Thursday, 26 January 2012

Fantasia Arcadia

The ever eloquent Irish have a blessing, that has been modified to suit, by many:

May your road rise up to meet you,
and the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm on your face,
and the rain fall soft upon your tent;
And until we meet again may your god of cyclists
hold you in the hollow of her hand.

It's to be found on every second Irish Linen tea towel, the others having logos of a black toucan or a golden harp.

A second verse could add to this wish list. To include: no stop lines, no semis, no rumble strip and no rush hour, and if I'm really pushing the patience of our guardian, could I include: where gradients are gentle and the camping is free. Now that I've stretched the credulity of any omnipotent deity, I've also placed this desired world away from the Emerald Isle and set it on to planet 'Fantastical Arcadia'. Oddly though, this surrealist world does seem to exist, even in this over-hectic land. It's called the Natchez Trace.

Created in 1938 as National Scenic Byway to promote scenic, natural and historic interests, it runs for over four hundred miles from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS. The route follows the 'Sunken Trace', the original line of an ancient thoroughfare, a collection of indigenous trails that the early settlers adopted and the nascent national governments used as a post trail. It's been fought along in the times of the belligerences, been the haunt of rogues and thieves, and is now the tag to which the Federal Government has attached a National Park.

William Least Heat Moon, in his book 'Blue Roads' extols the virtues of the Trace, and offers one pertinent piece of advice: that every civil engineer should be made to drive the Trace to see how a road can be made to fit within a landscape. A road that was conceived in an age when a 1.5 litre engine was considered adequate power for an automobile. As a consequence, the gradients are benign, rolling over the low hills with ease, sliding gracefully around the curves, flowing with consummate ease. Braking and gear changing have become an archaic activity, such that we will only use a range of three cogs for the whole eight days that we will run the Trace. It's this relaxed, casual engineering that gives this byway it's tranquil aura, coupled with an absence of semis and stop lines, rumble strips and rush hours. The first sign that we encounter as we first approach the Trace, advises ' Recreational Hauling Only', with further clarification: 'No Commercial Traffic'. Terrific!  Now we're entering a never-never land, and ticking off on that Blessed wish list.  In truth we've had nothing but utter courtesy from the semis; they’re out there doing a job and we're the recreation. Still, I don't like holding them back.

However, we're not as gracious with the other impediments. Where the British trained engineer in the UK receives a pair of compasses in his Christmas stocking to facilitate the easy construction of roundabouts, his stateside compatriot gets a tarmacadam planer, a router to rip the route, a toy to scour out holes down the edge of the highway. To add insult to this injury, he then sprays on an invisible cerebral magnetic film.  It just takes one simple glance at these gauge holes and the bike's front wheel jumps right in, and where the front goes, so the back follows. Rumble, Grumble. The Stop lines, that great US institution of democratic motoring, can be a nuisance; a rising hill, a vast open junction, visibility measured in miles, not one single item of traffic - but you'd better not roll that white line. The State Trooper's probably got his cruiser hidden half way up a pine tree. Brake, stop, foot down, push-off, curse - too high a gear. Mumble, Grumble.

Now I make that several ticks in favour of Fantasia Arcadia, but should you become blasé about this other-worldly existence, just stand on one of the over-bridges and look down on Interstate USA, or take off on an exit ramp back into the 21st century. It's a glance through a looking glass, a step beyond the pale, that emphasises all the other entities that can't exist in a National Park.  Of worm bait dispensers and Baptist Churches, of drive through pawn and pay-day loans, of the gastric belt that's the 'all you can eat $6 buffet' - seniors’ rate.  It's gas station coffee and supermarket foraging, it's a room in a motel when the snow starts to fly.  It's a chance to collect those absurdities and oddities of location and situation: The Leakey Oil Company's tanker that didn't deliver to the BP gas station; the garden centre that sells 'Glock ammo and Potted Pansies', the epistles outside a church, that preach: ‘If your life stinks, we've got a pew for you', or the shop entitled 'Birds, Butts and Bones', that then further confuses by offering 'Butt Rub'.  Enlightenment only coming further around the corner with the words: 'BBQ'.

Sadly, it’s also a return to the river of beer cans and coffee-to-go cups that flow along the public highway, that unbroken stream of litter that ignores watersheds and connects the Pacific to Atlantic.  It's these matters of fact, these sober truths that are set into stark reality when you step through the bubble, back into the park, it's their sheer absences that set our route apart.  For the Trace is a reality that you might wish to be real, an idea of a previous, earlier, more innocent world, that in truth could never have existed.  For the architects and politicians didn't have to consider the requirements of connecting humans and their communities together, or of accommodating three centuries worth of social engineering. What it does connect are some of it's founding principles, of archaeology and it's subsequent history.

From promotional literature and the numerous storyboards, you start to build up a picture of how and why the Trace came to prominence, and how it slipped back into the forest and history. Some of these snippets of gleaned information can lead you off on some intriguing flights of enquiry. One of the first descriptions that I came across, suggested that the mammoth and the mastodon had created the original Trace. Visions of one ploughing its tusks like a grubber, whilst the other has a levelling blade on its trunk, come to mind.

It takes a couple of hundred miles of further travel along the route for enlightenment to dawn. It’s there that we come on a river-cut bluff, a fifty foot high banking, a giant soil profile of wind-blown loess. The ground-down mountains of glacial tailings that have been deposited over a pavement of limestone, the remnants of an ancient sea bed. So a few tons of ancestral elephant wandering up and down this soft dust would soon create a sunken depression, and where the protein trekked, so man the hunter followed.

We are standing reading one of these hoardings, muffled up in all our clothes, the wind chill biting deep, yet the story board like to depict ‘them’ as near naked, and describe ‘them’ as ’proto-Indian’, when portraying and explaining their burial mounds, whose construction and purpose are identical to the ‘barrows’ of ‘early-man’ in European archaeology. It’s that distinction, Indian or settler; red or white that will colour the subsequent historical time-line of storyboard, further down the Trace, placing a darker shadow on our fantastical road. A history, like all histories, that’s been created and written by and for the winner. How the settlers’ priests brought enlightenment and redemption, carpentry and house-keeping skills to the indigenous people, and delighting in introducing the novel concept of ‘Hell in the hereafter’. By the fourth of these fabled embroideries, I’ve learned that Hernando de Soto ‘discovered’ the Mississippi river, whilst I have discovered that I need to find a balancing narrative. I need the other side’s account. Only the losers don’t get to record their story, they’re to busy signing away the secessions for their lands and heading out west. At least that’s the version that we would have been left with had we accepted the Park Service’s rendition.

My newly acquired history talks about the ‘Indian Removal Act’, 1883, the Cherokee ‘Trail of Tears’, the cholera in concentration camps and the literal decimation of a tribe on the trek to Oklahoma, in the coldest winter for fifty years.

As with the similarities of burial methods between the western and eastern hemispheres, so with the accounts of lands acquisition and clearance. A litany of broken promises and agreements, of incomprehensions and cruelty, of greed and land lust. The parallels are all there. Greenwood Laflore, a renegade Choctaw elder, who was in no position so to do, signs off on the secession treaty, then hangs around to establish an estate, build a mansion and plant a garden, whilst his clan are herded west. He would have recognised and had a familiar in a Duke of Sutherland, and his ‘parcel of rogues’.

The sad irony lies in the fact that the dispossessed of Strath Kildonan were themselves the catalyst for the dispossessions, the cleansing of the ‘five civilised tribes’, out of the south-east. Thus fulfilling the ad-man’s holy mantra of ’go west young man’, and clergyman’s notion of ‘Hell in the here and now’.

Light and dark; hope and despair, a story that will repeat through the Trace’s further histories.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Snippets for Visitors - Mississippi Style.

We're in the Deep South, y'all!
Alex must be one very happy bunny. Maybe those 'Tartan Day' parades down Fifth Avenue, with First Ministers in dubious kilts, have had more effect than was first realised. For the Official Visitor Guide to the State of Mississippi, under the title of 'Currency Facilities', states that the Hancock Bank will change monies from Canada, France, Switzerland, Australia, and Scotland. I'm now rumaging in my sporran for some Groats, to test this proclamation. However, given that Francs and D-Marks still appear to be in circulation maybe I shouldn't hold my breath. Or does this local bank know somthing that the ECB and the Eurozone have missed?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Sleepless 'til Seattle

Those of you who travelled through our Argentina blogs last year may remember us meeting Pauline from Portobello, and cycling with her for a few days.  After we went our separate ways, Pauline went off into Bolivia, then flew to the US to join her friend Graham to cycle across the US from Boston to Seattle.  Graham is a filmmaker, and recorded their journey with a view to making a full-length film of the trip.  Pauline is now in New Zealand, and Graham has returned to Edinburgh with several thousand miles of film (or its digital equivalent!) to edit.  You can have a look at some of the video on the Sleepless til Seattle website.

Graham is now trying to raise some money for the post-production of the film.  He's set up a website to try to attract some community funding; if you're interested, please take a look.  You can find the website here.  The bits of film we've seen are looking great, and it would be a shame if all this hard work wasn't able to reach a wider audience.  There are some fun perks for investors, so take a look and help if you can!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Ludd's Latest Stand

Like fish, we are being slowly, inexorably, reeled in.  An inevitability that has a well-scripted conclusion.  We fight it with vigour, diving deep into the weeds and tangles of Luddite stubbornness and cantankerous argument.  It's ordained in the scriptures of progress that we'll end up floundering on the riverbank outside a techno-despot, purchasing a crap-nav or one of its too-clever smarmy-smart half-cousins.

Our predicament is in direct response to an all too familiar conundrum.  To see where we've been, to find where we are and where we want to be, a map is a neat tool, its use a useful skill, yet both are fast becoming redundant.  The best, the only, that we found is a state-wide sheet, crammed with a spiderweb of numbered roads that bear little resemblance to the reality on the ground.  We've been here before, and there's two ways of tackling the problem.  Either follow convention and end up riding down the edge of busy two lane highways that have a habit of depositing their cargos directly on to a 'cyclists are banned' freeway.  Or head for the tracery of backroads that may or may not have a desired destination.  The former offers assurances and gas-station coffee; the latter a frisson of unpredictability, a distinct taint of adventure and no road signs.  To help even out the odds, we try to use local knowledge, which can be of variable quality.  Sometimes it's an opportunity for a casual chat and chance to sign the visitors' book, but offers little of consequential information.  Other times, it's a fistful of glossy visitor guff, or single sheet of printed, explicit instructions.  This last was how we ended up negotiating a series of dirt tracks on to the top of a mountain, in the dark, in the desired place. Ludd drops his first shot, love-15.  A lucky point, as there´s always that soupcon of crap-navity, on this occasion the gremlin suggested that we turn left down Duck's Nest Motorway. Visions of eight-lane macadam that in reality turns out to be eight feet of muddy logging track.

Our second serve with progress exposes another aspect of local knowledge and just how auto centred all human culture has become.  We're possibly fifteen miles out from another state park, when we start asking for directions.  The official information is vague and is for access from the interstate; only we, on the other hand, are being perverse and attempting to arrive by the back door.  We're both convinced that it should be possible.  The local disagrees.  From complete ignorance of the park's existence, to being sent on a wild goose chase that would have added half a day to an already full one.  So we resort to hypocrisy and the Kindle, calling on Mister Google once again.  There is a back door, it could, even should be possible.  We place our trust in 'progress', or at least a machine's intrepretation of a satellite picture. 

It's another dropped point, though I feel it is more a McInroe: 'you can not be serious' disputed line call.  For herein lies the difference between cartography and a random collection of letters.  A map is a picture, a construct of a thousand words, full of fascination, information, confirmation, whilst the sparse words on the screen are thin, lacking in assurance, ripe for misinterpretation. Technicolor versus black and white.  It's a new language, one that requires new interpretation and evaluation.  One instruction requires that we turn left after 3.8 miles; we still refuse to reconfigure into imperial; Napoleon's measure is much nore gratifying. So mathing in fives and eights we cycle for a little over 6kms.  There is a left turn; how clever of 'progress'!  Only there are two left turns, one to a cemetery, the other to a locked gate.  We check out both, broaching the gate and riding off into the sunset, or at least down a fast depleting path.  Backtrack, curse technology, to discover that our left turn might be a left bend in the main drag.  It's a neat learning curve, and we use each new reinterpretation to our advantage.  What the use of a quality map would have shown was that graveyard, the pond, the power line, all the insignificant details that you use, almost subconsciously when mapreading.  We found our way to the park, despite the mandatory 'gremlin', which was solved when we flagged down one of the few vehicles to pass us.  An interesting choice as it transpired: forest law enforcement, who wasn't offended when I accused his Scottish ancestors of being  a bunch of criminals.  Well, they were Johnstones after all.  He even offered us a lift for the last few miles.

Yet, without that initial draft of instructions we would not have ventured away from the blacktop with it's tame assurances, which would have meant that we would have missed out on another bit of adventure, another smooth red earth road, another tract of majestic woodland.

The fish is not landed, the game is not lost, the ball is still bouncing along, stotting down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Saturday, 14 January 2012


'Cheaha’, from the indigenous first nations, meaning ‘high point'. In a state like Alabama, that I think I know for swamps, mosquitoes and craw fish pie, it comes as surprise to find these highlands of crystalline quartzite extrusions. They’re the coccyx to the Appalachian backbone. The spine that runs north through the eastern states, border crossing and forming the swayback of the Gaspe, then to submerge into the ocean, only to resurface once again with the crennellated vertebrae and multiple pates of Beinn Eighe in Torridon, Scotland.

'Cheaha: the high place', to credit one piece of optimistic tourist propaganda, suggests that it has ‘probably' the best view in the USA. Note 'probably' not 'possibly'. where possibly is a euphemism for ‘only’. ‘Only’, as in ‘only view of Alabama'. It is a good vista, a high overview of the complicated geography of low eroded, mounded, forested hills that mingle and mash together like a lumpy pudding. A topography that leads to a perpetual roller-coaster road that, like a stotting ball will bounce all the way to the great southern rivers. Steep slow climbs, fast near instant descents. No bends, the tarmac stretching long and far into the distance. Roads populated by hunters in day-glo caps, the occasional logging truck and barking dog. A road that progresses through an open, bare deciduous forest of denuded red oak and southern pine. Which in a summer’s full leaf, might become claustrophobic, is in this hibernating season, open and inviting. The elongated shadows thrown by the silver grey trunks seem to trap the cold of the early morning frosts, the slow rising sun, melting the glaze, forming railings of crystals that beat time to the flicker of the strobing light, and give a thin encouragement of impending warmth.

Then it happens quite suddenly. My fingertips that have stubbornly refused to thaw, the frost on the handlebars that glistens but won’t melt, the thermometer that’s been cruising along in the minus zone, all change. The tingling of blessed relief, dry grab-on, and an escalating mercury. From frost nip to mosquito bite in less time than it takes to pluck a banjo. From a clear midwinter morn to a Scottish summer’s Sunday. A hike of over thirty degrees, old money.

‘Cheaha- the high point’, protected by it’s State Park status, is, like so much of the US’s wild lands, a place of natural beauty and a bibliotheca of 'do-nots' that help to create the antithesis to the world down in the valley, down in mall central on Interstate USA. It’s these extremes of culture and conditions that make for such intriguing travelling, bouncing between each and waiting for the subtle minglings. We end up camped right under one such.

‘Cheaha’ the high point’ has one obvious attribute: it’s a mountain in a sea of mole hills. So like any other protruberance that acquires the audacity to reach above the surrounding plane, procures a comms tower of Transylvanian proportions. A stake to skewer a mountain.

'Cheaha- the high point', whilst not the physical start to this journey, does make for a good metaphorical beginning. It’s downhill, with lots of re-ascends to further highs, a rolling journey, with a search for the terminating, concluding 'Cheaha'.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year

Blogging across time zones is very confusing.  I promise that the last item was posted shortly after 19:30, Central Time, on 31st December, but the blog is determined that it is already January.  It's all just too hard to understand.

Never mind.  We'd both like to wish you a very happy New Year, and all the best for 2012.  I'm sure it doesn't really matter when it happened - is happening - will happen.

The Navigator and The Chronicler, in Clanton, AL.

Travel Tip Number 14

Travel Tip Number 14:  Sit back and relax, treat yourself to a "garra fish spa". 

So claims the advertisement on a pillar in the departures lounge.  We're sitting, pending, awaiting the call for our flight, one of only seven that will depart Edinburgh today.  Sitting people-watching, poster-gazing and estimating which south-east Asian terminal we could be marooned in.  For the Lanzarote flight has left, taking with it a cargo of Thomson packaged passengers, creating a dilution of the locally-accented, a melting of the blue-skinned that leaves a concentration of gizmo-afflicted aficionados and jet-black haired orientals.  It's an apartheid of religion and thrift; for the Buddhists and the Muslims, the Hindus and the skinflint Scots are all happy to accept the offer of a cheaper flight whilst the quasi-Christians are stuffing out on turkey and their annual ingestion of overcooked Brussels Sprouts.

We're usurping the season of overconsumption and mild, grey winter skies for the season of overindulgent and cold grey Atlanta skies.  Or so the Weather Channel predicts.  The forecasts are similar; the temperatures are identical.  The differences, we hope, lie in the prospects.  The former is an optimist's climatic high, the latter an aberration.  We hope it will get warmer.

We've both squandered our cycling tans, suffocated by long trews and a mediocre Scots summer.  Spread the odd inch, gained the odd pound.  It is time to sit back and relax, time to hit the trail.

Our flight is called: "Women and Children first, then will load by numbers".  Like the last chopper out of Saigon, there's the usual, inevitable general ruck and rush at the departure gate, which is odd as we all have boarding passes and there's no Vietcong down in check-in.  I look back as we descend the skybridge; the lounge is deserted, shops are shuttered.  We are the last flight out.  Yet it is only mid-morning: but it is Christmas Day.

We can relax, our bikes have been spirited from us, no questions asked, no excess baggage paid, hopefully to rematerialise in Atlanta, Georgia.  Ready to start a 6-week sojourn through the North American South.  I have only one worry.  The Navigator, when queried about garra foot spas was able to explain with confidence and knowledge.  It would appear that you put your feet into a bowl of water swarming with some cousin of the pirhana; apparently they like to nibble the dead skin off your nether appendages.  Now I've seen the Bond movie and I've stood in the Rosa Burn in Brodick bay as baby flounders gnaw at your feet, and I know it's not de-stressful.  Forget Travel Tip Number 14.  Try my Travel Tip Number 15: escape the winter, hit the trail, ride the Deep South.