1 at the museum was neat, but at Marshall there were more F1s, some J2s, an SSME (space shuttle main engine), an experimental Boeing aerospike motor, a shuttle solid rocket booster, and a nuclear NERVA rocket motor, among others. The on-site ‘rocket garden’ had many of the same rockets that were at the museum, but also had one of the V2s captured and brought back to the US after WWII.

There's a Saturn V in there Saturn V (mockup), upright Saturn rocket back in the rocket garden
The Rocketdyne F1 motor, from the Saturn V 1st stage. Touchy-feely exhibit. Always check the label on your rocket motors to be sure it's genuine Rocketdyne The Rocketdyne J2, second and third stage Saturn motor
Space shuttle main engine and F1 in front of the Marshall main building Business end of the SSME...this one had been test fired Rocket fuel
Brains of the SSME, just strapped on to the side of the thing Another F1 motor, with me for scale Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME)

We walked through several of the buildings, visited the original Redstone test setup (which was basically a strapped-down complete Redstone), and saw the original test stand for the Apollo F1 engines (from a distance; we couldn’t get too close to that.) We also went into a very large load and stress testing building, where they had an enormous structural testing stand that was built during the Apollo era. This kind of testing apparatus is used to pull on materials and structures to check their strength. We had one of these at the old shop to break test wire rope and similar stuff; ours could pull about 10,000 lbs and was about 2’ square and 6’ high. This one had a 75’ high by 57’ wide door to load in the test piece, an 82’ square attachment table that moves up and down 100’ on four giant lead screws, and can put 30,000,000 pounds of force into a test piece that’s up to 100’ high and 54’ in diameter. When we went in, they were testing one of the SLS rocket bodies using a combination of load cells, strain gauges, and photogrammetry against a random dot pattern. It was awe inspiring.

The original Redstone engine test stand, complete with original Redstone rocket The original F1 test stand. They fired off all five at once here, rattling Huntsville pretty good. This is the "little" tensile test stand. That's a 200,000lb load cell.
Part of the data acquisition setup. They have room for over 4500 inputs. About 1/4 of the monster load testing apparatus. That's an SLS rocket body being tested. More load testing stuff. The big door goes to the giant test room.
Helpful liquid hydrogen turbopump facts, from the space shuttle main engine A cutaway of the turbopump. Testing: The key to a successful mission

We also visited the new(ish) 7-axis milling machine (and the adjacent machine shop) where they were turning more SLS rocket bodies, and stopped by the additive machining (“3D printing”) test facility where they were testing all sorts of materials and techniques on hard-to-manufacture parts. The building where all this was going on was the building where the Saturn V rockets were originally manufactured.

SLS rocket body sections; rolled, welded, and ready for machining I want one of these for my garage Unfortunately, I'll need a garage about 10 times the size of my house
The machine shop. Interesting lack of CNC machines; these are all Apollo era, and all still in use The "little" mill, cleaning up a weldment About a 1" Friction Stir Welding bead, for my much geekier friends
Just a random crew capsule kicking around the shop It wasn't that clean; they let me in This is where they assembled the Saturn Vs

After all that, we went back to Phil’s house, had some pizza, and talked engineering and Roadsters into the evening. I also got some laundry done, which is always appreciated. It was really a great stay and an amazing tour, and extremely generous of Phil to take the time to show me around, not to mention feed me (twice!) and let me do laundry.

I swung back past the Davidson Center on my way out of town the next morning and got a few photos of the car with various spacecraft (and an SR-71 that they’ve got sitting in the parking lot), then started making my way toward Louisville, my next stop.

Little car, big rocket The shuttle isn't the real thing, but I think the external tank and boosters are SPL-311 Datsun with SR-71 Lockheed


On the way to Louisville, I stopped by Lynchburg, TN and visited the Jack Daniels distillery, where I had a little early morning whiskey and a pretty neat tour. I continued meandering across Tennessee, stumbled across an old cemetery tucked into the woods on one of the side roads, and stopped at Ruby Falls outside of Chattanooga, TN. Ruby Falls is a 65’ tall waterfall that’s inside of an underground cavern under Lookout Mountain, about 1100’ underground. Leo Lambert, the guy who discovered it, was actually looking for a new entrance into different cave that had been covered up during nearby railroad construction when he accidentally drilled into the void that led back to the falls. Over the next few years, he developed it into a tourist attraction where you take an elevator down about 300’ and then hike back about half a mile to the falls. It’s a little touristy and has the same tour guide anthropomorphism problem that afflicts practically every cave on this side of the country (“…and that formation looks just like the profile of General Lee!”), but it was pretty wild seeing a giant waterfall that far underground.

Making the charcoal used to filter the whiskey A little charcoal graffiti in the storage room
The cave spring where all the whiskey-making water comes from for Jack Daniels Recommended by physicians


Weird middle-of-nowhere graveyard in the woods RIP, Ruth Most recent stone I saw was from the mid-1980s


It was a little foggy heading up to Lookout Mountain Some neat formations on the hike back to the waterfall Lambert had to crawl through areas like this to reach the waterfall the first time
Part of the pathway back to the falls. The bottom 4' or so was excavated for easier passage. More formations Ruby Falls, 1100' underground

 I wrapped up my brief time in Chattanooga by taking a break from my BBQ quest to engage in a short fried chicken quest (when in Rome and all that), and went over to Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken and chowed down for a bit. Afterward, I had a dark and rainy drive up to Louisville, where I’d gotten a room at the lovely and historic Seelbach Hotel, a place I’d first stayed at over 20 years ago when I was a roadie. This would begin a loop through the Midwest to pick up the states I had originally left off of my itinerary.

Mmmm...Chattanooga fried chicken

Next stops: Louisville, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City


+1 #1 Datsun.Dave 2014-01-15 11:22
Ohhhh Karma. You have my back. Perhaps you let him off a little easy however... Hope all that BBQ makes your thong ride up.

The melt is on in Calgary today. 48 degrees and sunny. Figure that out...

Apologies to Scott's Mum for the tasteless nature of this comment! :-*
#2 laceytrynn 2014-01-15 11:51
I loved the ice and the DaVinci stuff… also, were those really the colors at Ruby Falls?!
#3 lectacave 2014-01-15 13:53
Utterly fascinating! Hey, maybe there's a market for industrial art photos... although I suppose Margaret Bourke White has dabbled. Anyway, the welding bead photo was neat-o, as were all your other pics. Those engines boggle the mind! Steve Jobs' worst nightmare. Now if you'll excuse me I need to go get some fried chicken.
#4 FairladySPL 2014-01-15 14:51
I am glad you got to the Saturn factory, but I didn't know they had switched to spaceships when they quit making cars.
#5 67Roadster 2014-01-15 17:02
Actually, in one of the buildings at Marshall, a car was produced - only a few. It was a Kelly. The building it was made in is behind the Rocket Park. NASA made the building shipping and receiving, but now is being taken down….

It was great to have you over Scott! Come by any time and we will find another BBQ house.
#6 admin 2014-01-17 12:09
Were those really the colors at Ruby Falls?!
No, they had some tacky color-changing LED lights on everything, and that was as close as they got to a natural hue. The cave is actually all limestone, so the real colors are in the white/beige/lig ht brown range.

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