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Natchez Trace: A journey through history, from Nashville to Natchez, Miss.

NASHVILLE

On the southern edge of the city, a half-hour drive from the airport, strip malls give way to sprawling pastures. A wild turkey trots along the interstate offramp.

And a wooden sign welcomes drivers to follow a parkway into the past.

You have to slow down, to 50 mph. You have to get used to seeing trees instead of billboards. We roll beneath a canopy of redbuds, past snowy stands of dogwood.

Here, at the top of the trace, winter is waning.

• • •

We fled Florida in April to travel one of the country's most historic highways. The Natchez Trace stretches south from Nashville, through a tiny corner of Alabama, all the way to Natchez, Miss. It's 444 miles of pristine pavement.

In four days, we would see scenery shift through three seasons and follow a remote path that has drawn adventurers for five centuries.

We expected to find wildflowers and waterfalls. We didn't know about open-mike night at that country grocery, or the monument to a famed explorer, or the tiny shack where Elvis was born. We would track planets through a giant telescope, sleep in a log cabin, sip mint juleps in the manicured garden of a mansion.

Last year, 5.7 million people visited the Natchez Trace Parkway — making it the seventh most visited national park, ahead, even, of the Grand Canyon.

But we could drive hours without seeing another car.

• • •

The road is wide and almost straight, slicing south through forests and farm fields. It dips in some spots, crosses rivers and skirts small towns. Mile markers along the thick shoulders help track the trip.

You can drive the free parkway without stopping, or you can pull into short loops to picnic, read signs and see sites. You can stay in your vehicle, or park every few miles and hike into history.

The first photo op, guidebooks say, is the double-arch bridge, a few miles outside Nashville. To appreciate the majesty of the architecture, exit the parkway, drive under it and look up.

"As long as you're doing that," a man on a motorcycle tells us, "you might as well go on down the road and check out Leipers Fork."

The town is a couple of miles off the trace, flanked by horse farms and country estates. A small strip of stores lines the main street: an antique shop, a candy counter, a worn-down diner.

And an old-time grocery called Puckett's that serves hot sweet potato fries and cold draft beer. Thursday nights, singers sign up to perform on a state-of-the-art sound system.

"Willie Nelson played here," a man with a ponytail tells us. "Miley Cyrus shot her movie right out back."

He shows us the old jail, the new art gallery.

He introduces us to a guy who wants to give us "the key to the city" — genuine Tennessee moonshine, doled out in Dixie cups.

But we have to get back to the trace.

• • •

Ancient animals, scientists say, plowed the first path through the forest, carving a wide swath on their way to a giant salt lick — near what is now Nashville. Hernando de Soto, searching for gold in the 1540s, traced the animals' route. Indians tracked turkey and deer along the footpaths. Eventually, they built meeting houses and burial mounds. You can still see some from the road, grassy remnants of long-lost residents.

Shortly after the United States became a country, men began floating goods down the Mississippi River. Beans and tobacco, cotton and corn drifted from Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico. The men couldn't get their boats back upstream. So they hacked them apart, sold the lumber and started hiking north through the woods, heading home.

By 1790, historians estimate, 10,000 people had traveled the trace — farmers and merchants, preachers and thieves.

Andrew Jackson led his troops along the trail to the Battle of New Orleans. The U.S. government started sending postal riders along the well-worn route in 1816.

Then came steam engines. Boats — and mail — could soon travel upstream. Men started returning home by river. Weeds choked the trace.

A hundred years ago, the Daughters of the American Revolution became determined to reclaim the old route. They placed stone markers and lobbied local politicians to prove the path's importance. In the 1930s, as part of the New Deal, workers finally started paving projects.

The last 12 miles were finished in May 2005.

• • •

We sleep in a farmhouse the first night, Creekview Farm Retreat. A rooster wakes us at dawn. At 8 a.m., our host brings steaming biscuits and cheesy grits and books about the trace so we can chart our day.

An overlook above a deep valley, an old brick home and a tobacco barn top the list. We drive a bumpy remnant of the original road for a couple of miles through the woods, then pull back onto the smooth surface of the parkway.

Meriwether Lewis, who helped chart the Louisiana Purchase for Thomas Jefferson, traveled the trace on his way to Washington. On Oct. 10, 1809, he stopped at a stand in southern Tennessee. Friends said he was broke, sick and drinking too much.

That night, some said, the 35-year-old explorer shot himself outside the inn.

A granite monument on the edge of the trace marks his grave.

• • •

By the second night, when we get to Tishomingo State Park, spring is in full bloom. Golden fields along the road are flecked with green. Clusters of lavender wisteria drip from the tall trees.

The log cabin we rent is warm enough that we don't need to light a fire. The shower is hot. And in the morning, four different bird calls echo outside our windows.

We detour off the trace that afternoon to find an army of Confederate graves, to photograph a field of golden buttercups, to drive to Tupelo, to see where Elvis got his first guitar.

A cardboard cutout of the King fills the front window of the hardware store, where his mother took him to pick out his birthday present.

A few miles up the road, a faded silk rose rests on the bed in the back of the two-room shack where he was born.

• • •

The only place to spend the night on the trace is at French Camp, near the middle of the parkway. Formed in 1885 as a school for Choctaw children, it still operates as a boarding school for 185 students. A restaurant featuring broccoli salad and Mississippi mud pie sits in the center of the 1,200-acre site.

And the Christian family that runs the place rents rooms — from quaint cabins to the two-story carriage house where we spent our third night.

On a hill above French Camp, the school's observatory is open to the public by appointment. Jim Hill, who teaches math at the school, shows us his 14 telescopes and teaches us to spot dying stars. "This is one of the six darkest places left in this country east of the Mississippi River," he says proudly. "Astronomers from all over come to our star parties."

• • •

At a popular pullout called Cypress Swamp, waves of heat shimmer across the parking lot. People let their kids and dogs out of the cars for a stretch. Dragonflies dart between the trees' gnarled knees.

You can walk across a wooden bridge, watch alligators eye a turtle on a long log. Shafts of sunlight slant through the bald tree tops, striping the brown-black water below.

Twenty miles south, we pull off the trace to check out a big, modern building called the Mississippi Craft Center. Part museum, part workshop, mostly gift shop, the nonprofit was formed in 1973 and features works from 400 artists from 19 states. Admission is free, but ceramic birds, glass crosses and hand-carved rocking chairs are priced up to $7,000 per piece.

Back on the road, more than 80 miles away, a wooden inn called Mount Locust looks down from a low ridge. Stairs lead to a thin porch where a ranger dressed in period clothing greets visitors. The inn opened in 1780, he says, and is the only one of 50 original stands along the trace.

For 25 cents, travelers got a bowl of cornmeal mush and a blanket. Some slept outside, others on the floor. "From here," the guide says, "you can walk to Natchez in a day."

• • •

On the northern edge of Natchez, a half-hour's drive from the trace, woods give way to street signs and strip malls. Horns blast. Houses appear.

And all sorts of signs direct drivers to antebellum estates, B&Bs, casino cruise ships.

You have to speed up, watch the traffic. You have to get used to seeing buildings instead of woods.

We roll by towering plantations, past crumbling cottages, along an old street shaded by magnolias. We turn onto a long lane leading to a mansion called Monmouth, where for $20 you can tour the immaculate gardens — and drink stiff mint juleps. Roses bloom around a gazebo; azaleas and irises hug the winding paths.

Here, at the bottom of the trace, summer has started.

• • •

We rent a room that night at an estate called Riverside. The owner ushers us onto an upstairs porch, overlooking the Mississippi. We settle into wicker chairs just in time to watch the mighty river swallow the sun.

For so many years, so long ago, Natchez was the end of a watery journey, the beginning of a long, hard trek home.

The next day, we also have to turn around. We debate taking the interstate, making better time back to the Nashville airport. But at the edge of the city, a wooden sign beckons us back to the trace.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com.

If you go:


Traveling the trace:
The Natchez Trace runs from Nashville to Natchez, Miss., covering 444 miles. There is little lodging directly on the route, but just a few miles off the road you find anything from a farmhouse to a room in a riverfront mansion, for an average of $100 a night. Campgrounds also are available. For details, go to natcheztracetravel.com or nps.gov/natr.

Among our stops:

  • Creekview Farm Retreat, a three-bedroom farmhouse just 3 miles off the trace near Fly, Tenn., $80 per person. (931) 682-2775.
  • Tishomingo State Park, a 1930s log cabin with two double beds, $54.50 per night, two-night minimum. (662) 438-6914.
  • French Camp Academy, a boarding school on the trace in Mississippi. We stayed in a two-story carriage house for $75. There also are cabins and rooms for rent. (662) 547-6835.
  • Riverside Bed & Breakfast, an 1858 mansion in Natchez, $100 (includes three-course gourmet breakfast). (601) 446-5730.
  • Ridgetop Bed & Breakfast, between Hohenwald and Columbia in Tennessee. We rented a restored log cabin, among other offerings, for $85. (931) 285-2777.
Restaurants are scarce along the highway, and many of the counties along the route don't sell alcohol. Picnic tables, however, abound. So pack a lunch. And BYOB.

Attractions near the trace:
  • Don't miss open-mike night on Thursdays at Puckett's Grocery in historic Leipers Fork, Tenn. (615) 794-1308; puckettsgrocery.com.
  • Elvis' birthplace is in Tupelo, Miss., just off the trace. $8 adults. (662) 841-1245;
    elvispresleybirthplace.com.
  • Call ahead to tour the Rainwater Observatory and Planetarium at French Camp, Miss. $5 donation suggested. (662) 547-6377;
    rainwaterobservatory.org.
  • Monmouth Plantation in Natchez offers mint juleps and garden tours. $20. Toll-free
    1-800-828-4531; monmouthplantation.com.
Lane DeGregory

On the Web: To see a slide show of the trip along the Natchez Trace and a gallery of wildflowers there, go to travel.tampabay.com.


Natchez Trace: A journey through history, from Nashville to Natchez, Miss. 05/14/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 18, 2009 2:47pm]

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