Hiding Out from a Tornado on the Natchez Trace… The 10,000 Mile North American Bike Tour

The Pharr Mounds on the Natchez Trace were built around 2000 years ago.

The Pharr Mounds, ancient burial sites, are one of the most interesting views along the Natchez Trace. They became almost too interesting for me when a tornado roared through the area.

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.

One of numerous arrow head looking signs along the Natchez Trace that announce historic sites.

One of numerous ‘arrowhead’ signs along the Natchez Trace that announce historic sites.

This photo of the Pharr Mounds site provides a perspective on just how large the site is.

This photo of the Pharr Mounds’ site provides a perspective on just how large the area is. Note the mounds in the distance. They are up to 18 feet tall.

The Pharr Mounds north of Tupelo, Mississippi cover some 90 acres.

Another shot that provides perspective on the size of the area.

Flowers growing on the Pharr Mounds along the Natchez Trace in Northern Mississippi.

A close up of the flowers that added color to the green grass.

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.

Here I am, standing next to the restrooms that provided me with shelter in 1989. Peggy took this photo when we retraced my route this spring. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Here I am, standing next to the restrooms that provided me with shelter in 1989. Peggy took this photo when we retraced my route this spring. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

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.

Tishomingo State Park on the Natchez Trace.

One of the campgrounds at Tishomingo State Park is located on this beautiful lake. I stayed here during my bile trip and Peggy and I have stayed here twice since.

Peggy toasts my avoiding the tornado.

Peggy toasts my avoiding the tornado. Had it carried me off, I wouldn’t have met her at the end of my bike trek.

Being an absolute sucker for reflection shots, here are three more from Tishomingo State Park:

A reflection shot at Tishomingo State Park along the Natchez Trace in northern Mississippi.

Tishomingo State Park near the Alabama border in Northern Mississippi.

I will conclude with this one I took as the sun set.

I will conclude with this one I took as the sun set.

NEXT BLOG: I finish up my ride on the Trace and cut across Tennessee to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg.


37 thoughts on “Hiding Out from a Tornado on the Natchez Trace… The 10,000 Mile North American Bike Tour

    • On a level of 1-10, I would certainly put it up about 8! 🙂 I’d reserve the other two for actually experiencing the quake. I’ll pass on that, Yvonne. As for survival, I am quite pleased myself. 🙂 –Curt

  1. Good grief Curt! I was on the edge of my seat. Well actually hanging on to my seat. I think I have enough adrenaline running around to keep me awake for hours. I can only imagine the adrenaline surge for you! Glad the story had a happy ending. Whew!

    • They are a lot more ‘fun’ after the event, Sue. Especially since no damage was done (that I know of) other than downed trees. My level of experience was just fine for me! Glad the story captured you. 🙂 Thanks… Curt

  2. I do love a good storm story, particularly when it comes with a happy ending. What they say about that green sky before a tornado is true, too. It’s a darned good thing you had some shelter available. Your exchange with the woman made me laugh. It reminded me of the time in northern California — Garberville — that we had an earthquake. I swore we hadn’t, and then had to listen to the locals chatter about it the next morning.

    I think the pretty blue-ish flower is lyre leaf sage. It’s native in both Texas and Mississippi. And I see some red clover, too. When I was on the levees north of Vicksburg, they were covered with that clover. Very pretty. The photos are just splendid. They make me want to be there — minus the tornado, of course.

    • One interesting thing about earthquakes, Linda, is that they can make a sound not unlike the one made by the tornado. It’s like a freight train is running over your roof. You are definitely aware that you have been in an earthquake when you hear that! I was at a friend’s cabin up off of I-80 near Donner Summit once when a quake hit not too far away. I had felt the sway of earthquakes many times (having lived in both California and Alaska), but that was the first (and only) time I experienced the freight train effect. To say that I was ‘shaken up’ is an understatement!
      Thanks for the information on the flowers. I checked and you are right; it’s lyre leaf sage. I didn’t have a clue that it was a member of the sage family. You are also right on the red clover. Thanks! –Curt

  3. Never having been anywhere near a large tornado, due to the graphic description of your encounter, I’m very glad I never have!! You certainly keep a person’s interest, along with a chuckle now and again, during your stories! Thanks.

  4. We only occasionally get tornadoes in UK. I remember one about 10 years ago, it ripped through the next village and took the roof off of the church. The amusing thing about that was that when the vicar submitted the insurance claim they said it wasn’t covered because it was an Act of God!

  5. Glad you are still here to tell tales of tornados, Curt. It is truly amazing how they can take telegraph poles out of the ground, lift cars like toys and generally behave like something that happens inside a food blender but on a much bigger scale.

  6. Curt, stunning scenery and a great tale! I was laughing as your first calm nonchalant attitude to the tornado gradually grew to concern and then more. Phew, glad you’re safe and could join Peggy – she found the most idyllic stopping place. 😀

  7. Lovely. Just lovely. We’ve driven the Trace a couple of times, and I hate to admit this, but I kinda wanted to see a billboard or other sign of life. I’m just not used to the pleasantries of nature at every turn. I believe we’d love to stop at Pharr Mounds — haven’t done that, but how pretty! And, I, too, am a sucker for reflection shots! Nice post in a nice part of the country!

    • I’ve driven the Trace several times Rusha, in fact, any time I am near it. But I can’t say enough about how pleasant it was to bicycle it with minimal concerns about traffic. And it is drop-dead beautiful. Thanks! –Curt

  8. I’ve heard about your tornado adventure before, but this one was the best – with photos from the scene and everything. Being a weather forecaster in my former life, seeing a tornado is on my bucket list. I want to actuallly see it. And so I thought maybe if I was trapped in a bathroom while…. but no. Being a weather forecaster for 15 years also taught me about tornado destruction. I’m pretty sure I would be snuggling up to that toilet too, and hoping for a view of a different beast. At a distance.

    • Think you could be a tornado chaser? 🙂 I stayed out as long as I dared, Crystal. I’ve seen enough tornado devastation in my wanders (without seeing an actual tornado) that I was definitely on the cautious side of the equation. Now had it been a few miles away… I saw a spout once, in Sacramento of all places, but it never touched the ground. –Curt

      • I think I could, for awhile. But what I have learned is that it’s really hard to spot one, even if one is trying to spot one. I have a bit of a short attention span, in that…if something turns out not to be a good investment, I cut my losses and move on. I’m afraid tornado chasing might work out that way for me. On the other hand…I do tend to stick with sports teams regardless of their track record, so I do have it in me to hold focus.

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