Sunday, June 3
End: Port Gibson
Counties: Three (Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne)
Miles: 51 on the day, 51 overall
Time out on the bike: 6 hours, 12 minutes
on the day; 6 hours, 12 minutes overall
Port Gibson is, contrary to civic branding, not too pretty
Town lore and the sign marking the city limits holds the village
was declared exactly that – too pretty to burn – by Gen. U.S. Grant when he visited with 23,000 men under arms.
It seems so much more likely to think Grant’s unimpeded path to Jackson where he was headed to punch Johnston’s
forces in the nose was the reason Port Gibson was spared. It wasn’t worth the time to torch. Grant had more important
things to do.
No matter either its flammability or its attractiveness, Port
Gibson is the first day’s objective on the 300-plus mile ride from Natchez to Tupelo. By the end of the day’s
pedaling, my son, Avery, and I make it there by a more direct and level route than planned. This proves the wiser course in
light of other conditions: It is blaze hot. It is sopping humid. It is not Florida flat.
I awake in Natchez to a sore neck, a headache, and the sound of rain falling. In fact,
the rain I’d heard storming down in the night is now dripping so heavily from the tree canopy to seem a continuing shower.
This portends ill, but it is not an option to quit before beginning.
So up we rise, load the bike then fetch ourselves across the street to the bigger big house and a buffet
breakfasting spot where we get our overfill of bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy. We share the dining room and linen
tablecloths with no one but the inattentive wait staff for half an hour.
We take to our saddles and roll away with all in our possession.
Sunday morning streets of Natchez are empty and the Delta air is heavy. A grey sky presides. Brown signs point us to a low-rising
on-ramp. We roll north along smooth pavement through tunnels of pines and hardwoods, alternating with fields open and flowering
with ranks of watchful black-eyed susans and laced by wild carrot. Magnolias blossom flagrantly. Literal mileposts stand sentry
in whole-number increments.
Ever upward, if slightly
so, the road rises away from the river and we with it along a route traveled by a teenage Abraham Lincoln. Spinning along
between covered canopy and open fields of flowers we are riding our tandem into the heart of the South.
I begin to deliver my first Tandem Dad Lecture (trademark applied for) with 295 miles
to go, thusly: “155 years ago… .” A heavy sigh issues from the back of the bike. Sure, we both laugh heartily.
I still deliver the lecture.
Soon after, the cloud cover is thrown off, the sun makes itself
known and understood. We ride upwards through the cloying air. Still, the canopy of timber provides shade and cool breaths.
At Mississippi 552 I make formal a decision I’d actually made the day before, to forsake the riverward loop and a visit
to Alcorn State and Windsor Ruins. Avery does not object. I figure it is folly to risk even the possibility of steep grades
combining with laden-pedaling to burn through our energy and confidence on the first day. Instead, we head 2 miles out to
Highway 61 (“God said you can do what you want Abe, but, next time you see me comin’ you better run.”) and
lunch at The Country Store and its claim to the title as the world’s finest fried chicken.
It is pretty good chicken.
Arthur Davis owns the joint and sings a cappella gospel, or at least he did for this fashionably late apres-church
crowd. Mr. Davis earned degrees from both Florida A&M University and Florida State University. “I’m a Rattler
and a Seminole.”
We have 12 miles to pedal
after lunch. It proves a nasty dozen. The sun blazed on our heads while we granny-gear it up the off-ramp from Highway 61.
Our suffering is real because we have ridden little in preparation for this ride. Together, on the tandem, fully loaded in
approximation of touring conditions we had accomplished exactly once, and that along a pancake-flat route. This day is hilly,
with 2,080 feet of vertical gain over its 51 miles (and that is on the safe route I chose to avoid what I feared would be
terminal climbs on the loop to Alcorn State).
got ourselves into town, past the “Too pretty to burn” bit of weird civic pride/historic delusion city limits
as well as a Shetland pony staked in a broad front lawn. This is notable. I do not know it now, but there would be three such
sightings on this ride. Are they service animals? Do Mississippians show up at the Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport
(the only airport in America named after a black man, Doug Blackburn suggests over beers weeks after we return home) trying
to get their Shetland pony support animals on board a flight to Atlanta?
While these thoughts bounce in my head, we have arrived at
Isabella B&B, a yellow house on the corner of Church Street and Chinquepin Street. From there it’s a block along
to the Catholic church followed by a run of mainline protestant churches and a synagogue just to throw a bowling pin in the
On a summer Sunday evening in isolated rural
Mississippi and without petroleum-based mean of transport, there is a dearth of options or we didn’t explore the right
empty streets to find food. In the alternative, we go to McDonald’s. It was bad. We should have gone another quarter
mile down the road to Sonic. That would have been a significant step up in quality of food. Draw what conclusions you may.
Another thought to ponder, as the Reverend Phillip P. Wannenmacher
would say, also on terms you can determine for yourself, I report I did not watch the NBA Finals in the communal TV room.
The owners of the Isabella have Trump campaign signs leaning against the garage wall. I watch Game 2 in Oakland from our room,
streaming haltingly on my phone.
Breakfast is scheduled at 7 a.m. Our middling performance
on the tandem today, wherein the limits of our physical abilities are maddeningly revealed and found wanting. On top of this,
tomorrow’s route goes off the Trace at the two-thirds mark and heads into the largest city in the state along a route
I concocted completely by means of satellite mapping. The outlook is for more hills than today and a bit cooler to go along
with a dozen miles farther.
A deep rest awaits
in a town too pretty to return.
Saturday, June 2
Start for the day where the ride will end: Pontotoc County, Mississippi
End for the day where the ride will start: Adams County
Miles: None by bike
She might have mentioned the seizures before we were speeding
down the highway with her behind the wheel.
On Friday, I drove us to Tupelo
in an un-airconditioned vehicle with the tandem perched atop it.
First thing upon our evening arrival at Moon Lake Farm we
took the Santana off the roof, rolled it into the screened lake house, and arranged our bags strategically around the upstairs
room to best allow me to paw at their contents and ponder arrangements.
Next morning after my first serving of grits and Avery’s first bacon flight we placed in rank
the bicycle bags next to the tandem and piled all else back into the vehicle. The car would stay here, 10 kilometers west
of Tupelo, while we went south to Natchez. Our shuttle was scheduled to arrive this day, proprietess/founder/chief Downtown
Karla Brown behind the wheel. She pulled in around 10:30 a.m. The tandem slid into the van, both wheels still quick-released
in place, front first and without a hitch. Luggage comprising left and right panniers, handlebar bag, rack trunk, helmets,
shoes, and water bottles took up only a fraction of the cargo room.
If it didn’t go with us now, we wouldn’t have it. If it did go with us now, we were pedaling
it back 300-plus miles or leaving it behind.
Downtown Karla needed little goading to slip into her patter,
a practiced, clanking-cutlery Rotary lunch on the second Tuesday of each month at the Heritage Cafeteria retelling of her
oft-told tale. If I interrupted her, she’d begin again once she’d responded to my question with a precise repetition
of words, cadence, and intonation from whence she’d left off. It was disconcerting and comforting at the same time hearing
about her years-long hike across one way then the next, up and down in an idiosyncratic pattern of perfect forgettery while
Downtown Karla recalibrated her position in the tale.
She delivered us safely and timely, if a bit circuitously. This last was minor and in service to her larger business
model slash main grift. DKB runs a progressive protection racket, a shakedown of kindness. Downtown Karla Brown put the pro
in quid pro quo. She trucked in referrals as her B2B strategy and relied on the passengers to supply the liquid assets to
keep her afloat.
Thus we found ourselves at The Tomato Place on U.S. Highway 61, for instance. The
place was charming. The sandwich was fabulous. The vegetables gave a good accounting of themselves on display, but we certainly
weren’t going to be hauling produce 300-plus miles back up the Trace
Thence to Natchez on our Downtown Karla-led odyssey, by way of a preview pass through Port Gibson and
a very practiced narrative about its many frankly shabby churches and synagogue.
On down Highway 61 we went and were delivered to Twin Oaks
Bed & Breakfast, a property on the market for something north of $1 million. Across the street another former plantation
turned inn was for sale. This one, according to Downtown Karla (who, for all I know, would have gotten some referral fee if
I had whipped out a check on the spot) could be mine for $7 million and change. We will never know.
In the open sauna along the Mississippi – and we never
put eyes on Old Man River, not one drop of it, during our entire trip, it now occurs to me, and that seems an outright shame
here in July on my couch – we pedaled an unburdened tandem eight blocks into the historic district of this old town.
The cathedral of the Holy Roman Catholic Church thrust its spire into the golden hour evening. A shuffling drunk hoboed along
the sidewalk. Two blocks down a tangle of oak tree limbs covered up much of the Adams County Courthouse and its Greek revival
columns. We found it after I mistook the Presbyterian church, basking in the evening glow, for the county courthouse.
This slip led to discovery of the U.S. District Courthouse
for the Southern District of Mississippi in its own blocky, brick and stucco Greek Revival style, though that thoroughly fails
to tell the tale. The Feds have only had a renewed presence back in this southern Mississippi outpost since 2007 when the
judiciary moved into the building first occupied in 1853 and variously put into service as an opera house, a school, American
Legion hall, library, and pageant venue. The structure made it onto the National Register of Historic Places
Fading light and hunger took us to the Malt Shop, a drive-in
dive replete with yellow fluorescent lights clashing with neon signage, picnic tables in the heat and a circling brood of
running vehicles awaiting delivery of bags of burgers from the harried staff. We were rewarded with delicious cheeseburgers
and thick shakes, but punished by sapping heat and buzzing flies. We rode home in the dark, marked by our powerful lights
front and back, sated and a bit uneasy with the full length of our ride ahead of us and no experience, no success, to buoy
Tomorrow. On Sunday morning we begin
the adventure in earnest, each pedal stroke getting us closer to success and each revolution an opportunity for discovery
We made movies on our trip. Watch the
first one here.