Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Another Crazy Road Trip

I'm always thinking about road trips. When I'm on a road trip, I'm either thinking through the details of that trip, or plotting out some future road trip. I also probably spend far too much time at work thinking about road trips. In plotting to ride through my last Texas counties in the east, I started piling on more points of interest. "As long as I'm going to the Louisiana border, I might as well go on to Baton Rouge to the Capitol." "If I'm going to Baton Rouge, I might as well go to Jackson, MS." "I wouldn't want to go all the way to Mississippi and not go to the highpoint." "If I'm already in the northeast corner of Mississippi, it's just a quick hop over to Nashville, TN." I'm sure I played around with adding even more points, but those are the ones I settled on for a roughly 4-day time frame. I was thinking, based on weather and other stuff going on, I would take this trip late in October or possibly early November. When I happened to learn that the Highpointers organization was going to be in the area of the MS highpoint the weekend of October 9, I figured that was the best time for this little ~2000 mile trip.

I left well before dawn on Thursday, October 7. It was probably in the mid-40s at that point, so I was fully dressed with chaps, jacket, heavy gloves, and neck gaiter, which kept me warm but not hot. As the day warmed up, I stripped gear at every stop until by mid-day I was just in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Since I was heading almost due east, I was forced to stop just past dawn to change from clear to dark glasses, and even then it was hard to see anything. I passed through Liberty and Hardin counties (2 of the final 6) on the way out of Texas. I got to Baton Rouge and the capitol around 1pm. At 450 feet, it is the tallest capitol in the country. There is an observation deck, but it's not quite at the very top, and worse yet, they don't let you go outside. Other than the Mississippi River (which isn't pretty), the view isn't all that interesting anyway. The only other things in the building I was really able to see were the House chamber (currently under renovation) and the spot where Huey Long was assassinated. From there I hustled up to Jackson, MS in order to get to the capitol, worried that it would close at 5 and I wouldn't be able to get in and look around.
I arrived right around 5, and even though it seemed as though it was after hours, the doors were still unlocked and the guard post wasn't even manned. Whereas the Louisiana Capitol is more modern, essentially a skyscraper, Mississippi's is more of a traditional capitol with a large central dome and two wings for the branches of the legislature, and the governor in the middle. The Senate was closed and dark but with windows to see in. I was able to get into the House gallery, which is sort of unusual that people are seated behind the speaker, instead of looking towards the speaker's podium in most capitols. Once I was done looking around and taking pictures inside, I walked the grounds and took pictures outside, including the most coveted picture of my motorcycle and the capitol together. Leaving the capitol, I had another short stint of interstate until I got off onto the Natchez Trace Parkway.
I've ridden almost every mile of the Trace over two previous motorcycle trips (plus once in the car), and it a beautiful road. Other than the quaint woodsy setting, the best thing about the road is that it bans commercial traffic (meaning no trucks). There are no billboards, and it doesn't connect directly to any larger roads (it has something akin to on/off ramps), so it's almost like a world unto itself, hearkening to a bygone era. The only problem with the Trace is that the speed limit is 50 mph, but since there isn't really another road that goes from Jackson to the northeast corner of the state, it was still the quickest route to the state highpoint (Google maps didn't entirely agree, suggesting sort of a stair step, but that wouldn't have been very fun). There was a fair amount of traffic at first coming off of the interstate, but most of the cars turned off after a few miles. From that point, the road winds gently along a reservoir that looked spectacular in the setting sun light. I really wanted to take a picture, but there was nowhere to pull off. It started to get dark, even though the sun hadn't officially set, with the sun going behind the trees. I stopped briefly to change to clear lenses and put my jacket back on as the temperature also started dropping. I didn't ride too much longer: for the same reasons it's a beautiful ride in the day, it's kind of frightening at night, "real country dark," you might say. I saw a couple of the deer I was most worried about, so who knows how many were hanging around that I didn't see. I stopped for the night around 8:30 in the town of Kosciusko, and had a crappy dinner and stayed in a relatively cheap motel.

It was pretty chilly again Friday morning when I got off around 7. I got back on the Trace and cruised on up toward the town of Iuka, and more specifically the state highpoint near there. My GPS coordinates for the highpoint were right on (for once), but there were also a couple of signs pointing toward Woodall Mountain, which are apparently relatively new. The roads were all nice and paved until the last one, a small dirt county road. I looked as though it had been worked on pretty recently, but the work may have actually made it worse for me. The surface was really loose and hadn't gotten enough traffic to work in a groove for me to follow. I've ridden some dicey roads in the past, and this one was one of the worst to me. I gave up the fight just before the final steep section to the top of the "mountain" and walked the last few hundred feet. There wasn't much up at the top, a couple of cell towers and a little turnaround. There was, however, a brand new plaque on a big rock (which was probably also "new") in the center of the circle. The plaque was dated October 9, 2010 (the next day) so I must have gotten there too early to meet up with any of the highpointers, also evidenced by the complete lack of any other visitors to the site while I was there. I didn't particularly have the time or inclination to stick around or go out and find them, so I moved on after a quick stop in the town of Iuka, cutting the corner of Alabama. I rode the Trace for a little further, until I got closer to Nashville and cut over to an interstate. It was quite warm in Nashville that afternoon, amplified by the "heat island" cities create, and the slow speed (and traffic lights) of city streets. The Tennessee Capitol is not as large as many capitols, and has more like a cupola than a dome. I didn't pursue it, but I don't think they allow the public up the tower. Also different than most capitols, the House chamber is much larger than the Senate, and they're not symmetrically placed. There was some sort of book fair going on, so the building was full of people, many of them sitting down in the House and Senate chambers getting ready to hear a talk. I wandered around and took pictures, from the chamber floors and galleries, and the former Supreme Court chamber which also had some talk. The capitol is set at the top of a hill and has a fairly nice view, at least in the background. The foreground looking west is industrial and not pretty. I got gas and an ice cream bar before getting on the interstate heading west. I stopped for gas just outside of Memphis and searched on the internet for a cheap place to stay downtown. I found something, but rather than use GPS navigation I tried to wing it, more or less (I still used the GPS for the map). I missed one turn, and had to take a spin through surface streets, then when I got closer to where I was trying to go I ran into one-way streets and had to take a circuitous route to get to the hotel. The place wasn't anything amazing, but for $100 downtown, it was perfect. After checking in and unloading the bike, I walked a few blocks to a rib place the clerk had recommended, Rendezvous Charles Vergos. It was delicious, and I would recommend it to anybody who likes pork. From there I walked another couple of blocks to the world-famous Beale Street. I would say that Beale Street is somewhere between Austin's Sixth Street and New Orleans's Bourbon Street- not as crazy as Bourbon, but a little looser than Sixth. The only problem, to my thinking, is that most places have a cover charge, which I am almost universally against. The way it's set up, however, you don't really have to go into any of the clubs anyway. All the clubs have speakers pumping the live music inside out onto the sidewalk, and, like New Orleans, you can buy and consume adult beverages on the street. It was fun, but of course I was quite tired and went back to the hotel around 11.

Saturday was mostly a torture session riding 800+ miles from Memphis to Austin, even though there was no real reason that I absolutely had to get back. I went straight down the interstate through Mississippi pretty much just stopping for gas. The one brief other stop I did make was in Yazoo County, when I got off toward Yazoo City because it's a fun name and the Ys for the ABCs of Touring, but turned around when I found out it was more than 20 miles away and not worth it. I got off the interstate for good (well, almost) a little ways into Louisiana. I took state roads into St. Francisville where I took a ferry across the Mississippi River to New Roads. It was a short ride across, helped by lucky timing to where I rode up and straight onto the ferry. When I made it into Texas, I realized that I had been to Newton County previously, but hadn't marked it on my master map of counties I've ridden through. I wasn't as sure about Jasper, Tyler, and San Jacinto Counties, which completed my goal of riding through all 254 of Texas's counties. From there it took longer to get home than I was initially thinking, and of course I was more than ready to be home (or at least off of the bike). I ground out those last miles and made it home around 10.