You have a week off for a long bike tour vacation in April in Tennessee ... but it's April in Tennessee and that's when the weather can be tricky. And, sure enough, the weather for the week turns out to have a bunch of really crummy days -- enough that you're going to spend a few days either riding in the wet or sitting in a tent looking out at it.
And that's not anybody's idea of a vacation.
But then, right there in the middle of all the crummy stuff, it looks like you might have two days of good weather. So you go for it.
I spent most of Tuesday morning wrapping some things up and packing, so that it was lunchtime when I finally headed for the Natchez Trace. It was a blustery day, with a wind out of the south-southwest making me pedal even on the downhills and the sky regularly spitting stray raindrops. But it was the best weather that we'd had since Sunday, and I knew that things would get better.
Right after getting on the Trace, I ran into a couple from North Carolina who were just finishing up a 16-day tour. They had started from the Northern Terminus and ridden to the Natchez and back, and we chatted for about 15 minutes while we admired each other's rigs.
I should have a picture here, and the fact that I don't have one -- or one of the guy that I passed about 10 miles laster who seemed to be doing a walking tour of the Trace while pushing his things in a runner's trailer -- shows the downside of a short tour. It's something that my friend Bill Glass once pointed out to me, and which I've experienced enough times now myself to see it as Truth: It takes a few days of touring before you get into touring mode.
Touring mode is where you are willing to stop near the bottom of a long downhill to take a picture or talk to somebody, even when you see that there's a climb coming up that you might be able to coast at least some ways up using the speed from the descent. When you're in touring mode, you not only live in the moment, but you live in the moment in the place, so that you're not looking down the road so much as you're looking around where you're at.
But I wasn't in touring mode on Tuesday afternoon. I was mostly keeping my head down, riding hard into a stiff headwind, hoping that the spitting rain wouldn't turn into a deluge that would make me take shelter under one of the Trace bridges.
I got more into touring mode about Hwy 50, stopping at the Gordon House rest area to eat one of the sandwiches that I had brought with me. Some folks who were touring the Trace by car had stopped there, and I talked with them a bit before hitting the road again.
There's something about the "double-aught" mile markers on the Trace ... like rites of passage. And, yes, that red and white thing on the back of my bike is a spinning reflector. It takes about 20 mph of apparent wind to spin it, however. Between the headwind and my 12 mph average, it only got whizzing about half of the day.
I stopped again at the overlook rest area just before my exit, eating my other sandwich and enjoying the view. Although it was early spring, the trees had filled in enough that you couldn't see much of Hohenwald -- which is about eight miles north of here -- except the water tower.
My first overnight campsite was at Fall Hollow Campground, which is right at the exit from the Trace on Hwy 412. The owners there are super-nice, and they told me that I could set up under the cover of their picnic pavilion, and thus stay more dry should the rain ever come in. This site was pretty close to the bathrooms, too, which are nice and clean. They only charge $5 for tent campers, which anybody that regularly camps will tell you is incredibly cheap. Right after I fixed and ate dinner, they even came by to offer to drive me into town to eat. If you're bike touring anywhere near this campground, I highly recommend that you stay there.
I slept okay the first night, although I regretted not going further into the campground when the rain never came and the traffic sounds of Hwy 412 kept up through the wee hours. At first light I fixed an excellent breakfast of bagels and corned beef hash, then broke camp and loaded up. I spent another half hour tweaking the mounts of my panniers, trying to get them as close to the center of gravity as possible without hitting them with my shoes while pedaling, and then headed out.
My route for this day had me going east through Mt. Pleasant -- at first on some of the roads that the Tennessee ultra-cyclists use for a 300K route. I'd done this route at least three times, but on this lovely spring morning going opposite our usual direction, I was stunned at just how pretty the countryside was. I took it as an affirmation of my decision last year to randonneur less and tour more, since brevet speed just doesn't offer the opportunities to see what you're riding though.
The winds held true, but on this day the strength and direction worked to my advantage. After a tough climb over Mount Joy Road (the climb was not a joy, but wasn't that bad, either) I cruised along a series of roads and into Mt. Pleasant. Since it was just after 10 am, the Mt. Pleasant Grille -- which we regularly stop at on the Cathey's Creek Permanent -- wasn't open, so I continued on east.
Now backtracking the Cathey's Creek route, I rolled over a series of small lumps on excellent roads. The day was just warm enough to make for perfect cycling, and I had a good comfortable bike beneath me.
In Culleoka, I stopped at the Glendale Market for a fried apple pie and a root beer. It was lunchtime, and a steady stream of locals came in to get sandwiches and gas. Most of them gave me friendly nods, and some asked about where I'd been and where I was headed, reinforcing my belief that even people in cars that don't always behave nicely around bicycles are more likely to be nice to touring bicyclists. We are just so quaint and non-threatening.
The roads turned a little more bumpy past my brief stop, but soon I was east of I-65 and entering Marshall County. At the county line on this route, a creek runs across the road. It was very full from the rains earlier in the week, and walking my bike across got my shoes and socks thoroughly soaked. Although the bottom bracket was briefly immersed, the water was not high enough to get to the wheel hubs -- which was good, since the loaded bike was too heavy to carry.
I turned onto Wiles Road east of Hwy 431. This road was new to me, but looked like most of the quiet little lanes down that way: Flat, winding, and lots of exposed rock. Since I grew up in a land of rock and moss, however, I've always considered it pretty.
Turning north on Verona Caney Road, I was on the US Bike Route 23. I wanted to get a picture of my bike with one of the USBR signs, so I skipped the direct route to the campground via River Road and continued north to Hwy 99. I never saw one of the signs, however, as I went further north, and eventually headed on east to "downtown" Chapel Hill.
Just after 2 pm, I stopped at Sonic for a hamburger and caramel milkshake. Then, after a brief stop for supplies at the Food Giant next door, I headed back south two miles to Henry Horton State Park. Those two miles to my campsite were the hardest riding of the day, and I realized just how lucky that I had been to be going with the wind instead of fighting it all day.
By the time that I pitched my tent by the river and got cleaned up, it was only 3:30. I tried to find the campground manager to pay the posted $11-fee, but he was out. This left me with about four hours of daylight to just hang out.
The day was still perfect -- particularly if you weren't trying to ride a bike into the wind -- and it felt strange just sitting around. I've often said that I can do a number of things pretty well, but I can't do nothing good at all. So, Wednesday afternoon, I had a chance to work on my "doing nothing" skills. I read a mediocre book. I lay down on the picnic table and watched the trees moving in the wind against a clear cerulean sky. I watched a hawk hunt, and squirrels scamper, and a river flow.
By the time the sun was setting, I had managed to wind things down enough that I felt like I was just entering touring mode. But I had also come to the conclusion that optimal daily touring distance for me was probably between 60 and 80 miles, depending upon the terrain. I don't think that I will ever be good at doing nothing.
I slept great Wednesday night, thanks to my excellent campsite and the gentle evening breeze. Up with the sun on Thursday, I was packed and ready to roll at 7 am. Since I still needed to pay my campsite fees, however, I had to hunt down the resident manager -- which cost me another half-hour.
Using the section of River Road that I had skipped the day before, I went back to Verona Caney Road before going north and west. The wind was still blowing steadily out of the SSW, so I had a few sections on this day where I needed to work. But they were broken up nicely by long portions where I could turn northward.
I hit Marcy Jo's at 8:30, getting a short stack of pancakes and a side of bacon, but starting with -- of course -- a big cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee. My tank topped off, I then used my Marcy Jo's 100K route to head northwest.
In no time at all, I was passing Carter's Creek Station and cruising north on a series of gently rolling roads. It took less than two hours for me to get from Marcy Jo's back home -- not bad on a loaded 100-pound-plus bike whose bottom bracket was beginning to squeak from the previous day's creek crossing!
I'd been gone for less than 48 hours, but my batteries were fully charged again. It was a short tour, but it somehow managed to have enough stretches of hard cycling, good camping, new roads, and quiet reflective time that it felt like a longer tour.
And it was all good.