A few years back I completed a magnificent road trip with my childhood chum Lyle Branton. We both hit the big 5-0 within a month of each other, so we planned to motorcycle ride across the southern states, with specific objectives being riding the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway end to end, then riding across the entire stretch of Alabama and panhandle Florida beach front.
Lyle and I first met in 7th grade, in Mrs. Zachary’s homeroom at Fayette County Junior High. Lyle’s family had recently moved up from Tifton, Georgia, and he knew no one yet. I had numerous friends from elementary school there, and was definitely not a shy lad. At the beginning of the new school year, on the day we were to pair up with locker partners, Mrs. Zachary approached me in homeroom and asked, “See that young man sitting back in the corner? His name is Lyle, and he’s new to the school this year. I’d like you to go introduce yourself, and invite him to be your locker partner.” I obliged, though rather reluctantly. Two awkward 12 year olds, who became homeroom locker partners, then fast friends. Through junior high, high school, beyond college, for each other’s marriages, birth of each other’s children, across decades and miles, Lyle has been, and continues to be, the best friend I’ve ever had. My lifelong chum, and of course, moto riding brother. Thanks so much, Mrs. Zachary.
Two awkward 12 year olds, who became homeroom locker partners, then fast friends.
Lyle and I met up at a gas station north of Atlanta on Sunday, September 22, and rode up through the foothills of north Georgia, the beautiful valley of Chattanooga, then across the remaining Appalachians to Nashville. Tent camping for the night by a pristine lake, we rode west Monday to the north terminus of the Parkway, first enjoying the food and country music nostalgia of the famed Loveless Café. Then we started down our first stretch of the Parkway.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is approximately 444 miles long, winding through the hill country of Tennessee, down through the northwest corner of Alabama, then all the way across Mississippi to Natchez. We rode the gently undulating road through wide open farmlands and lush evergreen forests as far as Tishomingo, and we made camp in Tishomingo State Park, again on a beautiful lake with the moon rising over the waters. The perfect ending to one of the most tranquil days of riding I’ve ever experienced.
We awoke to grey skies and drizzle on Tuesday, and got as far as Tupelo, Miss. before hard rain forced us to hold up in a gas station/barbeque joint for two hours. When the worst had passed over the Parkway, we continued on, still in driving rain, but fully kitted out in rain gear. By the time we arrived in Jackson, the storm had cleared. We dried out in a hotel that night, and hit the road Wednesday morning in clear skies and warm temps to complete our journey down the Parkway. The road south of Jackson levels and straightens out somewhat, but with very little traffic, the parkway feels like it’s leading you through a time warp, across the old antebellum South of vast plantations and cattle ranches. Time almost stands still as you ride.
The parkway feels like it’s leading you through a time warp, across the old antebellum South of vast plantations and cattle ranches.
Finally reaching the famed road’s southern terminus, we snapped some photos by the Natchez Trace Parkway sign, then celebrated in downtown Natchez with “heaping plates of delicious” at the local fave, Fat Mama’s Tamales, overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. After some more photos down by the Riverfront, we blasted east across the state on Hwy 98, making for Mobile, AL, and an evening with my friend Greg Sweatt’s dad, who had offered to put us up for the night.
Our journey along Gulf coastline began as we crossed the Mobile Bay Bridge at sunset. The colors in the sky were unlike any I had ever seen- all the pastels of the color palette were present, from bright gold of the setting sun, to brilliant orange, red, purple, various blues, even green, all reflected in the glass-like surface of the bay. Breathtaking. We spent a wonderful evening and Thursday morning with Mr. Sweatt, then loaded up and ran south through Fair Hope, then Foley, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and on into Florida. We rolled beachfront through Perdido Key, where my sister-in-law had a condo for several years, then Pensacola, Fort Walton, Destin, and made camp just off the beach at Topsail Hill State Park.
Friday we rode through Seaside, Laguna Beach, then Panama City. Finally beyond the tourism part of the Panhandle, we rode beachfront through quaint little coastal and fishing towns, around the “Big Bend” of what locals call “Old Florida”. This was to be my favorite leg of our whole ride. Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, Apalachicola, Eastpoint and Carabella, all with captivating vistas out across panhandle islands, peninsulas and keys. We crossed towering bridges over wide expanses of water, beheld tidal flats and rocky shorelines, under deep blue skies. I rode much of Big Bend in silent adoration, unable to speak or even listen to music. The beauty was indescribable.
We passed through Lanark Village and Panacea before swinging over toward Perry, to spend a delightful evening with Lyle’s oldest sister Peggy and her husband Dick. On the road leading down to their house just off the beach, suddenly a yellow jacket flew up my riding jacket sleeve, stinging me about 6 times up and down my right arm. I nearly lost the bike before safely getting off to the shoulder. Lyle came back looking for me, and found me stripping down shirtless by the Royal Star, desperately trying to extricate the invader from my clothes. Peggy and Dick cooked a huge spread for us that night, salved my sting wounds, and we hit the sack exhausted, stuffed, and quite content, albeit a bit swollen in my right arm.
Suddenly a yellow jacket flew up my riding jacket sleeve, stinging me about 6 times up and down my right arm.
Saturday we arose, said goodbyes to our wonderful hosts, and rode one last time down to the Gulf of Mexico, about a mile behind Peggy and Dick’s place. Swinging north, we throttled up out of Florida into south Georgia, and turned east along Hwy 84 through Quitman, Valdosta, Waycross, Jesup, and Hinesville, catching I-98 then I-16 into Savannah to my daughter Ansley’s apartment for the night. We gleefully watched UGA defeat LSU, ate at the popular Crab Shack open air restaurant out on Tybee Island, then got a good night’s sleep before our final leg home. I really enjoyed visiting with my daughter down there, among the coastal palms, live oaks, and Spanish moss of this historic city.
Sunday we said goodbye to Ansley, Savannah, and the Atlantic Ocean and blasted west on I-16 for home. We parted ways in Dublin, Lyle toward I-75 and Fayetteville, me up Hwy 441 to my folks in Eatonton and then on home to Dacula. This was a fantastic adventure with a nearly life-long friend, celebrating our half century out on the open road. Over 2100 total miles through five states, from the hills of Appalachia to the Mississippi River, across the Gulf coast and over to the Atlantic coast. “Magnificent” is the word I used to describe the trip. The good Lord guided us through beautiful places, to wonderful family and friends, and a 40-year friendship was strengthened. Worth every minute and mile.