Riding the South

The blog of Scott and Jenny Morris

Part 2

Escape to Canada on

Underground Railroad

By Scott Morris

Day 20, June 14, 2019
Miles: 952

Take the flat land of the Mississippi Delta and throw in the winds of Kansas.

That would describe yesterday’s cornfield spin leading to Owensboro, Kentucky.

The 24 mph tailwinds were a gift from above, which I needed considering several navigational issues. The map and the road signs were not in agreement, causing me to waste time and miles.

In one section, I rode in a big circle, ending up where I began. I stopped and asked for directions five times, which was a first for this adventure to Canada.

What I thought would be 42 miles ended up being 52, but it was a fun day. The last 10 miles were on Owensboro’s greenbelt system of paved trails, which made me wish my home of Florence, Alabama, had a bicycle/walking beltway.

Parts 1 and 2 of the trip are finished. I’m enjoying some needed rest, and waiting for Jenny to arrive for a long weekend.

The third leg of the trip is 379 miles to Cincinnati, starting Sunday.

Thanks for reading and for the continued encouragement.

Day 19, June 12, 2019
Miles: 900

The sign said “Road closed one mile ahead.”

The map said I needed to turn left one mile ahead. 

Something had to give.

So I rode toward the road  closure on yesterday’s route hoping my left turn would arrive before the road closure. It was not to be.

As I approached, I could see my turn immediately across the missing bridge.

Then I thought, “Maybe the road crew is on break and will help me.” I mean the odds of a road crew being on break are always good, right? But these guys were actually working.

Finally, though, a backhoe operator spotted me. He shut down his machine and walked over to me. Soon, the whole worksite shut down as guys huddled around my map, devising a five-mile detour.

As I rode away with the crew’s directions, I heard the backhoe operator say, “Let’s go ahead and take our lunch break.”

It was a long day in the saddle, covering 67 miles from Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, to Henderson, Kentucky. I didn’t intend to go that far because I didn’t sleep well the night before in the tent, and felt weary.

But it was overcast and cool, and I had a brisk tailwind, so I went for it.

When I arrived in Henderson, it felt like home. The city was having its W.C. Handy Blues and BBQ Festival on the banks of the Ohio River. We have a Handy music festival and bike ride in Florence, Alabama, which is the musician’s hometown.

I was wearing my Handy festival bicycle jersey when I arrived in Henderson, unaware we both celebrate the “Father of the Blues.”

Next up is 42 miles to Owensboro, which will conclude Part 2 of the ride to Ontario, Canada. Hopefully, there won’t be any road closures, but if there are, I trust the crew is willing to take a break long enough to help.

Day 18,  June 11, 2019
Miles: 833

It seems impossible I was in Illinois yesterday, less than a week after setting off from Mississippi.

But here I was after taking a ferry across the Ohio River from Kentucky to the campground at Cave-in-Rock State Park.

I decided against taking an unscheduled rest day yesterday because a good-looking woman has agreed to meet me down the road this weekend. For that to happen, I must stay on schedule.

So I dragged myself out of bed and got back on the bike. I’m glad I did. It was a rewarding day with morning temperatures in the mid-50s and a high in the 70s. I made decent time over the 59 miles.

The ride included miles of  beautiful waterfront scenery along the Ohio River, and sprawling corn and wheat fields once I climbed the adjacent plateau.

Several cross-country bicycle routes share roads in Kentucky and I met four other long-distance cyclists at the campground. We sat around a picnic table and competed for best dog-chase story. Martin Seybold said he is writing to the governor to complain about the 40-something dogs that chased him across the Bluegrass State.

Seybold, of Pennsylvania,  and Layne Covet of Florida are pedaling more than 4,300 miles from Virginia to Oregon. They met the day before on the road and decided to ride together. They’ve already crossed the Appalachians and are headed for the Rockies.

I was ashamed to tell them about my problems climbing the huge mountains of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky.

The other two riders, Erin Polard and Jono Freeman of New York, are pedaling to Los Angeles. They are raising money for mental health and writing about their adventure.

I started to tell Erin and Jono that I’m riding for world peace, but thought better of it.

We all had a good talk but retired early so we could get up and do it again.

Next up for me is crossing back over the Ohio River on the ferry and riding to either Morganfield or Hendersonville, Kentucky, depending on how I feel.

Two more days and I’ll finish off the second leg of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route. Then Jenny and I hope to relax in Owensboro for a long weekend before Part 3 begins.

Day 17, June 10, 2019
Miles: 774

Fatigue crept into mind and body yesterday, making me debate whether to take a rest day before proceeding north.

The day started well enough with lower temperatures and humidity after days of rain. Navigation came easy. Just follow The Trace from end to end through the Land Between the Lakes.

The main road through the Land Between the Lakes reminded me of the Natchez Trace Parkway, only more hilly and with less traffic. Although the park features 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline, none of it is visible from the main road because the lakes are miles away.

I did pass a bison prairie where I watched buffalo grazing in tall grass.

But easy navigation and a peaceful ride were offset by a fearsome headwind that built until I was fighting 23 mph gusts while simultaneously climbing almost 3,000 feet of nonstop hills. The wind pushed against my panniers and made it almost impossible to maintain speed, even downhill.

It was demoralizing, but I kept going and finally crossed into Kentucky where I collapsed at the Grand Rivers Inn after 49 miles.

Grand Rivers is a cool little village at the convergence of the Cumberland, Tennessee and Ohio rivers. But I noticed something weird. Villagers are driving golf carts up and down the streets with wild abandon.

The hotel rents golf carts and has five parking spots reserved for carts in front of my room. It’s The Village of the Damned Golf Carts!

The journalist in me wouldn’t let this whole golf-cart Twilight Zone thing go so I did some quick research. The town passed an ordinance in 2010 that allows golf carts on any street within five miles of a golf course. The village had a golf cart drive-in movie last summer in the park.

Maybe it’s a good place for a day of respite. My legs are twitchy and threatening to cramp. Maybe the cumulative effect of pedaling a loaded touring bike up hill for too many consecutive days is taking a toll. Riding around town in a golf cart is looking pretty good at this point. It might even be a better way to get to Canada.

Next up: almost 60 hilly miles and a ferry ride across the Ohio River to Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, to either a motel or campground. There’s no bike rack on the golf carts, so I guess I’ll keep riding.

Day 16, June 10, 2019
Miles: 725

As I zipped down a hill at 41 mph with a grin on my face, I suddenly remembered Newton’s Law of  Bicycle Physics.

What comes down, must go up.

And sure enough, immediately after crossing a creek, the road to Canada took an ugly upward turn. Thanks, Newton.

Over the past five days, I have climbed 16,549 feet using a variety of strategies, which will sound familiar to cyclists:

  • Runaway Truck: On smaller, roller coaster hills, pedal all out downhill in hopes the momentum will carry you back up the other side. The problem comes when you misjudge the length of the upside and run out of mojo. A loaded touring bike stops like a rock at the worst possible time and then tries to go backward.

  • Little Train that Might’ve Could: On long climbs with reasonable grades, get into a steady cadence and motor upward like a diesel engine. This is my favorite kind of climb.

  • Deep Breathing: (not to be confused with desperately gasping for air) Start taking slow, deep breaths before the climb and try to maintain it to the top.

  • Invisible Switchbacks: Zigzag  back and forth across the pavement on a steep climb to reduce the grade.

  • The Big Wrench: Scoot to the back of the saddle to elongate your legs for more power, like a long-handled wrench.

  • The Mosquito Rule:  If you’re climbing so slow that mosquitoes start biting, you might as well get off and push the mule up the hill.

  • Lord Have Mercy: if all else fails, fall over in the ditch and cry out, “Deliver me from this vertical hell.”

Using all my strength and strategy yesterday, I traveled from Waverly to Dover, which is west of Clarksville, Tennessee. I was either going 3 mph up or 30 mph down all day.

It was another beautiful route with zero water stops so I had to carry extra fluids and had no contact with humans, although a few dogs tried to make friends.

Next up is about 50 miles through the Land Between the Lakes to Grand Rivers, Kentucky. I understand there might be a hill or two somewhere between those lakes.

Day 15, June 9, 2019
Miles: 681

Anyone who has had the misfortune of bushwhacking in the wilderness with me will confirm I never get lost.

But I confess I have made a few wrong turns so far on the bicycle tour from Mobile, Alabama, to Ontario, Canada. That’s bound to happen during a 2,000-mile adventure on back roads.

A few weeks ago in Columbus, Mississippi, I accidentally departed from the official Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, but it turned out for the best because I found a Waffle House and enjoyed an early lunch. You can’t say I was lost because I knew exactly where I was: the Waffle House.

Yesterday’s 58-mile ride from Parsons to Waverly was particularly tough because counties in Tennessee are a little too casual about putting the names of their roads on signs. To complicate matters, there were 17 turns.

Here is one section of the route instructions from Adventure Cycling Association:

After 5.5 miles turn left onto unsigned road, after 6.5 miles turn right onto unsigned road, after 10 miles turn right onto unsigned road, after 14.5 miles bear left onto unsigned road.

When roads have no signs, you’re never sure you’re still on the route. The only way to stay on course is to closely track the miles between turns and know when to expect the next turn. The navigation slows you down because you’re constantly checking the mileage and directions.

At best, getting lost on a bicycle can be discouraging. On a hot and humid day, it can be dangerous.

Yesterday’s ride was the hardest and most beautiful day so far as I climbed 4,159 feet -according to the Strava app - along the Tennessee River, with many waterfront views. A thunderstorm drenched me about five miles before I arrived at the Imperial Lodge.

Next up is about 42 miles to Dover, at the southern terminus of the Land Between the Lakes. I never get lost, but if I take a wrong turn, let’s hope it involves a Waffle House.

Day 14, June 7, 2019
Miles: 623

“Don’t be jealous,” I texted Jenny along with a photo of me sitting with two women at Little Josh’s catfish restaurant.

The popular dining establishment in Parsons, Tennessee, was so crowded Friday night that the waitress asked if I minded sitting with strangers.

By the time I left, my new friends, Carol and Barbara, had given me their contact information in case I ran into any trouble.

The only thing Carol could find to write her name and contact information on was an old envelope, which she had previously used to dab her lipstick. I figured I better tell Jenny before I accidentally left the lipstick-tattooed paper with a woman’s name in my pocket.

“Watch yourself,” Jenny texted back, along with a winking emoji.

The road to Canada is turning me into a reluctant extrovert. Hours in the saddle and sitting alone in motels makes me ready to do the unthinkable: talk to people.

Most of these folks are eager to find out where I’ve been, where I’m going and why.

On yesterday’s 46-mile spin from Crump to Parsons, I ran into two fellows at a convenience store who were discussing the virtues of John Deere tractors before they turned their attention to me. We had a good talk and a few laughs while I ate a double-decker banana Moon Pie.

About an hour later, after I labored through a thunderstorm and multiple hills, one of the John Deere experts drove up to check on me and see if I needed a cold drink.

I know anything could happen out here alone, but most people have been friendly and helpful. It’s the kind of affirmation I need at an uncertain juncture in my life.

If you’re curious about the last day’s progress, check out the map at the top of this page. I passed through Saltillo and stopped just north of Perryville.

Next up is a hilly 60-mile ride to Waverly - directly west of Nashville. If I run into trouble, I’ll call Carol and Barbara.

Day 13, June 7, 2019
Miles: 577

As I walked a mile down a four-lane highway in the pouring rain, wearing swimming trunks, a neon green raincoat, Teva sandals and a homemade hat, I considered all the indignities of bicycle touring.

Some of those indignities are too personal and painful to mention - like chafed nipples and a dangerous zipper accident. Maybe I’ll muster the courage to tackle those issues another day.

The fine residents of Crump, Tennessee, may have wondered yesterday at the strangely dressed man walking their streets. I was hungry, it was raining, the town’s three restaurants are all about a mile from the town’s only motel and there ain’t no Uber. So I assembled a trendsetting fashion ensemble out of my meager touring wardrobe and hoped not to get beaten up by the locals.

The most remarkable fashion statement was my waterproof hat, which I created by stretching a helmet cover over a baseball cap. It looked very distinguished.

Day 13 was a wet one. I only rode 31 miles, and several of those were during a leisurely tour of the Shiloh battlefields.

Riding in the rain requires extra caution and some mental adjustments, but I’ll take it any day over extreme heat. The hills don’t seem as steep on a rainy day with temperatures in the 70s and 80s.

Next up is about 40 miles along the Tennessee River to Parsons, Tennessee. It’s supposed to rain again, so I’ll probably turn dinner into another episode of “What Not to Wear.”

Day 12, June 6, 2019
Miles: 546

People keep asking why I have a grizzly bear attached to the front of my bicycle.

That’s my totem.

It’s a tradition among touring cyclists to pimp their rides with a meaningful symbol. Often, it’s something found on the side of the road like a possum skull, a turtle shell or a stray car part.

Jenny preempted any road kill accessories when she found the plastic grizzly in a store and bought it for my touring bike. The grandkids call me Papa Bear, so every time I look down and see the bear, I think about Elayna and Stratton. And that makes me happy.

Papa Bear had a great start to Part 2 of the ride to Canada. After a two-week layover, I felt fresh for the 47-mile stretch from Tishomingo, Mississippi, to Counce, Tennessee. I stayed at Little Andy’s Sportsman’s Lodge, a rustic old motel with knotty pine paneling and hardwood floors. I watched Mayberry reruns to complete the experience.

The weather looks wet and blustery for the next spin, but it’s the shortest mileage day of the trip so far. I plan to sleep a little later and take my time while pedaling through nearby Shiloh National Military Park.

This may be the Underground Railroad ride, but many of the route’s features in the South relate more to the Civil War than to runaway slaves. Of course, the war freed almost 4 million people from slavery, but that isn't what the memorials I pass are commemorating--a feature of the complicated South I'm sure I'll ponder as I look again at the fields of Shiloh steeped in Southern blood.

​ Preview: June 5, 2019

After struggling last month through the southernmost leg of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, I was ready to abandon the ride to Canada.

But two weeks of rest in the cool air conditioning at home have erased almost all memory of the infernal heat and hills, and left me with the grand illusion that I can keep going. As extra incentive, several friends who are smart enough not to pedal 2,000 miles across the country have encouraged me to keep going. I’m sure they mean well.

I waited until June 5 to resume the ride because June 4 is our wedding anniversary, which I am happy to report that I remembered in advance.

So, with Jenny’s blessing, Daughter No. 1 dropped me off today in Tishomingo, Mississippi, where I set off northward with the goal of making it 48 miles to near Pickwick Dam in Tennessee. My strategy for the next several days will be survival over the steep terrain. I will try to travel as far as possible in the early mornings before it gets too hot, but the probability of thunderstorms and heavy rain all week may present a different weather challenge.

My second set of maps from Adventure Cycling Association takes me to Owensboro, Kentucky, where I plan to take a couple days rest. To get there, I will follow the Tennessee River through Shiloh National Military Park and Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, and then head eastward along the Ohio River.

Before I left home — in between working on my Jenny-do list — I pared down the weight of the gear stuffed into my panniers, or saddlebags. For example, I left the rain fly behind, which surely means torrential rain in the near future. I’m taking little food in hopes of scavenging each day from convenience stores. I will study each day’s route for watering holes, and try not to haul too much or too little fluids. I’m also finding the more I ride, the less there is of me to haul around.

Read Part 1

Tishomingo to Owensboro