By Laura in Natchez, MS
The Natchez Trace. A national park, a scenic highway, a historic travel corridor.
The trace was first traveled by indigenous peoples following an ancient animal migration route. In early America, it was an important pre-steamboat pathway for farmers and merchants throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River regions. Inns, called “stands,” dotted the trace. Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, was mysteriously murdered in a stand along the trace. Under Thomas Jefferson, the Natchez Trace became the first federal highway of the old southwest. Now its a national parkway.
It’s how we got from central Tennessee to southern Mississippi.
444-miles of road surrounded by a continuous sliver of park, the Natchez Trace Parkway’s northern terminus is Nashville and it’s southern terminus is Natchez, which rhymes with matches. We learned the correct pronunciation around halfway down the trace.
Pre-trace, we spent two nights in Clarksville, Tennessee. Saul’s college friend Mike lives there with his wife Amanda. They stayed with us in Brooklyn last fall as honeymooning newlyweds. Now we were the travelers coming through. We basked in their hospitality, eating a lot, sleeping a lot, taking full advantage of their technology, enjoying their upholstery.
On our second night in Clarksville, I got a call from my brother. The timing was perfect. My phone was on, for one thing, which is a rare occurrence these days. Also, we were about to head out on the town but hadn’t left yet, mostly because I was deep in the process of downloading and organizing photos.
It was the first time I’d talked to my brother since starting the trip. I was giddy. There wasn’t much time to talk, as Chris was en route to work in Hong Kong and we were en route to a brewpub in Clarksville. Our talk was succinct. I wanted to hear the latest about Avery, my four month old nephew. And there was something Chris wanted to know. How was the actual riding going?
I hesitated to answer. The actual riding. There are so many variables that go into it. Variables that are constantly changing.
The road. Its size, what it’s made of, and it’s condition. The presence or absence of a berm (aka shoulder or safety lane). The presence or absence of glass/pebbles/debris on the berm. Rumble-strip or no rumble-strip? That’s a big one.
Who’s on the road with you? Cars, trucks, tractors, motorcyclists, horse and buggies, other cyclists? Their speed and frequency. The amount of clearance they afford you while passing. Honking or no honking?
What’s around the road? Urban, suburban, or rural landscapes? Homes, down towns, strip malls? Flora and fauna. The presence or absence of dogs. Loose or chained dogs? Aggressive or friendly dogs?
And, of course, there’s topography. Incline? Decline? What grade? And the weather. Temperature, humidity, the presence or absence of cloud coverage. Wind speed and direction. Another big one.
Then there’s your bike. And there’s your body. Both huge variables, each requiring a lot of maintenance. Nutrition, hydration, rest (body). Properly inflated tires, parts monitored for tightness and wear (bike). Cleaning and lubing (body and bike).
So many variables that affect each minute, hour, day of riding. I confessed to my brother that the riding has been quite mixed for me. Overall, good. But very mixed. Unfortunately, I am still having issues with my vintage Trek touring bike. And the hills of Kentucky really kicked my butt. I am plain sick of incessant hills and barely being able to catch my breath before the next incline hits. Also, there have been some frightening dog chases. But overall, the riding is good, and sometimes, when enough variables align favorably, amazing.
But even an amazing ride can deteriorate quickly. I experienced this coming out of Mammoth Cave National Park. Inside the park, we soared along a smooth, wide road ensconced in forest, atop a vast network of caves which we had spent hours in earlier that day. Wild turkeys and deer grazed along the side of the road. The air was fresh. The trees provided shade. There were practically no cars on the road. It was pure riding pleasure.
Not for long.
We reached the edge of the park and were spit out into the little town of Brownsville. Goodbye trees and shade. Hello houses and dogs. I heard loud, frenzied barking and tensed up immediately. Saul was down the road and out of sight. Within sight, however, were two medium-sized dogs, already at the side of the road. They were waiting for me. I swerved towards the mid-line to avoid them. Luckily on a downhill, I surpassed them without a problem. In my helmet mirror, I watched them chase me then give up their pursuit. Phew!
But I was not off the hook yet. At the bottom of the hill I heard a deep, gruff bark. Uh-oh. A big dog. I caught sight of the dog and my knees went weak. It was huge! Fear fueled me up the hill suddenly in front of me. “This could be bad,” I thought to myself, just before noticing the vicious canine was on a chain. Saved! The dog continued barking and bucking but I breathed a sigh of relief.
Then, not even a quarter mile down the road, I heard more barking. An equally aggressive tone. Out of nowhere, two more dogs were on my tail- and they were close! My lungs burned as I simultaneously screamed at the dogs and powered up the hill, fumbling to switch gears using my cumbersome circa-1980 down-tube friction shifters. Somehow I made it up the hill despite the grinding of my out-of-whack gears. So this is why Kentucky has such a bad reputation amongst cyclists when it comes to dogs. Some cyclists carry sticks around here.
I coasted down the hill, my legs weak from fear and fatigue. Saul was waiting for me at the stop sign. “Did you get chased?!,” I asked, but I could already tell from his serene expression that the answer was no. In fact, Saul hadn’t even seen any dogs, besides the big one chained up! He had certainly alerted them to our presence, right in time for me to roll around!
The rest of the day, and the whole hundred mile ride to Clarksville the next day, I rode in the front with Saul just behind me. That was just how it had to be. Saul was a good sport about it, though he doesn’t really understand my now fully-blown paranoid fear of dog chases. “You mean you think about dogs even when they’re not there?” Um, yes! For Saul, it’s out of sight, out if mind. For me, it’s out of sight, lurking behind the next bend in the road. My paranoia (and poor distance vision) has led me to mistake everything from potted plants to mailboxes for dogs.
The Natchez Trace seemed to promise a respite from dog attacks and other challenges of the road. 444 miles of park land. No houses, no dogs. Low traffic. Free camping. Mile markers. A handy map. No navigating, just straight down the trace. Gentle terrain. After the literal and figurative ups and downs of Kentucky, the prospect of easier riding sounded real good. Sure, the trace is not the most direct way to get down to New Orleans, but who cares. It has a national reputation as a cycling haven. Sign me up!
And sure enough, as soon Mike and Amanda dropped us off at the northern terminus and we started down the trace, I felt myself relax. The Natchez Trace was indeed a beautiful, gently curving road. Extremely well maintained. There was nothing tricky to negotiate. The surroundings were consistent and pleasant. Trees and sky. Pretty simple. Occasionally, we saw other cyclists, which hadn’t really happened since Ohio. We even met a cycle tourist heading north who had just ridden the whole trace. It really flattens out in Mississippi, he said.
With no distracting stimuli, there was suddenly time to think. I found myself reflecting on the trip and daydreaming about the future. I found myself getting lost in the scenery, but never for long. Saddle discomfort or the search for a comfortable position kept pulling me back. After a day or so on the trace, a long brewing realization set in.
I’m not happy with my bike.
A pretty major thought to have in the middle of a cross-country bike trip. The shifting, my new saddle, my riding position. None of it was quite working for me, despite the adjustments we kept making. No matter how ideal the other variables are, if your body and bike aren’t working well together, the riding can’t be good for long.
I knew my problems with my bike were not insurmountable. They were just going to require some time, money, and a good bike shop to fix. New Orleans would probably be the place to do it, but that was a while away.
On our third day on the trace, my dissatisfaction with my rig was brought home further. We had just entered Mississippi and found breakfast at Pattie’s One Stop. The name held true. Pattie’s met all our needs- hot food for now, bananas and dried goods for later, electrical outlets, wi fi, and bathrooms. Score! We lingered over coffee and chatted with the locals longer than we had intended. But no worries, we were about to make some miles. We topped off our tires with air and headed on our way.
Back on the trace, our intentions were soon thwarted by another blow out. My fourth of the trip! Totally demoralizing. It put three exclamation points on my realization. I am not happy with my bike!!!
The blow out sent my mind spinning. Why do I keep getting these blow outs? Its ridiculous that I have to fear putting air in my tires, even when I only pump to 80 psi, well below my tire’s maximum pressure of 95 psi. At this rate I’ll have 16 blow outs over the course of the trip. Unacceptable! I’m bound to get hurt in one of them. Clearly something’s not right with my wheels and tires. So many things are not right with my bike! Why did I decide to ride this vintage bike across the country? It was a great commuter in the city but it’s clearly not up to the job at hand. And why did I get a new saddle without a split seat? I should have known better! I just want to be safe and comfortable on my bike!!!
The worst part after a blow out is getting back on the bike. Trust has been lost. I reluctantly put my bags back on my bike and started to ride. We were heading to a bike shop in Tupelo to pick up a spare tire. My bike still didn’t feel right, particularly in the rear, the site of the blow out. A few minutes of riding passed. I still felt skittish and the rear felt wonky.
Saul pulled up behind me. “How’s it going?” he asked. “Not great. Something still feels really wrong with the rear wheel,” I replied. “Well, good thing there are two bike mechanics right behind us.” What?! I looked over my shoulder and, lo and behold, there were two other cyclists riding fully-loaded bicycles.
Enter Hollie and Emerson.
Suddenly we were riding two by two. I was so surprised and excited to meet other bike tourists heading in the same direction that I (very) temporarily forgot about my bike woes. Normally when we run into other cycle tourists we are heading in opposite directions and stop to talk. This was the first time we’d ever rolled down the road together with fellow bike travelers. Turns out it was just the beginning.
We learned that Hollie and Emerson hail from Knoxville, Tennessee. And, amazingly, they are doing pretty much the same ride as us- down the trace, on to New Orleans, then the Adventure Cycling southern tier route to the west coast.
It was kind of stunning news. This whole time we had only met one pair of cyclists going cross-country. We intersected with them in Ohio on the Little Miami Trail. They had started in Washington state and were heading to Connecticut. We only spent ten minutes with them but felt an instant comradery because of the similar scale of our trips. Now we were meeting two people doing our same route, at the same time, in the same direction. And they were bike mechanics!
That afternoon, Hollie trued my rear wheel at one of the Indian mound sites along the trace. We exchanged information, then parted ways knowing we’d be seeing each other again real soon.
The next day our numbers multiplied further. It was a hot day, which we’re not used to, and I was chugging along the trace. I heard someone approaching me, Saul I presumed- but no! It was Derek, and then a minute later, David. Two travelers from Indianapolis, also heading to New Orleans then west to Cali! Unbelievable!
There were now six of us, that we knew of, doing the same trip at the same time. Pretty incredible that we all had the same idea- and are actually doing it!
The trace was introducing a new riding variable. Community. Getting to know people pursing the same epic undertaking as you ride down the road together makes for a whole new experience. You can cram a week’s worth of normal getting-to-know-you conversation into a day of riding! Also, you quickly learn to be comfortable with silence together, something which takes far longer in most other social situations.
We camped out with Derek and David that night- and every night since.
The ever-exuberant David became my riding partner. His bountiful positivity and philosophical approach to life- and his willingness to keep my pace- kept me smiling throughout the day. We swapped all kinds of stories. I found myself pulling out ones that I hadn’t thought about in years. My bike woes faded to the background.
After our second day of riding with D and D, we hooked back up with Hollie and Emerson. They pulled a century to meet us at our campground in Canton that night. Then they further wowed us all with their dinner preparations. Curried vegetables over rice noodles. Hollie’s magic bag of spices amazed me. I didn’t know it was possible to cook and eat so well on the road!
The next two days, we rolled six deep down the trace. We were an ever-changing constellation of riders. We rode into Jackson, MS for provisions and lunch. Our collective power to take over a lane and force cars to defer to us was awesome. We were a force. And a spectacle!
Together, there was so much more of everything. More talking. More singing. More sharing.
I ripped the fly of our tent in a hasty retreat from mosquitoes. Emerson had a patch for us. Derek needed some contact lens solution. I had plenty. One night, inspired by Hollie and Emerson, David and I cooked a one-pot curry and rice. Hollie lent us her bag of goodies. A little of her paprika and curry powder mixed with our hobo-scored salt and pepper packets and the essential Sriracha. Perfection!
Our last day on the trace, we coined a name for our unlikely little community: Team Honeycomb. Corny perhaps, but we’ve been having a good time together. Part summer camp. Part Outward Bound. Maybe even a little MTV Real World.
Now in Natchez, never could Saul or I have predicted that we would finish the trace with four new friends. But it is rather fitting, considering the history of the Natchez Trace. We are certainly not the first to meet and band together along this path.
Ending the trace feels a little like back to reality. The need to navigate reappears, as do so many more uncertainties. What will the road be like? Where can we sleep? We’ve been spoiled by the predictability and ease of the trace. But Saul and I, and the other members of Team Honeycomb agree that if the trace kept on going, it would get boring after a while. Dealing with the uncertainties and all the changing variables is part of the fun, after all.
Plus, we managed to travel through Mississippi without really feeling like we traveled through Mississippi. The trace separated us from the communities we were passing through- and that’s no good. A big idea of this trip is to interact with and get a sense of the towns, cities, and states we are riding through.
I can’t begrudge the trace at all though. It gave me a change of pace when I really needed it and set the scene for meeting Hollie, Emerson, Derek, and David.
It was some pretty amazing riding too.