Before we head off to Europe to begin our cycling adventure, we added two US-based adventures: a visit to the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, and car trip to the deep South so we could cycle the first part of the Natchez Trace.
Tucson Gem & Mineral Show
In early February we flew to Tucson to join a few friends for the annual Gem & Mineral Show, amusingly referred to in a brochure as “the Greatest Show Unearthed!”
Over the course of 2 1/2 weeks in January and February, miners, gemologists, artists, and collectors gather with over 4,000 retail and wholesale companies from around the world to buy, sell, and trade gems, minerals, fossils and jewelry. The show spreads out all over town (at over 40 venues, according to this year’s event guide). If you wanna buy affordable treasures, you can swing by third-tier hotels where third-tier vendors and middle men push all the furniture out of their rooms and create pop-up stalls crammed to the gills with stuff from all over the world. Huge circus tents, expo halls, warehouses and the Convention Center have vendors selling more upscale, super upscale, and “you aren’t allowed in here” kinds of treasures. We’ve seen fossils for sale that I’ve definitely coveted but that should probably belong in a museum, and were unaffordable, anyway.
It’s fun to tag along with our great friend, Lynn, who has a serious mineral collection, and has been coming to this show forever. He had decided that this might be the last time he attends the show, so we decided to join Lynn, and two other Stanford friends (Sandy & Norman). When we’re walking along the booths, I’m always saying things like, “Ooh, that’s a pretty green mineral!” and Lynn will explain, “Oh, that’s a really nice specimen of (fill-in-some-geeky-Latin-named-mineral-that-immediately-falls-out-of-my-head) that they discovered in Mongolia three years ago.” Sometimes those innocent-looking little pieces of rock are selling for $100, and sometimes for $30,000 or $95,000. On the other hand, so do baseball cards.
Lynn, Norman, and Sandy all found treasures worth purchasing. Among other things, Lynn and Norman each bought a freakin’ heavy serpentine hippo (I know ’cause Joy and I were the ones lugging them to and from the truck), and Lynn bought a second, even bigger, nicer hippo that was so heavy it required a forklift and three people to package it up. Joy and I were tempted by the hippos, and I’m particularly envious of his bigger hippo, but since Joy and I are still nearly a year away from returning home, we limited our purchasing to a rattlesnake made of ordinary river rocks, which is about the exact level of my ability to identify one kind of rock from another.
Natchez, Mississippi & the Natchez Trace
In late February, as we crossed the Mississippi River from Louisiana into Mississippi, Joy commented that she always refers to the river as “The Mississippi,” but the state as “Miss’ippi,” leaving off the middle “iss.”
“That’s weird,” I told her.
She insisted that it’s a Southern thing, and I decided that I’d ask about it when we got to our B&B. The innkeeper, originally a Northerner, agreed that it’s “Miss’ippi,” then shrugged and said “It’s a thing.” I tried saying it that way a few times and found I just couldn’t do it. I am definitely not from the South!
I am tempted to say that we stayed in the historic district of the city of Natchez, but the whole dang town is historic. Lots happened in and around Natchez. Everywhere we went, buildings displayed National Historical plaques and many street corners sported a historical marker. Prior to the Civil War, Natchez was one of the richest cities in the US. Traders would bring their goods down the Mississippi and stop either at Natchez or New Orleans.
There are more Antebellum houses still standing in Natchez than in anywhere else in the US. This is mostly because a lot of Northerners had set up shop in Natchez, and when General Ulysses S. Grant brought his Union troops (referred to as the “Federal Army” in Natchez’s historical markers) into Mississippi, he found a wealth of Northerner sympathizers who immediately surrendered. Most of these Antebellum houses have been restored, some as museums and many as B&Bs.
One of the Natchez sites that left the biggest impression on us was also the most understated. A nondescript, unassuming triangle of grass is the site of some our country’s most shameful history. Prior to the Civil War, Natchez was the second largest domestic slave market in the Deep South. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children were brought in chains and slave caravans to the Natchez slave market at Forks of the Road, literally, a triangle of grass where three streets come together. Slaves weren’t auctioned, but sold singly, or in small groups, depending on the needs of the buyer. A diary from that time says that a person could swing by the market to buy a slave the way you would swing by a market to buy nails or flour. Ironically, one street that borders the site is called Liberty Street. One of the unsettling things about the historical placards at the site is that words like “slaves,” were always put in quotes, as in: Enslaved Africa descent people from the upper old south were forcefully brought to these regions via professional “slave traders” and speculators and sold in chattel human investment markets to meet an insatiable demand for “slaves.” Did someone in the Mississippi historical society responsible for creating these placards not believe these people were actually slaves, and hence the quotation marks?
What brought us to Natchez is the opportunity to cycle the first part of the Natchez Trace, a ~450 mile scenic byway that runs from Natchez, Mississippi, across the northwestern tip of Alabama, and all the way to Nashville, Tennessee. The byway is closed to commercial traffic, so it’s lightly travelled, and mostly driven (or cycled) by tourists. The Natchez Trace closely parallels and constantly overlaps the Old Trace, a series of trails originally used by the southeastern Indian tribes, and in the late 1700s through the early 1820s by traders who floated their goods down the Mississippi to Natchez and then walked or rode horses up the Trace to return home. The Trace near Natchez passes by and through many historical sites, including Bruinsburg, where Grant crossed the Mississippi, before heading north to successfully attack Vicksburg, a key strategic goal that had eluded him for two years. It was the greatest amphibious operation in American history until the Normandy D-Day landing.
Our goal was to cycle just over 40 miles from Natchez to Canemount, an Antebellum Plantation, now B&B; cycle another 40 miles the second day, visiting Civil War sites along the way before returning to Canemount; and then cycle 40 miles back to Natchez on the third day, stopping to visit Emerald Mound, the second-largest temple mound in the US. Archaeologists believe this mound (over 8 acres in area and 35 feet tall) was built & used from about 1250AD to 1600AD by the Mississippians (ancestors of the Nathcez Indians). Although there is no archaeological evidence to support this, I believe the mound builders used all four syllables in “Mississippi.”
This three-day ride was meant to be a shakeout bicycle ride in preparation for our big multi-month European cycling tour in March. Because of Covid, it had been almost three years since we’d done any cycle touring, and we wanted to check out the bikes, figure out any kinks in our gear (or preparation), and just remember all the little tricks and rituals we’d figured out over previous extended rides. After completing this ride, I was tempted to title this blog post “Our Shakeout Ride Shakes Us Up.” It turned out to be an excellent set of lessons re-learned.
A number of mostly minor things went wrong with our ride, all of them cascading to make for a challenging, uncomfortable ride. Many of them were our fault. But the biggest issue we faced, and definitely not our fault, was that what should have been mild-to-cool late-February weather was anything but. Our first day, it was an unseasonably hot 90 with 91% humidity. Cycling totally sucked, and even locals were complaining. Because our Natchez B&B insisted that breakfast start at 8:30 and then we had to wait for the innkeeper to unlock his garage so we could get our bikes, we didn’t hit the road until almost 10. It was already miserably hot before we’d started pedaling. Rather than purchase supplies the night before, we assumed that there would be easy access to stores along the route. Unfortunately for us, the Trace is purposely designed to look and feel remote. There are occasional exists from the Trace but there is nothing within easy cycling distance once you exit the parkway. We weren’t able to replenish our water supplies until three hours into our ride, when we stopped at Mount Locust, one of the oldest structures in Mississippi, and the last of the 50 inns that served the Trace. We also realized that we’d forgotten our stash of protein bars & gatorade in Texas, so we were carrying way not enough protein & carbs, and absolutely no electrolyte replenishment. You really can’t regain energy if all you have in your handlebar bag is gummy bears and Medjool dates! To top things off (or, perhaps, hit bottom), even though we had been good about using our exercise bike back home, riding inside an air conditioned room for an hour is nothing like sitting on a hard, leather saddle in sauna-like conditions for seven hours. By the time we reached our B&B for the night, poor Joy’s delicate nether regions were worse for the wear. We declared the next day a rest day. Our big excursion the next day was to cycle to nearby Alcorn State University so we could buy granola bars and gatorade at the tiny, tiny student store and swing by the just barely-off-campus restaurant for a fried catfish lunch. Despite the most recent on-line review (“Not much to look at, but good authentic southern food. I had a fajita and it was excellent.“) we stayed away from the fajitas because the last time I checked, fajitas are only “Southern” if your definition of “Southern” is massively expansive.
Even though the cycling wasn’t as smooth as we’d hoped, we did feel the trip was a success. We re-remembered a number of tricks, identified and fixed some mechanical and logistical things with our gear, and identified a few things we need to buy before we head to Europe with our bikes. #1 on Joy’s shopping list, and already ordered: a new saddle with a wide center cutaway.
Louisiana & Poverty Point
One of the highlights of the trip was finally visiting Poverty Point World Heritage Site. Built by Native Americans starting ~3,500 years ago, during its peak use it was the largest earthworks in the Western Hemisphere. It must have been shocking to see it in its prime. The site contains six mounds (bird-shaped Mound A is 72 feet tall, 710 feet long and 680 feet wide) and six concentric arced ridges in the central plaza. The innermost (smallest) ridge spans just under 2,000 feet from one tip to the other, and each of the ridges is wide enough that the Native Americans build houses on them. This place was huge!
Today, you can barely make out the six concentric arcs (some ridge areas are barely six inches above the nearby soil while in other areas the ridges are still more than 6 feet tall), thanks to thousands of years of settling, but mostly because white settlers plowed the fields for cotton. It was hard to capture the size and scope of the site, so I resorted to photographing the walking tour map. For my Stanford University Library friends: while we were visiting the onsite museum, an archivist and photographer were creating 3-D imagery of some of the site artifacts using a sweet little mobile set-up. It was fun to talk shop for for a bit.
It’s ironic that in pre-historic times the hunter-gatherer population was resource-rich enough that thousands of people over generations were able to create these monumental mounds, yet thousands of years later, the white settlers who established a plantation literally on top of these mounds fared so poorly that they decided to name the area “Poverty Point.”
Southern Living – Observations
I freely admit that growing up in San Francisco has left me with a warped view of the world. But even after traveling as much as we have, the South continues to find ways to perplex me.
Based on my limited exposure, I would never want to work in Louisiana because I think the concept of worker safety doesn’t exist. One day as Joy and I were driving along a two-lane country road we noticed two utility trucks in the distance parked in the road, blocking the on-coming lane of traffic. The trucks, parked about fifty feet from each other, had a couple of orange cones placed right at the edges of their bumpers, but that was it. We could also see a car coming towards us, and it was clear we were going to reach the two trucks right about the same time. As we got closer, I kept looking for people with orange flags managing the traffic flow around the trucks. Nope. No such safety precautions. The oncoming car sped up, ducked between the two trucks, and waited for us to pass! What the hell?
Later that same day, we were driving along a divided Highway, with two lanes of traffic in each direction flying along at 55MPH. At one point we noticed a department of transportation truck pulled way off to the side of the road and two orange-vested road crewmen standing right by the side of the road. As we passed them we realized that they were each holding a shovel filled with a heaping pile of fresh asphalt. Looking in the rear view mirror, I could see that just after we passed, they ran out to the middle of the road and dumped their shovel contents into a pot hole, then ran back to the side of the road just ahead of more oncoming cars. WTF?
We experienced both the best and worst of Southern cuisine. There are some really fine restaurants in Natchez, but vegetables were hard to come by once we left urban areas. We had both really hoped to have our first taste of chicken and waffles, but we never had the opportunity. On the other hand, I did order shrimp and grits for the first time and it was spectacularly good (probably because it took an entire stick of butter to make my dish). Joy said it was the best shrimp and grits she’d ever had. This was one of those trips when it’s hard to eat well when you’re balancing taking the opportunity to sample regional specialities (which in this case involved a lot of fried food), and then getting stuck in “limited options” scenarios where your only choice is between bad for you, really bad for you, and just plain bad.
I’ve decided that Louisiana and Mississippi are in love with frying and sugar. And huge portions. Some food-related experiences:
- We started our adventure Wednesday morning. By Friday evening my stomach was feeling unsettled. Shrimp & grits for dinner Wednesday night. Fried chicken and sweet potato fries for dinner Thursday night. Fried catfish and fries Friday at lunch. More fried chicken Friday night. Even my spinach salad at Saturday lunch, which I thought would be topped with crawfish was buried by them. I’m sure I ate more fried food in a week than I normally do over the course of two years.
- We ordered a piece of bread pudding at a coffee shop. We declined the optional caramel drizzle twice because the woman taking our order wanted to be sure. A short time later a different employee delivered our pastry, asking as she placed the dish on the table, “No caramel topping?” When we confirmed it wasn’t a mistake, she shook her head and walked away with an audible “humph!”
- One day I asked for an Arnold Palmer. They made it with sweet tea, which kind of defeats the point of an Arnold Palmer since the tea is supposed to cut down on the lemonade’s sweetness.
- A French tourist we met over breakfast at our B&B commented that she was stunned by American portions. We assured her these were exceptionally large, even for the US.
Running Travel Totals To Date:
Two months into our eleven month trip, we have visited:
- Countries: 3 (US, Mexico, Cuba)
- US States: 7 (Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi)
- Different beds slept in: 23
Phase 4 – Cycling in Europe!
Our next posts will focus on finally getting to Europe and starting our bike ride across France.
6 thoughts on “11 Months of Travel — Phase 3: Arizona, Louisiana & Mississippi”
Great stories! Looking forward to hearing about your (re)start on the European continent!
Can’t wait for the next installment! Good luck guys 🙂
Guess you are not going to become “hippocrats” If you are good I might get another little William statuette [image: 0c704e53-81e9-421b-bcb6-06d12f8d2390.png]
Two quick thoughts. Re Southern cuisine. I remember being in a restaurant in the South on a hot day and asked for iced tea (unsweetened) and was told, “Darling we don’t do unsweetened tea” And it was more like tea flavored sugar water. Re slave terminology. Current politically correct writiers about slavery also do not call the people who were enslaved “slaves.” They call them “enslaved persons.” so the status of slavery doesn’t wholly define them. Interesting that others avoid it to obscure the fact of a slave system with slaves/enslaved human beings. Miss you
Mary, Your explanation for the quotes around “slaves” makes much more sense, and is probably the real reason.
A fabulous accounting of your adventure. I’m already pooped and ready for an eleven month nap and leisure. I am thankful for your willingness to explore and share about it. I’m very much enjoying being the observer.