When I moved away from Memphis I was done with riding there. Done, as in over, bored, finished. As a riding locale it had ceased to interest me. I was ready to push on to different vistas, new roads, places that offered some elevation change. When I would return for visits, I began riding in directions I’d never explored before, pedaling roads that led to blighted parts of the city or suburbs with the consistency of margarine.
So when I tell you that I got worked up to ride to a Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant (even though the name was changed during the Carter or maybe Nixon administration, my friends and I still refer to it as Pancho’s Tacos), I wasn’t so much excited about the chain Mexican. It wasn’t exactly a means to an end, what with it being at the mid-way point of the ride and all, and it wasn’t even the point of the ride—we didn’t even go in—but it was emblematic for the ride itself. I didn’t even know that Pancho’s was still a thing. It’s so far off the radar at this point that the chain has yet to have it’s turn in line behind the Washington Redskins, the Cincinnati Reds and the infamous restaurant chain Sambos.
So yeah, it’s hard to get excited about a chain restaurant that you didn’t even know still existed, especially as the centerpiece of a bike ride. I may be crazy (I’m a cyclist, right?), but I’m not silly. However, this restaurant came at the turnaround point for a new bike path. The path, called The Big River Trail, extends from the Harahan Bridge (more on that in a second), into West Memphis, Arkansas.
I lived in Memphis for more than 20 years and never once road the land on the other side of the Mississippi River; I spied it plenty, but there was neither a legal nor safe way to ride across the river.
Last year the old roadways of the Harahan Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River from Memphis to West Memphis, opened to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Between the bridge and the bike path the project cost roughly $30 million, and it is the second time that Memphis has opened a piece of cycling infrastructure that has transformed recreation in the city.
This is Field of Dreams stuff. People who live in downtown and midtown Memphis are walking and riding the bridge as part of their daily recreation. Memphis is a place where new development has a spotty record. The Memphis Pyramid, which was a facility built to play host to basketball games, concerts and more, proved not to be the success that was projected, and was leased to Bass Pro Shops, the largest single retail location in the world, I’m told.
for dedicated riders, I’m not sure how exciting the new bike path would be, but the Harahan Bridge offers something that riders living in midtown and downtown would otherwise have to ride much farther to encounter: dirt roads. There is a network of dirt roads that divide fields of soybeans immediately adjacent the river, and these are the roads that are inundated with every flood; unlike Memphis, which sits up on bluffs, this part of Arkansas is classic floodplain and it takes little to render these fields into a giant reflecting pool.
In addition to the farm roads north of the bridge there are gravel paths atop the levees that run south from the bridge. While there are only 70 rideable miles so far, the plan is to open all 1607 miles of levee on the lower Mississippi to riding in the coming years.
I tell people I go back to Memphis to see family and friends, to get my fill of my favorite barbecue. I look forward to exploring the levees, the farm roads. Now I look forward to riding in the Mid-South in a way I never did.