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.


Unknown said...

Beautifully written, Bill. And so sad. It reminds me of Billy Collins' poems.

Bill Wilson said...

Thank you, Kate.