Rides, Rallies and Events Recap

Touring the Natchez Trace Parkway and Vicksburg, Mississippi

Written by  April 30, 2005

Anticipation of an upcoming big ride has always been part of the fun for me. I can only imagine how much fun it would be if that anticipation was my job. Planning for this trip was assembled by Larry, one of my newer riding buddies who recently retired from a leadership role in a large engineering firm. He now spends much of his time anticipating; that is anticipating another day without work!

Larry is a meticulous person, so much that he uses Q-tips when he cleans his bike. But don’t confuse this attribute as a primary characteristic of his demeanor. Tranquil and patient would be better descriptors. Larry is also a lifetime H.O.G. member and a seasoned rider with many miles and years of experience. He firmly believes that trailers are only for boats and lawnmowers. He’s made the trip to Sturgis on several occasions and last year rode with us to Arkansas in the spring and to Dallas for the Crossroads Festival in June.

Discussions Larry previously had with other riders as well as some reading he had done in the H.O.G. publication had planted a seed that the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs from northeast Mississippi to the southwest corner, was worth a trip. He started his planning late last fall and recommended a five day, just over 1,700 mile route that would take us southwest to Missouri and the Table Rock Lake area, then into Arkansas and southeast across the state, taking full advantage of the great roads in the north central mountainous area. From there, it would be into Memphis where we’d then go south to Tupelo to catch the Natchez Trace. So as not to occupy too much time for us working stiffs, we’d only ride the Trace into Jackson, hop off and go west to Vicksburg, before returning home. Larry had only a couple of guidelines: no reservations would be made in advance and changes in routes and destinations were acceptable, provided that all riders concurred. Early in the year, our core riding group of Larry, Jim, Dave and I picked a date of mid-April. We then shared our plans with several others and picked up Jeff, another willing participant.

Just before noon on Thursday, April 14, we headed south from Overland Park on US 69. The weather was perfect; a slight headwind and temps in the mid-60s. The goal for the day was to get to the south side of Springfield, eat an early evening meal at Lamberts, then head to Jim’s lake house outside of Kimberling City, Missouri. While traveling through Springfield, we took a short detour and visited a giant warehouse, operated by the Convoy of Hope organization. This facility is part of the Assemblies of God Ministries, and is packed full of food, dry goods and equipment needed for any public emergency that may occur. During 2004, the Convoy of Hope delivered food and supplies to hurricane ravaged south Florida. Following the tsunami this spring, they shipped relief supplies to some of the hardest hit Asian countries. The volumes of items in this warehouse was astounding, most of which had been donated. After a brief tour and looking at thousands of pounds of food, we were ready to eat!

For those who have never been to Lambert’s, it’s a real treat. If you enjoy old fashioned country cooking and more food that you can possibly consume, this is the place for you! Heads up though—Lambert’s is best known for a long established practice of lobbing hot dinner rolls across the dining areas; hence their slogan, “Home of the Throwed Rolls.” They filled our plates; we filled our bellies and were back on the road. Riding into the Ozark Hills at the end of the first day only served to wet our appetite for the upcoming hills and curves that we would experience on this ride.

Friday morning, we awoke to bright sunshine and brisk upper 40 degree temperatures. We departed the lake house and headed towards old town Branson for breakfast. From there, it was a brief stop at the overlook, downstream of the Table Rock Dam. Jim, being the joker he is, quietly inserted himself into a group photo with some tour bus travelers. They were a good group and encouraged us all to join in their picture. We had some good laughs and were back on the road. Shortly after exiting Missouri on US 65, we jumped on Arkansas Highway 14 eastbound. The highway weaved back and forth, up and down and across green landscapes of pastures and trees. Our path took us through Flippin, Salesville, Old Joe, and along some beautiful elevated ridges where the rolling hills were visible for miles.

After stopping for lunch in Mountain View, an oil leak on my bike that I had seen earlier in the day while buying gas, had now increased. A quick investigation identified the source as the transmission. A local bike shop with a certified mechanic found that the door bolts had worked loose. Whew! Had it been a leaking gasket, we likely would have spent the night there and significantly altered our plans. The mechanic tightened the bolts, topped off the fluid, and we were back on the road. The rolling hills and curves continued and our group barreled along, enjoying each and every mile on the path.

We arrived in West Memphis just after dusk and crossed the Mississippi River into Tennessee on Highway 40. At night, the Memphis skyline leaves quite an impression! The Waterfront Park and Memphis Pyramid are beautifully lighted and almost surreal. After some brief queries in the downtown area, no rooms were available, so we circled back to West Memphis, found accommodations and unpacked. For dinner, the motel hostess recommended Rendezvous, whose catchphrase is 'Not since Adam has a rib been this famous!' This unique barbeque restaurant in the downtown area has certainly deserved its reputation. We each ordered a slab of ribs that were well seasoned with dry pack. It turned out to be the right choice as they were “melt in your mouth” good!

On this Friday night, downtown Memphis was a happening place! The Beale street area makes up three city blocks of the business district. Music blasts and neon lights flash, advertising restaurants, bars and novelty shops. People are continuously moving in and out, truly enjoying the variety of live music and the tolerance for open containers. Quality blues is the norm here and it echoes continuously from the local clubs and from the open air venues. No question—both the fans and the bands are into their music! Our day had been a long one, so our stay there was brief, but it was enough to get a feel for the heartbeat of this historic district.

Saturday morning the weather was wonderful again! The sun shined brightly, temperatures started off in the upper 50s and there was little to no wind. Before departing to Mississippi, we traveled back to the Memphis riverfront. Here the park area is well designed with an island that includes a beautiful open air amphitheater and tramway access across the river branch. On the city side is a wealth of public parking, wonderfully shaded park benches and historic monuments. This park is clearly a location where you can kick back, relax and watch the Mississippi roll on by. From there, we headed straight through the middle of Memphis on Popular Avenue, then south into Mississippi and towards a primary objective of this ride. With the weather on our side, we had nothing to loose and our anticipation of the upcoming road was high.

The Natchez Trace Parkway was originally a series of Indian trails. In 1800, Congress established it as a postal route from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi to ensure that regional conflicts in the settlement of the Mississippi Valley would not result in that area becoming a separate nation. To ensure mail deliveries reached their destinations, President Jefferson ordered the Army to clear the trail and make it a safer road for postal riders. By the mid-1830s, steamboat traffic on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Pittsburgh had reduced usage of the route. It now is the Natchez Trace State Park and is one of the most visited sites in the state.

Our initial plan was to join the Parkway at Tupelo, Mississippi, which is straight south of Memphis. But after reviewing the maps and determining that the route for that day would be the shortest of the trip, we decided to add a few miles and go east to join the Trace farther north at Corinth. After joining the route, we were impressed immediately. This two lane road has inconspicuous exits, unlike today’s interstates that are cluttered with retail and fast food businesses. No commercial traffic is allowed, meaning no semis or large trucks–YES! But, a 50 MPH speed limit is enforced-DARN! The road is relatively straight, with gradual hills and is predominately lined with mature, beautiful trees, varieties of which, I cannot name. With many various shades of green and isolation from the busy-ness of today’s world, this road is truly a unique experience. Every few miles are historical monuments that tell stories of the trail’s past. We rode the Trace over 200 miles, exiting only twice for gas. It was a relaxing and pleasure-filled run.

Just prior to Jackson, Mississippi, the Trace connects to the west side of Ross Bennett Reservoir, a wide open lake with over 50 square miles of water. Being that far south, there were already many boats on the water, starting their season early. After riding the parkway for that distance at speeds less than 60 MPH, we were ready to cut loose. We exited off the Trace, zigzagged through the road construction and joined Interstate 220, bypassing Jackson on the northeast side. We then took I-20 west; Jim took the lead and took off! We arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi right at dusk, worn down and knowing that our return home would begin the next day.

On Sunday, before departing, we decided to spend a little time viewing some of the local history. Although it was not on our itinerary, our decision to visit the Vicksburg National Military Park was one we did not regret. The National Park web site had this to say: “Located high on the bluffs, Vicksburg was a fortress guarding the Mississippi River. It was known as 'The Gibraltar of the Confederacy.’ Its surrender on July 4, 1863 divided the South, and gave the North undisputed control of the Mississippi River.”

The park was built in 1899 and is an incredible exhibit of the many battles that occurred on these grounds between March 29 and July 4 of 1863. Sixteen miles of paved roads weave past many battlegrounds with over 1,300 monuments and historic markers identifying commanders, specific dates, battle details and the number of soldiers wounded and killed. Several states have erected monuments in this park for those who fought. There are also 130 cannons, in the same positions as when they were active in the war. Over 15,000 Union soldiers died in the battle for Vicksburg and most are buried in the cemetery grounds there.

As we traveled through the winding park road, past the many monuments placed on the well maintained rolling grassy fields and forested areas, we stopped at a few to survey the surrounding grounds. It would take days, or maybe weeks to absorb it all. I spent some time trying to comprehend what it must have been like for the young men who valiantly fought there. We had only intended to spend a half hour, but quickly realized there was just too much that interested us. Just more than halfway through the park, we came across the Cairo exhibit, which is clearly worth checking out.

The U.S.S. Cairo (pronounced K-row) was one of seven iron clad ships commissioned by the Union to stop the trade of goods into the Confederacy through the lower Mississippi. It was sunk on December 12, 1862, nearly six months after its commission date. In the late 1950s, using contemporary documents and maps, it was discovered, preserved by the mud of the Mississippi tributary, Yazoo. By the mid-60s, the ship had been recovered, but was damaged in the process. The remaining structures were cleaned and re-assembled in a very user-friendly display, allowing visitors to walk all the way around and through the ship. There is also a nearby museum displaying items that were recovered with the ship. If you happen to be a Civil War buff, and you haven’t been to Vicksburg, it should be next on your list to visit!

After spending over two hours in the park and with many miles ahead of us, we headed out of Vicksburg, crossing the Mississippi on I-20 one last time, into Louisiana. Our journey home was now underway. From there, it was Highway 80 westbound to 65 north. We remained on 65 into Arkansas and up to Little Rock, intending to make Harrison for the evening. The stretch of highway we had chosen turned out to be another Arkansas treasure. We reached Damascus just before dark, took a brief stop and then we were back into more of the best hills and curves you’ll find anywhere. On this leg, I ended up riding behind our trip planner, Larry who now was in the lead. His graceful weaving through the curves and up and down the hills while maintaining his lane position and speed, and rarely braking or shifting, was a clear indication to me that I was following a master!

We arrived in Harrison shortly after 9 p.m., and departed Monday morning around 8 a.m. Once again, we were blessed with bright sunshine and temperatures in the 50s. It was smooth sailing for the balance of the ride. Overall, we had traveled nearly 1,800 miles in five days and did not experience one drop of rain. This is a remarkable coincidence, particularly when traveling this distance during mid-April. With the anticipation all behind us, we now have a lifetime of memories to enjoy and share with others.

Story and photos by Nic