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The first Mississippi River Trail sign at the Headwaters

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

New Orleans, Le Matidora Inn, The Nixons, The River's End

There is a KOA campground right within a few miles of Downtown New Orleans. Most of the campgrounds we encounter these days no longer bother with folks in tents. They are strictly RV parks, catering to the more lucrative, long term RVers.  This KOA fortunately still bothers with a few tent spots. We are sandwiched between giant RV buses and 5th wheels with pull behind "toy vehicles".  One even has a retractable "balcony" off the side.   We find out that our arrival coincides with "Voodoofest" a multistage music festival being held in New Orleans that weekend.  Our next door neighbors are three twenty-something girls who are there to attend and are pretty juiced up for it.  We get the run down on the venues and performers.  They have set up an elaborate camp under the shade of a tree complete with an inflatable couch, camp kitchen, and food pantry.
We have decided to simply pass through New Orleans at this point and return to it by car for a few days after I complete the bike journey.  My relatives at the end of the road are asking about my progress and await my arrival.  I have one nasty bridge to cross in the city proper. To get there I biked down Magazine Street which seems to be the hippest section of town with everything from yoga studios to coffee shops filled with brooders to eateries with impossibly fresh, local fare.  Sue meets me and ferries me across the  US highway 90 bridge to the relative safety of Gretna the neighborhood across the river.  It is the last bridge that crosses the Mississippi.  I recalled the very first one just a few yards down from the outlet of Lake Itasca, a mere wooden footbridge.
The Mississippi River just south of New Orleans near Gretna.
This day I pack on the miles cruising down the shoulder of Highway 23 that is essentially a 70 mile dead end that runs down to the tip of the Mississippi delta.  It is a familiar highway for me.  I traveled it many times during my months here as a Hurricane Katrina reconstruction volunteer years ago.  Sue has tracked down a place to stay called the "Le Matidora Inn" that is beyond my range but I am doing my best to reach it when darkness envelopes me.  She comes out to retrieve me.  Earlier that afternoon I had a pickup truck pull up along side me, it's my own brother-in-law returning on a business errand.  He knows I am somewhere on the road within striking distance so it is my first contact with my relatives.  I had told him when I last visited a few years ago "I will return",  and I did but little did he know it would be by bicycle.
This is the last night on the road before we reach it's end.  Le Matidora Inn is a delightful place and we seem to be among the few paying guests. It's a bit of a celebratory splurge.   It consists of a 10 room main lodge and 4 cottages.  It has a wrap around porch, swimming pool and it's own orange grove, banana plantation and pony ranch surrounding it. That night we are invited to help ourselves to an oyster cookout.  A bunch of guys are shucking a burlap sack of fresh oysters off the back of a pick up truck  under headlights and grilling them on a charcoal grill in batches. I lingered around long enough to get offered a huge platter that I had no problem refusing or finishing off.
Tommy Lincoln, proprietor of Le Matidora.
The guys are friends of one of the owners, Timmy Lincoln who is the grill master that night.  He later invites me to join him in the lodge with a couple buddies who are pretty much half in the bag and half watching the big screen TV with delight as Fox news rabidly speculates on the FBI's latest batch of emails that could derail Hillary Clinton.  I learned that Timmy has done well in life even though he is only about 35 years old.  He shows me photos of  various specialized swamp vehicles and air boats he uses in pursuit of fun in the bayou as well as "river monsters" they have caught.  The next morning under the light of day I learn the place is casually run and even more casually maintained.  The boys are long gone and the vexed woman manager gives me the back story on the family.  It seems the father built the place as a family home and later converted it to an Inn after Katrina.  He was a river pilot.  Pilots are men who are brought on board ocean going ships to pilot  them from the gulf up the river.  They have specialized knowledge of the river and the responsibility to see to it that these multi million dollar vessels meet no harm.  It is an incredibly lucrative profession that is handed down from father to son with the number of licenses deliberately limited. The father had prepared each of his two sons and one daughter to take over the business.  When he died at only  age 58 (drinking) his children had all of it handed to them.  The daughter got the Inn but really wasn't terrible interested in running it just siphoning off the income and spending it on Corvettes and Jaguars.  She recently sold it to the two brothers one of whom took over his father's river pilot license and the other was Timmy. They basically use it as their private "clubhouse" for their various exploits.  In fact, I learned the three of them also own several properties and businesses up and down the delta in addition to the Inn.  No one seems to actually need to "work".  Despite their unpretentious fun loving lifestyle, these guys are definitely one percenters.

I rolled up the next day at my in-laws place in Buras, LA just 10 miles from the last town of Venice. Sheila Nixon is Sue's sister and recently retired as a housekeeper at a local motel and her husband Leonard, a shrimper before Katrina, now catches baitfish to sell to sport fisherman.   Their daughter Cristina who lives nearby has graciously arranged for us to stay just down the road at a fishing camp she knew the owner of.  He found out about my journey and offered it's complimentary use.
Over a decade ago I had spent several months here over the course of a year helping rebuild their place after Hurricane Katrina.
There are still reminders of Katrina in the Delta.
It is a remote end-of-the-road kind of place but has a spirit of community and toughness rising from the adversity of weather and oil spills that have battered the place and the economy.  Leonard seems to know everyone and everyone knows him.  I have always referred to him as a combination of Santa Claus and Frankenstein. His good nature and world class beard as the first and his gait as a result of knee punishing years of shrimping, the latter.   He is one of my favorite brother-in-laws despite our vastly different backgrounds.

On Sunday, October 31 I pedaled the lasted 12 miles to the end of the road. It crosses over the levee that wraps around the town of Venice like an old fashioned bathtub rim.
Venice Marina is home to a major commercial fishing fleet and
"Sport fishing capital of the south"
It continues  past the large Venice marina complex and winds through the marsh barely above the water level, at times awash with water.   At 11:00 in the morning I arrived at the sign that marks the southernmost point in Louisiana. Murphy runs along side me for the last couple blocks as a finish line for him as well.  Sue and her sister Sheila are there to record this "historic" moment.   The road peters out a hundred feet beyond into the edge of a saltwater marsh.  We had traveled some 2,100 bicycle miles from the stepping stones at Lake Itasca. It had taken 72 days from Minneapolis and another 8 days from Itasca.   The numbers include 11 flat tires, 1 blow out, 5 worn out tires, 1 rear sprocket, 16 broken spokes and one crunched bicycle. My gasoline expense was zero. Murphy can basically claim the distinction of being the first golden retriever to travel the length of the Mississippi River by bicycle. At least no one ever contradicted my claim by informing me that some other guy came through here last week with a golden retriever on a bike.

The happy road warriors.
Ceremonial dipping of the wheel in the waters of the gulf.
2,100 miles upriver where she starts. I am told it takes 90 days for a drop of water to reach the gulf.  I beat it  by 10 days.
As I think about the journey it really was about the people I met along the way.  My confidence in the basic goodness of people, if given a chance, is still there.  On the other hand, I will give no quarter to bike chasing mongrels.  Some have already asked about my next adventure.  For now my yearning for long distance bike travel is satisfied. I am thinking more along the lines of luxury such as an Alaskan Cruise. It might offer a suitable counterpoint to sleeping in ditches and eating instant noodles.

  It is with a bittersweet farewell, I thank all of you who helped me all along the way (especially my wife Sue), who took an interest in my "incidents of travel" and encouraged me onward for I have truly reached the River's End.

David and Murphy






Disaster Strikes, Approaching New Orleans, The trip changes

My wife Sue arrived in Baton Rouge late in the afternoon after a marathon two day drive down from Minneapolis.   It has been several weeks since she left us behind in Missouri so our reunion is long awaited.  We meet in the parking lot of a library and she is relieved to find both of us in one piece, though a bit ragged and worn on the edges.  My riding attire has faded considerably and my black saddlebags are now a have a  faded purplish hue.  I am as tan as a beach bum and a bit skinnier.  Murphy is a matted dirty mess just how he likes it. We put the bike on a roof rack and head for a motel room across town.  By now it's dark and the drive becomes an exercise in frustration as the GPS unit we have is fighting with the smart phone over who is right.  These devices are truly wonderful but not infallible.  After getting  sent in the wrong direction at a key turn we end up in a hopeless maze of freeway interchanges and even  helplessly cross a huge bridge over the river miles out of our way.  When we finally arrive at the motel our nerves are frazzled.  We pull up under the entrance canopy, the car is suddenly jolted with a shudder. A sickening screeching sound is followed by a bang and then silence.  What the...?  The bike on the roof just got pulled off by the roots. The canopy was too low. I get out and spot it laying on the asphalt at the edge of the pool of light from the canopy.  My noble yellow steed of the last 2,000 miles and 38 years is mortally wounded.  The frame is bent at an unnatural angle, the top tube is snapped.
She's hurt bad.
 It is beyond repair.  Since Sue was at the wheel at the time she is horrified at what just happened.  She apologizes but I share the blame.  We both had forgotten it was on the roof.   I am puzzled at the damage wrought by this fabric canopy until I realize that on the inside, behind the fabric is a steel I-beam that would have sheared the top off a Sherman tank.
 I am still in shock. What now?  Maybe it's best we just call it the end of the bike trip and drive down the rest of the way. Sue wants to drive home immediately, she is distraught with this turn of events. I picked up the remains and gently placed them in the back of the truck. The mood in the motel room is cheerless and somber.  Even Murphy seems to know something is wrong.  The evening moves along slowly until sleep mercifully closes in.  Meanwhile, an idea starts to form in the back of my mind.
I had been thinking about getting a mountain bike since last spring.  My steelhead fishing trips to Canada have for years involved long hikes down logging roads perfect for a mountian bike. I hadn't even brought the subject up with Sue to date as I already had one too many bikes in her view.

 Now might be a good time to bring up the subject.

I am thinking...I could finish the trip with a new mountain bike. I could dust off my remaining road bike back home and customize it to my new long distance travel bike.
I propose my plan and she is more than happy to go mountian bike shopping the next morning. Timing is everything.

Capital Cycles in Baton Rouge is able to track down a bike that fits me.  I get it equipped with a luggage rack, water bottle rack, rear view mirror and special road tires.  When they roll out the kitted out and fitted final product it dwarfs the technician.  He calls it "the Clydesdale"   and so is thus christened.    For me a leap in technology,  both light and rugged.  It is a beauty.  Sue does not even ask the final cost.

From this point forward Murphy is being chauffered by Sue  in his ruby red limo.  I am riding my new bike flying along without any gear. It is ridiculously easy going. The miles melt away.  The trail is now following the Mississippi river levee along the "River road" which is now a endless series of huge loops like ribbon candy.  For each mile of straight line point A to B driving for Sue I go seven miles.  The scenery is a jarring mixture of industrial facilities and leftover estates from the plantation days.
Historic Hospital to treat leprosy actually called
 "Hansen's Disease" to avoid the stigma connected with it.
One former plantation I pass is quite historic in that it was the site of the only leprosy colony in the United States for many years. A small museum informs me that the building and later village was home to several hundred sufferers of the disease.  Research conducted here led to the first truly effective drug that is able to control and actually reverse it's ravages.  At the time,  lepers were feared and ostracized even by family members.  It is now understood to be caused by a bacteria that is actually quite difficult to transmit. Not a single instance occurred at the place in its history.
 That afternoon we started to look for a place to stay that night.  This is not a tourist area by any measure, yet everything was booked.  We called a dozen places up to 50 miles away.  We were later to learn that the floods last summer around Baton Rouge had resulted in a massive clean up and repair effort that attracted workers from across the country. These workers had been based out of the motels for weeks.   We finally found one with a room available due to a cancellation.  As I approach New Orleans, the landscape becomes very industrialized.
Threading the needle through refineries.
 I pass giant refineries, processing facilities,  and coal yards all tied by overhead piping and conveyor belts to terminal facilities along the river.  Ocean-going ships are able to navigate up the river as far as Baton Rouge.
Ocean ship beyond the levee.
I see the super structures of these big ships poking up from behind the grassy levee looking like they are half  buried in the grass from my perspective.  The last twenty miles into New Orleans the MRT is a paved path right on top of the levee.  It's a great view being 40 feet above it all, the river on one side and an ever changing landscape as these industrial facilities give way to the outlying neighborhoods of the city.

For me the nature of the trip has changed.  I no long need worry about finding a place to eat or sleep
each night.  They are within easy reach with Sue a phone call away.  She ranges ahead and paves the way for my arrival. Without Murphy in his trailer and my loaded saddle bags,  I no longer am a novelty.  The people I meet are not curious, no more questions; where am I going, how far each day?  Now I am just a guy on a bike,  probably lives 5 miles down the road.  Even when I tell them what I am doing I get this "oh that's nice" response.  They don't really believe me.  I don't look miserable enough.
One of the more impressive plantations along this section of road is now a Jesuit retreat.

And this is the next door neighbor.



Monday, October 31, 2016

Signs, Signs everywhere are signs.

  I started taking photos of the tens of thousands of signs I passed along the trail. Some are funny, some thought provoking and some just plain strange.  Here is a gallery of signs I collected along the way.

Best pro-Trump sign I saw. 
Best anti-Trump sign I saw.
All we need is...
Variations on this home made sign was very popular everywhere.
Not sure if Martha Stewart or Ralph Lauren had anything to do with the idea.

This sign encouraging sin was directly across the street from
this sign.  The liquor store had more cars parked in front but it was not a Sunday.
I just thought it was creative.
Murphy's favorite.

The property was in such disrepair that the only thing worth
stealing would be the Smith and Wesson.
The owner told me it was for sale for $50.  No room in my trailer. 
These memorials were poignant reminders of
the dangers of the road.  They were all too frequent. 

From an exhibit on "Cats in Art" in Memphis Art Museum.

The food must be authentic given the owner's tenuous
 grasp of the english alphabet.

A handsome 40's memorial done in ceramic tile in Greenville, MS

Not sure if I had a derringer or something not listed it would be OK.

Low cost ownership signage change.

It was OK if you had no shirt or shoes.

Warehouse where the Mardis Gras Floats  are stored In New Orleans.

Tough Love in the delta.

I guess you would be dead.

Just a cool sign. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Blow Out, A Tire Testimonial, The Small Stuff

The James Audubon Bridge crosses the river on the way to Baton Rouge.
An elegant structure with yellow clad cable stay.
The next day I am on the road again heading for Baton Rouge.  I am warned this is a lonely and remote stretch of the MRT, "bring water and food as the trail has no services" according to the guidebook.  About 25 miles out of town a storm is brewing on the horizon and I see rain squalls weeping sheets of water a couple miles away headed towards me.  I am hoping I can evade them.  That is when I hear a loud bang and my bike rumbles to a stop.  My rear tire has blown out the side wall.  It is beyond repair, I am screwed.  But not quite yet.  I have a weak cell signal.  I get through to my relatives.  I track down a tire from a bike shop in Natchez and John is soon on his way once again to rescue his Uncle.  He delivers a new tire, tube and patch kit (I am taking no chances) about half an hour later.  Just long enough for the rain squall to catch up with me as I am waiting.  As I watched the dirt field next to us slowly get pounded into mud by the force of the rain as it engulfs us, Murphy looks up at me at if he has done something wrong. I had to ask him if we are having fun yet. John asked me why I don't carry a spare.  I guess I have room for a spare dog but not for a spare tire.
Now would be a good time to provide a testimonial on tires.  I have now had some experience in tire performance.  I started my trip with 2 used tires both Continental Gatorskins.  Never had one flat until Kentucky.  My rear tire wore out in Iowa but in fairness was heavily worn when I started.  The replacement (Giant brand) wore out in just 3 1/2 weeks  and suffered one flat.  It was replaced by one in Memphis (SELA brand) which had the "Flat Protection System", it went flat 8 times before finally blowing out. My prior experience with Bontrager brand tires led me to avoid them to begin with.
So my flat free front tire has rolled over all the same crap and essentially "cleared a path" for my rear tire and it looks like it will outlast the trip.  You ask me, get Gatorskins.
It is interesting how little problems that beset us change with the circumstances.  In my prior life as an Architect a big problem is when my 25 million dollar project is going to miss its deadline because half the team just quit for greener pastures. Now I have been vexed by flats and a rear view mirror that keeps working loose and falling off. You really need a rear view mirror to keep an eye on upcoming traffic from behind. The mount was a custom deal I did myself  countersunk into my plastic grip handle.  I have spent more time trying different glues and  elegant solutions than I care to admit. Finally I have resorted to the handyman's ultimate solution known as duct tape.
I covered the duct tape with black
electrical tape so its acceptable.
 Being an architect this really sticks in my craw as it is ugly beyond words  but it works.
 Vanity has also entered the picture on my attire.  One horribly hot day a woman gave me a scarf like thing to wear that is filled with some super absorbent gel.  It holds a cooling amount of water that evaporates through the day and despite my initial skepticism it really works well.

Only confident men can wear these.
 The problem is it's the color pink with a leopard print that when tied around my neck like a choker and makes me look like a real Ken doll. In New York City, I probably would fit in but in rural Mississippi it draws stares if I forget to remove it before I walk into the diner. Being 6'-5", 220 lbs no one has said what they are thinking.
Not only do well intentioned people give me stuff but I find stuff along the road as well.  Given I have to carry it it has to be pretty useful to make it on board.
For some reason, have passed hundreds of gloves along the roadside. Yet in 2,000 miles I have never passed a single pair of gloves, always useless singles. I even found a really nice Harley Davidson branded waterproof riding chap.  Well made, good quality. Really nice. Just one.
Back on the road I passed a complex of engineering projects and diversion dams that I learned are pretty important.
 The Mississippi likes to jump out of its track all the time and years ago it crossed into the path of the Atchafalaya river which drains in a different direction to the gulf.  In time, more water headed down that shorter easier route that the Mississippi was in danger of drying up. Baton Rouge and New Orleans are deepwater ports and were in danger of being cut off from the gulf.  The corps of engineers erected these massive structures to keep the old Miss on course.

The House Sugar Cane Built, Homecoming, "Animal " House USS Kidd

Along my way to Baton Rouge I rode past several beautiful plantation homes set far back from the road, driveways lined with live oaks like a scene from Gone with the Wind.  I wondered about their history, who lives in them now.  I stopped at the end of a driveway to make some adjustments when a SUV pulls up.  It's the owner of one of these homes. "Would I like a cold drink?".  Always say yes.
Linell in her natural habitat.
Lynell Price is a trim woman about my age who is married to a successful sugar cane farmer. The place is surrounded by it and I have been passing cane fields for several hours now. Their home has been in the family for generations and is over 100 years old. I'm afraid I used my "Shucks, I am an architect" status  and wrangled an invitation inside as I really wanted to tour it.  She was gracious to do so despite her limited time.  The whole visit lasted only 20 minutes.  Inside was a sanctuary from the heat that was beyond my expectations.  They had worked with a well known architect who specialized in plantation homes to build an addition.  Heavy timber construction, polished plank floors, spaces that flowed from one to another. It was furnished exquisitely with a museum full of imposing cases, cabinets, collections of porcelain, etchings and keepsakes.  Each piece was a work of art in itself.  She was the repository for family heirlooms hence her home was entirely authentic.  I was supplied with the promised cold drinks and soon was on my way.  While a short but sweet visit but I do have a standing invite for a return visit some day.
The House that sugar cane built.
Approaching Baton Rouge means heavier traffic, more stuff to negotiate.  I had arranged a warm showers host on the south side of the city.  When I am in the city proper, I am engulfed by traffic and people, the sidewalks are jammed, traffic is stopped. I asked two passing girls why.  Its's homecoming for Southern Christian University.  The largest (or maybe oldest?) black university in the country. It is a zoo.  Jacked up cars, glittering chrome wheels are passing by or stuck in traffic each with its own body penetrating bass line of rap on roof top speakers.  Murphy and I finally give up riding and walk along passing a stream of folks who are partying and out to be seen.
Murphy working the owner of the rib BBQ stand for scraps
I encountered some make shift BBQ stands with black steel cookers burning flumes of wood smoke. I give up trying to make headway and decided to sit down for some really fine slow cooked ribs, beans and potato salad and just try to stay out of the way. Eventually I make my way through despite my google maps being inaccessible due to the overloaded cell phone network. Just went by instinct and that quaint historical item known as a paper map.
I am headed to the home of Samson,  a Louisiana State Student who is the only guy who said "Sure I got room in my backyard".  He texted he may not be home because of the game and may be too drunk to talk anyhow.  Enroute, I meet another cyclist named Max loaded with saddlebags too.  Even though we are 5 miles away it turns out he is headed to the same house. We finally arrive well after dark but shortly after we arrive, Samson rolls up on his bike to greet us.  He is pumped but still sober. His house is basically a crash pad.  Another cyclist is already there.  People are coming and going. We all end up in the living room watching the sole item in the house that is not second hand, a giant big screen TV.  The game starts and I learned just how rabid these LSU fans are.
Lets get this party started. Samson is the guy with glasses.  He is
a civil engineering student that is sure to finally give engineers
a bad reputation.
 Samson is like John Belushi clad in sparkling purple and gold satin shorts with purple and gold suspenders.  He sends someone out for more beer and brings out a huge bag of tangerine like fruit that came from someone's backyard tree.  Fortunately, LSU clobbers Ole Miss so the mood stays bright all night.  These are all twenty-somethings so I try my best to fit in.  I feel like a dinosaur.
The next morning, I head to see the sights.  I decided to first visit the LSU campus to see the where all this took place last night.  It looked like a war zone.  Piles of drinking debris everywhere. Massive quantities of alcoholic beverages had been consumed. It's 9 am and I see no sign of student life. Finally after picking my way around for an hour I spot my first one. A Chinese exchange student who obviously was somehow in isolation last night.  Armies of clean up gangs descend on the place while I am there and the campus is soon respectable enough for visiting parents.
Navy Surplus USS Kidd.  It actually had a distnguished career.
Participated in several battles including Okinawa and was struck by
a kamikazee that put her out of the rest of WWII.  She was named
after Admiral Kidd who commanded the USS Arizona (and was
killed) when sunk in the Pearl harbor attack.
I wanted to see one thing in Baton Rouge.  They have on the waterfront a vintage Destroyer named the USS Kidd that has been restored to its WWII condition.  It's more authentically restored than any other in the world of which there are only four examples left.  To me the WWII junkie,  it was very interesting and you are allowed to crawl around on your own for as long as you like.  I asked how it came to Baton Rouge.  Apparently it had been set aside by the Navy as a possible Memorial ship.  Some  local backers for such a memorial bought it for $200,000 in the 80's.  They formed and association and have been restoring it ever since. I would rather have one of these babies for a couple hundred grand in my backyard than a lot of things I can think of.
I am now within eyesight of my end destination.  New Orleans is only 70 miles away. The River's End is another 70 miles south to the tip of the delta.  I have been talking to Sue daily as our plan is for her to start her rescue mission, driving down from Minneapolis to overtake me before New Orleans. We will travel together, with Sue ranging ahead and taking on my gear and this pesky dog that has been following me for the last 2,000 miles.  Thus relieved of my load it will be a cakewalk the rest of the way.  I am looking forward to seeing Sue, It has been a long time.

Natchez, 3D Virtual Reality, Melrose Plantation

John and Colleen Nixon in front of her Scion XA
with 280,000 miles on it.
It was late in the day when the Trace petered out at the outskirts of Natchez, MS.  I haven't had much to eat since early the day before as there is nothing on the trace.  I spotted my salvation, the red beacon of a Wendy's sign.  One triple Wendy's deluxe burger with cheese, a large fries and a large frosty and I am spared from certain death.   Natchez, MS is a town that has done an excellent job of preserving their history.  It once boasted more millionaires than any other town in America for its size.  The reason is cotton.  Cotton created many fortunes prior to the Civil war and those fortunes built many plantation mansions that were located in town not out in the countryside as is more familiar.  It is also near the home of Colleen Nixon (my niece) and her brother John who share a house across the river in the town of Ferriday.  I had given them fair warning several days earlier that they would be hosting their vagabond uncle David and his scruffy dog.  As I approached Ferriday another flat tire stopped me about a mile short so John came to my rescue in his pick up and hauled me the rest of the way.  Colleen describes Ferriday as a "S--thole" although its no worse than a lot of towns I have passed through. They live in a neighborhood of working class ramblers in various states of upkeep.  Their place is the family "hurricane home" that is when another hurricane bears down on my in-laws place in the delta they now have this house to retreat to.  They learned their lesson after Katrina when they fled just in time and lost everything except the pick up truck they drove to safety in. When we first entered the house Murphy is surrounded by her 2 small dogs, one an ancient croaking chihuahua and the other a Benji dog.  They bark non-stop in stereo at poor Murphy to tries to hide behind me to no avail. They stick like flies. Mercifully, Colleen herds them into the kitchen behind a plywood barrier where they remain frustrated the rest of our visit. Colleen works at the Natchez Visitor Center and has a second job as some sort of freelance store inventory checker at local stores.  John works in the supply business for equipment used in oil drilling although lately that work has dried up. He is also a video gamer of the highest order.
Living in another world
Tonight I am in for my first experience with 3D virtual reality video gaming. I was pretty sure they just wanted to humiliate their uncle. To lower their expectations, I warned him that the last video game I played was "Pong" so I was about to take a 40 year leap in video gaming technology.  He had just acquired what was termed the latest and first commercially available 3D virtual reality headset by Sony played on a PlayStation 4. I am fitted with this helmet like device and hold these wands in each hand that are bristling with triggers and controls.  The game starts.  I find myself in the dripping basement of a London tenement confronted by some bald headed, thick necked brute wearing a bloodied wife beater shirt.  He is really pissed off at me and growls and rants in a heavy brogue while playing with a revolver.  Apparently I have botched a jewelry heist and I am about to find out why.  Fade to black. The next scene involves a desperate shoot out that leaves me sweaty. Yikes!
As a first exposure to this technology I am blown away.  It is very real.  You are totally immersed, you can almost smell the guy's bad breath.  It is like having a personal Omnitheater around your head except it is better.  The hand wands allow you to pick up objects, open doors, light a cigar and of course load and fire weapons using a pair of disembodied gloves that float on the screen above you.  Surprisingly, it is very intuitive and easy to learn.  John can follow the action on a separate screen and gives me lots of tips as I progress through the game.  Once in a while, Murphy nudges me with his wet nose reminding me I am actually just sitting on a couch in a living room not in some other world.  I tried a couple other adventures including an amazing deep sea dive in a shark cage.  Inevitably, a huge shark manages to tear the door off the cage leaving me feeling very vulnerable.  I am rescued just in time.  So for just $500 for the headset and another $100 for the software you too can escape your miserable, boring life and be terrified by London thugs and sharks.  A good stocking stuffer idea for my wife Sue.
The next day Colleen takes me on a tour of Natchez.  She says Natchez is controlled by the "blue haired mafia" the garden club ladies who have seen to it that the place is preserved as is. I told her that is probably a good thing as it drives the tourist economy.  I don't think hipsters from Manhattan will be enticed to come down here to go zip lining and hang out at the tea shop unless it somehow becomes "hip".  First stop is the Visitor Center where she works in the gift shop.  I asked her colleague who their typical customer is.  Without hesitation "Old people and whatever they buy for their grandchildren".  The best seller are these little porcelain keepsake boxes decorated with flowers that look expensive but are only $1.97.  We drove around town following a driving tour to view the several mansions.
Melrose Plantation in Natchez, MS
 The National Park Service recently acquired and offers one of  Melrose Plantation that we decide to spring for a tour of.  It is massive and succeeds in it's goal of impressing your shorts off.  The man who built it had amassed a fortune from a series of far flung cotton plantations in three states.   Our guide is a park ranger who comes across as a drill sargeant in his demeanor with a crisp uniform and military hat.  He fairly barks out the pertinent facts at our rag tag band of retirees who shuffle along the tour. We are marched around to see the place but he tells a story at the end of the tour that makes it memorable.
It is after the civil War. The slaves have been freed, the owner asks two of his most faithful slaves to remain in his pay.  One is a woman in her forties who has always managed his household. The widowed owner suddenly dies leaving the entire estate and properties to his only son who is but 7 years old. The boy and the woman make a pact to never leave each other. It is a promise they both keep. She raised him as a son and effectively runs the estate until he is old enough to take over.  She lives until she is 105 years old and stays under his roof as the only mother he ever knew.  The man dies first at age 65 and his wife continues his pact.  In the end they are all buried next to each other.  By the time our guide finishes the tale he voice is almost a whisper and most of us have tears welling in our eyes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Vicksburg, A Coincidence, The Natchez Trace


An oxbow lake is a remnant of what was once a loop in the Mississippi.
The river washes away the neck of the loop eventually bypassing the
loop altogether.  There are many along this stretch of the river.
I left Warfield Park and spent the rest of the day is spent pedaling steadily down the road pass a series of small towns. I have crossed the river back into southern Arkansas.  In the town of Eudora I stopped for dinner and read the headlines in the local paper someone left in the booth. The article describes a horrific triple murder in town.  The shooter was still on the loose.  For a town of 2500 that a serious crime.  Yet, as I leave the proprietor warns me about the next town down the road.  "Some advice- don't stop in Lake Providence"  I asked why.  "Its just too dangerous because of the gangs".  I guess triple shootings are OK.   I stop in Lake Providence the next morning anyhow for breakfast at a Sonic.  The place is perfectly normal from what I can tell.   Later I cross the state line and I am officially in Louisiana, the last state of my journey.
One of the first towns is interestingly called Transylvania.  It even has a giant bat painted on the water tower.  I decided it would be a good place to post my absentee ballot.  Good postmark.  Once again, I asked two women outside the Post Office how the town got its name. One didn't know but the other said it actually was not a tourist hook as I suspected but rather the name of the original plantation the town was platted on.  The plantation actually predated the  fictional Bram Stoker Dracula story.
After traveling a section of northern Louisiana, my destination is Vicksburg, MS.  To cross the river you have to make a "appointment" with the Vicksburg Bridge Commission if you are on a bicycle.
There are two bridges, one only safe for cars, the other is no longer used at all.  It can't handle the traffic weight.  I  had made my appointment in the morning and now waited to be ferried across.  There is a formidable gate, barriers, cameras and threatening signs around the entrance to prevent guys like me from getting resourceful.
At the appointed hour, an official pick up shows up, a young man in a uniform gets out, opens Fort Knox and loads us up.  I asked him how often they get requests for cyclists to do this crossing.  I am thinking a number per week.  "Oh not more than once every 3 months or so."  Evidentially this is not the most heavily traveled bike trail.
Since Memphis it has been dead level flat. That is until you get to Vickburg.  Suddenly it is really hilly.  The commanding elevation was the reason Vicksburg was chosen by the Confederates as a major strongpoint to control the Mississippi and was the last to fall in a major battle lasting several months. I will spare you the details but basically after several failed attempts by Grant to take the fortifications by force they laid seige to the town for 47 days.  The Confederates finally surrendered rather than starve and the south was effectively cut in half by Union control of the river hastening the end of the war.
The Minnesota Memorial
It is now commemorated by the Vicksburg National Military Park that lies outside of town and spreads across several square miles.  It is the tourism magnet that now supports the Vickburg economy.  I rode around the park for an entire day.  It is considered the world's largest Art Park as it has thousands of sculpted monuments commemorating the efforts of military units from each state that participated. It is quite moving and well maintained by the National Park Service.  I happened across an event being held at the only house that survived the battle.  The Shirley house was owned by Union sympathizers and ended up behind union lines thus was spared.  There were some
re-enactors staffing the restored home.  As I approached, a young woman dressed in period costume spots Murphy in his trailer and is immediately taken in by his handsome guiles, petting him as I tied him up outside.
Katie the "School Marm"
Vicksburg National Military 
 When I returned she was now giving him a belly rub telling me how much she would love a dog like this.  She is the "School Marm" in period character and is actually a local high school senior.  I talked to her at length about her role and later her plans to go to college at the University of Montana in Bozeman.  I am impressed with her refreshing ability to relate to adults despite her age and that she would take an interest in such an activity as a volunteer. Too many 17 years olds would loathe to  cheerfully converse with anyone as ancient as me. I was to later learn her name was Katie.  I moved on to see the remaining 500+ plaques and statues that awaited me.  The park also has an actual civil war iron clad gun boat in an well designed open air exhibit.

The Cairo ironclad
















The 14 gun Cairo was sunk by an underwater mine during the siege.  It has the distinction of being the first vessel sunk by such means in history.  It sank in 12 minutes but all 251 men were rescued. It lay on the bottom  of the river forgotten for 100 years.  One day some investigators located it with a compass in a small boat and set in motion the discovery, raising operation,  restoration and exhibit of the boat as well as thousands of personal artifacts that were left behind. It all took decades.

The next day I left Vickburg heading toward the Natchez Trace Parkway.  I was about an hour out when I realized I had forgotten one of my half gallon water bottles back at a gas station in Vickburg.  I had to back track to retrieve it.  Naturally I got another flat tire to add to my frustration and the ongoing 90 degree temperatures had returned making especially miserable. Things were not going my way. The delay meant I would not reach the parkway before dark.  Two and a half hours later I was back on track riding trying to make up time and after 5 miles further down the road I spotted a smart phone laying in the gravel alongside the pavement inches from the passing traffic.  This is the fourth phone I have found that was not already smashed to bits on this trip.  It was a nice Samsung model.  I pushed the "on" button and the screen flickered to life.  Let's see, contacts.  Scroll down, "DAD". Select.  Ringing.  "Hello".  Hi, my name is David Thorpe and I am on a country road south of Vicksburg and I have found a smart phone that must belong to your son or daughter.  "Oh that is great, she has been really upset since she lost it on Friday".  I made arrangements for him to meet me along the road.  I asked him if he could bring a large wrench as I had broke another spoke and needed to remove the rear gear spocket again to replace it.
Katie's Dad Curtis and friend Philip
Curtis shows up 25 minutes later in a pick up. He has on a Park Service volunteer shirt.  I mentioned my visit the day before. He asked me if I had visited the Shirley House. Did I see the re-enactors?
He was the union corporal.  I told him I did not remember the Corporal but I had a very nice conversation with the School Marm.  "Oh yeah, that would be my daughter Katie".  In an incredible coincidence I had found 20 miles away, the intact smart phone of the young lady I had just met yesterday.  Curtis was not able to track down a wrench but he immediately got on his phone, tracked down a friend with one who lived 15 miles further down the road.  I accepted his offer to take us there in his pick up and soon had the repair done. As we drove he half jokingly told me that the state of Mississippi was rated nationally dead last in everything that was good but in things that were bad they were first.  That said he still liked living there.  His friend Philip then ferried me the last 5 miles to a campground right on the Natchez Trace Parkway just at dark.  My miserable luck had changed and I bypassed 20 miles of hilly road that had no shoulder and heavy traffic.
The Natchez Parkway
In contrast, the Natchez Trace Parkway constituted the best 50 miles of the MRT I have ridden.   It was an early travelers pathway that evolved from original Indian trails. Somewhere further north Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame had met his fate on the trace.  He was found dead either of suicide or possibly murdered.  A mysterious end for a great explorer.  The trace is now preserved as a beautiful parkway the winds for 444 miles between Nashville and Natchez, Mississippi.  It was made a National Park service unit in 1938. I joined it for the last 50 miles to its southern terminus in Natchez. It is popular with bicyclists as it passes through a verdant bucolic swath lined with majestic southern pines and oaks dripping with spanish moss.  The road is smooth, very little traffic with commercial vehicles and trucks banned.  It even has almost no litter which is remarkable in Mississippi. It is a sweet ride.  It is also free of all commercial development  which means no place to eat for me.  I had to rely on my meager emergency rations.  I hated to see it end but my hunger was a powerful motivator to get to Natchez.
Our tent site along the Natchez Trace the last night