From Atlanta to Natchez, aka Now what?

Now what? It’s a question that keeps coming up. The transcontinental bike ride has been completed for a while. It seems a little wrong to keep up a blog that was designed for one purpose that has now been realized, but it also seems really sad to just let it die. Besides, who knows, maybe it can still play a role in recruiting bone marrow donors. Let’s see what happens.

So there I was, sitting in Atlanta. I had a few things I wanted to get done. First of all, relax and spend time with my sister Cindy and her family. Goof around with the niece and nephew. Enjoy not being in the rain. Take advantage of having a kitchen and easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables and running water. Write a whole lot of thank you notes. Snuggle with the cat. Eat pie.

But one can only sit around enjoying the easy life for so long. Though I did find some fun YouTube channels. What’s next? Get a job? Like, a real job? I was hoping for an epiphany while being on the road.

Epiphanies achieved: 0

I should start an FAQ segment. Here’s a sneak peek at what that might look like:

FAQ1.  What did you think about while riding by yourself for so long? Did you do a lot of self-reflection?

Answer: Even on long empty stretches of road, there is a lot to think about. First, I’m constantly thinking about my bike. I’m listening for any strange sounds and constantly monitoring my tires. That includes constant vigilance of the road for any shards of glass or thorns. No, I never had any huge problems with my bike, but when you’re thirty miles from your next water source, you can’t help but focus on your bike’s well-being. Second on my mind would be the weather. I always had the sky to contemplate and scrutinize. Third would be my pace and when I should stop riding. Would I make it to my destination in time? Where would I sleep that night? How would I feel if I suddenly had to make camp on the side of the road in this area? What if I underestimated how far I could go, was there another place I could stay farther on? And that’s all the things I think about on an empty road. If there was any traffic, then traffic mostly occupied my thoughts. Oh wait, maybe I did have an epiphany. It’s that if you want to go soul-searching and have your epiphany, don’t go for a long bike ride.

…oh my gosh, I should have known! That answer had actually been given to me way early in my ride when I met the two Irish cyclists traveling from Canada to Mexico. Dave had said that his reason for riding was because he wanted to do something where his only concerns would be food and shelter and he would be too tired to think. Damn. He was so wise.

In October, I decided to just kick the can farther down the road. I thought maybe I didn’t get my epiphany because I was constantly thinking about my goals for Be the Match and couldn’t focus on my own questions. Besides, I was so tempted to explore some of the bike routes I had heard about from other cyclists. I toyed with the idea of returning to Tennessee so that I could ride the Natchez Trace Parkway from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi. Coincidentally, my cousin Sabrina told me that she would be in Nashville on October 21st. My calculations told me that if I left Atlanta on October 15th, I should get there in time to meet her.

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Cindy drops me off at the trailhead!

And so that’s what I did! Cindy didn’t like the idea of me riding through the traffic of Atlanta, so I “let” her drive me to the Silver Comet Trail. It seemed like a good way to start making my way back up to Tennessee. Route planning wasn’t really my thing anymore. Experience told me that there’s not much point in doing extensive route planning. I wasn’t even sure if I would try to swing into Alabama or not.

The first few days back on the road were kind of a shock. It felt good to be back on the bike, but it was as if the entire world went through some kind of transformation while I was in Atlanta. Apparently this is normal, a phenomenon known as seasons. Damn axial tilt. The hardest thing for me to get used to was the limited daylight! I’m not a huge fan of riding in the dark, and I had to find my campsite a lot earlier in the day than I would have liked. On top of that, the mornings were so cold, I couldn’t bring myself to take advantage of all the daylight I could have had. I was really missing all the winter clothing that I had started off with, but had sent home after getting across the Rockies. Why didn’t I send it to Atlanta? I should have anticipated that I might want it in Atlanta. Oh well, hindsight is 20/20. The mornings when I woke up with ice all over my tent I curled deeper into my sleeping bag and guiltily felt my sunlight hours tick away.

I got a good kick in the pants to push on, though, when I decided to visit Lynchburg! Lynchburg is home to the Jack Daniel’s distillery. I clipped a corner of Alabama and followed Google Maps’ advice to Lynchburg. And unfortunately the route it suggested to get around I-24 didn’t actually exist. I was stumbling around dirt roads and long driveways that led to houses that looked like they’d been abandoned sometime around 1900. Scrawny dogs and signs with KEEP OUT scrawled on them lurked around in the shadows. I-24 was really my only option. Either that or backtrack about 15 miles, and that’s not really an option, is it? I was stuck at a gas station and asked locals about whether I could ride my bike on I-24 to Monteagle. Given that Johnny Cash had written a song about this stretch of road, I guess it wasn’t surprising that they laughed at me.

There’s a stretch of Highway on Interstate 24 between Nashville and Chattanooga
That’s claimed many a trucker’s life
And your life is in your hands when you start down that long steep grade
On Monteagle Mountain

I’d really done it this time. This was the worst situation – logistically – I’d ever been in. Sitting at a dead end as it was getting dark. I grumbled about my situation while eating gas station snacks and bracing myself for the ride backwards. But right then a car pulled up and a lady asked me where I was headed. I told her that I needed to get across about a ten mile section of I-24 in order to get to Monteagle. She quickly consulted with her husband and they said they’d be back in ten minutes. Ten minutes later they were back with a truck. They tossed my bike in the back, invited me to cram into the cab, and away we went. A few minutes later I was dropped off at a Motel 6 in Monteagle, where I spent the night. I was struck by the way they were so nonchalant about offering their help. They didn’t seem interested in where I was from or where I was going or why I was riding or anything. They just saw that they could give me a hand. They never even asked me my name.

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A special Tennessee treat!

So the next day was a gorgeous sparkling autumn day – now this was what I was talking about! This was riding at its best! A long ribbon of road through the woods and that crisp air and painfully blue sky. I arrived at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, went on a tour (best distillery tour ever, by the way), bought a bottle of whiskey (yes, Lynchburg is dry, but you can still buy a bottle, there just aren’t any bars), and checked into the cutest little inn ever. I’ve discovered that I’m actually quite the fan of Jack. Just so you know… if you ever come visit me, I’ll let you pick the whiskey you’d like to sample from my cabinet. I got some lovely single malt scotches and excellent bourbons. Feel free to examine their labels. But you’ll be tempted to go for the one in the fancy decanter, and I’m going to tell you that it’s a very special whiskey that deserves a fancy decanter. And in my opinion, it is! It’s Old No. 7.

In the morning, I walked around downtown Lynchburg for a while, which was just a delight. These old timey town squares create such a fantastic atmosphere. I’m still paranoid about my bike being stolen all the time, but while I was on the distillery tour, I had to leave it all by itself. Of course I locked it, but I couldn’t help but worry about it. I chatted with the guide for a while and told him that I hoped my bike would still be there when we got back. He was incredibly amused by that and said that while we were gone someone would probably decide to pump up the tires and lube the chain. I don’t know Lynchburg like he does, obviously, but I do have to say that some towns give that impression that everyone’s looking out for each other, and I felt it in Lynchburg.

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Live music in a Nashville honky-tonk.

From there I carried on to Nashville. I settled into a coffee shop and waited for Sabrina to arrive, which happened a lot more quickly than I thought it would. I had only just gotten my latte when she said she was at the hotel! So I hurried over and we had a great time catching up. She had selected an incredible restaurant for dinner, then we went out to the main drag and marveled at the scene – bars, music, and cowboy boots – that is downtown Nashville.

A slide from the talk I went to. Coincidence??!?

A slide from the talk I went to. Coincidence??!?

Sabrina was in Nashville for a Society of Women Engineers conference. I was able to attend for a day – just by being a little shady.. ok, ok, I borrowed someone else’s badge – and I went to a talk about designing your dream job. I was an impostor hanging out with all these engineers, but I figured I could just sit in the back and not talk to anyone. I hadn’t intended to select the talk that was filled with bicycle touring anecdotes, but that’s just the way it happened. I couldn’t resist going up to talk to the speaker since she was designing bicycle components for Surly. We exchanged contact info and she said that I should have been the one giving the talk! That’s basically the opposite of reality the way I see it, so I’m still trying to process that.

It was a lot of fun hanging out with Sabrina and her coworkers in Nashville, and now it was time to make another Now what? decision. With the cold and the short days, I wasn’t incredibly eager to travel more. I thought about how I could get home quick and easy. I was standing by my resolution to not fly. So I somehow had to find my way to an Amtrak station. Or try to cram onto a bus. Or perhaps find someone who needed a car driven out to California. But the day Sabrina left, it was ridiculously great weather. The Natchez Trace Parkway was so close, I decided I could delay my decision long enough to at least see it. So I got on my bike and struggled my way through downtown Nashville, leaving me overjoyed to finally see the escape of the Trace. No commercial traffic allowed, no billboards, only autumn leaves for 444 miles.

Insert the inspirational message of your choosing here. I'll go with the classic A Journey of A Thousand Miles Begins With A Single Step.

This isn’t a picture of the Trace. I took this picture on the Trace looking down at whatever road that is. Note all that traffic. It’s clearly not the Trace.

You can probably guess that I was hooked. I got on the Trace and rode all 444 miles. I met tons of great and interesting people. And some people who were just interesting. My most steady companion was Luke. I met him at the grocery store right at the start of the Trace while we were loading up on supplies. We didn’t ride together, but we met up each night at the campgrounds until he had to go home and go back to his college classes. He was hysterically fun to hang out with. He had an infuriatingly positive attitude about riding in the rain that hit us for days, somehow he actually managed to turn himself around and ride the wrong way for a while – he only had two options, north or south – and most of his stories started with, “So this one time, in Florida…”

Kristina and Jason signing my bike!

Kristina and Jason signing my bike!

The first night camping on the Trace, Luke and I also met Kristina and Jason. I loved them right away. I admire their courage and determination. They told me they didn’t have much experience with cycling, but they always wanted to travel by bike, and so now that they have the time, they’re doing it. They’re figuring out how to make everything work along the way. Jason pulls their trailer, which they lovingly named The Tick, since it sucks the life out of him. So many people I meet tell me that they would love to cycle or walk across the country or do some other kind of physical feat, but first they would need to get in shape or gain experience or save up money or etc. They basically end up talking themselves out of getting up and starting. Kristina and Jason are just going for it. And they’re figuring it out! They were also looking forward to backpacking and other new ways to travel. I felt very fortunate to have my bottle of Jack with me, and we shared a toast to adventure.

Hanging out with Richard, ringleader of the hammock enthusiasts.

Hanging out with Richard, ringleader of the hammock enthusiasts.

Another campground Luke and I stopped at was infested with hammocks. If you’ve been following my travels, you’ll know that I started off with a hammock. I was skeptical of it at first. It just didn’t seem like a reliable way to stay out of the weather. Personally, I love sleeping in my hammock, but it was difficult to find places to hang it. Also, I never invested in the insulation and rain fly that it would need to stand up to cold and rainy nights. Though it was great for hot nights, I couldn’t justify the weight in my panniers, and I sent it home.

But being part of the hammock community is interesting. Hammockers often bond rather quickly, and being the lone person with a hammock in tent city is certainly a special experience. So I was intrigued when I arrived at this campground and hammocks hung from the trees like cocoons after an army of caterpillars (Did you know that a group of caterpillars is called an army? Now you do.) decided it was time to metamorphose. It turns out that it was a local hammock club, and they immediately insisted that all the cyclists join them for dinner. They called us road lice, but they loved us anyway. They were incredibly enthusiastic about hammocks and Dutch ovens. That night we feasted on Dutch oven lasagna, Dutch oven beans, and Dutch oven peach cobbler, among many other delicious items. Bright and early in the morning, they greeted us as we emerged from our tents to tell us breakfast was ready.

Al, Judy, and Wrigley - more saviors in an RV!

Al, Judy, and Wrigley – more saviors in an RV!

I also have to mention my last couple of nights on the Trace. With only about 50 miles left to go, I stopped for the night. I chatted with Al, who is a full timer in his RV with his wife, Judy, and their cocker spaniel Wrigley. It turns out that Wrigley has a blog where he writes about what it’s like to live full time on the road in an RV. The next morning, he asked to interview me for his blog! Of course I said yes. It’s pretty neat to meet a dog with a blog! You should read the post he wrote about our adventures together. He’ll tell you all about how I tried to pedal away that day, but a huge rainstorm made me turn back. Fortunately, he and his human companions invited me to spend that day and night with them in their RV, which was delightful.

So I finally rolled into Natchez, Mississippi, after over a week on the Trace. Anyone who has the chance to ride a bike on the Natchez Trace Parkway, do it! It’s incredibly peaceful, there are all kinds of hiking trails, it’s loaded with history, and the campgrounds are pretty reasonably placed apart for cycling. I did meet one guy in a truck who disagreed with me. He said that he couldn’t believe that I was riding my bike on the Trace. His exact words, if I remember correctly, were, “That’s so dangerous! SO DANGEROUS!!” as he pounded on his steering wheel for emphasis. He’s entitled to his opinion, of course, but as someone who’s ridden for quite a while in many states, I have to respectfully disagree.

Lutz on the Old Trace.

Lutz on the Old Trace.

I loved the Trace, but unfortunately, the campgrounds are lacking showers. I hadn’t had a shower the whole time I was on it. Unless you count all the rain, of course. So when I got to Natchez, it was all about finding a motel and doing laundry. I think I stayed in the shower for 45 minutes scrubbing all the mildew off. I had never been so grateful to be in a musty old motel room. I treated myself to a whole day off enjoying dry clothes, a dry bed, and wifi, which I used to watch Rick and Morty.

Next, I got back on the road and rode to New Orleans. But I think I’ll save that story for another day.

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I’m back on the Mississippi! Though I’m not sure if that river boat is actually on the Mississippi the way it’s meant to be.

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