Black Creek Bounty
With support from North St. Bags
You would think we'd have learned our lesson, but here it was another day. Daylight returned but we're still in our nylon cocoons. I wake up to the feeling of sweat everywhere, and drink the last of my water before emerging from my chrysalis a horrible, stinky, dehydrated butterfly. Though the air is liquid, there's not a water source marked anywhere near us. Our campsite (if you can call it a campsite, really we just found two sets of trees with little underbrush a couple dozen yards apart on the side of this possibly abandoned road, so yeah not really a campsite but lets go with it) is sand and pine needles. And everything around us is sand and pine needles. No snakes though. There's no snakes out here, honey. Just two fools with no water, but lots of sand and pine needles. So we pack up fast and leave, venturing away from the original route to find water and electrolytes in the nearest town.
Leaving No Trace
So, this was the point where our road stopped being a road. We were so far in, but the gps shows our connecting road- an actual, god-bless-it, paved road- is really close. Like, no more than two miles in a straight line. Turning around would take far longer. So we push and drag our bikes, crawling in the lowest gears, shoving downed trees out of the way of what was a road and is now just an indent in the forest being slowly taken back over by vegetation. Eventually though, this indent brings us up against a industrial-sized chicken farm. We can here the fans and we can smell the chicken shit. On the other side of the farm is the road. The logical thing to do here is cut across the chicken farm's yard, which forces us to go right next to the farm house in question. This is a terrifying thought, as one does not expect a farmer anywhere to welcome two sweaty boys riding bikes through their yard let alone a farmer down here. The image of a man in just suspenders holding a rifle and yelling curses upon us and our families comes to mind.
But we risk it.
We leave the woods. I look at Johnny and put my finger to my lips. He nods. We ride the border of the woods, the yard's grass soft and dampening our mechanical noise. We hook the corner behind a shed, and sprint for the driveway, the road in sight. Back at the house? Nothing. Not a peep. We're on the road, in the clear, our imaginations having gotten the best of us. I look down and realize Johnny's not had any socks on this whole time, and recall in my head every patch of poison ivy we walked our bikes through in the last hour. So here on the side of a skinny, little country road we set up a small foot-washing station to an audience of cows.
Enough is enough. It's hot, it's miserable, it's noon, and we see signs for Lake Perry. I don't know anything about this Lake Perry, and didn't come across it in my research. But a potential swimmin' lake is so enticing we follow the signs to find a wide lake and not another soul around. Even we can take a midday break in this weather, right?
Food gets pulled out of every bag, water bottles are drained- instantly spoiled are we by the spigot on the side of the lake's field house- and we rinse our horrid clothing, leaving it to steam on the scorching pavement. There's 'No Swimming' signs every ten feet. I don't care that there's 'No Swimming' signs every ten feet.
Where I grew up, every day of the long, humid summer involved swimming. I never remember the water having been especially cold, and Lake Perry certainly isn't cold, but for a few seconds I let my body sink lower into the cooler depths of the water. My toes feel the cool water, immune to the heat above, and the thought crosses my mind: "there's a decent chance alligators made it this far north and that's why no one is allowed to swim." Naturally, this realization while ten feet under the surface floods my body with panic and adrenaline, and I claw desperately at the water above me until I hit the surface. Back up on the dock, the lake water is already evaporating off of me. I can't tell if the goosebumps are from the water or from the realization of how stupid it was to jump in the lake. But back in the safety of dry land, vitality returns and I find the pleasant demeanor I lost two days ago. The afternoon passes by us down at the lake, and I lay under a pavilion reading and enjoying a light sprinkle that passes us by. Our shirts are still laying on the pavement, now dotted by rain drops, but we don't bother to collect them.
The afternoon had passed us by while we caught forty or so winks, and with the evening fast approaching we head back out into the woods. The heat remains, despite the passing storms and sun's descent from right smack in the top of the sky, and our lovely clay roads have become just sticky enough to be annoying.
And you thought it was all
just hot, sandy, pine forest.
The topography of De Soto National Forest varies, in its maximum, four hundred feet. But the small, subtle, elevation changes don't go unnoticed. Much of our adventure has taken place in the northern highlands, in the sandy soil where towering longleaf, slash and loblolly pine dominate the landscape. And as we work down through the latitudes, short descents lead us to into cypress swamps. Carnivorous pitcher plans drape their way towards the roadway, and there's still not one damn snake seen in this whole place.
Yo, pavement? We'll take it. It's battered, and through all our data points we're still on backroads in the National Forest, but chunky pavement comes with new signs mentioning our departure from something called a "Camp Shelby Impact/Buffer Zone"- whatever that means. Now, while on tour, I'm not trying to google every little thing I come across. I just make note of it for later and keep pedaling into the wild, humid yonder. But basically, in addition to public land's more understood use of protecting nature, it also tends to be areas where the military has in the past, or does currently, test things. What, exactly, had we just ridden through?
When I plan routes for long, arduous bike adventures I take many things into account. I guess I've been spoiled in the past, since I've never had to say "Hm better make sure this doesn't go through a military bomb-testing area that's been closed to the public for twelve years." I've made the necessary amendments. But, like, in our defense the road that brought us into here didn't say anything about why riding bikes through this area might be problematic. And we didn't see, as had been the case with 90% of the rest of this trip, any people around. So we just continued on our way; hot, sweaty, but not exploded.
There's no snakes. Really, seriously, honestly. But, there are wrong turns and dead ends, the bad luck of which, combined with the varicose road network, sends us briefly out of the National Forest into the neighboring, rural community of Avent, Mississippi. Avent lacks any store or other such building to buy oreos and gatorade (how rude) and so an alternate route is devised to get us back on track.
Biking backroads back into backwoods
The tops of trees start catching the last bits on sunlight, and down here deep in the woods light grows dim. But as it turns out, solace is near and we pass the Black Creek. Black Creek, and it's connected wilderness, serve as the one part of De Soto that ain't just Woods Everywhere. A designated scenic river, with an adjacent twenty mile hiking trai. The creek (tinted dark from the tannins of a near endless supply of dead leaves, needles, and other vegetation) is a godsend and we capitalize on it. First by drinking deep the black water, to where I was so happy for its cool, slightly-acidic refreshment that I gave up all attempts of civility and took a Creek Nap, and finally we cooked it to the open parcel of white sand beach nearby to set up camp.
De Soto National Forest
Birthplace of the Creek Nap™
This adventure supported by
North St Bags
Oh dear reader, you've been given a lot in the past three installments of this story. There's been many opportunities for you to think, if not exclaim, "Wow, this sucks." But the most brief moment of relief came once the sun had set here along the Black Creek. Wherein, reading by headlamp in my hammock, I heard the call of nature, as one does where they belly is full of creek water. I stepped out to feel the cool air being pulled up from the creek, my skin dry for the first time in days, and here I was in this patch of woods- illuminated. Illuminated by the bright, bright moonlight. Illuminated by the sky full of stars. And, best part, illuminated by the millions of lightning bugs surrounding me. Looking down at myself, the light was so bright I felt like I was in a room full of candles. Like I was in some dumb cologne ad I've never actually seen. They danced in the air, and overhead the tops of trees swayed in the breeze, and I could feel the fine, white sand between my toes. I almost caught myself thinking, "this isn't so bad," like the past few days had not been tortuous. Time and distance are the enemies of memory. But, there in the dark I think I found whatever it was I came down here looking for. Fitting, as tomorrow we leave the woods.