By Scott Morris
May 22, 2019
Adventure Cycling Association recommends a rest day at least every 10 days on a long tour.
I found the recommendation solid yesterday as I struggled up steep hills in the Mississippi heat.
Then an unexpected challenge awaited at the end of the 45-mile ride.
No one was at the office of the private waterfront campground. Exhausted and dehydrated, I kept ringing the bell for service outside the locked office. There were no obvious campsites, just a collection of RVs that looked like permanent fixtures.
Finally I found a phone number for the campground and called.
“We don’t allow overnight camping anymore,” the man said.
“Well, you will tonight,” I told him with a laugh. "I can’t go on.”
The man was understanding, and told me just to pitch a tent wherever I liked. He said the bathrooms and showers were open.
It took me several hours to cool off and rehydrate. I’m afraid the heat is going to be the biggest obstacle to continuing this adventure.
But that’s a decision for another day. Next up are 45 more hilly miles, part of them on familiar territory on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Hopefully Daughter No. 1 will be waiting in Burnsville with the AC on high.
Day 10: May 21, 2019
The road to Canada may be paved with good intentions, but it is not always paved with pavement.
This I learned yesterday somewhere between Aberdeen and Amory, Mississippi. The map said to turn left on Old State Highway 25. The road sign said I had arrived at Old State Highway 25. And Old State Highway 25 must really be old because it’s gravel.
Controlling a bicycle with loaded panniers and street tires over a couple miles of loose gravel was another fine challenge on the Underground Railroad. I survived the poor road conditions without a crash and was happy to be reunited with rough asphalt.
Mississippi is throwing every kind of road surface known to humankind at me, sometimes a patchwork of all varieties within a single mile.
Car drivers (Jeep drivers excluded) benefit from cushy suspension that absorbs many road imperfections. But bicyclists feel every bump, every crack and every rough spot in every muscle of our bodies.
So I went to bed sore from bouncing over the assortment of tar and gravel, loose gravel, patched potholes and cracked pavement.
It was a 52-mile day, and because of the heat, I stayed in another cheap motel rather than camping. I know. I’m a wimp.
If all goes as planned, I have two more days on the road before a break at home, and decision time. Next up is about 46 miles to a private campground near the Natchez Trace Parkway, west of Belmont, Mississippi. Let’s hope it’s a smooth ride.
Day 9: May 20, 2019
I crossed into Mississippi yesterday and left the Alabama leg of this trip behind on a day that included a friendly tailwind and cooler temperatures.
My previous bicycle tours have taken me through a series of connecting tourist towns with nice amenities. Other than the tree-laden historic district of Mobile, the southernmost section of the Underground Railroad route traverses a series of poor black-belt country where a bike tourist is a novelty.
It’s easy to become intimate with the geography when I'm pedaling up hills or coasting through a sea of pine trees. As I passed through the swamps of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and the Tombigbee River basin, I tried to imagine what it was like for slaves to use this landscape in their escape to freedom in the North and Ontario.
I thought about the post-Civil War oppression that the South practiced well into the 20th century, and how those in power made it so difficult for an entire race to survive.
And I thought about that day when I was 21 and working in a warehouse in Mobile. Two young black men came into the warehouse and turned in job applications. After the applicants left, the warehouse manager wadded up their applications and tossed them in the garbage can, adding a racial slur. Memories of the incident, and my silence in reaction to it, have stayed with me almost four decades.
One of the reasons I chose this route was to give more thought to why I am who I am. I was raised by a culture with a persistent identity crisis. How can I leave any unconscious, yet lingering, vestiges of that upbringing behind? How can I become more comfortable with people who don’t look and sound like me? I’m finding the answer is simple, regardless of politics or race or whatever. Just sit down and talk to each other.
When it looked like thunderstorms were imminent Sunday, I decided when the rain came I would take refuge in one of the many rural churches that dot the South. I was almost hoping for a storm and the opportunity to worship with my black belt brothers and sisters in Christ.
But the storms went south of me, so I kept riding toward whatever it is I am riding toward. Oh well, Jenny will be proud. I’m thinking about something after all.
I camped last night near the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and built a mesmerizing campfire. Next up, is 53 miles to a campground near Amory, Mississippi.
Day 8: May 19, 2019
During a goodnight phone call this week, Jenny asked what I think about when I spend hours, day after day, on the bike.
“I’m a man,” I said. “I don’t think about anything.”
We laughed because we know it’s true. Jenny’s more complex female brain is usually juggling about five thoughts at once. One thought at a time is all I can handle, and sometimes that’s too much.
Jenny said she read that men have a great capacity for thinking about nothing --or maybe she learned it through observation over the last 14 years. That’s especially true when we get into the exercise zone.
I pedaled 4 and 1/2 hours yesterday from Livingston to Aliceville, and I thought mostly about how beautiful Alabama is once you get out on the county roads. Most of the ride passed through sprawling cattle ranches, hay fields ripe for the cutting, wetlands and catfish ponds.
In times past I have thought about work or personal problems while riding, and once I mentally wrote an entire chapter of my on-again, off-again great Southern novel. But mostly, not much is going on above the neck while the legs are pedaling.
Next up, I’ll be thinking about how to dodge thunderstorms as I ride to Columbus, Mississippi, and beyond. If I can stay on schedule, I should be home soon, and facing the decision whether to continue.
Day 7: May 18, 2019
I can’t tell you how many closed country stores I have passed along the rural roads of south Alabama.
Regretting the demise of the old country store is more than nostalgia when the sun beats down on a bicycle rider in need of cool respite. Dollar General has replaced some locations, but there are still plenty of vacancies.
On yesterday’s ride, I pulled up to country-store heaven somewhere between Linden and Livingston, Alabama. Jefferson Country Store looks like a cross between a Mississippi juke joint, a restaurant, a convenience store and a hang-out. Loitering is encouraged.
Country music played on the speakers as a diverse clientele entered and exited to the smells of souse, hoop cheese and barbecue. An eclectic array of memorabilia hung from the ceiling.
Tony Luker, chief cook and bottle washer, said the third-generation store has been in business since 1957. It is an official stop on the Adventure Cycling Association map, and Luker allows bicycle tourists to camp behind the store.
He took my photo for the store’s Facebook page and had me sign his poster of Greg Lemond, former Tour de France champion. I guess that makes me a professional now.
I checked into another sketchy hotel after a short 37 miles. Next up is a 58-mile run to Aliceville, Alabama, which includes a 25-mile stretch with no water stops, not even a Dollar General.
Day 6: May 17, 2019
If I were a cartoon superhero, I would be Highlighter Man.
My superpower would be high visibility.
When it comes to being seen on the bicycle, I have never been shy about wearing all the gaudy neon yellow clothing possible and attaching various flashing lights to my ride.
Visibility was not as critical on Thursday’s leg of the ride to Canada as I completed my detour off the official route using a road less traveled. It was much more relaxing after dodging hundreds of log trucks for days.
Pine trees drive the economy here. I have lost count of the Pine Havens, Pine Views, Pine Bluffs, Pine Crests and Pine Hills. But the scenery is starting to include flatter, open pastureland as I approach the Tombigbee River. I will follow the river all the way to U.S. 72 in northeast Mississippi.
With water stops so sporadic, I have learned to haul as much liquid as possible, and to refill at every opportunity. A merciful woman pulled up to me between Thomasville and Linden and handed me a cold BodyArmor Blackout Berry SuperDrink through her car window.
“It’s what we drink at work,” she shouted before adding, “here comes a truck, I better go.”
Thanks, kind SuperDrink Woman. Highlighter Man needed that.
As the hills get lower and less challenging, the heat is quickly taking its place as my evil nemesis.
I had planned to take up camping again when I arrived in Linden, but then I spotted the Most Exotic Marigold Third World Motel next to a coin-operated laundry. I succumbed to the no-star temptation.
The TV doesn’t work, the light is shot in the bathroom (probably a blessing) and the shower is somehow leaking under the wall and soaking the carpet in the bedroom. It’s absolutely the dirtiest place I’ve ever seen. But the worst motel in the world is better than a tent when it’s 88 degrees outside and the campground has no showers.
I have ridden 227 miles since Sunday, according to the Garmin Gods of Exercise Statistics. That’s averaging more than 45 miles a day, less than I had planned, but hey, I’m an old man.
I will be two days behind schedule because of the detour caused by flooding and the prudent decision to break up an upcoming 79-mile section into two days.
So next up is about 37 miles from Linden to another fine motel in Livingston, Alabama.
Day 5: May 16, 2019
I texted Jenny after a Baptist preacher handed me $10 outside a gas station in Grove Hill, Alabama.
“Please tell me that isn’t true,” she texted back.
“No lie. The Rev. Darrell Buttz.”
“Did you take it?”
“Then she relayed Daughter No. 2's reaction: "she's impressed that it’s only Day 4 and people already think you’re homeless.”
Many people attach a higher purpose to cross-country journeys, so I have to give this monetary contribution further thought. Maybe I’ll attach a sign to the bike: “Please help me bring world peace. Only $10.”
If you’re paying attention to the details of this bike ride to Canada, you may wonder why I pedaled 16 miles from Grove Hill to Jackson on one day and then 16 miles back to Grove Hill the next.
I had planned to camp Wednesday night at Coffeeville, but the Tombigbee River flooded the campground. That left me no where to sleep or find water for 78 miles. I had to develop a detour off the official Underground Railroad route.
So, I rode back to Grove Hill and took U.S. 43 to the Something Smells Funky Motel in Thomasville, a short 30-mile trip that allowed me to recover physically. I visited two all-you-can eat buffets within walking distance of the motel to aid in the recovery.
So far, Sunday night is the only time I have been able to camp, and it was a disaster. Who knew that people in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta celebrate Mother’s Day by getting drunk and riding around on golf carts blasting Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at top volume?
About the time the Mother’s Day fun wound down, a thunderstorm struck and rain runoff leached into my tent. The next day, I unpacked the tent and other gear in a hotel room and draped it over the furniture to dry.
Next up is another short ride to a campground outside Linden, Alabama, where I will rejoin the official route and do my part to bring world peace.
Day 4: May 15, 2019
The plan was to pedal more than 2,000 miles to Ontario, Canada, but as it turns out I will be walking some of those miles.
Normally it would embarrass me to get off a bicycle and walk up a hill, but almost 80 extra pounds for a beefy touring bike, gear, food and water are providing a humbling experience. Months of training on flat roads with a lightweight carbon-fiber bicycle did not prepare me for almost 6,000 feet of climbing over the last two days.
So I ended Tuesday’s ride after 51 miles and checked into a cheap hotel in Jackson, Alabama, rather than riding 63 miles to a campground. My legs were done.
The first half of the last day’s ride were also psychologically challenging. The pulp mill in Monroe County requires 500 to 800 logging and chip trucks a day, and I think every one of them passed me on U.S. 84. With only a foot-wide usable road shoulder for bicycles, the trucks swooshed by just inches away. Each truck provided a sudden turbo boost of wind. At least the last of the day was on scenic rural roads with little traffic.
Bicycle touring experts say 40-something miles a day is a prudent plan to provide time to enjoy the experience and see the sites. Now I understand why. And Jenny reminded me that I don’t have a deadline.
So, I plan to sleep in Wednesday, dream about flat roads and ride only 25 miles to the next campground.
The ox is slow, but the earth is patient.
Day 3: May 14, 2019
Rocky Hill Baptist Church dispenses living water through a gray garden hose.
I made this discovery on the second day of my Underground Railroad bicycle ride after drinking the four bottles I carry on my bike.. The next store was 15 miles away, it was hot and hilly and dehydration was taking its toll. I was ready to quit this crazy adventure.
But then I spotted the rural church and noticed the beautiful roses. There had to be water, so I stopped and found the garden hose. I let the hot water run out until it turned cool. I was born again.
Don’t let anyone tell you that South Alabama is flat. It’s a rollercoaster as the numerous streams cut their way through the terrain to the nation’s second largest delta. It’s also beautiful. The route took me by Fort Mims, site of an 1813 massacre during the Creek Indian War. A few miles later, I passed a sign directing travelers to the burial place of Creek Chief William Weatherford — known as Red Eagle.
The highlight of the 56-mile ride waited at the end of the day, a reunion with two old college buddies, Farrah Nettles and Reid Nettles. The Nettles brothers and I hadn't seen each other in forty years, and yet it felt like we could go out and pull another one of our many college pranks. Instead they took me on a twilight tour of Harper Lee sites. Both men knew Lee, along with her quirks.
On Tuesday, it’s more hills and close quarters with logging trucks as I head to Grove Hill, Jackson and a campground at Coffeeville.
Day 2: May 13, 2019
The first day on the ride to Canada started with a fierce lightning show and ended at Hubbard Landing, a fish camp in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
From my rented room in the historic district of Mobile on Sunday, I waited out the storm and got a late start. Then I suffered through the steamy heat for 51 miles.
The official beginning of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route is a plaque marking the site where slaves were sold and, nearby, the Africatown Graveyard, where the unwilling passengers of the last slaveship — Clotilde — to land in America are buried. Across Mobile Bay, I stopped by Blakeley State Park, where the last Civil War battle was fought — after the war had already ended in Virginia.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that these events occurred in Alabama. We’re usually the last hold-outs.
As for the ride, it was tough with lots of heat, hills and traffic. But I’m already meeting friendly people at almost every stop who want to know where the heck I’m going.
I’m writing these words on my phone while sitting on a concrete block next to my tent, which I pitched beneath the Spanish moss. The bullfrogs and hoot owls are providing the background music, and I’m guessing the murky river next to me is full of alligators.
Next, it’s northward to Monroeville to visit the Nettles’ brothers, two old friends from college. Hopefully, I can make time to look around their hometown at some of the “Kill a Mockingbird” sites. Harper Lee would not approve.
Day 1: May 12, 2019
Today, I set off on a journey from Mobile, Alabama, to Ontario, Canada, with nothing but a bicycle loaded with camping gear and a compulsion that is difficult to explain.
“Compulsion” is Jenny’s word, and a concept she fully understands. Sometimes, a voice inside compels us to do what makes no sense to ourselves, much less to others. That, after all, is why Jenny and I got married.
As a young man, I dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail, imagining the satisfaction of finishing it from beginning to end. But I chose a more conventional path, and found smaller outdoor adventures as time allowed.
Still, the unexplained desire to finish an epic trek remains in my heart. And now I’m free to test the compulsion.
The plan is to ride the Underground Railroad, a 2,007-mile route that Adventure Cycling Association created out of county roads and lightly traveled state highways. The route commemorates the legendary Underground Railroad, a network of people and safe houses, which slaves used to escape from the Deep South to freedom in Canada.
I hope to write about the places and people along the Underground Railroad, and to contemplate what it means to live a life of integrity in a country with a complicated past.
The first leg of this physical and spiritual journey will take me about 500 miles from Mobile Bay to Burnsville, Mississippi, where — hopefully — a family member will pick me up and drive me home for a few days of rest and reunion. The time back home will give me a chance to consider whether my legs and the desire to ride to the finish are strong enough to keep me pedaling northward.
If I succeed, I will end up on the banks of Canada’s Owen Sound by early summer. I’m not sure how I will get back to Alabama. A compulsion to get off the bicycle and go home will probably do the trick.
For daily updates of the adventure, check the Riding the South blog at scottandjennymorris.com.