Day 16: End of the Trace. Natchez State Park, MS to Jackson, LA – 80 miles, 1,321 total

We awoke this morning in our secret spot having avoided being found despite a bit of restless sleep wondering if someone would bother us for being in the picnic area. There was frost on the ground, the air was cool, and sunrise on the lake was beautiful.

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We made a quick breakfast ignoring the extra hour from the time change – we shifted our entire day an hour earlier (like, no different than before) to make sure we still hit the road early enough to make it off the road before dark. Pedaling up the hill out of the park we made our way to the final 10 miles of the Natchez Trace into the town of Natchez.
It’s bittersweet to leave the Trace. It has been a singular experience with all the benefits we’ve been going on about. Leaving also means an end to the buffer of the parkway lined with forest and a return to louder traffic, towns, farms, and finding directions.

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But alas it must end and in Natchez we headed south into Louisiana. We arranged to stay with Perry and Lep who have made an amazing cycling retreat in their home outside Jackson, LA. When I called, Perry suggested a route that is shorter than what adventure cycling recommends. We took her advise and thus also ended our use of the adventure cycling maps.
Highway 61 out of Natchez is big with a good shoulder but also rumble strips. The rumble strips are nice in that they help us hear if vehicles are behind us on the shoulder but they also occupy the white line meaning we need to either be in the traffic lane (legal but not ideal when there is a shoulder) or ride between the rumble strip and the grass. Not much room in the latter – tried to show what that’s like here.

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We also broke our front derailleur cable so had to make a roadside repair. No big deal, although it was hard to get it adjusted well without a stand. This meant quite a bit of fidgeting along the way but we got it to work enough to make it to Perry’s place. She had a stand and even a cable gripping tool which made adjustments for tomorrow easy.
After 30 miles on the highway we rejoined rural small roads. It’s been remarkable how much the terrain changes when crossing state lines on this trip. Mississippi to Woodville was characterized by pretty hilly terrain (still related to the Loess hills and the big river valley) while crossing into Louisiana the terrain started to spread out and give way to gentler rollers and an overall descent down Jackson Louisiana Road and ultimately into Jackson.

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Despite missing the comforts of the Trace it was familiar in a way to be back on country roads – cars and trucks and all – and to see the countryside as it is now rather than the preserved version of the parkway. We arrived at Perry’s refuge before dark.
Perry hosts cyclists all throughout the touring season (which is almost all year save for mid summer when it’s too hot to ride down here). She and her partner Lep are super nice and amazingly generous. We pitched our tent under a roof so it will be dry in the morning. They have an outdoor shower (so nice!!) and even a repair stand, pumps, and a place for cycle tourists to lounge. We cleaned up and made minor repairs to the bike (adjusted the new cable better and trued the rear wheel a bit more. Then we were invited in for a fantastic dinner of beans and rice, salad, dessert, and conversation. Perry and Lep still tour but they used to tour on both upright and recumbent tandems. We had great conversation about tandem touring and riding, our current tour, past and future tours, and stories of the many people they’ve hosted over the past 15 years. They open their home also through warmshowers.org (awesome site – like couch surfing for bicyclists- which I used in New Zealand and we’ve hosted people through) and since they are at the crossroads of several popular tour routes they are always hosting someone.
Once again so much of what makes a tour like this worth it is the connections with people. Of course on a tandem there is a whole world of connection between the two of us. Meeting new people who understand that and sharing their stories and experiences is the second element. The miles and the road and scenery stitch it all together.
So we rest, clean, with full bellies, ready for 94 miles tomorrow – our final long day which will end on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. And suddenly, just like that, we are almost there!

Day 14: – yomigaeri (rebirth) — jeff busby campground, Ackerman, MS to Jackson, MS 101 miles, 1,144 total

Today was day two of this phase of the ride – the final 6-day push into New Orleans. I started out with an extra big oatmeal portion in hopes they I could make it to 11 without eating my arm.

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Yesterday’s short ride and early arrival were a great phasing back into the rhythm of the road after a rest day. It also afforded us time to relax a bit and handle some mechanicals. There hasn’t been much to say about mechanicals since things have been smooth but a couple minor adjustments have made a huge difference – enough that this morning I kept thinking of the Japanese word yomigaeri, which means “rebirth”.

First, midway through yesterday’s ride while legs were feeling fresh, I was really uncomfortable in the saddle. It reminded me that people have said you should switch saddles on a long time ride just so the geometry changes. Not necessarily better – just different so your pressure points of contact change. New saddle not being an option, I though about just moving my saddle back on its rails a bit. I planned to wait until camp but with a chill day chandra encouraged me to do it with 20 or so miles left. I did, and this morning right away I felt way more comfortable. I probably slid the saddle back 3 or 4 mm, but that change was enough! Way more comfortable today!

The other thing was the squeak we’ve been dealing with. We’ve thought it was the BOB trailer wheel or maybe the trailer hardware. It got worse over the last 4 riding days but we thought we had ruled out the bike wheels. As we rolled into a stop last night though, we both noticed a wobble in the rear wheel. Considering some of the terrain we’ve forced our bike over on this trip the wobble was no surprise. But I kind of suck at truing wheels. Nonetheless I had to give it a go. Looking at spoke tension there were a few spokes that were particularly loose. I tightened them up, rid the wheel of the wobble, worked slowly and meticulously to not make new problems, and that was it. This morning as we set out on the road something was different. After a while I realized the squeaking was gone!! Hard to express how annoying that sound was. Rebirth!!

Beyond those two mechanical changes the riding was uneventful. It’s our penultimate day on the Trace so we tried to soak it up, enjoy the flat easy riding, and burn this paradise of road riding into our permanent memory. We left the Trace for a mile or so to get an ice cream sandwich at a little market and of course had to out sprint a dog. Twice because we returned to the Trace the same way!

We had a picnic lunch in Kosciusko (named after a Polish immigrant who also designed the first fort at what is now West Point). Fun fact – Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko. We learned all this from the friendly attendants at the visitor center which also had lovely picnic tables and water.

After lunch we enjoyed the smooth road, the quiet without the squeak, and the general flat terrain and tailwind with cold northerly air coming in.

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In terms of stops along the way the Cypress Swamp was amazing!

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We left the serenity of the Trace to explore Jackson MS. on Friday night at rush hour. We are used to city riding though and made our way to this cool state park campground called Le Fleur Bluff right downtown! It’s mellow and we found a breakfast place and a coop for supplies in the morning. It’s supposed to be 33 degrees tonight. Feeling like the first days of the trip!

On the way into Jackson we stopped to pick up a bottle of wine. A random woman in the store asked me where we were from. I said “Wisconsin”‘and she said “it’s nice to have you here – welcome to Mississippi”. When we stopped along the Trace in this tiny market to get ice cream the huge guy behind the counter was also super friendly. He said “great what y’all are doing – we are all 99 cents from a heart attack. We should be riding a bike”. He was gruff when we first walked in but we left feeling welcome and he gave us all his advise about New Orleans. I could get used to southern hospitality!

Now to sleep. Looking forward to diner breakfast tomorrow at 93 miles to Natchez!

Day 10: The Natchez Trace — Shady Grove, TN to Colbert Ferry, AL. 84 miles, 898 miles total

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Last night we ended our day at a cyclist only camp on the Natchez Trace. We were tucked in a horse staging area and all alone. At 3 in the morning we awoke to the loudest most extensive coyote “conversation” I’ve ever heard. It was amazing! It would die down then a single coyote would start again. It’s strange since they started calling after the sliver of moon had set. I don’t know what got them going, but we listened for a long time until the crickets retook the stage and their buzzing lulled us back to sleep.

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We awoke and headed up onto the Trace to see what the hubbub is all about. Imagine a perfect road with hardly a bump, little traffic, no trucks allowed, everyone knows bikers are there, a 50 mph speed limit, and a wooded buffer on both sides. For 450 miles. It’s cycling bliss! That doesn’t even consider the history and background of the place. I will link to some information. Before planning for this trip I had heard of this place but only in passing. The more we’ve learned the more fascinating it is. And so we only rode half a mile before stopping at the Gordon House – an 1830s brick house that a ferry operator’s wife lived in until 1859. Beautiful from the outside its pretty run down inside.

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We moved along only long enough to see a section of the original trace. Amazing to walk on a dirt path that conveyed so many people over 100s of years mostly by foot. Granted, bike travel is much faster than walking but the feeling of the changing environment and getting around on your own power is similar.

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Some of the land near the trace is beautiful and pastoral although often you can only see the gorgeous forest to the side.

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The terrain remained hilly but with shallower grades. That means longer time grinding away up hills and long but not as fast descents. The temperature reached about 85 degrees and the wind was from the south. All that combined with being the fifth straight day riding meant a certain amount of “gaman suru” or pushing through discomfort. When people see our narrow saddles they assume the worst in terms of discomfort and they are on track. But it’s not just sitting on a narrow saddle but really being in a single position for this many hours that makes you ache. For example, if you were to say binge watch an entire season of House of Cards in one day (I don’t recommend it!) you will likely switch position from lying on one elbow to the other. Imagine being in the same position on abike for 8 hours a day for a week. Yes, the pain is in the bumstead, but it would be hard to lean on one elbow that long too. All this is to say that on the 5th day in a row in the saddle there’s a fair bit more fidgeting and shifting around trying to be comfortable. The slow going exacerbates the discomfort, fighting up sometimes seemingly unending hills sometimes in granny gear going near a walking pace. Then *bam!* gravity, overtopping the crest, it’s 45 mph for a mile or two. All the while the gorgeous scenery and perfect road and companionship made it bearable.

This characterized the morning until we stopped for elevensees at the Meriweather Lewis national monument. Lewis – of Lewis and Clark fame, was walking to DC with his expedition journals along the Trace and spent the night in 1809 in a sort of saloon in TN. He died of a gunshot wound in the night. He was depressed since Clark was getting all the props for the expedition but some suspect foul play. Scandalous! In any case, it’s clear his last living night was at this spot on the Natchez Trace and his tomb and a monument remain. We explored the area, ate, and pressed on.

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We hoped to get to Collingwood for lunch and provisions but our pace was so slow in the headwind and hills that we stopped at a picnic area to eat. It was a gorgeous picnic area with water and tables and we shared our stories with curious local and tourists – all of whom were inquisitive and supportive (although they all say they wouldn’t ride like this!). Then we pressed on to Collingwood which was rumored to have a grocery store and we hoped it did!

As happened in northern Illinois we keep encountering small towns – even those with food stores listed in the adventure cycling maps we are using for this part – with boarded up buildings. Is this a remnant of the recession? Is it part of the general shifting away from rural life? We did see a few massive estates yesterday and an airstrip capable of handling private jets in amongst the boarded up towns. Maybe it’s just another indication of the widening gaps in income in the US. “By the way, Smithers, do load a couple extra lobsters and a case of Dom onto the plane. I think the country store may be closed. ”

Anyway we found a small grocery store in Collingwood and while Chandra was inside I was struck by the loud trucks and ruckus of town being off the Trace was jarring. I was just replying to an email from a friend who informed me that the knucklehead who buzzed is yesterday was a “coal roller“. I was writing back and feeling a little discouraged about people In general when a guy saw the flag and said “Wisconsin. You’re far from home!” I said we’d been riding since last Saturday. He said “where’d you fly into?” I said no flight just riding. He smiled and we both laughed a bit. “Well right on man” he said as he left. Faith restored.

We got back onto the Trace for the final 24 mile push to camp. Everything changed! The hills of Tennessee gave way to Cyprus swamps and cotton fields and flat ground.
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Despite the headwind we made amazing time and the miles ticked by. The smells are different (more piney as we left the oak hills behind) and the bugs and animals are different. It’s humid and warm although not for long.

Riding on the Trace in the hills (that just this morning we remarked reminded us of the driftless area in Wisconsin) and now into south is a privilege. We feel like we’ve earned some easier terrain by working hard to get here. Tomorrow morning we will hit a rural diner for breakfast and make our way into Tupelo Mississippi. Can’t wait for some rest and maintenance of bike and legs and bums. Fun fact – bag balm is amazing! Made to relieve stress on cows’ udders, works well on human bums too!

We are lucky to be here and make it this far. After resting we are thrilled to explore the rest of the way to NOLA!

Day 8: Southern Parkway Riding: Cave in Rock State Park to Dover, TN. 103 miles, 718 total

We left illinois this morning to spend a few hours riding through hilly western Kentucky and on into Tennessee.

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We arose feeling a bit weary
and knowing that short steep hills and headwinds would greet the day. But first we checked out the Cave at Cave in Rock. Fun fact – marauders hid out in the cave in the late 1700s preying on passing boaters. I put on my best marauder face.

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We enjoyed the scenery a bit before heading to the ferry across the Ohio River into Kentucky.

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Once into Kentucky we were greeted by amazingly courteous drivers who slowed dramatically when they got close to us and often yielded the entire lane to us. We found a lovely porch outside a closed community center in Carrsville where chandra enjoyed a little time I a rocking chair.

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A welcome change from southern Illinois was the lack of dogs chasing us. We probably did 10 or more full out sprints to outrun dogs chasing us from farms. We have Halt pepper spray but really don’t want to use it. There’s nothing like a stoker feeling the threat of an approaching dog homing in on her fast moving legs to “pile on the coal” and increase the speed. It’s exhausting!

But not today in Kentucky. We saw more horses than dogs and enjoyed fall colors lining the path as we climbed over the bluffs of the Ohio River. About halfway through the day, we reached land between the lakes which is a national recreation area designated by JFK. It’s closed to commercial traffic with a low speed limit, perfect macadam, and hunting hiking etc. land on both sides of the road extending the the dammed Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. This is a southern parkway much like the Natchez Trace where we start riding in a couple days. It’s a glorious way to travel! Not only are cars courteous, but bikes are expected to be here so there’s no arguing our placement – not quite so where coal trucks rule the road. I should say yesterday the coal trucks were ubiquitous but also more courteous than many cars. In fact yesterday the coal trucks were stressful and I feel like we stressed them out too. They came by every couple minutes often with little or no shoulder for us to get out of their way. One of them slowed to our pace (and was probably surprised to be following us at 37mph down a hill) for a while so I pulled off into the gravel to let him pass once we slowed as the road headed uphill. He clearly thought we ran off the road unintentionally and stopped to see if we were ok. I bring up this aside to note both that many people express concerns about big rigs and bikers but big rigs have always been professional in our experience. I fear a weekend warrior not knowing how to drive a huge RV much more. But also I want to note that some days we ride through areas where bikers are anomalous or even a danger but today on this southern Parkway we got to shed all such stress and enjoy the ride.

The hills impacted our pace as did the morning headwind, so the last 8 miles or so were in the dark. We have good taillights though and Talula has loads of reflective tape so an little time in the dark is no big deal. We Aren’t at the campsite we hoped to reach today, but it will do and some minor route adjustment has us tapering distance from about 93 tomorrow to 80 to 70 into our rest day in Tupelo.

Today we really also felt like we are entering the south. Accents are different, fall colors are not as far along, the landscape is changing and it’s warmer every evening. So at this campground next to a loud road I bid you adieu until tomorrow when we reach the Natchez Trace.

Day 6: Back in the Saddle. St. Louis, MO to Murphysboro, IL. 104 miles, 511

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We will say more about our rest day later, but it was great to hang with Chandra’s cousins Julie and Mark and their young son Hudson. So much fun! Hudson made us a map so we won’t get lost.

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Map by Hudson

 

We rolled out after a nice breakfast and Hudson filled our water bottles.

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We were taken with the contrast of the canyon like city streets leading to the Eads bridge.

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(Fun fact – Eads bridge was the first over the Mississippi and has a rich history).

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Going through East St. Louis was uneventful. There were many abandoned areas and much of the city seemed downtrodden, but before long we were on yet another beautiful paved (and new!) bike path – this one along the light rail line. Made us wonder whether we should be thanking Scott Walker for this infrastructure since it all seems made during the stimulus – likely with Wisconsin’s refused rail funds.

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In any case, it was more easy travel and ultimately gave way to hollows, hills, coal mines, and now a lovely campsite in Lake Murphysboro state park. Riding into the park was several miles of steep hills and – once again – no drinking water! There are RV Sites across the lake and the must have water but in the tent area where we are – none! We used algae flavored lake water to make dinner and we will stop trusting the incomplete information on the IL DNR website! Tomorrow is our last Illinois stop – water there? Stay tuned.

So the day after a rest day is always hard in a way. While resting you really try to actually let your body recover and starting up again is tough! Plus getting to spend time with great hospitality and connection to family makes it easy to think “this is it – we can stay for a week!” But behold – the game is back on. It’s also sweet to re enter the rhythm of the road. It was a little uncomfortable to get back on the bike, we had a headwind and the air was cool. But the vistas were gorgeous, the air clean and cool, and the miles ticked away as we shared great conversation, played stupid word games, and even wrote a song about a bathtub Jesus we saw in someone’s yard. It’s good to back in the green tent with. 104 mile day down. Tomorrow is only 85 miles or so with hills but tailwind. We adjusted our route after talking with Chris in St. Louis and shaving about 20 miles off our original plan for today and tomorrow will make it a more mellow day.

My stoker is already asleep and the dogs across the lake have finally stopped barking. Time for me to retire as well. Until tomorrow ….

Day 4: Special Guest Post from our Senior Trail Vegetation Correspondent

Hej Road Warriors,

I’m loving the blog posts. Sunday was a tough day. Way to persevere! I’m rooting for ya! As a fellow biker I totally sympathize with the walnut woes. Armed with a laptop, internet, boredom, and insomnia, I am ARMCHAIR ANALYST MAN!

<SUPERHERO-INTRO_MONTAGE costume=”nerd glasses, bathrobe”/>

It looks like the habitat of both white and black walnut species overlap with your route.

According to the US Forest Service, both species fruit from September to October.

According to USGS maps, Illinois will offer you no respite from either species. Things would have been bad if you were going through much of Missouri; 65% of the wild annual walnut harvest originates there.

Black walnuts will accompany you in Tennessee and Kentucky, but, according to the USDA, white walnuts should taper off. Although the native coverage of white walnuts in those states is extensive, they have been classified as “Threatened” and “Of Special Concern” in those states, respectively. Northern Mississippi will present no white walnuts and some black walnuts. Come south Mississippi, you will be free of any kind of walnut for the rest of that journey. Which is good; jambalaya and fresh walnut smell don’t mix anyhow.

<SUPERHERO-OUTRO_MONTAGE/>

<CREDITS>

http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/little/

http://www.na.fs.fed.us/spfo/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/juglans/cinerea.htm
http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/volume_2/juglans/nigra.htm
http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=JUCI (terrible map, but check out the legal tab)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juglans_nigra

</CREDITS>

<EASTER EGG>
Am I “nuts” or what?

</EASTER EGG>

************
Thanks ARMCHAIR ANALYST MAN!!

Day 1! Departure! 112 miles, 112 total

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Departure day has finally arrived! Up early, last minute packing, big phat breakfast burritos at Monty’s Blue Plate diner (thanks Mark!) a swing by the farmers market to say goodbye to Mama Jo and then the day could really begin!!

It was chilly, but had a tailwind almost all day. Of the 112 miles we covered, probably 65 were on gravel. We took the Badger State path from Madison through Monroe to the Illinois line. Then it becomes the Jane Adams trail for a while. The paths are lovely although a bit taxing on a road bike– especially a tandem when stability is at a premium. The changing leaves were ridiculous though!!

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Chillin at the state line.

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When it ended in Freeport (fun fact – Freeport Illinois is the location of the Lincoln – Douglas debate) we thought pavement would rule the day. It did for a while! The riding was easy through corn fields and rolling hills. The chip seal roads felt just like home. But after 20 or 30 miles the chip seal gave way to gravel. Some of it was fun but much was loose and full of big rocks. Descending some of the hills on loose gravel tested the zen abilities of my stoker girl a lot!

We eventually reached Sterling, IL. We are at the Ruffit campground which is empty save for “10 idiots” (their words not mine) who stay here for weeks on end. It’s going to frost tonight and tomorrow might have a headwind. But I’m cozy in the green tent with my sweetie, with a weary body, a belly full of beans and rice, and a strong desire to see what tomorrow brings!

Oh. Chandra just reminded me we had a flat. Just after a tunnel on the Badger State trail. Old tube. Little rip. Nothing obvious to have caused it. Kept on truckin.

Day -1. Leaving in the morning!

It’s been a totally crazy few weeks both of trip preparations and also squaring away the rest of life and work so that we can go off the grid for three weeks. Nothing like a self-imposed deadline to force completion of things. But leaving work today I really felt like all is in good hands and we can totally focus on the things that matter in life. Like turning legs in forward oriented circles, seeking pie at every turn, obsessing over inclines, wind direction and clouds, and celebrating 20 years of adventure with a new installation!

I went to DC for a meeting this week and got stranded for an extra day due to stone which made the rest of the week a little frantic. Changed the tires on Talulat the tandem (starting out with fresh sparkly Gatorskins!) and went to adjust the front derailleur cable since the shifting had been a bit off. I realized the housing was trashed and a 5 minute adjustment turned into a little “project”. I think it’s dialed now. Then off to Monona for dinner and a massage (thanks Mama Jo!). Nice to see our folks for a send off and not mess up our kitchen. Then tonight we didn’t exactly “carbo load” but certainly “calorie loaded” at the Old Fashioned for beers and fish fry. Yes, we are departing from Wisconsin after all!

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Totally looking forward to a 110 mile day to start off tomorrow. We debated last Sunday as we fought the gnarly headwind whether warmer southerly air with a headwind was better, or northern cold air at our backs. I think we settled on the latter, and that’s what we get tomorrow! Now I just hope I can actually sleep tonight. I know we will tomorrow – in northern Illinois. Until then …