BRAT is an annual ride organized by Tennessee State Parks. The ride normally takes place the last week of September. This year, the tenth annual ride took place at the end of October. End of October worked well with my schedule, I was looking for a week-long bicycle vacation in October and BRAT fit right in.
My cycle computer batteries were run down, so I stopped for new ones on the way to the airport. I carefully replaced the batteries and then placed the cycle computer on the dash of my car.
At the airport, I paid $10.50 for a bike box and $50.00 to transport the bicycle. For the latter sum, United Airlines handed me a ticket which stated "not for transportation". If shipping a bicycle on an airplane didn't qualify as transportation, I wasn't quite certain what did.
After boxing the bicycle, I ran back to the car to pick up my cycle computer which I'd forgotten on the dash. I was fumbling with it on the way back. It dropped and hit the pavement hard. At first it looked ok, but then I noticed it was recording non-zero speed. I replaced the batteries several times, but this didn't fix it.
Airline flight was uneventful. The cycle computer recorded 23 miles on the way to O'hare. Peak speed of 54.5 mph. Wandering through O'hare added another ten miles to the total. Flight to Nashville brought the total to 37 miles. Not quite certain how to credit these miles in my cycle log :-).
I had tried to reserve a hatchback car. It was unavailable, so I ended up renting a van to transport bicycle and myself. It was a two-hour drive to Paris Landing State Park, the official start of the trip.
I was too late to register, although I did get my tent set up and saw part of the evening program, a bluegrass band named Foxfire.
Sunrise shortly before seven. By that time, I'd already been up forty-five minutes packing my tent, getting breakfast and adjusting my bicycle. I picked up the official registration packet. Total count was ~260 participants. Shortly before eight, I was on the road.
Morning air was cool and crisp. There had been a heavy dew and some fog earlier. The route travelled along US 79, a large road but with an adequate shoulder. At six and a half miles turned south on more rural roads. I came around one bend in the road to see two white-tailed deer bounding across the road. The route had some rolling hills, but nothing too bad.
I rode with a fellow cyclist from Memphis for half a dozen miles. Each participant had a "license plate" listing their home town and name. It was fun to see a variety of states (MI,MN,VA,MD,FL,TN,OH,ME, OR,WI...). Tennessee participants appeared to be in the minority. I didn't see any others from MA. Folks were very friendly. Median age seemed at least forty with a reasonable contingent of retired folks. During the trip, cyclists celebrated a 40th, 50th and 66th birthday.
First rest stop was in Big Sandy. I pulled off to the Texaco station and was promptly joined by half a dozen others. The extra numbers of cyclists always adds a festive atmosphere to these rides.
Rural roads again on the way to Camden. I encounted many barking/running dogs, but surprisingly all were well behaved. At mile 29, the route turned onto 691, a more heavily travelled route. Camden was a small town, but big enough to have a small selection of fast food restaurants. I stopped again.
I left Camden about 11:30. It started getting warm. I was down to shorts and a T-shirt. After mile 47, the road became rough. There was a makeshift rest stop at 53. From here, the route travelled through parts of Nachez Trace State Park including a giant Pecan tree. Shortly past 2:30 I arrived at the campground.
Time to set up my tent, shower and write in my log. The evening program was another local bluegrass band and also a park ranger talking about owls.
Back to basics. BRAT developed a simple rythem and calendar scheduled around simple events. Breakfast was from 5:00am until 7:30am. Sunrise was about 7am. Bags needed to be on the baggage truck by 8am. Dinner was at 5pm. Evening program was at 7pm.
I expect many participants could recite these basic times, and scheduled their day around them. This meant that the shuffling started around five as folks got up for breakfast. Most folks would get up between six and seven. Quick time to eat breakfast, break down the tent and get on the road.
I started about 7:15. Skies were overcast, but it was dry. I bicycled up the hill and into Lexington. Lexington was a small town with an old town center. I turned right through smaller roads on to Mifflin. Dogs on this road weren't as well behaved, but none of them caught me.
I stopped in Mifflin for a snack and road the nine miles to Henderson. I got about half way there before it started raining. Lightly at first, but by the time I got to Henderson, it was pouring. At Henderson was an official BRAT coordinator advising folks to take the short cut on 100 (9 miles) rather than the official route (20+ miles). Thunder and lightning. Flash! Boom! I was wet, so the short route was welcome. The shoulder was narrow, but the route was direct.
I arrived at Chickasaw State Park about 11am. I was about the sixth cyclist there. The combination of an early start, quick pace and the short cut all helped. Many others were also smarter about trying to wait out the worst of the storm. I set up the tent in the rain, but also selected one of the picnic enclosures to lay out my sleeping bag.
Dinner was at five. The evening program was a bluegrass band named Sweetwater.
I stashed my belongings overnight under the shelter. Three tents were pitched under the shelter and one person sleeping without a tent. If it had rained harder, I'd have been there too.
Folks along the trip were very friendly. My smile or cheery good morning would generally get a friendly response (they probably hated those cheerful hellos :-). At least half the folks had been on a previous BRAT ride. T-shirts of previous BRATs and other organized rides were very common.
It rained shortly before six, but was dry and windy when I got up. I got my belongings to the truck by seven-thirty and was off again. I decided I'd take this day's fifty-five miles a bit easier. Brisk winds made that choice a bit easier.
There were about five miles of busy route 100 before turning off on more rural roads. Montezuma, Finger and Leapwood were small towns whose primary commerce was a small store/deli. Most of these stores had a small collection of cyclists outside.
I stopped for an early lunch in Adamsville at Vic's Pizza place. The proprieter had a big sign on his window and was greeting folks. Two burgers, fries and a dose of the weather channel was just right. They expected winds to continue 15-25 mph from the southwest/south, more headwinds than tailwinds. Luckily it was still dry.
After Adamsville, the ride cut through Shiloh National Park. Many monuments and markers designating each of the regiments. Nice quiet road through the park. I skipped looking at the museum because I noticed my rear wheel was wobbling a lot. I suspected a broken spoke, although the bicycle mechanic later said the rear rim was shot and would be good to replace. To add some suspense to the trip, he noted that I'd be lucky to make it through the week with that rim.
As I came through Shiloh, the head wind was brisk. I kept going slowly, wobbling along. The road surface was also rough. I came in through Counce, past the paper mill (logging trucks!) and on to the campground. I arrived about 1:30pm.
The wind was brisk, helping to quickly dry out the tent. I wrote out my journal and got the rear wheel looked at. About 2:45pm, it started pouring rain. I put the bags in the tent and got under a shelter out of the rain. It kept raining. A bit dreary looking. On the way to dinner, other folks mentioned they'd reserved a cabin. For my share ($20), I could be dry and inside. I bit. Sure!
The evening program was a band titled, "Southern Wind". They did both country and rock songs.
The cabin was dry. I also got a chance to check my email. Luckily for the brave souls in their tents, the skies cleared up and it stopped raining. There was still a consistent wind. The morning was brisk and cool.
We were camping in the same place for two days in a row. Hence, day four was a designated loop day with 25, 54 and 104 mile options. Judging from the number of cyclists on the road, a good share also took it as a rest/laundry/grocery day.
I chose the 54-mile option with my own additions to reach the borders of Mississippi and Alabama. After all, it was a ride *across* Tennessee, so thought it would be worthwhile to touch the edges. I started at 7:30 in search of Mississippi. The route took me southward against the wind along 57. At five miles I reached the welcoming sign, stopped to take a picture and promptly returned the five miles to camp.
I crossed Pickwick Dam, one of the large TVA hydro plants, 232 megawatts worth. The route quickly went to rural roads and southward. A road named Holland Creek Road appeared to lead to the border. The official route left Holland Creek about three miles from the border. I kept going south in search of my "Welcome to Alabama" signs. At one point I was surprised to find two other cyclists behind me. Others with the same quest! Actually, they were lost so I helped them get turned around. The road became very rural and forked in two. I chose the left fork, went over a low rise and down a hill. Straight ahead was a Lauderdale County #14 road sign. I had crossed the border without my official greeting sign. I took a picture of #14 and turned back to the official route.
The route had several steep sharp hills. Close to the top was Walnut Grove, with a small cafe. Half a dozen cyclists were already inside. These establishments were listed on the official ride directions and had also been warned by the BRAT organizers.
After Walnut, the road was both very pretty and very rural. Trees were turning colors of gold and brown. Small roads with short sharp hills, quick descents and a little too much gravel. Gillis Mills Grocery. A one lane bridge. Dogs chasing bicyclists off their territory. There were also several small churches. I had noticed quite a few small churches in these rural areas of Tennessee.
The route circled back on itself at mile 40. I retraced my route, stopping shortly at the Pickwick Dam to see the visitor exhibit and to watch a barge coming through the locks. I was back at camp around 3pm. Total mileage around seventy miles.
Festive atmosphere with lots of folks relaxing. The tent city was still set up with lots of laundry drying. Dinner at 5pm. Evening entertainment was the Southern Wind band, again. They joked, they were one of the better local bands, in fact one of the only local bands.
Nice night and a dry sunny day. I was off and started by 7:45. A busy roads had been diverted onto our intended bicycle route. As a result, the BRAT organizers produced an alternate route for us. They'd done a good job and had new ride sheets and everything.
We crossed the Tennessee river three times. First time was back over Pickwick dam. There was still some light fog in the cool morning air. At mile thirteen I stopped in Savannah at the Tennessee River Museum. A small local museum with history exhibits including early indian settlers, the civil war, etc.
From Savannah, we crossed the river again and a long flat route. Several miles hence, the road ducked up and down some of the bluffs, but nothing very bad. Mile 30 was another stop at Saltillo.
Park rangers in green cars and park workers in white vans were escorting the group. At Saltillo the radios were a chatter. Apparently, a local garbage truck had been zooming through endangering riders. At least one ranger car was sent with flashing blue lights to slow him down.
After Saltillo, the route became rural. The sun was shining and it was getting warm. The bright sunshine, lack of wind and pretty scenery made it perfect for riding. Mile 50 was a lunch stop in Decaturville. Our ride sheets mentioned a place with Dumplings and Gravy. Instead, I opted for a a cafe with a buffet. They were packed with cyclists and locals. The waitresses were bustling to keep everyone happy. I asked "did they warn you about us?" They smiled, "yes, and we're happy for the extra business." I left a reasonable tip.
After Decaturville a loop around on 100 and then back across the river again. A few miles to the north was Mousetail Landing State Park, the next destination. I was in about 1:45pm. Enough time to set up, shower and look around.
Evening entertainment was a guy named, McDonald Craig singing old country tunes.
Six AM with rain on the roof. This was a wet day. I left around eight and luckily, the first fifteen miles were dry. There were two larger hills but nothing too bad. Just as I was cresting the third hill, a couple went by and remarked, "we're lucky we haven't had rain". Jinx. The rain started three minutes later and continued for the rest of the morning. It occasionally rained hard, but usually was just soft enough to remain even.
As the rain came down, the incentive to stop increased. I stopped at the local gas station/convenience store along with half a dozen cyclists. They were running a good business and were out of corn dogs even though it was 10am. I stopped again when we crossed I-40 at mile thirty.
After I-40, we darted over the Buffalo river on a small rural road. It was rural and scenic. I cycled with a schoolteacher from Chattanooga for a while. The road was quiet enough to cycle two abreast.
If the presidential election were determined by candidate yard signs in rural Tennessee, then Dole would have won. The score for day six was Dole: 13, Clinton: 5. Some houses would have signs for several different candidates, e.g. Dole, Thompson, Bryant. There was however, no ticket splitting in political signs.
The political signs were vastly outnumbered by "Halloween". Surprisingly, many houses had elaborate Halloween displays with corn stalks, scarecrows, ghosts, etc. I did also see a few christmas decorations including one nativity scene.
The road had several rolling hills. On the downhill side of one, my tire suddenly went flat. Glass cut. Fortunately, it had dried up by then. At mile 51, the road turned into Waverly. This was the only night not in a state park. Waverly Junior High School was the destination. I arrived around two.
I wandered back into town. I sent as many of my wet clothes as I could in the dryer at the laundromat, talking with a two female mormon missionaries from Idaho/Utah as the dryer spinned.
In the evening, I took slept in the school, nice and warm and dry. Evening program was four students, high school age with their rock band. You could tell the age of the crowd with how far back everyone sat as the band turned up the music.
Rain on the roof. I heard the rain start about midnight. It was heavy and loud on the roof. It stopped briefly around 3am, but then started again. I was up by 5:30, packed the tent, ate and waited for it to get light enough to bicycle.
I was off shortly after 7am. Rain was coming down pretty hard as I cycled north to Erin. I was focussed on getting to Erin and rain fogged up my glasses, so I didn't see as much of the scenery, except for foliage which was at its peak.
The rain stopped long enough for me to get through Erin. The town was billed as "a bit of Ireland in Tennessee". Apparently, Houston County has 40% of Irish descent, the highest number for any county in the US. The county itself was named after Sam Houston, former governor of Texas, governor of Tennessee and many other posts.
I slowly climbed up to Tennessee Ridge as the rain started again. Luckily, it was a warm rain since I was completely soaked. From Tennessee Ridge there was a nice several mile descent to Carlisle. At Carlisle another country road over some low hills and then Dover.
Stopped at the mini-mart on US 79 in Dover. One clerk was fighting a losing battle keeping the floor mopped. Everytime she'd have it cleaned up another cyclist would come dripping in. I was ahead of the main pack since they still had corn dogs.
US 79 was busy but had wide shoulders. Numerous food places were marked on the map, but I had the end point in mind so I pushed on. I reached the car at 11:45am. I retrieved my bags from the baggage truck, and changed into dryer clothes.
I also toyed with the idea of bicycling to Kentucky to complete my *across* ride. Decided with all the rain, I'd wait for another time to see the Kentucky state line.
Sigh, BRAT was over. About 420 miles of riding in a week. Four days with rain and three without. A moderate pace allowed one to arrive in camp by early afternoon. Overall, I'd recommend this ride to someone looking for a small, relaxing, well supported ride through some very scenic parts of Tennessee. The organizers did a good job with most all the logistics (meals, camping, route marking, adjusting to changes, etc). There is less of a party atmosphere then the reputation I've heard of BRAG or RAGBRAI. Enjoyment of bluegrass or country music is a plus for the ride. Next year's BRAT is September 21st to 27th. The exact location is still being determined. I'll likely do different rides next year, but this is more an indication of having a long list of places to bicycle, than of dissatisfaction with this ride.