67 miles / 552 miles total
Not more than a minute or two outside of camp I cross over the Tennessee River. The bridge offers a spectacular view of the river and speedboats down below.
Across the river I make my first stop, at the Rock Spring nature trail. I've only gone a few miles, but it's a good stop. The trail is beautiful in the morning sunlight and I spot a beaver along with other wildlife.
A few miles later I cross into Tennessee. The state line is especially significant since it also means it's time to switch to the fourth and final page of my map. Although I don't want the trip to be over by any means, it's still a nice feeling to know I've almost made it to the end.
As I'm eating lunch I meet an older, southern man in an RV who seems a bit amazed about my trip. He's shocked when I mention I didn't bring any full-length pants with me. If they had come anywhere close to fitting he would have given me a pair of his own jeans. Thankfully they didn't-- I appreciate the offer, but jeans aren't at all practical on a long bike trip. And how do you politely turn down an offer of pants?
Although I stop at a few more nature trails throughout the day I still reach the Meriwether Lewis campground early in the afternoon. I'm in the mood to keep going, but my body doesn't want to cooperate. The hills are starting to tire me out, and my right ankle had been giving me trouble all day.
The Meriwether Lewis site turns out to be the biggest campground on the trace, and also happens to be under renovation when I arrive. Construction vehicles are heading in and out, and everywhere I look there is evidence of new structures and improvements. It makes me happy to see the National Park Service still has funds for projects like this despite the poor state of the economy.
The campground itself is actually a good five minute ride from the entrance, past several picnic areas and hiking trails. I decide not to explore just yet; I'm looking forward to having plenty of time to relax in camp while the sun goes down. When I arrive the campground is already full of RVs, and although I can't find any primitive camping I do manage to snag one of the last RV spots. I feel a little silly taking up a full spot with just my bike and tent though, and decide to pack it in and scout around a little. I talk to the campground host, who invites me to set up just behind his RV. Fortunately it's also a much better spot than the one I had before! I have some soup for dinner, then read a book while sipping hot cocoa until the sun goes down.
99 miles / 651 miles total
I have a decision to make in the morning. The last campground before Nashville is only 20 or so miles from Meriwether Lewis. Ideally I'd like to have a shorter day, but I'm already behind schedule and 20 miles feels like I would accomplish nothing. So, I decide to go for the end instead. In order to have enough time I decide to skip most of the stops and hit them on my way back instead. One of the few I do visit is the Gordon House, one of the oldest historic houses in the region. Unfortunately it's no longer open for tours, but the area does offer a nice hiking trail. I also scout out the Shady Grove bike camp across the road, just in case I have to come back after dark.
When I stop for lunch I meet a motorcyclist out on an afternoon ride. He used to do bike touring when he was younger, and gives me his contact information in case I want to camp in his yard once I reach Nashville. It's a nice offer, but to be honest I'm more looking forward to finally taking a break from camping and staying in a motel tonight.
The hills become more and more difficult as I approach Nashville, and it doesn't help that I was feeling worn out to begin with. There are plenty of triathletes and road cyclists out training who pass me by up the hills. Of course I'm carrying four times their weight, but I have a feeling they'd still be speeding by even if I was on a light race bike.
The last big landmark before the end of the trace is the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, an impressive double arch bridge that connects the road over the valley below. Although I'm excited to finally reach the end, I take 15 minutes to stop and enjoy the view from above.
Just after 12pm I reach my unofficial destination, the Natchez Trace Parkway welcome sign. It's about 15 miles outside of Nashville, identical to the one I had stopped at back in Natchez. That seemed like ages ago now. I wasn't prepared for any sort of celebration, so I sit down to rest and figure out my plan for tonight.
Now, I wasn't following any hard plan during this trip but I did have something in mind for when I reached Nashville. I'd rent a cheap motel room, celebrate with pizza and beer, maybe even ride downtown and try to find some of the live music the city is known for. Unfortunately it turns out this is more difficult than I expected. As I'm looking up hotel prices on my phone I realize the cheapest option is around $120, way outside my budget. I was hoping for something half that price, at most. I ask a couple locals about hotel options and they confirm there isn't anything else in the area.
So I decide to turn around and head back to Shady Grove, 50 miles away. I realize it's a little crazy, but most people would say the same thing about the trip in general. Maybe if I tried a little harder I could have found a place within my budget, but the truth is I'm not too concerned. I'm a little sad I won't be visiting Nashville, but the real point was the trip itself, not the destination.
I reach Shady Grove just before the sun sets, which surprises me a little given how tired I was. I'm expecting the camp to be empty (as most of the bike-only campgrounds are), but I couldn't have been more wrong. I count at least half a dozen bikes when I rolled in, everything from nice touring bikes to a single speed beach cruiser. It turns out I'd stumbled upon a group called A Ride Till The End. They're a band of veterans and artists riding bikes through the US to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I arrive they had already taken over the campground and were busy cooking dinner and setting up camp, but they're very welcoming. They offer me some of their freshly cooked meal; its good to have a meal that doesn't come from a box for a change. I don't have much of my own food left, but I'm glad to share some of my extra hot cocoa mix and Sriracha sauce.
After dinner we all share a campfire until late at night singing songs and telling stories. They're one of the most diverse groups of people I've met. The group includes young activists, old hippies and veterans among others. They told stories about LSD and spiritual experiences, going to war in Afghanistan, getting arrested at protests and living in a commune in the '60s. Ordinarily I would have wanted to go to bed early and get a long night's sleep, but this was too good to pass up.
Epilogue (Days 10 and 11)
149 miles, 800 miles total
The story doesn't end here, but sharing a camp with A Ride Till The End is more of a climatic ending than anything else that happened. I rode for the next two days, stopping only at sites I had skipped over. I met Sylvia Halpern (aka Myrtle The Turtle) who was doing her own tour of the Trace. She told me there was a budget crisis and the government had come close to shutting down for a day, which would have meant closing the Trace.
I decided to end my trip back at Tupelo, where I got a ride for the remaining distance back to Baton Rouge. At that point I was feeling a little out of touch with the outside world, and badly in need of a real shower and food. I ended the trip at just over 800 miles.
The Natchez Trace Parkway was a fantastic experience, something I won't forget soon. I'd recommend the trip for beginning and experienced bike tourists, it seems just the right blend of bike infrastructure, sightseeing and low traffic to make for a perfect adventure.