Initial trace

Day 2: 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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On a summer Sunday evening in isolated rural Mississippi and without petroleum-based means 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.

Movies, they were made. Take a gander here at Episode 1.