For all the problems that plague the American South -- all the poverty, low employment, empty storefronts, Springtime mountain stream Mountain stream pot-holed streets -- this remains beautiful country, with good food and friendly folks. We try to avoid freeways whenever possible, so we have spent most of our driving time on the kind of highway which was the major road fifty years ago but which has since lost much of its traffic.

We frequently drive parallel to the railroad tracks, enjoying the occasional train whistle and the sight of the special-purpose pickup trucks which drive right on the tracks, carrying repairmen and inspectors and such -- the modern-day equivalent of gandy dancers. We keep looking for places like Kathy's Kountry Kitchen, the sturdy hometown cafes we remember from earlier trips, but there are more chain restaurants and Garden dedicated to Harper Lee Harper Lee rose garden fewer mom-and-pop stores these days. The trickiest part of arranging lunch is that many of these towns are now so small that there are no restaurants at all; sometimes we know we are in a town only because we pass the Post Office, the only commercial building left.

But sometimes there are surprises. Monroeville, Alabama, is the home town of Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird. Just this year, the discovery of a second Harper Lee novel (actually the first book she wrote) has been in the news. To Set A Watchman has just recently been Statue of children reading Children read to Grandpa Bob published, more than a half-century after the publication of Mockingbird.

We passed through Monroeville as the town was preparing for its annual production of the play of To Kill A Mockingbird, which involves many of the townspeople and uses some of the locations and buildings from the book. In addition, Monroeville holds several writers' workshops and associated literary events. The entire town looks scrubbed up and thriving, with banners celebrating their famous resident.

Montgomery, Alabama, is the capital of the state but parts of the city are shockingly decrepit, a condition we have seen before in other state capitals. Alabama state capitol Alabama state capitol We decided that we wanted to visit the State Capitol, because it has become a sort of habit of ours.

The Alabama state capitol is quite imposing, built on a hill and accessible by a significant flight of stairs. We found a place to park Jose-the-truck, fed the parking meter, climbed the stairs and entered the building.

But that is as far as we got. We had forgotten to leave our tiny Swiss Army Knife in the car. The guard had no place to keep it while we visited the Capitol, and we couldn't face a return trip down and up the stairs, so this building remains unvisited by us. What Kept Us Out What kept us out

Farther East, in Ashland, Alabama, we spotted a single grave near the side of our road. It was the carefully tended grave of a baby girl who had died while traveling through, in 1860.

In Sevierville, Tennessee, Bob had a chance to meet Dolly Parton, and joined her for a photo op.

In many locations, the weekends are Dolly Parton statue Bob and Dolly chock full of activities, from concerts to races to barbecues to handicraft and farm markets. But we soon learned the favorite recreation: The Tail of the Dragon!

As we reached the mountain states of North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, we began to realize that the scenery is vertical -- steep hillsides, rocky or forested, with streams full of rapids helped us realize why this country is so sparsely populated. Fortunately for us, there was very little traffic on the The motorcycles love this highway Jose-the-truck on the Dragon roads we had chosen, so we could steal glimpses out over lower mountain ranges. We began to get used to the 9 and 10 percent grade signs.

Gradually we became aware that the other traffic on our road was mostly motorcycles. Sometimes, going around a tight curve, the rider would be almost lying on the pavement, a terrifying sight. These riders included the weekend motorcyclists we so often see, riding almost in a parade, but they tend to be younger, Mountain view West Virginia mountains fitter, and more apt to risk life and limb. At many of the curves, a photographer was stationed, taking photos of each vehicle that passed.

Although we didn't expect it, someone photographed our truck, and we were able to find the picture on the list of hundreds and hundreds of thumbnail pictures for that day. Here is Jose-the-truck in all his glory.

We enjoyed many driving days in this beautiful countryside, with sunny skies and moderate temperatures, people who were happy to chat for a moment or two on the street or in the hotel, and peaceful, uncrowded country roads.