The road stretched before me, its gentle rise shouldered by forests of pines, and I sat up on my bike as I coasted along the Natchez Trace Parkway and stared ahead. The gentle purr of my freewheel was the only sound as I stopped pedaling and looked over my shoulder at the parkway behind me.
Nothing in either direction.
Wrapped in sunshine and buffeted by a slight headwind, I rode my bike along a section of the famous 444-mile parkway and celebrated the chance to get in some miles en route to New Orleans from Nashville. Changing in a roadside parking lot and slapping my bike together, I headed out as Gabi went ahead with the car.
Undulating gently, the road welcomed me, and I basked in the familiar rhythm of a steady cadence that raised my heartbeat and filled my soul. The solitude brought a smile to my face, and I reminded myself that I was completely alone.
Roughly 100 yards before me and to my right stood two deer – a doe and a buck, perhaps – quietly grazing on the spring grass by the roadside. They raised their heads as I drew nearer, and I could see the muscles in their forelegs flex as they contemplated the specter of a lycra-clad cyclist speeding toward them.
They spun effortlessly and in an instant were gone – bounding into the underbrush, their signature white tails bouncing as they sped toward safety.
Such is the predictable beauty of the Natchez Trace – without question one of the most gorgeous and relaxing scenic drives we have encountered. Reminiscent of Skyline Drive in Virginia, the “Trace” combines beautiful vistas, rolling hills and a bounty of wildlife with a heavy dose of American history. It’s a route not to be missed, and friends’ warnings to stick to the 50 mph speed limit proved unnecessary: to drive faster than the posted limit would risk missing something.
The Natchez Trace is a modern transportation memorial to a crucial commercial and communications pathway that helped connect the Mississippi Delta with Tennessee in the mid-18th Century. Now under the management of the US Forest Service, the Trace is a pristine two-lane meander along an ancient ridge where dinosaurs once travelled in search of better grazing. More recently, bison and other wildlife formed the early version of the Trace as their migratory habits created a path towards the salt licks of Tennessee from the rich grazing lands of southern Mississippi.
The road is dotted with historical markers and signs indicating the “Old Trace,” the well-used path used by frontiersmen and commercial haulers who were exploited by bandits and highwaymen. Wild turkeys, deer and countless species of birds harmoniously blend with the speeding hunks of steel traversing the ridge.
Along with lots and lots of bicyclists.
Designated a formal bike route, the Trace attracts scores of cyclists, and our friends in Nashville predicted that “it would be jammed with them” on a nice day like Saturday. They would appear on the horizon, colorful splashes against the ghostly grey background of trees yet to sprout leaves, and earth still light brown from the winter’s ravages. Some rode in small groups, drafting to conserve energy and perhaps either increase their speed or the duration of the ride.
Most, however, rode like me – alone in the warming sunshine of a mid-March day in Mississippi.
I only rode 25 miles of the Trace on Saturday and the weather looks like it’ll keep me in the car and off the saddle today. But no worries: I’ll hold onto my a once in a lifetime opportunity to ride where Meriwether Lewis once rode, where the Chickasaw and Cherokee called home, and where time stands still and yields to the warm breeze and the promise of spring.