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After a hearty B&B breakfast, I phoned Catherine for the last time before setting out on the Trace. She was going to take the day as a layover day, and depart the following morning with her new companion. We agreed to stay in touch via her answering machine, on the assumption that she may well make up the time and catch up to us along the way; at worst we'd meet in New Orleans. At 8:30 AM on the 15th of September, having both slept and eaten well, our gang of four rode away from Linton, Tennessee and climbed onto the Natchez Trace Parkway. I was a bit leery of yet another controlled environment, but at least this time I knew about it in advance.
The day was warm and muggy, the road surface was narrow but good, and traffic was nil. There were, of course, no facilities. Thanks to Ed and some friends of his, I had a listing of everything available within a few miles on the crossroads; this list turned out to be critical, but - like the milepost gain chart for the Blue Ridge - it also was never sent to me during all my advance research. Ed's packet from his friends was more informative than anything I had brought. I truly began to doubt my information-gathering abilities.
We shared a potluck lunch of what we were carrying, and feasted at a rest stop. If information turnouts were frequent on the Blue Ridge, they were almost constant on the Natchez Trace. There was always something to look at or read about the history of the area. After the first few, I found them tiresome unless there was some specific point of info that called to me. None of these stops provided water, unless there were also (infrequently) restroom facilities. After about fifty miles of suicidal, shiny, blue-trimmed black butterflies, the road surface suddenly deteriorated to an exposed-aggregate construction surface, which slowed us considerably and would last for some 100-ish miles. It made for more strenuous ascents, rather slow descents, and hard cranking on the flats. We didn't like it.
The terrain on the NTP is mostly continuous rolls. There were perhaps two days towards the end that were largely flat, but otherwise it was constant undulation, with one "large" climb in Alabama. The drops to crossroads or creekbeds generally had overpasses to even things out. Elevation-gain-wise, this was a far cry from the BRP, and not a problem at all. There are only four campgrounds (free Forest Service facilities) along the parkway proper, though there are others at varying distances off route, and there are two bicycles-only camping areas as a concession to shorter increments. (We didn't use either of them.) There is NO roadside camping permitted. Our first day we stopped at Meriwether Lewis Campground (and his burial place). The campsites were a mile and a half off the road, and the bathrooms were another mile down the hill. We were tired and sticky, and the mosquitoes had more of a feast of us than we did of our meagre dinner provisions. A friendly local kittycat adopted Ed.
At 7:40 we were aboard, headed for a store some six miles down the road and "visible from the Parkway." Only it wasn't; so we kept going to the restaurant which was listed as being a mile off route on a crossroads ten miles further on. It was there, at least, but only open Thursday through Sunday - THAT little tidbit of crucial info was not included on the poop sheet. But there was a small "grocery" close by, which at least provided us with minimal stuff to get to the next town, where we found a terrific cafe and compensated well for the morning's food lack: the Depot Cafe in Collinwood, just off the route. During lunch, there was discussion of a detour to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, about 15 miles east of the Trace and a center of music recording studios. It sounded like a fun deviation from the already-perennial parkway view of either endless tree stands of often minimal depth, or unfenced mown green fields speckled with round hay bales. The surface road was hot and exposed and trafficked, but it was a pleasure to be in civilization. By this time our riding pattern had developed: Todd and Stefan, as the stronger riders, were most always fairly far ahead chatting their way down the road, while Ed and I poked along at our own paces, sometimes together and sometimes not. We found them sitting amongst a group of local folks doing a roadside sale, yakking away. It had been decided that we would not cross the river into Muscle Shoals, but would instead stay in the town of Florence on the north shore of the Tennessee River. So we found a couple of rooms in a motel almost full of tournament bass-fishermen, and did a heap of laundry. For dinner, Todd craved a steak and music (since we weren't going to Muscle Shoals), and got a recommendation from the desk clerk. The slab of meat was there, but there was no music. I really wasn't sure what we were doing in Florence, but at least I found a bookstore before dinner and picked up a copy of Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies. A friend had given me her Devil's Dream as trip reading, since I was heading into Appalachia, and I'd followed that with her Oral History which I'd found in Blacksburg. This one would see me to the end of the jaunt.
In the morning, we had to continue three more miles east in order to cross the river at the Wilson Dam, the only crossing for bicycles, and then headed west back towards the parkway, finally going through - but not stopping in - Muscle Shoals. Despite a good night's sleep, I was feeling mentally rather grim; it was noon when we regained the Trace, having done a net 36-mile detour for nothing at all. This would affect our timing from here on out. South of Cherokee in midday heat we climbed the only real grade of the Trace, and it was real mainly in its length of several miles. The gradient was not awful. We stopped for water at Tishomingo State Park, listed as ON the Trace but really a mile and a half off. We weren't minding that these campgrounds were away from the road, but we WERE minding the misleading information. At 64 miles, we turned off the Trace for a two-mile run to a campground which was really almost five miles away and closed for the season. A bit further on we found a cabin at Bay Springs Marina, where there was also a store.
The cabin measured about nine by twelve, and slept five. We piled in. So did the 'squitos and fleas. I refused to bring my sleeping bag in there, and in truth we should have set up our tents and slept outside. The showers alone were worth the rental. But we all told silly stories and did some free-associating about things we'd seen, and it was just like summer camp as a kid. I just didn't sleep much, even less than in a tent. In the morning I set out ahead of the others - this, too would become a pattern, as I generally arose earliest, do not drink coffee (Ed was carrying a little espresso-maker with his stove), and like to ride alone anyway - and rode to the Natchez Trace Visitors Center on the northern edge of Tupelo, Mississippi.
The Visitor's Center is a comfortable and informative place, and the Forest Service gal in attendance that morning was the same person I consulted and chatted with some months earlier during the information-gathering stage. After perhaps an hour, the other three arrived, and eventually we headed to the far end of town to a motel and a restaurant lunch. Todd and Ed then went off to a hospital for some medical errands, and Stefan and I walked around town snooping at this and that. Quite by accident we found ourselves at the Tupelo Hardware Store, which turned out to be an Elvis shrine, the site of his first guitar purchase. Tupelo is, after all, the birthplace of Elvis. It was a wonderful old wood-floored, wood-binned hardware establishment, with hardly a blister-pack in sight. In one display case was a framed, yellowing testimonial letter from a retired employee relating what happened that day when Gladys Presley brought her son into the store to buy a rifle (or maybe it was a shotgun), and left with a $9 guitar instead. We each bought T-shirts in honor of that event; these shirts are available for the busloads of faithful who come to pay homage and weep, in front of the wood screws, mollies, and nail pullers.
I chose to stay in for the evening, while the others went for a big dinner and a visit to the birthplace house. It was a short mileage day - Catherine may catch us yet; messages told me she was a day behind us, and had found "our" friendly cat at Meriwether Lewis.
I left early again in the morning, riding through ground fog which turned the sunrise blood-red. Combined with the kudzu-vine-covered forests, the world seemed ghostly and magical, and reminded me of "Brigadoon," which I began to sing. I also considered as I rode the fact that I'd awakened with a roaring infection in one cuticle: something I've had thrice before, the last almost exactly a year before. And, of course, yesterday had been "hospital day." For lunch, we stopped at a local cafe for their buffet, which had been recommended to us by a Forest Service attendant at one of our earlier stops. I phoned my doctor at home and got the name of the rather uncommon antibiotic which my system tolerates during my infrequent need for such things. After we made camp for the day at Jeff Busby Campground - which boasted the ONLY gas station and store ON the entire parkway, named for the local congressman who proposed and pushed through legislation for the construction of the NTP - I laid claim to the pay phone and called every pharmacy (three) within a reasonable (10 miles) distance, only to learn that none would deliver to the campground. I then called a pharmacy in the town of Kosciusko where we would pass the next day, got them to call for the prescription, and set up a pickup there for the next morning.
But the directions the pharmacist gave me were incorrect, so when reaching Kosciusko after some 27 miles, I then had to do a three and a half mile back-track to get the prescription. This precipitated a lunchtime boondoggle, since my companions were waiting for me at a restaurant at the exit we'd taken into town. When I finally got back there and asked the hostess about three other cyclists, she told me they'd gone already, so I sat down and had a good meal. As I was paying, she commented that those three fellows were really quite a bit ahead of me. I said, "No, two fellows and a woman." She said, "No, three large men, on large motorcycles." Oh. Turns out there was another restaurant three doors down, but set back from the road and not visible from my return direction though VERY visible coming the other way. But they were gone from there by the time I'd finished and gone looking.
The weather was sticky and hot, and I rode leisurely, stopping in the shade when I found some. Eventually Ed came up from behind me, having made a stop which I did not see (I actually wasn't looking). The camping at Ratliff Ferry, half a mile off the road, was kind of seedy, but being private, it had showers. My first chore at camp was to set up a little infirmary station and lance the very full, puce-colored pus pocket which had formed on my finger. I did this again the following afternoon, after which the medication took care of the problem entirely. But the mosquitoes at Ratliff Ferry were possibly worse than at Meriwether Lewis, and I retreated into my tent after a brief dinner.
In the morning (a Sunday) the bass fishing boats towed by huge pickups began arriving at 5:30; and the jockeying of the trucks to align with the launch ramp meant that giant headlights were shining through the tents from that time on, illuminating everything and insuring an early arising and departure. The mosquitoes were still rampant in the morning, so it was indeed wise to get moving, with wet laundry hanging off the backs of three of the bikes. We stopped at the Mississippi Crafts Center, which I'd assumed was an outlet for indigenous crafts, but was instead an outlet for the Mississippi Crafts Guild, a juried-admission arts organization. Shopped anyway. Then a big loop around the northwest edge of Jackson, since the Parkway is not yet continuous through town and the regular connection route uses the interstate and is therefore not for bikes. Banking, lunch (and a dryer at a next-door laundromat), and groceries in Clinton, and then back onto the Parkway at 2:30 PM with 43 miles down and 32 more to come before the next campground. Cotton fields alongside the road provided visual variation from the endless progression of forest and hayfield. The afternoon was hot, no breeze or cloud cover, and the land was largely exposed. As bored as I'd become by the constant "liner" of trees, the canopy now was tremendously desirable. I began riding on the wrong side of the road when there were shade patches there; traffic was so minimal that it was easy to change back when a vehicle happened to approach. Stefan and Todd were way ahead as usual, and Ed and I plodded along more or less together, stopping every 10 to 12 miles when some shade was available. We got to Rocky Springs at 5:45, the latest yet, with a 75-mile total for the day. The mosquitoes at camp were the worst yet, supplemented by fire ant mounds around the picnic table (which we moved).
The morning was damp but still sticky-warm. Breakfast at Port Gibson was hard to find but tasty when we got it. At 2:30 we reached the official end of the Parkway, about 12 miles east of Natchez, and after finale fotos, we headed into town to the bike shop I'd previously contacted. Ed left his bike to be shipped home, and the rest of us got mechanical attention. We were directed across the street to the Natchez Eola Hotel, a 1920's-built establishment that caters to bus tours. It was kind of rundown-posh, and I loved it. We had a raucous celebratory dinner, and called it a day. The next day was layover day in Natchez. Ed caught a bus to New Orleans airport; Todd rented a car and drove to Vicksburg to spend the day with some relatives; Stefan and I each did our own things about town, dodging the periodic downpours. But "town" is sufficiently small that our paths kept crossing. I basically just walked, walked, walked.
When Todd returned, we three went to dinner and plotted the next leg, south towards New Orleans. Between the layover in Natchez and the time lost on the pointless detour to Florence, it seemed that we would probably not have enough time to cycle all the way to NOLA. I thought it would be a two-day ride, but Todd thought more. In addition, all my advance info had led me to believe that there was really no safe way to get into the city on a road bike; mountain bikes could ride the levee tops, but we would have to go through some dicey industrial stretches with very bad local reps. So we decided to do one day at a time, and ride the next day to St. Francisville (where I'd been last year). But the direct and obvious route from Natchez to St. Francisville was under construction for a third of the distance, so we had a choice of heading southeast and then back southwest, or crossing the Mississippi into Vidalia, Louisiana and riding south on the west side of the river. It would be longer that way, but I was certain it would be essentially flat. The southeast route had some climbing. I phoned the Natchez Police Station to learn whether bikes could ride the bridge, and was told that there were now two bridges, one in each direction. The westbound, old bridge had no shoulders. The only way to cross on a bike heading west would be to ride against traffic on the eastbound span. While sitting on a bed in a hotel room, that sounded reasonable.
In practice, it wasn't. It was morning rush-hour, and two lanes of heavy, freeway-fast traffic roared at us for the perhaps half-mile length of the bridge. The expansion cracks were metal zig-zag joints with WIDE gaps that threatened to grab hold of a tire, and broken glass was everywhere. Todd and I whizzed across to make as short shrift as possible of our exposure, while Stefan cautiously picked her way around the gaping holes and trash. On the Louisiana side, we turned hard south; it began to rain, which it would do off and on most of the day, sometimes heavily; then there was an eight-mile stretch of construction, in the rain. Then there was a gas station (of sorts), and then there was nothing, and more nothing. The river, the levee, and the land. It was, at least, as flat as I'd expected. And the rain kept coming and going.
I don't like riding in the rain. I do it, but I don't like it. When I caught up to T & S at a Corps of Engineers Visitor Center (which had been unlocked just for them) I was feeling pretty grim. When Stefan asked me if I wanted to use the facilities before they locked it up again, I fairly snarled at her that what I really wanted was a ride. But the genial employee who'd let us in insisted that we were about ten miles further along than I thought we were, and I found that encouraging and a little bit re-energizing. He was wrong, of course, which I knew inside; but I wanted to believe him, so I did, and it got me over the hump, so to speak, and I went on. Lunch consisted of groceries consumed sitting on the store parking lot blacktop at three in the afternoon after sixty-five miles, and then we continued south to St. Francisville, arriving there as the church chimes tolled 6PM. All the B&B's were full, and we ended up in the same hotel where I'd stayed last year, one room away from last year's room. We'd done 93+ miles, and I was BEAT. Between the overlapping rain and construction, my bike was really grungy, as was I myself. Cleaned everything, had a lousy dinner, and zonked out but good.
I had wanted to be in New Orleans on Thursday, and our reservation was for Thursday through Sunday. S & T wanted to ride for a couple more days, but on this Thursday morning I wanted to get to New Orleans. So we agreed that they would keep riding and we would connect again late on Friday, and I would do a quick run (28 miles) down to Baton Rouge, get a car there, and drive into NOLA to lay claim to our hotel room in a convention-booked-up city. I picked up the car (again!! This ain't what was supposed to happen.) at the airport, stopped to buy a pair of good walking shoes, and drove the hour's run into the French Quarter. Leaving the bike in the car, I registered, unloaded all the gear into the room, and then took the car back to Avis. I put the bike back together there and rode from Avis to the pre-arranged bike shop at the edge of the Quarter. As a final fillip, two blocks from the bike shop my rearview mirror vibrated loose (REALLY lousy pavement) and clattered onto the street, and before I could even dismount to retrieve it I heard the crunch of auto tire on glass and plastic. I didn't even stop to look. I left the bike there for shipping, and walked back to the hotel. The journey was over.
During my walk back I stopped for a very late lunch, and picked up a chocolate mousse patisserie. Then I ducked into a serendipitous cosmetics shop and purchased some exotic bath oil. Back in the room, I drew a hot bath, oiled it up, and climbed into the tub with a book and my patisserie, and spent a good part of the evening soaking my leathery skin and slowly ingesting chocolate. One of the best baths I've ever taken.
Last year, we reached St. Augustine on a Thursday morning and had Monday flights out, and it was too long. It became a real drag, having finished what we'd done and having to wait around to go home. But I guess I'm really getting senile because I didn't remember that when I set up the chronology for this trip, and ended up doing EXACTLY the same thing: arriving at final destination on a Thursday for a Monday flight. Maybe I thought New Orleans would have more to offer than St. Augustine had. Or maybe I just didn't think. It was too long last year, and it was too long this year. Maybe next time I'll remember. The Quarter was seedy and depressing, day or night. The old bookstores were wonderful, but I wasn't very inspired. The food was good, of course; but this had turned into a very costly sojourn with all the car rentals, and I was reluctant to shell out for the finer establishments. I walked. And I walked. I again connected by phone with Catherine, who'd stopped for some days in Jackson, Mississippi and would therefore not get to New Orleans before I left. One evening I went to a play, and the next to the Louisiana Symphony. Of an afternoon, the three of us signed up for a cemetery walking tour. I spent a few hours at the fine aquarium, but the better art galleries were closed when I found them. Time hung heavy; it was deja vu.
Late Sunday afternoon Stefan and I got into a taxi and went to the airport. She had a Sunday evening flight, and I got a budget room for my 7AM flight the next morning. For all the sleeping I did, I should have just sat in the airport. The last entry in my journal states: "I need to do something about how these things finish up."
My final tally was 1134.7 miles ridden, from Waynesboro, VA to Baton Rouge, LA. The Waynesboro to Knoxville section had eight riding days with a 55-mile daily average. Nashville to Natchez was nine riding days averaging 65 miles per day on the parkway. The club ride in Blacksburg and a morning loop in Nashville, plus the two days after Natchez, made a total of only 21 riding days. Not what I thought would happen. But I learned a lot; basically I can describe this trip as a prime learning experience. I will not again ride parkways. The lack of traffic in NO way compensates for the lack of life and reality. I will not again make internal fixed deadlines. I will NOT rent cars. I will, I think, travel alone. I will go home when I'm finished. Etc. There was much that was fine about this journey, but my overall sense of it is that it was rather less than satisfying. True, last year spoiled me. And I'm not so naive as to believe that I have the right to expect and achieve only positive and wonderful travels. It just didn't leave me inspired. This trip was characterized by more bad weather, more discomfort vis-s-vis camping conditions, and worse food than was last year's, yet mile for mile it was a more expensive journey. I got more sleep this time than I did last year, yet I constantly had less energy - possibly due to a combination of psychological factors combined with the food situation. Although there is wisdom in knowing when one has misjudged and must rectify the situation, there was nonetheless an aspect of failure attached to my copping out of the Blue Ridge portion - even if it was only failure to amass enough advance information. Nonetheless, at the end I was ready to be finished. I wanted to go home. I'm not soured on bicycle travel by ANY means; there will be other tours. Some may well be much worse. This one was what it was; it just wasn't what I thought it would be.
Next time, no preconceptions. Just go.
© 1997 BFZ
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