Words: Chris Lesser
Photos: Morgan Meredith
A quest for singletrack south of the Mason-Dixon line reveals a cast of unlikely characters, a hearty riding culture and a hollerin’ good time. Over the course of nine days and 1,500 miles, we mercilessly flog a rental van and live off deep-fried food as we search for the South’s finest trails.
Mississippi: Expect the Unexpected
We first heard of the fledgling freeride trails in Mississippi by way of ominous rumors of creek gaps and ladder bridges. Several sources had mentioned the trails with awe, but no one had actually ridden them, and while Ratboy readily agreed to explore them with us, I sensed a twinge of nerves behind his blustery bravado.
After experiencing previous let-downs on much-hyped Skid Mark (a routine roll-down in Baton Rouge) and Quadzilla (a smooth middle-ring climb in the Clear Springs trail netwok outside Bude, Mississippi), I was taking local lore with a big grain of salt. But nothing had prepared us for what we would find in Brookhaven, Mississippi.
We roll into the Mount Zion trailhead’s grass parking lot just as dusk settles in. More than a dozen riders are already gathered, ringing from one with a full-face helmet and goggles to Lycra-clad hardtail riders and even a few kids in warm-up pants and no helmets.
My own helmet is cold and clammy from the morning ride in Clear Springs, but soon it is steaming with sweat as we race around sharp, flat corners and across repeated wooden bridges. Each little structure is laboriously anchored in cement, and there are so many of them that their rolling humps and banks gives riding here the feel of a pump track—creating flow from otherwise flat, swampy terrain.
Our conga line spreads along the area’s 5-plus miles of meticulously well-marked trails, and darkness has descended by the time I return to the trailhead. Johnny Smith, the man responsible for these trails, greets one and all with a crackling fire and a grill full of hamburgers.
With the fire staving off the cold night air, Smith delivers a quick history of the trails’ creation. They take their name from the Mount Zion Baptist Church down the road, and the property owes its existence to Mississippi’s Section Sixteen Law, which designates every sixteenth parcel of land in a township for the benefit of public schools. Smith leases the land from the town, and in the last five years he and a small band of riders have scratched some quality singletrack into the rattlesnake infested swamp.
“I did three rides at Clear Springs and I was hooked,” Smith says. “But then Katrina hit, and when we finally got tired of waiting for the forest service to clear the trails we just built our own.”
Just as New Orleans riders have found a way to build trails in their sub-sea-level urban environment, the Mount Zion riders have made their own, too. Sure, the creek gap had a flat landing and most of the ladder bridges are less than a foot off the ground, but the trails have an unexpected flow, and in a state that leads the nation with a staggering obesity rate of 33 percent, these guys have built a public trail network with their own money and sweat equity—they even keep two singlespeeds parked at the trailhead for anyone to use.
I thought we’d discovered a far-out breed of riders with the Louisianans, who live and breathe the sport of mountain biking despite a lack of mountains. But these nice-as-shucks Mississippians take it two steps further: First, they’ve created a fledgling freeride trail in a bona fide swamp, but what’s more shocking is that Brookhaven sits in a dry county—and these riders don’t drink beer.
The next morning, Tracy Case gives us a sneak peek of a “black diamond” trail that’s not yet open. Tracy, 32, works at Brookhaven Cycle and Sport, and rides a Trek Session 7 with a full-face helmet and mirror-blue goggles. He probably has the biggest bike in the whole state. Tracy leads the way over a 60-foot-long ladder bridge spanning a ravine, and points out the flow lines he’s putting in underneath it. When we stop, he admits he’s watched The Collective more than a hundred times, slowing the tape to study the trails, frame by frame.
Though he’s never even left the state, Tracy is as dedicated to riding as anyone I know. He spends his days building trail, working in a shop and riding—living and breathing mountain bikes—despite, not because of, where he lives.
This content was originally published in Bike’s November 2009 issue.