Day Twenty Six: Natchez to Laplace, LA, mostly by U-Haul

So we went out to dinner tonight in a ten foot U-Haul truck.

The restaurant, Frenier Landing, was on Lake Pontchartrain, a couple of miles from the motel where we are staying, next to some swampland, and the night air was humid and heavy. We were amazed by the size of the dragonflies there; they looked like small birds. Dan had gumbo with alligator sausage and I had a delicious crab salad with remoulade, and no one really seemed to look twice at our vehicle as we climbed out of it, though I thought it was sort of hilarious.

We took yesterday off after twelve days of riding. It was Dan’s birthday, and we had a lovely room for two nights at the Dunleith Inn in Natchez. After breakfast we had a tour of the inn and visited some other historic sites and had to do mundane things like laundry, and then had an opportunity to reconsider our 240 mile or so route into New Orleans again, which we have changed several times. While talking this through, it became clear that one of us was ready to be done with biking, and the other was not. So we worked to figure out a compromise.

We decided that leapfrogging ahead through Baton Rouge would get us past the many miles of rural roads without services in rural Mississippi and Louisiana on the route, as well as getting us past some expected storms, and would let us finish our ride into New Orleans along the levee. So when we woke up this morning we immediately started making phone calls. First to the one car rental agency in town, Enterprise, to see if they had a car or SUV that we could rent (answer: no, they had nothing available until Saturday), then to Downtown Carla Brown’s shuttle service (answer: no, she was in Nashville delivering some cyclists doing the Trace but she could take us to Brookhaven to get on an Amtrak on Friday), and then to the Rock and Roll Taxi service (answer: yes, they would take us to Baton Rouge after 4 o’clock but could not take our bikes). So then we started considering other options…and U-Haul seemed pretty attractive. They offer one-way drop off, plus enough space to fit a couple of bikes in the back of their trucks, and there are lots of U-Haul offices in the region. The lovely woman at the Natchez U-Haul, Linda, said they had a truck available and quoted us a price and after breakfast in the Dunleith Castle we loaded up our bikes and rode out to highway 61.

Unfortunately, Linda discovered she was wrong when we got there… there wasn’t a truck that we could take without messing up other people’s plans. She was really apologetic and started making phone calls in between people coming in to pay bills and Fed Ex packages (the other part of the business) to see if she could find another truck for us, and eventually found one about 15 miles west in Ferriday. To get there, we would have to ride across a bridge that was under construction. By this time there was an older guy sitting at the other desk behind the counter (who looked like he could be Joe Biden’s brother), and he kind of quietly suggested that he didn’t think they were letting bikes on the bridge, and said he would check with the U-Haul in Woodville, about 35 miles south on 61. He found they had a 10 foot truck we could rent, so now the trick was to get us there before they closed for the day. And then he very kindly offered to drive us there…turned out Mike was the owner of the business and had a pickup and could take us and our bikes there in between some lawn mowing and other duties. His sidekick was a 15 year old boy who was wide eyed and quiet and watched as we strapped our bikes to Mike’s trailer, then came along for the ride.

It was a very pleasant trip, a beautiful wooded stretch of highway 61 that would have been a challenge on bikes only because there wasn’t much of a shoulder to ride on, and Mike had lots of stories including one about finding a still in those woods when he was a kid, and his dad called the police to let them know, and they smashed it up, and his dad later turned the barrel into a coffee table. The U-Haul office was in a small fitness center next to a Sonic Drive In and we got our gear and bikes out of the truck and profusely thanked Mike, who didn’t want any money for driving us though we persuaded him to at least let us pay for his lunch.

The rest of the day was spent driving down highway 61 in our big old truck, listening to NPR, stopping at the state line, drinking sweet tea under a giant oak tree in St. Francisville, and looking out at a landscape with sugarcane fields and refineries and lots of truck stops and strip malls. We drove through a torrential rainstorm and were sort of glad not to be on our bikes, though I confessed to Dan that missed it, I missed the intimacy with the landscape that is part and parcel of traveling by bike.

Tomorrow we will be riding along the river again…looking forward to it.

Day Twenty Four: Port Gibson to Natchez, MS

I have been reading Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” on this trip, and it has provided a thoughtful perspective on what it is to be traveling through unknown terrain, whether geographical or psychological. She notes:

“Lost is mostly a state of mind, and this applies as much to all of the metaphorical and metaphysical states of being lost as it does to blundering around the backcountry…. The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

We have been lost, and uncertain, and uncomfortable, on this trip — even given all of the maps and technology and planning and arrangements — and have experienced discomfort, as well as a rich life of discovery as a result.

This afternoon we finished our ride on the Natchez Trace Parkway, and felt both giddiness and loss as we counted down the mile markers to zero …. it was a tremendous biking experience. For more than 400 miles we were on a nationally maintained, historic roadway and the land adjacent to it. We entered it in the same way we started off on all of the other parts of the trip — with some sense of the towns and sights along it and high hopes for light traffic — but what we did not expect before starting was the quiet that we frequently experienced. Sometimes 15 minutes or more would pass before we would see a car or truck or RV, and in that time we would hear the quiet whir of our bike tires on pavement and the clink of our shifting gears, and the sounds and songs of birds in the woods around us, and maybe a far off tractor or mower, or water dripping off of rocks, or a cow or rooster making itself known.

We spoke with a group of lovely Belgian cyclists last night and at various points today at length as we compared our journeys, and they they too remarked on how amazing this was, the best biking they have experienced, and this in the context of many other cycling trips in Asia and Europe and better known places in the U.S. We did experience dry weather and blue skies most of the time, and that contributed to the overall satisfaction for us all, I think.

Our day started in our antebellum bed and breakfast in Port Gibson, where our young host served us bacon and eggs and berries in a dining room built in the 1700s and talked with us about his decision to buy the house and move there from Minnetonka, MN. The house had fifteen foot ceilings and beautiful details and no nails were used in its construction, only wooden pegs. We walked down his long, hilly gravel driveway after saying goodbye to him and his lively Golden Retrievers, and rode south toward Natchez.

The trip was a short one by comparison to other days though we felt a bit tired and ready for a break, which we experienced as soon as we entered Natchez. It is a beautiful river city, with amazing historic homes and streets lined with flowering trees and bushes, and we are staying at the Dunleith Inn which is quite posh by comparison to most of our accommodations this far. We are in the Dairy Building, and evidently the inn’s more notable guests (Mick Jagger, Viola Davis, Octavia Spenser) have stayed in the main house. Loved having the pool to ourselves before walking back into town to meet our friend Carlos for dinner along the river. He has been great company, a true companion and a lively storyteller, and we look forward to seeing him again in a few days in New Orleans.

The day ended with a ride back to the inn in the town Rock and Roll Taxi, with an older fellow who was playing great music. Dan asked him about Jerry Lee Lewis, who played his first gig down the street from where we had dinner when he was 13, and our driver went on to tell us that he first heard Elvis perform on a hayride, together with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, for $1 some years back.

Looking forward to more adventures in Natchez tomorrow….

Day Twenty Two: Kosciusko to Clinton, MS

Yesterday we had our first 100+ mile ride of the trip, and it was a long but beautiful day. The last two hours were particularly memorable…rain had passed through before we left French Camp, a little settlement where there is a Baptist church and cafe and school for troubled students (and where Oprah’s mom lives, evidently)…we could hear thunder so rode as fast as we could through woods covered in mist, with little to no traffic, and it was eerie and beautiful and we were each in a meditative state when we finally exited the Trace, thinking about all of the tribes and troops and settlers who had spent time in those woods.

We were also really hungry, and Kosciusko had the advantage of having several restaurants next to our no-frills-but-clean hotel, so we opted for the one with the most packed parking lot and had a fine dinner of Mexican food with very green margaritas.

This morning we headed off after breakfast while it was still cool, and traffic was light. The first half of the day went by very quickly; I don’t think I got a good photo of the many fields filled with rudbeckia/black eyed Susan’s, though you can see the blue skies and hay bales and reservoir that we rode along for miles and miles, watching the boaters and swimmers with some envy (as that seemed much more pleasant than riding on asphalt in the afternoon). One of the highlights of the day was a stop in the cypress swamp, looking at these big beautiful trees growing in water.

And then we got closer to Jackson, and the traffic was crazy, and then we made it to Clinton, and the traffic was also crazy, and we got off the Natchez Trace and rode across busy roads to get to our hotel, where we were checked-in by a fellow who noticed we were from St. Paul and who spent about ten minutes telling us about the plots and characters and settings of the books by one of his favorite authors, John Sandford, the Minnesota mystery writer.

He asked about the Mississippi River Blvd., and asked about the Ford plant (“didn’t y’all have the plant shut down up there?”) and asked us if we knew this nun, and it took us a couple of minutes to realize that she was a fictional character. He had such a strong sense of place and people from Sandford’s books and an interest in visiting the Twin Cities as a result. It was amazing to hear these place names from home when we feel so very far away from there right now…and our encounter came at an interesting time, as I have been thinking deeply about the many authors whose work has created my understanding of the places we have passed through in nearly 1800 miles of cycling.

More on that on another day…. Tomorrow we are off to Port Gibson and hoping to arrive there before expected storms come into the area.

Day Twenty: Tishmingo State Park to Tupelo, MS

We had a lovely evening in our CCC era cabin in the Mississippi woods, sitting on the porch swing and watching the fireflies and listening to the birds and cicadas and jazz playing on our little speaker until it got dark. This morning we made coffee and had some peanut butter and bananas for breakfast in honor of Elvis, though we had to put them on tortillas instead of toast…still, it got us off to a good start on our trip to Tupelo, his birthplace.

The ride out of the park was about three miles of quiet, wooded roads, and a grey fox ran out between our bikes, which delighted me as one had crossed my path on the way into the park as well. We got back onto the Trace and the traffic was light and the day was still cool and it was good to be reminded that while it was only 45 miles to Tupelo, we have 304 miles to go to get to the trail’s end. (And then we’ll have a couple hundred more miles to get us from the end of the trail in Natchez to New Orleans).

We ran into Carlos at our first water stop which was a lovely surprise, and also talked to some folks who had driven from California in their camper and were heading to an anniversary celebration in New Orleans. At one point we stopped to see thirteen unknown Confederate soldier’s gravestones, placed just off of the old Natchez Trace path, and were surprised to see them adorned with flags and little talismans, rocks and coins and leaves and more. Reminders of the Civil War are all around us and it does not seem like a distant past for many residents of this part of the south….

The riding was easy and we were at our hotel by 1:00. Our first order of business was to sort through our gear and ride over to the UPS store with all of the camping stuff since we are planning to stay in hotels or bed and breakfasts from this point on, and decided to reduce what we are carrying. They were very helpful, and we boxed up everything and then asked the staff there for a recommendation for lunch and they suggested the Neon Pig, across the street, which had amazing sandwiches.

After lunch we started our laundry and took a quick swim in the small outdoor pool where we are staying, and had fun watching one of the Elvis impersonators here for this weekend’s festival as he was asked to sign autographs poolside. We went to see round two of the Elvis contest happening this weekend after we had some clean clothes to wear, and it was a blast…there were some really talented people who get the spirit of Elvis and didn’t play to the stereotypes that seem to be typically the case.

All in all it was a lovely evening in town, and as we approached a funky restaurant named Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, we saw part of this quote on the chalkboard outside the restaurant, a quote we had read earlier from Anthony Bourdain after we learned of his death:

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least eat their food.”

He was so provocative, and interesting, and smart about food, and travel, and I find myself often thinking about his book, “Kitchen Confidential” while eating at any restaurant…including tonight’s.

We have moved far into the south on this journey, crossing many rivers, and we have been nourished and sustained by food prepared by simple cooks as well as some great chefs along the way…so terribly sorry that he was in such pain… he will be missed.

Day Eighteen: Hohenwald, TN to Florence, AL

This day could be largely summed up as blue skies and great cycling, biscuits and bacon and eggs for breakfast (thanks, Noel!), some stops at sites that included Meriwether Lewis’s grave, more great cycling and blue skies, many lovely creeks, some hard conversations with my traveling partner about being more present in the moment and not worrying about the plans for eight days from now, laughing with our new friend Carlos, some more great cycling, and then a diversion into Florence, Alabama, where we rode in white-knuckled highway conditions and then had cold drinks at the marina where we were seated by a young guy wearing an NPR t-shirt, followed by getting cleaned up at our hotel and walking downtown for a lovely meal at an amazing bistro named Odette’s that nearly brought us to tears because they had a kale salad AND asparagus on the menu.

Off to Muscle Shoals in the morning to see several studios, and then we are back on the Trace and heading to a cabin at Tishmingo State Park.

Day Sixteen: Dover, TN to a Rodeway Inn

I am not really sure where this hotel is as I am writing this outside of our room, listening to the trucks on I40, but it is on our route … we had about 65 miles of lovely biking in Tennessee as we are making our way to the Natchez Trace Parkway.

There are lots of pictures on this blog of Dan looking at maps (including the one above, from this morning) because we spend a lot of time with them, trying to figure out where we are, and where we are going next. Every morning before we leave, every evening when we have stopped cycling for the day, and a couple of dozen times in between, we are studying the maps, which came from Adventure Cycling in Missoula, Montana. Most days we complete about three segments of a map. On the left hand side of each map segment are the turn-by-turn instructions for that segment, which differ for southbound or northbound bike travelers, and show, for example, that Waverly has restaurants and grocery stores and places to stay (represented by a star), and that it was on Pumpkin Creek Lane that Dan was chased by six or seven dogs (okay, that is not on the map but I know that’s where we were, and they all got tired out from chasing him before I came along).

At one point in the morning Dan said “this is like the forest primeval,” and it was, with beautiful, old pines and oaks shading the road, and very few homes as we continued through the Land Between the Lakes with lots of signs pointing to resorts and restaurants with names like Fat Daddy’s and Pirates that were a couple of miles away on the lake.

We passed over many beautiful creeks and finally stopped at one, taking off our shoes to wade in the cold, clear water, and then rode into Waverly for lunch. I had sent a note to a lovely fellow who lives outside of Nashville, a friend of my friend Lynne, Paul Binkley, who is a terrific musician and composer and who likes to bike. We had a spirited conversation last December about many things including biking, after a performance of Lynne’s Christmas show, and he said he’d like to bike with us on the Natchez Trace for a day if time permitted. In Waverly, I found a text from him, once we had a signal, and it turned out that he could not bike with us but was wondering if he could bring us or take us out to dinner. Which was an INCREDIBLE offer since I had met him ONCE, and since our planned stop for the night was on completely the opposite side of Nashville.

We checked into our no frills hotel on the highway, adjacent to a Sunoco and really nothing else, and washed our biking clothes in the bathtub because there were no laundry facilities. Paul spent nearly two hours driving to find us, had a cooler full of cold drinks and snacks, picked us up and took us to the closest town for dinner at a roadhouse. While the food was good, the conversation was even better and Paul’s big laugh and great stories about life on the road as a musician and his music copyright work made the time go too fast.

We ended with a nightcap of Kentucky bourbon in our little room and Paul left us with some fruit and muffins sent along by his wife Erin, and said goodbye. Hoping we can return the favor to him someday in Minnesota. Spirits lifted by another incredibly gracious, kind person and act…it was a terrific day.