On the Natchez Trace

POSTED BY GUEST BLOGGER - Brett Davis is a Bedrock- and Salsa-sponsored rider, head of the Outdoor Pursuits program at Fort Lewis college, a Durango local, and a hell of a nice guy.  Here's an in-depth account of a recent trip with his father.

An Important Life Lesson on the Natchez Trace

In early November, my father and I spent 4 ½ days meandering down one of our nation’s historic national parkways, the Natchez Trace.  This was the completion of a journey beginning the previous November when we set out from the mid point of the Trace, Starkville, MS and rode to its southern terminus in Natchez, MS.(http://salsacycles.com/culture/a_father_and_son_ride_the_natchez_trace ).  

The “Old Natchez Trace” as it is known, follows an historic trail for roughly 444 miles from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS.  During the 1930s as part of President Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the federal government constructed ribbons of pavement designed for recreational driving, and to commemorate historic trails and routes which help to define our country’s early history.  Maintained by the National Park Service, these time machines are traffic free with reduced speed limits and limited access points.  They make for outstanding bike tours.

With commercial traffic prohibited, cyclists often have the Trace all to themselves.

Since being reintroduced to the cycling life in his 50’s, my father, Gunner, has been wearing through bike parts.  He is devoted to his time on the bike and his early morning rides.  I believe my mother would go so far as to say that he is an “addict” with a pedaling problem.  Six days a week come rain or shine, Gunner can be found riding his loop of habit.  Even when on vacation, his road bike is hanging off the car’s rear bike rack, on its way to some beach locale for some coastal cruising.  

The man himself, Gunner.

The Natchez Trace is one of our nation’s longest national parkways. 

Gunner is a daily rider.  He is not someone who lives to tour.  Over the years he has done a handful of big mileage days, but at the end of those rides, he always returns home to sleep in the comfort of his own bed.  For several years, I schemed about the two of us riding as father and son along a multi-day route.  The simple goal would be to enjoy each others company while sharing an experience that wasn’t limited to a few hours.  I wanted to relive the experiences he provided to me as a young boy, such as building pinewood derby cars or escaping to the mountains for a weekend of skiing together.  Just father and son bonding.

Father and son sharing the road together.

The Trace is dotted with many stopping points to take a walk through history .

For one reason or another, such a tour never took place until last year…my father’s 71st year of life.  Why had it taken nearly twenty years for us to do a bicycle tour together?!  The answer is simple…life happened.  Feeling time slip away, we seized the opportunity to travel back to the beginnings of our country, but more importantly, to an age when I was a young boy and him, a new father passing his wisdom to his eager son.  Only in this moment, the roles were slightly reversed, I was the “guide” on this tour.  Orchestrating the experience.  

The Natchez Trace plays a prominent role in our country’s early history.  Beginning as a bison migration path, overtime it transitioned into a thoroughfare of commerce.  Native Americans blazed their way through the deep undergrowth and boggy terrain to establish trade among the region’s various native nations.  With the establishment of the Louisiana Purchase, the path through the “wilds” grew from obscurity to a well-trodden trench, traveling across the rolling ridgelines and hills of modern day Tennessee to the low lying plains of Mississippi.  With bunkhouses or “Stands” as they were called spread throughout the Trace, resourceful businessmen and members of the U.S. military made their way north and south, braving the threat of bandits and the dangers of the unforgiving terrain. 

I landed in Nashville at 11:44 AM and was quickly whisked away to the famed Loveless Café which is located at the northern terminus of the Trace just south of the city.  Eager to start this journey off on the right pedal stroke my parents and I enjoyed some good ‘ole southern barbecue from the café.  The thick and meaty sandwich went down easy as we prepped for the ride ahead.  On our bikes went the gear we would need for the ensuing self-supported 264 miles.  My Coconino seat post bag with Rail Wing Stabilizer was full with our off bike clothing and toiletry kits.  The Entrada handlebar bag stowed some extra footwear and other nonessential daily items.  My Dakota tank bag was crammed full with the snacks needed to get to our first night’s lodging.  The bags looked great on my Salsa Colossal and were perfect for a light and unencumbered adventure.  

Some of the South’s finest from the Loveless Cafe.

The Bedrock Coconino with RailWing packed with all of our off-the-bike essentials. 

The Dakota crammed full with the snacks needed for the ride ahead. 

Pushing off at 2:30 PM we waved good-bye to my mother and started the race against the fading daylight.  We had to cover nearly 30 miles in the next two hours or so.  The northern portion of the Trace is rolling with short climbs around every bend.  No climb is too dramatic as compared to what I am used to from living in the mountains of southern Colorado.  For my dad, however, who doesn’t have lots of opportunities to climb around his current hometown of Tuscaloosa, AL, the hilly nature of the northern Trace is a challenge.  Under beautiful skies, we set out on a consistent pace enjoying the ups and downs and all of the roadside views.

Enjoying the first pedal strokes of the trip. 

The Tennessee sky was on fire as we finished the initial afternoon of riding. 

Unlike the start of the previous year’s ride, which was plagued with rain and cold temperatures, we had 70 degree temps and plenty of sunshine.  It was magnificent.  With the sky dancing in a myriad of colors, we took a right off of the Trace onto a quiet rural lane.  Our B&B was less than two miles away.  Watching my dad pedal into the kaleidoscope of colors, I sunk into the moment.  We were doing it…the moments I had hoped to recreate were unfolding before me.  Father and son memories were being created.  The past flooded back into my consciousness.  I was awash in a feeling of gratitude.

The Creek View Farm Retreat was full of southern hospitality.  At the top of the long gravel driveway we were met by Misty and bowls of homemade chili.  With a massive farmhouse to ourselves, we enjoyed the hot showers and Misty’s remaining birthday cake.  For those who haven’t experienced the deep south, one will find such warmth and friendliness in every encounter.  It felt good to be among kindred spirits.  Feeling my eyelids get heavy, I reflected on the events of the day…from waking up in the wee hours of the morning in Colorado to laughing with my dad as we settled into the evening under a bright half moon in rural Tennessee.  What a great day!

The Creek View Retreat—our home for the night. 

An amazing start to a new day on the Trace.

The next day began as the previous ended with a spectacular show of color in the sky.  Scanning the landscape from the front porch of the B&B, I knew today was going to be another special one.  Eager to get on with the journey, we ate a breakfast of cereal and fruit and said good bye to the peacocks of the Creek View Farm Retreat.  On our way back to the Trace we detoured slightly to the country store of Fly, Tennessee hoping to find snacks for the day.  Alas though, as is often the custom of the rural south, the eclectic store did not open until 10:30 AM.  As much as I wanted to step on the creaky floor boards of this timeless dwelling and explore its many treasures, we had miles to cover and sites to see.

Gunner staring down the barrel of a bit of history. 

The history of the Trace came fast and furious as we made our way south.  Nearly every couple of miles we stopped to read the many informational kiosks designed to return the present day traveler to the days where horse and foot travel reigned supreme.  We visited such places as the Gordon House, where Captain John Gordon built a homestead and a business ferrying travelers across the nearby Duck River.  A stop at a working tobacco farm provided insights into some of the present day commerce in the area.  Perhaps the most memorable stop of the day was at Grinder’s Stand, the death place of the famed Meriwether Lewis who pioneered our country’s westward expansion.  Under mysterious circumstances, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, died on October 11, 1809 from gunshot wounds while traveling to Washington D.C.  To this day there is still uncertainty whether his death was self-inflicted or at the hands of an unknown assailant.  Nevertheless, one of our country’s most prominent figures is memorialized in an obscure plot of land in southern Tennessee. 

Our trusty steeds getting some rest against one of the old brick walls of the Gordon House.

A replica of Grinder’s Stand where the life of Meriwether Lewis ended. 

At mile 65 for the day darkness blanketed our road.  It was time for our bike lights to guide us into the small town of Collinwood where our next B&B was located.  After stopping at Chad’s Family Restaurant for a catfish dinner, we retired to Miss Moneta’s Cottage.  With 70 miles pedaled for the day, we welcomed the hot shower and comfortable soft beds.  The day ended as the previous with a feeling of gratitude to be able to share this experience with the man who has been one of the most influential people in my life.

The original Trace—a frequent site along the modern day route.

A quiet election morning in Chad’s Family Restaurant.

It was election day.  Today the political process would hopefully silence the nonstop accusations, bickering and name calling that have become the norm of this election season.  I pondered the possible outcomes of the day as we sat once again in Chad’s Family Restaurant.  Beyond Gunner and myself, a lone elderly man stared at the squawking box on the wall.  As I watched the “experts” breakdown and prognosticate our future, I looked forward to my day on the bike removed from any sort of news.  Let the politicians and talking heads have their heyday.  I would rather pedal pristine pavement with Gunner and visit some of the places that are a part of the fabric of our great country. 

Our good weather was still holding.  In fact, the warm and dry weather had been the norm for the past 50 days.  The south was currently in the throes of an unrelenting drought.  The landscape reflected the lack of moisture as the creeks were dry and the sea of fall color was muted in its attempt to share its usual brilliance.  The land was parched and in need of the rain which was our constant companion on last year’s ride.  Pedaling under the predominantly brown canopy, I welcomed some moisture to fall from the heavens.  Alas though, the skies above were a never ending blue.  

What little fall colors we encountered were a blur from the fast descents in the Tennessee hill country. 

The Chicken Biscuit—yet another southern favorite. 

By mid morning we had left the hill country of Tennessee and were riding across the northwest corner of Alabama.  A fast descent took us across the Tennessee River where we stopped for a southern favorite lunch of “chicken biscuits” at the site of Colbert Ferry.  Described as a “shrewd, talented, and wicked” half-Scot and half-Chickasaw business man, George Colbert operated a ferry across the Tennessee River for nearly 20 years.  Always the opportunist, it is reported the he once charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his Tennessee Army across the river.  Today a massive bridge constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers, allows for an easy crossing of the river without an exorbitant toll.

After 52 miles of riding, we rolled into the lonely Bear Creek Saloon and Guesthouse.  With visions of a lively nightlife and the opportunity to get some good food and a few libations we pedaled with anticipation up the driveway to the saloon.  It was void of any human presence.  As our exuberance fizzled, we scanned the front porch for a way in to one of the locked doors.  After subsequent calls to my mother and the saloon’s proprietor, we found the stashed key and stepped into a well-equipped apartment.  The kitchen was fully outfitted with every pot and pan one would need to cook, however, there was just one problem…we had no food.  Finding a menu on the kitchen island, we decided to order in since the nearest food establishment was a 6 mile ride away.  Upon dialing my phone, a deep southern accent answered:

    Accent:  Maatyville. (Interpreted as “Martyville”)
Me:  Yes.  Ummm.  I would like to make an order for some food to be delivered to the Bear Creek Saloon and Guesthouse.

Thick Accent:  Awww.  You must be the cyclists.  We heard you might be callin’.  What can we git ya?

And thus, our food order of burgers, chicken wings and fries was made.  Forty-five minutes later a teenager made the delivery from the local gas station.  Feasting on our high caloric meal, we watched the announcements of the state by state election returns.  The only things missing were some ice cold libations to put us fast asleep from the talking heads.  

The cotton fields of Mississippi has just been harvested. 

We woke up the next day to a new president and new era in U.S. politics.  Not quite knowing how to take the results, we made the call to Maatyville and got our breakfast and lunch delivered for the day.  Regardless of the results, we had lots of open road to ride.  Now in Mississippi, the terrain began to lessen in vertical relief.  Our pace became a consistent 12 to 15 miles an hour.  Cruising along in silence, each lost in our own thoughts, we headed south.  Under clear skies once again, we ticked off the miles.  The Tenn-Tom Waterway, Browns Bottom, the Pharr Native American Mounds, and Confederate Soldier Gravesites were all visited and passed by.  In the late afternoon we arrived at the outskirts of Tupelo, MS—the birth place of the King himself…Elvis Presley.  Negotiating terrifying traffic, we made our way to a hotel and then to the famed Blue Canoe for dinner and well-deserved beers…our firsts of the trip.  Needless to say, sleep came easy that night.

My dad doing what he does. 

A reminder of our past. 

The best burger of the trip—a specialty of the Blue Canoe.

 Waking early for our final 65 miles of the trip, we enjoyed the hotel continental breakfast and snuck our way unscathed through the morning traffic back to the Trace.  This would be the final leg of the bike adventure.  Once in Starkville, MS, my dad and I would complete a ride of the entire Trace.  In my mind the ride had taken too long to come to fruition.  Not in terms of the actual ride time, but in the years it had taken to make it a reality.  Regardless of less than ideal weather or our own life circumstances, it shouldn’t have taken twenty years to do such a tour.  As I watch my parents age and I follow suit, I find time slipping away to be never regained.  As a young man, movement of time was unnoticeable.  Now, as I move into my life’s middle years, time seems to be accelerating…and I cannot control it.  With this realization, the regrets have started to reveal themselves.  The lessons in life become formidable and impactful.  With these musings, the question arises:  how can I confront the inevitable?  I believe the answer lies in “doing.”  Now is the time to act.  Now is the time to ride bikes with your 72-year-old father no matter what life barrier is self-created or arises through the unforeseen.  A failure to act may mean a lost opportunity to connect with those you hold dear.  Though my father and I rode through a portion of our nation’s history, there is currently no time machine for recapturing missed opportunities and experiences. 

The Natchez Trace at its finest. 

We did it! 

The final miles of the trip passed easily as I inquired about how Gunner’s legs and butt were feeling.  As per his normal response he casually stated, “Everything feels fine so far.”  I smiled and laughed to myself.  A feeling of gratitude once again engulfed my senses.  We did it.  We turned talk and desire into action.  While turning the corner to the Trace access point outside of Starkville, I pondered what the next father and son experience would be.  Perhaps a ride the length of the keys.  Gunner had been wanting to do that for years.  If we act on the desire, there is no need for a time machine.

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