Suggestions and Lessons Learned - Seeking A Bicycle Warrior's Death, Part II: The Great Rivers South - CycleBlaze

Suggestions and Lessons Learned

How To Ride This Route

Introduction. I wish I had known everything I now know in advance of this trip, so hopefully the advice and lessons learned below will help others.  But to start, I'm going to make an important point; this route isn't for everybody.  First-time cycle tourists are well-advised to consider another route.  Our friends outside the U.S. should consider other routes like the Transamerica Trail, or the Western Express if you are looking for a route similar in distance and time requirements to the Great Rivers South.

This route didn't come easy, but it had it's good moments.  I was going to make the last song be "It Don't Come Easy" (Ringo Starr, 1971) but I added another song at the end.  Have I mentioned that all the really good music came from the 1970's or thereabouts?  There was a lot of discontent and social unrest in those days as those of us from my generation dealt with the Vietnam war, the Kent State massacre, and the discovery that our government wasn't always honest about things (a.k.a. the Nixon presidency) - I think that it was at least partially due to this hardship that we produced such good music. 

Should You Ride This Route? That's not an easy question for me to answer. But I'm not afraid of the hard questions, so I'll give it a go.  I've already stated my opinion that this isn't a good route for 1st-time cycle tourists, and that non-U.S. citizens really should choose another route.  So then, who should consider this route?  Maybe it would help if I list some of the attributes that I think would be helpful in making this a successful tour.

  1. This Isn't Your First Rodeo.  If you have successfully completed some other 1,000+ mile tour and want to experience this part of the country, this may be a tour for you.
  2. You Can Handle Industrial Louisiana and Highway Shoulder Riding.  It isn't so bad, but some parts of Louisiana aren't very scenic.  There is a bit of highway shoulder riding with high-speed traffic whizzing past.  If you are an experienced urban traffic rider and you can endure the "transport" stages of Louisiana knowing that the upcoming Natchez Trace will be much more relaxing (most of it anyway), then this may be a tour for you. 
  3. You Have Good Cycling Skills And Don't Panic In High-Traffic Situations.  You will have to ride on some very narrow shoulders for a half-day or so in Missouri and about the same in Tennessee.  By "very narrow" I mean a rumble strip to the left and maybe a foot of shoulder, with moderately heavy traffic whizzing past.  Constant concentration is required in these sections. 
  4. You Can Deal With The Heavy Traffic Areas On The Natchez Trace Approaching the Jackson and Tupelo Areas.  I don't know a good way to deal with these areas other than to avoid them during the busiest times, and that's the suggestion I offer below.  How to do that is another question, because these areas are busy even at times outside the noted busy times.
  5. You Have Low Expectations Of This Route.  This route actually has a lot going for it, and there are many enjoyable parts of it.  So if you commence with low expectations then you will be happy when those expectations are exceeded.  But should you get dog-bit (you almost certainly will not), or if you get a soft drink thrown on you from a passing vehicle (again, this is unlikely), then you won't quit just because of a little adversity. 
  6. You Are In Good Cycling Condition.  You don't need to be an athlete or cycle-racer, but you should already be in decent cycling condition when you start this route.  I'll leave it up to you to define exactly what that means, but I'd suggest that you should at least have been riding steadily for several months beforehand and have slowly increased your weekly long ride to at least 60+ miles.   You will need to ride a 75 mile day early in the tour (assuming south to north travel), and there will be days when you have significant climbing.  This route is moderately challenging, and you just won't enjoy it if you aren't in fair riding condition when you commence. 
  7. You Are Comfortable Touring Alone Or You Have A Partner(s) Accompanying You.  On many of the ACA routes you will meet other cycle-tourists and possibly even ride with them for days.  That's not likely to happen on this route, you should expect to encounter few, if any, other cycle-tourists. 
  8. You Enjoy The Pre-Planning Aspects.  On some ACA routes you can just ride and decide whether to camp or stay in a hotel as you go along; there are enough options so that you can just let it happen as works best each day.  I don't think that would be wise for this journey.  There are lots of small towns where the lodging options are limited, and there may not be any camping available.  For instance, even though I had planned ahead I was unable to secure lodging in Collinwood, TN at one of the B&B's.  Fortunately, I was able to arrange to stay in the fire station that night.   You really need to plan out this route in advance or else you may find that you have no place to stay or camp at your next stop. 


What You May Wish To Do Differently, a.k.a. Suggestions To Help You Ride This Route.  Disclaimer; the recommendations below are, of course, based on my opinions.  Others may differ.  My opinions are based on my experience riding the ACA Great Rivers South route.  I was true to the published route except for occasional short forays off route to find lodging, and one day in Kentucky when I deviated totally off the route for lodging.

     Ride Direction.  I would still ride the route from south to north. Even though the wind was mostly against me during my journey, it is usually from the south and would usually benefit a south to north traveler.  But the wind is a minimal consideration; while it was mostly against me, most of the time it wasn't very strong.  I would ride it from south to north so as to escape the industrial scenery of Louisiana early and move on to the more rural and scenic parts of the journey.   

     Time Of Year To Ride This Route.  It was still very hot in late September when I commenced, and I experienced temperatures up to 95 degrees farenheit.  I would not recommend riding this route in the summer.  I wanted to ride in the fall season, but I got a little more than I bargained for for 3 days in Missouri when an unusually cold winter blast hit the region.   Still, I mostly enjoyed the Fall weather.  This route is probably best suited for either early spring or fall riding.  

     Camping or Not? I stayed inside every night, so it is certainly possible to ride this route without camping.  One of the initially appealing aspects of this route to me was the thought that I could camp at least half of the time.  But when I commenced planning it in earnest, I discovered that camping was not going to work well for my schedule and itinerary needs. There aren't many camping opportunities in Louisiana.  There are camping opportunities in Mississippi, especially along the Natchez Trace, but you should be aware that much of this consists of primitive sites with no showers and may not even have a picnic table.  Regarding the Natchez Trace, the ACA Map 2 of this route says "Camping on the Parkway is usually primitive and very limited, so you might need to plan on a few indoor overnights."  Regarding the Land Between The Lakes (LBL) area of Kentucky, the ACA map says "Campgrounds in the LBL are on a first come, first served basis and fill quickly on summer weekends."  These campgrounds aren't close to the route, and they require that you travel downhill towards the lakes to reach them, so if they aren't available that would be a disappointment.  You can wild camp in the LBL by traveling off the road a minimum of 200 yards; it will be very difficult to bushwhack with your loaded bicycle offroad for 200 yards, but that is always a possibility if the campgrounds are full.  There are campgrounds in Missouri and Tennessee, both commercial and public, and it may be more practical to camp here.   Notwithstanding anything I have said above, you can certainly plan this journey such that you camp much of the time.   The National Park Service has assigned 5 sites for cyclist-only camping along the Natchez Trace, and these are free sites. 

     Hostel(s). There's really only 1 cyclist hostel located along this route, and that's Al's Place in Farmington, Missouri.  The Great Rivers South route intersects the Transamerica route in Farmington. Al's Place exists because of the ACA Transamerica route, and almost all of the cyclists who stay there are riding the Transam.   I highly recommend it.  I didn't realize it when I first arrived there, but a public library is located sort of catty-cornered across the street; it's so close that you can receive their wifi signal in Al's Place. 

There is another cyclist hostel near the Great Rivers route, but it requires a deviation from the route to reach.  I'm referring to the cyclist hostel in Marion, Kentucky at the Methodist Church.  This hostel also exists because it is on the Transam route, and it's also a very popular stop for Transam riders. I had tentatively planned to stay that night in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois at a cabin in the state park.  The state park was completely booked, so I deviated to Marion and stayed at the hostel instead.  The route I took was a very pleasant ride (thanks to fellow Cycle Blazer Jeff Lee for the route recommendation) and you can see it in the journal entry for that day.  The distance is pretty much the same either way you go, so it's an option that you may want to consider. 

Finally, I stayed at one "sort-of unofficial hostel" in Collinwood, Tennessee.   I spoke with the City Manager and he gave me permission to stay in the Fire Station building.  I later learned that other cyclists have also been allowed to stay there.  There are 2 B&B's in town, and I planned to stay in them but they were both booked.  I wouldn't count on being able to stay at the fire station, but it's a possibility.  You should be aware that most cyclist hostels provide very little other than an inside place to stay, so you will likely need a sleeping bag at the minimum.  I was surprised that the fire station had 2 beds (I expected a cot), and I had to fabricate a pillow for that night.   There is a visitor's center as you exit the Trace in Collinwood.  If you inquire within, the very nice gentleman will possibly help arrange for you to stay at the fire station - I know he did so for another cycle tourist who just showed up unannounced. 

     Services Along The Route.  There are plenty of services along this route; maybe even too many since I didn't lose as much weight on this tour as I would have expected!  I'm using the term "services" to mean restaurants, cafes, diners, or convenience stores or grocery stores.   You should look ahead, of course, so you can plan properly for each day, but you will find only a few stretches where you ride a long distance with no services.  Don't ignore the various Dollar stores along the way; they are kind of in-between a convenience store and a grocery store in terms of what they carry.  There is 1 day in north Louisiana/south Mississippi when you will encounter a 50-mile stretch with no services, but that is unusual for this route.  Note that you must be careful with planning for the Natchez Trace because the adjacent Mississippi highways can be treacherous for cyclists with no shoulder and high-speed traffic; don't assume that it's safe to leave the Trace and ride even 1 mile on a highway to reach a store or cafe.  I usually carried food for my lunch when I was riding the Natchez Trace. 

     State-Specific Recommendations and/or Warnings.   Following are some thoughts/suggestions I have that may help improve the experience for others who wish to ride this route.  I feel compelled to say this; I really wish I had known these things before I undertook this route.  Whether you follow or ignore these recommendations, you should at the very least take them into consideration.   You should be aware that I tend to start my rides early in the morning.  I say this so you can consider how my experience may relate to yours, if, for example, you tend to start riding late in the morning. 

  • Louisiana.  New Orleans itself was a good ride for me, and I wouldn't skip it if you want to experience this route.  You can likely save a lot of money and perhaps find it much more convenient regarding logistics if you do a "down and back" ride from the airport as I did.  The Cajun Cottages where I stayed in Sorrento was a good find and much less expensive than other lodging options located near the river.  I suggest you not stop at the store in Carville, but instead continue on to highway 30 before stopping - there's a C-store right across the street once you reach Highway 30.  Rather than riding through Baton Rouge as I did, I suggest you find a way to stay near the downtown area.  The lodging options I found near downtown Baton Rouge were all very high-priced, but I would suggest this anyway.    I suggest you use the map below to help decide places to stay - I can only tell you that the downtown area that the route passes through is quite nice and easily accessible, and that the shaded area in the upper left is not as nice.   The route leaves Baton Rouge on Highway 61 through the shaded area in the upper left.  I suggest you stay in downtown, be at the hotel breakfast as early as possible, then leave early in the morning before the traffic and the human element pick up along highway 61.  Just a few miles outside of Baton Rouge the riding becomes pleasant even though you are riding the shoulder of highway 61. 
    Avoid The Shaded Areas If You Can - These Are Areas Of Gang-Related Shootings
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    After Baton Rouge, some folks stay at St. Francisville instead of Jackson.  I believe this to be a mistake, for a couple of reasons.  For one thing, it will add about 10 miles to the next day when you will travel to Natchez, Mississippi; so instead of a 75-mile day you will need to ride a 85-mile day which includes more than 3,000 feet of climbing.  But the really big mistake is this; others who stayed at St. Francisville did so thinking that they would shorten the following day by riding to Natchez directly on Highway 61.  That's a truly horrible mistake; Highway 61 (a.k.a. the "Blues Highway") has a rideable shoulder in Louisiana, but it abruptly ends at the state line in Mississippi. At that point you are riding in the travel lane of a high-speed heavily trafficked roadway with a rumble strip to your right.  It's truly flirting with death, so don't even think about it.  The ACA route from Jackson is mostly on tree-lined roads with hardly no traffic.  There's some traffic between Jackson and Centreville, but not too bad.  Centreville is the last services for the remaining 50 miles to Natchez, so you'll want to stock up at the C-store (which is also a breakfast cafe). 
  • Mississippi.  Travel on the Natchez Trace is so good it's like being in a dream, but like a dream it has the potential to be a nightmare at times.  First thing to note; you should avail yourself of this free travel itinerary planning service --> Natchez Trace Travel Itinerary Planning.  They will give you very specific instructions on how to get off and onto the Natchez Trace from the places they recommend you stay, and you really need to heed their advice.  Second thing to note; Mississippi highways are just awful for cyclists.  There is no shoulder, and you can find yourself being passed only inches away by high-speed semi-trucks.  I didn't have this problem because I followed my entry/exit instructions, or I carefully studied my planned exit/entry points in advance using Google Earth, but I know of others who had near-death experiences on the highways.  While the highways are death traps for cyclists, the county roads I rode in Mississippi were extremely pleasant low-traffic roads.  Follow the advice of the Natchez Trace Travel folks; let them help plan an itinerary for you.  They will do this even if you plan to camp the entire time.  Each of the places they recommend you stay has specific instructions for how to get on/off the Trace safely by bicycle; sometimes it involves leaving the Trace at a place other than an official exit, similar to this made-up instruction; "at MP 103.2 look for the green barn and then push your bike 50 yards across the grass to the driveway and then ride down to the county road" or other such instructions.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      The 2 bad traffic areas on the Natchez Trace occur as you approach the Jackson metroplex and as you approach Tupelo.  The National Park Service warns cyclists to avoid these areas during rush hours, and I tried to do just that, but there was heavy traffic regardless.  From my experience, I can tell you that these 2 high-traffic areas can be so bad that they almost negate the value of riding the Natchez Trace at all.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        I was approaching the Jackson metroplex in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, so I can tell you that is not a good time.  I can only offer the following suggestion that may help you get through the Jackson metroplex high traffic area; stay in Raymond the night prior and get up very early and get ahead of the rush hour traffic. Tell the Natchez Trace Travel folks that you want to stay overnight in Raymond so that they include it in your itinerary and tell you how to best get from the Trace to Raymond and return. It appears that you will only have to cycle about 10 miles from Raymond to reach the multi-use trail that parallels the Trace, and it will be easy riding from that point.  Prior to the intersection of the multi-use trail and I-55 there are restaurants just a bit to the north, so if you left Raymond very early you could get ahead of the traffic and make a breakfast stop in Ridgeland.  I stayed overnight at a hotel in Ridgeland, and while it was no fun traveling those last 10 miles on the Trace the day before, it was easy leaving Ridgeland the next morning on the trail and re-connecting to the Trace, and there was little traffic leaving on the Trace.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Tupelo traffic on the Natchez Trace was even worse than it was around Jackson.  I arrived there in the early afternoon on a Saturday, and it started getting bad about 15 miles out and was horrible as I neared about 5 miles out.  I think that a Saturday morning would be a low-traffic time, so perhaps if I had stayed in Houston or camped at the Witch Dance site the night prior, and then got up early maybe I would have beaten the traffic. Maybe.  That's all I can offer.  You should read my journal entry for this day to understand how bad it was.   There is another possible option; an RV park exists near the Trace at about milepost 254.  This is within the area of bad traffic, but it's still about 6 miles outside of Tupelo.  So you could endure some of the bad traffic, then camp there and make an early morning departure to beat the rush hour traffic.    That approach should help you avoid the worst of the Tupelo traffic.  
  • Tennessee.   Tennessee was mostly fantastic rural riding on traffic-free roads, except for the initial bit when you first exit the Trace.  For most of the first 20 miles you will ride on rumble-stripped highway shoulders that are sometimes way too narrow for comfort.   This occurs initially on Highway 50 for about 3.5 miles; this highway has moderate traffic.  Then you ride on Highway 230 for 9.5 miles, and there's just not much traffic on it so you get a reprieve.  Then you ride on Highway 100 for about 4.5 miles and Highway 48 for about 3 miles, and there's moderately heavy traffic (at least there was in the early morning).      And that's it - the rest of Tennessee is a dream ride, even when you pass through the small town of Waverly.    Those first 20 miles require good cycling skills to navigate the narrow shoulder with rumble-strips to your immediate left, and you may have to do so in moderately heavy traffic, but once that's done you are riding in a dream landscape.  The B&B's shown on the ACA map in Duck River are no longer operational, but you can find an AirBnB near the intersection of Highways 230 and 100 that I recommend. 
  • Kentucky.  Kentucky was similar to Tennessee in that the riding was mostly great; low-traffic roads and scenic country.   You have to climb a few hills in both states, but it would be boring if the route was flat, and really the hills weren't that bad in either state.  There was only one part of the route through Kentucky that wasn't pleasant, and that was the northern half of the Trace road in the Land Between the Lakes (LBL).  North of highway 68/80 the traffic increased considerably, and it wasn't as much fun riding as the rest of the state.    I should be clear here; it wasn't heavy traffic, it's what I would call moderately heavy; traffic would come in spurts of a dozen vehicles and then there might be a minute with no vehicles before more came.   I rode through the LBL on a Saturday, and I suspect that being there on a weekend contributed to the traffic issue I experienced on the second half.                                                                                                                                                                                                               The Grand River Inn might be an ideal place to stay in Grand Rivers, Kentucky.  When I initially inquired about staying there, they required a 2-day minimum for a weekend stay.  You may want to time your schedule such that you aren't rolling through the LBL on a weekend; that way you may miss some traffic and give yourself more lodging options.    I discussed the Marion, Kentucky hostel under the "Hostels" paragraph above.  You may want to consider a deviation from the Great Rivers South route to stay there, especially so if you can't get lodging or camp in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois.  
  • Illinois.  The Great Rivers South route makes 2 forays into Illinois as it first passes east-west through south Illinois, and then later goes through a bit of the north-central section parallel to the Mississippi River.  The ride through southern Illinois was as good as it gets, rural roads with very little traffic and some surprisingly steep climbs.  Discovering the Unity Lodge in Golconda was a pleasant surprise; 2 cyclists could split a room there for $31 each.                                                                                                                                                                                                 When you cross the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Missouri and enter Illinois for the second time, there is a little bit of problematic travel on Highway 57, but it's only about 8 miles long.  During this section there is no shoulder and I encountered enough traffic that I occasionally just pulled off the road to let vehicles pass.  When I left Nauvoo in the early morning the situation on Highway 96  was similar, but it only lasted for 4 miles until the route veered off on county roads.  Most of the Illinois routing was fine, just be aware of these 2 sections.    
  • Missouri.  Most of the travel through Missouri is on rural low-traffic roads that make for fantastic riding.  However, there's about 33 miles of various Highways south of Sullivan that have very narrow shoulders, are rumble-stripped, and carried moderate to heavy traffic at times.  State roads 21, 47, 185, and A were the worst of these roads.  I was traveling on a Sunday, and this is a popular recreation area with Meramec State Park and other attractions nearby, so it may have been a relatively heavy traffic time.  I-44 runs through Sullivan and provides an entry point for tourists and weekenders to jump off into the Ozarks, and I'm sure that this also contributed to the heavy traffic. I experienced 3 instances of aggressive drivers during this stretch.  As a cyclist I was forced to ride the narrow shoulder because there was often traffic approaching from both directions at once.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          My recommendation is that you arrange your itinerary such that you are not riding on this section on a weekend, or even on a Friday afternoon.  If you travel through here during mid-week you may miss much of the traffic that I encountered.   This was the only bad traffic spot I encountered throughout all of Missouri, so if you can alleviate the problems on this stretch then you may have a very pleasant travel throughout Missouri. 
  • Iowa.  The riding in Iowa was all quite pleasant.  There was only a small amount of traffic as I approached and entered Muscatine.  I entered Muscatine on a Saturday morning, and it may be that the traffic would have been greater on a weekday.                                                                                                   

A Few Lessons Learned.  Surely I must have learned something from this experience, so I'll try and make a list. It may be a short one.  

  1. ACA Map Accuracy.  The ACA maps are absolutely essential for following any ACA route, of course, but the maps for this route seem to have more errors than I have seen on other ACA routes.  For example, the entire Natchez Trace is marked with mileposts every mile.  The ACA maps include the locations of the 10-mile mileposts, but they are often shown in the wrong location and may be off by a mile or more. There are stores shown that don't exist, and there are stores along the route that don't show up on the ACA maps.  I suspect that since this is one of the least popular routes that the maps just don't get much updating or error reporting.  There are B&B's shown that no longer exist.  You should verify the existence of anything shown on the ACA map that is important to you. 
  2. Natchez Trace.  The Natchez Trace is mostly a wonderful cycling experience.  However, motorists do break the rules.  There aren't supposed to be any commercial vehicles on the Trace, but you will see some.  The speed limit is supposedly strictly enforced, but motorists still speed.  And while there are signs all along the Trace informing drivers that cyclists have the right to use of the full lane and that motorists should change lanes to pass, motorists will still misbehave around the high-traffic areas of Jackson and Tupelo and try to squeeze past in your lane. 
  3. Fall Cycling.  Fall is a great time to ride this route, but you should be aware that a wintry blast could occur and take emergency gear for it.  I would have been in trouble without my silk balaclava and the cotton "gripper" gloves I bought to wear beneath leather work gloves.              
    Lightweight Silk Balaclava Weighs Little And Requires Little Volume
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    Cotton "Gripper" Gloves
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Closing Thoughts. Kentucky is about the middle of this route, and the route passes through a bit of western Kentucky.  I mostly enjoyed this adventure, and I certainly enjoyed my journey through Kentucky.  There are so many great songs about Kentucky that I couldn't even come close to including them all in this journal, so please forgive me if I didn't include your favorite. 

The Great Rivers South route passes through some areas where poverty is definitely a factor in the culture, such as the gang areas in Baton Rouge.  And perhaps it is the lack of funding for education at the state level that causes most of the states on this route to be consistently ranked in the Bottom 10 for things like education, healthcare, and quality of life.  I only mention this because the most negative aspects of this cycle tour were related to the human element, those "people issues" arise from the culture of the area, and education is the basis to effect change in the culture.    

When I entered eastern Kentucky from Virginia on the Transam route in 2015, the poverty was quite noticeable.  That area had suffered from the loss of coal-mining-related jobs and there was a lot of drug abuse.  Even when there were plenty of coal mining jobs, those jobs didn't pay enough to provide much of a middle-class lifestyle.   

During this tour, country music legend Loretta Lynn passed away.  Her signature song, of course, was Coal Miner's Daughter, a song about the hardships of life in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky.  Though few folks know this (you're welcome), this song has been included in lists of the greatest songs of all time by various music organizations; even Rolling Stone ranked it not only in the top 100 country songs of all time, but also in their Top 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time.   By this point in my relationship with you readers, I don't even need to tell you the era in which this song was written and released because you already know. 

Many of the coal miner's daughters (and sons) never escaped poverty like Loretta Lynn did.   The areas where I experienced the most issues related to the human element (bad drivers, soft drink thrown on me from a passing car, folks yelling insults from passing vehicles) are also the areas with high poverty rates.  Baton Rouge has a poverty rate of 26%; 1 in 4 folks are living in poverty, and this is one reason the gang culture thrives.  Mississippi is the poorest state in the country with an overall poverty rate of 19.6%.  The Missouri bootheel area (southeastern Missouri) includes 3 counties where the poverty rate is above 25%.  Ultimately (at least in my humble opinion), it's the combination of poverty and lack of quality education that influences the negative aspects of this region's culture. 

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Kelly IniguezThank you for taking the time to write these past two pages. You are excetat the post tour synopsis. That is very helpful for upcoming riders doing their research.
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