Fun with Highways: Gadsden, Alabama

Alabama remains a somewhat mysterious place to us at CatSynth – it’s one of only six states I haven’t yet visited. We did take fellow readers on a virtual drive of the state during our 2012 Primary Highways series. Today our virtual trip heads north from Birmingham on I-59 towards the town of Gadsden, Alabama.

Gadsden is the largest town in and the county seat of Etowah County and has a population of about 35,000. To put this in perspective, it’s a little over half the size of Santa Cruz, California, where CatSynth began. But unlike Santa Cruz, Gadsden boasts its own Interstate highway, I-759. It begins at an interchange with I-59 west of town and then crosses a long causeway of a wide section of the Coosa River before ending a junction with US 441 and Alabama State Route 759.

US 441 (Rainbow Drive) continues northward along the Coosa River, passing by the revitalized downtown area bere a junction with US 431 and US 278. It now includes galleries, boutiques, institutions like the Gadsden Museum of Art and the Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts, and a park along the Coosa River.  The museum has a current exhibition Intersection from Highway 90 that looks quite interesting.

Image result for gadsden art museum Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts
[Mary G. Hardin Center for Cultural Arts]

[Spirit of American Citizenship Monument along Coosa River. By Prestinian at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia by Ronhjones) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Heading back south on US 441 to the interchange with I-759, we come to an altogether more pedestrian institution, the Gadsden Mall. The mall itself seems like a bit of a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, with textured concrete siding that doesn’t quite rise to the level of brutalism; and with Sears (Sears?!) as an anchor along with Belk, a southern department-store chain. The mall is now somewhat infamous as the haunt of a certain Etowah County assistant district attorney named Roy Moore, who was known by locals to cruise the mall for teenage women, leading to what was at least an informal ban from the mall (or as one victim put it “he was run off”).

Reading the stories of the women in this New Yorker article and are chilling, and our thoughts are with the victims who told have come forward to tell their stories. This guy is at the very least a serious creep, and worst a serial pedophile and sexual predator. But the other thing that baffled me in both articles was how this was an open secret of sorts in Gadsden. People know about and clearly disapproved of his behavior. So how did he rise from local creep and pedophile to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama twice? Why didn’t the people of Gadsden warn the rest of the state about him?

Looking back at Moore’s electoral history, he did face scrutiny and lost multiple elections, including for County Judge and later for Etowah County District Attorney. It was only several years later that he was appointed to the circuit-court seat he had earlier lost. Again, one wonders how he passed the background checks. But with the power of incumbency and his fiery extreme-Christian rhetoric, he was able to the gain election to the seat and eventually to the State Supreme Court, where he was removed twice for defying court orders in the name of his extreme brand of religion.

It is the last point, his extreme theocratic views on religion as law and his bigotry towards just about anyone who doesn’t share his beliefs, especially to the LGBTQ community and even towards Jews, that made him abhorrent long before the charges of sexual abuse and predation arose. The charges should alarm those who claim to share his “Christian” beliefs, but if anything it seems to have had the opposite effect, with some doubling down in their support in that siege mentality that seems to be universal among the religious right as well as many white nationalists and supremacists. Like Trump, he has become a symbol for the inchoate rage in many communities across the country.

I know the last thing the people of Alabama want is some liberal Jewish New Yorker telling them what to do or how to vote. I do hope they do make the right choice and reject this man who is so awful in so many ways from representing their state. Regardless of the outcome, I am sincere in my desire to hopefully visit Alabama soon, explore and play some music shows. Any leads or suggestions in this regard are welcome!

See more of Gadsden Alabama and many other fine towns across North America in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.

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Fun with Highways: Super Tuesday Part 1 (Vermont, Virginia, Tennessee)

Ahead of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, we at CatSynth will try to virtually visit many, though not all, of the states involved.

We begin in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont along State Highway 114. It winds its way from the most remote northeastern corner of the state and The Kingdom State Forest eventually into the towns and lakes of the region.

[Photo by Dougtone on flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

The scenery as seen in images often is lush and green, when it isn’t brightly colored in the autumn. It is not surprising that the Green Mountains and the state of Vermont were given their verdant names. It’s also interesting to note how different the terrain and scenery is from neighboring New Hampshire. As a reader noted in our New Hampshire edition on DailyKos, the Connecticut River that divides the two states also separates radically different geological structures between the Green Mountains of Vermont (an extension of the very old Appalachian Mountains) and the younger, rockier mountains of New Hampshire. The geography lead to very different settlement patterns, different economies (farming in Vermont versus industry in New Hampshire) and perhaps into the modern political contrasts as well.

In terms of life in The Northeast Kingdom, I often turn to the blog meeyauw, who has over the years mixed great photography from her nearby landscape with cats and mathematics. I did enjoy these recent pictures from the author’s home near Barton Mountain, not far from Highway 16.

We can follow VT 16 back to Interstate 91, the main highway in and out of the “The Kingdom”. Heading south on I-91, the terrain looks a lot like eastern New York, hilly and forested. We turn off the highway onto US 2 and head west to Montpelier, the state capital. It has the distinction of being the smallest state capital in the U.S.

[By Jared C. Benedict [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

It is in Montpelier that we turn onto Interstate 89, which crosses the state diagonally from New Hampshire in the southeast to the Canadian border in the northwest. Along the way it connects the capital to the largest city, Burlington. Although I-89 never enters the city, it is easy to connect to the downtown via US 2.

[By Jared and Corin (Church Street, Burlington, Vermont) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Probably more than any other place in Vermont, Burlington defines the state’s current political reputation. It is home to Bernie Sanders, onetime socialist mayor of the city and current U.S. Senator. We at CatSynth have long been fans of Sanders, not only for his political views but also his strong Brooklyn accent. Burlington is also the birthplace of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. The city itself is on Lake Champlain, and one can look out from its waterfront across the lake to New York State.

Lake Champlain contains several large islands, particularly in its northern half. US 2 traverses most of these, including Grand Isle via a network of bridges and causeways before heading west at the north end of the lake, where Vermont, New York and Quebec all meet.

[Photo by Dougtone on flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

The islands themselves have small bays and interesting geography, including one bay called “The Gut.”

From Vermont, we jump to Virginia, the other state that begins with the letter “V”. We begin just south of Washington, DC at the notorious Mixing Bowl Interchange.

[Click image to enlarge.]

The Mixing Bowl, also known as the Springfield Interchange, connects I-95, I-495 (the Capital Beltway) and I-395. The latter heads north into the center of Washington DC, while I-495 casts a wide circle through the suburbs. The interchange is complex-looking enough and well-known enough to have even gotten its own “Fun with Highways” article back in 2009. While the interchange in its current configuration is complicated, the aerial view is even more so because of the “ghosts” of ramps that were removed during a massive reconstruction project.

We can stay in Virginia on I-495 heading “west” (though what is west on a circular highway?) and turn west on I-66. The highway is quite crowded in the growing suburbs of northern Virginia, but starts to quiet as one moves westward. Along the way, one passes Bull Run and Manassas of Civil-War battle fame. There was not one but two major battles here. I am pretty sure there are more Civil War sites in Virginia than any other state, and many in the northern part of the state like Manassas are likely getting absorbed into the expanding suburbs. I-66 continues west towards the Appalachian Mountains, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains that form the eastern edge of the range. Before its end, we can turn southward to Shenandoah National Park and tour the Skyline Drive.

[Wallygva at en.wikipedia [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], from Wikimedia Commons]

Skyline drive runs for 105 miles and offers spectacular views of the mountains. I have heard (and seen photos) that suggest it can at times get quite foggy as well, though. Nonetheless, doing the entire drive seems like it would be rewarding if one is not in a hurry. In addition to the views, there are details such as the rather narrow Mary Rock Tunnel. The southern end of Skyline Drive connects to I-64. One can head east towards Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia and one of the country’s shrines, Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello.

[By YF12s (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons[]

The geometric aspects, symmetries and design are quite interesting, as are some of the inventions and features inside. One can tell it was a labor of love (and obsession) for its owner. For some reason, one thing that stuck with me when visiting is the idea of “a home within a home”, a much more modest actual living space almost self contained within the grander designed building.

Back on I-64, we can head west onto Interstate 81 which runs along much of the Appalachian Mountains. It passes through hills, valleys and towns along the way, and is indeed a major corridor for the interior eastern US, connecting the northeast with the south. As such, it connects to our next state.

We continue on I-81 into Tennessee, where it ends at I-40. Here we leave the interstate and head south first on TN 66 and then US 441 to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It has the distinction of being the most visited national park in the U.S. It offers great views of the southern Appalachian mountains, both scenic vistas of the mountains and details such as streams and waterfalls.

The other thing I remember from a visit as a teenager was encountering black bears. Even as one is cognizant of the fact that the bears are potentially dangerous wild animals, there is something quite endearing about them.

We did also go to the top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies and the highest point in Tennessee.

We can west from the park on US 441 to the city of Knoxville.

[By Kg4ygs – Jeffrey Paul Prickett (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

I do like the Sunsphere, though it looks quite out of place, a future retro design from a past era (or maybe a disco ball). It’s the sort of thing one expects to see abandoned as in the New York Worlds Fair, in a delightfully dystopian setting like Alexanderplatz in East Berlin. However, the Sunsphere sits in a well-maintained green park and has been reopened with an observation deck, cafes, and what I am guessing must be quite unique office space .

Continuing westward on I-40 through the state, our focus shifts to music. Nashville is of course a major music-industry center, both in terms of records and musical instruments, and is synonymous with country music (though in fairness the city is home to other types of music as well such as alternative rock). But I think I would identify more with its neighbor to the west, Memphis. Memphis is home to important early blues, but I think it is the later Electric Blues, early Rock-and-Roll and Memphis Soul (as epitomized by Stax Records) that most interest me – even as a mostly “experimental” composer, the sounds of these genres are a strong influence. I can’t personally speak to an I-40 musical rivalry between Nashville and Memphis, but perhaps some readers may be able to contribute here.

Indeed, I-40 is named the “Isaac Hays Memorial Highway” on its eastern approach to Memphis. Long before he was Chef on South Park, Isaac Hays was a leading figure in Memphis Soul on Stax. I-40 and I-240 together form a beltway around this city’s outer neighborhoods, but its downtown and many of its most famous landmarks lie further west, between I-240/I-69 and the Mississippi River. Just off this highway south of downtown is the Stax Museum on McLemore Avenue. Further north on off I-240/I-69 is large exit for Union Ave, which carries several number designations all at once (US 51/64/70/79). Union Avenue was once home to Sun Records which produced many of the earlier Rock-and-Roll artists of the 1950s. Union Avenue also provides access to Beale Street.

[Photo by ChaseGorden on flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)]

[By Jack E. Boucher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

It is a major tourist destination now with blues clubs, based on its historic significance in the development of the music. But it did go through a rough period before it was revitalized as the original music industry and the area in general went into decline in the 1960s. Consider this picture.

The Daisy Theater is still visible, but other than that the street looks run down – but somehow “authentic.” It is perhaps best to think of the new revitalized touristy street as just another phase of its history.

Because we are attempting to visit many states at once, each one will inevitably get less attention (this is true of the political process that is happening in parallel). As always, it is great to get feedback and ideas of places we missed. So please don’t be shy about leaving us your comments.

In tomorrow’s installment, we will explore a few more states, in particular Ohio and Idaho.

Fun with Highways: Florida

We begin our tour on US 1 in Coral Gables, where it is known as the South Dixie Highway. I was actually in a pub along here on Election Night 2004, watching the results with friends and colleagues from the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC). For the most part, the election was quite disappointing – and we didn’t even get to enjoy a controversial Florida result to experience first-hand. So after a night of beers and commiseration, we turned our attention back to the conference itself, and to points north. Heading up US 1 towards Miami, we come to the rather unassuming freeway ramp that marks the start of I-95, the main north-south highway along the east coast. It’s a modest beginning for a such a major road. I-95 is an elevated urban highway through downtown Miami, as is the spur I-395 which took us over the city to the MacArthur Causeway and onto Miami Beach as A1A, one of the more oddly numbered highways in the country.

In Miami Beach, A1A continues as Collins Avenue, though the Art Deco district of the South Beach neighborhood.

[Photo by wyntuition on flickr. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).]

The Art Deco architecture of many of the area’s buildings dates back to the 1920s. One see a certain modernist quality in it, with the details of traditional architectural ornament reduced to simple shapes, but unlike mid-century modernism, such ornament (albeit more abstract) remains. The design of the buildings, the bright colors and the neon lighting are all part of the neighborhood’s character. This was a fun place for food and drink, and to access the beach (it is Miami Beach, after all). The most notable thing about beaches in Florida is that the water is warm, even into the evening. For someone who has lived near beaches in northern California, actually going into the water like this is a bit of a novelty.

The next day I ventured out on my own using public transit into Miami, primarily using the elevated rail line. I stopped at Calle Ocho (8th Street) and walked its length through the heart of of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. The street carries the final section of US 41 towards downtown Miami. I think it was most curious to explore it because of my experience a few years earlier in “Big Havana” (i.e., in Cuba). Probably the main visual feature of the street were the frequent rooster statues along the side, including this somewhat “patriotic” specimen:

By the time I had gotten to downtown, where US 41 terminates at US 1., it had begun to rain. I did make it as far as Bayfront Park where I came upon this sculpture.

North of Miami, I-95 enters the Golden Glades Interchange along with Florida’s Turnpike, FL 826, US 441, and FL 9. As one can see in this photo, it is quite a tangled mess.

[Click to enlarge.]

From here, one can continue north on I-95 along the coast, or veer inland towards Orlando on the Turnpike. We will continue north on I-95, which brings us to Cocoa Beach. This is beach where I first experienced Florida’s atlantic coast as a child, the water, the sand, the seashells. Of course, the reason we stayed here was that it is part of Florida’s “Space Coast” and quite close to Cape Canaveral.

The epicenter of the American space program loomed large in the imagination – even though the moon landings were long over, space was still a powerful draw and the vehicles, structures and devices that made space travel possible were quite exciting to see up close and could even mask the fact that so much of this technology was on the edge and quite inaccessible to most of us. In that sense, space has never really entered into our lives the way computer technology (which also started as remote and rarified) has done so. That is a bit sad. Despite all the joking about a certain presidential candidate’s recent “moon base” proposal, I have to admit I wish we were more ambitious again about expanding into space. We never really solved the problem of efficiently getting into orbit, and thus haven’t been able to make it truly route and accessible. There are those working on this problem, on the Space Coast and elsewhere, but that is a topic for another time.

As one continues up the coast towards Daytona Beach, I-95 meets I-4, which heads westward and southward through the center of the state. It crosses Florida’s turnpike just south of Orlando and just next to the Walt Disneyworld Resort. Everyone knows Disneyworld. I had last been there as a teenager. EPCOT center was visually interesting (in terms of the buildings and structures), although it was already quite “retro” when it was completed in the 1980s. And the rides were not particularly compelling. I can only imagine it seems very dated now, but that could add to its visual charm.

[Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA-3.0-us (], via Wikimedia Commons]

It would be interesting to photograph. But perhaps as interesting from a photography perspective is another, now defunct, theme park just down the road. Splendid China, built and sponsored by the Chinese government, was a theme park that featured scale models of famous Chinese landmarks, including among others a miniature Great Wall. The park was never popular and closed in 2003. Since then, it has fallen into disrepair and is a frequent target of vandalism. I only found out about it as a result of a 2009 exhibition in San Francisco that included photographs by Thomas Cheng documenting the decay.

[Thomas Chang. Great Wall. Splendid China Theme Park, Orlando, Florida.
Image courtesy of the CCC online gallery. Click image to enlarge.]

I-4 continues southwest towards Tampa Bay, crossing I-75. I-75 is another major north-south national highway, and south of Tampa it largely follows along Florida’s “left coast.” It does, however, abruptly turn and become and east-west highway at the northern edge of the Everglades. This is the famous Alligator Alley. Along this section of I-75 is the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, home to the critically endangered Florida panther. There are perhaps around 200 left.

The highway cuts through the panther’s habitat, but the rebuilt version includes passageways underneath for panthers to travel safely. It also facilities the movement of other wildlife. Of course, one does find alligators along the highway.

Returning to the beginning point of our virtual tour, one can travel south on US 1 to the southern tip of mainland Florida, where it becomes the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys. The highway links together a series of bridges and causeways through the keys.

[Averette at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Some of the structures of this beast were part of an older railroad, and have since been replaced. But old sections remain.

[By Elkman (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

US 1 eventually comes into Key West. It makes a final right turn onto Whitehead Street, passing by the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. Among the current residents of the home and museum are “Hemingway’s Cats”, who are descended from the author’s cats and many of whom are polydactyl with extra toes in their paws.

[Averette at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.]

Hemingway was quite fond of these cats, and the museum has become a permanent home for them – we of course hope it stays that way.

Only a few blocks away, US 1 ends. This “end” assembly with Mile 0 marker is probably one of the more photographed ones in existence.

[Photo by CedarBendDrive on flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)]

It probably gets stolen quite a bit, too.