By Ronda Robinson
What do Dee’s Roadkill Café, the Curl Up and Dye Salon, sailplanes and Mennonite horse-drawn buggies have in common? They’re some of the charming sites that drivers find when traveling off the beaten path on U.S. Highway 411, the back road between Georgia and East Tennessee. With no major metropolitan areas along the way, this country route offers a peaceful, fun alternative to interstate travel.
I take 411 every chance I get. The drive is a vacation in itself, a respite from computers, e-mail, deadlines and a sense of busyness and urgency in general. Unlike the interstate, where speed seems the ultimate objective, 411 provides a meditative retreat. Whereas the former stretch of asphalt bores me with its sameness, the back road captures my imagination with one-of-a-kind wonders.
Rural Road Food
For instance, soon after picking up 411 after exiting the interstate north of Atlanta, I enjoy a two-lane stretch of road that passes Dee’s Roadkill Café in White, Georgia. Although the logo features a cartoon critter fearfully peeking out of a boiling kettle, Dee’s doesn’t actually have roadkill on the menu. The fare runs more toward homemade biscuits and gravy, country ham, barbecue, pinto beans, coleslaw and fried pies, along with house specialty burgers like The Big Nasty – a half-pound of black Angus beef with cheese, chili, grilled onions and condiments.
“We do homemade everything,” owner Dee Huskins, wearing a red apron, says cheerily one morning, as her husband, Mike, a pastor, chats with the regulars in their eatery – site of the town’s old post office.
Cross over the state line, and just before Benton is Lottie’s Diner, home of the cathead biscuit. As with Dee’s Roadkill, Lottie’s made-from-scratch biscuits don’t contain any disconcerting ingredients; the name comes from how big and fluffy they are.
Soaring With the Birds
The rural highway ribboning into Tennessee features a magical countryside of mountains, pastures, horses, goats, cows, antique shops and barns painted with “See Rock City” signs. The beauty, perhaps, is best seen from the air, and that’s where the Chilhowee Gliderport on 411 north of Benton comes in.
Owner/operator Sarah Kelly offers rides in engineless gliders, also known as sailplanes, near the Cherokee National Forest. “Soaring birds use the same type of air we use. A lot of times on the thermals there will be hawks, eagles and black vultures. It’s always a special day when I see a bald eagle from the glider,” she says.
The “ridge lift” when the wind strikes the mountain provides an upward force to help gliders – and birds – stay airborne.
Hovering around 3,000 to 4,000 feet high, gliders also provide a glimpse of the Ocoee and Hiwassee rivers. We pass over what may be old V-shaped Indian fishing traps of piled stone in the water below. Around the bend, Mennonite farmland creates beautiful patchwork designs.
Discovering Treasures in Delano
The element of discovery continues in Delano, where Savannah Oaks Winery grows muscadines and scuppernong grapes, and sells wines, jellies, cheese and gifts.
Further up Delano Road, a mile off 411, Mennonite families run the Delano Community Farm Market, offering locally grown produce from asparagus to winter squash, as well as apple butter, honey, sorghum molasses, canned corn relish, cantaloupe preserves, cookies, breads and more.
Thirty families have a total of 470 acres on which they farm. “It’s the main source of income,” says Joseph Martin, manager of the market.
“A lot of things are picked every day fresh,” he adds.
Visitors to the Mennonite market are encouraged to dress modestly, as a sign says, “We greatly appreciate your business. Please respect us by being properly clothed.” For women, that means no low necklines or strap tops.
A sense of old-fashioned values permeates the area, where often I see Mennonite horse-drawn buggies clopping down 411.
A few miles north in Etowah, the L&N Depot & Railroad Museum celebrates train travel. Located in a restored 1906 depot listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the museum tells stories of life in a Southern railroad town. Admission is free year round.
I’m most familiar with the middle part of 411, even though the highway stretches about 340 miles from Leeds, Ala., to Greeneville, Tenn. Believe it or not, two hair salons called Curl Up & Dye are located on this short strip of Americana: one in Ranger, Ga., and one in Maryville, Tenn. The name alone has lots of style – as does U.S. Highway 411, with its patchwork of quaint diners, shops and roadside attractions. As the saying goes, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. A great drive like this is an end unto itself.
If You Go:
Dee’s Roadkill Café, White, Georgia
Lottie’s Diner, Benton, Tennessee
Chilhowee Gliderport, Benton, Tennessee
Savannah Oaks Winery, Delano, Tennessee
Delano Community Farm Market, Delano, Tennessee
(no phone or website)
283 Needle Eye Lane, on Delano Road off Highway 411 just north of the Hiwassee River between Benton and Etowah
Etowah L&N Depot & Railroad Museum, Etowah, Tennessee
Curl Up & Dye Salon, Ranger, Georgia
Curl Up & Dye Salon, Maryville, Tennessee