By Jim Foreman
I don’t know at what point a person slips into the realm of geezerhood, but since the combined ages of the three participants in this tour exceed a double century, we thought the name was fitting. Our wives had a couple other but less socially acceptable suggestions.
I’d been thinking about a bicycle tour along the Mississippi River Delta from Memphis to Vicksburg ever since driving it while doing research for a magazine article a couple years ago. It all finally came to fruition when I casually mentioned the idea to fellow OBS’ers Fred Kamp and Joe DiMonico, who responded with great enthusiasm. With the wheels set in motion, there was no backing out; the tour was going to happen. The only obstacle was in breaking the news to our wives that we wanted to go touring for a week. So, in a stroke of genius, we concocted the story that the trip was so they could indulge themselves in the casinos and outlet malls which just happened to be conveniently scattered along the route. In order for us to keep out of their way and not impede their progress, we would take our bicycles along to keep us busy. Not only worked like a charm but we now had a built-in sag system.
Using a computer mapping program and cue sheets from a touring company that uses that route, Fred charted a course that would take us from one gambling hall or factory outlet to the next with about 50 mile intervals in between. This would allow us to arrive early enough each day for a shower and perhaps a nap before time to attack the buffet lines at the casinos. There was one day where the distance between stops exceeded our enthusiasm so we used guile and chicanery to convince our wives to abandon the slots long enough to meet us for a picnic lunch at the Great River Road State Park. The fact that they could “prepare” the picnic lunch with a five-minute stop at Subway had something to do with their amenable acceptance of dining with flies, ants and sweaty cyclists.
There must be a law someplace that any visit to Memphis has to include a trip to the Bastion of Barbecue, the Palace of Pork, the Rotunda of Ribs. I’m talking about Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous. Finding it is at least half the fun. It’s located in an alley in downtown Memphis off Union Street between a Holiday Inn and a Days Inn. A small, faded sign hangs askew above the door. The building looks as if it isn’t already condemned, it should be. Inside the door you descend to the basement via a flight of steel steps that look more at home on a battleship. We arrived shortly after they opened at 5:00PM and even though they can serve at least 300 people at a time, we had half an hour wait to be seated.
For those who live north of the Mason-Dixon Line and think barbecue is a verb meaning to cook outside, little do they know of this true form of southern cooking. The meat is marinated for about ten hours in a secret sauce, cooked slowly for ten hours, smoked over a mixture of green hickory and pecan chips for four or five more hours and finally sprinkled with more secret spices just before serving. No need looking for a bottle of Heinz 57 on the table, that would be like putting grape jelly on a taco.
There is a story that one of the early owners of the Rendezvous was hauled into court for shooting a man. When asked why he killed the man, he said he had found him in bed with his wife. When the judge told him that wasn’t sufficient reason to murder a man, the defendant replied, “But judge, she also told him the secret of my barbecue.”
“In a case like that, you should have shot your wife too,” said the judge. “Case dismissed.”
They serve only one thing at the Rendezvous; barbecue pork. Your order comes out resting on an inch-thick slice of white bread for sopping up the juice. You also get cole slaw and beans. That’s it! The only choice you have is what part of the pig you want and whether you want a regular order or a “half”, which is enough for any average person. At least 90% of the customers go for the ribs. They do make one small concession to the porcine-prohibited — they will rather reluctantly bring you a chicken breast. Drink choices are beer, sweetened tea or water brought to the table in pitchers and you pour your own..
When we left, the line stretched up the stairs to a packed lobby, out the door, down the alley and around the corner. People were passing the word to expect a two-hour wait but no one was leaving. The Rendezvous has been a Memphis landmark since 1888 so I suppose they have no reason to change anything.
Several people were frantically waving their E-mail arms when I mentioned where we were staying. There was a big music thing on Beale Street and a football game that weekend so hotel rooms were at a premium. We were relegated to a rather seedy place just off the end of the old bridge across the river. They said that our route was not really a place where they would want to ride a bicycle. As one person put it, “The only way I’d go through that area would be in a car with a gun.” On observing the area in daylight, I’d say the most successful business there would be one selling bars for windows.
Taking them at their word, we sagged to a Shoney’s across the street from Graceland. That’s where Elvis is buried or not buried, depending on what you believe about things that go bump and grind in the night. The maps from the touring company said there was 380 feet of climbing and 180 feet of loss of elevation from Memphis to Vicksburg. Most of the climbing was in the first ten miles after leaving Memphis. After that, it was as flat as a pool table through endless cotton fields. It got to the point where we would have been willing to climb a hill just to be able to coast for a while. The most excitement we had was discovering that those strange green plastic things along the road were boll weevil traps. The delta has been used for the single crop of cotton for so many years that the soil is so sterile that about the only thing it’s really suitable for growing now is casinos. For several miles in the Tunica area old Highway 61 it’s like riding along the strip in Las Vegas, but without bicycle cops or traffic. Once a tour bus dumps its load of passengers at a casino, they are a captive audience. Small buses shuttle people from one casino to another but off the parking lots are nothing but cottoned-out dirt. If you can resist the lure of the slots and stand the constant drone of electronic sound, their $30 rooms every night except weekends and $8 buffet lines make them an ideal place for touring cyclists to stay.
We spent one night at Chuck’s in the small town of Rolling Fork. Chuck seems to be everything to everyone in Rolling Fork. There’s Chuck’s Motel (six units) Chuck’s Cafe (eight tables) Chuck’s Drive-in, Chuck’s RV Park, Chuck’s Trailer Park, Chuck’s U-Store-It buildings, Chuck’s Bail Bonds and Chuck’s Backhoe Service. Chuck is probably involved in other things but we didn’t notice them. It’s a rather laid-back place. When Joe told the lady that his toilet was plugged, she handed him a plunger.
We dined at Chuck’s restaurant because the only other choice was a Double Quick convenience store and service station where they also had fried chicken. We found that a wake up call wasn’t necessary because at 6:30 the next morning about twenty kids congregated in front of our rooms to wait for the school bus. Their main activity seemed to be screaming on at the top of their lungs about whether to put their lunch money into the pop machines or not.
At one point the route follows a narrow paved strip for about 15 miles along the top of a levee some 50 feet higher than the normal level of the river. On the river side of the levee is swamp, covered with clumps of floating green stuff. On the other, protected from the river, are miles of cotton fields. The levee is covered with lush green grass. We passed a herd of cattle happily munching grass along the sides of the levee. Since they seemed totally oblivious to our passing, Joe decided to whistle at them. Fifty heads popped up and every one of them came galloping after us. Evidently their owner called them by whistling and they thought we had some tasty tidbits for them. We have done dog sprints many times but this was our first cow sprint as we hammered toward the safety of a cattle guard a few hundred yards ahead. The cows were just about to overtake us as we barrumped across the barrier to safety.
This is an ideal route which one can adapt to sag supported, credit card or self-contained touring. There are several national parks and wildlife areas, as well as state parks and public access areas to the river along the route, making for endless camping opportunities. Mosquitoes weren’t a problem this late in the year but we did manage to rile up a few colonies of fire ants with the expected results.
There aren’t as many facilities along the way as one would expect but those that can be found are reasonable in price. The roads are in good shape although Mississippi isn’t famous for providing either shoulders or road markings. Traffic is very low except for a couple spots that will get your attention. Trucks were especially heavy along Highway 1 south of Greenville where the largest port on the Mississippi is located.
October and November are the two months with the least rain and least wind of the year in this area, making the delta an ideal location tour for late season tour. During our tour, the nighttime temperatures dropped to around 50 with some ground fog which burned off rapidly as soon as the sun came up. It warmed to a high around 80 in the afternoon.
You will also see everything from stately plantation mansions to houses that make you wonder if you have wandered into a third world country. The Mississippi Delta may be the poorest region in the nation but it is rich in beauty and its people. We met some of the nicest people along the way. It’s a slice of true rural America where the people are usually more interested in you than in themselves.
I intentionally avoided the usual boring day by day itinerary but should someone want that information, I’ll gladly furnish our maps or cuesheets. This route also lends itself to a loop tour by picking up the Natchez Trace from near Vicksburg to Jackson where you can catch AMTRAK back to Memphis.
In a car you touch the pavement. On a bicycle, you touch the people.