At mile marker one of the Natchez Trace, I put my feet on the pedals with 455 miles to Nashville, Tenn. It felt like an early fall day with plenty of sunshine and a light breeze blowing. After spending the last few days trapped in the belly of the Grey Hound Bus Service, I was again a traveler of my own means. With new life, rested muscles began their familiar rotations, the miles started falling away and I was back on the road.
The Natchez Trace is an old road. Traders from Nashville would walk the Trace after boating down the Mississippi and selling their goods and boats in Natchez. Andrew Jackson had marched down the Trace with his troops to the battle of New Orleans. Meriwether Lewis had hiked the Trace on his way to Washington, DC to publish his journals.
I had settled on biking the Trace after seeing its long green line on my map leading straight up to through the South. Its history, scenery and low traffic promised good biking. Also, the Trace’s end point gave me an excuse to visit family in Nashville.
During the Trace’s opening miles, I passed earth mounds, rounded grassy hills used by Native tribes for burial purposes. The trees on the roadside wore gauzy scarves of Spanish moss. At certain points, you could see remnants of the Old Trace, a faded path sunken deep into the ground from years of walking. Every few miles, I would stop at a historical marker to read up on the Trace’s past. For early travelers, the Trace wasn’t always a sunny pleasure cruise. Bandits targeted the road and theft was an accepted occurrence.
I had no reason to believe that my trip would encounter such hardships. With nothing but open, straight road in front of me, I expected to speed through the Trace completing in a week what would have taken original travelers three months. These expectations modified slightly when my bike seat broke off at mile twenty.
I had just finished cresting a fair sized hill, pedaling in a standing position for the added purchase. When I sat back down, I felt my seat buckle and then fly off its post. The screw connecting the seat to the bike had severed. When I’d had my bike reassembled in Natchez, the seat apparently hadn’t been fastened properly. I tried bungee cording the seat in place, but this remedy didn’t fully disguise the fact that my ass rested on a metal pole.
For the next day and a half, I biked on a Stair Master. Simple straightaways felt like monstrous hills, and my leg muscles strained from the enforced climb. In Jackson, MS, I fixed the seat at a hardware store. With that hiccup behind me, I kept biking and spent the night at a vacant campground.
The next day looked like rain. I did a quick forty miles before lunch under a heavy sky. The day’s dark colors made the turning trees look ancient and petrified. I would look ahead at a bend in the rising road with a stormy breeze upturning the trees’ leaves so that the whole roadside turned into a flash of white. Perfect weather for traveling alone on an empty road.
I ate my lunch at a historical site called Witch Dance. I read on the site’s sign that this place was once thought to have been used by the local coven for their weekly orgies with the devil. Legend has it that the ground a witch dances on becomes barren, and the sandy ground around the sight looked like it had been fallow for years. Creepy.
The rain started after lunch. Thankfully, Jeana had given me her rain pants before leaving, which kept me dry during these miles. When I started making my way through the early 200 mile makers, I played a little game to pass the time. For each mile marker I passed, I added a zero to the number turning the mile into a year. With every mile, I tried to remember that year’s New Year’s celebration, where I was and what had happened that year.
At the 200 marker, I remembered going into a bathroom before midnight of the new millennium to say an act of contrition, hedging my bets for a Y2K apocalypse. At mile 212, I imagined the coming New Year, surrounded by family, telling stories about the bike trip.
From there, the years and miles rolled on and I wandered into far off lands of speculation. 2020, 2030, 2040- I wondered where those years would have me, with the bike trip just a memory, a strange, half-believed dream. I had always wanted to do something like this bike trip, a rambling sort of jaunt, and in a way it felt like the culmination and close of those desires. But there were miles to come after and who knew where those would take me.
At mile marker 250, my back tire blew out. I heard a loud pop then all the air hissed out. In the context of my game, this could have read as an early premonition of death, but I did the math and decided I’d had a pretty decent run. I replaced the tube with the same outcome only a few minutes later. My back tire was shredded. I would have to get a new one.
I walked my bike a few miles in the rain to a historical turnoff. I knocked on the door of a parked RV and asked the people inside if I could take shelter for a few minutes to call for a park ranger.
The Canadian couple welcomed me in and gave me some fruit and chocolate. I made the call and a ranger came by to pick me up. Together, we disassembled my bike and packed it into the back of his squad car. Ranger Jeff was a friendly guy with a well-kept mustache and a soft spoken drawl. He drove me ten miles to a bike shop in Tupelo where I got a new tire and some tubes. Then he took me to Gloster Street where I got a room at the Scottish Inn, a reputable establishment by Jeff’s estimation.
I lay in bed that night slightly depressed, listening to the rain. The recent rash of calamities made it feel like the wheels of my trip were literally falling off. With the changing weather, I seriously doubted the possibility of making it home by Christmas on my own two legs. For the moment, I put off thoughts of home and set my sights on Nashville. If I kept up my pace and the weather cooperated, I could make it in two days and then figure out the next step.
The next day was overcast. I didn’t see the sun the entire time, but the rain held off. My feet were cold, otherwise I felt alright. The clouds overhead made everything still and whispering. I passed over bridges, and watched the Tennessee River flow in turbid, swollen currents. I biked alongside a train track and when the tracks veered off from the Trace, I followed them down their line until they bent and disappeared into the woods. All of this seemed like a private world for me to enjoy.
I had gotten a late start that day and had to do the last few miles to a biker’s campground in the dark. The red back light on my bike had gone out, and I was nervous about my visibility to passing cars. Every few seconds, I glanced over my shoulder to look for headlights. When I saw a car coming, I pulled over and biked on the grass. I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter when I made it to the campground just as long as I made it.
At the campground, which was technically closed for the season, I saw a soft light coming for inside a tent. I scanned the area with my flashlight and the light caught on a pair of animal eyes. The crystal gleam came from a stray beagle wandering around. When he came close enough to my bike, I could see he was starving. It was dark and I was far from any living soul. I thought the dog might belong to the tent’s inhabitant, a Trace hobo with God knows what up his sleeve.
The person in the tent had obviously heard me approaching and after a while I shouted Hey. After a long pause, a voice asked who was there with a noticeable quiver. The guy turned out to be a fellow biker. He had started on the Trace yesterday from the Meriwether Lewis campground heading south. This was his first bike tour, his first night in the elements and I had scared him half to death.
After I’d set up camp, we talked for a while behind our closed tent flaps. He had wanted to go on a bike tour for a while and once his Ameri Corps stint in Cleveland had ended decided to do a week’s trial run down the Trace. I felt bad that he’d had such poor weather for his maiden voyage, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only fool on the road.
I woke up to a light rain bouncing off my tent. I decided to sleep a little while longer until the rain stopped. When the rain sounded like it had let up a little, I peeked my head outside the tent. The rain had turned to snow.
My fellow biker and I debated for a while about biking that day. He seemed inclined to have a rest day, but with Nashville so close, I couldn’t justify an idle minute. I packed up my stuff and wrapped my extremities in plastic bags. I only did twenty miles that day, but they stand alone as the most miserable of the trip.
Within minutes, my feet went numb. I turned off all feeling and thought and kept pedaling with the desperate resolve of someone stranded in an Arctic snow storm. By the time I crossed into Tennessee, my body had turned into a slab of frozen meat. My legs kept moving only as a reflex. Stopping seemed as undesirable as continuing. If I stopped, I didn’t think my fingers would work well enough to set up a tent. If I somehow managed this, my sleeping bag, tent and every article of clothing I owned were all drenched and would provide no warmth. I thought about the lonely, shivering beagle at the campground that morning and felt a moment of sorry kinship.
I shudder to think what would have happened I hadn’t made it to the town of Collinwood when I did. I walked into the visitor center on ice blocks that made me feel completely disconnected from the ground. The woman behind the desk gave me cookies and led me to the fire place. Letting my body thaw by the fire, I acknowledged for the first time a thought that had been slowly building since I started the Trace, Is this still fun?
I decided I would go no further that day. I booked a room at the town’s sole lodging, a big room attached to the back of a hardware store, and went to sleep in the early afternoon.
The next day I got up with the intention of being in Nashville when the sun went down. There was a good hundred miles between myself and the city limits. I would bike as far as I could go and if I didn’t make it, I’d call my Uncle Ron to come pick me up. Another night outdoors was out of the question. The morning was bright and clear but cold. My bike tires cut a line through a thin layer of frost on the road.
Forty miles in, I visited the gravesite of Meriwether Lewis. He had been traveling on the Trace up from Louisiana on his way to Washington, DC to publish his journals from the Pacific expedition. Biking up to Lewis’ grave, I passed a small cabin where he had spent his last night. There was a historical sign that made vague mention of Lewis’ end. He had died of “mysterious” gunshot wounds.
The first book I read when returning from my trip was Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose upheld the scholarly consensus that Lewis, a believed manic depressive, had shot himself on the Trace, in debt and a probable alcoholic from his years as Louisiana governor. Following Ambrose’s account of Lewis’ route to the Pacific, I learned that I had actually crossed paths with the man many times during my own trip. In Montana, I had gone up Chief Joseph Pass close to where the Pacific Expedition had crossed the Continental Divide. Further along, I had biked by Beaver Head, a rock formation that Sacagawea had used as a pivotal marker to guide the party.
And now here I was meeting Lewis again for the last time at his final resting place.
His monument was a small ziggurat of stones, supporting at its top level a broken column. Reading the grave marker, I couldn’t believe what an incredible person lay here. In his short life, Lewis had served as personal aide to President Jefferson, explored the Louisiana Purchase and was the first governor of the Louisiana territory. When his trail ended, he was thirty-five.
After my lunch, I called my Uncle Ron to let him know I was about 20 miles from the Trace’s end. An avid biker and a big supporter of my trip, Ron had wanted to bike a few miles with me into Nashville. I got his voicemail and let him know that it was a good day for a ride if he bundled up.
Going up a big hill, I spotted a guy seated at the top of the hill on the roadside. As I got closer, I could tell he was watching me intently, even taking pictures. A balaclava disguised his face, but I sure hoped he was Ron. In my paranoid exhaustion, I recalled the old tales of Trace bandits and decided if he tried to rob me, I would gladly let him take everything I owned, even insist on it, the trailer, too.
Fortunately, it was Ron. I could not have been happier. He was the first family member I’d seen in months and while we exchanged hugs and hellos, I already felt home. I could tell he was glad to see me, too. I can’t imagine what he thought seeing me pedal up that hill in a worn jacket, towing a dirt caked trailer with plastic bags wrapped around my feet, but I’m sure the picture wasn’t too far a cry from a guy pushing a dingy shopping cart filled with cans.
Ron biked with me until we got to where he’d parked his car. He offered to drive me home, but for the first time, I refused a ride. Instead, he took my trailer relieving me of my burden and allowing me to finish up the Trace with a few weightless miles. Biking without the trailer was like leaving the kids at home with the babysitter. Just me and my bike like when we first met, careless and free.
I passed mile marker 445 and put the Trace behind me. In the last half-hour of daylight, I biked through the Nashville suburban rush hour to my family’s front door. The Natchez Trace had made me work for every mile. Finding shelter at its end gave me an incredible feeling of safety and comfort. I couldn’t help but wonder what that feeling would be like when I finally pedaled down my own street to my own house.
Inside, I got immediate hugs from Aunt Sharon and cousin Lucy. In an effort to recall my long disused house manners, I took off my shoes. It was a good while before I remembered I had plastic bags on my feet. My family was polite enough not to mention this. I stuffed myself at dinner on the best lasagna I’d ever tasted, shared a few stories then called it a day. Just before collapsing into a dreamless sleep, I said farewell to the Trace.