27 March '16
The Natchez Trace
A Write-up by contributing writer Ellis Millsaps
*Ed. note: this is a multi-part series that Ellis wrote about back in 2010 when he bicycled the Trace. A very good write-up, this is a trip I'd like to take sometime.
Last week I went on a three day bike ride on the Natchez Trace. The Trace goes from Nashville Tennessee to Natchez Mississippi. It’s a wide two-lane road with a 50 mph speed limit. The entire road is a national park. Originally it was an Indian trail, but in the early 1800’s people on the Ohio River began floating goods on barges down the Ohio and Mississippi to Natchez, selling their goods there and walking back on the Trace.
No commercial vehicles are allowed. There are no stores or houses on the Trace. The only towns it goes through are Tupelo and Jackson. It’s perfect for bicycling.
In the 1970’s I took two trips on the Trace. The first was three friends and I bicycling from Tupelo to Jackson, about 100 miles, and back. One of us, Rodney Temples, a crazy Vietnam vet, borrowed a bicycle to ride with us even though he had no experience, unlike the rest of us who cycled all over Atlanta. Setting out from Tupelo—after of course visiting the King’s birthplace—Rodney took off and yelled over his shoulder that he’d see us in Jackson.
We caught him in about five miles and for the next ninety-five we’d have to stop and wait on him periodically and we filled that time singing to him, “Yeah, yeah, go to Jackson/ Go ahead you big-talkin’ man/ Go on go to Jackson…”The June Carter part of the song.
The second trip was three years later. Dan Denoon and I rode from Jackson to Natchez and back, again a 200 mile round trip. We pulled into Natchez in July heat so hot you could see it rising off the pavement. On an otherwise deserted narrow street in an old part of town, while I was leaning against a wall to rest in the shade, an old black man appeared and told me he didn’t believe in that civil rights, that white folks were superior and the young coloreds were messing with the divine order.
I also encountered my first armadillos in south Mississippi. They were still decades away from North Georgia. On both of these trips we rode the whole way the first day and stayed in a motel, then took two days to ride back, camping in sleeping bags without a tent along the way. Armadillos are so stupid they will crawl over a person in a sleeping bag scavenging for garbage. They do not fear tennis shoes flung at them. They got body armor.
On last weeks’ trip my plan was to ride about 120 miles, from Muscle Shoals to Nashville, over three days, with my assistant Michael driving me to the starting point and Cynthia picking me up at the Nashville end. I figured three days to do the 120 miles because it’s hillier in Tennessee and I’m 30-odd years older than on the earlier trips. Also, I don’t sleep on the ground anymore. I booked two places to sleep in a bed near the Trace.
This is a long tale so I’ll be giving it to you in installments. The next will be “Day One” and then with “Day Two” we’ll get some pictures, because it wasn’t until then that I figured out how to take pictures with my cell phone.
***UPDATED: 3.29.16 - rest of the parts added below***
Day One: Collinwood
Michael and I set out from Covington at 9:30 AM last Wednesday morning thinking we’d be in Muscle Shoals in four or five hours. It ended up taking seven and a half. We were idiotically using a map of the eastern U.S. I had in my car which of course doesn’t give you a very blown-up view of Alabama and doesn’t include a lot of smaller roads.
We were fine until we got off I-20 near Birmingham to head northwest. We kept missing our turns and having to fall back on various plan B’s. We never stopped to buy an Alabama map. I’ve already alluded to why that was.
We only stopped once, to eat at so-and-so’s Barbeque in, I think, Gadsden, Alabama, where they had a large menu but DID NOT HAVE BRUNSWICK STEW, and even though it took so long I don’t think we could have shaved more than half a hour off the trip if we’d been riding with someone who knew how to get there or had sense to get a better map. It just took a lot longer than we expected.
I’d intended to start riding at about one or two o’clock Alabama time and to get on the Trace just before it crossed the Tennessee River because the bridge looked so cool in the pictures. That would’ve been about a 30 mile ride before my first night’s stay in Collinwood, TN. But since I wasn’t going to be getting out of the car until after four, I decided to get on the road about 10 miles farther north.
Near the end of our drive, not being sure how to get to our next road, we did the girly thing and stopped for directions in Florence. It turned out that the real estate office I went in had a woman at the desk who said she didn’t know how to get to highway 20, so she called her boss out to tell me.
It was about fifty yards away on the street that ran beside her office.
A few minutes later I started pedaling north. The entire twenty miles to Collinwood was uphill but it was a very slight incline and really easy pedaling. In this very southern part of central Tennessee I crossed five or six small streams per mile. There were also many swarms of small black bugs, bigger than gnats but much smaller than houseflies, so that I had to keep my mouth shut and be continuously brushing them out of the hair on my arms.
The city limits of Collinwood were only a few hundred yards from the Trace. Collinwood is about the size of Social Circle, Georgia in 1960, less than a thousand people I guess and like Social Circle in 1960 it had one of everything one might need in easy walking distance: a Piggly Wiggly, a drug store, a florist, a hardware store, a bank, one church each of your common denominations, and a restaurant, but I was soon informed that better food was cooked to order at the Exxon station, advice I took and was glad I did.
It was getting dark when I pulled into Collinwood and called Mr. and Mrs. Butler, proprietors of Miss Monetta’s Country Cottage where I was to stay. They had already decided to come downtown and watch for me. I followed them the three blocks to the cottage.
The cottage, which I’d reserved for $75, was a two bedroom house with a living room, dining room, large kitchen, breakfast nook, a front and back porch with rocking chairs and swings and a large screen cable T.V. for the first game of the World Series.
When I left the next morning around 10:00 (I was waiting for it to warm up some) I wrote a whole page in their guest book. Among other things I wrote: “It’s just like being at home, only better—cleaner, no Sarah Palin calling me every 15 minutes.”
I highly recommend Collinwood and Miss Monetta’s.
Day Two: I left about ten o’clock on Day Two, waiting for it to warm up some and figuring that would get me there in time for supper in Falls Hollow where I’d spend the night. I took two miniature Snicker bars from Miss Monneta’s jar for some lunch time energy.
The ride on Day Two started out with some mild climbs and descents and I thought “Oh, this is much more interesting than the monotonous gradual ascent.” I would later come to yearn for that old monotony.
A couple of observations about the Trace are worth mentioning here. Throughout my entire ride I saw six empty cigarette packages, five beer empties, two plastic soda bottles and a Reynolds aluminum foil box. That’s it, period. At no time did I see prisoners picking up garbage.
Throughout the ride I saw only three instances of road kill: two small snakes and a frog, all near the side of the road. On the other hand, until the middle of day two, the only animals other than birds I saw were squirrels and one dog. I know there were at least deer there because I saw their droppings in the road and many tracks on the old unpaved Trace—more on that road later.
Finally on the afternoon of Day Two I came silently upon a large doe, about forty feet off the road in the woods. She didn’t run—no hunting is allowed there—I just looked at her and she looked at me and that’s the way we wanted it to be. I called her Lola.
I thought a lot about this absence of road kill. Much time for thinking is available on a three day ride through the backwoods. I attribute this lack of carnage to the low speed limit, the fact that the road is for sightseeing, which can’t be done very well at night, and the fact that most of the traffic is RV’s and campers pulled by retired people who don’t drive at night anyway.
The picture of the goofy guy looking in the camera was taken on the “Old Trace.” The road I was cycling follows the “Old Trace” pretty closely, but better equipment was used to straighten curves, reduce inclines, and build bridges.
My first successful shot is of a section of the Old Trace about two miles long. It’s roughly paved for one-way traffic so that motorists may briefly experience the old road.
This shot is of a “scenic overlook” on the Old Trace. Not very impressive for a mountain boy but about as good as it gets in these parts.
Meanwhile back on the ride, the uphills and downhills turned into a long steady medium uphill grade. I can now report that from Muscle Shoals, Alabama until about fifteen miles from the Trace’s end near Nashville, it is 90% uphill and after Collinwood the ascent is much steeper.
Sometime around mid-afternoon, I started to suffer. The tendons covering my right knee, heretofore having been body parts whose existence I had little reason to consider, proclaimed themselves through steady aching. The little streams of Day One were not to be seen. Now when I saw water it was like this picture here. This one in the Little Buffalo river. I came to hate seeing streams like this, because although there was some coasting down to them, that didn’t compensate for the steep ascent to follow.
Sometimes streams would follow the Trace for miles on end, but they always flowed in the opposite direction from which I pedaled.
This is a picture of what the road always looked like in the direction I traveled. You see where the road disappears from sight and it looks as if it might level off there? Well, it doesn’t.
Historical markers on the Trace are common and a big deal for the aging uphill cyclist, because other than the call of nature, there’s not much reason to get off the bike. You read them all. Some of them twice.
About five miles from Falls Hollow I came to signs pointing up a paved road to the left telling me that 1.1 miles off the Trace is the burial site and memorial of Meriwether Lewis. Mr. Lewis, by all accounts a mentally unstable person, had after his famous exploration been appointed by a grateful President Jefferson as governor of the Louisiana Territory, and during that tenure had somehow managed, under mysterious circumstances, to get himself shot and killed at an inn formerly located here on the Trace.
There are milepost markers every mile along the Trace. At this point they were getting farther and farther apart, and I would not have ridden another 2.2 miles if Meriwether were going to rise from the grave and explain how he got himself shot.
The last mile and a half to Falls Hollow was a steep descent and while I was glad not to be pedaling for the nonce, I cursed what I knew would counterbalance it in the morning.
Day Three & Falls Hollow
The best thing about the Falls Hollow Restaurant and RV Park for the cyclist is that it’s located almost directly under the Trace on a highway the Trace bridges over. The worst thing is that it’s calledFalls Hollow which should have tipped me off that it’s in a hollow which must have seriously steep sides if there are falls there.
After finding the proprietor in his house behind the restaurant, he led me through the restaurant where people where prepping dinner to one of the aforementioned rooms.
The room was a pretty sorry affair. The bed creaked. There was no table for playing solitaire, and although it had Dish T.V., the set was so old that the dish remote would not operate its volume. It was also so small and out of focus that I couldn’t read the score in the baseball game wearing reading glasses and from six inches away. It reminded me of spending the night at a poor relation’s house, e.g., it took a half hour for the bathtub to fill.
I’d arrived at around four o’clock, and after two airline bottles of vodka was the first person in the restaurant for dinner. I had a ribeye and fries, which was O.K., and several cups of pretty good coffee. (I always order steak in a questionable restaurant—say I’m at the Holiday Inn and decide to eat in their restaurant—figuring they can’t screw that up too bad.)
As I say the bed creaked, I couldn’t see the T.V., and the four cups of coffee were a mistake. I alternated playing solitaire on the bed with reading Made In America by Bill Bryson which I highly recommend. It’s about the development of peculiarly American English and it’s full of interesting trivia. Do you know why the South came to be called “Dixie”? I do. You could borrow my copy but I gave it away to a guy I met in a bar who I thought would like it.
The Falls Hollow experience was at the other end of the spectrum from the endorphin euphoria I felt at Miss Monnetta’s. Despite repeated attempts I didn’t get to sleep until three A.M.
Nevertheless I was up at 7:00 eating a good breakfast which the proprietor came over to make for me and was pedaling by 8:00. It had turned cold and there was frost on the ground, but Day Two it had taken me six hours to ride forty miles and I had 53 to cover on Day Three.
The hill leading out of Falls Hollow was steep and continued upward past the falls to my right as far ahead as I could see. These falls were nothing like Niagara or even Amicalola. They were more of a long steep cascade.
My knee hurt continuously for the rest of the trip. It took me thirty-five minutes of lowest gear pedaling to cover the first mile. I winced with every down pedal on the right. Cyclists use their strong side, their “right handed” side in my case, to do more of the work. I developed a mental count of “easy, left, easy, left,” trying to concentrate on doing the hard pushes with my left leg. I must have looked like Gunsmoke’s Chester riding a bicycle.
I gave some brief thought to getting off and pushing, but that would cost me time and I needed to get to Nashville before it got dark and cold, but the bigger concern was that serious cyclist machismo says you don’t get off and push, i.e., I didn’t want another cyclist to see me pushing.
Here’s a good place for an aside about other cyclists. I only encountered four other cyclists on the Trace. I’m pleased to say that none of them overtook me from behind. Three of the four were my age or older. One of them was an old guy on one of those bikes where you sit back in a “chair” and pedal out in front of you. He complained that he was having to ride into the wind. Although there was a brisk cold breeze on Day Two when I encountered him, I had little sympathy for the old fart because the wind was blowing from my left to right—which does make pedaling a little harder—and he was going down the incline I was steadily climbing.
After a mile and a quarter of climbing out of Falls Hollow, I returned to the steady medium ascent of Day Two.
Pictured here is another section of the Old Trace, unpaved, and it’s supposed to look much as it did when Colonel Jackson led his men down it to fight the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.
This picture shows me as I looked bundled up for the cold of Day Three. It was taken by an old couple in an RV who told me that I’d be pretty soon reaching some long downhill. The headgear was fashioned by Yours Truly from a bicycle helmet and an old lady’s gardening hat which I cut the crown off of and attached the brim by cutting holes in it and passing the helmet straps through them.
This was around noon and indeed that downhill was about twenty miles ahead. It came after a historical marker denoting the Tennessee Valley divide. At one time it had been the boundary between Tennessee and Indian lands to the south. What I discovered on my own about it is that it is a high ridge which separates where water flows south to the Tennessee River and where streams flow northward to the Cumberland.
(The Tennessee River comes down out of the Appalachians, goes through Chattanooga, then down into north Alabama to get around the highland I was climbing before it turns north again and joins with the Ohio and on to the Mississippi).
But before I was to reach the aforementioned divide, there came the episode of Fly which is a small settlement about a mile off the Trace where I intended to have some lunch and which was to become a fly in the ointment of this tale.
A few miles from Fly my rear tire went flat. I stopped and pumped it up, hoping that it was a slow leak. In another mile it was flat again.
I stopped at a bridge where I could sit on a concrete ledge while I patched the tube. Did you know that they now put a green oozy slime inside of bicycle tubes now so that you can see where a hole is? It was news to me.
I’d come equipped for this contingency, but it was an aggravation that took about fifteen minutes. Although I could see some green stuff of the other side of the tube from the hole I was patching, I thought it came from the same hole.
My patch job proved ineffective, and my tire soon went flat. Being only about a mile from the road to Fly, and being hungry and cranky, I decided to push the bike to Fly and eat something. After that I could see if I could fix the leak or else call Cynthia to pick me up there. I’m happy to report that no cyclists saw me pushing.
The attempted tube repair and the two miles of pushing put me an hour-and-a-half behind schedule. It was 2:30 when I reached the Fly General Store.
If you ever have the opportunity, by all means go to the Fly General Store. Like Collinwood, it is a vanishing fragment of Americana. It’s a small wooden building with gas pumps and a little bit of a lot of things inside. It’s like the country stores I frequented as a kid. While there I spoke with a pretty British woman who said the store was like one her grandmother had operated.
They also had the best ham and American cheese on white bread sandwich which I’ve ever devoured, and an air pump which saved my arm some exertion.
My cell phone wouldn’t get a signal, but a friendly customer whose would let me use hers, and I was able to leave a message on the cell of Cynthia who was en route to Nashville. The elderly and gracious Mr. Fly let me leave her the store’s land line number. (Fly is named not after the insect, nor because it is phat, but after the Fly family, whose French ancestor fought with LaFayette during the American Revolution and was given a large land grant in which is now Fly. Other than the store and a lumber yard, there are no other businesses in Fly.)
After the sandwich, I took the tube off again and discovered that there were inexplicably (at least to me) four holes going all the way around the tube at the spot where I’d patched the first one. A much larger patch and Mr. Fly’s air did the trick.
While I was patching the tire, Cynthia called and I told her she’d need to ride down the Trace when she got to Nashville and find me there or, worst case scenario, sitting outside the Fly General Store which closed at 5:00.
It was four o’clock when I got back on the Trace and pedaled as fast as my knee would permit. It was indeed getting really cold and dark when she found me seventeen miles from Nashville.
If you’re ever in Nashville and especially if you’re staying at the Vanderbilt Courtyard by Marriott, I recommend the Midtown Café, a wonderful upscale restaurant in what looks like a large old tool shed right across the street, a blessing to me since I could barely walk. Our waitress was a twenty year veteran who knew everything about the wares and was just plain fun. After martinis and a bottle of wine she insisted it was Tequila Time.
There’s an eighty mile segment of the Trace from where I started this trip to Tupelo which I still haven’t ridden. I hope to do that this spring and then drive to Graceland.
Ellis is an attorney by trade but has worn many hats over the years: father, bus boy, stand-up comedian, novelist, wiffle ball player, rock'n'roll band manager, and at one time wrote a popular and funny column for The Covington News. A Fannin Co. mountain boy originally, Mr. Millsaps now stays at the mill village of Porterdale by way of 20 years in Mansfield. Usually funny and at times irreverent and subversive, he leans left in his political philosophy but can always be counted on for a pretty darn good write-up. The Chronicles are proud to have him involved...