from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
November 3, 2002
KENTUCKY TRIP, 2002
On October 17th I left the plantation for my yearly visit with my family in Kentucky, taking along my bike. After a fine three-day visit, a little before dawn on Monday, October 20th, I pointed southward my old mountain bike, whose name is Chlorophyll, and eleven days later, this Thursday afternoon, peddled back into my Natchez camp. I had biked every step of the 550-mile journey (880 kms). Thursday afternoon a chilly night was coming on and seven Green Anoles had hunkered together in the crack where my crooked trailer door doesn't fit its frame well, and I considered that a wonderful welcome home.
Of the 550 miles, some 442 were traveled on the much-landscaped Natchez Trace Parkway, which allows only non-commercial traffic and has a limited speed limit. Administered by the National Park Service, the Trace extends from the southwestern corner of Nashville, Tennessee to just northeast of Natchez. Thus my first two and half days of peddling took place along backroads of western Kentucky and Tennessee, but for the rest of the trip I was on the Trace. On the Trace I averaged about 55 miles a day (88 kms), which is about as much as a fellow wants to do when loaded with tent, water, food and everything else. Each night I camped along the way. The Trace's official website is at www.nps.gov/natr/
I had expected that fall colors would be brightest in Kentucky and that they would fade as I drifted southward. However, Tropical Storm Iris and Hurricane Lili dropped more rain in Kentucky and Tennessee than here, and it appears that this has caused the colors up there to be set back, despite a light, spotty frost already having occurred there. On that first morning of peddling southward across western Kentucky, the forests were green with a curious brownish cast. There wasn't enough yellowness for the brown tinge to be called bronze. It was a strange hue, one I've seldom seen, one a little unsettling to look at.
In fact, the colors reached their peak in south-central Tennessee, about at the Alabama line, and there I often saw scenes worthy of any newspaper's Sunday-supplement cover. Flowering Dogwoods and Sweetgums were rusty red and Sugar Maples were brilliantly orange and red. Winged Elm leaves were mottled yellow and green, hickories were yellow and most brilliant of all were the Winged Sumacs, scarlet as could be. From the Alabama line southward, colors began diminishing, and when I came into camp Thursday I found a forest with hardly any color at all.
My passage took me through several distinct phytogeographical zones. The farm on which I grew up in McLean County, Kentucky was located in the middle of what once had been a vast Ice Age lake. The lake had been formed when the Ice Age's last glacier dammed the region's northward flowing Green River. The lake averaged maybe five to ten miles wide, and was perhaps thirty to fifty miles long, so the first hours of my peddling that early Monday morning took me across the remnants of that ancient lake's flat bed. Now the level landscape was brown with fields of stalks and stubble of recently harvested soybean and corn, and only here and there did a few little islands of swamp forest remain.
For me the flat landscape was not the least drab or monotonous, for this was the view in every direction from the isolated little farmhouse in which I came of age, an open-sky, wide-open view that's inside me now as emotional infrastructure. Biking across the flatness that morning filled me with nostalgia. Exactly as when I was a child, the tinkling music of Horned Larks mounted into the sky and the sharp songs of Eastern Meadowlarks split the morning's quietness, and I just peddled and peddled.
Just south of these flatlands, low sandstone hills appeared, but soon that landscape grew fractured and the hills' forests gave way to horizon-to-horizon rolling fields of Shrub Lespedeza. For, just beneath the sandstone once there lay vast stores of bituminous coal. In a swath of land about five miles across and some thirty miles long, when I was a child Peabody Coal Company brought in machines larger than one can imagine, stripped the soil and rock from above the coal, took the coal, shoved the debris back and "reclaimed" it by sowing Shrub Lespedeza, LESPEDEZA THUNBERGII. Now agriculture in this land is impossible. No homes are being built. The lespedeza supports a dense population of Wild Turkey and deer, but otherwise it is an ecological desert. Streams leading from the zone are orange and lifeless with acid water leaching off high-sulfur overburden. It's hard for me to talk about this without growing enraged.
A few miles north of the Tennessee border the sandstone hills ended and a limestone plain appeared, extending into northern Tennessee. Soil developing atop this limestone is often a rich, rusty red. Biking was easy here and it was a pleasure sailing past little farms with handsome Tennessee Walking Horses lazily grazing in green pastures, and it was fun entering little farm-oriented towns like Guthrie, the childhood Kentucky home of author Robert Penn Warren.
A bit south in Tennessee soon hill country appeared again, and these hills with their deep valleys made my biking hard for a long time. It was pretty country, though, especially along the Cumberland River (which I crossed at Ashland City), but biking with such a load was hard and slow. I was amazed that some of the valleys, or hollows, less than twenty miles west of Nashville were as wild and woolly looking as anything found in Appalachia. On ridgetops, however, outbreaks of the social disease of gentrification were apparent.
What a pleasure seeing those special plants found only in deep, moist, shady valleys -- plants I knew so well when I was younger. There was the Walking Fern, ASPLENIUM RHIZOPHYLLUM, which you can see at www.ct-botanical-society.org/ferns/fernpics/aspleniumrhiz.jpg. It's a fern with heart-shaped fronds with tips that reach out, root, and make new plants, so that with time the fern "walks" across a moist sandstone rock. And there were Beechdrops, EPIFAGUS VIRGINIANA (www.dragonrun.org/images/Beechdrops.gif), a brownish flowering plant that paristizes the roots of Beech trees. Plants like these just aren't found around my Natchez camp, and I hadn't realized how I'd been missing them.
I entered the Natchez Trace at Nashville's southwestern corner. So far the weather had been perfect, but now the sky curdled over and in fact for the next several days I biked in the rain, or under the threat of rain. During the trip my first two days and my last two days saw good weather, but the seven days in between were otherwise. Two entire days I biked in the rain. Three nights I camped in downpours. By the end of the wet spell my clothing and sleeping bag were reeking of mildew. It was a warmish rain -- the temperature seldom departing far from about 70° (21°C) -- else it would have been disastrous.
During the early 1800s the Natchez Trace was important to settlers from the Ohio Valley (usually called "Kaintucks," though many weren't from Kentucky) who would float down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to sell their produce in this area, then would walk or ride horses back home on the Natchez Trace. Thus today the Trace's "Mile Zero" is at Natchez, and I entered the Trace at its end, at Mile 442. Markers appear each mile along the way. As I traveled south, I recorded several natural milestones.
Around Mile 333 in extreme northeastern Alabama's Lauderdale County, pines became conspicuous in the surrounding forest as the Eastern Deciduous Forest with its preponderance of oaks and hickories began giving way to the Southeastern Pine Forest. This boundary was somewhat obscured because farther north Loblolly Pines are often planted along the road for landscaping purposes. In Mississippi, at Mile 252 about 10 miles southwest of Tupelo, I saw the first Armadillo roadkill. In Clinton, on the western side of Jackson, the first Spanish Moss dangled from trees.
My most enjoyable camp was the one where I pegged my tent less than 4 feet from the water's edge of Ross Barnett Reservoir on Jackson's northeastern side. As dusk fell and mosquitoes swarmed outside, I sat cross-legged in my tent watching through my screened window as a Great Blue Heron gracefully stalked fish along shore just yards away. A Belted Kingfisher noisily dove for fish, and a Pied-billed Grebe glared at the tent between his long submersions. During the night I was awakened several times by an enormous fish jumping from the water and splashing back with the force of a cinderblock tossed from a bridge. He splattered my tent and I lay there laughing, trying to imagine what could provoke a fish to jump from the water so many times and so noisily! At dawn, silhouetted Double-crested Cormorants posed on snags, spreading their wings half open to dry.
Now on this Sunday morning my legs are still a bit rubbery, my butt remains raw with skin peeling from it, and my shoulder muscles continue to burn as if real fire were searing the skin. But I am enormously pleased to know that at age 55 I can still make such a trip. In fact, I can't say that I've ever felt much better in my life.
On this trip I met two other long-distance riders. One fellow, a piano tuner of about 35 from Madison, Wisconsin, was biking from Madison to Brownsville, Texas. The other was a retired Xerox executive of 59, who was biking from Moline, Illinois to Baton Rouge. At a country store near Clinton an old lady asked me to sign her "Guestbook for Long-Distance Bikers," since lots of Trace bikers dropped into her store. The people who had signed before me were from New Zealand "in the midst of a 15,000-mile biking trip."
I'm glad I'm not on a 15,000-mile bike trip. Though on this trip I have seen new and pretty things, I am left with the impression that for two weeks I have abandoned a life in which I experience things deeply and glimpse their essences, and exchanged it for a time of making superficial acquaintances, of never hanging my heart anywhere.
Well, maybe a well balanced life needs a little of both approaches.
However, I am more convinced than ever that at this time in my life being rooted in one place where nature is my main companion is the happier option for me.