Trip Log – Day 382 – Newton MS to Demopolis AL

to-demopolis-alDecember 5, 2016 – Rain, 50 degrees

Miles Today: 86

Miles to Date: 19,907

States to Date: 47

Every long distance cyclist worth his or her salt has tales of bad weather. Few have to wait over a year for Mother Nature to get long-toothed and ugly. My journey has been blessed with freakishly good weather. Until Mississippi I woke to rain exactly twice and never failed to reach my proposed destination.

imagesI’ve just finished three days of rain – the entire width of Mississippi from Catfish Row in Vicksburg all the way to Toomsuba. As weather sagas go, mine is still lightweight. The rain fell from still and somber skies. Mississippi showers are less dangerous than Kansas’ crosswinds; I got wet, but not blown or destabilized. Except that US 80, which girdles the state, is so narrow and has a rumble strip that forced me to ride inside the white line and signal every car in each direction to make sure I was seen. My left arm got a harder workout than my thighs.

I woke before dawn and got out in the first grey light; fifteen miles before the drops started to fall. During the first torrent I decided drastic action was in order, so turned into Waffle House when I reached Meridian. Good call.

images-1Those big round lights are next-best thing to the sun. The second major downpour occurred while I chatted up four obese waitresses and an aging Black man intrigued with my rig. I devoured eggs and grits, toast and bacon and a sweet waffle, then drowned them all with coffee. Waffle House has the worst coffee; all part of its charm.

imagesI met a pair of cross-country hikers walking US 80 from Atlanta to San Diego. (facebook.com/thehikeacrossamerica). Mississippi’s incessant rain was harder on Jacob Whedbee and Musunga Mubuso than on me.

The precipitation did not stop at the state line; it remained a steady downpour all the way to Demopolis. Fortunately for me, if not the natural environment, US 80 mushrooms to Interstate proportions in Alabama. All character is lost in the service of speed and safety, which, on this particular day, I did not mind. On my own shoulder, separated by a rumble strip, my mind drifted just as free as any sunny day.

imgresSixty-nine miles in I realized I needed a snack before the final push. The rain dissipated. I stopped along a guardrail and ate a Clif bar. The downpour resumed. I stood along the blacktop on a featureless hill. For a moment, I considered the absurdity of my trek. What am I doing in Alabama – for the third time – in the middle of December, in the middle of a rainstorm? Then I got mounted the bike and pedaled on. Within moments it didn’t seem absurd at all. Bicycling is just the perfect way to get most anywhere in most any weather.

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Trip Log – Day 381 – Jackson MS to Newton MS

to-newton-msDecember 4, 2016 – Mist, 50 degrees

Miles Today: 72

Miles to Date: 19,821

States to Date: 47

I am due some unpleasant weather – and Mississippi has decided to serve it up. The forecast is for three days of rain. Yesterday I rode in heavy downpours. Today was easier – a light mist tracked me from Jackson to Newton.

img_8658The first fifteen miles out of Jackson were on a great bike path along the reservoir and lakes. Then I enjoyed fifteen miles of country roads to Pelahatchie, where I picked up US 80 East to Newton. Since that road has no shoulders and a rumble strip, I rode within the white line and waved at passing cars all day. Thankfully, there was little traffic on a grey Sunday, so I still got to enjoy the tall pines. Mississippi is quite beautiful, even in the mist.

I am particularly fond of the architecture of the Deep South – stately and symmetrical. Buildings really convey what they are about. The civic buildings of Pelahatchie are small, but have stature. Even modest houses seem grand.

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Trip Log – Day 380 – Vicksburg MS to Jackson MS

to-jacksonDecember 3, 2016 – Rain, 45 degrees

Miles Today: 63

Miles to Date: 19,749

States to Date: 47

The northwest winds that pushed me out of Arkansas shifted to the west, then south. Yesterday the air grew heavy and the breeze pushed from the east. Sure signs of rain.

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I heard the first drops on my roof about 5:00 a.m., rose in the dark at six, and was on the road by seven’s first light to give myself plenty of time to buck the storm. The weather proved less severe than it might have been, though my route turned long because of so many missed turns on unmarked roads. I sang every rain song I knew to satisfy my mind through long stretches of deep forest and rolling fields that were picturesque even in the rain.

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-4-17-12-pmNot a bit of traffic until the last few miles. My host was doing errands on busy E. County Line Road when he snapped this action shot of me in the rain. My neon sash is very bright. “I knew it had to be you. How many crazy cyclists would be out in Jackson on such a rainy day.”

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Trip Log – Day 379 – Rolling Fork MS to Vicksburg MS

to-vicksburgDecember 2, 2016 – Sun, 60 degrees

Miles Today: 60

Miles to Date: 19,686

States to Date: 47 

Today I participated in the trials of immigrants and the comforts of the established class.

Rolling Forks Motel is representative of dozens of places I have stayed that are owned and operated by Indian immigrants, the vast majority of them named Patel. I have learned that the Patel surname is common in India as Smith is here. Patel’s belong to the merchant caste, so when they come the US they continue to operate businesses. They own virtually every aging independent motel in America (except in the Northern Plains and Northern New England). Many were doctors or engineers in India. Now they collect between $40 and $65 per night to rent serviceable rooms to the likes of me. These mimg_8616otels are never full; often I am the only guest. Some offer morning coffee, few provide free breakfast, most include reliable Wi-Fi: Indians are tech-savvy.

Most of the Indians I meet running these establishments seem particularly ill suited to hospitality. They are curt, transactional to the precipice of unfriendly. They also seem unaware of American standards of cleanliness. The beds are made and the shower is wiped down, but the lobbies are cluttered and the windows grimy.

When I checked into Rolling Forks Motel yesterday afternoon, the proprietor had trouble getting his credit card machine to work. He fiddled with the register tape and eventually produced a slip for me to sign. I asked him ‘How will we live tomorrow?’ but it was beyond his English.

This morning I got a knock on my door at 7:15 a.m. In battered phrases and hand gestures, ‘Bob’ explained that my credit card had been charged three times. Himg_8615e asked me to stop by the office for my refund before I left. Half an hour later he came back and asked for my card. I couldn’t quite understand his intention, but his honest alarm was palpable. I gave him my card; he disappeared, and then returned with the credit receipt. I figured we were finished. Until he knocked again, tablet in hand, and an elaborate explanation about some improperly loaded app. It seemed very important that I understand the error. I gestured that everything was good until he sighed relief.

When I rode away from the dingy place I pondered the hardships of immigrants: to run such a marginal business in such a strange land, to live in constant apology for all that you cannot comprehend.

img_8623Forty miles of pleasant riding brought me to Vicksburg, where I spent a lovely afternoon exploring the city and the National Military Park. The stone monuments placed like chess pieces across the hilly terrain help a visitor visualize the opposing battalions. The park is too large to walk, but ideal to view from a bicycle.

img_8621I particularly liked the US Cairo memorial, the reconstructed remnants of the torpedoed iron barge. One of the placards described that the 157-man crew were mostly immigrants who spoke as many as seventeen languages. All fighting to preserve their adopted Union.

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In late afternoon I pedaled to my hosts, who live in a hand-built stone house of lodge proportion on 1,000 acres with a guesthouse and hunting grounds. Some of the finish wood was salvaged from family structures over 100 years old. We ate deer stew, shot on site, sizzling cornbread and delectable pumpkin pie. We talked about education and law, media and technology.

Important to remember that there was a time, generations ago, when this family was immigrants, just like the Cairo crew and motel owner.

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Trip Log – Day 378 –Tillar AR to Rolling Fork MS

to-rolling-forkDecember 1, 2016 – Sun, 60 degrees

Miles Today: 91

Miles to Date: 19,626

States to Date: 47

I woke up to the delights of Delta Resort, where Cindy Smith, Commissioner for the Arkansas State Parks, Recreations and Travel Commission, hosted me in grand style. Such a fine day for cycling – clear and bright and just warm enough. Good thing, as I had many miles to tuck under my belt.

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I hoped to get out early and visit Lakeport Plantation before lunch. But I got chatting with other guests over breakfast. Then I picked up an unexpected Arkansas souvenir: a gnarly bent nail on US 65 that dug into my back tire too deep for goo tube to seal. The hiss was long and slow, but the flat inevitable. I can’t much complain; it’s been 5,000 miles since my last flat. But by the time I reached the plantation, the staff was on midday break, so I only got to see the exterior.

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Up and over the mighty Mississippi to the state that bears its name. Some very tough riding along Highway 454: no shoulder, ruble strip, heavy traffic, unhappy drivers. At MS 1 south I took a break to eat and untangle my nerves. Then I enjoyed forty miles of smooth sailing past water glistening in the bayous, plowed rows of black earth, crop dusting planes, and a tireless dog who ran alongside me for two miles.

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Rolling Fork is a quirky town. Route 14 narrows along a ravine and a lovely wooded glen lined with stately homes. The gravelly strip along Highway 61 littered with chaotic commercial, is less nice. Perhaps tomorrow will reveal the charms of the Blues Highway.

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Trip Log – Day 377 – Pine Bluff AR to Tillar AR

to-mcgeheeNovember 30, 2016 – Clouds, Sun, 60 degrees

Miles Today: 79

Miles to Date: 19,535

States to Date: 47

I spent my day amidst the ghosts of the Arkansas Delta. In the grey and featureless morning I rolled through the empty streets of downtown Pine Bluff; blocks of deserted buildings, some turned to rubble. Streets that once teemed with life now barricaded against detimgresritus spilling onto the pavement. Dark men wander the edges, adrift in a world that’s moved out to the highway.

A light wind guided me south along Highway 65. By noon the clouds shifted and the sun shone. Trucks roared by me. Black men and women waved from sagging porches and dusty side roads in Varner and Gould and Pickens. There was a time when the Delta was the richest part of Arkansas. A farm would support twenty, forty families. I met a farmer’s wife whose husband now cultivates 3800 acres with four hands. The rest have moved on or live on the generosity of the state, which is either too grand or too meager depending on whether you’re paying those taxes or receiving those benefits. Every white person I met told me they’re open minded and then complained about lazy Negroes.

img_8593Highway signs denote the Trail of Tears Route. I hear the spirits of Cherokee and Seminole wail as they trudge north and west, opposite direction of the path I’m traveling toward their ancestral home.

Two Japanese-American Internment camps were built near McGehee during World War II, a railroad town now past its peak. After many years and considerable local resentment, the old train depot has been turned into a museum. I toured the exhibits alone. A crusty curator with a liberal tongue warned me it could happen again; that some visitors clamor to reopen the camps for Muslims.

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But the camps are long gone. Two small cities that housed over 16,000 Japanese between 1942 ad 1944 emerged with wartime zeal and disappeared just as fast, save a trio of commemorative stone memorials. The barracks were sold off and used as farm buildings. Only one family remained in Arkansas. They knew they were not wanted. Today, Japanese-Americans from all over the world visit to honor ancestor’s who quietly submitted to a government that stole their rights and imprisoned them for no valid reason.

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The Arkansas Delta is full of ghosts. Of natives shuttled through here when they impeded progress’ path, of citizens impounded here because of their origin, of cities left to decay after those of us who can, move on. Will we listen to the stories these empty places tell? Will we do the right thing: honor our heritage, atone for our mistakes, and bring our physical cities back to life? Or will we ignore the cries of history, abandon our heritage, and maybe even reconstruct the camps?

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Trip Log – Day 376 – Little Rock AR to Pine Bluff AR

to-pine-bluffNovember 29, 2016 – Clouds, 65 degrees

Miles Today: 70

Miles to Date: 19,456

States to Date: 47

 screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-11-15-09-amI saw this sign early in my day, which resonated with a guy who’s taken a leak in 47 states so far. That got me looking at other intriguing signs along the way. I rode to Bryant for a conversation with poet June Hardin, and then continued on to Benton. Route 35 to Sheridan is one of the nicest roads of my trip; twenty miles of sweet-scented pine forests. The wind was at my back for the final stretch to Pine Bluff, so I got into town well before dark.

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