“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, February 28, 2011

Two Wheelin' the Trace: Biking the Natchez Trace in Style

Somewhere between the thirty and forty mile mark I began wondering why I had let my daughter Sara talk me into this trip. Sara had been pestering me all summer to bicycle the Natchez Trace Parkway with her but I wasn’t sure my aging body would make it so I kept coming up with lame excuses. Her persistence finally wore me down but only after a couple of major concessions on her part.

First, no way was I going to tackle the entire 450-mile length of the Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS parkway. Second, no camping. If I was going to bike during the day I was going to sleep in luxury at night. So after much negotiation, we decided that the section of the Trace from Tupelo, MS to Columbia, TN, a distance of 130 miles, was about right. Our plan was to leisurely pedal this section in three days, stopping along the way to take in the numerous natural and historical sites and spending the nights in bed and breakfasts. A last minute change of plans cut our trip down to 84 miles, three nights and two days of biking--still an ambitious trip as far as I was concerned.  No hundred mile days for me.

Our trip started when we checked into the Mockingbird Inn near downtown Tupelo. Our host Sharon Robertson showed us to the Sanibel Island room of the extremely cool (according to Sara) two-story house. I had to agree with her, it was very cool. Each room has a different theme, from Africa to Paris to Venice. Our room’s island theme was about as close to the atmosphere of a beach house as you’ll get in Tupelo. Maybe this trip wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

We relaxed on a backyard swing beneath huge overhanging shade trees and met Rod and Betsy Chamberlain from Georgia. They were also biking the Trace, Rod attempting the leg from Tupelo to Franklin, with Betsy driving the support vehicle and joining him for selected stretches. Over dinner at a pub just across the street, I found out that Rod is 76 years old, so I figured maybe I could make it after all. Little did I know--more to come on that.

We were up early the next morning enjoying the Mockingbird’s bountiful breakfast. This inn has been named one of the top ten B&Bs in Mississippi and, based on our experience there, the rating is in no danger of slipping.

I almost hated to leave but we bid good-bye to Rod and Betsy and headed out to the Natchez Trace. If you’ve never ridden the Trace, it is a completely different experience from driving it. Traffic is sparse and no commercial trucks are allowed, so you can enjoy a serene ride without having to worry about ending up as road kill. The parkway has gently rolling hills and gracefully contoured curves and the scenery is a snaking ribbon of imposing trees, cotton fields, winding creeks and lazy-flowing rivers. Clear springs, towering overlooks, Confederate graves, caves, Indian burial mounds, and historical markers--including the grave of explorer Meriwether Lewis--appeared at frequent intervals. This gave me lots of excuses to stop and rest. We quickly settled into a slow, idyllic pace and pedaled to our own rhythms.

Our first day’s goal was to bike 45 miles to the Belmont Hotel in Belmont, MS. I still swear that Mississippi miles are longer. This was where I began wondering if I would make it. Our normal 12-mile-an-hour pace slipped to six (an average we never exceeded the entire trip). We struggled into the lobby of the grandly restored Belmont Hotel hot and tired. The Belmont was built in 1924 and stepping through the double front doors immediately transports you back to that decade. The lobby and dining room still feel elegant. Unfortunately, the period feel was lost on us. The only thing we wanted to see was dinner and a bed.

I did not have the same enthusiasm when I awoke the second morning. More like trepidation. Would I make it through the day or end up sprawled by the roadside, desiccated and distraught? Ron Deaton, the owner of the Belmont, must have sensed my misgivings. He loaded our bikes on a trailer and gave us a lift back to the parkway, avoiding seven miles of traffic on busy Highway 25. Once we were back on our bikes we felt better and--lo and behold--we soon heard someone huffing up a long hill behind us. It was Rod who had camped at nearby Tishomingo State Park. We rode with him for a while but we could see we were slowing him down so urged him to go ahead. Last we saw of him was his bike disappearing on the horizon. So much for my hope of three decades of youth giving me an advantage.

Surprisingly, the second day was much easier. We covered 40 miles easily, stopping along the way at Freedom Hills Overlook; at 800 feet, the highest Alabama point on the parkway; Colbert Ferry on the banks of the Tennessee River; and Rock Springs where dozens of hummingbirds were congregating before their annual migration. We pulled into Florence and the Wood Avenue Inn for our last night. This 1889 Victorian mansion has all the trappings--wide porches, octagonal towers, antiques, and fireplaces everywhere. We sat on the shaded back porch and celebrated our successful trip.

Footnote: Rod Chamberlain emailed us and he made it all the way to Franklin. If he can do it, I guess there is still hope for me. Maybe I’ll talk Sara into riding that section next year.

If you would like to bike the Trace check out the Natchez Trace Bed and Breakfast Reservation Service which can assist in arranging biking trips. Many of the B&Bs are close to the Trace or will provide shuttles to and from the parkway. 1-800-377-2770 or www.bbonline.com/natcheztrace

We found the B&B owners to be extremely “biker friendly”, providing bike shuttles, tips on backroads to avoid traffic, where to get water, and directions to restaurants within walking distance. We recommend the three we stayed at for this reason.

The Mockingbird Inn, 305 North Gloster Street, Tupelo, MS 38803, 601-841-0286. Within walking distance of restaurants. Two easy biking miles from the Trace. One of the best bed and breakfasts we have ever experienced.

The Belmont Hotel, 121 Main Street, Belmont, MS 38827, 662-454-7948. Eight miles from the Trace. One restaurant within walking distance. Check with owner Ron Deaton for shuttle back to the Trace.

Wood Avenue Inn, 658 North Wood Avenue, Florence, AL 35630, 205-766-8441. Twelve miles from the Trace but the owners will provide shuttle to and from the parkway. Within walking distance of many restaurants.

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean.)