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Bicycling The Natchez Trace Parkway

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Jackson, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee
June, 2001. 7 days. 388 miles.
Prologue by Jeffrey Riedy, Story by Wendy Riedy


In all good conscience, I find it necessary to precede the following story with a personal disclaimer, not a discouragement. Our Natchez Trace trip was long anticipated. We had started planning this trip in previous years, only to push it aside due to bad timing, lack of preparedness, or just a change of heart. Finally, 2001 was to be the year for the Trace.

We made our usual plans, gathered our tons of maps, brochures, and every other imaginable printed media on the subject, and even made time for some training. We were ready, or so we thought.

Don't get me wrong, it was a great trip, a time for Wendy and I to bond, communicate, and explore new frontiers. The Natchez Trace is a great path for bike tourists, and should be on your list of "places to see".

However, not in the middle of June, or anytime during the summer. Many people had warned us of the extreme temperatures, and still others had suggested "not in June". Did we listen, heed their warnings, take everything into consideration? NO, we thought we knew better, and we were wrong!

You see, the South is steeped in History, Hospitality, Heat, and Humidity. We gladly embraced the History, we enthused in the Hospitality, and even endured the Heat, but the humidity... Enough is enough!   In conclusion, when you receive continued warnings about extreme weather, you should listen. You should see the Natchez Trace, but not in summer!

 Enjoy our story.

Saturday June 9, 2001  

Home to Jackson, MS

As we found on our previous trips, flying with bicycles is easy.  It is preparing to fly that is frustrating and time consuming.  As we did for our trip to Seattle 2 years prior, we booked our air travel through League of American Bicyclists' (LAB) travel service, Navigant International,  which allowed us to fly our bikes at no additional cost on Northwest Airlines.  In an eerie parallel, we got the same story we got from Northwest as we got last time.  They would honor our travel vouchers, but they had no bike boxes.  Like last time, they said they usually have boxes, but they'd just run out and they are under no obligation to have them.  Like last time, their customer services representatives were rude and unhelpful. LAB and Navigant were actually both very helpful to us, and on the day of our travel we learned that they'd actually managed to get the boxes to the airport for us.  But we'd already panicked and, like last time, we purchased the boxes from another airline. 

Flying from small airport (Lehigh Valley, PA) to small airport (Jackson, MS), we had 3 connections to make.  The first connection was in Detroit, MI where we had a two hour layover and met with Jeff's brother, his wife, and their young daughter who we don't see nearly enough of.  We didn't have enough time to leave the airport, but we appreciated them coming to keep us company for the nearly 2 hour layover.  The second layover was in Memphis, TN, which was notable only for the Graceland store in the airport, and the signs denoting it as "America's Distribution Capital," which made us sad because we'd always though of Memphis in terms of Elvis Presley, and good blues and jazz music.  I guess there's no money in that, though.

Our attempts on the internet and otherwise to find a bike friendly route from the Jackson airport to a campground or motel, and ultimately to the trace were met primarily with ominous warning.  The part of the trace that goes through Jackson is one of the parts that is still under construction.  There is a route marked as the Jackson-Bypass, but this is supposedly not easy riding.  Completion is due around 2005 or so, I think.  We were told the roads are all highways, it's not safe, and it can't be done.  Having cycled through some major cities including Seattle, Dublin and New York City, we found it hard to believe that Jackson, MS would be the one to fell us.

As we pondered this dilemma, Jeff contacted Marsha Weaver of the Poindexter Park Inn on the internet.  Marsha not only offered us the usual B&B fare, she also offered to pick us up at the airport in her pick-up truck for a very nominal charge.  It seemed like a good deal.

At the airport, our bikes were delivered, and Jeff's was intact in the box.  The box around mine was in pieces and despite my initial panic, my bike seemed to fare okay.  Marsha met us shortly thereafter with her mother (who has Alzheimer's disease).  Her friendly southern style was immediately evident.  We loaded our bikes into the truck, and Marsha and her mom took us in search of fuel for our gas stove (because it is illegal to carry such fuel on the plane.)  We didn't know the area, and Marsha didn't quite know where to take us.  We tried to describe the kind of sporting goods or army-navy store that might have it but we were having no luck.  At each fruitless stop. her mother had to get out of the car to let us out, and we were all getting frustrated.  Finally, somebody at a truck-stop mentioned Wal-Mart and I knew we were saved - we'd bought fuel there before.  But, it turned out that Marsha - a former city counsil member - and her family are boycotting Wal-Mart because they feel that it's bad for the community, that they threaten the home grown retailers, and they don't give anything back.  Marsha bit her lip and took us there anyway.

While we drove to the B&B, she gave us the unofficial tour of Jackson.  She knew what she was talking about and has tons of interesting stories just busting to get out.  Even in the telling, though, she is serious.  There is no sense of irony, pride, or sadness.  There is just the story.

On route to the B&B, we noted that the roads were somewhere in the gray area between rideable and treacherous.  These were clearly busy roads, and we were told that it was just the time of day (Saturday afternoon) that made them seem at all plausible.  We were glad we weren't on our bikes, however, when the dark skies opened up into an all out downpour.  The rain fell like a wall, and I couldn't help noticing that we were barreling down a busy road in a truck with no window defroster and rain too thick to see through.  I dared a peek through the windshield to see only white.  I feared for a moment, and then the rain stopped as quickly as it started.  The rain from Tropical Storm Allison has been drenching this region for days, and we both wondered if this was a sign of things to come for us. The Weather Channel predicted that the bulk of the storm would move out approximately an hour before our plane was scheduled to land.  Really.

The B&B itself is a terrific 1902 house which Marsha bought 8 years ago and has lovingly restored with the help of restitution (prison) labor.  The rooms are peppered with antiques and blues band memorabilia that are authentic and tasteful.  Marsha is something of an entrepreneur and has capitalized on her proximity to the Natchez Trace by marketing in all of the major bicycling directories, including Adventure Cycling's Yellow Pages, where we found her.  She and Jeff chatted by email for a week before we left, and she even offered to help us find a route to bike the full way if we wanted to (although she strongly did not recommend it.)  Among other things, Marsha is also the manager of blues singer Dorothy Moore (of Misty Blue fame).

So, we settled in, re-assembled our bikes, and took the mile-or-so walk into the capital district of downtown.  The area featured many tremendous, old restored buildings - mostly occupied by lawyers and other professional services expected near a capital.  There were few retail stores, and on Saturday night. the only things opened were two diner-type restaurants:  The Elite and The Mayflower.  The recommended Iron Horse Grill had burned down recently.  We chose The Elite because we heard they had good bread, and then had to walk around the skeletal town for awhile while we waited for the 5:00 PM opening.  The streets were all empty, but it was easy to imagine them bustling on a weekday. 

We arrived back at the restaurant at almost exactly 5:00, and by 5:15 nearly every table in the restaurant was filled.  The food was good, the service was friendly and the bread rolls were - southern yummy.  The only oddity of the whole thing was that nobody was talking.  It seemed like the place was filled with old married couples who had already said everything.

Walking back, a police officer stopped us and warned us of homeless people and purse snatchers (not that either of us had purses).  We crossed the street as he advised, and had no trouble.

 Sunday, June 10, 2001

Jackson, MS to Kosciusko, MS (64 miles)

Breakfast at the B&B with Marsha provided us with yummy homemade blueberry muffins, fresh fruit, cereal, juice, and all of the appropriate accompaniments. 

After breakfast, we took her up on her offer and accepted a ride to the start of the Trace.  She drove us about 15 or 20 miles down State Road (MS 51), and the road didn't look entirely un-rideable to us, but it would have been at least unpleasant due to traffic and many pot holes.  Again, we were advised that during the week the traffic would be much worse.  We noted that the northern part of Jackson was more revitalized than the capital region, and there were many beautiful old houses to admire.

At the Mississippi Crafts Center at mile marker 102 (where the Trace starts again after the Jackson Bypass), we unloaded our bikes (from the truck) and loaded them (with our packs).  Off we went.

The Trace was everything we were promised: hot, low traffic, flat and beautiful.  On both sides of the road our eyes took in lush green space.  Every few miles, we pulled off the road at markers for historical sites and lookouts and read the signs explaining the significance of the areas.  We read the sign for the reservoir, and then rode for the next 10 or so miles with the water to our right.

At mile 122, we got off our bikes to hike on a nature trail through the Cypress swamps.  There were huge trees growing out of swamp land.  Small signs along the way reminded us to look for alligators (which it described as looking like, "logs with nostrils,") and tree knees.  Knees are kind of like roots that hit bottom and ride back up again near the tree.  They almost look like new growths, but they're not.

Already stunned by the oppressive heat (90+ degrees), humidity (100%)and our overall lack of acclimation to it, we diverted from the trace to Ratliff Ferry, which seemed to be a popular marina and campground.  We bought cold drinks from the "trading post" and enjoyed them with some snacks in the shade as we observed the local characters.

Another 10 miles down the road, we pulled off onto MS 16, and rode the short distance to Michaels-16, which is really a gas station with a snack bar.  We ordered up some pretty good fried chicken and filled ourselves with quarts of Gatorade until it hurt (quite literally, actually).  While we ate, we listened to the locals talk among themselves and attempted our own conversations with them.  The problem was that they all seemed to talk some other language - a sort of southern jive that was fast and slurred, and left us Yankees dumbfounded.  It was like being in a foreign country.  We mostly smiled and nodded.  The people seemed nice enough, and it was probably our loss.

At mile 135 the road turned from a nice, smooth asphalt to a bone jarring tar-and-chip.  Our speed instantly dropped and our fatigue increased.  Over time, there were other changes too - it became slightly hillier, and the flora changed in subtle ways that were only noticeable over time.

At one point, I heard a not unfamiliar buzzing in my helmet and thought a big horsefly had flown in.  I kind of thwacked my helmet with my hand and the buzzing stopped.  I figured it flew away, but Jeff suggested I stop and check.  When I removed my helmet, I was more than a little surprised to see a humongous bee - over an inch long - smiling at me.  It was not dead, but apparently maimed by the initial run-in with my helmet or the subsequent thwack.  I not so deftly extracted him from my helmet and we rode on.  For the next 10 or so miles I was freaked out enough to feel a "phantom" bee in my helmet. 

Throughout the day we passed a few other cyclists - mostly on time trial bikes, quite a few RVs and motorcycles, and plenty of people who looked to be locals out for a day of fishing and R&R.  The cars that passed us were without exception courteous, and the bicyclists and motorcyclists all smiled and waved.  At one point, two southbound cyclists shouted over, "can we join you?" and I jokingly said, "sure."  They turned around and rode with us for a few miles, offering us plenty of good advice regarding the Trace and Kosciusko (where they lived).  They let us know, for example, that the only restaurant opened on a Sunday night is Pizza Hut, which made our decision to cook our own dinner quite easy.  We pulled off at a picnic area to refill our water bottled, and they continued on.

At the crossroads for Kosciusko. we pulled into the primitive bicycle-only campground near the maintenance area.  This is a quiet campground with 4 tent pads (which were slightly small for our 3-person tent), a fire ring, picnic table, cold water spigot, outhouse and garbage can.  All the amenities except a hot shower.  Since June is considered late to bike tour the trace (owing to the weather), we had the site to ourselves.

We setup camp and doused our steaming selves under the cold spigot.  We relaxed and listened to the unique birds, made a light dinner, and retreated to our tent slightly before sunset to escape from the biting mosquitoes.  

Monday, June 11, 2001

Kosciusko, MS to Mathiston, MS (52 miles)

  We fell asleep listening to the dueling choruses of cicada's that were reminiscent of the "red team" "blue team" chants at camp color war.  The nearby highway (which intersects nearby with the Natchez Trace) provided large truck noises, and screaming fast cars and motorcycles that were at times quite loud and disturbing only because we weren't used to them.

We awoke early.  The skies were overcast and although it was only 70 or so degrees, it was already oppressively humid. 

While we were breaking camp, the cyclist we'd ridden with a bit yesterday stopped in to say good morning before he headed our for a morning training ride.  This is just one of many examples of the great hospitality we've received here.

A short distance from the trace, Gaf's restaurant on MS 35 served up a fabulous breakfast highlighted by really yummy biscuits.  (It is noteworthy in my mind that I could never make biscuits this yummy - I suspect that it is excessive amounts of butter that makes them so good - and my conscience would never allow me to make them myself.)

After breakfast, we took a diversion into downtown Kosciusko.  It was early and the town was still closed, but it looked to be a friendly and authentic southern town that had all of the basic amenities.  We rode through town without stopping, and returned to the Trace,

As promised, the road was slightly hillier than yesterday, but these were by no means large or steep hills of the scale we ride regularly in eastern Pennsylvania.  There were enough of them, however, to combine with the heat and rough road surface to really fatigue us.  We stopped often, which was helpful in terms of muscle fatigue but in hindsight increased our exposure to the hot sun.  At the gates to French Camp Academy, we found it hard to extract ourselves from the comfortable rocking chairs sheltered under a shaded porch.  We went so far as to resort to children's games (odds or evens) to decide who would walk across the street to deliver Gatorade to us.  (I lost - and It turned out that the store was closed anyway).  A similar story played out at the Jeff Busby campground and picnic area where we took a long siesta in the shade, waiting out the hottest part of the day. 

On the road, we saw several large work crews along approximately 10 miles of logging efforts along the trace that seemed to be focused on thinning more than clearing the land.  In general, the trees are taller and thicker than we saw yesterday, and the land is still swampy.  We passed several snakes (thankfully, all dead) and several turtles (sadly, mostly dead).  When we saw one in the middle of the road and still unharmed by passing cars, Jeff insisted on going back.  This turtle was holed up in his shell with the little trap door sealed tight.  Jeff carefully moved him to safety on the grass.  As we rode away, he peeked his head out in thanks.

Everywhere we go, people talk to us.  They ask where we started, where we're heading, and comment about the humidity and the prodigious amount of rain tropical storm Allison dumped on the area. Scattered showers and thunderstorms are expected every day this week.  We were warned before we left that June is very late to be riding the Trace, and now we really understand why.

We decided to stop in Mathiston after 50 miles because our next option for a shower would be another 30 miles down the road.  Although we prefer to camp, 2 days of layered bug spray and sweat made the shower the higher priority.    The mile east on US 82 was a little scary with huge 18 wheelers and logging trucks buzzing by.  There were no shoulders on the road, and several times we pulled off the road at the last second to get out of the way of the trucks that didn't look like they had any intention of yielding.

The Mathiston Motel offers cheap ($29) rooms with hot showers, air conditioning, and a disgusting cigarette stench.  Cleaned up and cooled off we feel more optimistic right now than we did before.

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Mathiston, MS to CR 506 (51 miles)

OK, we have to confess that the Mathiston Motel was pretty disgusting.  Besides the aforementioned stench, the room "featured" no sheets on the bed (just the blanket), a half drunken bottle of "Gin and Juice" in the freezer, and a probably psychosomatic feeling of "crawlies" when lying on  top of the bed.  Jeff and I slept in our sleeping bags (really travel-sheets), with towels over the pillows, and with the windows as wide as they would go (despite the air conditioning).  For the price, we probably asked for this.

In the morning, the short ride to the Trace was slightly better traffic wise than the night before.  The cars were still whipping past us, but at least there were no logging trucks at 7:30 AM. 

By getting an early start, we took advantage of the shade as the sun was lower in the sky.  Near mile 215, the road slowly changed back to smooth pavement again.  After 80 miles of tar-and-chip, this quiet and non-jarring pavement was much appreciated.  With less rolling resistance, our speed instantly improved 1-2 miles per hour with the same effort.  We were feeling pretty good.  The skies were mostly clear, and while it was still unimaginably hot, it felt 10-15 degrees cooler in shade.  Maybe we're getting acclimated, too. 

We stopped for a rest and cold drinks at Bubba's Country Store near Houston (mile 229).  This was a friendly place and we chatted for awhile with the owner as she told us how nearby factory closings had caused her business to drop off dramatically.  We sat outside sipping our drinks and watching a slow train of locals stop by to fuel their pick-up trucks, and chat up a storm with each other - and with us.

Making good time, we felt relaxed as we enjoyed the miles of alternating pasture and forest.  Butterflies are especially bountiful here, and we find the black ones with iridescent blue on their wings to be particularly striking.  Others look like mahogany veneer, or other colors.  They are extremely tame and continually land on us.  (Typically, Jeff thinks this is cool, and I think it's gross.) 

At mile 247, we looked for a store on MS 41 (which the folks at Bubba's told us about), but didn't see it from the Trace and didn't need a break enough to look for it.

Near 1:00 PM, we ended our ride, just as the sun was really taking it's toll.  The Natchez Trace RV Park seems to have about 10 long-term residents  and a handful of transient travelers.  All in RVs.  For $10, we picked a nice shaded spot to pitch our tent.  We enjoyed the extremely clean showers, and did our laundry in the honor system payment washing machines.  The people here are typically friendly, offering us chairs, conversation, and one couple even offered their car in case we wanted to drive into town.  There is a restaurant next door, but it is only open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday - and only for dinner.  The camp store is the most limited we've seen, but we have plenty of food in our packs. 

We took a long siesta under a large ash tree and listened to the multiple and melodic calls of a manic mocking bird (who just happened to poop on our tent as I was writing).  

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

CR 506 to Bay Springs Lake, TN (62 miles)

 Today was a true psychological challenge, and a testament both to our will power and our stupidity.  While yesterday we enjoyed the good feeling of finishing early and being "ahead of the curve," today was bottom heavy - with most of our riding in the afternoon - and we suffered physically and psychologically for it. 

We awoke this morning in a soaked tent.  Last night was beautiful and clear, and we liked the airiness and the view of the stars without the rain fly on our tent.  We kept the rain fly attached and ready for the first sign of rain - but there was none.  It was the morning dew that soaked us.  It was so damp and chilly when I woke in the early morning that I found myself reaching for my fleece socks.  Given the heat of the past few days, this was a surprising move.

Despite yesterday's success with an early start, we decided to sleep in.  Not because we were exhausted or lazy, but because we were only 10 miles from Tupelo.  Our plan was to ride into Tupelo, see the sights, enjoy a leisurely lunch in the heat of the day, and hit the road for the bulk of the miles in the afternoon.

We arrived in Tupelo mid-morning, having already spent a good amount of time in the direct sun while breaking camp and riding to town.  We did a little shopping and rode along Main Street to Elvis Presley's birthplace.  The streets were lined with large shopping centers.  Although Main Street was crowded, we were amazed by the tolerance of the drivers.  It was still before 10:00 AM, and we expected things to pick up when the regular shopping hours started.   

We stopped at the Visitor's Center and picked up a really helpful map of the area, and then onto Elvis' birthplace, museum, and chapel (on Elvis Presley Drive, of course).  We were hoping to find a snack bar at this tourist Mecca, and thought it would be a great gimmick to sell Elvis' favorite foods such as peanut butter and banana sandwiches, but there as not as much was a bottle of cold water to be had.

The small museum featured clothing, artifacts, memorabilia, and lots of little stories of The King.  It was pretty entertaining. We learned for example why Elvis wore those trademark jumpsuits:  because that gyrating made his shirts come un-tucked.   My favorite artifact was at the very end, and almost missed.  A small white towel.

The story goes like this:  An avid fan pain a bellhop at a hotel to let her into Elvis' hotel room after he left.  Inside, she found a wet towel, which she took home and put in a plastic bag in her freezer.  17 years later, she defrosted it for the museum. 

The museum was hot and stagnant and we had to leave in the middle to get some air and water before continuing.  We both felt pretty sick from the heat.  We kind of rushed through the house tour. The house was authentic - a 2 room house built by his parents for $180.  At the time, that was a good amount of money.  So much, in fact, that the Presley's were unable to repay the bank, and it was foreclosed on when Elvis was 6.  The furniture in the house was of the right period, but not the authentic furniture of the Presley's.

After the tour, we backtracked downtown to The Rib Cage, which is on Troy Street just south of Tupelo Hardware (where Elvis bought his first guitar - they're still in business selling hardware).  The Rib Cage had better barbecue than we can get at home.  The service was great and we lingered awhile in a desperate attempt to rehydrate and cool off in the air conditioning. 

It was unfortunately high-noon when we left, and we agreed to spend the next hour or so in a coffee shop reading the local newspaper in order to stay out of the sun.  The New Directions coffee shop was a Mecca to 12 step programs.  5 or so therapists of various degrees hung shingles on the door and presumably had offices there.  The place was packed with recovery books, pamphlets, and all sorts of popular psychology.  The man who prepared our icy drinks stopped in the middle to answer the phone - an apparent AA mentor call.  Shortly thereafter, a man brought him a computer to repair.  I'd hoped to lure him into conversation by commenting on the many services offered, but he just said, "yup," and didn't bite.

After about an hour, we were anxious to get some miles behind us.  We were lured into false security by the cold drinks and air conditioning.  It was only 1:00 and there was no shade at all.  We were drained and we were exposed. At a small market, we each downed a quart of Gatorade.  Then, we had stomach aches too.  In an attempt to re-hydrate, we instituted a "drink on the evens" policy where we both took a good swig of water every time we passed an even numbered mile post.

Much to our chagrin, near mile 266, the road returned to tar-and-chip again.   There was enough rolling resistance that as soon as we stopped pedaling, we slowed dramatically.  Even on the downhill.  To make matters worse, raised reflectors dotted the side of the road every 20 feet or so.  Some were painted under the white line, and some were further in the road.  To avoid them, we had to ride closer to the middle of the road.  This was a little stressful to us since traffic on the Trace had also increased near the city (Tupelo).

We were both hot, but Jeff was really feeling it.  I'll go so far as to say that he was in all out bonk-mode.  He'd hit the wall.  We stopped often, but the hours of sun were too much for him and his frustration and pain were quite evident.  With little choice, he kept going, but I know he would have preferred to curl up under a nice cool rock instead.

Near 6:00 PM, the sun was finally low enough that we had some shade, but by then the damage was done.  Plus, it was 6:00 - daylight was running out.  We cut the day 10 miles short, by going to campground nearly 5 miles from the Trace - and pulled into the Whip-Poor-Will campground on Bay Springs Lake with an electrical storm on our heels.  Just as I laid the ground cloth for the tent, the rain came.  We ducked under a shelter and chatted with the manager.  With his heavy regional accent, we only understood about half of what he said. 

We are the only people at this campground tonight.  By contrast, last night's campground was full to capacity.  The difference is probably at least partly attributable to the fact that this campground doesn't allow RVs, and in this heat, there are few tent campers. 

We're told that somebody died in the lake - TODAY.  It's a little creepy here.  The cicadas and the tree frogs echoing around the man-made lake create a chorus that is eerie like livestock being maimed.  Really.  When a branch fell from a wet tree while we were making dinner, I think we both expected something out of a horror film to happen next.

On the bright side, we have a shorter day tomorrow, the rain cooled things off, and we survived our stupidity another day.  

Thursday, June 14, 2001

Bay Springs Lake, TN  to Colby Ferry, TN (44 miles)

Determined not to make the same mistake as yesterday, we rose early to a light mist.  It may have technically been cooler, but the humidity and added dampness made it hard to breathe.  We felt okay in the comfort of the campground, but as soon as we mounted our bikes it was clear that our bodies were still suffering from yesterday's punishment.  Again, we took it slow and stopped often

We crossed the state line without fanfare - welcoming Alabama and bidding farewell to Mississippi.  Along the roadside, we saw two horses harnessed and being used to pull trees from the forest.  Shortly thereafter, we followed a short hiking trail to the highest point in Alabama along the Trace.  We were only 800 feet up, and the overgrowth of trees made the overlook far less than spectacular.  But it was a good stretch, anyway.  Before getting back on our bikes, I checked our destination again and realized that in my sun-induced delirium of yesterday I'd planned an impossible ride.  I'd thought we had 42 miles to a motel, but in looking now - the distance to the exit I was thinking of was less than 42 miles BUT there was no motel there.  I frantically searched my notes but couldn't find a single reference to the motel I was thinking of.  We were tired and didn't want to ride much further, and I noted that there was a B&B (Easterwood) not much further up in the town of Cherokee. 

We pulled off the Trace and onto the busy (but courteous) US 72.  From a gas station, 1/2 mile past the Trace, we called the B&B only to find that they were "not doing that anymore."  It was now just after noon - the hottest part of the day - and we had no plan.  We decided to ride into downtown Cherokee, enjoy a leisurely lunch, and waste some time before a seven mile jaunt to Colby Ferry - a free (but shower-less) bicycle only campground.

Up a short but steep hill, Cherokee is one of the larger small towns we've seen.  There were banks, drug stores, a Piggly Wiggly, at least 2 restaurants, and some other services.  It felt genuine and honest.  We enjoyed a great southern style lunch at The Wooden Nickel on the main street.  Over lunch, we chatted with the next-door neighbor of a fellow we'd met yesterday - about 50 miles ago. (The barbecue sauce we had with lunch came from his farm, too).

After lunch, we sat out on the wooden porch of the restaurant, reading the local newspaper and eventually falling asleep.  Near 3:00 PM, we decided to get back on the road.  We were fantasizing about what we were going to make for dinner, as we passed the market on CR 21 - closed indefinitely.  Oh well.

The ride back to the Trace was easy, although often in direct sun.  I think we found energy in knowing we didn't have far to go.  There was a little traffic, but we enjoyed seeing the houses, churches, and communities alongside the road.  One thing about the Natchez Trace Parkway is that the communities are only evident when you leave it.  The forests and pastures are pretty, but admittedly get a little monotonous after awhile. 

At Colbert Ferry, I tried to call my grandmother to wish her a happy birthday, but the phone at the ranger station was broken.  Our wireless phone had also died earlier in the day.  I love my grandmother, but nothing was getting me back on the bike to backtrack those miles to a phone.

We found the partially bicycle only campground (as a compromise, there are signs with a bicycle and a tent, but they are small so that passing motorists don't notice), and were pleased that there were three other fellows already there.  Rolf (from Holland), Robert (from New York), and Leroy (homeless by choice) are all on long term adventures - although only Robert and Leroy are together for the long haul, with Rolf joining them only for the last few days.  They are the first bicycle tourists we've seen.  They're all heading southbound along Adventure Cycling's Great Rivers Route and beyond.  We exchanged the obligatory warnings, observations, and eventually resorted to stories about just about anything (although usually involving bicycles or travel).  Rolf has bike toured seemingly everywhere, and has embarrassingly seen much more of the United States than I have, not to mention Europe and Australia.  Robert and Leroy have lived all over the world, primarily in the military.

The campground is nicely shaded, but the amenities like water and toilets are a little walk away back at the ranger station.  It's not quite as convenient as Kosciusko.

After awhile, we set out to walk the "mile" to the swimming area.  Almost as soon as we hit the road, a park ranger stopped by and offered us a ride.  We piled in.  The swim in the murky Tennessee River was more refreshing than should be expected for such opaque water.  Our body temperatures dropped dramatically, and we felt renewed, even if not entirely clean.  We all sat on the river banks chatting for awhile.  The walk back to the campsite seemed much longer than a mile.

I suspect we'll dwindle the remaining daylight (and possibly moonlight) swapping stories with our neighbors.

 Friday, June 15, 2001

Colby Ferry, TN to Natchez Trace Wilderness Preserve (60 miles)

With the best of intentions, we were up and beginning to pack away our gear shortly after 6:00 AM - when the rain came.  We waited it out in the tent until nearly 8:00.  At that point, it was hard to tell if the rain was still falling, or if we were just hearing the rain falling from the trees.  Thankfully, it appeared to be the latter.  It was still overcast and we thought it might not be over yet.  The rain had actually become something of a joke for us - and apparently our camping neighbors as well.    Everywhere we go, people have been warning us that "tomorrow it's supposed to rain all day."  There's nothing funny about that - except that it hasn't happened.  Sometimes, in the sweltering heat, we've been guilty of wishing for it, though.

We had a long day ahead and were frustrated to be getting such a late start.  After exchanging addresses and a few last minute stories with our new friends, we headed out.  It was nearly 9:30 AM already.

The sun was not shining through the clouds yet, and the road was nice and tree lined.  Although it was still extremely humid, it was decidedly much cooler without the direct sun on our backs.  We were feeling okay, and made good time cycling into Collinwood, TN (on TN 13).  Collinwood is a cute and authentic looking town with basic amenities.  There were several restaurants, a gas station, a park, 2 grocery stores, several auto parts stores, and not one but two flower shops.  Today may have been a special day, because there was also a fruit and vegetable stand being run out of a truck by the park.

On the advice of a note we'd read at the campground at Colby Ferry, we sought out Jessica's Restaurant, but were unable to locate it or find anybody who had heard of it.    Maybe we had the wrong town, or maybe the note at the campground was old.  Suddenly, I regretted not dating my own note for fellow travelers.

We settled on lunch at the Old Depot, which is right downtown and across the street from what looks like a new depot building being built.  As we settled into our meal of comfortable diner food, we watched dark clouds roll in.  Then - thunder and lightening and an all out deluge.  The restaurant was cold from the air conditioning, but it was raining so hard that neither of us had any intention of leaving the safe, dry restaurant to get warmer clothes.  Shivering, we waited out the worst of the storm in the restaurant, but got subtle vibes that the waitresses would have preferred that we didn't.  Was it our body odor from  days of serious sweating, camping, and bathing only in the dirty Tennessee River?  Was it that we dressed funny?  Or was it that we were generally unfamiliar, and thus suspicious?  We'll never know.  Regardless, we were a little disappointed to not receive the walloping dose of southern hospitality we'd become accustomed to.  Even more so, because we were both kind of hoping that some nice fellow with a pick-up truck (and trust me, they all have pick-up trucks out here) would take pity on us and offer us a ride up the now flooded road.  We wouldn't have refused.

When the rain slowed, and with no such offer, we walked down to the Piggly Wiggly (I just love saying that) for some provisioning.  On the way, we noticed that a local bank displayed the temperature as 63 degrees Fahrenheit.    Scarcely an hour prior, before the storm, the same thermometer read 80 degrees.  After shopping, we walked back up to the park and sat under the shelter on a picnic table.  When that got old, we walked across the street to the gas station,  called our families, smiled and tried to drum up conversation with the townsfolk (still hoping for a ride), and probably freaked out the clerk at the convenience store.  I think we may have lingered too long for her comfort.

A little after 3:30, the rain stopped and we hit the road again.  We had 30 miles until our planned destination, and few (if any) reasonable alternatives.  We tried to call ahead to the Natchez Trace Wilderness Preserve to see if there were any spaces for us.  The Wilderness Preserve is a members only (timeshare) campground, and only offered spaces to non-members as available.  We really wanted to stay there because nearby options in either directions wouldn't include showers.  There was the Natchez Trace Motel, 10 miles earlier, but we'd been warned by several people about it being really disgusting, and on their way out of business.  After our initial tries to reach the Wilderness Preserve failed, we learned the area code had changed.  Then, when we reached them, we were re-directed to 3 different extensions, and had to call back twice.  In the end, we found out that they almost never have tent campers anymore, so they had plenty of room for us.  For reference, the number to call is (931) 796-3211.

To the surprise of both of us, the cooler weather and the long rest combined to feed our energy.  Both feeling strong, we cat-and-mouse raced up the road, playing and thoroughly enjoying ourselves, and stopping once for a cold drink at a market (where we noted with embarrassment that the flies were circling us as if we were garbage) and once for Jeff to rescue another turtle who had made it into the middle of the road and then stalled.  This is at least the third such turtle Jeff has rescued by relocation to the relatively safe grass.  We've been joking about his turtle-karma.

The remaining miles flew by, and we arrived at the campground near 6:30 PM.  This is more of a country club than a campground.  There are multiple swimming pools, game rooms, rec rooms, fishing, boating, RVs, cabins (at least 60 of them), and whole lodges available for rent.  Not to mention showers and laundry.  And amid all this, on what's turning out to be a crisp and clear Friday night, we are the only tent campers.  The tent area is by the lake, and has wood or concrete platforms that apparently used to house teepees, until interest dwindled.  We are lucky that our tent is free-standing, and that there is no wind, because there is no place to stake a tent here.  We feel like our secluded campsite is the best campsite in the whole place, and for $24 (a price that was quoted almost apologetically), we're very content.  As dusk settled, I learned why bullfrogs are thus named.  They really do moo.

The late energy of our ride gave us some much needed confidence.  That, combined with the all-clear (and less humid) forecast for tomorrow should mean clear sailing into Leiper's Fork, TN.

 Saturday June 16, 2001

Natchez Trace Wilderness Preserve to Leiper's Fork, TN (55 miles)

Last night, very shortly after we cleaned up and settled for the night in our tent, the rain came.  Although it had been cloudy earlier in the day - with occasional ominous clouds  -we were lulled into security by the beautiful campsite, the darkness (which made the sky no longer appear cloudy to us), and the forecast on our weather radio.  We didn't see it coming, but it didn't much matter because we were already snugged in our tent.  We lay back and listened to the rain roll over the water like waves.  It should be noted, with curiosity, that all of the rain we've seen has come when we were protected.  In our tent, at a restaurant, under a shelter.

In the morning, everything was damp, and a smoky fog rolled gently across the otherwise placid lake.  It was stunning.  The sky was clearing nicely.  As we reviewed our day's agenda, I realized that I had optimistically told Jeff we only had 40-something miles left, but it was actually 50-something.  He was not pleased.  We are both anxious to get to Nashville.  Our "no place to go, no time to be there" philosophy has been replaced with the knowledge of how little time we have left, and how much we want to do.

We got an early start, and the still damp road combined with the cooler morning air made for nice riding conditions.  I never thought I'd cherish a wet road, but this trip has changed me.  Tennessee seemed more shaded to us, and more interesting, too.  We saw more farms, more barns, and more livestock.  The hills are more interesting to look at (in our opinion) than the flatlands, but also a little draining.  It seemed to us that we climbed out of the campground, and continued to climb all morning.  It was mostly a gentle climb, but there were occasional steeper parts that slowed us down.  We knew we were riding on a ridge, and expected a big downhill around every corner - and were frustrated when we just kept climbing more.  The payoff never did come.  The hills were never so steep that we needed our granny gears (in fact, I spent the entire tour on my middle ring), but they had accumulated effect.  There was also a headwind - the first of the trip. 

As the morning wore on we took a few stops to hike the short nature trails to waterfalls.  Jackson Falls was a neat cascading fall, but the trail down had wooden bridges that were so wet and slimy that we slipped and slided across, hugging the guardrail.  A man in front of us wiped out completely.  Mostly though, we stayed on our bikes.  There were few shady places to stop, no markets to fuel our newfound Gatorade addiction.  

We enjoyed the exhibits at Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) Historic Site, and his fascinating life (and death) story is well worth investigating.  It's too much to write here, though.  It should be noticed that the visitor center at Meriwether Lewis Historic Site appears to be several miles from the Trace - a fact which took us off guard since the other visitor centers were just off the road. 

We were told that the stores at Swan Valley - really the only market stop - burned down 3 months ago, so we rode past without stopping.  The coolness of the morning faded quickly, and soon we were in direct sun again.  It was not as humid as days past, but temps were well into the 90s.  There was not a cloud in the sky.  Near mile 390, as we were lamenting (yet again) how the rough road surface made us work harder (often, we had to pedal downhill), the road turned to smooth again.  Road weary, I described as wearing silk undies after days of wearing only burlap.  We enjoyed the smooth surface for awhile, but it ended shortly thereafter.

Either because it was Saturday, or because we approached a large city, we passed many bicyclists today.  Mostly on light road bikes, or time trial bikes.

We rode nearly continuously for hours until we arrived at Burns Branch Picnic Area (mile 425).  We relaxed on a shady picnic table by the creek for awhile.  While we snacked and rested, we watched occasional equestrians ride by and steer themselves (and their horses) into a cool creek for a drink.  We were only 4 miles from Leiper's Fork, TN.

In Leiper's Fork, we had a late lunch (actually, I had breakfast because I can't get enough of those flaky biscuits).  After lunch, we called a local bike shop to ask for advice on getting to Nashville.  We had suggested bicycling directions, but it was still more than 30 miles, through what has been described as really unfriendly traffic, and we didn't have it in us.  We didn't want to wait the night and ride the next day because that would have left us no time at all in Nashville.   Pat Cox of Lightening Cycles didn't hesitate at all - he offered to have some friends pick us up and drive us.  It was an offer we couldn't refuse.

While we waited for our ride, Jeff was in the restaurant reading the newspaper.  He learned about Fan Fair, the world's largest country music festival - about the same time I did.  I was calling hotels, and realizing that there was scarcely a room to be had, and that those that were vacant had severely jacked up prices.  Rather than staying downtown (which would have been convenient but costing upwards of $150 per night), we opted for the Opryland KOA across town near the Grand Ole' Opry.  The KOA promised us public transportation (bus) to downtown, which was good enough for us.

Ruth and Lester picked us up, and took us on a short driving tour of the area including the spectacular TN 96 bridge (which is on the Trace just a few miles from where we stopped) and the really fabulous (but touristy) looking downtown historic Franklin.  I found myself wishing that we'd bicycled into Franklin - to explore it more slowly.   Ruth and Lester told us that, like many other towns, the outskirts of Franklin is becoming overrun by cookie cutter housing developments and large chain stores.  

Although we said we wanted to go to Nashville, and we initially believed they would drive us there, Lester decided that was the last place we wanted to be, and took us instead to the Day's Inn on TN 96 near I-65.  This was just a few miles past Franklin but it was one of those places that could be anywhere.  Sterile hotels, chain restaurants, huge generic shopping centers.  We thanked Ruth and Lester profusely, and bid them fond farewell.

About to check into the hotel, we decided that we didn't want to be in this generic nowhere, and called a taxi.  Being at a major crossroads was to our benefit, and it would have cost much more to get a taxi from Leiper's Fork - if it was even possible.   Music City taxi, upon hearing our space requirements (2 bikes, 2 people, camping gear) dispatched a "van" which turned out to be a mini-van.  The driver was anxious to make the fare, and was quick to push and shove our bikes into all sorts of tight positions that seemed to us like undignified and painful tortures to our trusty steeds that had taken us so far with no problems at all.  We kept asking him to stop, so we could assess the situation and decide the best way to make everything fit, but every time we paused, he went right back to thoughtlessly grabbing and pushing.  Nothing could make him stop.  Amazingly, and probably defying safety, we got everything in, with no apparent damage to the bikes.

The Opryland KOA boasts nearly 500 sites and after last night's gentle wilderness preserve, is quite a shock to us.  We have a tiny swatch of grass (between gravel driveways) to pitch our tent, and a street light very close by.  It feels like we are whispering-distance from our neighbors.  We learned that the promised bus to downtown only runs noon to 5:00 PM on Sunday's - on our only day to see the city, that didn't seem like enough time.  We'll have to take an expensive taxi instead.   We called Northwest Airlines, and learned that they hadn't managed to get bike boxes for our return trip - despite our begging in the prior weeks.

The stress of the taxi ride from Leiper's fork, the starkness of the campground, the cascading small dilemmas, the end of the bicycling part of our journey have settled over us in a deep sadness.

 Sunday June 17, 2001

Nashville, TN

Despite the crowds (not as rowdy as we predicted), the downhill pitch of the tent, and the streetlight (that happily never turned on), we slept surprisingly well.  In  the morning, we took a taxi downtown to Music Row, figuring that's where the action is.  There was nothing going on there.  The studios were closed on Sunday, and there were just a few dejected shops open.  We walked on empty streets towards the tall buildings, and as we crossed the intersection of 5th and Broadway, all of a sudden there was a wall of people.  We'd hit Fan Fair.   We spent much of the afternoon enjoying the crowds and the music (often live) coming out of every store and restaurant.  The riverfront park was the center of Fan Fair, and there were activities and music there, too.  We didn't have tickets, but we enjoyed listening and watching from a distance.

Near the brand new County Music Hall of Fame (which has a nifty architecture reminiscent of a piano), we stumbled upon a celebrity auction where people were bidding on items like the pants Faith Hill wore to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.  Trace Adkins (who I confess I've never heard of, although he is an apparent county music celebrity), showed up and auctioned the jean shirt off his back, and another concert shirt with his picture on it.  He arrived wearing the jean shirt, and the fans went nuts.  He took it off, signed it, blushed, wiggled (on demand), and earned $1200 for the YMCA for his efforts.  He seemed to be a pretty modest guy, embarrassed that all these women were ogling over him.

Wandering further, we found Printer's Alley which looked to be the place to go on a hot summer night for a wild time.  We walked until we couldn't stand the sun anymore (it was 97 degrees by one banks thermometer), and took the $2 bus back to Opryland.  

We made what in hindsight was a bad choice by using our remaining time to visit to the generic Opry Mills instead of the Opryland Hotel.  The hotel is enormous and features immense indoor gardens and rivers, among other attractions.  Back at the campground we went for a swim, and to the evening show.  Even the campgrounds in Nashville have live entertainment every night.

 Monday June 18, 2001

Nashville, TN to Home

Edwin, driving Checker Cab #45, arrived early Monday morning with a mini-van and a plan.  We calmly and smoothly loaded our bikes into the van for the short ride to the airport. It was quite a contrast to the stressful taxi ride two days earlier. Looking out the window at these roads, I was glad we didn't try to ride in Nashville.  The roads are traffic laden and hot, and the drivers don't appear patient.

Northwest Airlines never did get a bike box for us,  and maintained their story that they usually have them - just not right now.  Jeff went to every other ticket counter in the Nashville Airport, and managed to get boxes from the last airline he tried. 

Our connection flight was cancelled and we ended up spending 5 hours in a hub airport killing time.  It was midnight when we got home

The time in Nashville, and the return trip seemed sufficiently lengthy that  by the time we got home the Natchez Trace Parkway seemed like a far away place.  A nice one, though.

References and Appendices 


Glen Wanner's Book, Bicycling The Natchez Trace was an extremely valuable resource for this trip.  There are no services (markets, campgrounds, motels) visible along the trace (although there are many nearby).  Without his book, a huge amount of time (and energy) would have been wasted trying to find out where the services along the route are.  Glenn also personally provided us with bicycling directions from the Trace to Opryland, which are untried by us but may be valuable to somebody else.

As you approach the north end of the Trace, follow any of the three options in Bicycling The Natchez Trace to Nashville. My first thought would be to call Opryland and see if they would allow bikes on the River Taxis which connect Riverfront Park and Opryland. In the future, the Shelby St bridge will be completed as a pedestrian bridge which will connect with a bike lane to the 4 mile Shelby Bottom Greenway. There is also a good chance that there will then be a ferry to from the Greenway to Opryland.

But for now... Heading in on West End,
R on Elmington Ave just before reaching I-440
L on Richardson Ave (easy to miss)
R on Chesterfield (becomes Blair Blvd.) after crossing I-440
L on 21st Ave N (light)
R on Magnolia
Continue straight on 16th Ave at light
Enter Music Row roundabout and take Demonbreun St.
Continue to 1st Ave (you may have to jig jog over a street to get there).
At this point you might as well, head a couple blocks north on 2nd Ave to
see downtown. Cycling downtown isn't a problem at all since you will be
nearly as fast as the cars.
Head south on 1st (which becomes Hermitage Ave/Hwy 70). This is not a great
route but it should be okay if you avoid rush hour (including lunch time).
L on McGavock and continue to Opryland/KOA.
bulletNational Parks Service - Natchez Trace Parkway.  There's a nice (free) map and other information that they'll send you just for asking.  Tell them you're bike touring, and they'll send lodging, bike shop, and other useful information.
bulletA detailed guide to The Natchez Trace, by Jim Parks,  with a really helpful bibliography (better than this one).
bulletWalk/Bike Nashville
bulletHarpeth (TN) Bike Club
bulletTraveling The Trace  (a good resource, not specifically for bicycle tourists, and too heavy to carry).

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