Friday, November 13, 2009

Natchez Trace XII: Training Days

On the map day six did not look challenging. Rather than try and make it 77 miles to Florence, Alabama in a day, I booked a cabin at Tishomingo State Park, just 45 miles from Tupelo. I needed every last pedal stroke of my training to not break down on the ride.

Seven weeks earlier, I wrote my friend Adam before leaving Colombia, “Can a guy without much cycling experience train for a 450 mile ride in a month?”

Adam is one of those guys with the fancy jerseys. He is on a racing team and regularly rides a 100 miles in a day, a century, the insiders call it.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

I should have remembered sports enthusiasts are the most incorrigible optimists when it comes to the realm of the possible.

To his credit, he kept the instructions simple. Train as much and as hard as possible before the ride. Don’t train in too high of a gear; better to keep the legs moving at about 90 rpm. He recommended that if I couldn’t train on a real bike the next best thing was spinning. Spin bikes more closely imitate the pedal action on a road bike than regular exercise models. Just as importantly, they have real bicycle saddles. Sure enough, after my first workout a sore butt became the weak link in my training.

If I didn’t find every spin bike between Barranquilla and the Rio Grande, I came close.

I figured I could sneak in 25 training rides to get into shape for the Trace. This regime would shaped the course I took to get back home. I had a few more days in Barranquilla, and Rosita told me there was a gym just around the corner from our apartment building. I thought I had understood her wrong. I had lived in this place for 3 months without noticing a gym not even 50 yards away.

There it was, opposite the concrete park, a dusty little storefront with aluminum grilling over the windows. I had never noticed the Atlas figure on the rectangular sign above the door, or the spin bikes looking out the front windows. It was just a single room with some free weights in the back, and a few worn exercise machines sprinkled around the place. The ten spin bikes were well worn, the resistance knobs were rusting from the years of sweat and humidity in a room without air conditioning. The gym was run by a short body builder with the strut of a silverback gorilla. He’d occasionally stop near the wall opposite his counter for no apparent reason but to steal a glance in the mirror at his biceps.

I bought a weeklong membership to the Atlas. This was my first gym membership, a good place as any to make some novice mistakes.

The first five minutes of my first ride were interminable. I checked the minute hand on the plastic clock above the counter about once every thirty seconds, regulating my rpm, I convinced myself. There were no fans to stir the oppressive tropical air. I thought if I took off my shirt maybe it would be slightly more tolerable in the 90-degree room. There were no women around, just a couple muscle junkies on the bench press.

As soon as I had peeled off my dripping shirt, the silverback bounded over from his habitat near the free weights, one set of knuckles almost scraping the concrete floor, while his other arm wagged a stubby a finger. Next to the bike, he started pantomiming, even though I had negotiated the membership fee in a more than passable Spanish.

I knew what he was telling me, though if I hadn’t, the sign language would have just confused the issue, his bulky arms were not meant for painting pictures.

I gave him a blank stare in hopes he might continue the show. If this were charades I might have guessed he was a studio ape ripping off a tuxedo near the end of a trying day on set. The gesture became more convincing with repetition, two hands grabbing in front of his washboard abs and violently lifting up and out over his head. Then he wagged a finger close in front of my nose.

I’d learn it was a universal gym protocol I had violated—do not remove your shirt. Still, I imagine most gyms are built less like pizza ovens. At least my soaked shirt felt cool against my skin. I’d make some more faux pas on my gym hopping up the isthmus, but I’m glad I learned the basics in Barranquilla

In Monteria, I spun with the wives and girlfriends of some of the most terrifying figures in Colombian paramilitary. This ranching capital is the last seat of power for the AUC, its higher ups protected by President Uribe himself, as he is the owner of a sprawling hacienda north of town. One can guess how important a person is based on the strength of their bodyguard. Collectively, my workout partners were important enough to merit one half dozen AK 47 toting guards at the front door and another half dozen out back. If I had been in some nowhere town other than Monteria, I couldn’t have felt as confident these weren’t just drug henchman. Paramilitaries, mafiosos, and left wing insurgents are all involved in the drug trade, and they largely agree on their assault rifles of choice, the durable and cost effective Kalashnikov. Colombians have told me the only reliable way to know the difference between Paras and the FARC is by their jungle boots. The right-wingers wear leather, and the lefties sport cheaper plastic footwear. Cartels stick to the concrete. Government troops, who could also be anywhere, are easier to distinguish, just look for their Israeli designed Galil rifles.

This wasn’t the kind of gym where one needed a lock for the lockers. It was just me, another silverback trainer--this one probably a eunuch--and a dozen kept women, spandex clinging to their surgically enhanced bodies.

If there was a spin bike in the Darien, I missed it.

Panama City was like an extension of Miami, the athletic clubs notwithstanding. I am surprised they let me enter with my grungy black shoes and bathing suit. It’s amazing what a gringo can get away with sometimes.

In San Salvador I found a gym near the University that would only let me ride if I joined a spin class. They rode like they were always in the mountains. The only reward at the summit was asphyxiation, gulping down San Salvador smog was like jumping into a trench fogged with mustard gas. The air was darkened by eternally gridlocked second-hand American school buses puking black clouds of diesel smoke. The city somehow smelled worse than the diesel fumes; it stank of burning garbage. When I hit the streets after a workout my eyes watered and my lungs burned and I wondered what the hell was the point in exercising in a city where breathing might prove unhealthier than smoking. At least cigarettes come with filters.

Guatemala City might have had a gym, but I’d prefer a week in San Salvador to a night in that cesspit of urban agglomeration gone terribly wrong. The villages around Lago Atitlan were gym free. One of the expat hippies I met there suggested an astral projection class, where, for 40 bucks, I could visualize the challenges of my coming bike ride on a higher plane of consciousness. I opted for a massage instead.

The gym owner in crumbling downtown Veracruz took one look at my black shoes and told me to come back when I found something decent to wear. This exchange came after I had paid the cashier. Oh, and No Refunds.

I found a gym on the back streets of old town Monterrey, where a leathery man outside in a rocking chair let me in for a dollar. The dusty hall had a few weight machines and four rusted bikes directly across from a boxing ring. The instructor was teaching a lesson in counter punching to a teenager. Each time the teenager jabbed the instructor deflected the blow with a target glove and smacked the boy in the face with his other glove hen shouted “again!” After a while he looked frustrated with his pupil and started yelling in my direction, beckoning me to step into the ring. Glass Jaw Wilson knows his limitations. I declined, and rode for an hour one and twenty minutes while the lead-footed kid took a beating. I got off that bike in as good of shape as I’d been in my entire life.

I managed 17 workouts before New Orleans, where I tried my new bike out on the levee. I chose a hybrid, the narrow tires on road bikes made nervous, and though the upright position on my Giant Cypress meant less efficiency, it also meant less leaning over day after day for 450 miles. I figured my back would appreciate it.

The day before I got on the Marty Baskerville I learned that road miles really were different than time logged on a spin bike. After 12 miles, I felt my thighs tightening, so I prescribed myself a beer. I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating riding and drinking. Twenty-five miles and five beers later, I felt pretty good. I was ready for a week on the Trace.

Turned out the 45 miles to Tishomingo would be the most challenging ride of the trip. The undulating hills got steeper, the ascents longer than anything before Tupelo.
Three miles from the park, within sight of the highest point in Mississippi, a hundred yards from the top of the last hill before the park, I surrendered. I got off my bike and walked it to the top.
My legs weren’t broken, so the defeat was mental. Next time I’ll take the hippie class.

My Wal Mart bought dinner was delicious, a bachelor’s recipee I call the Calorie Bowl, baked beans topped with sliced almonds. I ate the last of the French Camp loaf, and ignored my only dinner companion, a deer mounted on the wall across from the bed. I slept for 10 hours untroubled by my insomniac roommate’s disapproving glare. At dawn I was ready for my last morning in Mississippi, my only day in Alabama, and a delicate spring afternoon in southern Tennessee.
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Friday, November 6, 2009

Natchez Trace XI: A Death on the Trace

“Still,” officer James Myers shook his head. “This is the only road for bicycling in Mississippi.”

Even with the grisly wreckage strewn out on the black top behind him, his words rang true. The Natchez Trace was the only road even remotely safe for long distance cycling in the state of Mississippi. Mississippians do not abide sharing right of way with slow moving geeks under foam helmets.

Since mile marker one five days ago, I had totaled less than two miles off the Trace, and twice in that time I was run off the road. That averages to just over one terrifying incident per mile outside the Parkway’s federal protection.

At least both drivers had the decency to honk before running me down. In Port Gibson, a man in a white minivan was enraged at the prospect of waiting 15 seconds before he could safely pass me due to oncoming traffic on Church Street. Then he realized he didn’t have to wait. He laid knuckles into his horn and accelerated. I had been looking over my shoulder and had just enough time to swerve into a ditch.

My near miss in Mathiston was less provoked. I started day five with a quarter mile ride from the motel back to the Trace on a four lane divided highway. I was riding near the shoulder in the right lane when another white minivan approached from behind. Rather than changing to the open passing lane, he slowed down which led me to think he was about to turn. Then he started honking. I held my ground a couple inches from the white line, clear of the glass and twisted metal detritus on the paved shoulder. I waved my arm, motioning him to pass me in the open left lane—we were the only two people on the road. Instead, he dug into his horn and gunned for my back tire. As I swerved into the shoulder my pannier bag dodged his front bumper by a few inches. He gave me the finger out over the roof of his car. Happy Earth Day, mother fucker.

I had a better Earth Day than the cyclist whose mangled bike lay beyond Officer Myers’ car.

I first heard something had gone wrong after lunch when I pulled back onto the Trace and was flagged by a southbound pick up truck.

“Were you riding with a girl back there?” the man asked.

“No, why, is she alright?”

“I don’t think so,” he said as he rolled away.

A few minutes later one, then another police cruisers roared past, their blue and red lights traced the road’s gentle curves at 100 miles an hour. Then an ambulance sped past from the other direction. Without flashing lights or horn, the bulky vehicle marked the silent retreat of a crestfallen warrior.

A few minutes past mile marker 240 I rolled up on a Chickasaw County police car parked horizontally across the road. An officer was directing cars to turn around and take a detour back and around the Trace. I asked her how long I would have to wait for the road to open. She did not have an answer.

It was not clear from the scene behind her what had happened. Carnage from the wreck was strewn 300 feet and seemed improbable to have been caused by a single collision. A white road bike with crumpled tires and busted pannier bags rested on the double yellow just beyond the police car. The guilty SUV sulked midway down the grassy shoulder.

I figured if I waited long enough one of the officers pacing back and forth through the scene would escort me through. After a half hour I asked the traffic officer what was going on, and she deferred my question to an approaching pacer. Meyers had been the first officer to arrive but had since been relegated by his superiors.

"Were you traveling with a woman named Esther?" he asked.

I said I was not.

He told me he couldn’t answer any questions about the collision. He then went on to tell me everything but the suspect’s name and age. The road was blocked because it was a crime scene; they were waiting for a coroner to arrive from Tupelo. The cyclist, a “heavier woman” from the Netherlands, was most likely killed upon impact.

"This is the first fatality in about about three years," Meyers said.

He said most collisions happen at twilight, when it got hard to see bikers on the road. He noted that my bright blue jersey had stuck out nicely as he streaked past.

It was past 4:30. I had a little over twenty-five miles to go, and if I was going to make it to Tupelo before sundown I would need to get pedaling soon. An eight-mile detour wasn’t an option for me. Sixty-five miles was already pushing it today, and there was no way I was venturing outside the relative sanctuary of the Trace. I pointed out to James that I would be faced with a twilight ride if I had to wait much longer.

James agreed, and after a few more minutes he walked me past the roadblock.

A hundred feet behind the mangled bike, the cyclist’s items spread out in a wake, a plastic shopping bag smeared with coleslaw, fried chicken, a can of Budweiser. Further down the road were her extra clothes: a red raincoat, jeans and underwear. Closely bunched at the far end of the plume, a hundred yards from bike, lay a helmet still in tact, a pair of sunglasses, a cell phone, and a streak of congealed blood.

A television crew had set up on the other side of the roadblock. The reporter wanted to ask me some questions. I told him what I had seen when I pulled up and mentioned that sad, quiet ambulance with its lights in mourning. He seemed disappointed with my report, perhaps goading me to elaborate for the audience on the other side of the lens. I had nothing sensational to say to the camera. They went with the footage anyway. I guess I had looked sufficiently aggrieved.

The cars that passed me the rest of way that afternoon did so with extra deference. Drivers were also unexpectedly cooperative on the mile I was forced to ride on a busy six-lane road into downtown Tupelo, where I got the feeling that Esther’s death was all over the evening traffic reports.

I’d learn after watching myself on the news the next morning that the victim’s name was Esther Hageman, a 51 year old journalist from the Netherlands who was on a cycling tour of the South. The driver of the SUV, whose name would be released later, was 58-year old Wendell Blount, a convicted felon who had been high on morphine at the time of the collision.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Natchez Trace X: Kosciusko to Mathiston

A beautiful Indian woman was working behind the counter of the modern stand at the Days Inn Kosciusko. She and her husband weren’t natives of course, but from the subcontinent Columbus had been trying to find before claiming Hispaniola for his Crown. These Indians had come by way San Jose, California. They had just finished the company’s management program and were now working up the corporate ladder. I couldn’t imagine a lower rung than Kosciusko, MS, though in fairness it was dark when I arrived and I was too tired to walk the mile into the center of town.

My hostess was diplomatic when I asked her what she thought of Mississippi—she dodged the question—though she did tell me she missed living in the Bay Area. She was hoping they would receive another placement within the year. I can vouch for the couple. They ran a clean and friendly operation.

The town of Kosciusko was named after a Polish engineer who had an impressive Age of Enlightement resume. A believer in the promise of an American republic, Thaddeus Kosciusko sailed from Europe to Philadelphia and enlisted with the rebels. His talents were quickly recognized and he was promoted to Chief Engineer of the Continental Army. He designed the defensive fortifications at Philadelphia and Ticonderoga as well as the academy at West Point. Upon leaving America for Poland, he decreed the lands given to him for his invaluable services be used as capital to buy the freedom of slaves.

His work in Poland was no less impressive. He commanded an army that scored successive victories over the larger forces of the invading Russians. Poland being Poland, her Prussian and Lithuanian neighbors sold her out for their own gain. Still, Kosciusko won battles against the encroaching Czarist army and might have triumphed had the Polish King not reached an agreement behind Kosciusko’s back to capitulate and save his own skin. Never having lost a battle as head of the Polish armies, Kosciusko was forced to accept the terms negotiated by his king that reduced their nation to a minor state-let. In a last effort to mobilize the people against the invaders, he abolished serfdom and raised an insurgent army that for a time threatened to repel the Russian forces. This time he was defeated in the field and captured. He was forced to watch from a St. Petersburg prison as Russia, Austria, and Prussia swallowed up the remainder of Polish territory so that politically his homeland ceased to exist.

There is a museum dedicated to Thaddeus Kosciusko just outside of town at mile marker 162. Why someone had chosen this spot to commemorate the Polish hero, a site that was just as much in the middle of nowhere at the close of the eighteenth century as it is today, and why there was an annex with a tribute to Oprah Winfrey, the museum did not make clear.

The weathermen didn’t forecast the cold rain that fell on the stretch between Kosciusko and French Camp, or maybe they did, and figured it not worth mentioning if no one would be there to notice. I only saw two cars that morning.

Even with my legs pumping at 90 rpm the steady rain drove the cold into my bones. French Camp was the only ink on the map between Kosciusko and my destination for the night, and luckily there was a small country restaurant right off the Trace.

The couple from Tupelo at the table next to me claimed this French Camp retreat had the best BLT’s in Mississippi. The bread was homemade, baked by the students at the French Camp Academy who also served in the restaurant. I opted for a thick slice of white bread and potato soup, the perfect lunch to bring some heat back into my hands and feet. After lunch I wandered into town and stopped at the welcome center operated by the school. French Camp Academy was a second chance special education school that emphasized work and prayer. I chatted with some of the students who came from all over the southeast. They were happy to have a distraction and they asked me every question they could think of to ask. The kids were sweet, if not imaginative. They soon ran out of questions and their supervisor put them back to work before giving me suggestions for some bike rides in the area. She sent me off with a half loaf of home made bread.

I finished day four in Mathiston, a one-diner town across the Trace from Pigeon Roost named for the passenger pigeons that had once chosen it as a favorite rest stop. It is impossible to imagine the extinct birds that used to travel in flocks of millions, by some accounts billions. Their flocks stretched for tens of miles, thick enough to blot out the noonday sun when they passed overhead. After landing for the night, they would leave a wake of broken tree branches and blizzards of bird shit.

The stand at Mathiston did not compare with the previous night in Kosciusko. The cinderblock cells at the Mathiston Motor Inn were a refuge for truckers, prostitutes and, from the looks of the corroded sink and tub in the bathroom, itinerant meth chemists. I was too tired to be bothered by the grime, and the room sufficed for bike storage and sleeping. Two hundred miles down, two hundred and forty to go.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Natchez Trace IX: Old Hickory and the Death of the Old Trace

Though there is no clear beginning to the history of the animal runs and footpaths that became the old Trace, its end is easier to pinpoint. In 1811, the New Orleans demonstrated to a multitude of skeptics the possibility of coupling steam engine to riverboat and pushing up current, past the treacherous sawyers, snags and whirlpools on the Mississippi.

Once upriver navigation became reality, smoke-stacked paddle wheelers proliferated like algae blooms on tamer waters. Within a decade nearly a thousand steamboats plied the Mississippi. By that time even the poorest farmer could afford the third class passage that entitled him a spot on a crowded deck where he would sleep out in the elements. Given the accidents and violence on the river, the water route was no less treacherous than the Trace, but it saved at least a month in travel time and avoided a 500-mile walk back to the Cumberland Valley. It should have meant less business for the Native Americans who by treaty had exclusive rights to operate the inns, known as stands, along the road's desolate stretch through the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations.

Though at the same time the road was losing its northbound traffic, greater numbers pushed south. Unscrupulous characters drove chained men for whom they had no or dubious title. Otherwise they too would have taken the quicker, and more policed, river route to the Mississippi bottomlands where cotton production was booming and the demand for human capital insatiable. Settlers with an eye for this wilderness, now within the boundaries of the young republic, arrived in increasing numbers hungry for land and confident their government would soon wrest it from tribal control.

The Trace was already losing its commercial viability by the time Andrew Jackson earned his most famous moniker on this road. At start of the War of 1812, Jackson led the volunteer Tennessee Militia down river to aid the defense of New Orleans. Yet his troops were delayed, then abandoned, in Natchez due to the perfidious maneuverings of Jackson’s military superior in New Orleans, Major General James Wilkinson. The treasonous Wilkinson, archives have established he had once worked as a spy for the Spanish Crown, wanted no competition from the able Tennessean. Rather than allowing Jackson to join his forces in New Orleans, Wilkinson commanded him to proceed no further than Natchez while he worked to secure orders from Washington that would dismiss the Tennessean from command.

Denied permission to join forces along the Canadian front, and cut off from the government commissaries, Jackson staked his personal fortune to march the 1500 Volunteers in his charge from Natchez back to Nashville. Along the way the commander who was tough as a hickory tree offered his own mount to the sick and encouraging words to the dying. By 1815, the scalawag Wilkinson had stood court-martial for incompetence during the war and Jackson was a national hero for repelling a superior force of the British regulars at New Orleans. Jackson’s march home was a last hurrah for the road that Jefferson had deemed to be of vital national importance a decade before.

Old Hickory would commence with his most villainous legacy along the same road that had catapulted him to greatness. In 1820, at the close of that last relevant decade for the Trace, Jackson arrived at Doak’s Stand, just a few miles southwest of Kosciusko, as an agent of the federal government. There he set the terms by which the United States would claim the rich bottomlands of the Choctaw, who a few years prior had fought alongside Jackson in the Creek War. Jackson repaid his allies by pushing the tribe into Arkansas on the false promise that these new lands lay beyond white encroachment. Within another decade, Jackson had ridden the western vote into the White House and rewarded his constituents with the Indian Removal Actthat pushed the Choctaw, along the with other Indian Nations, even further west. When the last Native Americans east of the Mississippi shed their tears across the Trace, the road no longer held national importance. Nor could it be thought of as a cohesive unit. In the 1820’s the Trace began splintering into a series of local throughways. They would not be fully reconnected until my 29th birthday, the day when the last stretch of smooth pavement was opened to the public, over seventy years after the Natchez Trace Parkway was first conceived as a Depression era WPA project.
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