Ray C. Fair: Bonding on the Trace, August 1997

My 15 year old son, Stephen, loves playing sports, but he has never liked summer camps---too much bonding relative to doing. This summer he and I decided to create our own summer camp, with mostly doing. Our recent enthusiasm for the Tour de France led us to biking. After much literature and many maps, we chose a ride through the deep South, an area neither of us had seen. We would take six days and bike from the Nashville airport to the Baton Rouge airport, a distance of about 600 miles. Somewhat over 400 miles would be on a marvelous route that begins about 37 miles south of the Nashville airport and ends in Natchez, called the Natchez Trace Parkway. Our "Tour de Trace" was born.

Our original plan was to bike until we got tired and then find the nearest motel. However, places to stay are few and far between on the Trace, and so we made reservations ahead of time at about 100 mile intervals. We planned this tour with some trepidation (at least I did). I am 54 and keep in shape by running, but I had never biked 100 miles in a day before, let alone a number of days in a row. Steve and I had done some biking last summer in Colorado on an organized tour (alas, not enough doing), but that was the extent of our biking. We did train for the tour, and I would not recommend trying something like this without training, at least for those 54. We began about six weeks before the start, mostly biking on Saturdays and Sundays. We worked up to four hours on Saturday and two on Sunday, and we got to where we could ride about 17 miles per hour comfortably. In addition, we ran. I covered about 40 miles a week, and Steve about half that but at a much faster pace, since he was preparing for high school cross country season in the fall. (Overall, this is a good weight reduction program.)

We picked the second week in August to go. This has the advantage that the Tour de France is over, and it is unlikely to be cold in the South. In fact, the average high reaches a peak in mid August in Mississippi (e.g., 94 degrees in Natchez), so we need not bring a sweater. We packed lightly, not wanting to carry saddle bags that would slow us down. I ordered each of us a small bag to put on a rack behind our bike seat. Each bag had a capacity of 940 cubic inches, which sounded big but was not. We biked in running shoes and carried no other shoes. Aside from our biking outfits, we had one pair of short pants, one shirt, and three pairs of socks and underwear---one for the bike, one for dressing up, and one extra. Otherwise, just toiletries, some maps and guide book pages, a couple of books, biking tools, and a cellular phone (being macho has its limits). Each loaded bag weighed about 8 pounds not counting food and water.


It was raining and about 70 degrees when we landed in Nashville at noon. We unboxed our bikes and struggled with a stripped bolt for what seemed an endless amount of time before getting the bikes together. We did not leave the airport until after 1pm. Heavy traffic and rain did not make for an auspicious start, and the first 20 miles was not pleasant. After that the roads turned quieter, and the rain stopped. Arriving at the Trace made our day. The Trace is everything they say it is, truly a biker's paradise. Aside from a 20 mile stretch through Jackson, which is not completed, the Trace is 442 miles of gently rolling hills, woods and farmland, light traffic, no stop signs, and a marker at every mile. We got on the Trace at mile marker 428, and the Ridgetop B&B, our stop for the night, had left their truck with the keys in the ash tray at mile 391 for us to use to drive to the B&B. (Can you imagine this in New York?) We got to the truck at about 6:30pm. The cyclocomputer on my bike records the time the bike is actually moving, and it recorded 72 miles in 4:30, for an average speed of 16.0 mph. We both felt good, although tired from the long day.

The Ridgetop B&B is set in 170 acres of woods and is a lovely place to stay. We showered quickly to get to dinner before the local restaurant closed. We had catfish and hushpuppies and began feeling southern already. We had a nice talk with Bill and Kay Jones at the B&B when we got back from dinner. They said we were the first bikers they ever had in August, but given that the temperature was about 70, August seemed fine with us.


The next morning we drove the truck back to the Trace and were on the road a little after 7. During the day we crossed through Alabama and into Mississippi. We lunched at Colbert Ferry on the Tennessee River. The guidebook from the National Park Service says that George Colbert once operated a ferry there and is reported to have charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his army across the river. In today's prices, this is over $1.1 million, which seemed to us a little steep even for a whole army. Right before the exit for Belmont, our stop for the night, we came upon the first of a number of mounds along the Trace, some as old as 100 BC, built for burial and ceremonial purposes. The Trace's version of the pyramids.

Belmont is a town of about 1400 and is about 7 miles off the Trace. We arrived at the Belmont Hotel about 3:15pm. The stats for the day were 99 miles in 6:22, for an average of 15.5 mph. The Belmont Hotel is the oldest hotel in Mississippi and has been carefully restored. It is a real gem. We rested and then ate in a drive in, the only place open on Sunday night. Other than the hotel, the most interesting thing about Belmont (at least to an economist and his teen-age son) is the enormous number of coke machines in town. There were two machines near the hotel, side by side, one listing the price at 25 cents and the other, newer model listing the price at 50 cents. On our way back from dinner I asked Steve if he thought he could really get a coke for 25 cents, and he said yes. I informed him that as an economist I would have to say he was almost surely wrong. If it were the case that one machine charged less than the other, the cheaper machine would drive the other one out of business, especially given that they were right next to each other. The situation would not be stable. Steve then put a quarter in the old machine and got his coke. I decided to concentrate on biking.


We left Belmont the next morning at 7 and rode back to the Trace and on to Mathiston, a town of about 800 just a mile off the Trace. Although the first day we took turns leading, Steve led almost all of the previous day and began leading on this day. About half way to Mathiston it was clear that Steve was more tired than I, which is usually not the case, and then we suddenly realized that I had been benefiting enormously by riding behind. We had been stupid in not realizing that the benefits from drafting are substantial, even for just two bikers. I led for most of the rest of the day, although near the end we traded off. This raised our average speed to 16.3 mph for the day: 104 miles in 6:23. We arrived at the Mathiston motel at about 2:45pm.

There is a very moving site at mile 269, which we came to during the day. At this point part of the old trace is left, and along this part are the simple graves of 13 unknown Confederate soldiers, each headstone facing the road, a quiet reminder of the cost of war.

The Mathiston motel was $35 per night with free HBO plus a $10 deposit for the TV zapper. You could bring your bikes into your room. The one restaurant in town served great catfish and hushpuppies. A Piggly Wiggly was only a block away for buying Gatorade and food for the next day. All a biker could want.


We left at 7 the next morning, heading for Jackson. We were excited about our drafting discovery, and we got into a rhythm of each leading for 15 minutes. We did the first two hours at an average speed of about 18 mph and then slowed somewhat in the heat. The stats were 110 miles in 6:20, for an average of 17.4 mph. We arrived at the end of the Trace in Jackson at about 2:45 pm. It is not really possible to bike from this point to downtown Jackson, and I had called the Fairview Inn, where we had reservations, about an hour earlier to have us picked up. The van just pulled up when we arrived.

Jackson is not much of a tourist's town. Two impressive Greek-Revival buildings are the 1838 Old Capital Building and the 1842 Governor's Mansion. The Fairview Inn is also impressive, a 1908 Colonial Revival mansion in town. It is listed in the National Register of Historical Places. We thought we might be a little out of place given our limited attire, but the Inn catered to a number of bike tours in the spring and fall. Everyone was very friendly (as was true everywhere), and the owner, William Simmons---a wonderful man, kindly drove us at 7 the next morning to the start of the Trace that goes on to Natchez.


Even though this was our fifth day on the Trace, I was sad to see it come to an end. Nowhere else in the world were we likely to find such a road. The ride from the end of the Trace in Natchez to downtown Natchez was not pleasant, and we had our first and only flat tire on this stretch. We arrived at our final night's stop, the Briars Inn, at 2:30pm. We covered 94 miles in 5:27, for an average of 17.2 mph.

Natchez has great antebellum architecture. The Briars Inn itself was the home of the wife of Jefferson Davis, and it is where Jefferson Davis was married. In town we toured Stanton Hall, one of the more impressive antebellum houses. We had our last night of catfish and hushpuppies overlooking the Mississippi River.

The heat? The second day the temperature was still slightly below normal, but after that the high each day was in the mid 90s with the usual humidity. We did not, however, feel the heat that much when we were biking because of the wind. It only seemed really hot when we stopped. Three times during the trip we had a 40 mile stretch between water, which pushed the limits of our three water bottles each. The hottest we got was walking around Natchez in the afternoon and evening. This is the one time I thought I should have packed two shirts.


We left Natchez at sunrise (6:10am) to try to make the Baton Rouge airport in time. Our flight out of Baton Rouge left at 3:40pm, and we needed to cover about 110 miles and arrive in time to box our bikes. To get a later flight required changing airline companies, and the price for the tickets went from $560 for the two of us to about $2,300. (I love airline pricing.) We thus had an incentive to get there in time.

The Adventure Cycling map we were using had picked quiet roads, and the ride was better than we expected. Still, one cannot make quite the time on regular roads as on the Trace. We got some sense of rural Louisiana as we rode along. At one stop at a store for water Steve found an old coke machine that listed the price at 15 cents, but it was not working!

American Airlines is not particularly biker friendly. When I purchased our tickets and told them our plans, they assured me we could purchase bike boxes from them at the Baton Rouge airport. I called two days ahead to confirm this and was told they had no boxes at the airport and had no idea when they would get any. I argued breach of promise, etc., but got nowhere. When I asked what I should do upon arriving at the airport with two bikes, they suggested trying other airlines to see if they had boxes, which sounded risky. They also gave me a cargo number, which did not seem promising either. So about an hour before we expected to arrive at the airport, I called a bike shop in Baton Rouge and asked if they could bill my credit card and pay a cab driver to drive two boxes to the airport. They said they would do their best. We arrived at the airport at 2:20pm, and there sat the cab with the two boxes! We boxed the bikes, checked in, and the rest of the trip was long but uneventful. We got home to New Haven around 2am, in need of a shower. The last day we covered 112 miles in 6:46, for an average of 16.6 mph.

The height of the bonding? I suppose it was when we arrived at the Baton Rouge airport. I turned and said, "Steve, nice job," and we exchanged high fives.