Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: Deadly Bridge to Memphis

Last time I walked the Giant five miles to get him repaired, then found myself caught in the tense atmosphere of Hayti, Missouri.

Day 85 (September 29, 2012)

The Drury Inn’s breakfast setup wasn’t quite on a par with their dinner buffet, but I filled up and got ready. I had a long way to go to Memphis—nearly 100 miles—and I was determined to make it in one day. If I did, I had a place to stay with a Couchsurfing host named Michael and his roommate. Plus, tonight was Saturday night, the perfect time to meet a new city.

The wind demons were with me. As I biked down the entrance ramp to I-55 a strong north breeze grabbed me like a sail. Gods, I love a good tailwind.

I regret that I didn’t detour to Caruthersville the day before. It’s right on the river (unlike Hayti) and looks like a bigger town, and if I hand’t had such a late start with bike repairs it might have been my stopping point for the night. Perhaps it would have been a more welcoming place. But now it was out of my way, and with fond memories of my Couchsurfing stint in St. Louis the week before I was eager to be among friends again.

Day 85 was one of my finest bicycle rides. I chose the Interstate because it was flat, smooth pavement with a wide shoulder, and in rural areas a freeway is quite pleasant. With few bends and no trees, the wind howled down behind me and kept me going like a speedboat. I was amazed at the time I made—and how little effort it took. I decided to lean into my pedaling and add manpower to windpower, and found myself cruising at a good 17 miles per hour for much of the trip. At one point I stopped for ice cream at a gas station; I almost felt guilty taking a break and “wasting” the free windpower.

But the wind didn’t let up. I entered Arkansas earlier than expected (there was one little corner of it before crossing the river to Memphis, Tennessee). I habitually calculate my mileage, speed and ETA in my head, so that I always know roughly when I’ll arrive at a given town. By the time I passed Blytheville my math said I’d be grossly early (which was fine by me). But 100 miles is a long way to go and, remembering my ridiculous delays into St. Louis, I decided not to adjust my ETA with Michael.

It was a good call. In the afternoon the wind did eventually weaken, but that wasn’t the problem. I was already 70 miles in by then. The real problem was the change in highway conditions.

As you  near a big city, the interstates become unrideable. It’s not just the heavier, more aggressive traffic, though that’s not fun. It’s not even the more frequent (and busier) entrances and exits you have to cross. It’s the road itself. Heavy traffic, pavement torn to hell and the debris on the shoulder is a minefield. You can’t go a single meter without dodging a sparkplug, a nail, a busted tire, a busted bottle.

That’s why I normally exit interstates before approaching a city, but here I had no choice. I had to pass through West Memphis (a separate town on the Arkansas side of the river), and West Memphis only has two bridges to the big city. That means all roads converge onto one of the two, both of which are freeway.

As I swerved through detritus and put a nervous eye on my rear view mirror, it occurred to me (for the first time) that I had no idea if either bridge had a pedestrian walkway or even  shoulder. As eager as I was to cross, I decided to pull off in West Memphis and do some research. I had planned to use the I-55 “Memphis & Arkansas Bridge” but if the other one (the I-40 “Harrahan Bridge”) had a better lane for me, I’d gladly add the extra miles.

A little googling showed that neither was promising. On satellite view, it looked like the I-55 Bridge might actually have a shoulder the whole way across. But I was really hoping that one or the other had a real pedestrian/bike path.

Wikipedia answered my question, but not optimistically. Of the two, Harrahan has no pedestrian path at all, and I-55 had one, but it had been closed off—one of the worst urban planning decisions I’ve heard of.

(I know maintaining sidewalks costs money, and big bridges may not get a lot of foot/bike traffic. But it’s important to realize that a major bridge often represents the only crossing for miles, and pedestrians and cyclists typically can’t go around. That means that closing off, or not adding, a pedestrian path doesn’t discourage hikers and cyclists from crossing. It just guarantees they’ll be forced to do it in the most dangerous conditions possible.)

My bad hunch was right. Hoping to ascertain if I could still access the “closed off” walkway, or if there might be a shoulder to bike on, I found a horrifying news story. On August 12, just six weeks before me, a cyclist using my same route was struck by a truck and killed on the I-55 bridge.

This created strong emotions for me. I felt an immediate kinship with that man, for one thing. How could I not see myself in his shoes? And I felt a powerful anger at the truck driver, at city or state officials who closed of the sidewalk, at anyone who could have prevented his death. The normal reaction to a news story like this is that people call the cyclist “stupid” for being out there in the first place. But when you understand how inevitable using the bridge is—how there are no other options for a cyclist to take—that insulting reaction feels like poison in your heart.

I considered if I should abort the crossing. There was another river crossing all the way back at, you guessed it, Caruthersville. A hundred miles back against the wind to practically where I’d started this morning. And I had no idea if that bridge had a shoulder, either.

No, I was going to cross. I studied the satellite imagery carefully. It looked like (looked like) the pedestrian walkway was still there, and opened onto a grassy slope before the bridge. I could ride my bike on the shoulder to that point, and if the grassy slope wasn’t too steep I could cross it to get to the walkway.

If it was too steep, well, then I’d figure that out when I got there.

Looking at the satellite imagery I saw something sinister. I could see where the walkway started at the beginning of the bridge, and I could see the concrete barrier that prevents access from the highway. But the shoulder narrows before that point. In other words, if you plan on cycling up to the bridge and then climbing over the barrier to the walkway, you’re forced out into traffic before you get there.

Only by looking at satellite imagery would you know that you need to abandon the highway long before the bridge and walk on the grass to survive.

Rest In Peace, Pierre McReynolds. You were trying to come home from work by the only route available to you. Your work is over now. I wish we could’ve crossed the bridge together.

Cycling Hazard Memphis & Arkansas Bridge

Cycling hazard on I-55 Memphis & Arkansas Bridge

I made up my mind and off I went. Complicating matters, all the shrapnel on the highway through West Memphis got to the Giant—I could tell he was slowly losing air from one tire. Thanks to the tire goo I didn’t need to immediately stop and change it, but if I didn’t hurry up I might end up with a flat at sunset on the wrong side of the river.

I began the long, ominous climb up the freeway section toward the bridge. I’ve never felt so somber. If the grassy slope was too steep I’d have to either give up or bike out in traffic.

Eventually I reached the beginning of the fence. Even though I was nowhere near the bridge yet, thanks to my sleuth work I knew I had to exit. I walked the Giant off the freeway onto the grass. It was steep but not too steep. I made my way toward the bridge.

Eventually, I reached the point where—on the other side of the barrier from myself—the shoulder disappears. I could easily have been out there, wondering what the heck I was supposed to do. Instead 200 feet ahead of me was a nice open walkway to use. I made offerings in memory of Pierre and left that awful place behind.

The walkway itself was no joy to use, being neglected and covered in debris, but I was grateful for it. Sometimes you cold see the river below you through holes covered with boards. I walked the Giant. It was about sunset, and the River looked majestic beneath me, but I had a hard time feeling spiritual. I made offerings in greeting and continued across.

The far end wasn’t closed off at all. It gave way to a crumbly old cement staircase that leads to a park and a side street. I checked directions on my phone and navigated back to main roads, then to Michael’s apartment, which I reached just at dusk. The Giant’s front tire drooped, and so did your Rogue Priest. 98.1 miles.

Map 1Map 2

Total traveled this leg: 98.1

Total traveled since Day 1: 1355.3

Next time Memphis is my oyster! Until then, enjoy other road logs.

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4 thoughts on “Road Log: Deadly Bridge to Memphis

  1. Jim Peterson says:

    I guess another option would be to walk — pushing your bike — and facing traffic . . . much less stressful in situations where there are no good options; only one slightly better than the others. I occasionally take flack from other cyclists for my “outlaw” moves but I’ve been riding for 55 years and still going strong — only one minor incident in all that time (hurt my pride more than my body). What should mean more to me? Staying alive or obeying the law? Will the law comfort my loved ones if I end up as road kill? Will the law push me around in my wheelchair for the rest of my days?
    My theory is that anyone inclined to mow me down has to look me in the eye first. More importantly, I can easily SEE what they’re doing — or not doing — and take evasive action as needed. Some cagers don’t know how lucky they are that I’m not able to turn around and catch up with them!

    • I think I would have felt even less safe trying that, for a few reasons.

      For one, the problem is that there’s no shoulder on the bridge. So to cross the whole way doing that, I’d need to be in the traffic lane going the wrong way.

      For another, when you’re moving toward traffic they have even less reaction time than when you’re moving with it.

      And last, that would involve using the side of the bridge that, as far as I know, has no side walkway at all, not even one that’s closed off and hard to get to. So you’d be committing to going over the entire width of Mississippi in a traffic lane, not just a short distance.

      Of course, it’s possible that there’s a narrow curb or 6-inch shoulder or something and you could kind of flatten yourself into it and walk the bike along, which might be safer. I’ve done that one a few much, much smaller bridges with no shoulder. It’s hard to say.

      edit: I do agree about the laws though. Motorists rarely know or follow the laws pertaining to cyclists, and we’re the ones in danger. It’s up to us to make the smartest choices to protect ourselves, letter of the law or not.

  2. You’ll be pleased to know that there is project underway to create a dedicated pedestrian / cycling crossing at Memphis. In your article you call the I-40 crossing the “Harahan Bridge”, but that’s a different bridge altogether. There are several bridges at Memphis:
    – the “Memphis & Arkansas Bridge” carrying I-55
    – the “Hernando de Soto Bridge” carrying I-40 traffic, which a couple of mile North of the I-55
    – the “Frisco” bridge, a rail crossing for BNSF, and
    – the “Harrahan”, a rail crossing current carrying Union Pacific traffic, but formerly equipped with ‘outrigger’ lanes that once accommodated automobile traffic.

    See the Harahan Bridge Project for more details:

    • Hi Jim, I’m so happy to hear that. That is tremendous news both (I’m sure) for local cyclists and for all the long distance cyclists who come down the Mississippi.

      Also, since writing this piece I did more research on the young man who was killed on that bridge and it does not seem that he was struck at the spot that I described – although that is a dangerous spot. My heart goes out to him in any case.

      Thank you for letting me know about this and I hope there are lots of local cyclists cheering!

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