How It Came To Be, & Why Do This Ride? - Seeking A Bicycle Warrior's Death, Part II: The Great Rivers South - CycleBlaze

How It Came To Be, & Why Do This Ride?

This Is Not My Ideal Tour; Logistical Challenges & Other Challenges I Expect

"The closer you get to nature, the further you are from idiots."   (original author unknown, at least to me)

I had been thinking about doing this tour ever since I finished last year's tour along the Northern Tier.  It's not that I knew anything about it or had some special reasons to want to ride this route, it's just mostly that it's an ACA-mapped route that's within a long day drive from my home in Tulsa.  There aren't many journals of folks who have ridden this route, it appears to be one of the less popular routes.  The few journals I found were mostly from folks who rode on a part of the route (such as just doing the Natchez Trace), so I really didn't get much guidance from others.  So I had this route sort of filed away as a "maybe do it sometime" route and hadn't done any real planning or research.  

A Sudden Rush.  My wife and I have an "average" social life.  By that I mean that she likes people and has lots of friends and various clubs she participates in that keeps her very active socially, and I don't like people and have very few friends and don't do much socially.  So between her social life being fairly maxed out and mine being non-existent, we average out about normal. 

And thus it came to be that my wife told me that if I was going on a fall tour this year it would be best to get it done before she left on a cruise with friends in late October.  I had been sort of lazily thinking that I might tour mid-Oct to mid-Nov and wasn't in a rush to plan anything, but now there was a defined end-point much sooner than I had expected.  Additionally, I was scheduled to drive to Houston, TX for some medical scans and tests related to the Big C in late Sept, so I was now constrained to tour between late Sept and late Oct - the schedule should be workable but wouldn't have much slack.  New Orleans is closer to Houston than it is to Tulsa, so it made sense to leave Tulsa in a 1-way rental vehicle with my bike and gear, drive to Houston for my medical stuff, then high-tail it to New Orleans and commence the tour.  By the time we had confirmed the ideal schedule and I realized I needed to depart for Houston prepared to go on a bike tour immediately afterwards, it was only 2 weeks prior to departure and I had no idea how or if I could make the details work.  

The Logistics Aren't Easy.  As I started the planning process, I began to see why there are very few journals of folks touring this route.  It's tough to figure out how to get from New Orleans to Natchez, MS and follow the ACA route.  There's not much opportunity for camping - the only places I saw were "RV" parks that appeared to be permanently occupied.  There is indoor lodging available, particularly so if you look off of the ACA route, but it's not always where you need it to be.  It can be tricky to start in downtown New Orleans at the "official" start point of the ACA route; expensive boutique hotels with $45/day valet parking, issues of how to turn in a rental vehicle and get bike and gear assembled.  The biggest hurdle I found was getting out of Louisiana and reaching Natchez, MS - there's really no way to do it safely without riding at least a 74-mile day early in the tour.  Journals of others I had read showed them renting a car, and/or doing various off-route manipulations to make this traverse.  As I write this I have developed what I think is a reasonable plan to get from New Orleans to Natchez - it requires 1 long day, much longer than I prefer early in a tour, but at least it's a plan.   

As I'm writing this, I've only planned as far as Natchez. Once I get to Natchez, I will ride the Natchez Trace for 400+ miles.   There are 5 cyclist-only camping spots along the Trace.  These are primitive sites, no tables or water - but there is water available at the restrooms along the Trace.  Usually.  If you get there between the hours of 8 - 5 when the restroom is open.  But now isn't usual.  The Trace goes through Jackson, MS suburb communities and Jackson is currently without a water system and is surviving on bottled water distribution.   Even before the Jackson water debacle, the water main leading to the Rocky Springs campground on the Trace had broken and there has been no potable water for weeks - I need to camp there and that's still the plan. I will have to carry enough water for that day and for food and cooking and enough to get me somewhere else with water the next day - no big deal, just an added logistical consideration -  agghh!  

The ACA maps mention that due to limited camping opportunities that cyclists may want to consider indoor accommodations along the Trace - that's a pretty unusual thing for a biking/camping group like the ACA to say, so I took note.  Fortunately, there is a group that will help provide a free itinerary for a cycle tour along the trace.  Natchez Trace Travel will plan out an itinerary based on your expected mileage and preference for camping or inside.  Great folks, here they are -> Natchez Trace Travel Itinerary Planning

Road Construction Closure on the Natchez Trace. I got an itinerary from these folks, and that's how I learned that a portion of the Trace is closed for construction.  Construction is currently in "Phase 2" and the Natchez Trace Travel folks have developed a bicycle detour around it that is different from the detour developed for motor vehicles - the motor vehicle detour requires travel on some roads that would be dangerous for cyclists.   They even developed a RWGPS map for use by cyclists, and that will work well and get me around the Phase 2 construction.  

However, it is possible that Phase 3 will be underway by the time I get there - all that is known is that Phase 3 will start sometime in October and close the Natchez Trace bridge over the Tennessee River. Shutting down the Natchez Trace bridge over the Tennessee River presents a real obstacle to cycle tourists.  The Natchez Trace Travel folks believe it to be too difficult and unsafe to detour around the Phase 3 construction on bicycle, and so they recommend that cyclists find a way to motor-vehicle it around the construction if Phase 3 has started.   

Shuttling around the Phase 3 construction is not an acceptable option for me - I realize that for others it would be acceptable, but for me it just ruins the whole point of a bicycle tour. And so I took a lot of time and developed an alternate bicycle route in case Phase 3 construction has started - my alternative detour from the Natchez Trace goes through Muscle Shoals, AL and crosses the Tennessee River there.  It's really an acceptable bicycle route, but it does require riding on the shoulder of a busy highway for 16 miles.  The shoulder looks good on Google Earth.  I developed a route that stays off most of the busy roads through Muscle Shoals and crosses the Tennessee River to Florence, AL on a separated cyclist/pedestrian trail, then returns to the Natchez Trace via another highway that has a good shoulder.  I think this is a good cyclist detour option, and I shared the RWGPS map with the Natchez Trace Travel folks.  But developing these things take time, and I have precious little of that left to organize all the details in time.

So I'm pulling out what little hair I have left trying to plan this thing.  I suppose the worst that could happen is that I get started and don't complete the route.   Wherever I end up around Oct 24 will be as far as I get, cause that's when I need to head home.   I certainly don't need to have EVERY detail worked out, but I would like to at least have a plan to get me past the Natchez Trace road construction so I can cross over the Tennessee River.  So that's what I'm working on.   If I have to detour for Phase 3 construction, it adds a day and impacts the lodging schedule, so I'm trying to reserve lodging only as far as the potential detour.   The problem with that is that at least 1 place I would stay shortly after crossing the Tennessee River is a B&B with only a couple of rooms, and there really is no other lodging or camping option, so I would like to firm up that reservation - but I can't since I don't know if I will have to take the detour.  I'm not complaining, really I'm not; planning the logistics for a bicycle tour is part of the fun, I'm just sharing some of the difficulty I have had with  planning this tour. 

And one other little thing - it's pretty much impossible to get new bicycle tires, at least it is to get the kind I like.  So I may have to tour on tires that already have 4,800 miles of loaded touring on them.   I've actually had a half-dozen email exchanges with the US rep for Panaracer; they have an order of 300 tires expected "any day now" and I'm the top priority to receive 2 new Panaracer Tourgard Plus tires - but it's looking pretty "iffy" that they will arrive in time.  The shipping bill showed that they would arrive in country yesterday (Friday Sept 9) but they aren't here yet.  I have to receive the tires by Sept 17, or else go with my old ones.  It's not looking hopeful. 

This Isn't My Ideal Tour. My ideal tour involves the mid-western and western states; I love the wide-open plains, the empty spaces, and the mountains.  The populace of the northwestern and northeastern states is generally more educated than the central and southern states as well, and that fits my personality as well.  So then, why would I undertake a tour through some of the most backward states in the country?  Maybe you can help me figure it out, cause I'm really not sure.  Maybe we can reason it out, and I'll try to do so below.  But honestly, I'm not sure why I'm doing it - do we have to have a good reason for everything we do? 

I grew up in Arkansas, then moved to Oklahoma shortly after college where I have lived for my entire adult life.  I am quite familiar with what is known as "backwards southern states." Most of my family and friends live in AR or OK, and many of them have only recently evolved from the primordial ooze - I mean that in both the physical and cultural sense.  While it isn't my intention to offend anyone, I do intend to be honest and call things as I see them on this tour.  I will be traveling through some of the most uneducated and backwards portions of America on this little jaunt, but even so I expect to meet a lot of good folks; that just seems to happen when I go on a bicycle tour.  Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri are often included in the lists of the worst states in the country for such things as education, healthcare, and crime.   That's simply a fact, not a judgement (FWIW, "my" home states of Arkansas and Oklahoma are also included on those lists, but this tour doesn't include them).  

So having said all that, why in the world am I doing this tour?  I'm not sure, maybe if I write things down I can sort it out, so here goes.

Reasons To Attempt This Route; 

  1. I'd like to do a fall tour - my previous long tours have been done in the spring and summer months and heat has been the biggest challenge.
  2. I've never traveled on the Natchez Trace - bicycle travel is the best way I know to really experience the land and appreciate it, so riding the Natchez Trace has been a goal of mine. 
  3. After riding coast-to-coast last year, I'm looking for something a little less epic than a 3-month tour; perhaps a 4-5 week tour like this will fit the bill.  
  4. Long ago (1976) I visited the Land Between the Lakes region on a weekend while working with a drill crew near Cape Girardeau, MO.    This tour travels through the Land Between the Lakes and passes through Cape Girardeau, so the trip down memory lane has some appeal to me. 
  5. I've never ridden in LA, MS, AL, or TN, so this tour lets me experience a bit of these states.  I could probably list this as a negative reason as well.  
  6. There are 5 or so campsites set aside exclusively for cyclists on the Natchez Trace.  These are free campsites provided by the Park Service, but they are primitive - no picnic table, nothing but a designated spot for camping for cyclists only.  The fact that the Park Service recognizes cyclists as a special class worthy of dedicated camping spots is a good thing, and hopefully my itinerary will work out such that I can avail myself of at least some of these sites. 
  7. New Orleans and Muscatine can each be reached from Tulsa with a long day's drive, so travel to and from may not be as complicated as my previous tours. 

Reasons to NOT Attempt This Route

  1. I'm not enamored with the uneducated populace of the deep south.  There are certainly many good folks living in these states, but I don't empathize with the highly religious and uneducated folks that make up much of the right-wing base of our political system, and this tour passes through their midst. 
  2. As a general rule, I prefer not to ride in big cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  This route starts in New Orleans and passes through Baton Rouge.  It also passes near the Jackson, MS area and goes through Tupelo, MS.  The traffic in those areas may be more than I'd like.  But to be fair, on the other hand I do find it satisfying to navigate my way on bicycle through big cities - so the accomplishment of riding through New Orleans and Baton Rouge does have some positive appeal as well.
  3. LA, MS, AL, TN, and MO are states where folks let their dogs run loose and chase cyclists. I base this assessment on reading other journals and from a warning included on the ACA maps of this route.  I didn't experience any dog chases in previous tours through IL and IA so I didn't include those states as "dog-chase" states - I guess we'll see what this route holds. 
  4. Muscatine, IA isn't exactly a destination city, so why would anyone ride about 1,500 miles to get there?  It's not a bad place, I passed through it on my Northern Tier tour last year, it just seems a little odd to end a tour there.  
  5. Jackson, MS has recently undergone severe flooding and is currently in a water crisis (as of Sept 1, 2022).  The route doesn't pass through Jackson itself but does go through some of the outlying suburb areas.  I need to take extra care in planning and check with locals to verify the water situation - my bicycle "engine" will overheat and malfunction without water.

Although some of the challenges I expect can be deduced from the above list, I'll specifically list them below.

Challenges Expected;

  1. Hills.  The route info indicates 63,410 feet of climbing for the northbound rider.  It will be more than that due to off-route excursions to reach lodging, get food and supplies, etc.  This is almost 50% of the climbing I experienced going coast to coast on the Northern Tier last year!  That's more than I had expected for this route, but since it goes through the hills of TN, KY, and MO I guess I should have seen that coming.  So this won't be an easy route.
  2. Dogs.  I don't enjoy being chased by dogs (who does?). After last year's attack by rabid beasts wherein I found myself literally fighting for my life (Dog Attack) I always carry pepper spray with me.  I know from experience that pepper spray doesn't always work, but at least I can fight back.  There is a road detour off of the Natchez Trace due to construction, and the Natchez Trace Travel folks have listed a suggested bicycle detour route - and they recommend an air horn to scare the dogs you are expected to encounter.  Gee whiz - why would people allow their dogs to roam loose and attack cyclists? 
  3. Weather.  Recent flooding has devastated parts of this route - the Jackson, MS area in particular.  Jackson is short on water at the moment (Sept 1, 2022).   I may need to plan on blowing through the Jackson area and not count on resupply there.  Otherwise, I had hoped that the Fall weather would make for pleasant riding - I guess we will see. 
  4. Natchez Trace Resupply.  I'll be traveling on the Natchez Trace Parkway for more than 400 miles. There are no stores on the Natchez Trace.  One must exit the trace to resupply with food.  Some exits put you on highly trafficked roads, some aren't so bad.  So good planning is required to know where you can exit for food resupply or restaurants.  Fortunately, info can be found on the Natchez Trace Travel web site (Natchez Trace Resupply Points) to help you plan. 
  5. Natchez Trace Lodging.  While the Park Service does provide some cyclist-only camp areas, they are few and sometimes far between - and they are primitive camp sites only.  ACA notes that you may want to plan on indoor lodging along the Trace.   Fortunately, the restrooms along the Trace have potable water (or at least some do, I'm not certain if they all do), so if I have food then I can survive an occasional primitive campsite.  Some of the restrooms are only open from 8 to 5, so good planning and adequate water storage is required. I plan to pack along a few alcohol wipes to use for cleaning up if I camp where no showers are available. 
  6. Personal Health Issues.  I'm in decent shape for riding, other than for the herniated disc issue with my back that gives me a constant minor pain from my right hip to my knee (see earlier "About That Title" section for more details if you wish). 

I've learned from experience that it's the unexpected challenges that can prove to be the most difficult.  That's what makes it an adventure, I suppose.  Now, if I only knew what unexpected challenges to expect...

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Update as of Sept 19; The above was written during the last week and a lot has changed.  I almost cancelled the tour 2 days ago due to some logistical roadblocks, but managed to work around them.  As of this writing, I have traveled from Tulsa to Houston, TX with my bicycle and gear and will depart 2 days hence for New Orleans - so I am at least going to start this tour!  What has changed;

  • I'm not camping.  The logistics just didn't work out well for it - the locations where I could have camped versus the locations where I would stay inside weren't optimum.  Part of that is probably due to me having a somewhat rigid schedule to complete the tour.  When I laid it all out there were only 5 nights where I might have camped, and some of these were primitive sites with questionable water sources.  One of these was a cyclist-only camping site behind a Natchez Trace Visiter Center, and it is literally 1 block away from an Econo-Lodge hotel.  This is going to be a very hilly route in places, and dumping the camping gear saves me about 20 pounds.  I am taking my summer-weight sleeping bag along, because I plan on 3 (maybe 4) overnights in hostels where I need my own bedding.
  • The Jackson Area Water Crisis Has Been Solved. Well, not really "solved" because they still need a lot of infrastructure reconstruction, but at least for the moment the water supply has been restored.  I'll be staying in Ridgeland, a nearby suburb, and they have not had any water shortages.
  • Schedule and Lodging Issues.  If I can stay on schedule, I have secured lodging for more than half of the trip.  It was necessary to go through this exercise, because there were some real bottlenecks where there was no lodging of any sort and a route deviation was required.  I have managed to schedule hotels, motels, B&Bs, AirBNBs, and some places that defy categorization.  I will stay inside the fire station in 1 small town, and hope to stay in hostels for 3 nights or so.  I don't intend to deviate much from the ACA route, but will have to do so a few times to obtain lodging. 
  • Tennessee River Bridge on the Natchez Trace.  As of this writing, it is open.  I need it to be open to make my schedule.  The Park Service says that the bridge will be closed for 2 weeks "sometime" in October for the ongoing road construction project.  I will be crossing it on Oct 3 (if I can get healthy and stick to my plan), so I'm betting that it will still be open this early in October. 
  • Tires - A Tiring Subject.  No luck getting new tires, so I'm going to ride on tires that already have 4,800 miles of loaded touring on them.  But the tread looks ok and these are "plus" version tires that have a flat-protection layer beneath the tread.  So, it is what it is - I think it will be ok, but I am occasionally wrong.  Well, to be honest, I'm rarely wrong.  I really don't want to be wrong about this.  Hey, these tires went coast-to-coast last year, surely they can survive a Bullet Train to Iowa ride from the Big Easy - ya' think?
  • My Health.  I wish it was better.  I'm still sick with the cold I caught from my wife, and/or just suffering from fall allergies like half of the population of Tulsa is currently enduring.  Just before writing this update I needed to take alka-seltzer plus cold medicine to relieve the stuffiness in my head.  My travel itinerary requires me to be healthy to pedal the daily distances, and I have to be strong to climb the hills.  I need to get well very soon, else this tour may end prematurely. 

OK, enough for now.  I need to get some sleep so I can get up early and enjoy the hotel breakfast.  I must fast for 4 hours prior to an 11:00am PET scan, so if I don't eat an early breakfast tomorrow I just don't get breakfast.  And if I don't get coffee then I may write nasty things I will regret.  I hope you all have your morning coffee and have no regrets tomorrow.  Good night one and all...

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Comment on this entry Comment 7
Kelly IniguezYou must be related to Jacinto, who favors Marathon Plus tires. He rides them until the black exterior is completely gone and the blue flat protection is showing through like a stripe!

We did carry one of my preferred tires, a Marathon Racer, as a back up tire this summer. We used it, and were never able to find a 559 tire that wasn't a mountain bike tire to replace it. Luckily, we didn't need a second replacement.
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1 week ago
George HallTo Kelly IniguezI don't like starting a tour on used tires - I'm only doing so because I couldn't get new ones - they kept telling me that the tires should arrive any day from overseas, but they didn't make it in time. I usually get 6,000 to 7,000 miles on a set of tires, but only about half of that is from loaded touring and the rest is from unloaded commuting and my regular training rides. These tires will need to survive about 6,300 miles of loaded touring to get me through to the end - so here's hoping!
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1 week ago
Anita HallHusband, enough about the "cold" and blaming it on your wife! You've got allergies just like the rest of the people in Oklahoma! You'll be fine!
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1 week ago
Kelly IniguezI love a good routing challenge. It sounds as if we are quite similar in our stubborn streak to find a way where we want to go!

Good routing job!
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1 week ago
George HallTo Anita HallOK wife, I'll quit whining. But I'd sure like to get past this cold/allergies/whatever real soon. Whatever it is, it ain't your fault!
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1 week ago
Robert LewisEnjoyed our conversation this morning. I made a beeline to the computer to see what your journal was all about, and I was quite pleased until I read your outlandish view of the people of these four states "that I could probably list this as a negative reason as well for riding". Why do you consider someone who has opposing political views from yours "uneducated"? You consider me uneducated? I'll put my education up against yours any day. On the way home from meeting you today I thought of the fun that I would have following you daily, but at the risk of being unilaterally dismissed as a worthless part of society, I will bid you a quick farewell. Knock yourself out with the trip, but preaching politics as part of a cycling journal makes you look pretty silly.
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5 days ago
George HallTo Robert LewisRobert - perhaps you judge me too quickly. On every tour I have been on I have met some wonderful people, kind people, and have been happy to discover that the country is populated with good folks (despite what you see in the news). I expect to meet people like that on this tour and will write about it. You are certainly a highly educated individual. But do you think your education is representative of the average person in Louisiana or Mississippi? I enjoyed meeting you and now that I'm past the New Orleans/Baton Rouge industrial region I'm enjoying cycling in Louisiana. Best of luck,
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5 days ago