Have you been to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas on the Rio Grande River along the Mexican border? Neither had I, until this past week. In fact, I never considered it despite having been to more than one hundred National Park properties. I’ve always had the impression it was a few million acres of uninteresting dessert; boy, was I wrong!
Back in the spring one of my riding buddies, Marc, had a notion to ride to Big Bend in October via the Natchez Trace Parkway through TN and MS and the “Twisted Sisters” in the TX Hill Country. “Sure,” I said, “I would be happy to go provided I survive my planned June/July ride to Alaska. I did survive, and by October I was ready for another ride.
With presidential impeachment dominating the daily news cycle, we stopped at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greenville, TN, to learn how Johnson escaped his impeachment conviction by the Senate. Recall that Johnson became president after Lincloln was shot and was the first president to be impeached for disagreeing with Congress on their punitive reconstruction methods after the Civil War. Johnson survived by one vote and carried out Lincoln’s Reconstruction plan for the rebellious southern states under the protection of the Union.
Now past the 400-mile mark, we were not far from our destination for this first day on the road, Murfreesboro, TN. Just a mile or so from the hotel lay Stones River National Battlefield. We had time for a visit.
Many other Civil War Battles are more famous, but Stones River was one of the bloodiest conflicts with nearly 24,000 casualties. It produced important military and political gains for the Union and set the stage for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The National Park Service has a great Visitor’s Center at Stones River and the grounds are beautiful.
“Hey Jim,” I immediately recognized Gary’s voice on my helmet intercom. We had left the hotel in Murfreesboro at daybreak and were over an hour down the road near the Loveless Cafe at the head of the Natchez Trace Parkway. “I left my phone in the hotel room.” After a pause, I replied: “We are two miles from Loveless Cafe; let’s have breakfast.”
The Loveless Cafe was a planned destination. It is known for its Southern cooking, especially for its biscuits, country ham, and red-eye gravy. It received acclaim from USA Today, Southern Living, among other prominent publications. Martha Stewart said it was the best breakfast she ever had. I thought I could smell the bacon frying from two miles away. So, wow, how could we pass that up?
We all agreed the Loveless Cafe deserved its reputation. Now about that phone! A call to the hotel confirmed it; yes, they had the phone. Our route that morning south of Nashville was quite convoluted, so Don, with his GPS, volunteered to ride with Gary back to the hotel. They would then take a short cut and meet Marc and me some distance down the Natchez Trace. Poor Gary. He opened himself up to good-natured harassment for the rest of the trip. Each morning it went something like: “Hey Gary, you got your phone? How about your helmet? Did you remember to put your boots on?” But don’t feel sorry for him, he can dish it out as well.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is billed as “A Drive through 10,000 Years of History.” It is a 444-mile recreational road and scenic drive through three states. It follows or is built upon the “old Natchez Trace” a historic travel corridor used by Native Americans, European settlers, slave traders, soldiers, and future presidents. It is much like the Blue Ridge Parkway, but less rolling, wider, and faster.
After Gary and Don retrieved Gary’s phone, they met up with Marc and me just north of the Meriwether Lewis monument on the Parkway. Meriwether was a soldier, politician, and public administrator, best known for his role as the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He was also Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. Near the end of Jefferson’s presidential term, Jefferson appointed Lewis Governor of Upper Louisiana. Lewis is buried on the Natchez Trace near where he reportedly shot himself while on his way to Washington DC. He was deeply in debt, suffered from syphilis, and was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. He was 35 years old.
The Nation was divided, but both sides agreed: Vicksburg on the Mississippi River was Vital to Victory. To Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Vicksburg was the “nailhead that holds the South’s two halves together.” President Abraham Lincoln remarked, “Vicksburg is the key” to victory, and could be the north’s lifeline into the south (nps.gov/vick/index.htm).
The Vicksburg National Military Park, just a few miles off the Parkway, would be the highlight of our third day on the road. The rain stopped for the time being which allowed an extended visit to this most famous place in Civil War history. The Park protects nearly 2,000 acres of battlefield land surrounding the city and overlooking the Mississippi River. We toured sixteen miles within the Park which provided access to many battle sites and monuments. We also toured the National Cemetery containing 18,000 graves, of which almost 13,000 are unknown. Each of these brutally-fought Civil War battles reminded me of the fragility of our American Union and our experiment in democracy. Beware of those who would try to divide us for their selfish purposes.
About 2 pm and only halfway to our motel destination at Natchez, MS, it began to rain on the Natchez Trace. We were running late so I pushed the 50-mph speed limit a bit hoping to get to the motel before dark and before the deer took ownership of the Parkway. “Hey Jim, I’m nearly doing 70 trying to keep up with you guys!” complained the FJR guy riding the fastest bike of the bunch! “Oh, OK. Sorry, I’ll slow it down a bit,” I said. “I was having so much fun riding in the rain that I lost track of my speed.”
Each day and each state had a featured attraction. In Louisiana, it was Cane River Creole National Historical Park. The Cane River region is home to a unique culture; the Creoles. Generations of the same families of owners and workers, enslaved and tenant, lived on these lands for over 200 years. The park tells their stories and preserves the cultural landscape of Oakland and Magnolia Plantations, two of the most intact Creole cotton plantations in the United States (NPS).
On route 6 through the back country of Louisiana, not far from the Sabine River, the border between LA and TX, an on-coming SUV flashed its lights. I instinctively backed off the throttle. It was the perfect speed trap in the one-cop town of Many, LA. We are always on the lookout for speed limits, especially as we approach rural communities, but we all missed this one. The limit dropped quickly from 50 to 25 and there he was around the corner hidden in the shade of a pecan tree. We would have been toast were it not for the warning. Just across the Sabine River, the speed limit jumped to 70 on this identical, narrow two-lane road. Welcome to Texas!
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