Thursday, October 1, 2009

Natchez Trace I

Dexter banged on my door and flipped on the lights at 5 am.  “We’ll be at Natchez in one hour.”


 Cold steady rain was still falling on the deck when I went down to the galley for breakfast.  Tiny, the enormous engineer was at the table, his plate stacked high with hash browns, scrambled eggs and flapjacks fenced in by strips of bacon. Terry had made a feast for my last breakfast on the Marty Baskerville. Tiny assured me the crew ate that well every morning.


I learned the ship would pick up a new deckhand at Natchez.  I kidded that it would be fun for them having a greenhorn around to mess with. Tiny just shook his head. 


“We cant call them greenhorns no more, not politically correct,” He said. “We have to call them trainees now.” As if to support his point, he mentioned by name the term they can no longer use for the black wrenches found on a tow’s bow. 


I went up to the pilothouse to say thank you and goodbye to Fred, who showed me on the radar the few patches of rain lurking on the river.  I was nervous as I hauled the heavy bike and bulging pannier bag down to the main deck.  The bike alone was more than twice the weight of a touring bike.



 I was not dressed like a biker.  I had jeans on over my bike shorts and decided my El Salvador jersey would make a much cheaper alternative to one of those fancy bike shirts I always thought looked ridiculous on weekend warriors. The polyester would be quick enough to dry and could hold in warmth even if soaked with rain, and as I’d learn later, was bright enough to be seen by cars blazing around the looping curves on the Trace.


 Everything else for the next ten days I had stuffed into either side of the pannier: two changes of clothes, a jar of peanut butter, a small Moleskine notebook and pen, two spare tubes, a bike pump, camera, and a paperback copy of the Devil’s Backbone, said to be the best book ever written about the 444 miles between Natchez and Nashville.


The rain was only spitting at 5:45 as the harbor tug pulled up beside the Baskerville.  Dexter handed my bike across to the tug’s deckhand, and I traded places with the trainee about to start his first day on the river.  He was a big kid, even younger than Dexter, his round face slightly furrowed betraying his nervousness.  I wished them both good luck.


Michael, the captain of the harbor pilot stuck his head out from the window of the small wheelhouse one deck above the bow. I imagined he looked something like Blackbeard.


“In 21 years I have never seen anyone get off a boat on a bike before!” the captain yelled down to me.


I explained that I had been a guest on the Baskerville. This confused him for a second, he had assumed I was an employee, maybe a spooked greenhorn getting the hell off the river.


He asked where I was coming from, and I told him Colombia, the country, by way of New Orleans.  No, I hadn’t biked from Colombia, but I was peddling my way to Tennessee. With these bits of information he took another look at me. 


“Well,” he said,  “I bet you’ve lived an interesting life.”


It was still dark when Michael wished me luck as I hopped ashore on the Louisiana side of the river.  The start of the Trace was six miles away, across the river on the other side of Natchez, so I imagined mile marker minus six planted in the gravel drive. I was now exactly 450 miles to home.


 I was happy to add another state to my bike trip, though starting from Vidalia would add about six miles to the 40 mile trip to Port Gibson from the start of the Trace on the east side of town.  Forty six miles was three times as long as any bike ride I had taken in my life, I figured I rode 16 miles on my test run along the levee in New Orleans last Wednesday.  And tomorrow I had a 61-mile ride to Jackson.  I didn’t know if I was in shape for 100 miles in two days, but I didn’t have a choice.  There was nothing in between Natchez and Port Gibson and nothing again to Jackson.


At least I’d be doing most of my first day dry. Fred had told me I could expect a ten hours reprieve until the next front passed through.  I made my way to the bridge per Michael’s directions and climbed the first in a succession of rolling hills between the Mississippi and Nashville, this one the man-made incline that put me high above the river.  I caught a glimpse of the retreating Baskerville before it disappeared around the next bend.  Day was breaking and the bluffs of Natchez were kicking off a patchy blanket of fog down towards the river.  I stopped near the top of the artificial hill at the sign welcoming me to Mississippi where the passing tractor-trailers shook the concrete as I took some pictures to celebrate my second state in as many miles. Three hundred fifteen miles before Alabama would welcome me, hopefully in little under a week.


The shuttered storefronts in the old town are museum pieces for a city that once boasted more millionaires per capita than any other town in the United States, men who made their money from cotton and the slaves who grew the cotton.  Old Town Natchez is among the best-preserved historic sites in Mississippi, though the history preserved represents a narrow slice of the whole.  A park with a partially restored mound is all that remains of the Native imprint on this desirable location above the river’s flood plain, there is even less a trace of succeeding French and Spanish rule.   The history that remains is from 19th century, fortunately the town only saw minor shelling by Union gunboats during the war. In this state it is not necessary to clarify which war, as my view to the top of the courthouse reminded me. The Confederate battle flag, framed with a red, white, and blue stripe, still flies over Mississippi.  


I might as well strike up friendly small talk about late term abortions before criticizing the state flag.  It is a strident symbol, and I know I am not the only Southerner who has a hard time watching the southern cross fly in an official capacity.  Yeah, symbols are what we believe them to be, and I knew people who brought their flags with them to put up in their college dorm rooms North of the Mason-Dixon line.  They'd tell you they put it up on their walls because it symbolized their Southern heritage.  I might have told you that when my classmates and I bought rebel flags on our elementary school's eighth grade trip to Charleston and Savannah.  It took six months before I really looked at thing and saw how ridiculous it was for a kid from the suburbs to have a rebel flag flying in his bedroom.  In a penance that was more reaction than realization, I ripped it off my wall and burned it in the back yard.  

I know now that the flag was a symbol of resistance to the power of the federal government, a government that within my father’s lifetime had to insist, over the authority of state of Mississippi, that black men and women had the same right to vote as white men and women, that they could use the same stores, eat at the same lunch counters, and ride the same buses, that their children could go to the same schools.  Of course these battles were fought all over the South, but arguably nowhere was more recalcitrant than Mississippi--even South Carolina stopped flying the flag over their statehouse almost ten years ago. 

Mississippi eventually succumbed to the feds.  Now everyone shops at Wal-Mart.  And if schools are still segregated it is because of white flight and the desire to abandon cross-town busing for neighborhood schools, not racist legislation.  Mississippi still lurks at the bottom of state education tables, but their schools are uniformly second-rate.   The disparities among public schools in Jackson and its suburbs do not compete with the disparities that exist between the north and south side of Chicago. Inequity in education is an American institution. 

 A shiver ran down my spine. I imagined myself alone on a backwoods section of the Trace with I hate the rebel flag emblazoned on my El Salvador jersey.  A truck load of rednecks tailgates my back tire.  One of them shouts I'm the special ed teacher who couldn't get his brother into the reserves.   Paranoid, maybe so, but I could replay the dozens of looks of dirty looks I got from the locals in Helena and Marianna their eyes wary of us carpet-bagging, liberal race traitors. 

I did not have time to linger and watch Main Street churn to life on this Saturday morning and remind me this town was full of good people and bad people and smart people and morons like any other town in America, a town more beautiful than most. I still had no idea how long it took to peddle 45 miles, and according to Fred’s calculations I was only nine hours ahead of a heavy storm.


My front tire was squeaking as I peddled between the columned buildings and brick facades on Franklin St.  I had no idea how serious a squeak was, but it started on mile two of a 450-mile ride, and it was already annoying.  I bought a bike new for this trip so there would be nothing to fix. I come from a long line of mechanically incompetent men and the last thing I needed was to be 20 miles from the nearest town with a broken bike and rednecks howling in the distance.


I laid my bike on the sidewalk and made a pathetic attempt to identify the source of the squeak.  Beyond it coming from the front tire, I had no idea. There was another hour before the bike shop at the beginning of the Trace would be open, but it was worth the peace of mind and the extra supplies I might find before I raced the storm front to Port Gibson.  I pulled up to an old gas station at the corner of Franklin and Martin Luther King and locked my bike next to a pump the whose rusted meter was stuck at $8.57, the price of a tank of gas in the 70’s. Inside, the station had been converted into a simple diner. The stenciling in the window read Marsaw’s Cafe. 


I took a seat at the counter in front of a woman in her late-thirties to early forties, she had the same weary-knowing look of grandmothers her age I had taught alongside at Lee High School.  She spoke a clear standard English distinct from her customers’ deep Delta drawls.  I guessed she was a teacher, and if not a grandmother, that she was responsible for some nieces and nephews in addition to any children she might have. It was that look, that it really does take a village to raise a child in this world.



 She took my breakfast order, the option on the board is whether I wanted the breakfast with or without OJ. The postings to either side of breakfast and lunch warned clients that no one not on shift was allowed behind the counter. To my left an old man named Chicken manned the heavy iron skillets pooled with some combination of oil, butter and pork fat. I tried not to think about the latter as my grits and eggs struggled to stay afloat in the bubbling grease.  I declined the patty or link option, which made Chicken pause, his spatula frozen over the skillets, before he reached for an extra biscuit.


A young man slinked in and slumped down on a stool a few seats away from me.  He said he did not have the whole 5 dollars for the breakfast.


“Ok if I bring the 50 cents to you later?” he asked.


“That’s fine.  Orange Juice is a dollar fifty extra, you still want it?”


“Yes ma’am.”


Chicken walked over and put down 2 dollars on the boy’s side of the counter.


“Can’t work if you’re hungry,” Chicken said. “I should know.”


Other customers, mostly older, all of them black, slowly filled up the counter except for the two seats on either side of the obvious stranger. I could have stayed all morning listening the rapid-fire jokes and easy rhythms of conversation in Marsaw’s. The bike shop was nearly open by the time I finished my last biscuit.  I left a dollar in the BAMA Jelly tip jar and shoved off from the counter.

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