Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Day 8: Hohenwald to … Nashville!

Our last day. Hard to believe our adventure was almost over. It was very foggy when Bill served us breakfast this morning: bacon, eggs and pancakes. Yum! But shortly after we got on the road, it burned off and we had a beautiful, sunny day. Last night the storm really kicked in, with rain and high winds. This part of the Trace was certain pretty, but the best colors were behind us. Lots of leaves were on the ground.

Right after we started, we stopped at Fall Hollow, which was a pretty waterfall. We saw another a short ways up. Our server last night told us it was downhill all the way to Nashville, but it seemed mainly uphill to us. The entire ride was very enjoyable, though. The only disappointing part was the end. Everything says the Trace is 444 miles long. At the southern terminus, there’s a rock with a plaque that notes it’s the southern terminus. We’d taken our photos by it at the start. So naturally, we wanted a photo of us at the northern terminus and also mile marker 444. But neither exists.

Unlike the southern terminus, there’s nothing marking the northern terminus other than a big sign saying it’s the Natchez Trace. Weird, since there were loads of signs we’d passed over the 444 miles that said “Northern Terminus 180 miles” or whatever. Even stranger, the mile markers stopped at 442. Right after mile marker 442, the road split three ways, and we didn’t know which way to go. A quick look on my iPhone showed we should take the center route, which dumped us off on McCrory Lane. Still no markers.

Loads of people told us we needed to stop at the famous Loveless Café when we finished the Trace. It was just past McCrory Lane, so we biked there and asked some café employees if we’d missed a terminus sign, but they didn’t know of one. So that was too bad. We ended up having some ladies take a photo of us by the Loveless Café sign as our “northern terminus” picture.

Overall, though, we loved our adventure on the Trace, and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys cycling, beautiful scenery, history and meeting loads of friendly folks.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Day 7: Collinwood to Hohenwald

We’d been hearing for almost a week about a big storm coming Thursday. Normally, weather forecasts are wrong, but this one was right. We woke up to light rain, which was predicted to intensify during the day. First, we biked over to Dragonfly, this cute little coffee and gift shop. It was Halloween, so I had a pumpkin pie latte. Remember -- this is a town of about 1,000. Amazing to have such a great coffee and gift shop. We picked up some small gifts for our family and sack lunches from Miss Hazelbea’s (reputed to be an awesome cook/baker), and took off in the rain.

No, it wasn’t fun biking in the rain. It was cold and we were quickly soaked. But I was so thankful this wasn’t our 90-mile day. All we had to do was bike 36 miles. We put our heads down and pounded out the miles. The first time I spied a bathroom, we pulled over. I went inside and – oh, heaven! – it was heated. Ed joined me in the women’s bathroom, and we stood there eating our snack.
We didn’t stop at most sites, needless to say. But we made sure to stop at the gravesite of Meriwether Lewis, who died on the Trace “under mysterious circumstances” when he was just 35. What those mysterious circumstances were, the signage didn’t say. Hmmm … 

It’s too bad it was raining so much. Even in the rain and gloom, we could tell the colors here were spectacular. The most spectacular of our entire ride, in fact. The last few miles before Hohenwald, we had some screaming downhills. Unfortunately, that caused cold winds to blow over me. By the time we walked into our lodging, Fall Hollow, I had a touch of hypothermia. I was shaking so hard I couldn’t talk or even think when Kathy, one of the owners, asked if I wanted coffee or to go to my room or hot food. She hurried into our room and cranked up the heat, then gave me coffee. I felt better shortly, and then really good once I took a hot shower and put on warm clothes.

We’d arrived around 1 p.m., and spent a lazy afternoon hanging out in the room. And eating Miss Hazelbea's food, which was every bit as good as we'd been told. That night we had some of Bill’s famous fried catfish with hush puppies. Delicious! Really loving our adventure.

Day 6: Tupelo to Collinwood

Today Ed and I set another record: we biked 90 miles, farther than either of us has ever biked before. It wasn’t as difficult as we’d thought. Maybe we’re becoming conditioned. But back to the start.
We had taxis pick up the two of us and our bikes and drive us to the Trace, since the only routes there were all along really busy roads. It was a wise idea. No stress, safe, saved a few miles’ biking.

The day began a bit cloudy, but the sun came out and the temp soared to the low 80s. As we’d been warned, the “real” hills began north of Tupelo. It seemed like we biked uphill about 90% of the time, although we once enjoyed a two-mile downhill. As we’d also been told, the colors were great. More than great. It was just a joy to bike through gorgeous foliage all day.

As far as historic sites, there was an interesting section of the Old Trace where there were grave stones for Confederate soldiers. I don't have the info at my fingertips, but the soldiers had either died on/near the Trace, or asked to be buried there or something like that. This isn't historic, but I also really enjoyed a hike at Rock Spring, a pretty trail that included a walk across a creek via stepping stones, a beaver dam and a pond.

Meant to say yesterday that there were 3-4 dead possums in the road. Today we saw a dead skunk, coyote (we think) and a few armadillos. We also saw a dog at one stop (from a little distance) that we thought was dead. But after we stood there a few minutes, he opened his eyes and raised his head. But he didn’t move any other body part. He didn’t bark or whine. He wasn’t bloodied, but appeared sick or injured. I texted a Trace contact, and she was going to alert the proper person to check on the dog. I hope he was O.K.

Tonight’s stop is Collinwood, a cute small town with a great, newer welcome center. There are lots of signs in the small downtown welcoming cyclists, which was so nice to see. We’re staying at the beautiful Miss Monetta’s Cottage, where we have access to a washer and dryer, among many other amenities, and the kind care of owners Dianne and Larry Butler. I highly recommend this place. Can’t forget to note that the restaurant across from the old depot/library makes phenomenal homemade onion rings.

Oh, and how can I forget to note that during today's 90-miler, we passed through three states?! How fun is that?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Day 5: Eupora to Tupelo

We decided to skip the Hwy. 82 ride this morning, and instead took a lesser-traveled road that required repeating 2.5 miles of the Trace. No big deal, though. The day started out cloudy, but the sun came out around noon and overall it was a very pleasant, warm day.

Shortly after we got on the Trace, we passed through a roughly 8-mile stretch that had been hammered by a tornado in 2011. (The tornado blew through the entire state.) While nature is restoring the area, the havoc the tornado wreaked is still evident (see photos below).

On a happier note, we hit mile 222, the halfway point. Yes!

Slowly, the fall colors are becoming more and more evident. We were told the colors were great north of Tupelo, so we're excited to start seeing that. When we left home, the colors were a week at most from peak color. By the time we return home, we'll have missed peak color, so I hope we can catch some great color down here.

Mile 266 was the Tupelo Visitors' Center, which is the main visitors' center for the Trace. The center has fantastic displays on the Trace, a movie and gifts, plus knowledgeable staff. The only disappointing note for the day was that there was no good way to get to our hotel, La Quinta, about 3-4 miles away. We were faced with busy roads without shoulders. The visitor center staff, park ranger and locals all gave us different advice about the best way to get there. Between walking our bikes, cutting through parking lots and braving four-lane roads without shoulders, we made it! But we booked two taxis for tomorrow morning that can take us and our bikes safely back to the Trace.

Staying tonight at La Quinta, a wonderful place. Right across the street is South, a higher-end restaurant with great food and I think the best wait staff I've encountered in my life. From the server to the bartender to the owner to the maitre d', everyone was beyond attentive. And the food was great!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Day 4: Kosciusko to Eupora

When a woman back in Clinton heard we were doing the Trace south to north, she kept exclaiming, "You're going uphill all the way! You're going uphill all the way!" I didn't think too much about it. None of the materials talk about a huge elevation change. Well, this morning we were eating breakfast with a local woman who said, "Now the hills will be starting! Well, really once you're past Tupelo." Hmm ...

So far the Trace has been hilly all along, but all of the hills have been really long (a half-mile to a mile) with a very gradual incline. It's interesting because you don't really notice the hills visually when you're pedaling up. You just start feeling tired, and like you have dead legs. Then, as you near the top and really have to slow down, you realize, DUH, I just pedaled up a hill. Going downhill, though, it's easy to tell because with gravity you really pick up speed. Today we had more of these same hills, but also a handful that you could visually see, and that were reasonably tough.

Highlights today started with French Camp. That's the name of a city. It got that name because some French guy started an inn, I believe, for people on the Trace years ago. People began calling the area around the inn the French Camp, and the name stuck for the city. Today there's a Christian boarding school in French Camp. They support themselves partly by running a cafe and B&B along the trace. They also have a small museum on the grounds, along with lots of artifacts from the French Camp era. Interesting place.

The next highlight was Jeff Busby, a park that has a trail winding up to Mississippi's second-highest point, where there's a scenic overlook. Ed and I had lunch here, then hiked up the path and enjoyed the view. It was another cloudy day, so we couldn't see all that much. Still, it was pretty.

Next was another short section of the Old Trace. I always love walking on those. Got some good photos, I think. An elderly couple stopped there to read the historical marker, and were so impressed that we were biking the whole Trace. It's funny how many people think this is such an epic project. Yes, 444 miles is a lot to bike, but we're taking 7.5 days to do it. I'm sure "real" cyclists with cleats and good bikes and all that could easily do the Trace in 4-5 days. Oh well, I'll take the compliment! (Although another person lauding our effort added that we weren't "that young.")

I couldn't find lodging right on the Trace, so we'd secured a cottage B&B in Eupora, a town 7 miles away. Ed was getting a bit saddle sore, and nervous about tomorrow's 67-mile day. So instead of taking the longer, but safer, route, he said we should bike on Hwy. 82, the direct route. Well, that turned out to be a 4-lane highway with a gravel shoulder that was too bumpy to bike on. Luckily it didn't have a ton of traffic, so we biked in the right-hand lane as far over as we could, and all of the motorists who passed simply drove in the left-hand lane. Still, it was unnerving to be biking on a highway, so we pedaled as quickly as we could. I think we were averaging something like 18 mph, just trying to get off of it as quickly as possible. Ed says we should take the longer, safer route back tomorrow, even though it will mean re-biking 2.5 miles of the Trace.

Dogwood Cottage, where we're staying, is a beautifully decorated inn. The friendly owner, Carol, even offered us the use of her washing machine, which was much appreciated, as our cycling duds are in need of a good washing. But Eupora is in a dry county, so no celebratory beer or glass of wine tonight. For us Wisconsinites, a dry county is hard to imagine! ;)

Day 3: Clinton to Kosciusko

We'd heard from other cyclists that biking around Jackson on the Trace was "white-knuckle biking" because so many locals use the Trace to get to and from work quickly. There's one section where a recreational path roughly parallels the Trace, and materials tell you to use that when the traffic is bad. Luckily we were heading out of town at 7:30 on a Sunday morning, so the traffic wasn't that bad. We could have used the recreational trail, but stayed on the Trace for authenticity's sake.

I'd planned a day of about 75 miles of biking, which would be the farthest Ed or I had ever biked in one day. (Just the way the available lodging options fell.) Fortunately, there weren't as many stops along the way as there could have been. The first highlight of the day was hitting mile marker 100 (triple digits!) and then 111 (one-quarter of the way completed!).

Actually, in between those two was the beautiful Ross R. Barnett Reservoir, which is 50 square miles, I believe. There was a pretty overlook, although it was cloudy at this point in the day so the view wasn't as beautiful as I'm sure it could have been.

Next we came upon one of my favorite stops to date, Cypress Swamp. As its name implies, it's a cypress swamp. It was just gorgeous (see photo below). A little trail wound around a small portion of the swamp, so we had fun exploring that.

We started getting sprinkles on and off. The road was pretty flat after the reservoir, and we didn't have many stops, so we figured we should try and knock off the miles in case the rain was going to increase. I think I actually figured out how to draft off another cyclist. I tucked behind Ed, and we just got into this groove and really pounded out the miles.

At one wayside, a mini bus pulled up and it was some folks from SATW, who had come from the travel writers' conference like we had. They were on a post-conference tour called "Cities Along the Trace," and they were exploring a handful of cities from Natchez to Tupelo. Fun!

Ed and I reached Kosciusko, our destination, relatively early (3:30). Kosciusko has a great Visitor Center right off the Trace, and we learned all about the great Polish General Tadeuz Kosciuszko (the city modified the spelling) after which the city is named. Kosciuszko was a military genius who helped the colonists beat the British in the Revolutionary War. He also founded West Point or something like that.

That night we stayed at the Maple Terrace Inn, a nice B&B in the heart of downtown, and celebrated our mileage.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Day 2: Port Gibson to Clinton

Another sunny, beautiful day. The first few hours were pretty cold; when we first started, it was 40. The Trace was also very shady, which didn't help. But we warmed up quickly.

Almost immediately, we came upon a famous part of the route: the Sunken Trace. While much of the old Natchez Trace trail has disappeared due to time and development, a few parts remain which you can walk along for a short bit. The Sunken Trace is famed because it's 30 feet deep, the old "highway" worn down by so much traffic and I suppose erosion and other natural factors. It was impressive to see.

Later we came upon Rocky Arbor. This is the site of a former thriving town that dwindled to nothing due to a number of reasons. There was a 1-mile section of the Trace you could walk here (we did), plus some city ruins to see.

We met and saw a number of interesting people today. At the Sunken Trace, we came across a group of about 5 septuagenarian couples, all driving Corvettes. They were friends, and one wanted to drive along the Trace. We were leaving when they were arriving, but they quickly zipped past us. With their gray hair and tiny cars, it reminded me of the Zor Shriners in a parade.

Two couples rode by on enormous, tall bikes. The woman had a huge American flag flying behind hers, and she called out, "Friends! Hello! Hello!" A few hours later, we ran into a 71-year-old man who said the couple had helped him with his bike chain the previous day. This man was just one more day away from a thru-bike of the Trace. He'd only started biking three months ago and decided to thru-bike this route. He said the first day he rode 82 miles, and the next day 72. Ed and I have been a bit nervous about one upcoming 95-mile day, but if a 71-year-old (who was not in shape) can pop off 82 and then 72 miles, we can muddle through 95.

Tonight we're staying in Clinton, a charming city on the edge of the capital city of Jackson.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 1: Natchez to Port Gibson

Ed and I drove from my conference in Biloxi to Natchez this morning. The trip took about 3.5 hours. We stopped at the Natchez Visitors' Center. Natchez, by the way, is known for its wealth of antebellum homes turned into B&Bs. Kinda wished we'd stayed the night here so I could try one! The Visitors' Center had a mural proclaiming this the Southern Terminus for the Natchez Trace. But interestingly, you access the start via a highway ramp, and then there's just a sign proclaiming this is the Natchez Trace. No special sign or rock or anything saying it's the Southern Terminus.

We unloaded our bikes and were getting ready to start when we saw a couple biking towards us. They were from northern Alabama and had been section-biking the Trace for several years. Because there are no shuttle services on the Trace for bags, they'd drive about 20 miles down the Trace, then bike back about 20 miles, then back to their car again. The next time they came, they'd pick up where they left off. Today, they were finishing the Trace. Because of their system, their finish actually  meant they'd biked 888 miles and simultaneously completed a southern- and northern-bound bike. WOW.

The man was so excited to see us, because we could take their photo. They'd been trying to figure out how to prop up their camera and use the timer to take their own photo. They said the picture we took was so important to them, and would be framed, because this was such a long, Bucket Trip item for them. This encounter made our start all the more special.

Today was a beautiful, sunny day in the low 70s. Ed and I biked from about 1-6 p.m., stopping at the historical markers and seeing some cool stuff. Like Emerald Mound, one of the largest Native American mounds. And Mount Locust, a historic plantation. Traffic on the Trace is limited to 50 mph, and while there was a reasonably steam stream of cars, it was great biking. I saw more cyclists and motorists stopping to read all of the plaque than I would have expected.

Tonight we're staying at an awesome B&B in Port Gibson: Isabella B&B. The rooms are spacious and shabby-chic, and they have a restaurant, so we had a fantastic dinner. Several other couples were here tonight, including one from England and another that had been deer hunting today.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Countdown to the Natchez Trace!

Trails sure do get in your blood. I finished the 1,000-kilometer Vía de la Plata Camino a few years ago — it's an ancient pilgrimage trail in Spain — and am halfway through running/hiking it a second time (I hope to do the second half in spring 2014). And of course I just did our spectacular Ice Age National Scenic Trail. So now that I'm heading to a travel writers' conference in Biloxi on Sunday, I figured I had to stay an extra week to bike the famous Natchez Trace.

I'd rather hike a trail than bike one, but the Trace is different from the other 10 National Scenic Trails in that it's a parkway that roughly follows the route of the original Natchez Trace. So you can either drive the route or bike it, but there's no hiking. Well, there are some spots along the way where you can get out of your car or off of your bike and hike a mile or so on the original Trace, but there's no continuous, off-road route. Still, it looks beautiful, and it's historic, and I'll be right there, so of course I have to do it.

For those of you who have never heard of the Trace, or have heard of it but don't know what it is, it's a path that was first carved into the earth hundreds of years ago by Native Americans and buffalo traveling between what is now Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee. These primitive trails were enlarged a bit to form the southwest's first national "highway" after the U.S. government negotiated treaties with the local Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians in 1801.

Yes, there was a lot of commerce among the pioneers back then. And yes, there were plenty of pioneers in this part of the country. But the Trace was hardly a state-of-the-art road. It was a dirt path where oppressive heat, mosquitoes, swollen rivers and mucky swamps made journeys even harder. It was difficult to find a place to sleep and eat, and if you broke a limb or came down with an infection (of which I know a thing or two), well, you just might die. Still, it was all people had, and they made great use of it. Such great use, that the innumerable footsteps of past pioneers left enormous trenches in the land that time has still not erased. 

So I'm putting the final touches on my itinerary and am seeing what snacks I have left from the IAT that I can throw into my suitcase. (Thank goodness I have a few Seroogy's candy bars left — those are definitely going with me.) Will I be recovered enough to bike 444 miles after just running/hiking 1,100? Well, there's only one way to find out!