Paul Flemming

Writing on Two Wheels

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A from-the-wheels-up view of rides, builds and fixes.

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

Day 1: Trace Apace, a tandem tour of Mississippi

Pre-roll

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.

School ended Thursday.

On Friday, I drove us to Tupelo in an un-airconditioned vehicle with the tandem perched atop it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 in 1979.

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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 our hopes.

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 and wonder.

We made movies on our trip. Watch the first one here.

 

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Mon, July 9, 2018 | link          Comments

Monday, June 11, 2018

Natchez Traced by the numb burrs

Mark it down as done.

Blogs/TraceBlogB.jpgAvery and I completed our ride on the Natchez Trace last week. We pedaled up from Natchez to Tupelo. We hauled ourselves and all our stuff up under our own power. One day – Wednesday – was perfect in every respect on the tandem. Each of the other five days had various degrees of difficulty.

I’ll have more in store, but for now, two notes only.

Blogs/TraceBlogC.JPGYou’ll note on the home page of the blog links to the short videos Avery and I made each day of the ride. We made ourselves laugh.

Second, a few numbers from the ride:

735 photos shot

328 miles pedaled

37 hours, 2 minutes spent in the saddle-ish

6 days of pedaling

51, 66, 8, 71, 83, 48 daily miles logged Sunday through Friday, respectively

12,225 feet of elevation gained, or 2.3 miles on the week

21 cyclists encountered on the Trace (6 more cyclists seen on the Tanglefoot Trail)

7 days in a row I ate grits for breakfast

7 days in a row Avery ate bacon at breakfast

1 pair of cleats failed (1 pair of replacement cleats hauled along and swapped in)

16,750 calories burned, according to the spurious calculations of my cycling app

36.5 mph, top speed recorded

145,735 Blackeyed susans passed

0 mechanical failures, including zero flat tires

Mon, June 11, 2018 | link          Comments

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Crooked letter, crooked letter, eye

It must go back to the whole em-eye-crooked letter-crooked letter-eye thing. That's certainly memorable.

Blogs/NatchezTupelo301Elevation_edited.jpgNext, I'd have to say the Interstate rest stops made the most lasting impression. They were fancy all-brick affairs, very welcoming indeed. In my memory, there were antiques in these roadside attractions and my parents noted the paradox of Mississippi's poverty and this splendor by the highway.

Blogs/Highway61.JPGFinally, for childhood impressions, were the roads themselves. Some landscapes and the roads through them are starkly and immediately recognizable. The pine-lined distinctively brown chip seal asphalt of Mississippi’s portion of Interstate 55 is one. On the way to New Orleans I recall marveling at the long stretches of macadam to the horizon in a tunnel of towering trees. This was Mississippi.

The more I read, the more Mississippi appeared. Shelby Foote – his narrative histories of the Civil War, but his fiction as well – Eudora Welty, William Faulkner. Mississippi was brutal and brutalized, rich in history, poor in resources.

Jackson, Biloxi, Tupelo, Vicksburg, Oxford, Tunica, Pass Christian, Gulf Shores. All of these names are evocative of extremes and as rich in meaning as the acts of some are bereft of humanity.

We’re going to roll through this Mississippi of my mind, my memory, and my imagination and see how it compares to what’s there on the ground beneath our tires. The only thing for it is to pedal on.

Sun, May 27, 2018 | link          Comments

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