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May 21st, 2012

Sunday in the South

Winding west along LA-14 (for some reason signed the "Zachary Taylor Parkway") was remarkably different than yesterday's foray to the deserted Mississippi River delta.  It was a quiet, pleasant, and warm morning, with little traffic on a nice road.  But this time, there were signs of life along the way.  People were sitting on front porches, or mowing lawns -- and they would wave at a passing biker.  The rural (mostly Baptist) churches all had full parking lots.  There were produce stands selling fresh veggies.  There was life here, unlike that deserted almost zombie-like region I was in yesterday.  It made me smile.
I woke up fairly early with a crick in my neck from having slept funny, and blisters on my feet.  Apparently motorcycle boots aren't the best for tromping around New Orleans' French Quarter.   I figured since I was in town I should experience it.  About all I can say is that it's like a cross between the Las Vegas Strip at night, and London's SoHo district after the shows get out.  My friend Joe McDermott commented on my Facebook page that my description was accurate, except that "Vegas and SoHo have more class."  He was right.   Drunk and very drunk people wandering about, everyone drinking still.   I saw more than enough boobs to last me a life time.  I got hit on by drag queen prostitutes, and almost stepped in a few puddles of barf.  I guess I'm getting old as I was back in my hotel and asleep by 1am.  

I got a bit lost leaving New Orleans -- big cities are tough to navigate sometimes.  But I headed out more or less Northwest and across the causeway over Lake Ponchartrain.  It was a pretty drive, albeit on a freeway, so I was glad to exit off and head West on LA-14 which runs across most of the top of the "L" that is Louisiana. 
It felt good to be on a quiet two-lane running through an endless string of small towns.  In Franklinton I stopped for gas and some water and as I was filling up a mini-van pulled up.  In the car was two ladies and a man who got out to get gas and the older of the ladies got out and said "I need to walk a bit".  She walked past my bike and asked how I was and where I was going.  I answered Washington State as I always do, and she said "I have relatives up that way on my Grandma's side...." and proceeded to tell me about them, but couldn't remember where they lived.   We talked of small towns and back roads when they asked how I was heading and she said that she "hated living in cities".  By this time I'd filled up already and was washing my windshield, and her son-in-law had filled up their mini van, but she was in full chat mode.  She went on to say she'd "moved up this way back in 1958.  My husband was a merchant seaman, and I said to him, 'one day you are gonna come home and I'll be gone, so you'll have to ask my sister where I went.'"   I asked her, "did he find you?"  And she said "sure enough, he asked my sister, but he never came up more than a few times...."  And so it went while I drank a bottle of water, and her impatient son-in-law waited for her to finish.  
I motored a bit further but soon found a produce stand advertising "Creole Tomatoes".  Now I loves me some good tomatoes, fresh from the vine, warm in the sun.  Not the round slightly reddish colored balls with no taste to them that you get in the stores these days.  I'd never heard of a "creole tomato" so I asked.   Apparently they are native to Louisiana, and were with out a doubt, the most flavorful things I'd had in ages.  I had about half of one as a sample, and the nice farm wife said she'd sell me a few, but where I'd put 'em on the bike I have no idea.  I did buy one though and just ate it like an apple, the juice running down my hand.  Damn was it good.

However, it didn't fill me up, and about a half hour later in a small town called Greenberg, LA, I saw a small restaurant in a strip-mall called "Chicken Hut".  I had been craving some good ole southern fried chicken -- I mean it was Sunday after all and isn't that a traditional Sunday dinner?  So I got off the bike and wandered in to what appeared to be the gathering of the "Help" in the movie "The Help".  I was the only white person, and the only male in the group of women who obviously had just come from Church.  I figured this must be good chicken.  I ordered two breasts, baked beans, and of course sweet tea.  (I'm realizing this blog is sounding like a foodie post anymore, but damn if the food in the South isn't good, and I swear I'm gonna gain 20 pounds).
I found a single open table, and I don't think I scared the ladies any as they paid me no mind.  CRUNCH!!!   Oh my, that was crunchy, tasty, juicy chicken -- I would have to say "Minnie Approved", as it was just like on The Help.   It seemed as well that I was not the only man here either, as a teenage boy came out and asked if it was my bike outside, and I said "yes".  (Here we go again I'm thinking to myself.)  He asked where I was headed and I said "Seattle".  "Wow, that's like the opposite corner" and I said, "indeed it is -- I actually rode that once a few years ago, Key West to Cape Flattery."   However, he asked me a question no one else had, which I have to give him big points for.  "What's been the most exciting thing you've seen on your trips?"   That one took me a second to think about -- truth be told, I'd never even thought about it at all!  I'm not out on the road for the "excitement", but I didn't want to disappoint him, so I answered the only thing that came to mind quickly  "the sunrise at the Grand Canyon."  I asked him if this was his family restaurant, and he said yes, and that he was born and raised here and outside of visiting his family in Lexington, KY, he'd never been too far from Greenberg.   I'd like to think maybe I offered him some inspiration.

I turned North on US 61(signed "The Blues Highway) and headed into Mississippi.  This was a four lane, although still lightly traveled.  Through fewer towns, but an equal number of churches.  They do wear their religion on their sleeve in this part of the country -- and I thought we Mormon's were bad.  Lots of billboards calling folks to repentance, or making anti-abortion statements, and reminding us that "Jesus Saves", or that women shouldn't wear pants.  Literally.   I don't know if this is saying they shouldn't wear anything in church, or what all, but it's a serious exertion indeed.
US-61 rolls North along the East bank of the Mississippi, and it curves and ducks through the rolling hills.  It's great fun at speed, but it got quite hot, and I needed some shade about 3pm.  That chicken back in Greenberg had made me sleepy as well.   I kinda wished this place was open, but it wasn't.   I think resting in the cool of Mammy's skirt would have been nice for a while, sipping on some sweet tea.  Methinks this was not her natural color, or perhaps she was inspired by Michael Jackson.  Or it wasn't very PC anymore.   Who knows.
The last stretch of today's ride was along the Natchez Trace Parkway.  It was the highlight of the trip today, and in fact, the trip since I left Houston.  This road is part of the National Park Service, and it commemorates one of the first "National Roads", the old Nachez Trace, from Nashville down to Nachez on the Mississippi.  It was first designated by Thomas Jefferson in 1801.   The road was smooth, no traffic, and wound through the countryside.  The temperature had cooled off by 4p and it was a joy to ride.  Especially since I was a bit burnt.  I'd used the last of my spray on sun-screen this morning, and figured I'd pick up a bottle at a Walgreens, or CVS or Rite Aid along the way, forgetting it was Sunday in the rural South and nothing much was open.  I didn't find any open drug store at all the entire way, and I must have run through the only towns in the South with out a Wal Mart.  

I sat back on the bike and just let it glide.  The cool air in the shade felt fantastic.   It's roads like this that one looks to find, but rarely does.  Like the Blue Ridge Parkway that Tony and I rode a part of back on our corner to corner ride in 2008, I only was able to ride part of it -- from Nachez to just outside of Vicksburg.   It continues on up another 375 miles to Nashville.   Too bad I have to head the other way.

Vicksburg, MS to Hot Springs, AR

The bike has only so much room and so one takes only a limited amount of clothes and one does laundry every so often while on the road.  In my case, I pack six pairs of underwear and six pairs of socks, two short sleeve, two sleeveless, and two long sleeve t-shirts to ride in, one pair of Carhartt tan duck-cloth pants to wear riding, one pair of jeans, and one "nice" shirt to wear to dinner in the evenings, and a pair of gym shorts and tennis shoes, and my riding boots.  This means that in addition to the clothes I arrive in, I have five additional days of undies/socks before I have to do laundry.  As I occasionally tend to buy a Harley shirt or two from dealers I visit, I seem to always have enough shirts.   Well yesterday I was down to the last pair of undies and socks, so had to do laundry that night at the hotel.

I arrived at my Holiday Inn in Vicksburg only to find their guest laundry was out of order.  The desk clerk said she'd called the repair guy, but it was Sunday and he probably wouldn't come.  I had noticed another of the Holiday Inn "family" of brands just up the road and since I have "Platinum" frequent guest status with them, I asked her to call and see if they'd let me use their guest laundry.  She said that the owner of this hotel also owned a Marriott Spring Hill down the road and she'd try there first.  They said sure, come on down, so I loaded up the dirty laundry and headed over.  When I got there a guest had just started a batch and another guest was waiting, but the very nice desk clerk, a lovely young lady named Ranesha, said that she would do my laundry in the hotel machine, as she knew the predicament I was in!  I said, no, but I'd do it if she'd let me.   So I went back and loaded up a machine with all my stuff and sat out in the lobby reading.  When it was all dry I used their table to fold and she sat with me and we chatted about the trip and where I was going and riding and whatnot.   I was so impressed with this bit of Southern hospitality I had to send her boss a note.  That's the kind of customer service is all to rare. Just like Prius' in the South -- I noticed today that I rarely see them out on the roads here, unlike home where they are as common and annoying as ants.  But I digress...
Vicksburg is a wonderful old town on the Mississippi River, and home to a major Civil War campaign.  The day before I had emailed a colleague who knows more about "The War Of Northern Aggression" than anyone but Shelby Foote, and asked him what I should see at Vicksburg.  He shot back "its the one civil war sight I've not been to!  I'm so jealous".  He did say It was one of the last Confederate holdouts, and was very difficult to capture because of the terrain.  The area where the fighting took place is now the Vicksburg National Military Park, and has a lovely driving tour of the battlefield.   It's perfect for a motorcycle, although it was well into the upper 80s by the time I got there about 1030am.  It's very peaceful and reflective, with a lot of interpretive signs and monuments, and of course the battlefield grave yard.   The entire fight for Vicksburg lasted over a year, and almost 20,000 casualties.  Today it's quiet and peaceful, the cannons silent and overlooking the Mississippi and this old town, with row upon row of markers.
There are only a few places to cross the Mississippi and Vicksburg is one, and so I motored across the river back into Louisiana, before heading north into Arkansas, towards Hot Springs.   This little corner of the South is flat and mind-numbingly boring - the roads straight as an arrow and dusty farms and small towns, and it was quite hot too.  I was not enjoying the ride much, and I'd left after noon so the heat was at it's most intense.  
I pulled off in the small town of Lake Village, which sits astride US 65 and US 82 in the SE corner of Arkansas.  The only place that was indoors was a McDonalds and I needed to get some fluid and out of the heat.  I wasted about an hour in there, dreading going back out into the heat.  I booked my hotel up in Hot Springs, about 130 miles away.  It was only 2p, so I cooled off for a while, and went over the map looking for the most direct way there. 

However, my iPhone app for Holiday Inn links to Google Maps and they had a route that I'd not really looked at -- a combination of a bunch of Arkansas state highways, that was shorter than the US highways I was looking at.   I thought I'd go for it and headed out.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions of the trip.
I've never been in Arkansas on the bike, and what I'd seen so far I was not liking.   Flat, dusty, hot.  But truth be told, I was totally unaware that the route I was going on would be hilly, through pine forests and small towns, and curvy and on very quiet back roads.   Gotta give Google Maps some credit for this one.

It was still hot when I left Lake Village, but off in the distance I could see some thunderclouds and falling rain that evaporated before it hit the ground.  Growing up in Salt Lake, I learned that this is called "virga" (thanks Mark Eubanks - my SLC friends will know who this is).  Looking online tonight, the NOAA definition is:  Streaks or wisps of precipitation falling from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground. In certain cases, shafts of virga may precede a microburst.
What was nice is that I was feeling a few sprinkles occasionally and the temperature dropped as well so it was much nicer to ride.   I kept skirting these pockets of virga around a few towns, and then I'd feel a few more drops, then a few more, and the next thing I knew, the second half of the NOAA definition kicked in.  A microburst.  All of a sudden I was riding through a shower.  Ironically though the sky looked like it does in the picture!  I could see blue skies, its as if the rain was falling from the clear blue sky.   There was no time to pull off and put on rain gear (nor was there any shelter to do so), and I figured it would stop quickly.  I figured that for about 5 miles.  By that time I was soaked through, but with the temperatures in the 80s still, and moving along at 50mph, I dried out in a matter of a few minutes, and it was actually kind of refreshing in a way,  although the bike was now filthy dirty.

At the next town I stopped to fill up and clean up a bit, and when I came out of the restroom I found one of those semi-homeless guys with a bottle of Windex and a rag cleaning my bike windshield.  He said "nice bike", at least I think so, he had no teeth and a southern accent.  I gave him a couple of bucks and sent him on his way, and I turned off up AR-8, the road that Google Maps suggested.  

What a wonderful road.  I had no idea rural Arkansas was so beautiful too.  The smell was incredible -- a mix of pine trees and sawdust (there are lots of small logging operations here, many abandoned -- much like back home) and rain.  The roads had little or no traffic -- it's as if they were made just for me. The air was cool and fresh with that smell.  And I was feeling at one with the bike too -- the right mix of curves and speed, where you just lean into some great curves, throttle up and it's like flying six inches off the ground.  It's what makes trips like this so much fun.  Miles and miles and miles of this.

Like I said, I was not expecting rural Arkansas to be this scenic.  Small towns, each looking like a Norman Rockwell painting - almost stereotypical in a way, but never boring.  

I worked my way across Arkansas in a generally northwesterly direction along AR-8 and AR-9 for two hours until I arrived in Hot Springs about Sunset.   I'll take some time to explore the town tomorrow before heading further northwest.   I've been on the road a week, I have two more weeks until I have to get back to Seattle.   At times I feel the need to be home with friends and in my place, but on afternoons like today -- with quiet two lane roads, small towns, fresh air, pine trees, sawdust, and perfect riding weather, I could take another couple of weeks to get there and be just fine.

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