Day 10 – Lebanon, TN to Tupelo, MS : 300 miles
I had a fitful night (is there such a thing as a meat hangover?) and although I set the alarm for 4:30 am I was awake at 4 and broke camp in the dark for an early departure after the most excellent cold ribs for breakfast.
The Natchez Trace, also known as the “Old Natchez Trace”, is a historic forest trail within the United States which extends roughly 440 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, linking the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers. The trail was created and used by Native Americans for centuries, and was later used by early European and American explorers, traders, and emigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. European Americans founded inns, also known as “stands”, along the Trace to serve food and lodging to travelers. As travel shifted to steamboats on the Mississippi and other rivers, most of these stands closed. Today, the path is commemorated by the 444-mile “Natchez Trace Parkway” etc.Wikipedia
I rode about a hundred miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway and was charmed at first by the flow of the road and the high standards of maintenance – neatly painted lines, meticulously mown sides which looked like lawns, flawless road surface, and a series of tidy “historic markers”. After a while, I noticed that while I passed under or over other roads, there was rarely a connection with them. As the relentless and isolated perfection continued it began to feel a bit “Stepford Wives” and just too “daintee”. When I needed to fill up with gas, the GPS said to do a U-Turn and I realized I was trapped! Well, not really, but enough was enough. And I had a side-trip in mind.
Some of the best music of my generation was recorded in a funky little recording studio in a small town on the banks of the Tennessee river called Muscle Shoals. Black and white musicians melded their art in this obscure corner of Alabama even during the civil rights era. The Rolling Stones visited (there are no credits on the “Sticky Fingers” album because they didn’t have a work visa) among a long list of incredible artists. If you like this kind of music but haven’t seen the documentary then you must. This wasn’t just a visit, it was a pilgrimage.
So it seemed appropriate that day to finish up at Tupelo, Mississippi, at the birthplace of another musician – Elvis Presley. And I arrived in time to visit the two-room cropper’s shack in which he was born, which is now circumscribed by a park that has become a shrine. I noticed that a lady with a poodle came into the visitor center to sit in front of a video of “The King” performing, and I wondered if she did that every day.
The campsite at the Tombigbee state park was just the cutest ever, not only did it have a (perfectly flat!) wooden tent platform, but also hammock supports, benches around a firepit laid with cut stones and a swing seat! I had to go back to the parks officer in the morning to tell him how awesome his campground is.
Day 11 –Tupelo, MS to Pensacola, FL : 400 miles
I had thought to visit Selma, Alabama to ride the Edmund Pettus bridge across which Martin Luther King Jr. led the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. I was also chided by fellow riders for not visiting the Barber Vintage Motorsports museum in Birmingham, Alabama – I know it’s an incredible display of motorcycles – but you can’t do everything. I just thought it would be so cool to ride to Florida, since the Florida panhandle extending West made it possible. Not strictly the Easternmost point of my trip, but psychologically so. I rode to Florida!
The Big Lagoon state park in Pensacola had no campsites available, and I’m so glad it didn’t. After ten nights of camping I checked into a hotel in Gulf Breeze, Pensacola for two nights – to take stock, to rest up, to air my smelly kit and wash a few things by hand, and to see what’s up in Pensacola. The storms came fast and furious, thunder and lightning and torrential downpours every couple of hours. I put the bike under cover a couple of times but I couldn’t keep up with the frequency. I upgraded my weather app to alert me of lightning in my vicinity and worried about having to leave during a storm. In the meantime, I could walk to a bar that sold a very good “blood orange beer” and timed the short walk between deluges.
Eventually, on my rest day, I was able to ride out and explore the white sands of the Pensacola beaches on the gulf islands and eat plump fresh oysters on the half shell followed by gumbo for lunch. No one looked like a local, everyone was sunburned and everyone was a tourist. I swam in the sea and in the hotel pool, and reluctantly prepped for an early start in the morning.