It was a bright, postcard-worthy Saturday afternoon on the Natchez Trace Parkway. A steady north breeze pushed Southern Mississippi’s oppressive humidity back to the Gulf of Mexico, to the relief of all but the few Nashville-bound bicycling tourists for whom it served a challenging headwind.
“Need me to come down there?”
His voice, steady and calming, belied his age. At 62, I was no youngster, but from 20 feet below, he looked at least 30 years older.
A few hundred miles into my first bicycle journey, a driver forced me from the pavement. Furious that my 13-mph pace had inconvenienced him, if only for seconds, he screamed obscenities as he raced on. Which is how the bike and I ended up at the bottom of a deep roadside ditch with my gear strewn about me.
It is too often our nature to focus on the negative; the rarer such grievous encounters are, the more memorable. The irate motorist was rare, indeed. As I would discover during the thousands of life-affirming miles that followed, Samaritans, like the concerned elder with the reassuring voice, were not.
Millennia before a paved parkway paralleled the “Old Trace,” the route was but a series of wildlife trails. These were later refined by Native Americans into an overland shortcut through the dense forests meandered by the Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers. Evidence of early native peoples is still prominent along portions of the Trace in the form of massive earthen mounds that served as burial and ceremonial monuments.
Travel at the Parkway’s top speed limit of 50 mph would have terrified those early natives. Even the more leisurely pace I sustained for hours on my bicycle might have impressed them. But 50 mph must feel like a snail’s pace to many of the local motorists who use its few urban sections as shortcuts.
The U. S. National Park Service encourages cyclists to explore the Trace’s entire 444-mile length, from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. Many do, especially during the dramatic foliage transitions of early spring and late fall. Despite my inclusion here of that singular negative encounter with an impatient motorist, I encourage all to experience the Parkway – motorists and bicyclists alike.
The park encompasses more than 52,000 managed acres that offer a wealth of attractions, from cypress swamps to quaint villages, plus unique features such as those earthen mounds. Still, the surviving sections of the historic Old Trace trail – leaf-canopied trenches carved deep and wide by countless paws, claws, hooves, feet and wheels – are, to me, the highlights. Established campsites for recreational vehicles and tents alike are plentiful and are within daily range of those traveling by bicycle. Plus, most are free of charge.
I was within five miles of a campground north of Tupelo, Mississippi when forced from the road, but I had already pedaled more than 50 miles that day. Sans me, the loaded bike weighed 150 pounds, what with all the gear required for my solo journey. 60 miles was my normal daily limit. I was near exhaustion, primed for defeat by my first encounter with a dangerously-irate motorist.
When my home neighbors, Jacala and James, finally accepted I was actually going to attempt pedaling the entire country, James committed, “Wherever you are when you get ready to quit, call. I’ll come get you.” I love my neighbors, but James’s promise presumed failure, and that rankled a bit. True, mature fellows don’t often pedal away from home on such improbable adventures – nothing in my history would have predicted the quest – so I understood and appreciated his worry for my physical well being, not to mention sanity.
Weeks later, exhausted, dispirited, overwhelmed, the undertaking did indeed feel ludicrous. There, in that ditch, but days into the journey, I accepted the need to take James up on his offer, so was in no hurry to stand, much less to pedal on.
Until the old man stopped.
“No, sir. I’m not hurt, just dead tired. I’ll gather my stuff and climb the bike out of here.”
He offered, “We can put it all in my truck, and I’ll drive you wherever you’re going.”
It was then I noticed that his idling pickup, a rusted relic of the early 1970s, had been blocking traffic while we talked. The Trace’s two opposing lanes have no paved shoulders, so there was no room for the northbound motorists to get around his old Ford against the steady stream of southbound weekend traffic.
“That’s okay. It’s only a few miles to the campground. I can make it.”
Once I had the bike upright and reloaded, I thanked him again and pedaled on. But I soon noticed he was following me, slowing all traffic in our lane to the bike’s pace, oblivious to the chorus of car horns behind him. An old man – no, an even older man – literally having my back.
When I reached my exit north of Tupelo, he pulled off of the pavement behind me, so I stopped to say goodbye again. Freed finally of concern for delaying further traffic, I paused to study him in detail.
I’m shorter than average and slight of build, even for cyclist, but he was several inches shorter yet, and much thinner. There seemed scant frame to support the long-sleeve shirt and trousers he wore, both of a threadbare khaki scrubbed blond by years of wear and laundering.
Sparse hair and whiskers a stark white against the dark, lined mahogany of his skin. Hands knotted with age, but grip still firm and sure. And, oh, his eyes! They looked into mine and, in an instant that resonates still, imparted wisdom, whimsy, concern, compassion.
I asked if I could take his photo (I had in mind sketching a portrait later), but he scoffed as if to say, “Now, why would you do that?” We shook hands, again, and bid each other godspeed, and as he drove on, I had my first view of his pickup’s rear window bearing a small, tattered sticker that declared its owner a WWII veteran.
And with that realization, I failed to stifle a reflexive sob. But of course my new Trace hero was a veteran. Who, but a survivor of the terrors of war – horrors from which such veterans’ sacrifices spared countless others, including me – was more likely to come to the aid of a sheltered, newbie cyclist just beginning, so late in life, to explore his meager limits.
From there I pedaled almost 15,000 miles more, and that first bike journey lasted months longer than I had planned. Among my personal goals for it was to experience the vast American landscape for the last time at the more human pace of a bicycle. Instead, I met Americans as if for the first time, and they are, as a rule, magnificent. The peculiar mission of the bike journey ensured I would encounter thousands of remarkable souls along the way, but none had more lasting impact on what had before seemed an impossible undertaking than the kindness of that concerned veteran on the Natchez Trace.
The lowest point of the odyssey was not when attempting (and failing) to pedal across Death Valley, it was that same roadside ditch. The high point was not when crossing the Continental Divide, breathtaking though that vantage was, it was when an ancient veteran stopped to ask, “Y’all okay?” I had mere minutes with the elderly Mississippian but am grateful to have experienced even that scant trace of his compassion, generosity and grace.
The modern parkway harbors countless natural and man-made treasures for those with the patience to explore beyond sight of pavement, but it was the people I encountered along the Natchez Trace who form my most vivid memories of that region.
Why do we wander, if not in search of life-enriching connections, however brief? I’ve still much to learn from my continuing journeys, but here’s what I do know. Whenever I experience what, on surface, would appear misfortune, it is instead the journey delivering another detour leading to yet another magnificent someone – a new connection whom I would have missed but for the delightful vagaries of wandering.