Our Nashville to New Orleans Trip: Part 2
Back in Nashville we were told to make sure to stop at French Camp and order the best Mississippi Mud Cake ever. As we pulled into French Camp there was a grassy area with old farming implements and a setup for processing sorghum into molasses. As I was locking up our bikes Mary had struck up a conversation with a Presbyterian minister who was telling her about the history of the town. The town was home of the French Camp Academy where students from low income families could go for an education. This school is modeled after the Hershey School where students, besides having academics, have chores and real life experiences that develop skills. We hiked around the town and saw the old buildings and tools and took notice of the blacksmith shop. At the end of the hike we met the man who ran the blacksmith shop and I told him that I admired the antique arc welder and antique oxy-acetylene torches in the shop. We both laughed and he describe how the students were learning the old as well as the new ways of working with metal. The last stop in town was the café where I ordered the famous Mississippi Mud Cake. Wow, it was the sweetest dessert I think I’ve ever had and one is enough for quite a long time.
There is free camping at the Kosiusko Welcome Center and our plan was to arrive early and ride into the town. When we got there it was all we hoped for, restrooms, electricity, water, and rocking chairs on the porch. It even got better when we rode into town and the bar and grill had half price margaritas. We finished up in town and rode back to the welcome center and I gathered up the electric cords to recharge the batteries and found that the receptacles had a cover plate and the oversized charging plugs would not fit in. I started looking around with my headlamp on and found an extension cord that ran under the back of the building. I crawled underneath and yes, we were saved and could continue to communicate to the outside world. At times I was able to contact Joe, a friend from Philly who was at the same time traveling and camping on a motorcycle, and take in all of his experiences of being ‘on the road’.
Riding along the next day I began to notice that butterflies were also traveling south on the Trace. Many times when my pace was slow due to wind or a hill a butterfly or dragonfly would fly next to me for a minute or two, in fact, once a dragonfly flew right next to me at eye level for several minutes. Riding a bike on a long trip gives one ample time for inner thoughts and meditations. Our next stop was a low-cost primitive camping site at a trading post with a restaurant situated on the beginning of the Pearl River Reservoir. At the end of a long day this sounded like an oasis and Mary and I were eager to enjoy all that they offered. After having a little trouble finding the road our hopes were dashed when we walked into the trading post that sold candy, chips and beer and finding out the restaurant was closed. The campsite was beside the reservoir which was quite beautiful; however, it was under a bunch of oak trees. Our oak tree mite bites were just starting to go away. They did have hot showers but the light switch was on a timer out by an opening to the outside and half way through my shower the lights went out. I walked out to the light switch wet with shampoo in my hair in the dark and realized I was standing in the open doorway. No one was there and I started thinking about all the experiences that people miss by not camping and touring on a bicycle. By this time we were so tired of scratching the poison ivy, the bites of the mosquitoes, and the oak tree mites and it all doesn’t sound like a selling point for bicycle touring, but when we woke in the morning the mist over the reservoir was just magical.
The morning ride took us for many miles along the Pear River Reservoir as we traveled closer to Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, named after Old Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson. Jackson had used the Trace several times throughout his lifetime including leading his troops back from the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. The traffic was increasing as we neared the city and we exited the Trace onto a bike path that went around Jackson. The trail ended abruptly and we had to push our bikes uphill through a grassy field up to the Trace. Although the traffic was heavy everyone moved over to the other lane and we felt safe. Because of thunderstorms, we decided to stay in Clinton for two days in a motel. The motel was on the outskirts of town and towards the end of our destination was little scary because there were major highways and traffic to negotiate with few sidewalks. Since we had the next day off we decided to walk into the center of town and repeated the traffic challenges and it was easy to understand why we were the only ones walking in this section of town.
In leaving Clinton we decided to take a short cut to the Trace through the IRS parking lot. It was Saturday and no one was there so we went around the gate and past the only authorized vehicles sign and headed to the opposite end of the lot. When we reached the other side there was a barricade across the road and the bikes fit nicely through the woods and we were on our way. Strategies of traveling on a bicycle are quite different than in a car. When we got to the Trace there was no entrance and once again pushed uphill onto the road. There may be challenges involved but usually when there is a will there's a way.
The next day set up camp at Rocky Springs and as we were sitting there an older man (oh my gosh, he’s our age) walked up along with his grandson and asked where we started and where we were going. He was traveling on a Harley and camping out overnight with his grandson and asked us if we had visited the site of where the old town and church of Rocky Springs. After they left to visit the ghost town we hiked up there on the main road and met up again and the grandfather started telling us the history of the area. Years earlier their family had a hunting camp in this area at a place where General Grant had led his army on the way to the battle at Vicksburg. After our visit we walked back on a trail that was the original Trace and tried to imagine what it was like traveling on this historic trail in days gone by. In the beginning of the Historic Period the trail was used mostly by the Native Americans but as settlers move in from the north, trade increased along with the traffic. As we walked we came to an area known as ‘sunken trail’ that had eroded over time from all of the travelers. The land along the trace was built up by dust storms from the western plains occurring during the Ice Age thousands of years ago producing a loose soil structure called loess which is easily eroded. During the early years of our country as the population was growing along the Mississippi River all the way down to New Orleans trade was also exploding. There were several ways to ship goods down to Natchez or New Orleans and they all included boats that floated downriver with the current and this period of time was known as the ‘Boatman Era’ (1780’s-1811). These boats could be rowed up river or pulled with men walking on land (known as cordelling) and both methods were extremely, extremely, extremely difficult. The easier way to transport the goods (only somewhat difficult) was to build a flat boat, load the goods, float downriver, take the boat apart and sell the lumber, then walk back home (about 500 miles) using the Natchez Trace. The men using this method came to be known as Kaintucks as they were originally from the Kentucky-Ohio area but the name became universal with the boatmen that used the trail. The Kaintucks faced many challenges on their trip back home such as crossing wet areas and streams, insects, and poisonous snakes. The increase in traffic caused erosion and many areas became extremely muddy. “I have this day swam my horse five times, bridged one creek, forded several others beside the swamp we had to wade through. At night we had a shower of rain. Took up my usual lodging on the ground in the company of several Indians.” (Rev. John Johnson, 1812) After selling their goods the Kaintucks were also in danger of being robbed on their walk back home by outlaws known as the highway men or the Banditti. These many dangers earned the trail the nickname of the ‘Devil’s Backbone’. The United States established more influence of the area when Thomas Jefferson authorized improvements to be made on the Trace and the Post Rider began delivering mail between Nashville and Natchez in 1804. As much as the Trace was used during the ‘Boatmen Era’ it was short lived. In 1811 the steamboat, New Orleans made its maiden voyage from Pittsburg down the Ohio River and continued down the Mississippi. In the years that followed it made the return trip much easier and the Trace became obsolete as a trading route. Jackson added to the Trace’s decline when he authorized a military road to be built that bypassed much of the old trail.
After an active night of owls and coyotes we woke at four am to the sound of the whippoorwill and we were on the road early attempting to get to Natchez before the rain. The Trace seemed to end abruptly as we made our way to the motel. We stashed all of our stuff at the motel and headed out on foot to explore Natchez which sits high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and is referred to as 'On the Hill. On our way back to the motel we noticed a set of trails below the bluff that ran along the river but we were on a mission. We had to observe the traffic going on the bridge to the other side of the Mississippi and develop a plan for our crossing. Years ago there was only one bridge and when the traffic increased they built another bridge using the old bridge to cross the Mississippi into Vidalia, Louisiana and the new bridge for the traffic coming from Vidalia. It didn’t look so good for traveling west because the old bridge had no shoulder and the constant traffic was going extremely fast. We decided to think about options later and we went back to the motel.
Most of the city of Natchez is situated on top of the bluff (On the Hill) and in the early 1700’s the French established control of this port and built Fort Rosalie. In 1729 the Natchez Nation rebelled against the French and massacred the inhabitants of the fort leaving just a few survivors. The French eventually withdrew from the area and the British moved in and renamed the fort, Fort Panmure. By 1783 the area was passed onto the United States and because it grew in importance as commerce grew it became the capital of Mississippi until the capital was moved to Jackson in 1821.
The following day we hiked the tails below the bluff in the area known as Under the Hill. During the ‘Boatmen Era’ this part of town offered questionable entertainment for the Kaintucks who had just sold all their goods and had money to spend. There were many who would walk back without money from this part of town giving Under the Hill a bad reputation. It was still in the morning when we passed the Under the Hill Saloon and thought it looked like an interesting place to return to at the end of the day.
Later on that afternoon we went back to the Under the Hill Saloon and met some of the locals. One was an archaeologist who had a job excavating sites searching for different stone implements. His family had lived in the Natchez area for over 200 years and it was easy to tell that he was excited about what he did for a living. Another man, along with his wife, chimed in and soon we were exchanging stories and laughs. Towards the end of the conversation he said, “I don’t know what you’ve heard up north but we aren’t so bad down here in the south”. I told him I didn’t think that at all and only found southerners friendly, generous and kind and Mary and I couldn’t be doing what we were doing without them. It was time to go back to the motel and watch the history in the making.
We could see the bridge from the motel window and I noticed that the traffic had died down considerably and maybe if we timed our passage right we could make our way over the bridge safely. The next morning it was rainy and windy as we made our way down to the beginning of the bridge. We stood there in the wind and the rain looking at the heavy traffic until finally Mary said, “I’m not doing it”. I am married to a smart woman indeed. We walked our bikes up to the visitor’s center and discussed our next move. The new bridge has a wide shoulder and we decided to walk our bikes over against traffic. It was a long, windy, and stressful hike pushing the bikes up and over the Mississippi River and once on the other side we headed to a diner and grocery store then decided we were done for the day. Our original plan was to ride 30 miles and camp but instead went to an RV park in Vidalia. They had a hot tub and we sat in the warm waters and calmed down. Before leaving the next morning we met Pat and Cat, a couple who had ridden their bicycles around the world, and who gave us a book of their adventures in Cuba. Boy, there are some crazy people out there.
Heading south we rode the first 20 mile on top of the levee overlooking the farming landscape and the Mississippi River as we continued to the Louisiana wild Three Rivers camping area near where the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya Rivers converge. The last 10 miles were on Rte. 15 which has a wide shoulder, very little traffic, and the cars and trucks that did go by always moved over to the other lane. Mary had turned on the voice activated GPS on her phone and out of nowhere it suddenly said, “Turn right”. There was an unmarked gravel road and we followed instructions and turned right. When we got to the camping area we understood why it was wild camping because there was just open land with water spigots every so often. It was so remote it is needless to say, but we were the only ones there that night.
The next morning we started understanding the significance of this area. As we began riding we crossed several bridges that were a part of the Old River Control Complex. Years ago the Mississippi River was changing course which would have placed investments downstream in jeopardy and the Federal government got involved. The bridges that we crossed contained flood gates, locks and a hydroelectric plant between the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya Rivers that control the flow of the Mississippi making sure the river does not change course. Major flooding had occurred and the Morganza Spillway was added to the system (completed in 1986) to prevent the destruction of the Old River Control Complex. Mother Nature has powerful forces however, and can release them at any time to demonstrate to humanity that when trying to control or abuse her we should consider there is a limit to available resources and also consider the conscious awareness of throughput, exponential growth, Law of Diminishing Returns, and Jevon’s Paradox (these environmental principles are explained throughout the website). It will be interesting to observe the fate of the area around the lower Mississippi River in the coming years.
We turned off of this main road and started following country roads to Morganza, a town we had ridden through on our trip across the country. To get to the town we already knew we could travel on the spillway instead of the heavily trafficked, no shoulder, four mile causeway. The second time on the spillway definitely gave us a more complete understanding of what it takes to keep the Mississippi flowing where we want it to flow. Again I wonder how long the mighty river will cooperate with our expectations as resource availability diminishes.
We passed a familiar site - this church with a graveyard, however the last time saw it we were coming the other way - it was at that moment we realize we were going in the wrong direction and had to turn around
Country roads on the way to Morganza
The Morganza causeway has floodgates that allow flooding waters from the Mississippi to flow onto the spillway
The RV park where we had stayed previously had changed hands and as we were setting up, Sylvia, who lived in a camper next to where we set up, told us all about the park, the new owners and everything that went on in the neighborhood. She invited us to dinner and we continued to hear about the neighborhood news which included that motorcycles with the long fronts had come into town and many had stayed at the RV park. We said our goodbyes and off to bed admiring that Sylvia who had very little was so eager to share what little she had with Mary and I.
The next morning we were off to New Roads, LA where would cross back over the Mississippi. As we were taking pictures on the edge of town we met two men and started a conversation. One of the men’s grandmother had owned a café in Morganza which was once a thriving town and a scene from Easy Rider was filmed at her cafe. The café is gone and all that remains is a marker. He told us that last week many choppers came into town for the 50th anniversary of the film. It is amazing that many times while riding along you hear part of a story and as you travel along the whole story starts to fill in. Leaving New Roads we once again crossed the Mississippi, this time on a bridge with little traffic and wide shoulders.
There were familiar sites as we traveled down ‘cancer alley’ where there are many refineries and chemical plants on the way to Baton Rouge. It was safer as we traveled down route 61 to ride on the sidewalks, even though many were broken and in disrepair. At one point we passed a sign that read, ‘Exxon-Mobil, building a bright future’.
We arrived in Baton Rouge earlier than we had planned and called Mark, our Warm Showers host and he told us to just come over. Mark, an archivist at Louisiana State University and historian has not owned a car for over 25 years and mainly uses his trusty Surly for transportation. Conversation started to flow and before we knew it an hour had flown by and he asked us if we wanted a tour of Baton Rouge. The first stop was the capitol building and Mark’s version of the story of Huey Pierce Long. Huey was a populist Democrat who was governor of Louisiana between the years 1928 – 1932 and a US Senator from 1932 until 1935. During his political career he oversaw the improvement of the educational system, improvement of infrastructure, the increase in the number of hospitals - especially in rural areas, the setting up of charity hospitals for the poor and pushing for improvement in conditions of impoverished Blacks. In 1935 he began his bid for the Presidency and had entered the capitol when an adversary shot Long who later died in the hospital. Long’s bodyguards in response fired many shots and killed the assassin. However, in another version it was an accidental shot from one of his own bodyguards during the melee that occurred which killed Long.. Huey’s platform on running for President was ‘Share the Wealth’ and the motto was ’Every Man a King’. Near the top of the capitol building was the observation floor where Mark pointed out the sights and more of the history of Baton Rouge. It was an incredible afternoon with the tour of the capitol, followed by another observation deck, walking around town and ending at a local pub serving local beer. When we were back at the apartment he asked us to stay for another night because they were calling for thunderstorms the next day. The conversation never lulled in the two days we spent at Mark’s and I would describe our stay as exciting, informative and pleasantly exhausting. The morning we left he accompanying us for the first mile and helped out with directions out of town which began on the levee overlooking the Mississippi.
Our next stop Lutcher, LA was to visit Dale our Warm Showers host we had visited three years before. Dale’s shop was over 50 miles away, which is about our days limit. The pleasant ride on the levee came to an end and we found ourselves on a busy highway with a shoulder that had areas of broken glass. Soon I found myself fixing a flat on the side of the road (not fun). After biking the rest of the way we realized we had missed our turn to Dale’s and had to circle back making the trip that day 64 miles. We let ourselves into Dale’s shop and we already knew the setup. It wasn’t long before Dale showed up and we all went out to dinner around the corner. Mary and I had been one of Dale’s first guests and three years later he has hosted about 500 bike tourers. As we left the next morning we found that our accommodations in New Orleans had fallen through and the riding was slow because we were riding against the wind. ‘We were older now and still riding against the wind’. We decided to end our trip early, rent a car in New Orleans and drive back to Nashville ending our adventure on a high note. In spite of the slow going it was a beautiful day and we were both excited about going home.
A little north of New Orleans is the Bonne Carre spillway and we were told that we could just go around the barricade and ride along the spillway so that is exactly what we did. We biked to Bonne Carre wild camping area and set up the tent overlooking a body of water for our last night of camping. It was getting dark and I set up the stove for our last meal ‘on the road’ and noticed a huge number of dragonflies darting around a distance above my head. It wasn’t long after that that I realized what the dragonflies were doing. They were eating mosquitoes. All of a sudden it was thick with mosquitoes and we cooked dinner quickly and ate inside the tent. There were hundreds of mosquitoes sitting on the outside of our tent screen and on the inside of the fly. Yes, we were going home! The next morning it was still dark when we left the wild camping area and headed to New Orleans. The journey from Nashville to New Orleans was coming to an end.
Observing the massive industrial complex that produces the resources required to sustain not only our societal needs and wants, but also by extension the global societal needs and wants, it is apparent that there are 'limits to growth'. Can we really expect to continue to grow this complex with the challenges of climate change, wealth disparity, destruction of arable land, and a decrease of available fresh water? If we proceed to advocate for alternative energy to combat climate change without investigating the principles of 'limits to growth' such as throughput, Law of Diminishing Returns, exponential growth, and the Jevon's Paradox, a few of the concepts that provide a foundation of understanding, we will be faced with further challenges that affect our survival. These issues are complex and need discussion and debate, however, are not even mentioned enough on the political stage.