I left Tupelo with dark clouds hanging on the horizon. Nothing new here, I thought. It was a rare day when I didn’t see something threatening to pounce on me from the sky. Usually, nothing happened. Or I’d get caught in a downpour or two and dry off. Why worry? Down in Texas I’d dodged a few hail storms and tornadoes, but dodged is the operative word. Besides, the weather is supposed to behave like that in the Lone Star State. I would have been disappointed without pavement-melting sun and golf ball size hail stones. Where would the stories be?
I was ten miles up the Natchez Trace from Tupelo when a driver flagged me down. “There’s a serious tornado warning on,” he told me. “You should consider getting off the Trace.” I thanked him for his concern. My alarm level climbed up the worry meter a few degrees. But it wasn’t a massive leap. I’d save that for when I spotted a flying cow. Besides, there wasn’t a side road where I was. And when I found one, who’s to say that my detour wouldn’t take me toward a tornado instead of away from it. So I biked on.
At mile marker 286.7, I came on the Pharr Mounds, one of the most interesting sites along the Natchez Trace. Eight large burial mounds cover some 90 acres. Built by hunter/gatherer tribes in the area some 2000 years ago, the mounds range from 3 to 18 feet in height. Artifacts found in the mounds suggest the builders were part of a trading culture that stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
A group of model airplane enthusiasts were flying their toys over the huge field. The planes were big ones with wide wingspans. I stopped to watch the action and check out the mounds. I became a little concerned when the hobbyists had a hurried discussion, brought in their planes, packed them up, and took off— quickly. Ah well, I thought, climbing back on my bike. But something wasn’t right. The sky had turned an eerie color. I looked at the clouds; they were circling, ominously. Now my alarm level made its massive leap, even without the flying cow. “Oh shit,” I thought.
I hurriedly looked around. The Pharr mounds had a sturdy looking restroom. I had just peed there. I might be peeing there again, real soon, having it scared out of me. The bottom half of the facility was made up of a rock wall. “Okay, Curt,” I commented to me, “this is your port in the storm.” The restrooms had a further advantage of having a covered porch. I could stay outside, be protected from the weather, and watch developments. If necessary, I could scurry inside and duck. I made myself comfortable and waited for the show.
A bright flash of light lit up the sky, followed instantly by an earth-shaking rumble, followed seconds later by a flood causing rain. Noah would have been impressed. The rain didn’t have the good sense to fall straight down. It came at me sidewise, drenching my thoughts of a dry porch. I love a good storm, but this one was becoming worrisome. “Well, Blue,” I said to my bike, “I think it is time to head inside.” I couldn’t be sure, but I think Blue responded with something like, “What took you so long?”
Sopping wet, Blue and I made a beeline for the bathroom. It was dry inside, even warm in comparison to the porch, but I could hear the storm tearing around the building. It sounded like a monster trying to smash its way in. And then it was calm, uncannily so. The monster was gone. Except it wasn’t. In the distance I heard a rumbling sound, like a herd of buffalo seeking revenge, coming for me. I almost lost it at this point. I pictured myself on the floor, snuggling up to the base of the toilet, and holding on for dear life while the roof came off and my bike took off like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
I don’t know how long the roaring lasted: seconds, a few minutes, forever? I do know that it grew louder and louder— and then it was gone. The roof was still on; my bike was still there; and I had missed my close encounter with the toilet. I opened the door for a tentative look, not knowing what to expect. The sun had the nerve to peek out from behind a cloud. A few branches were on the ground. That was it; I had dodged the herd of buffalo (or tornado?) that came roaring through. A celebration was called for, and lunch.
I returned to the porch, retrieved my backpacking stove and boiled up a pot of water for tea and soup. The celebration part involved adding a generous dollop of 151 proof rum to the tea. I almost added another one to the soup. I was half way through the tea when a car pulled up. A woman piled out.
“Did you see a tornado?” she asked excitedly. “There was one just down the road!”
I figured “just down the road” was far too close. I finished my tea and soup, visited the restroom one last time and rode on to Tishomingo State Park, which is near the Alabama border. My ride up the Trace was nearing its end. Fortunately, I’d be there to enjoy it.
Being an absolute sucker for reflection shots, here are three more from Tishomingo State Park:
NEXT BLOG: I finish up my ride on the Trace and cut across Tennessee to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg.