Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reflection on the Ride

I was quite fortunate on my most recent bike ride as the weather was about as perfect as I could imagine. Each morning was brisk, but the day would soon warm to a temperature that was quite comfortable and even at times bordering on hot. It was perfect riding weather. Weather is usually the number one factor in deciding whether the day will be pleasant or miserable. Even with Hurricane Ida I was just far enough west to avoid it and the worst that happened was that I rode on wet roads. Wind was light the entire trip so there were no days where I had to really force the pedals. There were the mountains, but I knew they would stand in my way and I also had the enjoyment of speeding down the back side of them.

There were some roads in poor shape as well as those that had heavy traffic and no shoulder, but the overwhelming majority were in great condition. There too were far more dog chases than I would have cared to have, but again I made it out unscathed.

All in all, the conditions for this ride were as close to ideal that I could possibly hope for in a long distance ride.

Lastly, with respect to photos, I wasn’t about to post any photos of me riding in a city or heavy traffic. First off, I don’t want to stop in traffic to take photos, never mind that they are generally uninteresting. The pictures I displayed were essentially those that I enjoyed.

As for what is next there is the possibility of a hike in Virginia over Thanksgiving week. Beyond that, I will have to figure out what is going on for the holidays. Winter is just around the corner…

Monday, November 16, 2009

End of Another Ride

77.9 Miles – Florence, SC to Myrtle Beach, SC

The city of Florence, SC is the tenth largest in South Carolina by population. It is also one of the cities that Amtrak passes through. After finishing the kayak trip the only option of getting a couple of 17 foot kayaks from New Orleans to New York was by train. On that lengthy train ride Kobie and I had some time to decompress, sort through photos and other data from our trip as well as reminisce over the happenings that had transpired the months prior as we paddled our way south. It was a pleasant, even civilized way to get to New York. It didn’t hurt that we had a sleeper car. Following that experience I decided it was how I would make my way from South Carolina to New York following this ride. It would be a reasonable way to transport a bike (without a massive surcharge as the airlines would levy), so I picked up a ticket while I was nearby.

As the city of Florence is quite busy and it was Monday morning it was an event to get away from the place. I followed a busy highway, two lanes in each direction, with no shoulder and heavy truck traffic. While there was a constant stream of traffic flowing past, at one point I looked back and saw two big rigs side by side in each lane behind me. For those of you that have seen the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, yeah, it looked just like that. I have found though that truckers are professionals and generally courteous. There are exceptions. As much as I don’t want them to hit me, it would ruin their day as well though not quite to the same degree.

The area around Myrtle Beach, SC, ever catering to tourists, had three visitor centers within an eight mile stretch. They were all legitimate visitor centers, not just someone that put up a visitor center sign in an effort to get you in the door and then sell you some poor quality tee shirts or other tourist kitsch. I have seen that all too often the world over.

I popped in one of the visitor centers in an hoping to find a better route to my destination. It was going to be the final day of the trip and I was hoping to enjoy at least some of it instead of having the constant concern of being run down by a vehicle. While they tried their best at the visitor center, I understand that most people don’t really pay attention as to whether a road has a shoulder and if the road surface is in good shape. I had little choice at least for the next several miles, so I pedaled on. My situation would improve significantly following the main turn off to get to Myrtle Beach proper.

I was able to get on a 25 miles length of little used road with only one small town interrupting the stretch. It was in the town that I was able to garner accurate intel as to the remainder of my route. When I stopped for a bite to eat a couple of the locals mentioned that had passed me on the road and wondered where I was going. Several of the people concocted a route that they claimed would be best for a bicycle to get me to my destination. I thanked them and was on my way. There is only so much I can tell about roads by looking at a map. When I started out this trip from Baton Rouge, LA I was on a road called “Scenic Drive”. It was a heavily traveled thoroughfare. I also pedaled along roads that were called highways and were entirely devoid of traffic. And clearly, a map will not let me know if the road has a shoulder, whether the surface is smooth or the level of traffic. It is what makes a long distance bike ride challenging. Anytime I would pass through or near a major city, as I did with Nashville, I would generally call a bike shop in the area and ask for advice. Bike shops can be a big help.

As I rode along my back road I came to a small intersection. At the intersection were no fewer than five signs pointing to various churches down the street. I wouldn’t think that area held the population to support five churches.

Further on, in the unincorporated village of Finklea of all places, I had a kid ask me for a cigarette. I wasn’t stopped on the side of the road or anything, I was biking along but was shouted at in request of said cigarette. To me that is funny several levels, but I will let you judge for yourself.

The last oddity of the day was as I stopped behind a school bus while is was discharging a child. I was behind a few cars so couldn’t see quite so well, but I noticed something by the mailbox of the home where the child was disembarking. As traffic began moving and I rode past, sure enough, it was a dead dog, right at the bus stop, right on the front lawn of this home. It was a big dog too; a pit-bull. It was fully rigor mortised, legs pointing straight out. Were someone to tip it upwards, it would have stood there until it rotted away, which it seemed to be in the beginning stages of doing.

The last 15 miles of the journey were elementary. Road conditions improved and despite a bit of a headwind I knew I would soon be done with my slated trip and didn’t have to ride the following day. It almost felt as if I were out for a series of day rides, rather than having covered 1,240 miles in six states. I wound through a neighborhood and when I arrived at my dad’s, he was sitting out front waiting for me. My 2009 ride was complete.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another Sunny Day

85.1 Miles – Winnsboro, SC to Florence, SC

I again opted to start a little later than I normally might, but I had some things to take care of the kept me up. Shortly after leaving town I saw a sign for the South Carolina Railroad Museum. I thought it might be interesting, I only hoped it was open on Sundays. Not only was it not open on Sunday, it is only open two Saturdays a month between June and October for a grand total of ten times a year.

At least it was another beautiful morning. The morning just cruised on past. It wasn’t necessarily my intention, but the morning was all business. I was 35 miles deep before I even bothered to check my distance. I had stopped once, but that was to take a photo.

One thing I have been seeing on a regular basis on my ride is the Dollar General store. KKR, their parent just had an IPO for Dollar General this past Thursday. While Dollar General has 8,362 stores (at 2008 year end), plans to add another 450 and had 13% sales growth, they are also saddled with 4 billion in debt as well as lease obligations on its existing stores. What is unique about the IPO is that KKR was also one of the lead underwriters of the deal. It seems that Dollar General could be one of the early efforts of private equity firms to cash in on investments made during their heyday of acquisition…but enough about Main Street to Wall Street.

By midday any and all hills ceased. I was near enough the coast that there was nary a bump in the road. There were however numerous dogs that wanted to come out and play, no fewer than a half dozen incidences. I am growing as tired of these chases as you probably are reading about them. I am down south; people don’t have lap dogs here. Having a pet run off property at large is a misdemeanor in most counties in South Carolina and comes with a fine. Mind your pets people! I have already seen one dog get hit that chased me out in the road.

As long as I am focusing on the negative of the ride, I was nearly run down head-on by a clueless driver. As I was sitting at a stop sign waiting for traffic so that I could cross the road, a woman making a left turn on my road was trying to beat the cross traffic and cut the corner very short, not even noticing that there was a guy on a bike waiting patiently to cross the road. Thankfully, she took notice of me (though a bit too late for my liking), swerved, and nearly ran herself into a field. Put down the phone and pay attention.

As I rode along I pedaled past a rather large tract of farm land. The plot seemed out of place as I hadn’t seen that much farmland since being in Iowa. On my left was the remnants of corn stalks that had already been harvested and on my right, soy beans. It made me think about the times I had ridden days on end through nothing but farms. There was one instance on my 2005 ride where I couldn’t see anything manmade other than the road and what I had with me. Other than that it was corn as far as the eye could see.

While passing through small towns, many of the gas stations had signs proclaiming that there was no ethanol in the gas they were selling. Up to 10% of the fuel mix at the pump at any given gas station around the United States can be ethanol (fuel made mostly from corn). The addition of ethanol to gas was touted as a clean/renewable way to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The logic is that if 10% of the gas you pump is ethanol, it is 10% less foreign oil we require. Ethanol isn’t without its problems though, most notably a reduction of gas mileage. In addition, there have been complaints that ethanol destroys engines. One of the characteristics of ethanol is that it forms deposits should it sit around for several months. There is also the consideration countering the environmental benefits claiming that processing ethanol pollutes far more than production of normal gasoline. Lastly, I would be remiss were I not to mention the havoc ethanol production has wreaked on agricultural prices. As you might imagine, the larger demand for corn due to ethanol production raised demand for corn and hence price. To participate in the increase in the price of corn, some farmers choose to grow corn as opposed to soy beans or other cash crops that they have traditionally raised. With fewer farmers growing these other crops there is a lesser supply and hence higher prices for these crops. This, obviously, is an oversimplified generalization, but it is intended for those people who do not necessarily have an economics background. It is all supply and demand.

In again trying to stay on back roads for the day I had my share of problems, mostly in the form of dirt roads. After having taken my detour around the rockslide 11 miles along a dirt road several days earlier, I wasn’t about to ride another 11-miles on dirt, or even 11-inches. As there were many roads in various states of repair, or rather disrepair in the area, I hunted and pecked my way along the roads to make my way east.

To end my day I needed to ride along a major highway, however, as it was Sunday traffic was light. I was pleased to arrive at my destination which was going to be my last night before completing my ride.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Back Roads...

117.0 Miles - Anderson, SC to Winnsboro, SC

When I awoke in the morning my legs felt like cinderblocks. I really didn’t know how I was going to pedal the entire day and even ever so briefly thought about taking a rest day. Rather than that though, I figured I would get out there.

I was still on the fringe of the mountains as I left in the morning. The hills weren’t kind in the morning. Also, given the traffic kerfluffle I went through yesterday evening I decided to stay on back roads as much as possible during the day. With that I had to pull out my laptop to check my map at least a dozen times throughout the day. In the route I had chosen I also rode along Sumter National Forest for the better part of 30 miles.

On the back roads I would periodically pass a local bar. I was somewhat concerned that the people were sitting in the bar drinking beers, watching college football and were driving home. I did make me feel a bit better that I saw at least several police cars throughout the day. And you would think that the state of South Carolina could spare a few extra bucks to put shoulders on the roads.

One phenomenon that is rampant is the yard sale. In the last week I have noticed dozens of yard sales. They aren’t necessarily in peoples yards mind you, but anywhere on the side of the road; perhaps in a parking lot of a failed business or anyplace else that has road frontage. While I didn’t stop at any of the sales, as I rode by I didn’t notice anything of merit.

As the day wore on I was putting some distance between myself and the mountains. The longer, steeper hills became shorter and flatter. At one point I was riding along the train tracks. That is always a good sign as I knew there wouldn’t be any steep hills.

I hit my potential bail out point for the day by 2:30, but by that time was feeling good. I don’t know if it was that the terrain was flatter or if there was a bit of help from the wind, but given my start to the day I felt great.

I lucked out in the town of Winnsboro, SC as I found a motel right across the street from an all you can eat Chinese Buffet (they didn’t ask me to leave, but I got a few looks), a drug store (to load up on energy bars) and a supermarket (for a little ice cream).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Welcome to South Carolina

107.9 Miles - Blairsville, GA to Anderson, SC

I needed a little time getting going given yesterdays debacle, but I was back at the mountains. My longest and most memorable climb of the day was up to Neel Gap. Why was that significant you ask? It is where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road, 30 miles after the start of the trail. I had hiked across the very road that I was now riding and actually stayed at Neel Gap my second night on the Appalachian Trail.

As I was enjoying the view (when I said I was biking in the mountains, I wasn’t kidding) I chatted with a hiker who began hiking south from Maine in June. I had passed him on the trail when I was hiking up to Mt Katahdin. He was now 2,145 further on, 30 miles from his goal. Well done.

It was a busy day at Neel Gap as while I was getting ready to continue riding, two other cyclists came by. They were out for a joy ride climbing mountain passes for fun. I had a bit of a chin-wag about biking with the pair, but I was really looking forward to the next six miles of my ride.

The payoff for the climb to Neel Gap was getting to bomb down the back side of the mountain. I thought about taking some video, but I was having far too much fun on the chicane, riding down the mountain road. It is not often that I can double up on the speed limit while riding a bike, but the curves signed at 20 MPH were a blast rolling along at 40 MPH on my bike.

Further on I stopped in a small town for lunch. It wasn’t so much a diner, but rather a convenience store that served food. The place was packed with the local crowd; decidedly blue collar. Playing the game of “Which one of these does not belong?” would have been quite easy. I got the usual odd looks, but the food was rather tasty.

While it was a tiring day, I enjoyed the ride through the mountains. I did have a little bike issue as when I was changing gears my chain jammed into a place that it has no place being. While I sat on the side fo the road, I had to take my chain completely off my bike to get it fixed. If that is the worst thing that is going to happen to my bike, I am OK with it. The front tire is still hanging in there given the beating it took yesterday.

I was riding into dusk and found another use for my light. I was able to fasten it to the back of my bike an put it in flash mode to alert traffic behind me to my presence. I didn't necessarily need the light to see as it was still dusk, but I felt better having it flash behind me.

Traffic the last 10 miles to the town of Clemson was unbelievably heavy, as one might expect for 5 o’clock on a Friday. I wanted no part of it, but had little in the way of choice to get to where I needed to be. Not too surprisingly, there was no shoulder on the road, though it was two lanes in each direction, so at least cars had some room to shuffle over. Some of the drivers shuffled more than others.

I found a few miles relief by touring the Clemson University campus. I would have to get back out in the thick of things before my day would come to an end though. Traffic got a little crazy, even for me. I had planned on staying on the far end of town in Anderson, SC, but I bowed out on the north side. The extra few miles just wasn’t worth it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Detour...No, Seriously!

82.1 Miles - Cleveland, TN to Blairsville, GA

When I woke this morning I never would have thought I would hear the words, “the only way to get around the landslide is a 60-mile detour”, but sure enough, I would. Ten miles before the road was closed I saw a sign mentioning the closure, but I just thought, “nah, it won’t affect me”. At the turnoff for the main detour was where I heard the unpleasant phrase uttered. There were two guys standing around, the first seemingly taking pleasure in speaking that sentence. The second gentleman said he felt bad enough making cars take a 60-mile detour, worse still that I was on a bike.
I was able to find some video of the actual landslide here. There is a short commercial first.

After pulling out my map and posing potential routes to the pair of highway workers, I was able to cobble together a route that would only add 30 miles to my day. The first 10 miles of the ride were the nicest since leaving the Natchez Trace Parkway. I was pedaling through Cherokee National Forest. I checked the map at least several times to ensure I was going the right direction. In one instance a woman came out of her house and asked if I was OK. Following a brief conversation she offered me a ride to wherever it was I was going. Obviously, I declined. If only she knew.

It was when I was riding on tertiary and quaternary roads that things got interesting. Out of nowhere in the backwoods there was another detour. A detour on a detour if you will. There was a paving crew out paving an obscure road and the only route I could take to avoid the full 60-mile detour. The paving crew had differing opinions as to whether I could continue on that road. There were two issues really, the first if I could cross the river and the second if I could ride on the new asphalt. I had been told by several sources that I could cross the river on a cable bridge. My map showed a road across the river, but that wasn’t the case. I was also told that I could ride on the asphalt, but first I would have to ride a half mile on fresh tar.

I rode along, my tires sticking to the road the entire way. When I reached the work crew laying the asphalt I wisely opted to walk on the grass for a couple hundred feet before trying to ride on the road. I could feel the heat coming from the newly laid asphalt. I periodically stuck my finger in the asphalt and when my finger no longer penetrated the surface I moved off the grass and began pedaling.

The last three miles of that road were the newest road upon which I had ever ridden. It didn’t hurt that it was right along the Hiawassee River. While I still can’t figure out why they would pave that little stretch of road, I had no complaints…at least not for those three miles.

The new road came to an abrupt stop at a barbed wire fence. There was an open gate and a sign mentioning the fact that beyond the fence was US Government property and that there should be no trespassing. Inasmuch as the gate was open, I took that as an invitation to enter. Aren’t we at, like, terror alert orange? Shouldn’t that gate be locked so as to prevent giving people access to the hydroelectric dam?

I hurried over the cable bridge so as to not draw attention to myself. Once I made it over the bridge I got out of dodge as fast as possible. I already had one run in with the law on this trip, I didn’t need a second. The first four miles of road was a fairly soft dirt, though it did get better after that but it was still less than ideal. I rode where the ground was hard enough or not covered in rocks and walked otherwise. Fortunately there was more riding than walking, but my bike was taking a beating. It really wasn’t meant to be taken off-road.

I was winding through the Cherokee National Forest on a forest service road that had probably never seen a bicycle. My map was of limited use, heck, it said the road connected over the bridge. I was doing my best to make sure I didn’t turn off the main road or I could have traveled deeper into the woods.

As I bumped along I saw a truck coming my way which made me feel better about the trail I was on. You would think that I would stop the driver and ask my whereabouts, but no, I didn’t. Shortly thereafter another truck came past and I did ask if I was heading the right direction. I was.

In the 11 miles I had to off-road I destroyed my front tire. I was going to have to replace the tire after this trip, but it is now on borrowed time. The vibrations also loosened both my front and rear brakes. I was never so glad to see pavement

The remainder of the day went fairly smoothly, but the detour took a lot out of me. I eagerly counted down the last few miles to town. I had hoped to be about 40 miles further on, but things like this happen. My biggest disappointment of the day was that I could spend the night in Cleveland, Georgia following the night prior in Cleveland, Tennessee.

I will leave you with some video of me pedaling on the new road with the Hiawassee River to the right:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Seven Counties in a Day

84.5 Miles - McMinnville, TN to Cleveland, TN

While the day was significantly better than yesterday, it was still overcast and chilly. And while it was Veterans Day, there wasn’t much in the way of normal workday traffic on my way out of town.

It wasn’t long until I hit the mountains; not the hills that I had been riding, but legitimate mountains. I used my full compliment of gears during the day. Up until this point I didn’t have to use my lowest gear but it got a workout today. That being said I also spent a fair bit of time in my highest gear when I got to bomb down the back side of mountains. There was one particular mountain that I flew the four miles down in under seven minutes. That was good as it took me 24 minutes to climb the four miles up. I knew it was going to be a long climb when I looked up and saw the road switching back above me. It took me some time to get in to a rhythm climbing again, but I did.

I had my first dog race of the trip just after coming down a mountain to a valley. I was thinking that it would be a great photo of the cows in the green pasture and the mountains in the background. Just them I heard a couple of dogs charging behind me. I had to expend more energy than I particularly cared to, but I didn’t get bitten.

It seems that the road conditions change on a county by county basis and the tax receipts collected by them. For the most part, the roads in Tennessee have been relatively smooth; the only variation is what if any shoulder is available. I did pedal through seven of Tennessee’s 95 counties today. It seems that on average each county is about 350 square miles. When I snuck into the final county of the day I also passed into the Eastern Time Zone. It could have been worse. When I rode from Los Angeles to New York and crossed over to the Eastern Time Zone I nearly simultaneously lost an hour for daylight savings time. You can read about it here.

I also crossed the Tennessee River for the second time of the trip, this time at Blythe Ferry. Historically the ferry was an important link between Chattanooga, TN and Knoxville, TN. I consciously made the decision to ride north of Chattanooga and south of Knoxville so that I didn’t have to deal with the city traffic surrounding them.

The last 20 miles of the day I had the welcome change of some help from the wind. It is also all coming back to me that most towns are in a valley, meaning that I get to coast into town, but start the following morning with a climb.

I also realized that it is also sometimes easier when there is only one hotel in town. I tend to take more time than I really should to find a hotel for the night. All that I am looking for is a clean room, a hot shower and a bed. Wi-Fi, breakfast, a hot-tub and close proximity to some good food are also considerations, but I have to stop over thinking it. So here I am in Cleveland, Tennessee.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rural Tennessee

84.2 Miles - Nashville, TN to McMinnville, TN

The rest of the rain from Ida was coming through the area in the morning, so I opted to get a late start in an effort to stay behind it. A detour (due to the Country Music Awards) before even leaving downtown Nashville aided in holding me back. It did involve me having to consult my map. Having all of my possessions wrapped in plastic bags adds a level of complexity to everything, like checking my electronic map, but at least I could keep my things dry.

Getting out of Nashville wasn’t the worst ride I ever had though not quite as easy as leaving Baton Rouge. I managed to avoid rush hour traffic and stayed off the main thoroughfares. Before long the road I was riding on was wet. I didn’t get rained on at the time, but the ground wouldn’t be dry for the remainder of the day.

It wasn’t long before I was in rural Tennessee. There was the odd dwelling (that formerly had wheels) with numerous appliances and/or vehicles in various states of disrepair ornamenting the front lawn. There were also some nice farm houses, so there was a good mix.

I was getting into steeper territory. I had my first serious climb of the trip this afternoon. The route I had chosen will take me through some more mountainous terrain that I had seen in quite some time.

The last 20 miles came with increased traffic. There was the usual mix of drivers, some granting me some courtesy and others buzzing a foot off my left elbow. Idaho recently passed a law that prohibits cars from passing within three feet of a bicycle. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant change? They also made it official that bicycles are only required to yield at stop signs and red lights. While I haven’t been ticketed for blowing a red light, I suppose I could be.

I survived the last 20 miles of the ride and then spent nearly two hours having to clean my bike after the soaking it received all day. Having to scour my bike is one of the last things I want to do after a long day riding, but if I want it to last I have to suck it up and get polishing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nashville, Tennessee

I was taking a day off to see Nashville, TN. While I am generally not fan of taking organized tours I couldn’t argue with how efficient it would be for my single day off in Nashville. They can cram a lot in half a day.

The tour started in Music Row, the area where country artists have a number of recording studios. It used to be the case that the artists would have to go to New York to record until a studio was built in Nashville that allowed recording to happen locally in 1944. One of the studios, Studio B was reputed to have turned out over 1,000 number one songs.

Ryman Theater was next on the list, previous home to the Grand Old Opry. While the Opry has been moved to a newer building, they do still hold concerts at the theater. Had I any interest in country music, I could have seen Vince Gill that evening.

We took a spin past the State Capitol Building, the second oldest capitol building having been continuously in use. It is second only to Maryland. On the north side of the Capitol was Bicentennial State Park had a wall about a half mile long with historical facts of Tennessee carved into it. One of the problems with tours is that I wanted to walk the length of the wall and read about the history. It’s a trade off.

While I like to think I have a broad spectrum of knowledge, when I went in the Country Music Hall of fame I was at a loss. I recognized Elvis, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Patsy Clime and a few others, but that still put me around 3% of the inductees.

Last stop was in the downtown area at one of the local bars that had live music in the early afternoon. It wasn’t quite the same scene as the night before as I think all of the occupants were part of a tour.

Following the tour I had a list of some things I wanted to visit. My list was truncated as the art gallery in the Pantheon as well as the Tennessee State Museum were closed on Monday. I made my way back to the Capitol building and was able to set up with a little tour of the building. Afterwards I walked down to Bicentennial State Park where I was able to talk that walk along the history wall. Here are some random facts about Tennessee:
- 1795 Tennessee achieved one of the requirements for Statehood, which was a population of 60,000 ( became a state on June 1, 1796)
- David Crockett was elected to Congress in 1827, killed at the Alamo in 1836
- In 1838 over 4,000 of the 17,000 Cherokee Indians that were forced from their land died on the Trail of Tears (Here is a write up from the kayak trip)
- 1844 James Polk was elected President (He was born in North Carolina, but lived most of his life in Tennessee)
- In 1848, the term “Volunteer” achieved popular usage in referring to Tennesseans following a call for 2,800 troops in the Mexican War. 30,000 Tennesseans responded.
- (I like this one) In1929 the Memphis Merchants Clearing Association began flashing commodities quotations on cottonseed and cottonseed meal around the world

I spent the evening planning around Hurricane Ida. It seemed that while the storm had been downgraded, it was still going to bring rain to the area. I have spent my fair share of time riding in rain, but I don’t really want to do it if I don’t have to. I thought about taking another day off renting a car and driving to Memphis to visit my friend Jim, or even heading to Lynchburg, TN to visit the Jack Daniels distillery, but I have to keep pedaling as a new commitment came up. I pedal on.

While keeping my eye on the weather it also came to my attention that it was the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I can hardly believe that it has been that long. I was living in Germany at the time and it was something extraordinary being there at that time. It’s not everyday that such a significant change in government takes place.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

End of the Natchez Trace

82.3 Miles - Hohenwald, TN to Nashville, TN

From the town of Hohenwald I had two options as to how I could get back on the Natchez Trace Parkway. I could cut diagonally back to the Parkway or go back the way I came. Were I to cut north I would miss about 8 miles of the parkway and I didn’t want to do that, so I went back the way I came. I also knew that the road was in good shape going that way.

I wouldn’t have really missed much on the Parkway had I taken the shortcut other than one long descent, a long climb and a large area of lawn that a couple of hillbillies tore up doing donuts in their truck.

One notable crossing in the morning was that of the Tennessee Valley Divide. All the water that falls to the south flows to the Duck or Tennessee Rivers and all that on the north into the Cumberland River.

The last 60 miles of the Parkway went past quickly. As it was a beautiful Sunday it seemed as if half of Nashville was out on the Parkway. There were bicycles, motorcycles, people driving convertibles, antique cars and all manner of other conveyances.
The northern section of the road wound around quite a bit more than it had further south. Between the number of people using the parkway and the road winding as much as it did made things more difficult for everyone involved. I found myself directing traffic more than I would have liked. I would periodically ride in the middle of the lane so that cars wouldn’t pass from behind when not safe to do so. I don’t like doing it, but it is for my safety.

From the end of the Natchez Trace Parkway it was another 20 miles to downtown Nashville. The road was in great shape and while the shoulder wasn’t very wide, the route is heavily traveled by cyclists leaving drivers aware of bike traffic.
When I approached Nashville from the southwest I took a detour through Centennial Park. In the park there is a full size replica of the Parthenon in Greece. My biggest decision was deciding in which part of Nashville I wanted to stay. In the end I figured out that the downtown area was the best bet.

Once I set up with a hotel I went for my own bike tour of downtown Nashville and I’m glad I did. Even on a Sunday evening downtown was vibrant. Not only were there several places that had live music, but every other street corner seemed to have someone playing the guitar, banjo, the spoons or at the very least panhandling. Memphis has Beale Street, Nashville has Broadway.
I dropped my bike off at the hotel, got cleaned up and made my way back downtown for some Tennessee Barbeque and live music. While I am by no stretch of the imagination a fan of country music, I found a happy medium ground: bluegrass. Much like Pioneer Days yesterday, I ended up staying far longer than intended but the music was toe tapping good.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Three States

134.5 Miles – Tupelo, MS to Hohenwald, TN

In leaving Tupelo I finally realized it was Saturday. I knew it was Saturday, but for some reason I didn’t connect it to the fact that there would be no morning rush hour to contend with. I had some miles to put in on the day, so I didn’t mind getting an early start. While there wasn’t the normal weekday rush hour, I saw at least a dozen trucks pulling bass boats behind them.

It seemed that north of Tupelo, MS there was very little flat ground. I was either pedaling uphill or coasting downhill. On one of the rare bits of level ground I happened across a coyote standing on the side of the road. I got to within 30 feet as it was concentrating on something in the opposite direction. I didn’t manage to snap a photo, but getting to see the coyote from close range was rather remarkable. In all the hiking I have done I have never seen a coyote and now on this bike ride I have seen two, and this one from 30 feet away.

Another bit of morning entertainment was a car driving past that were two bike riders I met on my first day pedaling on the Parkway. They were driving a bit, biking a bit as they worked north. As they passed they yelled, “It’s a long way to New York”. It kept me entertained.

By mid-morning I was leaving the state of Mississippi for Alabama. I would only spend three hours in Alabama as I was cutting across the northwest corner, but my time in the state was noteworthy.

I spent the first hour pedaling to the Tennessee River. As I neared the river I came upon “Pioneer Days”, which is where I spent my second hour. What is “pioneer days” you ask? It is a meeting of like minded individuals that recreate some part of the pioneer life, such as basket weaving, playing the Appalachian Dulcimer, or showing off old tools. I had no intention of spending as much time there as I did, but whenever I speak to people a couple of generations my senior I find that I keep asking questions about how things used to be. One of the older gentlemen I spoke with (I think his social security number was 12) talked about his father having a horse drawn cotton gin. Another guy worked for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad; B&O Railroad is more than just a square on a monopoly board. He even said that he still has his conductors lantern. I also sat and listened to a gentleman named Pat that had a number of musical instruments from the 1800’s. I have a little audio of him playing “My Home is in the Appalachian Mountains” on the Banjo Dulcimer. While listening I challenge you to not think about Huck Finn lazily drifting downriver.

Once I crossed the bridge over the Tennessee River I pedaled another hour to Tennessee. While all I had to do was ride over a bridge to get across the river, Andrew Jackson was rumored to have paid $80,000 to be ferried across the river by the person running the cross-river ferry at that time.

In Tennessee the hills grew taller and longer. The grade wasn’t particularly steep, though I did huff and puff up one or two of them. The mileposts seem awfully far apart when the entire mile is up hill. In having the mileposts, what I also was able to confirm is that my bike computer comes up short in calculating mileage. When I left Tupelo in the morning I started four miles shy of the official mileage to Tupelo. By the end of the day I was dead even with the mileage and I took a couple of detours stopping at overlooks and in one case went off the Parkway into town. At some point I will figure out exactly how far off my computer is, but for continuity all my stats will be as stated by my computer.
To find a hotel for the night, I would have to head seven miles off the Parkway. Before doing so though I stopped at Meriwether Lewis National Monument. Lewis is best known as the leader of the Lewis & Clark expedition which was sent out to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean as well as explore the western territory. Following the expedition he was made the Governor of the Louisiana Territory. The monument in his namesake was erected where Lewis died. There is some dispute as to the circumstances of his death whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Regardless of what transpired, it happened on the Natchez Trace.

I pedaled to the town of Hohenwald, TN to find a place to stay. The name Hohenwald loosely translates to “high forest” in German. It put thoughts in my head of me having to climb some serious hills just to get to town, but the elevation gain didn’t materialize. My hotel left quite a bit to the imagination, but it was a roof over my head.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What Detour??

112.2 Miles - Kosciusko, MS to Tupelo, MS

Given how many people have been hit by cars on the Natchez Trace Parkway near Tupelo, I wanted to be sure I was safely in town before rush hour. That being the case, I get my start at 4:15. I just flipped on my light and was away. The few cars that did pass at that hour probably thought I have lost it, but I enjoyed the ride. The temperature was in the upper 30’s, but between my clothing and generating some internal heat, I was good to go. The light performed like a champ. While the picture is a bit blurry, you can get the idea. I could see at least five or six lines (the yellow dashed lines dividing the lanes) ahead. Cars coming my direction would turn down their brights when they saw my light. You go Light & Motion!

While pedaling along a saw a few fox loitering on the side of the road and as dawn was settling on the day the last of the bats returning home. Riding at night provides a much different view of the surroundings.

Once there was enough light to see I noticed that the leaves were more colorful than they had been the day previous. I also caught sight of a bunch of deer, numbering on the south side of the double digit range.

It was on the chilly side, but mostly from the wind-chill. My face became a bit numb and my gloves didn’t keep my fingers as warm as I would have hoped, but I was fine. When the first ray of sunshine hit me though it was like getting a shot of morphine; my shoulders slumped and my body totally relaxed.

As I rode along I noticed another biker coming my direction. The guy had panniers as well as a trailer. He was an older guy with everything packed in his trailer. I didn’t ask, but I can be pretty sure that the kitchen sink was buried in there somewhere. He was wearing jeans and his protective headgear was a baseball hat. He left from North Carolina a couple of months ago and claims that once he makes it west of the Mississippi River, he will never come back east.

Later in the morning I rode into Chickasaw Indian territory. While historically, Indians didn’t have hard defined boundaries, the Chickasaw and Choctaw used what was called Line Creek as a delineating boundary between the two tribes. Baton Rouge was another notable exception.

I knew that there would be a detour off the Parkway as there was some roadwork being done. My biker friend mentioned it as well. As it isn’t this cowboys first time to the rodeo I decided to try an stay on the Parkway through the detour. I found that about 75% of the time where there was roadwork and a road was closed, I with my bike could skirt my way around somehow. The distance between the road closure was ten miles, the detour total was 22. It was a gamble. Were it that I rode five miles in and I couldn’t get through, I would have to go the five miles back and then ride the 22 mile detour.

I pedaled along. The road was in great shape. I pedaled, pedaled and pedaled some more; no roadwork. It was only at mile nine that I saw the evidence of a bulldozer. As I approached, a police car intercepted me. I was politely informed that that road was closed. I acknowledged that fact, but added the rebuttal that I have done this enough to know that a bike can usually get past some road work. I was told to wait while he went to his car to get the official release about the roadwork. It didn’t say anything in there about bikes, so he said he wouldn’t give me a ticket. We were in a national park after all and I could carefully skirt the 100 yards of construction that closed 10 miles of road. I was on my way; success once again!

I made it to Tupelo, just after lunch time, which was my goal. I stopped at the main Natchez Trace Visitor center to talk to the folks there. I had five hours of daylight and was hoping to put in another 40 or 50 miles, but the next accommodation I could find were 140 miles up the road. I will have to save that for tomorrow night.

I had some time in Tupelo, but it is a decentralized city, leaving me in limbo. I wasn’t about to ride my bike all over the city, so I opted to strip down my bike and clean it. It was time well spent. I grew tired early after my early hour departure that morning, so I made it an early Friday night in Tupelo. I am going to have another early morning tomorrow.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Short Day

62.4 Miles - Jackson, MS to Kosciusko, MS

I knew I would have a short day riding, so I opted to wait until after rush hour to start my day. I also made a stop in town to pick up a new voice recorder. I have the worst luck with those things. I had one that went for a swim in New Zealand, another which was left in a hospital in Shanghai, still another that I dropped while riding my bike, but this one just stopped working.

The morning was a little different than any part of yesterday as the Parkway ran along the Ross Barnett Reservoir for a stretch of eight miles. While it was nice to have a change of scenery, it did leave me exposed to the wind.

Following the reservoir I was riding alongside a cypress swamp. I stopped and took a stroll along a short walking path. I spied a couple of frogs, a salamander and a turtle. While alligators are a periodic visitor to the swamp I didn’t evidence any.

The biggest disappointment of the day came at mile marker 135. In an instant the surface of the road changed from smooth pavement to chip-seal; which is an under layer embedded with pebbles. It makes for a bone jarring, screw-loosening ride. I generally feel it in my elbows, knees and especially my lower back. I was told by a few southbound riders that the road won’t get any better for quite some time. At least I know it will get better.

Later in the day I was delighted to see that the leaves are changing color. This is my fourth autumn this year. I caught my first in Vermont, then Arizona/Utah, followed by New York and now in Mississippi. The color is not yet at its peak, but I will be pedaling north to speed up the process.

I was planning on ending the day in the town of Kosciusko, MS, birthplace of Oprah Winfrey. Given my general readership I assume that you could probably care less. In any event, Kosciusko was the last town before Tupelo, 100 miles to the north, that has a hotel. Someone in town had mentioned that there was a bed and breakfast another 20 miles up the road, but I was unable to reach anyone there. I would have hated to ride the 20 miles and find that the people were on vacation. Kosciusko it was.

As I checked in I was talking to the person at the desk about my story. As there is nothing in the area surrounding the hotel I was offered a ride into the real part of town so I could pick up a few things, including dinner. How nice was that? Yesterday it was lunch and today this.

I will have an early start in the AM as I would like to reach Tupelo, MS before rush hour. Apparently city traffic keeps the Parkway packed around Tupelo. And with a narrow road and no shoulder, it isn’t an ideal situation. In addition, a cyclist was killed by car last month as well as another back in April. All the more incentive to ride the 100 miles to Tupelo by early afternoon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Natchez Trace...

111.5 Miles – Natchez, MS to Jackson, MS

My morning started with the ugly side of Natchez. I rode past a historic site known as “Forks of the Road”. It was the location of the second largest slave market in the United States between 1830 and 1863. Another aspect of the antebellum south that isn’t mentioned in the average tour is that slaves were frequently beaten and raped.

I had a bit of a struggle finding the Natchez Trace Parkway, but once I did I was a happy man. The Parkway takes away the drama of cycling as there is smooth pavement, little traffic and is surrounded by trees that block the wind. Not only that, but there are a smattering of picnic tables on the side of the road, complete with garbage cans and numerous places to obtain water. What more could I possibly ask for?

There was no shortage of wildlife as I rode along. While the first two animals I saw were an armadillo and a snake with tire tracks across their back, there was plenty in the way of actually living animals. Early on there was the constant chirping of birds and a trio of whitetail deer. I also spotted some blue heron and the usual squirrels, but the most exciting sighting was a coyote. I saw it on the side of the road in the distance and got my camera out, but then thought “what if it is hungry”. I had a feeling, which proved correct; the coyote would run off as I neared. I never did get that photo.

One of the historic stops I made was at Mount Locust, the only remaining “Inn” that was open to travelers of the Natchez Trace. Mount Locust is one of the oldest buildings in Mississippi having been built in 1780. The success of the Inn was due in large part to its location as it sat one days walk from Natchez, the start of the Trace.

In my travels I have met some pretty great people and today was no different. I noticed a half a dozen bikes riding the opposite direction with VBT emblazoned on their bikes. Who knew that Vermont Bike Tours does tours in Mississippi? A little further up the road I pulled in a turnout to take a breather and throw out some trash I had accumulated. Also, there was the SAG wagon for the bike tour. Before I even came to a stop on my bike I was offered all sorts of snacks and Gatorade. The timing was perfect as I was getting a tad hungry. It also saved me a trip off the Parkway to the town of Port Gibson for lunch.

There are certain parts of the Parkway that criss-cross what was the actual Natchez Trace. You can see from the photo how worn the Trace was; to the point of it being sunken below the level of the rest of the area. There were several occasions when I parked the bike and took a bit of a walk on parts of the old Natchez Trace. People always talk about the Appalachian Trail being the first long distance hiking trail but the Natchez Trace has it beat

Traffic picked up the closer I got to Jackson, MS but it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination heavy. Drivers were extremely courteous. The road was just barely wide enough to pass if there was a bicycle on the side of the road, but just barely; meaning that it would not be safe. There were zero drivers that tried to squeeze through when there was oncoming traffic. Some even used their blinkers to pass and others used the entire other lane when passing.

As I got to the north side of Jackson, MS traffic was quite dense. I only had to ride a couple of miles to make my way off the Parkway and find a hotel. On my way into town I realized how hungry I was. I made a pit stop to chug a Gatorade and down some ice cream.

In summary, I don’t ever recall riding over 100 miles in a single day without so much as seeing a traffic light. I have over 15,000 miles on this present bike alone and I think I would struggle to come up with a better contiguous 100 miles to ride. I didn’t have to worry about directions, traffic and could just focus on turning the cranks. It got me back to the pure enjoyment of cycling. I will leave you with a video of my view as I rode the Natchez Trace Parkway and no, I didn't add the bird noises: