Thursday, October 8, 2009

Natchez Trace II

 At two minutes past eight I was the first customer in the Western Auto. A bike shop had a corner in the auto parts store. 

The bike guy was out riding, another man informed me.  As he sized up my bike I could tell he knew more about it than I did.  I asked him if he wouldn’t mind taking a look at the tire.  I was afraid it was rubbing against the brakes, but turned out it just needed some grease.

I asked him what I could expect for terrain the first few days. He told me the big hills were past Tupelo but I could expect rolling terrain all the way home.

“I hope you Nashville folks realize you live at the end of the Trace, Natchez is the beginning of the road.”

I don’t know who could argue otherwise. Natchez has always been the start of the road that bears its name. Mile marker 0 was just a few pedal strokes from Western Auto, not far from where Cumberland Valley folk and the Kaintucks gathered for their walk back north after floating their goods down river for sale here or in the larger port of New Orleans. 

Their trails followed high ground, along ridge tops where possible, thereby avoiding the worst of the mire and malaria in swamplands below.  The natives before them didn’t have to worry about malaria, though their footpaths provided superior defensive positions, and they did avoid the mud.  Even before humans traveled the ridges, the migratory animals that first marked the land also choose high ground as they munched their way up and back from the salt licks on the Cumberland.

Some men started back for home on horseback with pockets full of the Spanish gold, the prevailing currency on the Southwest frontier.  These men had to be wary of the murderers, pickpockets, and various con artists, many who dressed as preachers and carried a Bible to conceal their daggers.  At either end of the trail, merchants who doubled as fencers tipped off bandits to the more lavishly equipped traveling parties.  Sometimes they would buy back their own merchandize at pennies on the dollar and resell the goods to the next gentleman brave or foolish enough to travel along the Devil's Backbone.

Most men didn’t have money for a horse and faced a month and half walk back to the rich hunting grounds and fertile valley that would in time become the city of Nashville.  The gamblers and roughnecks, many life-long flatboatmen, lived to spend their bottom dollar on the seedy wharves at Natchez-under-the-Hill. These men took to river life for the fire of Monongahela Whiskey in their bellies and a few fleeting hours inside the floating brothels and behind velvet curtains with an octoroon whore.  Time offshore was for drinking, fighting and fornicating.  The inevitable hangover announced the grueling slog upriver for their next river assignment.  Pity the unfortunate families that depended on these men as husbands and fathers. They did not return to put bread on the table. Their only gifts manifested long after homecoming, these the days before penicillin. 

I turned onto the Trace a little past 8:30, and peddled northeast.  The undulating hills were subtle enough to be unnoticeable in car. I was not in a car. I labored over the slightest inclines and tucked my head into the handlebars on every descent. I didn’t choose this bike for efficiency.  I wanted a comfortable seat and my head positioned high to enjoy the scenery. 

 Mid-April, Southern Mississippi was already deep into spring. Trees and undergrowth blushed deep green, with foliage already as thick as it would be mid-summer in Connecticut.  I convinced myself that I had made the right choice in bikes. My upright position was comfortable as the high handlebars allowed me to keep a straight back and afforded a nice view of this lush bottomland forest.

 A strong southeast wind was blowing ahead of the storm front. The gusts made a sail of my whole body, a great aid to each peddle-stroke.  I was lucky to have the wind as an ally—up to half the energy spent on a bike is spent fighting wind resistance. I couldn’t imagine biking 40 miles into a strong head wind on my first day. 

I grabbed a map at first exhibit shelter at mile marker eight. The strip map was folded into panels that stretched out all the way to Nashville. I was traveling one panel today, and was already a quarter of the way.  The map noted the mile markers of every historical site and rest stop, I would belatedly learn to make special note of the stops with water. I was still dedicated on this first day to seeing every last historical site on the route. 

The first site was a ways off the Trace, but I decided with all the free wind power I could make another half mile and turned left at a crossroad that led me downhill in the direction of the river. It was not yet ten, and sun was breaking through the clouds and the canopy with its rich tapestry of ash, maple, cypress, catalpa, poplar, water locust, bay and magnolia as well as a few solitary pines atop the sandy ridges.  The side road bottomed out into a bend with a few trailers to one side and on the other a long bank of earth that made a steep eight-foot rise to a grassy meadow.  Two squat hills rose at either end of this plateau.   My quads already tight, I waddled up the stairs to the top of the nearer of the two peaks, 40 feet above the trailers across the way.  

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