Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Natchez and the Trace

Last time I rested and partied in Vicksburg. Now I take to the road once again, with more new friends to meet and more challenges to conquer.

Jimmy and me. Photo by André.

Jimmy and me. Photo by André.

Day 97 (Thursday, October 11, 2012)

My new Vicksburg friends begged me to stay through another weekend, but now the clock was counting down. To keep my promise to meet two friends in New Orleans, I wanted to arrive the same day they would: October 17. I still had time to make it, but just barely. I’d spend at least one day going to Natchez, Mississippi; a second day to reach Baton Rouge, and potentially two more to hit the Big Easy. Factor in potential breakdowns and time was running out.

So Thursday morning I mounted up. I had heard of something up ahead called the Natchez Trace, an ancient highway that was, I was promised, blissfully free of traffic. The Trace started out as a Native American footpath shared by the European voyageurs in the frontier days. Once the Mississippi River became a major thoroughfare, so did the Trace. Crews from riverboats, who rode the current downstream herding their cargo as they went, had to walk back upstream in order to get a new gig aboard a new barge. (Apparently walking was cheaper than hiring horses, even with the longer road time). So they followed the well worn footpath from the river town of Natchez, MS up as far as Nashville.

Why the Trace goes to Nashville I can’t say. I presume these boat workers wanted to get another job as soon as they could, maybe at a town like Memphis. But the Trace’s route heads immediately away from the river, and by the time you reach Nashville you’ve a good 150 miles from the Mississippi. To me, it doesn’t add up.

What does make sense is how the Trace has been preserved and memorialized. The entirety of the trail is owned by the National Park Service and considered a historic site. While much of the original footpath still exists, a paved road was added as well—but it’s cleverly restricted. No commercial trucks can drive the Trace, and the speed limit is lower than a normal freeway. The result is that general traffic doesn’t use it, and the only vehicles you see are hatchbacks loaded up for family vacations and a few motorcyclists and bicycle groups.

At Vicksburg I was near the end of the Trace, and I planned to do about 35 miles on it, the second half of the day’s ride. First I took regular highways, having a little bit of a hard time between the occasional hills and the brutal Southern sun. By the time I reached Port Gibson, the town where I’d pick up the Trace, I already felt a little woozy. I started to worry that the glories of the Trace, like so many “easy” stretches before me, may have been exaggerated. I pounded cold water, bananas and trail mix in the shade at a gas station, double checked where to get on the Trace, and cautiously pedaled over.

A beautiful scenic route opened up before me. The traffic was, indeed, both sparse and respectful; the pavement was in remarkable condition; and instead of the usual gas stations and billboards the scenery was National Forest.

The new surroundings put me in a great mood. Emboldened by the low traffic I put in my ear buds and listened to music. I had never done this before on the bike, and I left one ear bud out (most of the time) to help stay aware of my surroundings. Digging into a trove of new music I had downloaded in Minnesota, I discovered Talvin Singh for the first time (Thank you, Urban!). If you’ve never biked through a forest with Talvin Singh in your ears, you’re missing a great experience.

Small worlds off the Natchez Trace. Photo by André.

Small worlds off the Natchez Trace. Photo by André.

Parts of the Trace were shady, which finally broke my heat problem. At one point, even though I was running a bit later than hoped, I just couldn’t help it: I stopped, chained up the bike, and walked a footpath off the main road for nearly an hour. When I finally returned to the Trace and ponied up, I could see the remains of log cabins and other historic structures in glens off the side of the road.

As day became evening, I found myself wistful. This is what I wanted every biking day to be like. I had always pictured myself riding down cute country roads, enjoying the beautiful outdoors without a care in the world. Most bicycle days aren’t like that, but if you ride far enough you will find them.

This time I beat the sunset to my destination. I rolled into Natchez, Mississippi and regular roads just at the tail end of rush hour. I had found a host named Jimmy on Warm Showers, a site dedicated to bicyclists and those who are willing to provide them a spot to crash. It was my first time using this website and, incidentally, Jimmy’s first time acting as an official host.

Jimmy was a retired antique dealer. A few weeks earlier, a friend of his had run into two French cyclists (a couple) headed on a route similar to mine. He offered them his roof, and it was from them that he first heard of the Warm Showers website. He’d had such a good experience with those two that he listed himself as a host, just in time for me to find him.

Jimmy’s house was small but stunning. Part of a row of stucco-walled historic homes in the middle of the oldest part of Natchez, he had put his full antique dealer talents into appointing it with flawless Southern charm. Classical statues on marble topped tables, ancient oak canopy beds, and 150 year old paintings. It was hard to believe I was in a real house. The back garden, enclosed in a high wall, was his true passion, and it was immaculate. I said it looked like something you’d see in a magazine and Jimmy grinned. “It is,” he said, and handed me the issue where he was featured. 70.2 miles.

Map.

Breakfast in Jimmy's garden. Photo by André.

Breakfast in Jimmy’s garden. Photo by André.

Day 98 (Friday, October 12, 2012)

One thing Jimmy’s home lacked was wi-fi, but the Public Library was just two blocks away. I had planned to spend one rest day in Natchez to keep up with work and explore, and Jimmy and I hit it off so well that I knew it was the right choice. After a light breakfast together, I settled in at the library and set to work on my laptop.

I came back in the afternoon and Jimmy gave me a walking tour of the city’s historic homes. Most were owned by friends and neighbors, so he knew the whole backstory of all of them. He pointed out stunning architecture including a rare style of plantation home that he said had only one other surviving example (which I’d later see in New Orleans).

This one, in fact. Photo via Pam the RV traveler.

In the downtown area, he showed me where the steam boats docked and explained how there’d be a coach service waiting to bring passengers and their luggage up the small bluff to town. He pointed out one brick home above the bluff which once belonged to a free black landowner, “A former slave who owned plenty of slaves of his own.” I wasn’t unaware that there were once black slave owners, but seeing the house in person was jarring. How completely had slavery entrenched itself in the old economy, if even a former slave turned to it?

In the park we saw a memorial to the victims of the Rhythm Club Fire, an inferno that destroyed a local dance hall in 1940 and killed 209 people. The rafters had been decorated with Spanish moss sprayed with a flammable insecticide, and the windows boarded shut to keep out unpaid revelers. The back door was padlocked as well, so most people inside died of smoke inhalation or trampling when the fire swept in from somewhere near the front door. Most of those inside were African American.

According to Jimmy, many donations for the memorial and nearby museum had come from Chicago, because so many Natchez natives had moved there but still remembered the tragedy.

Natchez, MS. Photo by André.

Natchez, MS. Photo by André.

After this tour we drove to the grocery store, where Jimmy and I both tried to beat the other one to paying for pasta, bacon, goat cheese and fresh veggies. These were the ingredients I used to make a dinner for Jimmy and two of his friends, a retired judge and his wife. First I served a spinach salad with walnuts, cranberries and a warm dressing made from the bacon fat. Then I brought out a giant goat cheese bacon pasta with red peppers and caramelized onions. We had a red wine that paired nicely and, as I recall, a white after the meal was over.

I got my first lesson in Southern manners. At one point, I reached for the bottle and asked if I could refill the glass of the judge’s wife. She said “yes, please” so I did. Jimmy later told me, “I’m sure he won’t hold it against you because you didn’t know, but when she said yes the judge shook his head. People won’t always speak their minds here so you need to look for the little cues.”

This was also my first experience with a Louisiana accent, as Jimmy had spent most of his adult life in New Orleans. He called me “baby” a lot (he calls everyone “baby” a lot) which stuck out as unusual at first, but is a normal tick of Louisianans—and one I’ve now enthusiastically picked up, baby.

The evening with Jimmy and his friends is still a warm memory, and like so many new friends he asked me to stay longer. But this time I had to decline, beckoned forward by the final stretch. I slept well that night knowing it was with a heavy heart that I would get back on the road in the morning.

In Jimmy’s garden a hand-lettered sign proclaimed: Strive for Beauty and Humanity. I will, Jimmy.

Total traveled this leg: 70.2

Total traveled since Day 1: 1684.2

Next time, the ride into Baton Rouge is more like a run through a war zone. Until then you can until then you can check out my past road logs or sign up to bike a leg with me. Likely start date of the Mexico trip: on or around November 6. Are you tempted yet?

 

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Vicksburg Days

Last time I made my way to Vicksburg, Mississippi, despite getting lost. Having finally arrived, it’s time to spend  few days resting…

Carla, me, Ryan and Katya.

Carla, me, Ryan and Katya.

 

Day 93 (Sunday, October 7, 2012) continued

After nearly 100 miles of pedaling I was pretty beat. If my hosts had simply given me a shower and a bed I would’ve been grateful enough. But I was in for a hell of a welcome party.

Roommates Carla and Ryan were avid Couchsurfing hosts. Both worked as scientists in a large government research center located in Vicksburg. Due to this facility, the city has a huge population of researchers and intellectuals, and also tends to lean liberal. That means there was a lot of great conversation.

A second Couchsurfer had also arrived that day, but this one from Germany. She was something of a riddle: her name, Katya, is actually Russian, and when she opened her mouth to speak I thought I’d been misinformed and she was actually Scottish. Her English was flawless, but so was the Scots accent, and I gingerly asked where she was from. She’s German all the way, but had studied for years in Edinburgh.

Carla, for her part, was Puerto Rican while Ryan rounded out the group as a Southern white boy.

I was barely in the door before they handed me drinks: red wine in one hand and sips of various microbrew beers in the other. Beer is Ryan’s passion, and when he found out my dad makes mead he popped a mead of his own for me to try. It was delicious, but I sheepishly asked if I could shower before dinner.

I should say a word about Ryan and Carla’s home. Huge and immaculate, it was the perfect place to land. The house had a guest bedroom, which had been given to Katya, and a fully furnished mother-in-law apartment over the garage where they put me. The renovation on the bathroom up there wasn’t 100% complete, and they apologized for putting me out there. The truth is I loved it. It gave me a private place to write.

Behind the house was a big yard with a firepit and a spectacular view. They were on the bluff directly over the Mississippi. That’s some valuable real estate.

By the time I cleaned up Katya was well underway cooking us a giant dinner from fresh ingredients bought that day. While we hung around the kitchen chatting Carla made heavy-handed rum and cokes with plenty of limes, explaining it was the drink of Puerto Ricans everywhere. At first I politely declined, since a long day on the bicycle means even a few drinks can have a hefty effect. But soon I gave in and joined in the revelry, learning just how strong a Puerto Rican highball really is.

I couldn’t hide the fact that I was ravenously hungry, but the conversation was so good it didn’t really matter. I pitched in and helped Katya in the kitchen. Eventually we gathered around the table for one of the finest meals I’ve eaten.

One moment paints a pretty good picture of the back and forth. As Katya told us about Germany, Carla blurted out: “Well what was the deal with Hitler? What were you guys thinking!”

Ryan and I sucked in our breath. From the little I’ve heard, World War II is still a touchy subject in Deutschland, and casually blaming today’s Germans is pretty far from polite dinner topic. But Katya almost fell out of her seat laughing.

Carla laughed too. “Puerto Ricans just say whatever we’re thinking.”

After dinner we put on music and danced until the wee hours.

Entrance to my loft. Photo by André.

Entrance to my loft. Photo by André.

Days 94 – 96 (October 8 – 10) — R&R

The group of us bonded and explored Vicksburg together. I spent daytime in my little apartment catching up on client work, which was no problem since Carla and Ryan more or less worked a regular full time schedule. Katya spent her free time jogging or going out on adventures of her own.

All I knew about Vicksburg before I visited was that some Civil War battle happened there. In fact, it’s a little more impressive: perched on high bluffs at a bend in the Mississippi, the Confederate garrison had a perfect vantage to bombard any Union vessels that tried to pass. Numerous Union attempts were made, but for the most part the city’s guns locked down the river. Vicksburg finally capitulated to Union forces on July 4th, and for many years afterward the city refused to celebrate Independence Day. To hear the locals tell it, it was actually captured several days earlier and the Union commander delayed accepting the surrender so he could do it on the Fourth of July.

Nowadays, I’m told, the holiday is celebrated like anywhere else in the country, but I’ve also heard that some diehards continue to boycott it.

The National Military Park is one of Vicksburg’s biggest attractions. One day Carla dropped us off there so we could explore while she was at work. For the most part, Katya and I went in separate directions: she wanted to jog the entire trail that circles the place, while I wanted to examine old graves.

Walking the ancient cemetery is as spooky as it should be. With graves going back to at least the early 1800s, crowded tight and decaying with moss and time, it’s a vision from a European horror story. In fact, my time wandering there helped inspire a particularly macabre fantasy game I’d later design and run for some friends. Many epitaphs featured whole poems, or personal messages from family members. The fatalistic blend of heartbreak and faith in those words struck me much harder than today’s optimistic and inspirational stanzas. One woman’s grave was inscribed with the shattering words of the man she left behind. He had lost all purpose.

In the evening we wanted to show Katya some Southern barbeque so we headed to a smokehouse overlooking the river. A few of Carla and Ryan’s friends joined us, one of them quite conservative (and not afraid to lecture us about it). At this time, Greece was going through a terrible financial crisis and had just received a huge bailout package from Germany. Assuming Katya would sympathize with his outrage, the conservative turned to her:

“What do you think about all the aid your country is giving out? You’re the most successful country in the EU and now you’re saddled giving away everything you you earned.”

Katya answered with characteristic warmth.

“I don’t mind that we give it away. I grew up with everything I needed, and was sent to a good school. I didn’t earn any of that. Now it’s made me successful. I enjoyed everything I was given, so how could I say we shouldn’t give it to others? I would feel like a hypocrite. My country gives a lot of aid to other countries, and it’s not my place to say we should stop.”

This, to me, is the ultimate condemnation of conservatism: the hypocrisy of denying to others what you yourself were given, and the conceit to say you earned it alone. Placed beside someone who views their own privilege with humility, wanting only to help others, American conservatism looks a lot like a carnival barker.

On the drive home, we went past a Sonic—the old fast food chain that still offers drive-in service. “What is Sonic?” Katya asked.

Ryan tried to explain it, but the concept only made Katya more confused.

“But… you cannot eat there?”

“Sure, I think they have an inside too.”

“So it’s like a drive through?”

“No, they bring out the food so you eat it in your car, but you eat it right there.”

“But why not just eat inside?”

The vision of the 1950s as the Age of the Automobile, and America’s perennial obsession with cars, was completely absent from her historical lexicon (as is, I’m sure, much of Germany’s culture from mine). Katya begged that we pull in. We did—she got herself a chocolate shake, practically jumping up and down with excitement as she wrapped her head around the experience.

The next day, over Carla and Ryan’s lunch break, we met them at a local cafe within easy walking distance of their house. Ryan raved about the place’s craft beer selection, so I tried a pecan flavored brown ale (Southern Pecan by MS-based Lazy Magnolia Brewing). It immediately become a favorite. The place was so good we went back for their happy hour that night, which happened to be the venue for a weekly Craft Brew gathering.

The cafe in question, Martin's at Midtown in Vicksburg. Photo by André.

The cafe in question, Martin’s at Midtown in Vicksburg. Photo by André.

It wasn’t all partying. I also needed to get new tire tubes, which involved navigating giant hills and busy highways to reach a strip mall on a sweltering sunny day. I also picked up a bottle of wine for my hosts and one for Katya’s goodbye party (she was leaving a day before me, as I recall) and made some basic repairs on the bike, to the amusement of neighbors.

The days in Vicksburg were more than just a happy time. They cemented my confidence in my ability to make friends and be good a good guest. My trip down the Mississippi had become a series of warm welcomes at major cities, much needed after hard days on the road, and it seemed I made a good impression at each of them. Once socially awkward, shy and more than a little selfish, I could see I had become easygoing, friendly and generally considerate. Carla and Ryan, like virtually every host before or since, insisted I extend my stay and seemed genuinely sad when I finally had to leave. This didn’t just reassure me about my social skills, it also served as a crucial touchstone with two later roommates I didn’t get along with. I could know, at least, that I didn’t need to squarely blame myself for a messy social situation.

If I wanted, I could move tomorrow to Vicksburg, Memphis, St. Louis or Dubuque and already have a circle of friends happy to see me arrive. That is a gift for which I am truly grateful.

On the morning of October 11 I saddled up the Giant and hit the road again. I’ll pick up that story next time, and until then you can read my other road logs or join me on the next bike ride.

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The Road to Vicksburg

Back to road logs! Last time the black cloud over my head parted (after thoroughly dousing me with rain) and I experienced a new level of kindness on my Journey. This time, I put the difficulties behind me and try to race to Vicksburg on the promise of a comfortable bed.

Vicksburg. Photo by Michelle Lee

Day 93 (Sunday, October 7, 2012)

Since the previous 48 hours included head stroke, exhaustion, hypothermia, and little real rest, I had no problem sleeping on the stage in a church gymnasium. I did have a problem waking up, but there wasn’t much choice: Pastor Brian needed me out by 8:00 so I wouldn’t be in the way of church members arriving to start Sunday youth programs.

I woke up on time, groggy eyed, and raced to get things ready. But people arrived early. I could hear voices outside soon a volunteer was in the giant kitchen, prepping things. At first no one really paid attention to me; this is what you might call a “mega church” and I suppose not all the community members know each other. But they do know that loading up a bicycle with camping gear is not a common church activity, and soon they had questions. They were as friendly as you could possibly imagine—no one insinuated I was trespassing. And when I said I had the Pastor’s permission, it was clear that was all I needed. But I worried, suddenly, that my presence might raise questions Brian had hoped not to answer, or that I’d have to start refusing invites to attend service. I scrambled my bike out the door and hit the open road.

For a few minutes, anyway. This was an earlier start than I normally had, and I was famished. I located a Shoney’s in town and biked over to eat. I ordered the largest breakfast special they had, not worried about the piles of carbs before me given that I was burning about 6,000 calories a day. I ate staring out the window at the sky. Grey clouds raced on the north wind, evoking yesterday’s chills. But my heart was high. I’ll always remember that time: the elements seething outside, me me sipping cup after cup of coffee, the adventurer enjoying a small delight. For that moment I was totally free from fear. When I finally went outside, I stayed warm for hours.

That’s a good chunk of what I remember about the road to Vicksburg. I continued on the scenic River Road, and halfway through the day it merged onto the main highway. Eventually I crossed the Yazoo River and its Yazoo Pass, which made the name of the cafe back in Clarksdale make a lot more sense. My map app wanted me to follow Highway 61 all the way into town but, remembering freeway conditions near other larger cities, I planned my own course that involved rural roads once I got close.

I made poorer time than I expected,  but didn’t really care. The sun was low when I turned off 61 onto a disused side road. I was about to experience two things: truly mystical terrain and a new opportunity to get lost.

Mississippi is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful states in our country. The terrain near Vicksburg–built on a bluff over the magnificent Mississippi–is hilly, almost mountainous. I would have believed that some of the vistas were from a lazy corner of Appalachia. Or, for that matter, a fantasy world: soon entire forests were covered with a blanket of choking vine, a solid rolling expanse of green. Mighty oaks rose like moss-covered rocks, smooth and branchless under their creepers. The cliffs and wore the same shroud. Mist drifted from these surroundings, huddling in the shady lows like a magic tide on the rise. I breathed the air and chanted to the local gods.

The local people were in less opulent straits. The landscape alone could have convinced me I was back in rural Thailand; the houses proved it. Tiny cabins housed large families, many cooking over an open fire outside. Brush or garbage fires burned as well, and smoke drifted across the highway. I waved as I passed. Little dark-skinned children watched me go by with curiosity, or yelled and pointed me out to their parents and grandparents, who waved back. I passed a time-beaten church closed up for the evening, and then the forested hillside dropped away and so did the homes. I found myself in open fields.

This nagged at my navigating instinct. Shouldn’t I be seeing more and bigger houses as I got closer to the city? But the road was winding and had many turns, and I decided to trust the directions I’d gotten from Google. I enjoyed the evening ride, knowing I would reach a house with a real bed and a real shower before sunset. I texted Carla, the host at that house, with an ETA less than an hour out. She told me they had another Couchsurfer as well, a girl from Germany, and that they were cooking a huge dinner. I’d be right on time.

But when the fields gave way to endless industrial structures—no cityscape on the horizon—I knew I’d done something wrong. Finally I pulled over and brought up the map again. I was on the prescribed route but, looking carefully, it led to the wrong destination. Some rural road had a name similar to the street where Carla lives, and Google had aimed me there instead of downtown Vicksburg.

I laughed. Like so many times on my Adventure, the moment when comfort is closest is exactly when one last obstacle reared its head. I could only shake my head at the fading Sun, who watched all this with barely a smirk, and laugh at myself.

Soon I’d routed the correct address (another hour away) and informed Carla, who was very understanding. But now I pedaled with a fire: I was hungry, and tired, and didn’t want to enter a city at nightfall.

I wondered if the families would think it was funny when I biked past a second time in the opposite direction, but my turnoff came before I reached many houses. One road led to another, I found my urban surroundings, and a single uphill chug took me into the heart off historic Vicksburg. It was dusk.

A little after downtown was the beautiful, aged street where Carla lived with her roommate Ryan. I had a final moment of uncertainty in the grey light, the spot where their address should be containing no clear house and no clear driveway, but wandering down a packed-earth alleyway landed me at their door. Their house perched just above the winding Mississippi. The sun’s last glow faded and Carla, Ryan, Katya and two puppies cheerfully received me.

Made it again, Rogue Priest. 98.5 miles.

Map.

Total traveled since Day 1: 1,614

I completely fell in love with Vicksburg over the course of just a few days. I’ll tell you all about it next time, and until then you can also check out my past road logs. You can also sign up to bike a leg with me.

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There is Good in People Everywhere You Go

In the last entry I had lunch with racists and a sleepless night of hypothermia. This time, even though the physical obstacles don’t get any easier, the attitudes of the people I meet start to change—which makes all the difference in the world. This will be a long entry, but it was also a turning point in my adventure.

Day 92 (Saturday, October 6, 2012)

I didn’t so much sleep as go through a staccato of naps. The morning light went from black to gray. For hours I’d prayed that the night would end, but when it did, the slght warmth of the morning sun coaxed me into real slumber.

But I couldn’t dally for long. Unless I wanted to spend another night exposed in the wind, I had to run toward a new town and new prospects—in this case Greenville, Mississippi. An hour later I got up once and for all.

The rain had stopped, and it was sunny but cold when my feet hit the ground. I packed up my hammock as efficiently as I could in the wind, putting it away wet, and looked over the Giant who seemed to have weathered the storm just fine. I waved to some of the families in their RV’s as I pedaled away from my temporary home.

The first thing I needed was breakfast. And coffee, a whole lot of coffee. Lack of sleep undermines all of your abilities on the road, and coffee doesn’t fix it but it does reduce the pain.

I biked along a highway at the edge of town, looking for the kind of place that would have big breakfasts at a reasonable price: a Denny’s or its Southern equivalent. But it was multiple fried chicken places and zero diner types. Reluctantly, I turned back into downtown: Yazoo Pass Cafe advertised a great breakfast, though it wasn’t exactly Denny’s prices.

Still, maybe I’d see Whitman there again. That would almost be rewarding, just to show him I’d been fine in that “dangerous” neighborhood.

The breakfast was worth the money, as was the stack of coffee mugs I went through. No sign of my racist friend, which was just as well. But the place was busy: it was Saturday morning and, I learned, there was a blues festival this weekend.

During all this I got a message from one of my readers named Jason. Jason is on a spiritual search of his own now, but he used to be a pastor at a church in Mississippi. He was still well connected to other pastors, and said that his friend Pastor Brian could put me up at his church tonight. The church was in Greenville, more than 70 miles away. After the previous night, I was determined to cover those miles in one day.

I had aired up my tires before breakfast, but already they felt soft. I wondered if it was my imagination or the cold air. As I loaded my computer into the saddlebags (I’m sure I spent some time online over coffee, which is my general self-remedy for feeling stressed and frayed), a friendly voice called out.

I turned. It was a woman sitting at an outdoor cafe table with a few friends. She was middle aged, with giant curly hair and a cane near her chair. Her body didn’t look athletic at all, but you never can judge. She asked me where I was going, and when I told her, she began to reminisce about her own thousands of miles of bicycle touring.

I really respect this woman. She had done it back in the 70s or 80s, for starters, and I’m always fascinated by analogue adventurers in a web-free world. She was a font of knowledge, as experienced cyclists are, and she was friendly. I remember worrying after we spoke that I might have come off rude, as tired and wired and worry-focused as I was. But if I did she didn’t let me know it. We had a great talk.

I told her about my worry about the tire, and she asked if I had a patch kit (I did). She gave me the tip that if you need to use a patch with adhesive, you need to let it sit “as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette.” Of course, I don’t smoke, and the patches I had were self-adhering, but this tip would eventually come in handy.

She also asked if I had a chain link tool. I had never even heard of that. She explained that if my chain broke roadside, it was game over unless I had that tool, and one spare chain link. I had neither.

“Here.” She dug around in her bag and produced a single bike chain link, still in its package. “This is yours. Get yourself a chain link tool and learn how to use it!”

(André’s note: I sheepishly have to admit I still haven’t done this, though I do have that chain link and I plan to get the tool before the Mexico leg.)

I thanked her. I had to get going, although I had one more stop to make first. I biked over to the Clarksdale Post Office to mail a letter to my dad. He’s a Vietnam vet and I remember that getting letters in the Marines was really important to him. When my sister went into a Buddhist monastery, he wrote her every week. I figured it would mean more to him if I sent him handwritten letters rather than just email. This was probably my fifth one.

Coming out of the post office, there was no doubt my back tired was leaking. I was angry. It’d been only two biking days since I’d patched it last. And when you’re fatigued and already running late, you don’t want to do a bunch of repairs. Especially in front of a post office with non-cyclists staring at you.

But it was either that or go take a bus home and cry to mama.

The goo-filled tire tube had done its job, but at this point I stopped patching it. It looked like it had been through World War I. I put in a new tube and levered the tire back onto the wheel, which took forever because I was terrified I would rip up the tire like I had done in the past.

Mississippi makes for some stunning bicycling. Photo by Meg.

Mississippi makes for some stunning bicycling. Photo by Meg.

It was probably nearly noon when I threw the expended tube in a trash can and mounted a loaded, aired up, combat-ready bicycle. I made a navigational decision I’m still very happy with: instead of taking straight Highway 61, I would use the winding and scenic River Road. I still remembered the glorious ride into Memphis and, with another north wind behind me, figured I’d make record time.

It didn’t quite work out like that, but the following hours would be one of my favorite days. Ostensibly, everything was at least as hard as the day before: my first leg was westward, so that powerful wind wasn’t an ally at all, and when I did turn south it would quickly shift directions and leave me to my own muscle power. I was going to get dumped on by rain, too. But the woman with the chain link was only the first of several generous people I’d meet that day.

When I finally turned southward, I found myself in some of the most stunning terrain of the Adventure. So far, most of what I’ve described in Mississippi has been hardship, but that hardship was surrounded by an almost mystical beauty.

Because of the cool weather I’d worn long pants and a sweater. But the grey smudge behind my shoulder turned out to be a bank of storm clouds. I’ve biked through the rain a lot, and I’ve found it’s best not to try to waterproof yourself. The water will come from all directions, with tires kicking up plenty from below, and you’re just going to get soaked. So rather than ruin my warm clothing, I stopped and changed into shorts and t-shirt.

With nowhere private to change, I waited till I was at a rural cross-road. I hadn’t seen a vehicle in ten or twenty minutes. The crossroad had a small embankment that hid it from approaching traffic. I stood behind that embankment and changed.

(This included stripping all the way down, to replace my long underwear with boxers.)

Just as your Rogue Priest’s junk was completely divested of its trunk, a series of about four cars and trucks went by. One was an SUV with a family inside, which turned down the side road and went right past me. Children pointed out the window, and I wondered briefly about Mississippi’s laws on public exposure.

My next encounter with a car was more positive, however. At a later crossroad, I paused to put my phone in a plastic bag. The storm clouds loomed over me like a fortress, and the green Mississippi riverland looked emerald under the gray-black.

A pickup truck stopped next to me.

As the man rolled down the window, I figured he’d ask if I needed a ride and I already knew I’d say no. He asked me where I was going.

“South America,” I said.

His eyes widened. That’s one of my favorite questions to answer when I’m on a bike. And he was excited for me.

“You gonna be okay in this rain?”

“Yeah. It’s supposed to pass pretty quick. I just changed into this so my good clothes wouldn’t get wet.”

He nodded approvingly. He gave me his name and then his phone number. He introduced me to his wife in the seat next to him.

“We own a garage down in Gunnison,” he said. “You’re probably going to go right past it. If you need anything at all, you call us, okay?”

“That’s great! Thank you.”

“And here, I want you to take this.”

He held out money. I was humbled. At this point in my Adventure I knew that you don’t say not to this: this is a person’s way of being part of what you’re doing, of knowing they contributed. I worked the whole time I was on that bicycle, and while my budget was tight I paid my own way. I could’ve gone the whole length of the River without accepting a single ad hoc donation. But it wasn’t just about me, it was also about the person giving it. About their own hopes.

I gave him just the one, courtesy refusal. “Oh, you don’t have to. I work—”

“I know I don’t have to. But maybe you can get a couple of meals or a place to sleep some night. Think of it as my gift.”

I looked him in the eye, nodded, and said thank you. And I meant it.

The money he handed me a brand new $100 bill.

We shook hands, he reminded me to call him if I needed help, and they took off.

On the way into Greenville. Photo by Tom Hilton.

On the way into Greenville. Photo by Tom Hilton.

The rain came, and boy did it come. Soon I was soaked through—and the warmth of the coffee was long gone. I listened for thunder, and the bit I heard was far off. But it came closer and closer, and I had to start counting the seconds between thunder claps and lightning. Biking in the rain is one thing, but biking in Zeus’ shooting range is another.

Eventually I entered an area with woods on both sides, which made me feel a lot less concerned about being the tallest thing around. But the cold was a much bigger factor than the voltage. What had looked on my weather app like a short storm went on for fifteen minutes, thirty minutes, and no sign of stopping. I ate up mile after mile at a snail’s pace, moving cautiously with the combination of slippery roads and slippery brakes. Soon I was shivering uncontrollably, losing feeling in my fingers.

I did have my rain jacket on over my t-shirt, more as a windbreaker than expecting to stay dry. I pulled the sleeves down over my fingers, and the hood over my head, frequently fixing it when the wind blew it down.

These measures didn’t help. Keeping the wind off my fingers was a small victory with my whole lower body bleeding heat.  I considered sheltering in the woods, even putting up the hammock, but the thought of one of those trees crashing down on me didn’t hold much appeal.

I held out for a house.

When I did see one, I couldn’t tell if anybody was home. As I’d done in Missouri, I figured I would just go take shelter on their porch if no one answered. I leaned my bike against a giant oak in their yard, where it was visible from their doorstep, and walked up. I knocked timidly.

A woman called out from inside. Soon her husband had come to the door, and hearing my story he invited me in right away.

“You’re soaked,” he observed.

“A little bit. And cold.”

Thank the blessed gods, they didn’t have air conditioning on. He brought me a towel which I wrapped around myself like a blanket, shivering underneath. He also asked if I was hungry.

“Well, I don’t want to impose,” I said.

“We have plenty of food! What do you want? Here, we have Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, Snickers, Reese’s…”

He ticked off about a half dozen more sweets.

Funny, when he’d offered me food I somehow pictured a sandwich or something. I was stuffed right after the big breakfast but by now I could’ve eaten a whole pizza; road days do that to you. But even though I didn’t normally fuel on sweets, I didn’t say no either. It so happens I’m a big fan of peanut butter cups, and soon I had a giant bag of them in my lap.

I did manage to pass up soda, instead getting a bottle of water that was (wince) ice cold.

The two of them were very kind. The woman never got up from the sofa, where she was covered with a blanket. I got the sense that she couldn’t walk easily. The husband did all the running around for her. I didn’t ask what condition she had, and I won’t speculate.

They wanted to hear all about my Journey. As the rain lashed down outside, I told them the basics. They had questions—including whether I would spend the night!

My mouth dropped open. After all the closed hearts I’d run into lately, I hadn’t expected that. And I thought about it. Would it really be so bad to put off the church invitation by one night? Couldn’t I just call it quits here, less than a third of the way to Greenville, and take a hot shower?

It was tempting. But the road called to me. I like the challenge, and I had barely made any progress today. The tail wind, the invitation up ahead, the promise of hosts in Vicksburg and a plan to meet friends in New Orleans in less than two weeks… it all kind of combined with my normal stubbornness and galvanized me to keep going.

“Wow, that’s really kind of you,” I said. “But I should push on. Once it stops out there, I’m going to try to make Greenville.”

It did stop out there. They stuffed my pockets full of candy for the road. They gave me more water, and offered me a blanket to take with me. I considered it, but I had stopped shivering and had enough weight to carry already (including a blanket of my own). After more thank yous and encouragement, I got back on the bike and pushed on.

I cruised through the next town (Gunnison, I believe) and the shop owned by my high-dollar benefactor from earlier. His truck wasn’t out front and I had a long way to go, so I didn’t stop.

From what I could tell, Gunnison has a large white population; later I reached Beulah, a tiny town that’s almost exclusively black. I stopped there for water and a snack. Several locals were surprised to see a white cyclist but all were very warm and friendly. I’ve suggested before that the towns that are most suspicious of outsider are those with the most racial tension. Towns like Beulah tended to confirm that hunch. Beulah is definitely rural and definitely small, and as the only white person around I was doubly an “outsider,” yet the people treated me with courtesy and smiles. I suspect it’s because there was no day-to-day racial tension leading to violence, cliquishness and suspicion.

(André’s note: Around Beulah I almost got hit by a truck, too. He was merging onto the road at a Y-intersection with only a yield sign. Seeing no cars, he just barreled through—and would’ve wiped me off the highway if I hadn’t swerved way out in the oncoming lane. I gave a yell as I swerved, and I could see the startled look on the driver’s face. He was a middle aged African American in overalls, driving the most hillbilly old pickup truck you can imagine. He promptly pulled over to the side of the road and apologized. Contrast that with the aggressive white driver who almost killed me in Clarksdale.)

I raced on. With the sun out, the wind wasn’t so bad on my soaking wet clothes, and I still had a little tailwind helping me along. But I already knew I wasn’t going to make Greenville before sunset. In the somewhat larger town of Benoit 11 miles later, I paused to call Pastor Brian with an update.

“I’m going to be a little late,” I said.

“That’s not problem on our end, Drew,” (this is when I still went by Drew) “But how late do you mean? Is it safe to bike after dark?”

“Well I try to avoid it but I have front and back lights to use. I’ll be careful. I expect to arrive a little after sunset—are you sure that’s okay?”

Brian said it would be just fine, and if I called him when I reached the church he’d drive right over to meet me.

From there onward the sun was setting. Earlier in my trip I had many grinning conversations with the Sun Goddess as she slipped below the horizon, my last lamp for the evening. By now it was just a joke to her—always late, Rogue Priest.

I kind of enjoyed the lengthening shadows, the golden light, the dramatic colors on the autumn greenery of the lonely Mississippi roads. A little mist crept from the woods.

The tailwind had shifted, and I had to pedal harder. At some point I put on my warm, dry clothing (behind a garage in Benoit, as I recall). But as the sun went down and with the northeast wind cutting across my bow, the dark got colder and colder.

The final run to Greenville was long, slow and unsettling. In the open country there are no street lights, so I only had the little pool of illumination from my headlamp to warn me of potholes. And I was nervous about speeding or drunk drivers behind me, even with my tail light. I kept a flashlight in one hand, signaling my presence as vehicles approached. My hands cramped up and went numb from holding it against the handlebars.

At last came a winding trip through the neighborhoods of Greenville, some of which looked like an even prettier version of Clarksdale while others looked pretty rough. I reached the church, texted Brian and waited beside a giant glowing crucifix for him to arrive.

Brian came quickly, along with one of the other church members. I suspect they came as a pair just in case I didn’t seem trustworthy. But they greeted me warmly and waved off my thank-yous. The nighttime temperature was already plummeting, and I thought of last night with a renewed sense of gratitude not to be left outside.

They took me around to the back where the church had a large youth center. It was basically a gymnasium/basketball court with a stage set up on it, plus bathrooms, a small kitchen and a few side rooms for smaller activities. Brian told me I was welcome to set up my sleeping bag anywhere.

Once he made sure I had everything I needed he and his friend left me alone with the whole place to myself. My first order of business was a hot shower, like medicine to my shivering body. Back in dry clothes again, I turned to my stomach’s priorities: I hadn’t had more than a bite or two of trail mix since the candy family.

Fortunately the church was located near a main street with several restaurants. Making sure not to lock myself outside, I walked about a block to check one out. The cold windy night didn’t seem so intimidating anymore.

My long, eventful day ended with one more act of kindness: as I finished my meal, the waitress asked me where I was from. I told her about my trip and that I was spending the night in the nearby church. This, along with the fact that I’d biked “all the way from Clarksdale” in one day, was enough to put me on her good list. She brought me a free dessert, bless her.

This day, and the hardships of the few days before it, taught me a lot about what it means to be a good person and change other people’s lives. But this log entry has gone on long enough, and I’ll save the philosophy for another time. 80.4 miles.

Map.

Total traveled since Day 1: 1515.5

Next time I make my final bid for Vicksburg, Mississippi—a long road day with the promise of rum at the other end. What do you think of the road logs so far? Too much detail, or just enough?

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Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.”

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Adventure, Bicycling, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

Road Log: Heat Stroke and Fire Ants

Monday I announced that everyone is invited for the Mexico leg, so I figured I would post some more road logs to get people excited about adventuring. I may have timed it poorly, however, because these next couple entries are rough. When we left off I was enjoying Memphis. This time I head out hoping for Clarksdale, Mississippi—and encounter some of the toughest days of the whole trip. Here’s the first one.

Image by Jeffrey

Day 90 (October 4, 2012)

90 days! Effectively three months since I started, but the real anniversary won’t be till October 7. If you’d asked me at the start of my trip how long it would take me, I wouldn’t have had a clue. But I did hope—and still do—to meet friends Urban and Saumya in New Orleans by October the 17th. That means I’m starting to feel a little urgency in moving on. The colder nights contribute to that too. At the same time, my perspective on camping out has changed. The experience of the last few weeks has taught me that it’s really, really hard to be a stranger with nowhere to stay. When I have a Couchsurfing host, the advantage isn’t just a roof and a hot shower (although that’s nice) it’s that the entire community becomes more friendly. When you’re a guest of a local you’re welcomed warmly by their friends and seen as someone worth meeting. When you’re an itinerant bicyclist people regard you as somewhere between a bum, a freeloader and a dangerous criminal. A lot of other adventurers talk about how easy it is to walk into a town, share your story and be given a place to stay. Maybe those people are more charming than me. Or perhaps, soaked with sweat fresh off the road, I just look too wild. But my luck has been decidedly mixed in finding even just permission to camp somewhere. So now I try to line up a Couchsurfing host every night if possible. I also learned about the site Warm Showers (it sounds dirty but it’s not) and started using that as well. Neither network turned up any hosts between Memphis and Vicksburg, three days’ ride away. The first stop on the way is Clarksdale, Mississippi. I figure I’ll just have to take my chances finding a place to stay or camp when I get there.

As so often happens, I got a much later start than I’d hoped. John and Michael both said I could stay longer, and it was tempting, but I pushed on. Cruised through downtown Memphis, taking in the beautiful buildings one last time before angling south toward a bridge, the Mississippi border, and Clarksdale. To get out of the city I had to go through South Memphis. I could tell I was in a rougher neighborhood but in broad daylight it didn’t worry me. Not, that is, until a squad car pulled up. “Where are you going?” asked the officer. With all the stuff strapped to my bike, I figured he was just curious. I explained my plan. “You got any other way you can take?” I didn’t, really, without going way off course. He nodded. “The neighborhood you’re going into is deadly,” he told me. “If I were you I would pedal fast and don’t stop for anything.” That took me back. I thanked him and he waved as I pulled away. At first I thought he was following me to give me an escort, but as soon as I turned a corner he was gone. I generally take other people’s neighborhood fears with a pretty big dose of skepticism. But I also don’t want to ignore potential life-saving advice. Heeding his words, I pedaled hard and fast. I didn’t stop for stop signs or red lights, only slowing down as much as I absolutely had to to make sure no cross-traffic would hit me. I got some stares here and there, but the main thing I noticed in the neighborhood was about a million signs like this: You might one or two anywhere in the world, but when they wallpaper every house like it’s a political campaign I figure maybe there’s a murdering problem. I was glad for the officer’s advice and moved fast. Eventually I went from slum to industrial zone. I crossed the Noncannah Creek, which is more like a drainage canal, on a giant meta bridge. Beyond was more industry, the exurbs, and—after what seemed like an eternity—the countryside. I stayed on Highway 61, belting out miles in the hot sun. The day really took a toll on me, and I can’t say why. Maybe it was hotter than before, maybe I wasn’t hydrated enough, maybe I was just pushing too hard. One way or another, it was actively unpleasant even by the time I crossed the Creek, and by afternoon out in the shadeless country I was really hurting. The lessons I had learned about camping out vs. having a host loomed large, however. Any idea of quitting before Clarksdale carried with it the miserable specter of another evening scrabbling for a place to camp. And another day before reaching a friendly home in Vicksburg. I really didn’t want to do that. Soon I developed early symptoms of heat stroke. I took basic precautions: a rest stop, more water, a little time in the shade. These precautions had worked in the past but, I would eventually learn, they don’t usually work. The cure for heatstroke is to get out of the heat and rest in a cool place for a good hour or more. I look at heatstroke (and sunburn) as low grade radiation poisoning. I don’t know if that’s medically accurate but they’re the result of too much exposure to a giant nuclear furnace. One makes your skin peel off and the other makes you nauseous and weak. You get these same symptoms if you’re an incautious distance from an atom bomb. Because of the sudden weakness, heatstroke also affects your bike pace. You go slower either to try to reduce the strain or just because you can’t go fast anymore. So now you’re out in the sun even longer. It’s not pretty.

I reached the town of Tunica, Mississippi in the late afternoon. I pulled off the main highway to scope their downtown and consider options. Maybe someone would strike up a conversation and offer me a great place to stay. Or maybe I’d find somewhere cool to hang out and rest. One man said he “bikes” from Clarksdale to Tunica and back all the time. Turns out he uses a motorcycle. The difference in difficulty seemed to be lost on him, and he figured we’d both arrive in Clarksdale around the same time. He said he’d wave if he passed me later. Tunica is a really attractive little town and I should have stopped there. Just put up my hammock by a church and called it a day. But the brief stop rejuvenated me, and I considered my mileage. If I had to leave from Tunica tomorrow morning, it would be over 100 miles to my next stop in Greenville—an even longer, hotter run than today had been. So I got back out on the highway and kept going. Within a few miles I knew it was a bad decision. I put all my legendary willpower into pushing forward—first in the vain hope of still making Clarksdale, then with the hope of reaching any other town, and finally just hoping for a gas station. I saw a little copse of trees that would make a suitable camp site, and went right past it. Not camping in the middle of nowhere! I thought. About 100 yards later the bicycle stopped. I fell more than I dismounted, and could barely hold the Giant up next to me. A motorcycle went by and honked without stopping. I turned the Giant back to the little copse of trees. We shoved through the tall grass, which caught musically in the spokes. I remember hoping vaguely that nothing broke. The remains of an old trail ran into the woods, and we followed it. Leaving the Giant, I took a few minutes to scout. No sign of anyone to catch me. I returned to the Giant and began unpacking camping supplies. And caught fire. Suddenly my skin flamed up all over my arms, legs and feet. Tiny red ants were all over me. I beat them off as best I could but every slap drew even more bites. They were all over the Giant where I had leaned him against a tree, and now they were all over me too. It was my first day in Mississippi and my first experience with fire ants. After slapping myself half to death, moving the Giant, slapping some more, and brushing him off I could finally set up camp. (André’s note: it turns out that if you’re writing a blog about fire ants and you see a bug on your arm, you freak the hell out.) Water was running low. I was ready to vomit. Setting up camp is physical work, and even in the shade it was warm. As the sun got low the mosquitoes covered me. Eventually I had a working hammock. After a letting out a short trickle of hot, sickly urine I threw myself into the hammock and just laid there, panting and clutching my water bottle. I had a lot to worry about. Lack of proper food was one thing. But since my stomach felt like a punching bag, a bigger concern was the low water. I used my phone to search for the nearest gas station and found nothing between Tunica and Clarksdale. That could be an error on Google’s part, but I wasn’t going out searching. I was only a few miles from a town called Lula. (Annoyingly, it has a propane or oil place that kept coming up on my searches for “gas.”) I entertained the fantasy that, once I rested a little bit, I’d be well enough to bike over there, look for somewhere to buy water, and maybe even get a decent meal in an air conditioned diner before returning to camp for the night. But as evening wore on it was clearly not going to happen. Rather than feeling better, it was like my body had only begun its epic voyage through radiation sickness. It was a struggle of will just to hold down the water I allowed myself to drink. And I didn’t hold back—I figured better to hydrate now and look for water in the morning. I rationed a small amount and sipped as much of the rest as I could handle. Fever set in and chills shook my body. I got a cheery message from Michael asking if I’d made Clarksdale (which he called Clarkville). Not wanting to alarm him, I only said I’d found a place to camp a little before town. I fell asleep early, and settled into a world of disturbing dreams, physical discomfort and much, much needed rest. 59.3 miles.

Map.

 

Total traveled since Day 1: 1412.6

Next we’ll see what it’s like to bike on with no water, and find out who exactly is waiting for me in the town of Clarksdale. Until then, you can check out all my road logs. Does this kind of story scare you away from going on adventures of your own? How would you have handled it if you found yourself in the same position? Obviously, I brought this heat stroke on myself, and I’ve learned a lot about safe biking since then. But leave me a comment and tell me what you think. Is the risk work the thrill and sense of accomplishment?

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Lúnasa Days has been called “like Paulo Coelho only darker.” Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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