Tennessee Trails, Take Me Home

After a long, wet winter, I needed some dirt.

With the mountain bike trails around my Indiana home too muddy to ride, I picked up my buddy Jimmy and pointed the Forester south to Nashville. The temperature was about 10 degrees warmer than what we’d been suffering through this Hoosier farce of a spring, and from what I could tell from the Internet chatter, the Tennessee trails seemed to be in fairly decent shape. A little over four hours later, under overcast skies, we were rolling up to the Montgomery Bell State Park trailhead near Dickson, Tenn.

The plan was simple. Since this was our first trail ride of the season, we would stick to the two easier trail systems at first, easing our way up to the two harder levels by the end of the day. A couple of riders we encountered at the trailhead told us the 20-plus miles of trails were marked fairly well, so we knew there was no way for us to get lost. Just to be safe, I quickly took a snapshot of the trail map with my phone, then threw my leg over the Giant’s top tube and pedaled into the trees.

Jimmy was already in front of me, his tiny legs a blur on his new 650B rigid singlespeed. He knew my cautious nature on technical singletrack and was soon launching a few short attacks, trying to get me to breach my comfort zone. As he dipped beneath the horizon, I accelerated, determined to catch his wheel. The oak and hickory trees disappeared behind me as I picked up speed, catching him as he was powering up a short rise. He might be more fearless on the trail, but I had the benefit of 2X10 gearing and could easily catch him on the hills.One of the reasons we came to Tennessee was for the hills, and they did not disappoint. The trails didn’t flow in the same manner as the ones back home, and climbing felt like more of a chore at times. But it was dirt, it was new, and we were having fun.

My biggest flaw as a traveler and a cyclist is my inability to follow even the simplest of maps. If I were born five centuries ago, I would have been the hapless mariner piloting his vessel over the edge of the earth. So it shouldn’t have been a shock when we soon realized we’d ventured into the more difficult terrain we wanted to avoid at the start.

The Esses and Chain Reaction are great fun, with fast, bermed turns and some nice downhills, but by the third time we rode over them, my frustration was starting to show. The terrain wasn’t nearly as technical as we had feared, but we didn’t drive four-plus hours to ride the same section of trail multiple times. Finally, after studying the map harder than my 15-year-old self-examining a dog-eared Playboy, we were finally able to navigate our way onto new trail.

That’s when the sleet started.

The tree cover protected us from the brunt of the storm, but we were still pelted by the slushy hail. The weather motivated to throw caution to the wind and sprint back to the trailhead. Seconds after our tires hit the gravel trail leading to the parking lot, the skies cleared and the sleet stopped. We briefly considered riding back into the woods, but decided beers sounded better.

The next day would prove to be less cartographically challenging. Lock 4 Mountain Bike Park, located on the other side of Nashville in Gallatin, Tenn., is a wonderfully laid out, nine-plus mile trail system that offers a wealth of terrain, including a couple of short switchbacks that could stop you in your tracks if you don’t gear down fast enough. The trails were in great shape, save for one section of the trail that was taped off, the rains a week before making it a muddy mess.

Over all, Lock 4’s rooty singletrack was super fast, with well-marked bailouts before the most difficult technical sections. Being that rock gardens are my kryptonite as a rider, the only section that gave me any real difficulty was a narrow, stone-strewn climb that tested my nerve as much as my technical skills.

We did just a few laps at Lock 4, pausing near the top of one of the climbs to admire Old Hickory Lake, which surrounds the park on three sides. It was a beautiful day, and more than a few riders were on the trail on that Wednesday afternoon, playing hooky from work, just like us.

We were rained out the next day, and afterward it was time to break out the road bikes. But I’d gotten the dirt I needed, and that was enough.

So you want to ride the singletrack near Nashville? Find out trail conditions, get directions and trail maps at tennesseemountainbike.com.

Bicycling Through Rural Tennessee And The Natchez Trace

We were only a few miles away from our rental and midway up our first climb of the day when I felt that familiar sliding feeling underneath me that every cyclist knows as a flat.

A minute later, I crested the hill and cruised into the driveway of an expensive suburban home about 30 miles south of Nashville, Tennessee. The Continental tire was so thin and pockmarked it definitely wouldn’t have been asked to prom. The front was even worse, a nearly inch-long gash running down the right sidewall, threatening to blow out with every pedal stroke.

The smart decision would have been to turn around, pedal back to our weekend base camp and pick up a fresh set of tires for the next day’s ride. But after a brutally cold winter spent pedaling indoors, the allure of sunshine and sublime roads won out over common sense. A quick tube replacement later, we rolled on.

I’ve ridden my bike all across the country, but Tennessee surprised me in the best ways possible. I once half-expected narrow, pothole-strewn roads and chaw-spitting hillbillies angered by the sight of grown men prancing around in tight-fitting Lycra. The reality: perfect pavement as far as the eye could see. Varied terrain to keep the five- and six-hour rides interesting when the conversation lagged (or we were too busy hammering to speak). Friendly drivers were not only familiar with cyclists, they also gave us a wide berth whenever possible. It might be as close to a road-cycling Nirvana as a heathen cyclist like myself can experience.One of the highlights was riding the Natchez Trace, a 444-mile byway that stretches from Nashville, Tennessee, down to Natchez, Mississippi (although we covered less than a quarter of that during our weekend jaunt). Because it’s designated a National Park, with few entry and exit points and a speed limit of 50 mph, most motorists prefer to stay on the interstates, leaving the Parkway mostly to touring bikers, both of the motorized and non-motorized kind.

The scenery is gorgeous as you wind your way further down the road – forests filled with pine, maple and oak trees line much of the route and from the massive 1,600-foot Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, you can see miles in nearly every direction. Just be sure to stay clear of the bridge’s edge on a blustery day. Although I’m not particularly afraid of heights, I found myself hugging the yellow centerline as I churned across the bridge.

The Parkway is one long, gradual climb after another, but the grades are typically below 5 percent, meaning casual riders aren’t going too deep into their pain cave as they ride. But a bunch of bike racers trying to hammer the others into submission, hitting 30 mph pedaling uphill? That’s going to hurt. And despite that, we kept doing it over and over again.

In the countryside around the Trace, you can find shorter, punchier climbs that will get your heart racing, followed by screaming descents that will get it pumping even faster. As we rocketed downhill, approaching speeds near 50 mph on our first day, my eyes constantly switched from the road to my thrashed front tire, praying it didn’t explode. It didn’t, at that time.

As we rode on, we passed by all sorts of animals, both domesticated and not. We screamed at the goats and bleated at the alpacas wandering around their pens. Dogs leapt from their hiding places and gave chase for a few hundred yards before giving up and scampered back home. We were tickled to see a gaggle of wild turkeys near the roadside, until a long-time Tennessee cyclist warned us that the mammoth birds are notoriously temperamental and will charge bikers with little or no provocation … kind of like a rowdy drunk who has indulged in a bit too much of the birds’ namesake.

On the more rural roads of Tennessee, finding a convenience store to refill water bottles or grab a Payday can sometimes be difficult. Fly’s General Store was a welcome sight on day two after several hours of hard tempo riding left our energy levels flagging. With just the one sign on the front overhang, it’s easy to pass by thinking the former filling station is just another shuttered relic of an earlier era. As our cleated cycling shoes clattered across the dusty wooden floor, we barely made an impression on the gray-haired proprietor – Fly’s is a popular stop among cyclists drawn to the area for the same reasons we were. As I went to pay for my items, I noticed the antique cash register and quickly realized they didn’t accept credit cards.

A little later, we stopped for lunch at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant in Leiper’s Fork. After he took my order, the counterman and I bonded over our shared first names and bushy beards. I sat on a picnic bench outside the restaurant, where my teammates and I sipped our afternoon beers and listened to the country music coming from the outside speakers. Taking a bite out of my cheeseburger, I was glad I’d ignored my better judgment and continued on with the ride.

The front tire finally gave out with about five miles left on our first day’s journey. With a dollar bill wedged in as a de facto tire patch and loaner tube in place, I managed to slowly pedal back to our rental. A quick shower and $150 later at the closest bike shop, I was ready to go again.

To tackle these roads and hills yourself, find some routes ahead of time on a website like MapMyRide.com. Local cycling clubs like the Harpeth Bike Club and Veloteers are also good resources. Either pick a base camp — we chose Franklin, Tenn., because of its proximity to the country roads we were seeking during the day and things to do in the evening — and ride out from there or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, bikepack your way across the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Photo Credit: Rob Annis

The Southern Road: The Perks Of Gas Station Food

The South has its highways, but in order to get to some places, you have to take four-lane or two-lane roads. That’s where you’ll find gas stations. And in many gas stations, you’ll find food.

Up north, hardly anybody I know eats food from a gas station, unless they’re starving and it has a Subway attached. Down south, gas station food is its own form of cuisine. If you’re fortunate, you can score breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in a good gas station, which may also have its own booths and dining tables.

At bare minimum, a gas station worth its salt (or fat) will serve breakfast – primarily a biscuit. This is usually a chicken, country ham or sausage biscuit. It is as far from Grape-Nuts as breakfast can get. I had resisted the biscuit breakfast until I was on the road from Birmingham, Alabama, to West Point, Georgia.

I passed a gas station that offered “Hot Biscuits & Full Breakfast, Live Bait, Hunting and Fishing Supplies.” Inside, I bought plain biscuits. They were fine, and flaky, and filled my mid-morning needs. But I knew there was more out there.

I found gas stations that featured barbecue, gas stations with fried catfish (many proudly displaying a “raised in the USA sign”) and gas stations with fried chicken. I found gas stations with a head-spinning, rainbow variety of frozen drinks that actually scared me.

I really struck gold at the Dodge’s Chicken Store in Lexington, Tennessee. It isn’t technically a gas station, but a restaurant with an adjacent gas station. The signs offered the trinity: chicken, barbecue and catfish.

Inside, people were jostling each other to get up to the counter. The variety was enormous and the prices divine: $2.99 for a pulled pork sandwich, $5.99 a pound for barbecue, $2.59 for a slab of catfish. There was corn on the cob, fried corn on the cob, hush puppies, mac and cheese. And, there were fried hand pies, a little bigger than a McDonald’s pie.

Since I knew I’d be eating a big lunch, I asked for a small piece of catfish and a sweet potato pie. The counter girl looked disappointed: “Aren’t you going to have any sides?” she asked. It was a perfect snack, and a terrific example of gas station food.

The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial America

If you’re not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from “Gone With The Wind.” Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.

What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?

In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.

And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what’s happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there’s been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.

If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the impact of the South’s new industry in “The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South.” We’ll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.

Most of all, we’ll provide impressions. And this was my main one.

Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.

%Gallery-164205%The contrasts are striking, beginning with terrain. My trip began in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once I passed Lexington, Kentucky, en route to Greenville, South Carolina, I found myself driving around sweeping curves and up and down hills. As I crossed Tennessee and North Carolina, I was in mountains. And the geography stayed interesting as the miles clicked up, reminded me quite a bit of New England, only lush and verdant in a different way, with live oaks, moss and pines.

The variety was staggering. If you prefer to stay in luxury hotels and dine at some of the country’s top-rated restaurants, you can do that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now the home of Volkswagen’s new plant. Or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has Mercedes-Benz just west of town and Honda within an hour’s drive to the east. Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, bustles at night, in no small part due to the BMW plant right by the airport.

Do you want to couple history with your auto town visit? Then head for Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Hyundai built its first American factory, only 10 minutes from the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a brand new Toyota factory a few exits down from Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.

Perhaps you’d like to see what happens to a small southern town when a car plant becomes its neighbor. Canton, Mississippi, fits that bill. So do Lincoln, Alabama, and West Point, Georgia. These towns also have gorgeous lakes and recreational areas only a stone’s throw away.

Many of the plants are open for tours, and the most elaborate, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and VW, have visitor centers where you can drop in even if you’re not going to see how the cars are built. Several of the plants have gift shops, where you can buy golf balls, shot glasses, T-shirts and picnic baskets. (Too bad Kia’s gift shop isn’t open to the public because it had the cutest souvenirs – the toy hamster and sock monkey that have appeared in its ads.)

Other plants don’t allow the public to visit, but even if you don’t set foot in one of the factories, it’s easy to spot what happens when one of these big auto plants comes to town.

The first thing you might notice is new highway exits, new overpasses and new roads around the plants. They’re often part of the incentives that the states paid to land these factories.

The next thing to look for is development. Fast food restaurants and new hotels are the first signs of growth. But you’ll also see billboards for new subdivisions, and you’ll notice even more in the way of smaller factories – these have been opened by the suppliers to these big car companies. Often, they’re set next to the freeway a few miles down, because they often sell parts to more than one automaker.

What I found on the Southern Road is that the impact of these factories goes a lot deeper than what you can see on the surface. When you have newcomers from Germany and Japan and Korea, their culture comes with them.

That’s why you’ll find the makings for a Japanese breakfast, like miso soup and steamed rice, on the breakfast buffet at the Lexington, Kentucky, Residence Inn. That’s why you can now rent a loft apartment for business entertaining at Soby’s, the popular restaurant in Greenville – because BMW and other European companies wanted a private place for a small group.

To be sure, the South hasn’t become one big Manhattan, and no one would mistake any of these cities for Los Angeles. Southern culture is still widely apparent, from men automatically holding open doors for women, to gas station lunch counters and lots of fast driving. Divert from your Mapquest directions, and you’ll find long stretches of farmland and dusty roads.

But you can stop for Starbuck’s on the way to your plant tour. And you might even wonder, “What would it be like to live here?”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Setting Up Your Trip:

These are some of the car companies that have public tours or facilities for visitors.

BMW Zentrum, Greer S.C. (plant tours, customer delivery center, and more). Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-888-TOUR-BMW or www.bmwzentrum.com

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center, Vance, AL (museum and plant tours). Museum open daily, tours given Tuesday-Thursday. Call 888-286-8762 or www.mbusi.com

Volkswagen, Chattanooga, AL. (gift shop and tour) Eight tours a week, Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 pm. Inquiries: tours@vw.com

Hyundai, Montgomery, AL (visitors center and tour). Tours given Monday, Wednesday, Friday, also a Thursday evening tour. Call 334-387-8019 or www.hmmausa.com

Nissan, Canton, MS (gift shop and plant tour) Tours by reservation. Call 601-855-TOUR.

Honda, Lincoln, AL (plant tour) Tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. By reservation at www.hondaalabama.com/

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