Apr 152011

Today the true adventure begins. Checking the doppler radar, we anticipate a very wet day. Forecast calls for heavy rain with high winds and possibly large hail. The same storm spawned several tornadoes the previous night in Oklahoma with seven dead. Pulling the curtains aside, I peer out the window. Sky’s a steel gray and a light drizzle is disturbing the puddles in the hotel parking lot. We have a light complimentary meal in the lobby area then don our rain gear. Departing Nashville, the wheels of the bikes are pointed south and within 15 miles, the north entrance of the Natchez Trace Parkway is in sight. The Parkway incidentally, is not to be confused with the Natchez Trace.

The Natchez Trace is a natural footpath that more or less parallels the Parkway. Its origins date back at least 10,000 years and was initially used by wild animals in their quest for salt licks. As early as 2000 years ago, Native Americans blazed the trail and was later further developed by early settlers. As commerce expanded in the South, Ohio Valley businessmen and farmers would float their goods on small wooden barges as far south as Natchez, Mississippi. Having no way to travel upstream, the barges were sold for lumber and the traders would begin the long 400+ mile trek north along the Trace. Once Samuel Morey demonstrated the application of a steam powered paddle boat in 1793, the writing was on the wall for the demise of the Trace. By 1811, Pittsburgh docks were producing steamers and in 1812, the New Orleans arrived in Natchez. With the arrival of the steamer, goods and personnel could be moved upstream quickly and cheaply. The Natchez Trace lost its allure as a northbound passage practically overnight.

The Natchez Trace Parkway, on the other hand, is an uninterrupted road connecting Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee. Well, almost. The northern terminus of the Parkway is about 15 miles southwest of Nashville. In 1934 Congress ordered the National Park Service to investigate the construction of a roadway to preserve and showcase the historic Old Trace. Construction of the Parkway began in 1938. Because of budget shortfalls, the Parkway’s last remaining gaps were not completed until May 21, 2005. Today, the Parkway is owned and operated by the National Park Service. With a length of 444 miles the park averages only 800 feet in width. There is no commercial traffic allowed and there are no stop signs, stop lights, or advertisements. The are also no services within its boundaries. The current parkway map indicates there are groceries and gas available at mile marker 193, but this is incorrect. Those services were vacated two years ago. There are three campgrounds within the park that allow free camping on a first come first serve basis. Also, there are numerous pull-overs and rest areas that focus on the historical presentation and preservation of the original Trace. Since the Parkway is used by bicyclists and wildlife is abundant, the speed limit is fixed at 50 MPH for most of its course.

Entering the Parkway off highway 100, I’d fallen into The Rabbit Hole. With its winding grey ribbon of smooth asphalt, laid down amongst wide lawn and lush trees, this road was fantasy riding at its best! We hadn’t gone more than a few miles and saw four or five wild turkeys along the road. Then a few raptors. And everything is so green.

Meriwether Lewis resting place

Before long, the rain increases from a drizzle to a deluge, then settles into a steady rain. This kept the stops along the Parkway to a minimum. At mile marker 386, we made a brief stop at the Meriwether Lewis Death and Burial Site. It’s said that Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) committed suicide here but there are rumors that he was actually murdered. No one knows.

The Parkway is truly remarkable. There is very light traffic, no litter, no telephone poles or power lines, and even the bridges and guard rails are made of stone or weathered concrete to blend in with the surroundings. Despite its narrow width, very little beyond the trees disturbs the view. We’re traveling through a hundred shades of green with an occasional splash of white from flowering trees. With the steady rain and temperatures in the mid-fifties, a low fog was settling in over the treetops. The impression is that of gliding through the Amazon with the wind rushing in your ears. Even though I have yet to ride even half the Parkway, I’m going to made a declaration: the Parkway is a magnificent road and a National Treasure.

John Coffee Memorial Bridge

At mile marker 342, we cross into Alabama. With only 33 miles of road, Alabama has by far the least amount of Parkway within its territory. To its credit, it does have the John Coffee Memorial Bridge spanning the Tennessee River. The bridge is named after General John Coffee, who served under Andrew Jackson’s command at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

Long before the span was built, George Colbert, son of Scotsman James Logan Colbert and a Chickasaw woman, operated a ferry service here. Colbert’s ferry operation began in 1798 providing Trace traffic a means to cross the otherwise impassable river. Enjoying a virtual monopoly, he charged 50 cents per passenger and one dollar per horse and rider. Some reports suggest that Colbert once charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his army across the river. But Jackson’s own records indicate the amount was only a few hundred dollars. Colbert later went on to become a Chickasaw Chief.

Just north of Tupelo, Mississippi we stopped at the Parkway headquarters for a motorcycle patch to commemorate the ride. In the parking area, we noticed several Model A Fords. These were spotted during our ride south with strings of 4 or 5 cars heading north, spaced a few miles apart. All told, we must have seen over 70 of these beautifully restored classic automobiles. A gathering of over 200 owners had started a round-trip run of the Parkway earlier in the week and they were now completing the trip by heading back north to Franklin, Tennessee.

Because of the constant rain, we had very few Parkway stops. At 2:00 p.m, we arrived in Tupelo, Mississippi. Tupelo was first “discovered” by Hernando de Soto in 1540 but his party was quickly driven off by the native Chickasaw who did not take kindly to their new guests. Initially named Gum Pond, after the large number of tupelo trees (locally know as blackgum) that grew in the area, the settlement was incorporated in 1870 with a population of 618 and was renamed Tupelo in honor of the Civil War conflict Battle of Tupelo that took place in July 1864. The town was established as a significant commerce post in 1887 when several railroads converged on the area. Today, Tupelo is the seventh largest city in the state with a population of 34,000 and is best known as the birth place of one Elvis Arron Presley.

Despite its long history, Tupelo seems content to showcase everything Elvis. Normally I’m not one to become lured into tourist traps but I did have two questions in regards to Elvis that needed to be answered:

  •   Is the childhood home of Elvis an accurate depiction of his upbringing?
  •   Do they still sell guitars at the Tupelo Hardware Company where Elvis made his fateful purchase in 1945?

Manger of The King of R&R

To answer the first question, we traveled to the childhood home of Elvis. We parked near the entrance to what is essentially a large park with beautifully manicured lawns and flowering pink azaleas. Within the park stands a bright white, well maintained, modest two room structure that, when constructed in 1934, was known as a shotgun house. Simple ornamental grasses surround the 450 square foot home. This is a far cry from the neighborhood and environment where Elvis grew up. Point being, there is no neighborhood. In 1957, the city purchased the birthplace home along with the surrounding 15 acres. Other than the birthplace and small church, all other buildings were razed and the grounds improved. Elvis’ birthplace is as subtle as a White Whale and is showcased like a diamond under a halogen lamp. This is not how Elvis experienced his first three years of life.

Baby Elvis was born January 8, 1935 during the Great Depression to an 18 year old father and a 22 year old mother in the economically repressed State of Mississippi. Vernon (his father) had difficulty holding a job and the family usually relied on friends and government food assistance programs to survive. In 1938, they lost their humble shotgun house after Vernon was incarcerated for cashing a fraudulent check. Clearly, the family did not have the funds to maintain their home in the manner in which it’s presented today. I can only imagine that our yet-to-be-king had to wipe his Princely butt with the abundant tupelo leave as they could hardly afford toilet paper much less paint, shingles, and ornamental grasses. In order to better show the environment that eventually influenced one of the greatest entertainers this country has ever produced, the structure should be sandblasted and the roof replaced with rotted, moss covered, wooden shingles. Rags to riches indeed.

Where Elvis stood

In order to answer the second question we payed a quick visit to the Tupelo Hardware Company. As his 11th birthday approached, Elvis strolled into the local hardware with hopes of purchasing a bicycle. But he saw a .22 caliber rifle on display and switched his attention to the firearm. No matter. His mother saw better of the situation and Elvis left with a guitar. By 1953 Elvis started his first recordings and was soon thereafter drowning in an ocean of cash and suffocating under a mountain of slightly used panties. The guitar transaction was the most significant sale the hardware store has ever had before or since. Once we entered the store, I revealed our intent and we were soon standing at the spot where the Sacred Guitar was sold. I half expected cherubs to swoop from above and whisper divine insights into my ear. But no. Instead, we made the acquaintance of Howard Hite who spent a solid 15 minutes telling us all about Elvis and the story of how he came to purchase his first guitar. Howard is a fascinating man and a cordial host And “yes,” they still sell guitars at the Tupelo Hardware Company.

That’s encouraging. Because there are young, aspiring Guitar Heroes out there that will eventually learn that in order to gain fortune and fame, one needs to play an actual instrument. Some will sell their PlayStation or iPhone and buy a guitar. But today, instead of a local mom n pop establishment, they’ll most likely be drawn into a Wal-Mart where an imported knock-off Stratocaster will be placed in their cart. And in 75 years, when our new God of Rock is revered and eulogized, no one will be inspired to waste the paint or canvas to generate an illustration depicting a historical purchase at Wal-Mart. So to all you prodigies out there, please, do the world a favor and purchase your gear at a family run music shop. Or the Tupelo Hardware Company.

Rocket glove test results

And now, a brief note on how the motorcycle riding gear held up during the five hours of hydrant spray encountered today.

  • Cabela’s Gore-Tex pants: Wonderful. Not a drop got through.
  • Teknic Gore-Tex motorcycle jacket: Excellent. Not even any leaks around the vulnerable neck area.
  • Harley Davidson leather riding boots, treated with Sno-Seal: Not so hot. Feet got a little wet.
  • Rocket Dry Tech motorcycle rain glove: Oh – My – God. Rocket describes their “Dry Tech” technology as a multi-layer water proofing system. I don’t think so. My hands were protected from the rain with as much effectiveness as a sponge. If anyone is even thinking of buying a pair of these worthless gloves, please go out and pick up a pair of sock puppets instead. Not only will you look cool cruising your bad-ass ride with Lamb Chop on your mitts, you’ll also save a bunch of cash. And there’s no way your hands will get any wetter over the Rockets.