Western Kentucky Bike Tour
History will be kind to me. I intend to write it. Winston Churchill, patron saint of all scribes
The full moon was hanging low just beyond the trees outside my tent. I had awoken with a start, peered out of the tent and thought that I had overslept and the sun was already that high in the sky. But then I realized I was looking west across the river — the Mississippi River — to the bluffs on the Missouri side, and it was a serene moonset rather than a late sunrise that I woke to. With more luck than foresight or planning on my part, I was able to capture that near-perfect scene the morning we woke up on the bank of the Mississippi at Columbus-Belmont State Park in Hickman County. And that picture is the epitome of our five-day tour of western Kentucky — a happy coalescence of serenity, serendipity, scenery and weather — in late August.
It had taken us two days of riding from Madisonville to arrive here at the bank of the Mississippi in far western Kentucky on this loop tour of the Jackson Purchase region. When Rick Holeman floated the idea of the tour back in early summer, I knew I wouldn't want to miss it. It'd be a chance for me to explore a region of the state that I've had few chances to ride in. It's an area that is unfamiliar and thus alluring to my sense of adventure. Over the ensuing weeks and mostly over numerous e-mails, Rick was able to cajole a group of riders into participate in this tour that he had mapped out. The dramatis personae at the start of the ride consisted of Rick Holeman of Madisonville, routemaster extraordinaire, on his Rans V-Rex recumbent; Dan Clark and Donnie Mayton came down from Owensboro with their respective Rans recumbents to join in the fun; and yours truly on the trusty Giant road bike, making me the lone upright rider for the first part of the tour. Steve Agent of Dawson Springs and Eddie Galloway joined us in Columbus for the last three days of the trip. Donnie Dunbar and Kevin Woody Woodruff, both of Madisonville, rode the one-day segment between Columbus and Paducah.
You know it's going be a great bike trip when the SAG wagon is a Lexus SUV, which Donnie graciously let us press into SAG duty for the week. Yet, with all the creature comforts and, most appealing at times, the air conditioning the vehicle promises to deliver, guys were jockeying to not have to take their turn at driving the SAG wagon. That is just one of many details and tidbits that make this trip the fun-filled journey it was. This account is one person's attempt at capturing the sublime essence of this great journey. Let's begin.
We start out from Madisonville in Hopkins County on a bright and muggy August morning, heading southwesterly through Christian and Trigg counties before ending the day at Kenlake State Park outside tiny Aurora in the southeastern tip of Marshall County, on the bank of Kentucky Lake, the hundred-mile long lake formed by the impounded Tennessee River. Being in the outer fringe of the western Pennyrile region means the terrain is suitably hilly. Like in most of the rest of Kentucky, a cyclist is not overwhelmed by any single mountain or big hill, rather it's the multitude of the little hills that wears one down. By the end of the day, we were sure to remember the hilly terrain as the hallmark of this first day.
Planning to deviate from the prescribed route later in the day for some personal wandering, I volunteer for the first shift of driving the SAG vehicle. It would be a pattern that is repeated every day of the tour. The other guys, apparently all primed to start riding, didn't protest too much of my volunteering to drive right off the bat. We go south on US 41 a bit to Earlington, then veer west toward the small crossroads of Beulah for the first stop. From Beulah, we take the rolling KY 109 south to Dawson Springs where I first meet Steve Agent, who will join us in a couple of days. He still has work obligations to fulfill and can't get away just yet. The day is getting hotter, and the terrain promises to be more difficult, but by the look in Steve's eyes, I know he'd rather be sweating and working hard on the bike than going back in and working on his patients' teeth.
By the time we reach the lodge at Pennyrile Forest State Park in Christian County, I've put in a grand total of 16 miles, and yet it's time for lunch! Dan and Donnie, however, are more than ready for a break, since they have ridden the entire way from Madisonville. Soon after lunch, I bid them goodbye and veer off the prescribed route in Cerulean. Rick had us going west out of Christian County into and across Trigg County on a very nice road, KY 124, that takes us into Cadiz. I instead choose to zigzag south from Cerulean before making a big loop back toward Cadiz through some beautifully rural expanses of southern Trigg County. There are several named crossroads, but they seem to exist only on the map with no visible signs in real life, places like Buffalo, Caledonia, Maggie and Donaldson. I ran out of water and was on the verge of bonking before stumbling into the tiny store at the junction of Cadiz-Linton Road and Maggie Rd. Rejoining the route in Canton, west of Cadiz, I cross Lake Barkley on KY 80/US 68 to the Land Between the Lakes, albeit about 45 minutes to an hour behind others in the group.
Traffic on US 68/KY 80 can be heavy through the Land Between the Lakes, and at the very least, the two bridges, over Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake, are narrow and present an obstacle to the cyclotourists. But as it turns out, my crossing of the bridges is well-timed to lulls in traffic. There is no other vehicle in the westbound lane for many minutes on either bridges, allowing me to cross them in relative peace and leisure. The same can't be said for locating the campground at Kenlake State Park. Part of the problem is mine, for I neglected to look to the right where US 68 turns right coming off the bridge. Instead I turned left into the park proper and spent many frustrating minutes (and miles) meandering through the park with no signs anywhere to correct myself. But all ends well when I finally locate my companions at the campground and I step off the bike to a cold root beer from the cooler a small but well-deserved treat at the end of a long, hot day. The day did end on a better note with all of us having a great dinner at the Willow Pond restaurant in Aurora, famed for their catfish offerings, which are served with an endless supply of slaw, hushpuppies and bean soup. Judging from dinner, it is going to be a great bike trip, after all.
You may be able to outride me, but you aint gonna outcoast me. Donnie Mayton, streamlined on his faired recumbent, throwing down the gauntlet at Duc Do.
Leaving the rolling fields and low ridges of the Pennyrile region behind, today we cycle through the flat, fertile land of Calloway, Graves and Hickman counties, in the heart of the Jackson Purchase of Kentucky. The flatness of the terrain is evidenced by the numerous ponds, sloughs, and swamps along the roads.
After a fitful night of sleep because, of all things, a bright full moon that shines through the tent like a street light, we awake to another beautiful morning. While the other guys mount their recumbents and head to Alma for the first stop, I drive the SAG truck south into Murray for resupplying, and hoping to add some cold brews to the cooler. Alas, that's not to be, as although Murray recently voted wet, it's only for serving alcohol in restaurants. There's no beer to be had just yet. The guys will have to handle disappointment instead of a cold one at the end of this day.
The riding through Calloway and Graves counties is superb. Roads are generally deserted and gently rolling to flat as we are now in the heart of the Purchase region. Feeling good once I turn over SAG duty to Dan in the little crossroad of Kersey, I ride alone to Wingo, where we search in vain for a restaurant for lunch. The one promising spot, the Fat Boys Smokin Pig BBQ restaurant in downtown Wingo, is nothing more than a burned out façade the boys must've smoked their pigs too fierily and reduced the entire building to ashes. We end up eating heat lamp-heated burgers out of the display counter at the Marathon gas station on Mayfield Rd. Sometimes one just has to rough it on these bike rides through the rural back roads of Kentucky!
After lunch, my fellow riders continue on their westward route through the remainder of Graves County before crossing Hickman County for Columbus by way of Clinton. I, on the other hand, circle back toward Cuba to explore more of southern Graves County. Cuba, of course, is the home of the erstwhile Cuba Cubs, 1952 state basketball champions whose story is immortalized in a book (When Cuba Conquered Kentucky by Marianne Walker, 1999 Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville TN USA, ISBN: 1558537457). Hometown author Bobbie Ann Mason (who hails from just up the road in Mayfield) also wrote a fictionalized account about them in one of her break-out short stories, "State Champions." Alas, school consolidation did to them in a way no other basketball programs could do on their march to the Sweet 16 title that championship year in 1952.
The destination I have in mind for today is really Dukedom, on the Tennessee line, for a Kodak moment with the town sign. Dukedom was named for Duke A. Beadles, the town's first merchant and postmaster when it was established in 1833. It was one of the oldest towns in western Tennessee and once flourished as a stop on the stagecoach route between Dresden, Tenn., and what is now Hickman, Ky. It is a mere wide spot in the roads now, with a cluster of houses and the requisite store, but it also (inexplicably, to me) boasts the Dukedom Bank!
Rick, in mapping out this trip, did not route us through Fulton County, the southwesternmost county in Kentucky. But I couldn't come this far and not bag it as one of the counties ridden for my personal list, so I dipped into Fulton County briefly, for about a dozen miles near Crutchfield after skirting around the town of Fulton. On the way to Columbus out of Fulton County, I went through Moscow and Oakton then followed KY 123 north to Columbus. KY 123 is designated in this area as a segment of the Mississippi River Trail, a system of on-road trails that follows the grand river from its headwaters in Minnesota to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The part of the trail I rode on meanders through lush fields of shimmering soybeans and cypress swamps crisscrossed with algae-filled sluices. The entire area has that sleepiness of a dead-end road to it, which is no surprise, it is in a sort of a dead-end with no river crossings between Tennessee to the south and Wickliffe to the north, one must want to come here to be on these roads.
As pretty and scenic as the roads leading to Columbus have been, they couldn't foretell the beauty that awaits us at the campground at Columbus-Belmont State Park in quaint little Columbus. The grassy field where we pitch our tents stretches luxuriantly right to the cliffs edge that drops steeply down to the river, with the river itself coursing lazily around a wide bend, filling one's field of vision with the serenity of the river vista. Columbus-Belmont park marks the site of the Civil War encampment where the Confederacy hoped to snag the Union river traffic by running an enormous chain across the river, anchored in the river bottom on the Belmont, Mo., bank and stretched to the bluff on the Columbus side (http://www.state.ky.us/agencies/parks/columbus.htm). Relics of this effort have been recovered from the riverbed and are now on display at the park.
Steve Agent and Eddie Galloway arrive tonight to join us for the rest of the tour and we sit up late into the night just talking, trading stories, watching the river traffic, and swatting at the mosquitoes. The full moon has climbed its way over the trees and is bathing the riverscape with a soft glow when we finally head to our respective tents for the night.
Id like the pork platter. And the ribs platter. And a slice of chess pie for dessert. Duc Do, ordering dinner at Broghan's Bar-B-Q and trying to gain an advantage in the coasting contest with Donnie Mayton.
Save for a short stretch of hilly terrain in Carlisle County, the riding today is entirely flat, as Rick had told me with a twinkle in his eyes in the morning before we set out. And it's easy to see why Rick made that assertion. Western Ballard County lies in a flat alluvial plain, part of the great flood plains of a great river. The contour of the earth here is soft and gradual, much like the gentle way the river wends its way downstream. It stands to reason that the farther away from the river one goes the hillier it gets, but I was nonetheless surprised by the hilliness of eastern Ballard County. By traversing the breadth of a single county, one can clearly see the effects of the power of the river in shaping the land.
But first things first.... How we survived the early morning confusion and end up at the same restaurant in Wickliffe for breakfast is an achievement in itself. Donnie Dunbar and Woody Woodruff show up this morning for today's ride to Paducah, so we have two SAG vehicles to ferry along the route. Donnie D. and I volunteer for the first shift, so we lead the way through Carlisle County to US 51 just before we enter Ballard County. After sitting around a bit, we decide to ride back to meet the oncoming riders. But unbeknownst to us when we took that little shortcut near the junction of US 51 and KY 1205 that the three recumbent riders would go by on the route at that precise moment. Five miles down the road, we did come across the other three riders, but they in turn informed us that they had "lost" the other three! As it turned out, there was another little shortcut up the road near Berkley, and the exact same thing happened with the two groups of riders: they missed each other around that shortcut. Their timing being exquisite to let them miss two groups of riders on the same road, Donnie M., Dan and Rick, the recumbent riders, arrived at the SAG vehicles without anyone seeing them go by! They grew tired of waiting around at the SAG trucks so they went on to Wickliffe for breakfast after leaving us a note on Donnie's truck. By the time we got back to the vehicles, we have no idea of the whereabouts of the first group, and we've again "lost" Woody and Donnie they had stopped to fix Woody's flat tire. Not until many minutes later, when Woody and Donnie pulled up that we noticed the note on their truck, telling us the plan of the three recumbent riders. Somewhat red-faced for collectively contributing to the madness, we rushed the last few miles into Wickliffe for a reassembly and breakfast at Brenda's Cafe, with much good-natured fingerpointing for the confusion.
All together now at last the group sets out from Wickliffe toward La Center and a big clockwise sweep around Ballard County on the way to Paducah. And from what I heard later, the guys had a spirited ride in which the recumbent riders were showing the uprights how to maintain the high speeds through the level terrain. Myself, I choose to veer off to the east to explore more of the eastern half of Ballard County before rejoining the route. As I announced my plan to go through New York, the friendly waitress in Brenda's Cafe chuckled and warned me to keep my eyes open, lest I miss it entirely. The same can be said for several other settlements along the way: Blandville, Hinkleville, Cerada, Bandanna, and most famous of all, Monkey's Eyebrow. The latter is deep in the expansive bottomland along the Ohio River before its confluence with the Mississippi, where there is nothing but soybeans and corn for miles around, and there's certainly no sign of any simian presence.
It was sultry and hot when I finally reach Monkey's Eyebrow in the mid-afternoon, and a menacing storm was brewing to the west. With some twenty miles to go before I reach the day's destination at the campground in West Paducah, and with the brewing storm providing the incentive, I cover the distance in the space of an hour, to reach the campground and set up the tent before the storm hit with some welcoming rain for a dry summer.
The good news for today is we finally located some beers! When I come rolling into the campground, someone hands me a cold one, and it's the perfect ending for the long, hot day! (Memo to the SAG supply shoppers for future references, Lite beers aint gonna do it for the 2nd WKBT!)
. . . with whipped cream, cherries, and a pair of handcuffs. Feisty waitress at Pasta House in Paducah, describing the decorations on the desserts to Dan Clark, which leaves him momentarily speechless for the first time the entire trip.
The gentle terrain of McCracken County along the river quickly gives way to the rolling hills as the route takes a southerly swing around the bustling city of Paducah. It then runs along the Cumberland River on the northern fringe of Calvert City in Marshall County, which gives us a reprieve from both traffic and hills. But the flat plains end at the Cumberland River. As we enter Lyon County and head south along The Trace to today's destination at Hillman Ferry Campground, the terrain turns markedly hillier to let us know we are coming back into the Pennyrile region once more.
After a leisurely breakfast at the Cracker Barrel in West Paducah and much gawking of the bikes, especially the 'bents, from the restaurant patrons we finally get going by heading west a bit on US 60 then south toward Massac and the southern portion of McCracken County for a big detour around Paducah. Riding with Steve and Eddie, we forge ahead of the two recumbent riders, but we were stymied by some confusing turns in Shady Grove before locating the cycling-friendly Old Calvert City Rd. to head toward Calvert City. The flat section along the Tennessee River in northern Marshall County and north of Calvert City is a nice contrast to the rolling hills we face the rest of the day.
I bid Steve and Eddie goodbye near Gilbertsville to head off into Livingston County to explore some off-route territory on my own. The sharp hills are abundant in the southern portion of Livingston County that area bounded by three rivers: the Cumberland to the north, Ohio to the west, and Tennessee to the south but the occasional valleys in this area are beautiful and scenic, tucked away amongst the hills like hidden gems. By the time I headed back south again to go to Hillman Ferry Campground, my legs were feeling the effects of a long day climbing these incessant hills. Hillman Ferry is a huge collection of wooded campsites, crammed together cheeks by jowls around a little inlet along the east side of Kentucky Lake. With over 500 campsites, I have a difficult time locating the guys. As it turns out, we have full use of an RV belongs to Rick's mom. Without the instructions Rick left at the gate, I would still be circling Hillman Ferry campground looking for a bunch of guys on bikes.
The most unusual treat of the entire tour must be the one Donnie Mayton gave us this afternoon in an aquatic equivalent of a bike ride in this largely motorized world: a three-hour sail on his 35-foot sailboat on Kentucky Lake. It was magnificent gliding along noiselessly save for the ripple of the sails overhead. Thanks, Donnie, and be prepared to treat us again next year, or you'll have a mutiny on your hand. And you'll make some old tars out of these landlubbers yet!
You have no idea how much I suffer. Dan Clark, summing up his ride at the end of every day of the tour.
Although we still have a day's riding ahead of us before the tour is officially over, every one of us starts to feel the tug of life's other responsibilities, and it has an effect on today's ride. Steve and Eddie say goodbye to us after breakfast before driving the SAG wagon down the road a bit and hurrying on home via US 62 so Eddie can make it to his family's reunion. The rest of the guys, Donnie, Dan and Rick, no doubt have things they can do when they get home, so they also keep to a pretty good schedule and not dawdle too much. Even I keep my wandering to a minimum I decided to save Webster County for another day and another trip and instead make tracks for Madisonville, albeit still about half an hour behind the rest of the gang at the end of the day.
Today's terrain is the familiar rolling ridges and valleys of the Pennyrile region as we leave Livingston County and ride through Lyon and Caldwell counties to head to Madisonville in Hopkins County. I manage to veer into Crittenden County for a short while, going through Frances, Crayne and Piney Fork, before returning to the route in Caldwell County. After many days of riding in excellent and dry weather, I am finally caught in a brief thundershower south of Dalton in western Hopkins County, just a dozen miles short of the end of the ride. The air is sticky and thick with the heady smell of fresh rain on dry earth as I pedal on through the brief downpour.
So it is with memories of many sublime moments of the tour that I pull into the Holemans' driveway in mid-afternoon to end my version of the inaugural Western Kentucky Bike Tour.
Photos of the Tour
Rick Holeman's collection of pictures on Webshots: Set 1 | Set 2 | Set 3
Statistics: 300 to 450 miles in 5 days (depending on the SAG duty and how far off the prescribed route one wanders), 15 counties, dozens of country stores.
Copyright ©2002 Duc M. Do. All rights reserved.