Saturday, November 1, 2008

Jackson, Miss.

Friends: Even though the Natchez Trace Parkway is accompanied by nothing more than a bare sliver of a shoulder, hardly worth mentioning, it is a designated bikeway. Commercial traffic is barred, though there were occasional RVs the size of Greyhound buses. There were hardly any smaller RVs, as the price of gas has no doubt grounded most of the traveling retirees in the modest-sized campers. Only those who can afford the half-million dollar monstrosities can afford to fuel them.

The traffic was so minimal, that Waydell and I were able to ride side by side. We had ample time for one of us to drop back when we heard the approach of a vehicle coming from behind us. We'd been on the Parkway for over an hour, chatting and reveling in the thick forest flanking both sides of the road, when I pulled back as a car was about to catch up to us. It paused before passing and announced, "Ride single file at all times on the Parkway." It was a Ranger. Evidently it isn't enough of an issue to post signs with such a warning. At more sane gas prices there is no doubt enough traffic on the Parkway to keep the cyclists in single file.

We joined up with "The Trace," as the locals call it, in French Camp, 181 miles from its finish at Natchez on the Mississippi River, about 150 miles up river from New Orleans. It was a little over 80 miles to Jackson, where we would catch a train back to Chicago. French Camp is home to the French Camp Academy, established in 1885 as a home for five to eighteen year olds whose parents can't care for them. It is going stronger than ever, presently home to 186 children. We stopped in at a welcome center/bakery and had three lengthy conversations with people who work there who were interested in our travels. In the South it seems impossible to have a quick, passing chat. No one is in a hurry and is happy to talk and talk.

One woman's husband was in charge of the school's bicycle program. They have a car but rarely use it. Kids regularly ask her husband if he has a car, as they always see him on his bike. He introduced his son to the bike at an early age. He did 80 miles as an eight year old on The Trace and by his early teens had done a metric double century (125 miles). As many have, she asked us if we had much touring experience. Waydell immediately piped up and said, "This is my first tour."

"How many miles are you doing a day," she asked.

"We're averaging about 75 a day, but we did 112 miles two days ago," I said.

"That's pretty good," she said, then proved her cycling acumen posing a question no one had yet asked us, "Do you take turns drafting?"

When Waydell answered, "Yes," she gave her a quick look of heightened respect and approval and said, "That's impressive."

We turned off The Trace after twenty miles for food and to check out the Visitor Center at Kosciusko, named for a Polish immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1776 at the age of 30 to fight for the Revolution. He was an engineer and helped design West Point. He eventually settled in this town. He is no longer the town's most famous person. That honor now belongs to Oprah. The Visitor Center had a large portrait of her and brochures showing the way to her home. It was a slow day at the Visitor Center. Waydell and I talked to the chatty retired couple who volunteer there on a part-time basis for over an hour before the next visitor came in. We talked about everything but politics. I made several allusions to the election, but like just about everyone else we've met, they chose to steer clear of the topic.

They were in their late 70s and had been together 56 years. They met at Mississippi State University. The husband was on the basketball team. He played on Jasper, Indiana's state high school championship team in 1949. He will be attending its 60th anniversary reunion in January. Cotton, known as "white gold," used to be the area's main crop. It is now grains. The wife could remember when The Trace was being surveyed in the 1930s back in the last Depression. Even as a child she was excited that this new road would pass near her home. I asked them if there was any possibility that Kosciusko might be renamed Oprah- or Winfreyville. They simultaneously blurted, "I hope not." Earlier when I mentioned we were from Chicago, "Oprah's present home town," the husband commented, "You can keep her." They said that there is a prevailing opinion that Oprah hasn't been as loyal to her home town as they would wish, even though she contributed to an "Oprah House" there in Koscuisko, a house built in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity.

They weren't the first people I've encountered in Koscuisko who were less than enthusiastic about Oprah. Two years ago I stopped at this same Visitor Center on the way back to Chicago after driving to New Orleans with Tim Herlihey, founder of the Urban Bikes shop in Chicago, after delivering a van load of bike parts to a Bike Co-op ravaged by Katrina. A couple of older blue-haired ladies working at the Visitor Center then dispensed similar anti-Oprah comments. It seemed as if these older white folks couldn't accept the success of someone not their same color.

Even though there are only three designated campgrounds the entire length of the 444-mile long Natchez Trace National Park, we on our bicycles could find a place to camp just about anywhere. We turned off on a side dirt road that had a locked gate, but an open path around it. We continued about a quarter mile down the road and had our final campsite of the trip. It was another cold night, though not our coldest, just 39 degrees.

We arrived in Jackson (Mississippi's capital and largest city with 200,000 people) by early afternoon and found a Best Western less than a mile from the capitol and not much further to the Amtrak station. I searched the Yellow Pages for bicycle shops. There were only four. I called each asking if they knew if there was a Critical Mass that night, the last Friday of the month, as there would be in cities all over the world. The first guy I called said, "I may be the only person in Mississippi who's heard of the Critical Mass. I moved here from Chicago five years ago, so I know all about it. There's never been one here. There's no point for a Critical Mass, as there's no traffic in the downtown area after work. And there's simply no people energy in Jackson, no gatherings. Its not a very good place to bicycle. People are more interested in running you off the road than giving you some space." I told him that we had biked nearly 200 miles in Mississippi and that hadn't been our experience. He said we'd be lucky. I asked him if he'd like to join Waydell and I and have our own Critical Mass tonight. He said he had plans to attend a Halloween party.

He wasn't the only one in Jackson to know about Critical Mass, but almost. I struck out at two of the other shops, but a guy at the fourth shop, who had recently moved to Jackson from Washington D.C., knew all about it. He pretty much echoed the Chicagoan's sentiments on biking in Jackson. I also called a bicycle advocacy organization, Bikewalk Mississippi. It was a one-person operation working out of a bike shop not listed in the Yellow Pages. The person I talked to had never heard of Critical Mass, but recommended another bike shop not listed in the Yellow Pages. She didn't tell me it was in Hattiesburg, 90 miles away. The person there likewise knew nothing of Critical Mass.

I had a second question for every bike shop I called. I asked if they knew a Marc Ford, a bicycling friend from Chicago who had moved to Jackson ten years ago. He rode a red Masi, a high-quality Italian bike. He had been one of my favorite dispatchers in all my years as a bicycle messenger. No one had heard of him nor could any find him in their data base of customers. The only phone number of a Marc Ford in the phone book had been disconnected. I was still hoping I might come across him as we biked around the city. Anyone we talked to, I asked if they knew any local bicyclists, and then mentioned Marc. As Waydell and I biked around the city, I kept my ears alert for a shout of "567," my messenger number.

Even though Jackson had no Critical Mass, and we couldn't find anyone to join us, there was nothing to prevent us from having our own. We set out at five p.m. from the Amtrak Station. We biked five miles to Jackson's largest movie multiplex, the eleven-year old 17-screen Tinseltown, matinees $5.75, regular features $7.75. Then we swung back downtown past Jackson's public library named for Eudora Welty, presently closed indefinitely due to a fire. We circled the magnificent domed Capital and rode past the nearby Governor's mansion, a mini-White House. At a corner facing the capital was a giant windowed box full of 50 million pennies (a half million dollars worth). It was called "A Memorial to the Missing." Each penny represented a child who had been aborted since the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade in 1973. It is sponsored by

Then we headed out to Jackson State University, Walter Payton's former school. We bicycled up Terry Road then turned onto Walter Payton Drive to the sparkling new Walter Payton Recreation and Wellness Center. There were banners advertising a 5K Sweetness run the next day. We obeyed all the traffic signals, not needing to cork any intersections. We didn't receive a single horn toot or query of "What's the occasion." There was hardly anyone to shout a "Happy Friday" to. We finished up at a Whataburger and celebrated Jackson's inaugural Critical Mass with chocolate milkshakes.

And that about wraps it up. Waydell has fulfilled her long time dream of a bike tour and goal of a century, things she wanted to do even before she met me. She is a natural. She is strong, has endurance and recovers well from day to day. She's an early riser, up with the sun, and roaring to go. And she's capable of roughing it. The first night cold baked beans out of a can was part of our dinner in the tent, she downed it with a grimace. But the next time we had it, she ate it with gusto. Hopefully, there will be many more such trips in the future. She was loving it so much at one point she sighed, "If only I could get up the nerve to quit my job and follow my bliss."

Later, George