Monday, August 31, 2009

Delving into the depths of the South

OK, you're right. It's been too long since I posted an update and I've got a lot of catching up to do. I'm writing this in Murfreesboro, at brother Chris' house, where I returned Friday night, Aug. 28, after a 1,500-mile jaunt down the Natchez Trace from Tennessee, to Natchez, Miss., Vidalia, La., Vicksburg, Miss., and back to Murfreesboro.

This spectacular bridge is at the north end of the Natchez Trace near Nashville

I can't take credit for the picture above. Somebody else took it and I'm borrowing it and the rest of the photos in this post from the Web. Somewhere between the Alabama-Mississippi border and the Meriweather Lewis State Park, between Napier and Gordonsburg, Tenn., my wonderful Lumix camera dismounted, never to be found. I fared better than Lewis, who was shot in the head and died at that spot -- I only discovered my camera was lost. It's obviously a place of misfortune.

But the trip down the Trace was mostly delightful. We headed west on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 26, and picked up the Parkway south of Nashville near Franklin, Tenn. The weather was warm and sunny and the smooth, two-lane road was mostly empty. In fact, we stopped for a rest after an hour or so at one of the historical markers. Chris napped and I counted cars. During 12 minutes, four cars and one motorcycle passed by.

Riding the Trace is like eating vanilla ice cream

This is not a complaint, but after the Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Tail of the Dragon, the Natchez Trace Parkway seemed a little boring: no hairpin turns, mile-high ridges, bears, flying squirrel launch pads or Trees of Shame. Driving the Trace is like eating vanilla ice cream -- sweet but a little bland. Make that a LOT of vanilla ice cream -- 444 miles of it to be exact.

The Trace began as a trail used by animals and humans connecting the Mississippi River at Natchez with the Cumberland River in Nashville. Before steamboats and railroads, folks would ride flatboats down the Cumberland or the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the Mississippi and then walk or ride back up the Trace.

We stopped for the night at a campground south of Tupelo, Miss., set up camp, went to the nearest small town and bought beer, Spam, eggs and Cheetos -- your basic four food groups. Next morning, we headed toward Jackson, stopping a few miles north of that capital city at a picnic ground where we met two local motorcyclists -- good ol' boys out for a spin.

We asked their advice on where to go and what to see. They strongly recommended Natchez but said to forget stopping in Jackson, "unless you want to look at a lot of black people." They smiled when they said it, but it was a shock to hear that kind of thing. It's not surprising that antique racial attitudes persist but that people are comfortable saying such things to complete strangers -- particularly a stranger with a Maine license plate.

It wasn't the first such comment I'd heard on the trip. At a motorcycle shop near Deal's Gap, I overheard a biker crack that "the new White House physician ought to be Dr. Kervorkian."

Anyway, they recommended we stop at the Magnolia Restaurant in Natchez' riverfront Underhill neighborhood and not miss the Vicksburg Battlefield Park on the way back.

"The Confederates had their cannons up on the high ground," the cracker told us. "There were just too many Yankees, though. If we'd had more guns we would've whipped your ass." This from a man with a Stars and Stripes flag flying from the rear fender of his Harley.

It's interesting, coming from Hawaii where there's a strong separatist sentiment, how much the South has embraced being American. Visible signs of support for the troops, the war and the Bible are all around.

We took their advice and headed down to Natchez, stopping at the Magnolia for lunch. From there we had a nice view of the Mighty Mississippi, the bridge to Louisiana and a steamboat tied up at the wharf.

We crossed the Mississippi at Natchez on this bridge

Sipping a watery Diet Coke, I had some misgivings about the Magnolia, but in the end it lived up to its billing. We had the gumbo, which was incredible -- fresh okra, chicken, shrimp, rice and a zesty broth -- followed by a shrimp po' boy for Chris and a blue cheeseburger for me.

One look at that bridge and Chris said we had to go to Louisiana, having come so far. It was really hot, though. So, we detoured to a Honda motorcycle dealer's where Chris considered buying a shorty helmet to replace the full-face model he was wearing to keep the sun off his sun-blistered face. "That thing is like wearing a bucket on your head," he said. I wore the same make and model and thought it was fine -- certainly quieter and drier than an open-face.

We enjoyed the air conditioning at the dealership for an hour or so; Chris bought a Cramp Buster lever for his throttle on my recommendation; we admired the new Goldwings; and finally we set off across the river to Vidalia, La., famous for its sweet onions. We didn't see much else that was sweet about Vidalia and were happy to be out of there on the road to Tallulah, La., and Vicksburg.

You might lump Mississippi and Louisiana together until you've been there. The geography is entirely different, although they are equally hot in August. Mississippi is all rolling hills with bluffs along the big river and lots of trees. Louisiana is flat, flat, flat. Cotton fields so big you can't see where they end. Hot, dry, dusty. I am not partial to the chiggers that got inside my clothes in Mississippi, however.

Louisiana cotton fields stretch out to the horizon

The road to Tallulah was flat and straight. We watched crop dusters strafing the cotton with chemicals, dodged a hound dog who froze crossing the highway and watched the GPS tote dusty mile after dusty mile.

The bridges at Vicksburg -- old one at right

I-20 crosses the Mississipi to Vicksburg on a new bridge, which parallel's an old one that used to carry both cars and trains, but now only handles the railroad. We found our way down to the downtown riverfront past glorious old houses, some with columned facades, some with fancy wrought iron porches. On the river we found a new looking towboat set up on dry land as a museum and the historic Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad Station.

The lovely Yazoo & Mississippi Valley RR station is in need of restoration

We sat in the shade on the steps of the station and cooled off before riding to the battlefield, a Civil War scene that's clearly different from those at Gettysburg and Antietam.

Vickburg was an artillery battle where 33,000 Confederates were beseiged by Union batteries, 77,000 men from the Midwest led by General Ullyses S. Grant looking to seize the key city linking river commerce with rail. Memorials to units from Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio dot the hills facing the Confederate lines, just a few hundred yards away.

The Union line at Vicksburg National Military Park

The seige lasted 40 days. 10,142 Union and 9,091 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded. In the end, 29,495 rebels surrendered on July 4, 1863, the day after Lee was defeated at Gettysburg. It was the turning point of the Civil War; as a result of the siege and surrender, Vicksburg would not celebrate Independence Day for the next eighty years.

We finished our battlefield visit at about 7 p.m. I figured we could still do another two hours on the road and then camp. Chris said that sounded like about 120 miles -- where could we stay? I looked at my GPS. The campground we left that morning was almost exactly 120 miles away, so we headed back there.

We started out on the Interstate, but switched to two-lane roads. As daylight waned, we reached the Trace and headed northeast toward Murfreesboro. Near Jackson, we reached the banks of the Ross Barnett Reservoir and ran into a huge, thick cloud of recently hatched flying insects that plastered the bikes, windshields and our visors and clothes. They flew up inside the helmet and got in my eyes and nose. We kept going until the cloud thinned out and then stopped and washed the bodies off with water from a canteen and as bandana. Yuck.

We stopped before reaching the campground and bought some beer and more Spam for breakfast -- we still had left-over eggs and Cheetos. As they say, the West was not won by salad eaters.

Come morning, we started out up the Trace again, figuring to reach Murfreesboro by afternoon. Chris said he'd decided the Trace wasn't so bad after all -- as long as you drove it fast. The speed limit is 50 mph, but we were bopping along at about 60. "It's basically a motorcycle road that they let cars drive on," he said.

We made good time up to the Alabama border, where I took a picture of the state line sign with Chris pushing his Harley across it. Then, it was over the Tennessee River -- a huge body of water as impressive as the Mississippi. We stopped for lunch in Collinwood, Tenn.

On the way south we'd stopped in Collinwood, too, to get a map at the visitor center, which turned out to also be the de facto senior center. That's where we met J.D. Buford Hollis, a 90-year-old character.

Mr. Hollis showed us a photo of himslf painting the roof of the old courthouse back in the 30s -- "It's burned down now," he said. Then he pulled out a certificate commending him for his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He and four other older folks followed us from the welcome center to the gas station/deli where we all had lunch.

Knowing that Collinwood was close to the Trace and offered gasoline and food, on the way north we stopped again to fill up on both. The Meriweather Lewis State Park was another 30 miles up the road. That's where I discovered my camera had gone missing.

When I reached for my camera to take this same picture I discovered it had gotten off the bike

I knew I had it at the Alabama state line, which was 70 miles back down the road. I'd pulled off on the grass near the sign to take that picture of Chris and figured I might have dropped the camera there on the side of the road. The other possibility was that it fell out of the tank bag when I took it to the side of the tank to fill up in Collinwood.

I decided it was worth a few hours and a couple of gallons of gas to go back and try to find it. I said good-bye to Chris, who needed to get back to Murfreesboro on schedule, and headed south.

"I clocked you at 73 miles per hour," the Tennessee state trooper said a few minutes later. I was upset about losing the camera and in a hurry to get back to Collinwood before somebody walked off with it.

I told the trooper my miserable story and he actually listened sympathetically. "OK," he said, "I'm not going to write you a ticket. I'm sorry you lost your camera, but you've got to slow down. There are mowers out here on the road and there's grass and sticks and debris all over the road. Get a stick between your spokes and you could have an accident. I'll just run your license and you can go."


So, 140 miles and three hours later I was back at the Meriweather Lewis State Park. A thunderstorm and the threat of encountering a less kindly trooper slowed me down. Heading northeast, I couldn't shake the storm, which was headed in the same direction.

It was about 9:30 p.m. when I got to Chris' house in Murfreesboro. I was damp, tired and a little creaky -- especially around the shoulders. I now know what a 500-mile day feels like. I'm not interested in doing another one, but it's nice knowing it's doable -- even on a KLR.


  1. John, I am so glad you are okay and I am so sorry about the camera. This was an interesting post. Your discovery that some southerners are not politically correct is not new to me. At least the ones you met didn't have a pickup with a confederate flag and a rifle in the back window. I saw such a truck just yesterday and they had the insensitivity of having a bumper sticker that said "Some people think a Confederate flag stands for hate and bigatry, they are wrong." I say "get over it, already!"

    I am glad you were able to find some replacement photos. That bridge near Murfreesboro was spectacular.

    Go slow now. Have fun!


  2. John-O

    Great post. I missed your writing, but took pleasure in knowing you were chewing up the road. Bad juju with the camera, but your blog didn't suffer from mining the internet for pics. Excellent image selection. You could do a lot worse and a lot wierder searching Google.

    The mileage seems to be coming easier. Compass points too. Tumblin' Tumbleweed blowing with the wind. Just how far will you go out of your way to chase down rumors of a great stack of hotcakes, retrieve a tool, ride a fabled stretch of highway, check out an old civil war battlefield? Trick question -its all on your way. Fueled by beer, spam and eggs - and of course the Cheetos for speed.

    Strange business encountering bonafide bigots. Some of the nicest people too. Hard to reconcile. Just a few notches further out on the continuum I suppose. I told you you looked like a Reb - your gray jacket and Beauregard 'stache must've loosened their guard. Do they sell Dixie horns for KLRs?

    I'm looking forward to your next stretch of pavement. Say howdy to the police (73 mph? - you can do better than that.)


  3. Oh! It is so nice to read another post! The South is truly a part of the US of A, but...

    I agree with your other commenter that your mining of the web was effective. The photo of those river boats tho... hmmm... really gets the imagination going, doesn't it?

    Have you left Chris's yet? You heading up to St. Louis? I can get you a comfy bed there. Let me know. Love j