From the Magazine: Return of the Trace

Photo by Denis Coello

This story originally appeared in the April 2o18 edition of Adventure Cyclist magazine. To receive nine issues per year, join Adventure Cycling today.

By Dan D'Ambrosio

Four years ago, I wrote about a cyclist named Gary Holdiness for Adventure Cyclist (June 2014). Holdiness left his home in Kosciusko, Mississippi, on a beautiful spring morning in May 2012 for a ride on the nearby Natchez Trace Parkway National Park, and never came back.

A physician, Gary was struck and killed by a 17-year-old boy driving a Toyota FJ Cruiser at 78 mph while texting his girlfriend. He slammed into Gary from behind without braking, bouncing him off the Toyota’s hood and throwing him 175 feet through the grass next to the roadway, killing him.

The speed limit on the Parkway is 50 mph.

Gary’s widow, Donna, told me then the weather was sunny and dry that day, just the kind of day when her deeply religious husband told her he could see the “fingerprints of God” on his regular rides along the Trace.

“He would say, ‘I saw a white crane in a flock of gray cranes standing there beautiful like Christ in all the gray,’” Donna remembered. “That’s what the Lord says, ‘My fingerprints are on everything. Open your eyes to see me.’ Gary did it so well.”

Recently, I spoke with Donna again, and many others, about the Natchez Trace for an update on this historic, 444-mile road from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee.

After her husband’s death, Donna established the Gary Holdiness Cycling Fund, which is affiliated with the Natchez Trace Parkway Association. The purpose of the fund is to promote safe cycling on the parkway and to educate motorists to expect to see cyclists on the two-lane road without a shoulder, and to give them space.

Donna said she has noticed a difference in the attitudes of drivers over the past five years — cars do give more leeway to cyclists — but there’s still a long way to go. Unfortunately, since Gary was killed in 2012, two more cyclists have died on the Trace after being hit.

“What we have noticed is it is not — and this is the saddest part — it is not our visitors, it is not you coming from Colorado, Minnesota, or Washington, the Germans, the Australians, Arkansas, or Louisiana, as much as our trouble is Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee,” Donna said. “It is the local people that this park is out their back door.”

A native Mississippian, Donna said this in a thick Southern accent.

“Years ago, as a little bitty girl, I couldn’t get Daddy to take me to the park because we had to be on the Trace for a mile,” she remembered. “He was scared to death of getting a ticket. That was 40 years ago and we’ve lost that. The local people have no respect for the park.”

Donna made her observations clear to Chief Ranger Sarah Davis, and indeed enforcement is up by 300 percent in the last two years, according to Davis.

“We were running 2,200 speeding tickets a year,” Davis said. “Now we issued 6,600 last year. We’re going to try to do even more this year.”

In addition to increased enforcement, the Trace has put up 56 signs in the most critical areas near large cities like Jackson, Mississippi, informing drivers that cyclists may use the full lane, and that cars need to change lanes to pass.

“I think part of the intent was we wanted more awareness for the fact that people may expect to see bicyclists on the park,” said Terry Wildy, chief of interpretation for the Natchez Trace Parkway. “We came to determine that, depending on the visitor population you’re talking about, cyclists may be a surprise. They are a normal and regular user group. We want people to know they could see them. We don’t want them to be a surprise.”

Bright lights, shiny vests

On the other side of the equation, the Gary Holdiness Cycling Fund is paying to provide high-visibility
vests and lights to cyclists who don’t come to ride the Trace prepared with such equipment.

Donna said that each season she provides vests and lights to about 150 cyclists, but that the park has asked her to increase the number of visibility “kits” available for rangers to hand out. Working with Trek, Holdiness plans to make 200 sets of lights and vests available this year. And she said that now maintenance workers want to help out.

“They told me, ‘We’re on the road every day, our crew works mile markers 160 to 180, 20 miles, every day,’” Donna said. “‘Why don’t you all let us have these kits?’ I said, ‘Yes, awesome.’”

Wildy explained the reason visibility is such an issue on the parkway is that there are sections of shade interspersed with sections of full sun, which can make it tricky for drivers coming up on a cyclist in one of the shady sections.

“The parkway is unlike many roads, because it’s a designed landscape, there are trees that grow close by,” Wildy said. “That’s beautiful, but it does create an environment where you have those spots of going from full sun to full shade. It’s one of the many reasons why visibility is so important for any cyclist to consider.”

Adventure Cycling Association has been providing its expertise and knowledge concerning how to make the parkway safer for cyclists to both the National Park Service and the Natchez Trace Parkway Association.

Ginny Sullivan, Director of Travel Initiatives, and Saara Snow, Travel Initiatives Coordinator, visited in the fall of 2014 to participate in group discussions in cities along the parkway.

“A lot of the people who showed up were cyclists who have a vested interest in their own safety,” Snow said. “We got a lot of good feedback and the park distilled through that feedback.”

Sullivan said over the past two years the park has implemented a four-pillar strategy based on education, outreach, enforcement, and visibility.

“I have been working with them to take this strategy and break it into goals and outcomes, and try to impact making the Natchez Trace safer for cyclists,” Sullivan said. “It’s one thing to reach out to the cycling community. It’s harder to reach the local motorized community and change that culture. It’s taken a lot of really thinking how we can accomplish these two things.”

Donna had been relying on television commercials to reach local drivers, but she has since decided they were ineffective and that social media is the avenue she should take to get her message across to the locals.

“With the PSAs and ads going in the direction of talking about the laws, they were a bit drier than what people would pay attention to,” Snow said. “We’re talking about going in a more emotional direction, speaking more to people’s actual experience of cycling and driving on the road.”

Snow and Sullivan also convinced Donna to tell her own story of tragedy on the Trace.

“To have the worst thing that can happen, which is to lose someone to a crash, hopefully will motivate people more,” Snow said.

Not perfect

Phil Milligan felt safe riding the Trace about 85 percent of the time when he took the trip in 2017, he said, with drivers pretty closely observing the speed limit. There were lots of exceptions, especially close to towns like Jackson and Tupelo, where the Trace is how people get to work.

The closest call came with a motor home driver who was not budging from his lane.

“All I would have had to do is push an elbow out and I would have touched the motor home,” Milligan said.

That’s why Milligan, who uses a rearview mirror on his helmet despite the ridicule he receives from some quarters, wouldn’t even consider riding the Trace without it.

“Most of the time there’s flat grass beside you,” he said. “Discretion is the better part of valor.” 

Do your research

Milligan described the ride as a “life-changing experience,” as well as an opportunity to spend time with his two brothers, who joined him for the adventure. 

“There were whole sections of it where there was nothing special about it except that you’d go a long time without seeing a car,” Milligan said. “Of course, it’s May. Everything has just greened up, you don’t hear manmade sounds.”

It helped that the brothers are all history buffs and had researched the Trace all the way from its origins as an animal trail to a well-used road during the Civil War.

Wildy said animals used the Trace to get to salt licks in the Nashville area, including, in the early days, huge herds of wood bison.

“Animals are going to follow the best route and avoid wet, sloppy areas,” she said.

That made the Trace also the best route for Native Americans and, later, white settlers returning north after bringing goods down the Mississippi. Wildy said the Trace saw its heaviest use in the early 1800s.

“Folks from the Ohio River valley would transport goods south to sell in Natchez,” she said. “At that point steamboats were not in common operation. It’s pretty hard to row upstream. Folks would sell their boats and goods and walk back home.”

Milligan said if you ride the Trace with your head down, pumping out the miles, it’s hard to tell the difference between a little pull-off with not much to see and “something spectacular.”

“You need to know which mile marker the spectacular things are at or you’ll ride right by them,” Milligan said.

You could ride right by Meriwether Lewis’s gravesite, for example. The storied explorer, who suffered from depression, is thought to have killed himself in 1809 at a log cabin lodging house along the Trace in Tennessee known as Grinder’s Stand.

 But there were completely surprising discoveries that even Milligan’s research hadn’t revealed. The brothers ended up taking a ride with Downtown Karla Brown on the second day of their trip, 39 miles from Port Gibson to Jackson, Mississippi, when a dangerous storm was predicted. Brown provides a shuttle service for Trace riders and others in the Natchez area.

She told the brothers about a “guy who built a wall” a few hundred miles up the Trace near Florence, Alabama. There was much more to the story, as Milligan and his brothers discovered when they rode about a quarter mile off the Trace a few days later to the late Tom Hendrix’s farm.

As it turned out, the wall was built by Hendrix in memory of his great-great grandmother, a Yuchi Indian who had walked the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, losing her entire family except for a sister. After reaching Oklahoma, this man’s great-great grandmother decided she was going back home and walked by herself.

“When Karla told us about it, I thought it would be a straight little rock wall,” Milligan said. “It is a maze of rocks that goes for miles and miles, circles back on itself, and every once in a while, there are altar-type things. There are rocks that look like ghostly faces. People have left rocks from all over the world. He worked on it every day for 30-something years.”

Milligan was also amazed by the natural beauty along the Trace, and the Indian burial mounds.

“One mound was huge, a big ceremonial one,” he said. “I just stood there and looked at it, transporting myself back to that time. There was a mound on top of the mound where the chief would have stood, looking out on a football field–sized area. Oh my gosh, the ceremonies and games that would have happened.”  

Dan DAmbrosio is a contributing writer for Adventure Cyclist magazine.