Part 3: Cycling Mississippi and Tennessee

On the 20th day of our journey, we entered our third state, Mississippi. We were very excited.

We spent our first night in Mississippi at a hotel but the next night, we stayed in a town called Amory with our couch surfing hosts, Shayne and Shani. They have hosted many travelers but we were their first queer couple, and they were our first queer couple hosts. Needless to say, we had lots to talk about. We felt comfortable around each other immediately, in the way that only people with shared experience can. As people from the West Coast, we have certain ideas about how people in the South behave and have been especially cautious about revealing our true identities, for safety reasons mostly and out of fear that we would lose that famous Southern hospitality if people knew we were more than just friends. Many people have asked if we are related, but that night in Amory, however, was a welcome relief from the “we’re old friends from high school” line.

From Amory, we cycled to a destination we had both been looking forward to, Tupelo. Once a forgettable small town, Tupelo skyrocketed into popularity thanks to its most famous son, Elvis Presley. Even the city’s emblem is a crown in honor of The King of Rock and Roll.

We got into town early in the day so we had time to take in some sights and eat breakfast.

We headed to the breakfast place that opened the soonest and were glad that we were there when it opened because the tables soon filled up as it was Mothers’ Day. Hope all the moms out there had a wonderful and restful day!

After we had eaten and cooled off in the restaurant, we headed to our couch surfing host’s house to drop off our bags before cycling to Elvis’s birthplace and museum, which was only open from 1-5 that day. As always, Mi made fast friends with the resident pup, Lucky.

We set off unencumbered by our bags and headed the short distance to the two-room home built by Elvis’s father, grandfather, and uncle. There was no mistaking where we were, as almost every street provided some sort of homage to the musician.

Mi could easily have been considered a swooning Elvis superfan as a child, so seeing his birthplace was a real treat.

Even Elvis loved cycling!

The home where Elvis was born (and where his twin brother, Jesse, was stillborn), is a modest 450 square feet and had an outhouse behind. It was built for $180. Three years later, the home was repossessed because the family could not repay the loan.

The Presley family were forced to move several times during the years that they lived in Mississippi. When Elvis was 13, the family moved to Memphis, which would be his home for the rest of his life and the site of his grand mansion, Graceland.

The grounds are also home to the church where the Presleys worshiped, which was moved from across the street. Over the years, the church, which was also briefly a private residence, has been renovated and modernized. Our admission tickets included an immersive re-enactment of a typical Assembly of God church service, projected on screens that lowered from the ceiling on all sides. It was at these services that Elvis fell in love with gospel music, which formed the basis for his signature musical style.

After a few hours at the museum, carefully reading every placard and examining every artifact, we set out again.

Whenever we stay at someone’s home, as opposed to camping, we take advantage of all the facilities from the shower to the laundry to the kitchen, where we prepare a dinner big enough to have left overs for the following day.

Our host for the evening, Rufus, was gentle, welcoming, and made us feel right at home in his beautiful clean house. While we thoroughly enjoy chatting and learning more about our generous hosts, Rufus was also very aware of how much work we have been doing in the hot sun so he gracefully provided the perfect balance of hospitality and privacy to allow us a restful stay.

On day 23 of our journey, we headed from Tupelo toward Tishomingo State Park on the Natchez Trace Parkway. This scenic highway is a designated bicycle route that spans a total of 450 miles and follows a historic travel corridor that has been used for hundreds of years by Native Americans, settlers, slave traders, soldiers, and modern-day explorers. So far, this has been our favorite road. Not only is it lined by old oak trees that provided shade, but the road is punctuated by historic markers that took us back in time.

Our destination for the day was Tishomingo State Park, which is named after one of the last full-blooded Chickasaw Chiefs. Awarded the silver medal by president George Washington for his military service and later bravely serving under president Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812, Tishomingo met his end like many Native Americans on the Trail of Tears.

“Steeped in history and scenic beauty,” the area now protected by the state park was once home to Paleo Indians as early as 7,000 B.C., according to archaeological excavations.

The state park office also proudly displayed awards for the best hiking trails in Mississippi. We observed these trails from the road but did not have time (or energy) to do much exploring. We did see some great rocks though.

Our campsite was at a beautiful, secluded spot next to Haynes Lake.

It was a very warm day and after cycling 50 miles we were tired and overheated, so we quickly set up camp and headed to the air conditioned bath house to get some relief from the heat and write some postcards.

The lake was teeming with life and our campsite was visited by this family of Canada geese. At dusk, we heard a great squawking and we were worried that something had happened to one of the babies – we had seen a few poisonous water moccasins slithering in the shallows earlier that day.

In Tupelo, and other places we have stayed with our generous hosts, we were able to visit a grocery store and cook a big dinner, which allowed us to add left over vegetables seasoned with the taco seasoning we brought to our daily bean and cheese burritos.

The bear vaults we ordered and had sent to us in Linden, AL (where we also got these great hats from our new friend Mitchel!) also double as handy seats.

Stretching is vital to maintaining flexibility and strength and makes it possible to continue our grueling (to us) cycling schedule.

On day 24, we entered into the 4th state of our journey, Tennessee! (no, we aren’t melting – the side of the road was on a slant).

If we did not have a deadline to get to our final destination, we would have meandered across the Trace and stopped at every historic site, but as it stands we dare not add extra mileage by exploring much off route. We hope to take a trip in the future to explore all 450 miles of this historic route, though, and give each of these sites ample attention.

That day’s destination was Collinwood, where we camped across the street from the welcome center in the park beside the firehouse. In many places, cyclists can count on the local firehouse to provide a shower and a place to sleep.

We were thrilled to see this banner prominently displayed in the welcome center. It made us feel much safer to know that this scenic road is well-used by cyclists and that drivers are well aware of that fact.

The road is not always a safe place, however. Among the obstacles that we must watch out for, besides uneven pavement, gravel, and other debris, is roadkill, the smell of which can sometimes be overpowering, especially in the humid heat. Bleeding heart animal lovers both, we send out mournful thoughts to each splattered animal we pass. So far we have seen innumerable birds, snakes, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, possums, cats, armadillos, skunks, deer, countless insects, and turtles all eviscerated by speeding vehicles. That’s why every time we see a turtle crossing the road, we quickly hop off our bikes and help them finish their journey across the street safely.

By the time of this writing, we have helped seven of our shelled friends make it to safety.

Drivers: please slow down and if possible, try to brake for wildlife, millions of lives depend on you! Remember that you’re driving through scenic areas teaming of life, so relax, take it slow and let the good times roll.

On October 11, 1809, three years after completing his famous trek across the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and the Pacific Northwest with his co-commander William Clark, Meriwether Lewis was found dead at Grinder’s Stand on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, about 70 miles southwest of Nashville. While many historians attribute his multiple gunshot wounds to suicide resulting from a depression caused by his troubled re-entry into civilian life, there are those who question the reliability of witnesses and believe he was murdered. He was just 35 years old.

Sometimes, we pause to take in the history of the places we pedal through. Other times, we stop to admire the scenery.

“You are here” on the Natchez Trace Parkway!

Day 26’s destination was Duck River (Shady Grove) where our map indicated there was a campground. We cycled right past it, though, because the campground turned out to be nothing but a gravel parking lot, that provided no shelter or amenities. Instead, we headed a few miles down the road into town where we stopped at the country store for a snack, dropped off more postcards, and headed to the only friendly-looking place around, the pavilion at the Methodist Church. We have been told by other church folk that we can rely on churches to have open doors (which isn’t always true) and provide sanctuary. From what we had witnessed at the country store, we didn’t feel especially welcome, unlike every other place we have been to so far where people greet us with interest and broad smiles, and bemoaned that Shady Grove is appropriately named.

After an almost 60-mile day with no other options for accommodations nearby, and with rain looming, we set up our tent in the pavilion and hoped that would be alright with the church. Luckily for us, right before sundown a truck pulled up and the very friendly pastor told us that we were not only free to camp on the grounds but that we could use the bathroom in the church and even sleep inside if we wanted (our tent was already set up so we politely declined). He also unlocked the food pantry and urged us to take whatever we wanted. Shady Grove was redeemed by Pastor Jim’s generosity and we slept soundly knowing that we were safe, clean, and dry.

By the next morning, the thunderclouds had not dissipated and the forecast threatened an 80% chance of rain for that day. Afraid to attract the lightening to our metal bicycles, we aren’t overly keen on riding during thunderstorms, so we went next door to ask the neighbor if he or someone he knows with a truck could take us to the next town. We were delighted by his flock of chickens, each closely followed by days-old chicks that looked like miniature copies of their mamas.

An hour later, the friendly neighbor, Steve, dropped us in Waverly, TN where we had arranged to stay with a couch surfing host for two nights to give us a rest day.

Many of the towns we have visited were established in the early 1800s and there is lots of old things to look at, which we think is pretty cool.

Having arrived in Waverly much earlier than planned, we had plenty of time to kill before cycling the last 14 miles just outside of town to our host’s house. That day, one of our hosts, Joan, had a medical procedure so we had to wait to arrive at their house after 5, which was fine by us because it gave us time to eat a big meal and spend a few hours at the local library. Kelly was thrilled to find this book prominently featured.

Later that afternoon, the humidity thickened the air and the thunder rumbled in the distance. We knew that it wouldn’t be long before the sky opened up and dumped torrential rain on us so we made a quick trip to the grocery store to stock up for the next few days (there wouldn’t be another grocery store on our route for a while), and then headed to the police station to solicit their help. According to our host’s directions, the going to their house would be steep, a little confusing, and end in an unpaved road – not something we could do in the pouring rain. So, we asked the local public servants for assistance. Unfortunately, after waiting at the station for about an hour, we were told that actually they did not have a truck or the manpower to ferry us the rest of the way. We called our host, who graciously agreed to drive his van the 40 minutes into town to retrieve us. We are so thankful, Tom!

When we arrived at their river-front property, we were absolutely blown away by the beautiful architecture, which was all designed and built by Tom himself, and the vibrant paintings that covered every wall, most of which were copies of famous works painted by his wife, Joan. Our private room was very comfortable, so we were glad to have chosen this place to have a rest. The day was pretty restful, although our bedroom was up two flights of stairs from the guest bathroom, so our legs wobbled a bit with every climb.

On the evening of our rest day, we shared a big, delicious meal with our hosts and their Japanese exchange student, Myoho.

Tom’s hospitality did not stop at his cooking or intelligent conversation. Before we left bright and early the next morning, we chatted again with our host and when he learned that we have been carrying around a broken stove, Tom whisked down to his workshop, still in his pajamas, and constructed us a new rocket stove out of a tin can. A computer programmer by trade, this was just the latest demonstration of his ingenuity. Thanks again for everything, Tom!

On day 29, we cycled 47 miles from Waverly to Dover, TN. The day’s ride was mostly uneventful, albeit hilly, so we were glad for the blanket of cloud cover that kept the heat at bay for most of the morning.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the day’s ride were who we met along the way.

We rescued the biggest turtle yet!

This one seemed a little grumpy to be moved out of the road, but we were glad it was out of the way when a car raced by a few moments later.

A salute to the Water Protectors on the bridge over Standing Rock Creek.

All of the cyclists we have met so far have been going the opposite direction as us. We crossed the road to chat for a few moments with this French couple, Dominic and Pascal, who were headed from Chicago to Baton Rouge. We are always happy to see other tourists on the road and “talk shop.” We discuss routes, gear, the best places to eat and camp, and topography, which is helpful to hear from cyclists who are coming from the direction we are headed. Unlike other Adventure Cycling Association maps we have used, this portion does not include topography which has been a source of near-constant frustration.

Our last night in Tennessee, we stayed at a campground called the Whispering Pines in Dover. The proprietor was a kind woman who told us that she feeds all of the resident critters which should keep them satisfied and leave the campers alone. She was clearly well-intentioned and big-hearted, though we felt like some of those residents took advantage of her hospitality by eating more than they were given, like the family of groundhogs who had taken up residence and ate the porch, which she had to replace every year.

There were two big mamas with six babies between them.

The mamas were more shy than the babies, but crawled out from beneath the porch to listen to us reading aloud, as we like to do every evening to wind down from the day.

The following day was our last day of cycling in Tennessee. We crossed into Kentucky in the Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area, which is split by the Tennessee/Kentucky border. Interestingly, the lakes in question are actually rivers.

A great deal of iron smelting occurred in this region, with multiple tall stone furnaces punctuating the surrounding landscape. This one was only in operation for a few years before a slave insurrection put a stop to this hard labor.

A few miles beyond this historic marker, we cycled into Kentucky, our 5th state! Stay tuned for our next entry which will detail our progress through Kentucky and Illinois.

3 responses to “Part 3: Cycling Mississippi and Tennessee

  1. I’m so happy that Mi got to see the Elvis museum. Glad you guys enjoyed Tupelo as well.
    And it’s so good to see how far y’all have gotten now. Safe travels, guys.

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