Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From Perfect Parkways to Dangerous Dieways...

The Natchez Trace Parkway makes for a super superb bike ride, as its silky smooth asphalt and low, slower traffic wind through colorful forests, over countless creeks and streams, an undisturbed, intimate Mississippi, and with picnic historical pull-offs every few miles, a cyclist cannot be too careful or else the trace teases and turns trance. Thankfully, Mark was my riding partner that forced a friendly wake-up pace, which, for me, was just a futile waste to try and keep close with his fancy carbon. You always remember how nice it is to have a fellow cyclist along for the ride, especially a local that's been digging in and has long known his turf. Talk of gators, unknown physiological limitations, truck buzzing, pipeline pathways, and marathon race days got us quickly down the road and eating fresh fried catfish (Catfish King) in Carthage before it even seemed like it all started. You know good times when 45 miles just disappear.

Introduced to me by his life-long buddy Keith - true trail angel, lawyer, entrepreneur, scratch golfer, and certainly the best man to know in Ridgeland, Keith and his father caught me waterproofing my shoes under the front porch shelter of the The Trace Grill (good grub) and immediately struck up conversation. Instead of pedaling through the puddles and rain to a grocery store and then another twenty down the Trace to a sloppy, wet camp, they suggested the option to stay dry as they would drive me down to the fresh market. It wasn't long before he took charge at check-out and then suggested I stay in town for the evening until the storm passed. We then eased over to a nearby hotel, where he again took control at the front desk. No need for a jealous audience, so I'll just say that I had a nice roof overhead and leave it at that. With a few afternoon hours remaining, we went back to his office, got a few swings in at Chateau Whistler and St. Andrews and introduced me to another good friend in Clint of Raise the Bar Fitness. An upbeat, awesome character, and long-time supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project, Clint quickly helped spread the word about my ride on his blog. He's your man in Mississippi if you need a personal trainer or professional advice with nutrition.

An all-star cast and great group of men I happened to encounter during my time in Jackson. As if I wasn't already riding high enough on the crest of the glorious Trace wave parkway, their generosity inflated the cloud and propelled me further along to the town of Louisville where I met more friendly folk and good country cooking at Lake Taik-O-Khata. After an anonymous man bought my dinner that night and then as a guest of the Rotary Club, was fed lunch the following day, the successive events were nearly surreal.

I immediately snapped out of that three-day dream once I hit the highway towards Macon, Mississippi. A dream induced by that Natchez Trace Parkway, a dream abruptly broken SR-14. Cloudy cold day on that rolling, rumble-strip two-lane logger truck speedway, and as they say, your head better be in the game, otherwise, you'll wind up as just another blood-stained statistic - possibly joining the other hundred thousand roadside cross memorials. Defensive riding at its best: head on a swivel, holding a laser line at times, always scanning advance for more trash, clobs of grass or busted glass while auto-dodging that which is already upon you, keeping consistent cadence to sustain the 1-2 smooth pedal power in rhythm, and maintaining your cool and fluidly loose but always ready to switch and put on a hell-grip when crossing over the rumble strip or sometimes dumping to the off-road quick. The rumble strip can shake your brain bad enough that you just pull over, stop, curse, wait for all visible vehicles to clear, and then grudgingly proceed.

There is always hope that road conditions will improve once you cross a county or state line, but they just got worse in Alabama. For all the goatheads of eastern Oregon and Idaho, for all the whacked-out-test-piece shoulder edge agitations of Arizona, and all the hundreds of miles of terrible Texas chip seal, man, if the roads of 'Bama ain't the most dangerous. There are no shoulders on two-lane highways, nearly as minimal on some major pavement - your forced to ride in the road. And in case you didn't know, Alabama is highly productive in timber, mining, and any other possible industry that requires huge trucks. You live or die according to match-traffic timing. Semi's, dump trucks, and loggers are so big with so much inertia and populate the roads with such high frequency that your only choice is to completely pull off into the grass/gravel/trash/glass, lean far away with head down, keeping your mouth closed unless you want a trail mix supplement.

So far, Alabama drivers have done well given the circumstances - no seriously close calls yet. In Tuscaloosa, I picked up a bulletin published by the state bicycle coalition which highlighted a recent national study that ranked states "bike friendliness". Not surprisingly, Alabama was dead last at 50. Well, there's room for improvement, and I wish this state and its cyclists the best in their efforts towards those improvements - there's so much beautiful and challenging countryside that it won't take much. If it was possible to re-allocate one half of one percent of the support and backing that goes into football, the state could instantly move into the top ten....

In a way, I'm glad I am here to experience the worst, although three more days of this may change that opinion. After starting in the state of Washington, which was ranked number one on that list, it's a good thing that I had almost a whole country of ride experience before pedaling into this pressure cooker. Knowing how I first felt on a loaded bike in addition to a lack of experience with variable highway traffic conditions would have been a recipe for disaster here.

Flag of Heroes - Servicemen Lost in 9/11 Attacks

Keith and Clint's Office


  1. Hey, Ryan!! So glad to read that you and Robbie made it to Georgia!! I was worried about you - especially Robbie!! I hope you had a great Thanksgiving with your brother. Write or call and let us know when you finish your journey.
    Love and best wishes,
    Kim Estill

  2. Yeah, I was proud of Robbie, especially on that 30-year old Schwinn that wasn't geared for some of your steep Alabama back roads. Believe it or not, as soon as we finished riding the Silver Comet, the bike broke! It made it to the finish line, gave one last breath, and said "No more!" Storybook stuff. It was one of those moments... Tell the family I said hello and thanks again for all the hospitality and the best breakfast of the journey!

  3. Josh:
    What a wonderful ride you have had. Thanks for taking me along with you. I would like to do the same, but every year someone get downright killed or crippled by a motorist. Scares me to death. Dave