Delta Epic, a 300-mile Mississippi Backroad Adventure
All photos in this article by Jason Shearer, promoter of the Delta Epic.
It forms out ahead of me as I pass between low green walls of soybeans, the rain. I try to convince myself that the grey haze marching toward me is the sweat smeared on my glasses or maybe fog, but I know better. Up ahead on the left side of the road at a break between bean fields I see a small house with an open carport. I struggle to rise from the saddle and pedal harder to reach the carport before I am smacked in the face by the frog strangler fast approaching. I carry no raingear, since wearing it while vigorously riding a bicycle in Mississippi’s September would be like doing aerobics while wearing a thick black trash bag. What will I reach first? The line of rain? The house? The line of rain? A few big drops splat on my forearms and thighs as I come even with the driveway. I turn hard left onto the gravel, dismount and lean my bike against the faded aluminum siding of the house just as the noise of the rain beating down crescendos.
I cautiously knock on the side door of the home, which soon opens. A woman peers at me from behind glasses and says, “Can I help you?” I fairly shout to be heard above the din of the downpour on the galvanized steel carport, “Ma’am, would you mind very much if I wait under your carport for this rain to pass?” A short pause as she blinks at me. “That’d be all right,” she responds.
I go back to my bike and fetch a cheeseburger out of my food bag. Bought about an hour ago at a Sonic in Indianola, it feels warm to the touch through the foiled wrapper and I gratefully start to eat it, not because I am hungry, but because I know I’ll need every calorie over the hours to come. I stand next to a small broken-down pickup truck whose bed is filled with equally inoperable equipment and household goods and I chew, savoring mustard and onions. It’s about four p.m. as the downpour generates a mist my bare legs can feel under the carport. I have been riding since midnight the night before. I have traveled a good bit in the company of riders from Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana, but I´ve lost contact with them and now I am alone to ride through the legendary mosquitos of the Delta National Forest and the dark night of the soul that lies between me and the finish line.
The lady comes out of the house and announces that she’ll get a chair for me. She is pale and squarely built, with dirty blond hair pulled back. She enters an aluminum shed crammed with duck hunting paraphernalia and comes out with a wooden chair. I thank her and sit there under her carport, dutifully answering her questions about where I am riding to and why. I tell her Bentonia, just north of Jackson, some hundred miles to the south. She begins to gesture vaguely to unseen roads, telling me of shoulderless straight-shot state highways that will get me to Bentonia quickest, a courtesy I receive from other folks along the route. Why not take the fastest and easiest route? Why not get someone to haul you and your bike? Why ride a bike at all? Why indeed. I have to explain that I’m kind of in a bike race called the Delta Epic and that I need to follow a prescribed course of mostly gravel roads on a map downloaded into my GPS. She appears to accept my implausible explanation of being in a “kind of”300-mile bike race. Our conversation turns to soybeans. If it rains much more, she says, they won’t be able to get into the fields to harvest. The beans will rot in the fields and the family will lose a lot of money. Our talk roams to soil composition, crop dusting, and bean prices, before returning to the subject of rain while the torrent on the carport roof slows to a near stop and the sun starts to reappear in the low sky.
I thank her again and go to my bike to leave. She produces an IPhone in a pink faux leather flip case and holds it toward me like a blessing. “Here,” she says, “Let me take a picture of you. To show I done a good deed.” I pause and attempt a smile, back my bicycle out of the carport, throw my leg over the saddle and resume riding south, bike and rider again transubstantiating into some hybrid being.
The late afternoon sun shines full again and the images of cottony clouds punctuated with patches of blue sky reflect off the wavy asphalt road now composed as much of puddles as pavement.
Many thanks to Marc McGraw for this submission.