Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Recounting the Natchez Trace Parkway

It's good to be home with access to a real computer.  Rather than edit my previous posts with observations in hindsight and in pixels, I'll consolidate them here.  I know you won't go back and re-read the day-by-day, blow-by-blow.  But if you insist, here's your portal:
The pale blue line represents the whole trip, including
the little circles near Gulfport the previous week.
A year ago, "Natchez" was the name of an old-time riverboat on the Mississippi River - that's all I knew. But Greg tipped me about a special road that the Heart Across America ride would take, and I hatched a plan to visit my parents and do this Natchez Trace Parkway. 

I rode the start of the ride back in March (1, 2 and 3) and had a full range of experiences. It was overwhelmingly positive and optimistic and wrapped around the cause. Five days in Mississippi would be completely different.

It was still wrapped around the cause as we took every opportunity to share it with people, but there weren't that many people. Being just the two of us on bikes - and solo at the end of the week - made it quieter, with time for reflection.
The Magnolia State

Southern Mississippi

The actual Trace, a footpath
The city of Natchez was established in 1716, Curtis told us that - they've got an anniversary coming next year. At 300 years old, it is older than most cities in the United States.  Who knew?

Dave heard that the whole Natchez Trace Parkway covers five degrees of latitude. The changes in geography were perceptible as we rode day after day.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a National Park, roughly 800 feet wide and 444 miles long. The trees on either side of the road are thick enough that you cannot see or hear what may be on the other side until you exit. Sometimes there a county road or state highway with strip malls, gas stations and hospitals.

Overlook from Jeff Busby
Texas and Montana are big states.  Not only do they cover massive area, you can see forever. Mississippi is a relatively big state.  But on the Trace, because of the trees, your sight is limited - making Mississippi a small state. Only on rare occasions did the Trace rise up and offer expansive views. And even then, you can't see from the Trace itself - you need to take a short road to the edge of the park. And if you sprint, you might take the KOM.

Otherwise, the southern third of the Trace offered a canopy of trees to shade and protect us. That was welcome, but it focused our impressions to that of the road and immediate surroundings.


My bike, with everything I brought stuffed in that pack, looking out from Baker Bluff
Aside from the suburbs of Jackson and the area around Tupelo, the towns are small. The history of the Natchez Trace as a means of travel were constrained to the early 1800s as far as written history is concerned (written by people of European descent). It improved from a trail to a passable road. With the advent of better roads elsewhere and steam power to travel north up the Mississippi River, it became obsolete. The consequence was that no major cities grew.  The towns we stayed in were classic little towns with a court building in the center, surrounded by nearly empty storefronts along the square and then a strip of fast food places nearest to whatever state highway aimed toward the interstate.
Dave and Dennis on the square in Houston, MS
The middle of the the state has slightly more elevation change, but still hardly any hill above 4% grade or 600 feet elevation above sea level. There is a perceptible change in density and type of trees. It's more farmland. But there is still plenty of water: swamps and at least one slough.

Clearly, I recommend that you ride the Natchez Trace, it was a very positive and memorable experience. If you go, don't go alone - it's more fun with friends.  And when you book your rooms, contact Randy from Natchez Trace Travel. Trust me.

Northern Section (Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee)

The Trace runs northeasterly, veering away from the Mississippi River which goes past Memphis. The area near the river is the "delta" where the "delta blues" come from. The Trace, however, finds hilly territory and apparently "hill country blues" originated here.

Like a bad billiard shot, it misses the corner of Mississippi and crosses into Alabama near Muscle Shoals. The spelling is correct, although the intention may be a reference to mussels - Wikipedia is unclear. You'll recall, of course, The Swampers - they've been known to pick a song or two.  The Muscle Shoals Sound (from the recording studio, FAME, founded by The Swampers) influenced Sam Phillips before he started Sun Records.

I only spent an hour or so in Alabama, before I entered Tennessee. But it took me another day and many steep hills to get to Nashville.


A personal quirk of mine is a mild obsession with numbers. Strava gives me plenty of fodder - although I have not yet purchased a power meter. (I'm fond of saying "there's always somebody crazier" and those are the people with power meters.) Recently, I upgraded from the Jawbone UP24 to the UP3. It's basically a step counter and a sleep timer. A new feature in the UP3 is a resting heartrate measurement.  While I sleep it checks my pulse and estimates my resting heartrate overnight.

The four dots towards the left are the nights before my trip, 44bpm. The next three are the visit with my parents; I think I needed to adjust to the humidity. The high point of the week (the worst point) was the night before the first ride in Natchez. I attribute that to the two margaritas and two beers - that's more than I usually drink in a whole week. As the week went on, I got better. Thursday and Friday were more strenuous days on the bike which seems counter-intuitive, but that's the data. And the last data point is home sweet home.

Cool, huh?

I didn't weigh myself during the ride.  But by the time I returned home, I had gained five pounds. Considering how much I ate at regular meals, especially once I got to Nashville, it's not surprising. I doubt it was the instant oatmeal for breakfast every day. My body is used to burning this many calories and I'm less concerned about what I eat after a few beers.  And on the flight home, since I gained two hours, I managed to gain an extra meal, too. And that't probably why I gained weight.

I failed in my desire to have catfish or a po' boy (or a catfish po' boy).

The Natchez Trace Parkway is 444 miles; we diverted around a few. Adding in the ingress and egress miles, I logged 469.3 miles overall. Before that, I did 107.5 miles over three days in Gulfport, MS, where my parents live.

In addition to the missed catfish, there were also missed Brewvet opportunities. That's "brew" like in beer, and "vet" like in the French word brevet.  In Gulfport, my hotel was only a couple miles from Mississippi brewing - but it seemed weird to go out for a beer on my bike instead of visiting with my parents. But at the time I thought I'd have plenty of opportunities along the Trace. But aside from a Negra Modelo at Bel Piatto (yes, an Italian restaurant), there were precious few good beer drinking opportunities

If you ever need to prove you know obscure Fisch Facts, mention Dave's "Crazy Ivan" maneuver at the bottom of the hour. Okay, not *exactly* at the bottom of the hour and probably not even once an hour, but Dave gets out of the saddle simply to change his position - even on flat roads. That can be a surprise when you are drafting him. I almost ran into his tire several times.
Grinders Stand (like a motel), where
Meriwether Lewis died
(of Lewis & Clark)

Bridge at Birdsong Hollow
I've become a coffee drinker because of cycling. This was not a good trip for coffee. The hotel rooms tended to have one-cup coffee makers with single-serving packets of "regular" or "decaf" - very descriptive names.  Less than inspiring.  Unlike cycling *outside* of a National Park, there are no coffee shops along the way for that mid-morning recaffeination.

If I think of anything else, I'll edit this and make you read it again!

1 comment:

  1. Read'm all Todd, well written with some good humor mixed in.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.