A Father and Son Ride the Natchez Trace

A Father and Son Ride Down the Natchez Trace

The year 2015 was an amazing one for me on the bike. I was able to enjoy many grand adventures with quality people. Some of these escapades appeared on the Salsa website or in other venues ("The Dark Areas Tour" or "Bike-Sploring the Brooks Range of Alaska") and others were imprinted in the recesses of my mind to be shared only through the spoken word with those who appreciate such things. When asked recently by the Salsa crew to share my “favorite ride” of the year, I knew without a doubt what ride topped them all: my ride down the famed Natchez Trace with my 71-year-old father, Gunner.

Gunner: My inspiration and partner for this ride ...

The roots of this ride started years ago. Both of my parents always have been super active, and this is one of the keys to why they are both so fit and vibrant today. My dad was an outstanding basketball player who pursued his passion into his early 50s, until his feet and ankles wouldn’t allow him to run up and down the court as he once did. At this point, cycling became prominent in his life. For a Christmas gift one year, we all pitched in as family members and bought Gunner his first road bike. In the 20 years since, that bike has ridden thousands of miles through sunshine, rain, and brisk winds. A year or two ago, that original Fuji Roubaix was retired as the daily steed, and a newer bike took its place to be ridden six out of seven days a week. 

When my parents lived in the flat lands of South Florida, Gunner and I schemed about riding from Miami to Key West. For one reason or another, we never made the trip.  When my parents retired and moved to Alabama, we began talking about doing a tour along our nation’s longest national parkway, the Natchez Trace. 

Natchez Trace: Our nation’s longest national parkway ...

The “Trace” runs 444 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, and is a designated bicycle route. For those who venture onto today’s Trace, they will find a quiet ribbon of pristine asphalt that has very little motorized traffic (no trucks or commercial vehicles are allowed on the Trace). The Trace plays a prominent role in our country’s early history, as it was first established by prehistoric animals following a geologic ridge line from grazing lands in Tennessee to the Mississippi River. American Indians began using these paths to break through the deep undergrowth of the temperate rain forest that is the south, to follow the migration of the bison before these majestic animals moved further west. As humans began to settle the land, the Trace became a series of established trails for trade and commerce among these native nations. Even before the establishment of the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a route of communication from the distant settlements of Mississippi to the rest of the country. In 1801, the U.S. Army began connecting the various trails and blazing a soon-to-be well-traveled path from Natchez to Nashville. 

Four hundred and forty-four miles of history ...

The Trace was a busy thoroughfare in the early 1800s. Its prominence continued even with the advent of riverboat travel along the Mississippi River. Kentuckians, or “Kaintucks” as they were known, would build flatboats and transport goods down our nation’s mighty river to the hub of Natchez, where they would sell their goods, dismantle their boats for even more revenue, and then begin the long walk home via the Trace. All to do it again the next year. 

A segment of the original Trace covered in leaves ...

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"This early interstate road-building venture—a snake-infested, mosquito-beset, robber-haunted, Indian-traveled forest path—was lamented by the pious, cursed by the impious, and tried everyone’s strength and patience."  –National Park Service sign at Sunken Trace at milepost 350.5

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After a foiled attempt due to weather a couple of Decembers ago, this past November my dad and I set out on our journey down the Trace. Having previously ridden the northern half of the parkway with students while directing the University of Tennessee Outdoor Program, I was interested in completing the journey by riding the southern half. This was also a great introduction to the terrain of the Trace for Gunner, as the Mississippi portion of the parkway is relatively flat, void of the rolling hills that are found in the Tennessee and Alabama portions. 

Riding road bikes (me on my Salsa Colossal) and loaded with half frame bags and credit cards, my mom dropped us on the Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving just outside of Starkville, Mississippi, with just more than 225 miles to ride south to Natchez. We would ride unsupported, just father and son, for the next 3½ days. The afternoon was misty with a light drizzle, but it did little to dampen my spirits … I was riding with the man who has been the most influential male in my life. This was going to be an amazing experience. 

Father and son ready for the ride ahead ...

As the tour logistics began to take shape in the early fall, the overall theme of the ride was to be one of bikes and barbecue. We would ride down the Trace under our own power seeking good ‘ole southern barbecue along the way. As we learned, though, this is a tricky endeavor, as the Trace is remote when it comes to barbecue establishments and their proximity. Sure, we were riding through the heart of the south, where there are plenty of opportunities to taste savory pork and chicken--but only if you are traveling by car or have the time to ride the busy roads that intersect the Trace and lead 10 or more miles to quaint southern towns where our sought-after cuisine can be found. We didn’t have that time or desire.

The Trace has more of these sights than barbecue ...

Our Sunday came to an end at the Days Inn in Kosciusko. It was dark, and there was no barbecue to be found close by. Instead, we opted for a Mexican restaurant just a short block away from the hotel. It had been a great ride of 45 miles. Though late November, fall was still vibrant along the parkway. The first snowflakes had fallen long ago in Colorado, so it was fun to revisit one of my favorite seasons. Given how the season flies by for me due to a busy work schedule, it was exhilarating to have a second chance to experience the grandeur of nature’s change from the bike. Riding at a leisurely pace, I soaked in the fall colors and took every opportunity to attempt to capture their brilliance through my camera lens. 

The remaining remnants of fall in the south ...

The forecast for our trip was to be mixed between intermittent rain and partly cloudy skies, but with warm temperatures in the 60s. As the rain steadily tapped out its rhythm on the hotel’s metal roof, we fell asleep after a good first day and prepared for a wet day ahead. We awoke to a heavily moisture-laden sky with a puddle-filled parking lot, but no liquid sunshine falling. At least we would start the day dry. 

Wet pavement, but no rain. Wahoo! ...

Though the skies were threatening, we rode on dry pavement the entire day. Continuing on our leisurely pace, we stopped to read every historical marker we came upon. Standing at each landmark, my mind drifted back in time, wondering what it would have been like to have had traveled this historical byway. Could I have outwitted the bandits that waited in anticipation of making a quick buck through ambush, or negotiated my way through the sovereign boundaries of the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations? I am not sure. I do know, however, that I was traversing this ancient path under my own power just as those before me.

One of our many historical stops ...

With little traffic even turtles feel comfortable cruising on the Trace ...

The ancient travelers of the Trace had to negotiate cypress swamps, as well as many other challenges ...

Another 70 miles of riding later, Gunner and I rolled into the metropolis of Jackson under fading daylight. After a day and a half essentially to ourselves, the busy nature of Mississippi’s capital was startling. We made our way to our resting spot for the night (the Home 2 Suites) with little interest in quenching our thirst for barbecue. Instead, it was a pizza delivery type of night. With bellies full from a large meat pie and salad, we both fell fast asleep, grateful for remaining dry all day.

There were plenty of leaves, but our pavement was dry for the entire day ...

We awoke to rain, the kind of rain that is steady and unrelenting. There was no escaping the drenching that lied ahead.  Watching the Weather Channel in the hotel lobby assured us that there was no waiting for a dry period; a wet ride was unavoidable. Embracing the inevitable, we climbed on our road warriors and made our way back to the Trace. The parkway traverses along the northern edge of Jackson and here can be very busy with traffic. The weather and continuous passing cars kept us alert. For the majority of the Trace, one can expect a passing car every 5 to 15 minutes (or even longer). Around Jackson, cars were passing us in the poor visibility every 5 to 15 seconds. It was unnerving. 

A wet day of riding ...

Our wet day progressed with each pedal stroke. Before we knew it, we had 50 miles behind us and were stretched out on the warm floor of the information kiosk at Rocky Springs, enjoying a lunch of chicken and biscuits (another southern favorite). Rocky Springs was the former site of a prosperous community that was drawn to the area because of its nutrient-rich soil and nearby springs. Nearby was the “Sunken Trace,” a remnant of the original. Gunner and I strolled along the dirt walls of the footpath taking in the ghosts of the past. How many had walked this same ground? What were they thinking? What were their stories? 

A welcome break from the rain to have a good ‘ole southern lunch … chicken biscuits ...

Walking in the footsteps of the past ...

Our day’s companion of rain came to end as we exited the Trace for the little community of Port Gibson. We had reservations at a historic B&B, The Isabella. On the mile-and-a-half ride into the town, I glanced to my right and saw something that made me holler in triumph … our first easily accessible barbecue restaurant, Billy Bob’s Barbecue. Wahoo! Swerving to the right, we pulled into the drab and unexciting food stop. Looking at the store’s highway billboard, I knew without a doubt that this was going to be a savory stop. 

The sign that drew us in … time for some barbecue ... 

Inside we met Justin, who had grown up in Port Gibson and had just finished a degree in criminal justice from Alcorn State, located just up the road. Upon asking him what was their best dish, Gunner and I both rode away with pulled-pork sandwiches and fries in Styrofoam to-go containers. We still had a mile to go and did not want to ride it in the dark. 

Arriving at The Isabella, we were immediately welcomed by our host Bobbye with Southern pecan beers brewed by the Magnolia Brewery—one of Mississippi’s few breweries. Anxious to enjoy our recently purchased cuisine and more brews, we hurried to our expansive room and got out of our wet clothes and into hot showers. There is no better way to end a damp day of riding.

After more than 70 miles of riding in the rain, a couple of beers, and a barbecue-sauce-dripping pulled-pork sandwich, it wasn’t long before we both fell asleep under some comfortable down blankets. What a day!         

Billy Bob’s pulled-pork sandwich never tasted so good ...

We awoke to an overcast, but dry, day. Our weather forecast was looking up, as the all-knowing local weathermen were calling for clearing skies, but cooler temps in the low 50s. We could handle a little sunshine. We had just more than 40 miles to ride to reach the southern terminus of the Trace in Natchez. Given this, we took a leisurely morning and enjoyed our breakfast of eggs, sausage, homemade oats, and fresh fruit. Bobbye and her husband, Phil, knew how to do it right for a couple of hungry cyclists. They had purchased the 1880 Queen Anne-style home in 2010 and restored it to its original charm. Listed on the National Register of Historic Homes, this southern-style B&B is not lacking in character and hospitality. Pedaling away from their home, we felt very lucky to have stayed and experienced a little bit of the old south that resides within the walls of the Isabella.

Isabella: Our favorite overnight on the tour ...

Given the relatively short distance we had to ride for the day, we continued our lazy pace. As one moves closer to Natchez, the historical markers become more prevalent. Stopping at Mount Locust, we were able to walk the grounds of one of the original “stands” that were established along the Trace. These stops for the journeymen and wayfarers were oases among the vast southern wilderness, where hot meals and a good night’s sleep under a roof could be found. 

Mount Locust—one of the last remaining “stands” along the modern day Trace ...

A bit further, we detoured about a mile off of the Trace to Emerald Mound. This elevated football field is the second-largest Mississippian Period ceremonial mound in the United States. Believed to have been established in the early 1200s, this flat-topped earthen mound was used for burials and other ceremonies until 1730. Gunner and I once again walked among the ancients trying to comprehend the past. It was unfathomable.

The Emerald Mound ...

Around 4 p.m. we arrived at the southern end of the Trace. My mom was only a few short miles away waiting for us at the historic Natchez Grand Hotel. My emotions were mixed: I was elated, yet regretful, filled with elation that I had just shared a journey with the man who I respect and have learned so much from—my dad has been very influential in shaping me into the being I am today. To be able to help guide and facilitate the past four days for someone who so often created such experiences for me was an honor. Yet at the same time, I regretted that it had taken us so long to make such a trip happen. Life has a way of moving us quickly into the future. Caught up with the demands and responsibilities of everyday life, time can get away from us. More of these types of adventures need to happen, and I know that it is my responsibility to make them a reality.

Three-and-a-half days and 225 miles later, we made it to the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace ...

As we pedaled our last mile through the historic district of Natchez, Gunner mentioned his desire to ride the northern half of the Trace. Smiling to myself, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before we were riding in the other direction, exploring more of the history of this quiet national parkway. I know it will be one of my best rides, simply because it will be with my dad. Now if we can only find some barbecue?!

I have no doubt that there will be more father and son rides in the future: I can’t wait ...

The south treated me right; I look forward to getting back ...

This post filed under topics: Brett Davis Colossal Sponsored Riders

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Davis

I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.

COMMENTS (2)

ArkyKenny | February 8th, 2016

Thank you for a great read. 

Salsa:  This is why I have a Vaya, and a Fargo.

David | February 8th, 2016

Thank you for sharing such a great trip. Enjoy and cherish those trips with your Dad.

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