444 miles, thousands of years of history, one Elvis stop

8 years ago


At the northern terminus in Nashville, a sign declares “Entering Natchez Trace Parkway.” The placard features the silhouette of a man on horseback, his sturdy hat nearly grazing a bough draped in Spanish moss. He sits straight in his saddle. I improve my own posture and give my black Cannondale bike an energetic kick.

The Trace’s two-lane road is quiet and empty. Several factors – maximum speed limit of 50 mph, ban on commercial traffic, limited access to urban centres – deter most motorists. The lateness of the day (5-ish) and the season (November) dissuade most other cyclists from taking a spin on the National Park Service road.

My eyes wander from the unfurling ribbon of asphalt to the mini-wilderness along the sidelines. Swaths of still-green grass. Hardwood trees succumbing to autumn’s palette. Deer peering through gaps in the forest.

At Milepost 438, I reach the Double Arch Bridge and speed over the 1,648-foot-long span propelled by a sense of urgency. Not imminent darkness, but open-mike night in Leiper’s Fork.

Fifteen miles later, I arrive in the historic village that dates from 1801. The community’s gosh-darn charms mask its true identity as a hideaway for Nashville stars (the Judds, Carrie Underwood) and a jam spot for visiting musicians (members of Aerosmith).

Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, a getaway for Nashville stars and a jam spot for musicians. Image: Bill O’Leary

Inside Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant, two young guitarists electrify the venue with a Jimi Hendrix cover. I move toward the back of the crowded room and search the grocery aisles for an unobstructed view of the musicians as well as snacks for tomorrow’s 72-mile ride. I find both, plus a guy sitting on a plastic chair among boxes of cereal and jars of jelly. He jumps up and tells me that I must meet Goose, the unofficial mayor of Leiper’s Fork.

“This is one of the prettiest parts of the country,” Goose says. He speaks poetically of maple and oak trees, then turns his attention to the potluck band onstage.

“He plays with Neil Sedaka,” he says of the keyboardist, “and the guitarist plays with Ted Nugent. That’s Naomi Judd’s husband at the bar, and that woman works for the CIA. She won’t tell you that, though.”

A stout man with a walrus moustache and a rumpled shirt approaches.

“Do you know David Crosby?” Goose asks me. I shake his hand as if I do.

In the right light (dark purple, perhaps), he could be that David Crosby. But I refrain from asking, because in Leiper’s Fork, everyone is someone. Even me: I am the adventuress, or possibly the loon, who is biking the entire 444-mile Natchez Trace by herself.

I have not pedaled this bike since the summer of 2002, when I covered 480 miles for a cycling event across Iowa. Soon after, I banished my bike to a corner in my apartment, where it has performed laundry duty as a drying rack. A dozen years later, out of a renewed sense of challenge, I have decided to pull it out of retirement for another chance: a multi-day expedition from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi.

On the Trace, I will ride across lands touched by the hooves of bison and the claws of giant sloths; the spirits of Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez tribes; and the heavy boots of the Kaintucks, the Ohio River farmers and boatmen who trekked the arduous route in the 1800s. I will coast through thousands of years of history and linger in towns steeped in Southern traditions. I will follow music roots that twist and turn through several genres and hairstyles. And I, solitary on my bike, will attempt to make connections with a community of people.

I have my concerns, though, as do the friends and strangers around me. Before I leave, my mother relays a message from my father that I shouldn’t go – he’s worried about my safety. The REI salesman who loaded me up with panniers, insulated clothing and a repair kit pointedly tells me, “You are not prepared.” He is not referring to the hundreds of dollars’ worth of gear he has sold me but to my mental and physical condition. He adds that he would never encourage his wife to take this trip if she were in my state of disarray.

My gym friends have witnessed my so-called training – cycling to nowhere while watching “The Voice” – and boost my confidence. But my Inner Voice reminds me that, out there on the road, I won’t have Blake Shelton or, well, anyone to “instant save” me. Nor will I have a day of rest if my body decides to revolt, which it likely will.

Yet the test of a long solo ride is part of the draw. I will rely on my own strengths mile after mile. Food is scarce, and the towns are widely interspersed. Black bears forage in the southern section, and we both eat berries. I must make wise choices, such as daily distances and water rations, or face serious consequences.

One encouraging factor: The road is straightforward. No turns or roundabouts. Even the most directionally challenged individual (me) can’t get lost. I can lose myself in the moments. I will not be merely on the Trace; I will be wholly in it.

Some of the greatest recordings in American music were made here at Fame Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Image: Bill O’Leary


I awaken to a bike chain that appears to be suffering from a hangover. After a quick fix, I am off. I have one of the longest stretches today, and I need to find creative ways to entertain myself. Travelling north to south, from high mileage numbers to low, I calculate significant distances – to the first 100-mile mark, for example, and the halfway point to Natchez. I count passing cars (average two an hour). I assess the aches in my knees based on the pain scale (8 until I raise the seat, then 4 while I recover). I sing out loud and discover that I don’t know any songs from beginning to end. So I make up my own.

“I’ve got nowhere to go

“But Tupelo-o-o-o”

I also read a lot – so many signs along the way.

Construction of the New Trace, which roughly parallels sections of the Old Trace, began in late 1937. A year later, the National Park Service took over. The bureau polices the road and keeps it looking pretty, mowing the grass, picking up litter and scooping up squished wildlife (RIP, armadillo). The agency also set up an outdoor classroom with dozens of informational boards posted along the route.

In the beginning, I pull over for every placard. I learn about the Tennessee Valley Divide, which splits the central portion of the state and marked the northern boundary of Chickasaw land. I make the acquaintance of John Gordon, who established a ferry and trading post near Duck River in 1802. I also reenact history. I push my bike on a rooty, rocky section of the Old Trace, following the instructions to “imagine the ordeal of 1800s travellers who had to make 20 to 30 miles a day on foot or horseback.” I turn around when I hear the howl of the wild, a bichon frise yipping away in the parking area.

At the Meriwether Lewis National Monument, I finally meet the couple who have been cheering me on with fist pumps through their sunroof. The husband informs me that some scholars claim that Lewis died of syphilis. However, the sign near his remains isn’t revealing any secrets. His life, it says, “came tragically and mysteriously to its close.”

Before departing, I phone my motel in Collinwood, Tennessee, to let the owners know I am on my way. I notice a skateboarder on a park bench with fresh wounds. He is bound for New Orleans but was resting after a wipeout on a long hill. I give him a piece of gum and wish him luck.

Tonight, the sky skips twilight and goes straight to black. With no streetlights or incandescent glow from nearby towns, I feel as if I am riding blindfolded. Out of the darkness, I hear a small voice call my name. A pickup truck idles on the opposite side of the road. I scoot over to the open window.

“My wife told me to come pick you up,” says David Rochell, who runs the Coast to Coast Motel with his spouse, Linda.

I open my mouth to protest, then snap it shut. I throw my bike in the back and slide into the passenger seat. David reassures me that I am not the first cyclist to need saving. He has rescued folks who have taken wrong turns, experienced leg cramps and nearly floated away in a monsoon-like rainstorm.

I ask him how far we are from Collinwood. Seven miles, he says. Noting my disappointment, he suggests dropping me off at the same spot tomorrow morning. I tell him we can discuss it over breakfast, but I have a feeling that we won’t.

Tom Hendrix, who picked 8.5 million pounds of stone to create Te-lah-nay’s Wall, in memory of his great-great-grandmother, a member of the Yuchi tribe. Image: Bill O’Leary


At Te-lah-nay’s Wall in Florence, Alabama, my bike is dwarfed by motorcycles parked in a small lot off the Trace. Tom Hendrix, a vibrant octogenarian in a heavy red button-down, is chattering away with leather-clad travellers.

The 11/2-mile-long commemorative stone wall is one of the most popular attractions on the roadway, attracting 200 people per day on weekends. Even after back-to-back recitations, Tom tells the story of his great-great-grandmother with unbridled emotion.

In the 1830s, a young Yuchi girl was forced to leave her tribal land near the Tennessee River for Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma. Once there, Te-lah-nay ached to hear nunnuhsae, or the “singing river,” and saw a vision of her grandmother summoning her back to Alabama. For five years, she walked the reverse route to her spiritual home.

In the 1980s, Tom received an inspiring message from an elder tribesman: “You’ll find your path in life and sing your song.” He started to collect and stack rocks to commemorate Te-lah-nay and her odyssey.

“We honour our ancestors with stones,” he says. “I have completed her journey.”

Tom handpicked 8.5 million pounds from around the county to create the largest unmortared stone wall in the United States. The section pointing east runs arrow-straight and represents the Trail of Tears. The western portion wiggles in many directions, symbolising Te-lah-nay’s meandering trek back. The wall also incorporates prayer circles, benches for contemplation and abundant shelf space for souvenirs.

Visitors often contribute rocks (a package from Germany, labelled “feldstein/fieldstone,” arrives during my visit) and leave personal mementos, such as beaded necklaces, a T. rex tooth and fossilised wood from the former Yugoslavia. A fertility rock from a member of a northeastern tribe attracts aspiring mothers; according to Tom, nearly 40 women have touched the talisman and possess the proof (babies!) of its powers.

I inspect the mysterious object. Onlookers watch with intrigue, and a voice in the crowd reminds me of its success rate as I reach for the rock.

I leave with a promise to send Tom any supporting evidence in nine months.

About 20 miles off the Trace, I dedicate the rest of the day to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, an epicentre of great music artists from the 1960s onward. A very short list of who recorded here: Otis Redding, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones and Band of Horses.

At Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, now a museum, I shake a pair of maracas in the room where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards belted out three songs for the 1971 album “Sticky Fingers,” their voices coated with a fifth of bourbon. A German tourist excuses himself to use the bathroom where Richards wrote “Wild Horses.”

At nearby Fame Studios, Spencer Coats, a tour guide and aspiring producer, leads our group to Studio A, where Aretha Franklin cut “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” In Studio B, a dark space with dated decor, he says, “This is where Duane Allman slept and jammed.”

After more than 50 years and numerous music trends, Fame is still recording. “We’re not stopping,” says Spencer.

I mention that I am writing a song about the Trace. Spencer’s face lights up, and he asks me to sing it. I tell him that it’s not quite ready, but I will check back with him in 338 miles.


The exhibits at the Natchez Trace visitors centre remind me of how easy I have it. So my hands are numb from gripping the handlebars, and my knees are still creaky from the seat misalignment. At least I don’t have to fend off poisonous snakes, tribal attacks or bandits like the earlier travellers on the “Devil’s Backbone.”

“The longer you stayed on the Old Trace,” I read, “the more dangerous your journey became.”

Up ahead in Tupelo, Mississippi, I brace myself for modern-day hazards in one of the larger cities (51.14 square miles, population of 35,688) on my route. Among them: multi-lane roads, trucks, oblivious drivers – and Elvis. I fear the King because I must travel light, but I know that my tour of his birthplace will end in the gift shop. My bike, already overburdened, cannot accommodate a bronze Elvis statue or a snow globe.

In Tupelo, the author managed to avoid Elvis Presley’s birthplace but couldn’t resist the hardware store where his mother bought his first guitar. Image Bill O’Leary

I call a truce between the tugging forces at Tupelo Hardware Company. I stand on the X marking the spot where Gladys Presley bought her son, Elvis, his first guitar in 1946. I stick a hand in a bowl of picks and pull out one as pink as his 1955 Cadillac. I stash the plastic chip in my wallet for when I can feel my fingers again.


Until this point, I have seen only a handful of cyclists. This conversation occurs at 13 mph.

Me: “Hey, where are you going?”

Superfit Girl who appears beside me: “Natchez.”

Me: “Me too. Where did you start?

Superfit G: “Nashville.”

Me: “Me too.”

Superfit G: “I know. We heard about you from the skateboarder. He said there was another rider on the road.”

Me: “Oh, how is he?”

Superfit G: “Good! He’s not too far behind you. But he was stopped by a National Park officer. He let him go, though.” (According to the law, Trace users must have a legitimate braking system. A foot doesn’t count.)

At Witch Dance campground and rest stop, I meet Superfit G (real name: Carolyn Campbell) and her equally athletic companion (Hannah Regan-Smith) properly. The Ohio college friends plan to bike all the way to New Orleans. They cycle in racing formation and whoop loudly to lift morale. All we have in common is the Trace, but right now, we are like sisters.

They leave first and exit before Houston, the small town named after former Texas governor Sam Houston. At Bridges-Hall Manor, five miles off the roadway, innkeeper Carol Koutroulis is a sunburst of Southern hospitality. She urges me to raid the baskets of carb-heavy snacks and a mini-fridge of cold beverages. She washes my bike clothes, even air-drying my padded shorts.

Carol has hosted bikers (motor and pedal) from 46 states and 10 countries in her Victorian-era house. Neighbours have suffered from the economic downturn, but she discovered a business salvation on a thoroughfare she once misunderstood.

“I thought the Trace was a commuter road for shoppers going to Tupelo.”


At the Kosciusko Information Centre, I ask to see Oprah. The volunteer directs me to a portrait, one of only two Odes to O in her Mississippi home town. (The other tribute is a sign outside her former church that reads “Oprah faced first audience here.”) The facility dedicates more wall space to Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Revolutionary War fighter from Poland whose heroics earned him many namesake towns.

Frigid weather is in the forecast, and I need warmer clothes. However, running errands is exceedingly difficult on a bike in the dark. (Blast you, daylight saving time!) At the Maple Terrace Inn, a Florida couple invite me to dinner and a surprise outing to Wal-Mart. Mike and Ann Day are driving to Natchez on the Trace, and I gratefully slide into the back seat of their car.

Inside the store, Ann and I head directly for the scarves, but Mike wastes no time with fashion and heads for the hunting department. He finds a fleece hat with full face coverage and thick gloves, both camouflage-patterned. I try the items on with a bike helmet borrowed from the outdoor sports department. Ann and Mike smile approvingly.


For 361 miles I have been solo, but on the Ridgeland-to-Port Gibson leg, I become a duo when I join Pierre-Hugues Boucher, a French Canadian dressed in striped long johns. Then at Mile 54, we become a trio, when we pick up Mike Secrest, from Monroe, North Carolina.

Pierre (early-30s adventure guide) and Mike (early-60s former livestock farmer) met on their first day and buddied up for safety and companionship. Though they move at different speeds, they reconvene at night and set up camp together.

The miles, once plodding, now whiz by. We talk nonstop about gun control, drug laws and the travel habits of different cultures. We picnic on vegan chicken salad, quinoa and blueberries, and track an armadillo snuffling around the woods for food. We share our stories, including why we are here.

“The ride was really the purpose,” Mike says, “and the reward.”


Bobbye Pinnix, who runs Isabella Bed and Breakfast in Port Gibson with her husband, serves us heaping bowls of grits for breakfast.

“All grits aren’t created equal,” she says with authority. But the Trace is yanking on our pant legs to leave.

For our last day, we don’t rush. We have a low mileage count, and we know that the end is near.

Eventually, Pierre pulls ahead. Whenever he hits a significant marker, he throws an arm into the air. I watch for the signal. At Mile 3, I start to feel elated and deflated. I made it, but it’s over.


Pierre’s arm shoots up again. I watch him cross into Natchez; Mike and I follow. We dismount, and I shake out my legs, which have grown stiff from the cold. We hug and congratulate each other. We mill around the finish line chatting, reluctant to move on.

The Natchez Trace Parkway runs from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi, with often lonely stretches of road. Image: Bill O’Leary

I wander over to the Natchez Trace Parkway sign. It looks exactly like the one from Day 1, Mile 444. But I know that it is different.


The National Park Service offers trip-planning advice as well as historical information on the Natchez Trace Parkway at www.nps.gov/natr. Randy Fought, who runs the Natchez Trace Bed and Breakfast Reservation Service, can help arrange itineraries and book accommodations along the 444-mile route. Info:www.natcheztracetravel.com

The National Park Service offers trip-planning advice as well as historical information on the Natchez Trace Parkway at www.nps.gov/natr.

Randy Fought, who runs the Natchez Trace Bed and Breakfast Reservation Service, can help arrange itineraries and book accommodations along the 444-mile route. Info: www.natcheztracetravel.com


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