May 12, 2012 – Saturday
Nashville to Tishimingo
First day out on the road! Van’s parents, Lori and Paul, gave us a lift all the way to the Tennessee River, at the border of Tennessee and Alabama. First impression of the Natchez Trace: gorgeous, with a touch of Holy Crap! I’ve never been outside for this long of a stretch, never biked this much, never basically anything this much. It’s a gorgeous send-off (though about 330 miles too early for his loving parents). We begin our journey by crossing the river…and immediately stopping to go to the bathroom. Another pair of bicyclists are there, accompanied by a pick-up truck full of Gatorade and granola bars and all sorts of treats tired bicyclists crave. A nice woman admires our trek, exclaiming, “The Trace is really hard to do unsupported!” Van, of course, instantly leans in to me and says “Sweet. We’re about to do something people think is hard.” Almost as instantly, it starts to rain. Cats and dogs style. We find our wet way to the Tishimingo State Forest, where a kindly ranger lets us set up our tent under the Pavilion, though we only pay for Primitive Camping. We’ve only gone about 20 miles or so, but we at least made into Mississippi. We dine on Crazy Balls for supper (a snackaroon with around 20 ingredients ranging from grated carrots to quinoa flakes to coconut oil), hoping for a less rainy tomorrow.
May 13, 2012 – Sunday
Tishimingo to Witch Dance
No luck on less rain. After the first ten (rather stormy) miles, we resign ourselves to the sogginess, and laugh at how utterly absurd we look: our front half stained dark from the water, our backs practically dry. Not that the situation is any better once I’ve put on my “emergency poncho”—a thin plastic bag with holes cut out that sticks to my skin and flaps in the wind as we rush down hills. We both feel pretty jovial though—at least we’re not hot and exhausted! About fifteen miles go by after the rain ceases, we stop at the main Visitor Center for the Natchez Trace, just north of Tupelo. They offer a delightful 12-minute video on the merits of the Natchez Trace, where we learn all about the Mississippi River and how we “might oughta wanna take another day” to enjoy all the stops along the Trace. Oh, don’t worry…We’re taking our time. We make it the whole 80 miles to Witch Dance! (Lisa’s comment: I squeezed out of my sopping wet clothes, into my only slightly damp pajamas, feeling pretty lightheaded and weak, but happy to have gone 20 miles farther than my previous record! Also feeling incredibly thankful to have a supportive friend and strong bicyclist at my side…) It would have been a very peaceful night, except that Van’s lethal citrus chain degreaser revolted against the confines of his pannier to spread its vaporous, volatile viciousness upon his sleeping bag. After a rather chilly evening without it, morning dawns to find it still unbearably stinky, despite a vigorous washing the night before. We’re forced to leave it behind in one of the conveniently placed litter containers that dot the Trace.
At Witch Dance, Van airs out his ruined sleeping bag in the morning, in the hopes of reviving it after its degreaser dousing.
May 14, 2012 – Monday
Witch Dance to Kosciusko
Today we decided on the three H’s of Hell (well, four if you include Hell). Heat, humidity, and hills. It was a beautiful, foggy morning, but we were feeling pretty anxious about the 70 miles we had laid out in front of us. Lisa tries to take some cues from Van’s unending optimism and excitement, but the miles are long and slow, and the main stop we were looking forward to – Jeff Busby – turns out to have shut down in 2008. Oops. A park ranger sees us lying on our backs on the bird-poop speckled sidewalk, and gives us some ice water! He warns us of a “heckuva hill” we would hit before Kosciusko, which only serves to enhance the feeling of nausea that has settled in Lisa’s delicate stomach. We continue on our way, and at every slope wonder aloud if this is the hill that the ranger meant, though nothing seems terribly steep. When it starts to flatten out before any terribly difficult hill, we start to realize (or at least, think we realize) that the ranger was playing some clever mind trick, to make us anticipate an uphill so awful that we feel both ready for a challenge yet relieved that this hill, or that hill, wasn’t that bad, so it couldn’t have been the hill he was talking about. We thank him for his sage bicycling psychological help. Nonetheless, Lisa feels sicker and sicker, seemingly incapable of pushing herself any farther by the time we get to the Information Center near the campsite. The map makes it seem as though we’re still three miles away, and even lifting her head to take a sip of water seems too much of an effort. Luckily, the man working at the desk is getting ready to leave and he lets us hop in his truck to drive us to the campsite…all 200 feet away. Lisa gets sick at the campsite and feels a little bit like dying…until Van reveals that he overheard mention of a Pizza Hut a mile’s walk away. Perking up immediately, we put our veganism on hold for an absolutely incredible, revitalizing bit of Delicious. We share a large Veggie Lover’s Pizza and an order of Hershey’s Chocolate Dunkers. Feel awesome. No regrets.
May 15-16, 2012 – Tuesday and Wednesday
Kosciusko to Jackson (plus hangin’ out)
This is our flattest day so far, and we were making such great time that we allowed ourselves an hour-long chat with an older gentleman during lunch…half of the conversation was lost on her Yankee ears. Plus a gorgeous break at the Cypress Swamp…We make it the 70 miles to Jackson, and have to stop at the Sprint Store because of the demise of Van’s phone on our first night (unrelated water issues…) Of course, as soon as we turned onto Old Canton Road, things got hilly—and fast. Combine that with hunger and the 4:30pm heat, not having a place to stay, and those incessant saddle sores, emotions escalate. But! Pizza Hut (again. Sorry vegan friends.) and Couchsurfing come to the rescue: we meet Clay, a fantastic artist who goes by Echo Mech Creative (http://echomech.com/2012/), and whose art really captures the eye for its mix of natural flow and down-to-earth grunge. Joining us in couchsurfing is a pair of French friends, Emmanuel and Lisa, traveling through the United States making a documentary on the hidden concepts of games and human interaction within the United States. Their premise and process fascinates me, but for the sake of brevity I’ll leave it there. I’m just glad to meet them and can’t wait for their joint creation to be realized! We spend a fun night at Clay’s, and decide to get to know Jackson a little the next day. Here’s a huge shout-out to Beagle Bagel (http://www.beaglebagelcafe.net/), a local bagel shop with incredibly friendly employees and yummy sun-dried tomato bagels. We chatted with just about everyone there, telling them about our summer plans and hearing their stories, and before we left we were each given one of their coffee mugs, as well as coffee on the house! Go there. Also, don’t tell my vegan friends I went there (I kid!). While we’re chowing down, we get in touch with another Couchsurfer, Anne, who offers us a space and invites us to the annualRide of Silence (http://www.rideofsilence.org/main.php), which honors and commemorates bicyclists who have been injured or killed by vehicles. It was a slow ride, but an interesting crowd, and, considering the ridiculous ratio of road to pot-holes in Jackson, a very important message. Later that night, Anne gives us a hyper-speed tour of Jackson and brings us to a wings n’ beer joint where we enjoy the company and conversation of her friends. We eventually take the party back to her home and end up staying awake until 1…Not like we have to ride 100 miles tomorrow or anything! Heh…
May 17-18, 2012 – Thursday and Friday
Jackson to Natchez (plus a lazy day)
Anne drops us off in the morning, and suddenly we find ourselves on the last leg of the Trace. Just 95 more miles. It’s hard to imagine life “off the Trace” – traveling so much, camping out, and meeting all of these people—but we know the inevitable to be a sign of progress. The ride is long and arduous. We break several times so as to keep our tired minds and bodies at a level of comfort to make sure we are capable of finishing our first huge milestone: the first half of our journey! The last 15 miles outside of Natchez appear a geographical anomaly to our quickly diminishing strength as we keep heading up and up toward what we thought was the lowland of the Mississippi River. We see about 4 bikers heading north with panniers packed and chartreuse flags a-wavin’; a good indication of our proximity to the terminus. The fight toward victory becomes more and more apparent as we see the mile markers descend. 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. We take a picture by 1. It was as if the Trace was a medieval dragon and we were the knights standing atop its mighty throat, swords drawn, and the advantage ours.
Success! We started at Mile 330, just above the Tennessee River. The Trace is complete!
We finally make it to Natchez. All of that hard work and sweat has shown that a couple of kids with a dash of will power and a bunch of homemade Crazy Balls can do something as challenging as what we did. Nothing more. Simply content. Our successful journey challenges the mindset that we have to drive to get somewhere. Looking for a bit of Wifi, we find ourselves at the Hotel Eola, which houses a “café”—read, grand restaurant—inside its doors. Again, the waiters and waitresses are curious and friendly, and after three rounds of peach juice (on Lisa’s part, anyway) there’s talk of spending the night at the hotel, given our accomplishment and all. So the two of us, in all of our sweaty, stinky glory, sleep under clean and happy sheets.
The next day we sort of…accidentally spend in Natchez. In the morning, breakfast consists of a giant meal at the Natchez Coffee Company, where we begin asking people if they know someone with a boat. Shrimpboat preferred. No luck, to our dismay. We were really hoping to Huckleberry Finn our way to New Orleans. But we hear of the American Queen, an opulent, magnificent cruiseship that docked just last night and would be leaving at 5 this evening. Hope and imagination flares. The day slowly drips away into the midday heat as we come to terms with the $2,000 pricetag. By this time, it’s far too late in the day to consider bicycling too far, so we take up residence at the Natchez Cabin Rental (http://www.natchezcabinrental.com/), a place so thoroughly in-the-middle-of-nowhere that a neighbor has to lead us in her car to direct us through the last stretch of gravelly road. The “cabin”, a small house that Gary built for his and Paula’s son as he was growing up, meets all of the needs we could possibly imagine—air-conditioned, clean, nice-smelling, comes with a pool, a deck, and a firepit…Oh, the woes of traveling! Meeting so many people, staying in so many places, seeing all of the different ways that there are to be…Poor us!
A shot of the two of our bikes in Hotel Eola, where we stayed in Natchez. Nice to have a safe place to store our bicycles. Finally, we can put away the baby monitor.