Paul Flemming

Writing on Two Wheels

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Spin along for posts on cycling and cycles
A from-the-wheels-up view of rides, builds and fixes.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Best day cycling, ever

Day 5

Wednesday, June 6

Start: Jackson

End: Kosciusko

Counties: Four counties (Hinds, Madison, Leake, Attala)

Miles: 71 on the day, 196 overall

Time out on the bike: 7 hours, 53 minutes; 23 hours, 26 minutes overall

Draw near while I sing the praises of this day on the tandem bicycle. It is filled with wonder and ease, surprise and delight, speed and mystery.

Early to rise, early to the Cracker Barrel. We arrive even before the rockers are out front. Our table is at the window for a closeup view of an employee encircling our tandem with rockers.

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Biscuit and pancake fuel inside us, we pedal up wide suburban streets already busy in the morning commute, but mostly contra to our direction of travel. It is hilly to a disheartening degree, and steering in traffic stress-multiplies the effort of the inclines. Once we are on the Trace-shadowing bike trail it is a beautiful early morning of slanting light and ground-rising steam-fog along the still hilly path. Soon we climb into the open expanse of the trail’s terminus and parking lot, overlooking Ross R. Barnett Reservoir. For all its unbeautiful and clunky name (I do not want to look up Mr. Barnett’s story. I am much happier imagining his story in rich detail), it is indeed a beautiful lake. The Trace here follows its shore for miles of flat, winding, breeze-swept coastal road.

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Timing and spacing are concerns today, have been a known concern from earliest planning days. Little offers itself within easy pedaling distance for stops or meals or services. The plan, such as it is, still requires forays of some non-zero distance away from the Trace proper to seek the few opportunities available.

Our first swing takes us down Ratliff Ferry Road to the putative Ratliff Ferry Trading Post. It is not trading and there is no sign of life where the road ends at the edge of what is the upper reaches of the reservoir and the last bits of the Pearl River as its muddy waters transition from riparian to lacustrine.

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It is a beautiful day, flat and temperate. I have in mind our water supply not because we are in crisis, but because I know the road ahead and I am not confident we will find ready access to chilled water. Down the road a bit we pull off at the Choctaw Nation boundary. A self-sagged group from Wisconsin is in the pull-out, a group of an older couple and what appears to be a family of parents about my age and grown-ish children, perhaps college students. The young woman rides a mountain bike. A van and trailer pulls up, the group’s SAG wagon. I ask and am provided ice water from the orange insulated water cooler.

On we go, through the shaded canopy of each copse, sometimes deep enough to hold its own coolness, and successively pass into leas of swaying grass aswim in blackeyed susans up swales and down banks from tree line to shoulder. I trust the level flatness only so far as the next curve, until I can see down the next stretch and prove it goes on just as flat. My fear of an ascent stays ever ahead. Our pedal strokes are even and smooth as I gear up onto the large chainring and our pace increases to match the mechanical advantage.

We do leave the Trace at mile marker 135 and take Mississippi Highway 16 west. Even in this short 1-mile jaunt the logging truck traffic intimidates. Our destination is a gas station and convenience store called Michael’s 16 Deli. It is exactly as I expect. Pedalers cannot be choosers and Michael’s 16 Deli is lunch.

Then there is magic. Whether it is magic on its own or magic borne of necessity matters not because magic it is. Michael’s 16 Deli is poorly lit. Its bare concrete floor is stacked with 50-pound bags of dog food and cattle feed. There are coolers of soda and beer and milk and water. There is Hunts Brothers Pizza. There is a hot cabinet shelving pizza slices and corndogs and French fries and other brown food. I ask for a corndog and mac ‘n’ cheese to be fetched and Avery orders fried chicken. We both get bottles of soda, me a Coke and Avery a Dr Pepper. We sit at one of two booths, each posted with a handwritten sign restricting occupancy to a quarter hour to keep us from perching here all day long.

It is the best lunch of the trip, even better than the delicious Mexican lunch in Raymond. We do not think about the food. We eat the food.

There was a French restaurant in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania 17 years ago, not Mississippi now), a prix fixe place, where I ate what had heretofore been the best meal of my life. It was quiet and drafty in an old house in downtown Philadelphia and there were vegetables served pureed and in what seemed at the time to be half vegetables and half butter. It was a highlight meal served with elan, in good company and warm beside a fireplace on a chill and blustery evening.

It is pushed from the top of my All Time Meals heap.

The corndog I eat at Michaels 16 Deli near Farmhaven, Mississippi, and Coca-Cola I drink from a plastic bottle (it is not, perhaps, as chilled as it should be) is now in the No. 1 spot of best meals in my life. Avery eats all his fried chicken, a breast and a leg. His fingers glisten and smudge his own bottle of Dr Pepper. We fill our insulated bottles with ice and water from the fountain and wish good cheer to the proprietess or manager, her staff, and various loiterers and hangers on and customers.

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In good cheer we pedal back to the Trace and on with this wondrous day. The flatness, the meadow followed by woodlot repeated through the afternoon. We pop off the Trace at Kosciusko and head in to the town square. We arrive at the President’s Inn and circle the square and get a serenade of pop music from lightpost mounted speakers. Brittney Spears and Otis Redding and NSYNC and Doobie Brothers pipe through the afternoon air around the lovely courthouse.

A key to the building is in the mailbox, in an envelope with my name in script. The conditioned space is high ceilings and broad floors. A full kitchen is replete with granite countertops and a big ol’ stainless refrigerator.

At the evening we meander through charming Kosciusko’s neighborhoods. Wide lawns and tall pines feature. We see a bouncy house. Old Trace Grill is exactly right, capping a wonderful day with a banquet of chicken-fried steak with white gravy and mashed potatoes and crisp green beans or a hamburger, fries, and shake. We pedal at leisure in the gloaming, back to the square and its soundtrack of pop music.

By acclimation we agree to today’s perfection and rest in anticipation of tomorrow, our longest day.

Fri, November 23, 2018 | link          Comments

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Capitol-ism: Intracity touring

Day 4

Tuesday, June 5

Start: Jackson

End: Jackson

Counties: One (Hinds)

Miles: 8 on the day, 125 overall

Time out on the bike: 51 minutes on the day; 15 hours, 33 minutes overall

Today is tour day. We are in the capital of Mississippi, a place I associate most with a long night of intemperate drinking with a high school friend a dozen years after we graduated Glendale High School.. I’d gone through a job interview earlier in the day. I was freshly divorced from my first wife and traveling with the woman who would become my second. It was the 20th century. I viewed Jackson then through Welty-tinted glasses and the bottoms of a Faulknerian serving of alcohol.

I did not get the job. Thank goodness.

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This day I am much more sober, much better rested, somewhat less at loose ends. We rise at our leisure and check our bags with the valet. The tandem I stow, with the assistance of the valet, in a locked closet within the parking garage adjacent to the hotel. This service is available after I slip a Jackson to the valet. It means the lock I lug around in the panniers is merely useless weight I am pedaling across the state to build muscle.

I bring my raincoat, though it won’t be used today or on the week.

I am thankful for all the things we have with us and do not use. They all represent bad things not happening. No rain. No power-drained electronics. No stolen bicycles. No mechanical breakdowns. No injuries.

There are places to go today, but not by long pedaling. We live in a capital city. We like to visit capital cities. I take pleasure when we wander around in the public buildings, gawk at the portraits of dead white men I don’t know from periods of American history I do.

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So here we have George Poindexter, governor of Mississippi when the Missouri Compromise was enacted by the U.S. Congress. And there is William McWillie, resident in the Governor’s Mansion when Dred Scott was decided. There were other governors depicted with names less evocative of traveling circus sideshow freaks. In another building, more dead white men preside from the walls, including Chief Justice Harvey McGehee, who sat atop the judicial heap in Mississippi during the entirety of Harry Truman’s administration on through to LBJ’s election – that covers some seriously troubled times in the arc of race relations and awesome constitutional tumult. Chief Justice McGehee died, age 78, in Yazoo City six months after I was born in New Orleans.

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Do we build grand public buildings any longer? Is there any interest in beauty, in trying too hard, in extravagant spending on gold foil and marble columns, on brass fittings and cut glass? Mississippi’s old Capitol is lovely. Charming women, volunteers, greet us when we walk in. We have the run of the place, pretty much, and chat up legislative staffers stationed behind desks right out in the echoing expanses of the rotunda, each on their respective chambers’ sides. I try to drum up a bit of fellow feeling among civil servants, but get only discussions of relative humidity as experienced here in Jackson versus our Tallahassee home. The Legislature is not in session. Statute books haphazardly line the walls of legislative committee rooms, as if staffers regularly run over to do a little research mid-hearing. Misshapen rugs cover up tangled audio and computing cables.

A new-ish Supreme Court building juts elevated from grade to the north – this is clearly the work of a security committee – and its stark Greek revival boxiness surrounds an interior layout that began by accommodating magnetometers, moved on to the orderly flow of people being searched and scanned, and proceeded thence to warm hardwood walls very possibly containing spaces used by real human life forms. The dramatically arced courtroom seems to ache for a corner where none exists. Instead, acoustic engineers and white-balance videographers won all the arguments, including a requirement the windows – a heinous concession to bad audio and washed out images to begin with – be covered by sound-dampening and light-blocking shutters at all times.

Oral arguments are scheduled after lunch. A judicial assistant, or deputy clerk, nervously asks after our business and hastily, ungraciously, encourages us to go elsewhere and instructs us to not disturb anything at all before we do.

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We amble around and about, remarking on the unremarkable Eudora Welty Public Library, a building beneath the beauty of her prose. We circle around the gallery of Mississippi’s Hall of Fame, a collection of chosen worthies, elected during a quinquennial vote of the Board of Trustees of the Department of Archives and History. They actually use that word: quinquennial.

There are nice portraits of William Faulkner and Miss Welty.

We hoof back to a spot behind the supreme court building, chow up a burger and fries, and head back to the hotel. In mid-afternoon we pedal in street clothes 8 miles out past the city limits into the beginnings of the flight pattern. The motel where we stayed was 100 meters from Interstate 55 and 120 meters from a Cracker Barrel. That is a story for tomorrow, recounting a long ride of joy and ease.

More pizza and sports viewing this evening in the demographic shadow of the county line, the urban flight sprawl of the north. This night, Florida State University’s softball team wins the national championship.

Hip, hip.

Sun, October 21, 2018 | link          Comments

Friday, October 5, 2018

Notes from Ye Olde Bike Shoppe

A quick aside, exploring action in Ye Olde Bike Shoppe. A brief nothing, if you will, interrupting the utter absence of anything else.

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I am giving the Cloud Bike an extreme makeover. It’s a concession to old age – both mine and the machine’s. It’s a minor expansion of the variety of rides in the barn, adding a touring-outfitted bicycle with racks and wider gearing. It is the single-rider answer to the current setup of the tandem, with the added rear racks and spring makeover of its own.  

Here’s the greatest thing about bicycles: These machines really extend the range of travel a person can achieve under her own power, opening broad horizons while maintaining an intimate connection to the passing landscape. This is especially so on the nation’s network of paved roads, the vast majority of which see very little motorized traffic. There are thousands of miles of paved roads in the United States that are the functional equivalent of bike paths. They are better than bike paths, because other motorists treat intersections with them as cause for attention and care, an approach not exhibited along bike trails. Nor are actual roads – the legal, moral, and common-sensical purview of the cyclist – as monotonous or fraught with two-legged peril as bike trails. It’s cool to be able to go so far so swiftly on nothing more than my legs.

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I did this building up the Cannondale frame of the Cloud Bike 24 years ago and now I’m more deliberate, now I have a straight job, and now the quality of technology and manufacture is far beyond the state of the art a quarter century ago.

Here’s the thing about the crankset of the new stuff: The graphics are atrocious. The typography is an abomination. The technobabble promotional tripe is beyond redemption. How else can you account for “Ultra Torque System” and “ESP Actuation System” nightmarishly etched into the alloy of the cranks mere inches apart. I mean, really. Individually, those phrases are without merit. Together, it’s a pattern of felony misuse of the language.

Then there’s this from the Campagnolo website, featuring a trademark and registered mark-rich paragraph of condescending nothingness masquerading as consumerist egalitarianism.

“Athena™ is the first 11 speed groupset with a silver finish, made for riders who expect state-of-the art performance from a Campagnolo® 11 speed groupset but without the high cost of the pro level groups. Technology, innovation, style and class are now available to all Campagnolo® enthusiasts.”

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Point being there are negative aspects to the design elements ancillary to the new componentry. Granted.

But, by golly, it sure is pretty. Of course it is.

And it is almost certainly going to ride better, more smoothly and efficiently – ultimately providing a more satisfying ride while extending the effective range of the pedal-er. This still needs full road testing, but initial returns show promise. The fit will be a bit different and improved, with a higher-set saddle atop a longer seatpost. The hand-me-down but decades younger wheelsets are both strength appropriate as well as a significant upgrade to lower rolling resistance.

The aforesaid gearing lowers the chainring denominator to 39, a reduction from the 42 on the original iteration of the Cloud Bike. The top-end, which is to say the lowest gear ratio, of the cassette also makes the pedaling easier. The compact chainrings match with the new-fangled 11-cog cassette. This means a double chainring provides more gearing options – 22 versus 21 – than the old-school triple chainring setup, along with less gear-ratio duplication.

This means there is a better chance I’ll be able to pedal up inclines on a loaded bicycle.

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The engineering of the chainrings and cogs and chain and Ergo levers and derailleurs and the cables all serve to make for smother rotation, shifting, and rolling. I believe it will run silent and solid, smooth and steady, silky and straight. All this makes it easier to forget about the bike, to zip along on a freewheeling downhill coast or to pedal effortfully, slowly, grindingly upward while focusing only on the wind or the sweat or the light or the ache or anything else besides the bicycle.

Which is ironic.

Fri, October 5, 2018 | link          Comments

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Day 3: Advancing on the capital

Day 3

Monday, June 4

Start: Port Gibson

End: Jackson

Counties: Two (Claiborne, Hinds)

Miles: 66 on the day, 117 overall

Time out on the bike: 8 hours, 30 minutes on the day; 14 hours, 42 minutes overall

Before we reach the swank, we pedal through the rank.

Our hosts in tiny Port Gibson, they of the Trump campaign signs, warn us explicitly over breakfast not to take the route I have mapped out for us through south Jackson. It’s dangerous, they say, citing gang violence and general depravity. Our night’s lodging, however, is in downtown and getting there by tandem is a necessity.

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(I realize now options available to me I did not consider during planning, namely that I could have stayed on the Trace and the adjacent bike trail now available along some of its most traveled portions on the way to the northern suburbs. We could have stayed there and taken a ride share into downtown for our tours of the Capitol and other public buildings set for the next day. Still, there’s something for staying in the heart of the city, an advantage we shall see as the high point of today’s ride.)

To start, we take a circuitous route out of Port Gibson that includes walking through the lawn of the Park Service maintenance building on the Trace.

The early morning canopy is enchanting and the early ride is delightful, if already languid in humidity. An early discovery is the disconnection between historic sites along the Trace and on-the-ground reality.

“It’s not a waterfall. It’s not even a creek,” Avery observes as we pass signs marking roadside spots of interest: Owens Creek Waterfall, in this example.

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Today’s heat does not creep, it arrives fully formed at 10:30 as we pedal into the former Choctaw Nation.

It’s on full blast. The Trace continues its upwardness, though gently. This changes almost as soon as we leave the Trace onto Mississippi Highway 467 at MM 79 as the pavement curves on a steep incline. We walk it, then roll into town on increasingly civilized roads, lanes, and streets until manicured lawns, street signs, city parks, and finally, stores appear. Avery is patient with my photos of the courthouse and I orient us toward Picante’s, a Mexican restaurant in a strip shopping center with a sushi place and a coffee sandwich shop.

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Picante’s is the very best meal of the trip. So far. Avery have tacos. I have enchiladas. We vacuum up tortilla chips and salsa and gulp down Coca-Cola like hummingbirds. We sit in the AC among a dwindling lunch crowd. Our waiter is solicitous and attentive after we tell him we are on the tandem, how far we have pedaled today and how far we will pedal in days to come.

After lunch, we continue further inland, off-Trace, and through south Jackson. Our first 7 miles or so on Raymond Highway is exceptionally pleasant on what is best described as a country lane. Houses become more frequent. Lots become smaller. Fences transition from enclosing cattle to restraining dogs. Then, we encounter the bane of the cyclist, the road detour. The extra mileage is not awful, the hills are significant, but perhaps on a grade more forgiving than what we would have faced on the original route. When we complete our de-tour, we are in town. There is traffic. There are hills. There are signals. There are two lanes. There is relative humidity mixed with high temperature to produce an energy-sapping, enervating soup. It is high stress for the captain and high intensity for all concerned.

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We steer through heavy traffic on two shoulderless, winding, hilly lanes alongside a volume of cars that chokes two lanes and bunches at lights when the lanes are five across. Additional lanes are welcome, but they come deeper in the state’s largest city in what appears to be the deeper and deeper reaches of its poorest quarters. Potholes yawn open. Glass shards sparkle along the gutter. Detritus of all varieties and remarkable sorts collects along curbs and at gaping grates. Catcalls rain down from sagging pedestrians.

A turn here, a turn there, we pass beneath the interstate and through brief desolation in the bright afternoon light. Soon we are skirting the battlements raised up against the encroaching poverty, protecting the citadel of academia. A further turn and we negotiate a roundabout – those great harbingers of transitions between poverty and the front lines of the urban class divide. We pass unmolested through a security gate and roll onto the brick-paved quad of HBCU life in the summer. There are few on campus.

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On the other side of JSU we circle around another roundabout, another frontier, and immediately over the tracks under elevated lanes of car traffic and into downtown proper, heralded by the bus station and followed by the rising edifice of our Jazz Age hotel, done up anew and recently gilded in the style of the Trumpian era: American Gaudy.

Sweat runs rivulets down the contours of our spine. An arduous day on the bike is over. We idle in the valet zone, crane our necks upward and contemplate our safe arrival at the gates of this benighted place.

“This is the fanciest place I’ve ever stayed,” Avery says, revealing more about being 14 than the relative swankiness of the place.

Here we are. Pedaling is done, not only for the day but the next as well with a break for gawking in the capital yawning ahead. Tonight, we order pizza from a Jackson joint, eat it in our separate beds, watch Stanley Cup hockey and make videos about our adventure.

Sat, August 11, 2018 | link          Comments

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Day 2: Blog post too pretty to burn

Sunday, June 3

Start: Natchez

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 to burn.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

We 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?

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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 mix.

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.

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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.

Thu, July 19, 2018 | link          Comments

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