Retracing the Past

Posted April 5, 2017

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“The excursion is the same when you go looking for your sorrow as when you go looking for your joy.” – Eudora Welty

Like most of our travel this year, driving The Natchez Trace was more than a pleasure trip. It was pilgrimage.

Generations of Jim’s relatives lived along The Trace … Johnsons, Thurmans and Bobo’s. Jim’s people are all in the ground now, or moved on, but we wanted to see the places Jim knew from his childhood and visit his biscuit crumb memories scattered up and down that old long road.

Did his grandmother’s house still stand in Port Gibson?

How about the church where his parents married …

A 1940’s photo of the Port Gibson 1st Baptist Church, where Jim’s parent were married in 1941.

Would he even recognize these places? Was the old family farm – where his uncle B.J. lost his hand – still a farm or had it been developed? Of course the “Ride With Rose” chain of service stations his other one-handed uncle managed must be gone, but were the buildings still there?

Ride with Rose Oil Company

Yes, Jim had two one-handed Uncles. His mother’s brother, B.J., lost his right to a corn picker, and his father’s brother, James, lost his left to dynamite. Accidents of youth and inexperience.

When Jim was young, he thought uncles were one-handed men. In high school when I told Jim I was going to Mississippi for the summer to visit my uncle, he joked, “Left or right?”

While driving along The Natchez Trace – an historically treacherous route haunted by genocide, murdering robbers, suicide, civil war, an exiled civilization, witchy kinds of places and other horrors – we happily ambled along picnicking on fried chicken, waving at cyclists and schmoozing with fellow campers who hailed from just about everywhere as we all marveled at the eye-popping spring foliage, beautifully maintained park amenities and roadside historic markers.

The Natchez Trace captures what some call The Real South, and what I call, The Southern Conundrum where Jesus Lives and Elvis Lives, and where one is recently allowed to buy beer at Piggly Wiggly on Sunday during “after church hours.” But, mind you, wine buying on Sunday is strictly forbidden (Hmmm … wonder if football is involved?) but buying Krispy Kreme’s is legal every day and twice on Sunday … Honestly, sometimes I think The South is just a’messin’ with me.

Let the journey begin!

We drove the Trace proper –  slow and easy. Peak seasons are March to April and October to November but any section of the highway is a good bet for a relaxing “Sunday drive” any day of the week, any time of year.

It took us five days to drive the entire 440 mile historic wilderness highway from Natchez to Nashville and we would have savored it even longer if not for Stella!!! the nor’easter that changed our plans.

At the beginning of the Trace, the charming city streets of Natchez are very narrow and most are one-way, so it’s best to park at the visitors center (which offers free overnight RV parking with electrical hook-ups) and casually stroll the neighborhood on foot or by bicycle.

Cycling along the great Mississippi River

Everyone who travels to Natchez is there for the mansions, but when it dropped to 35 degrees overnight we dove into our heated truck seats and hit the road. We do regret leaving the hospitality of Natchez so soon … but we will be back!

Scenic pristine byways and parkways like The Natchez Trace were an innovation of the late 19th century when automobiles were fairly new. The idyllic combination of park and highway were intended to bring the recreational pleasure of walking and driving together – and cycling is now a welcome new addition.

Thank you American women! Many of our national parks are a result of the historic preservation efforts of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution). Elizabeth Jones, president of the Holly Springs, Mississippi chapter of the DAR first proposed in 1906 to mark and memorialize the original route of The Natchez Trace. And between 1909 and 1933 fourteen different locations were marked, spurring national interest. Eventually, a route using numerous existing county roads, some city streets and many sections of the historic old Trace – were spliced together and paved to function in the tradition – if not precisely to – the original route.

The Trace is not commercialized and there is no entrance fee to this National Park. We stayed overnight at the campgrounds provided and never even needed a reservation. The camp sites are free (first come, first served) and secure with a two-week stay limit.

Rocky Springs Trail Campground – Our 1st night on the Trace

Our first stop, the Rocky Springs Campground right off the Trace.

Jeff Busby Campground – Our 2nd night on the Trace.

Our campsite at Jeff Busby Campground

Tombigbee State Park – Our 3rd night on the Trace.

Tombigbee is located on a beautiful lake

Meriwether Lewis Campground – Our 4th and final night on the Trace

Our campsite at Meriwether Lewis Campground

Fuel and restaurants were short side-trips away. GPS came in handy for that. Sometimes we were surprised to see how close we were to housing developments and commercial districts in nearby towns. The park service does a great job deflecting traffic and city noise to nurture a sense of wilderness with split-rail fences, historic markers, mile posts, densely forested natural boundaries. It was a pleasing, unhurried adventure, and a truly unique driving experience. There are hundreds of places where you are invited to pull off and view a ruin, a ghost town, a Chickasaw or Chocktaw mound … We never unhitched, and some pull-off sites were too narrow to accommodate a rig our size, but most were just fine.

“Evenings, dances! – Afternoons, long, long rides! Picnics. – lovely! – So lovely, that country in May. – All lacy with dogwood” – Amanda in THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams

And, I’m tellin’ you from Natchez to Nashville, the food and drink was slap ya’ mama!

King’s Tavern, the most haunted house in Mississippi,

Fat Mama’s Tamales

The Old Country Store

Great Beer joint and nightclub in tupelo, the Blue Canoe

Prices everywhere are cheap to moderate so we spared ourselves nothing, just enjoyed.

View of the bridge to Natchez from Vidalia, LA
The Mississippi River Bridge, viewing from Vidalia, LA to Natchez, MS

Emerald Mound

From the top, you can see the entire mound.

Mount Locust

Windsor Ruins

Outside Port Gibson, one of the beautiful small bridges that cross over the Natchez Trace
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Sunken Trace
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Worn down by centuries of travelers.
State Line Squirrel says: “Drive slow to protect, stray calves and cyclists.”

The lost community of Rocky Springs

Cypress Swamp

Tupelo Cypress Swamp – magical or creepy?
A beautiful 20-minute walk around the swamp.

French Camp

Witch Dance

Witch Dance

We stopped by Elvis Presley’s birth place to pay respects to Mama’s old friend.

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On our way to Elvis!
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Jim and Pico on the porch swing at Elvis Presley’s birth place
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Elvis Presley’s living room window …

The Natchez Trace Visitor Center in Tupelo – in the middle of the Trace – was worth the time.

Natchez Trace Visitor Center

Mile marker 269.4: we walked a short distance to 13 graves of confederate solders.

Donivan Slough has a delightful 20-minute nature walk

Pharr Mounds

Pharr Mounds – An ancient bustling market place thrived here, centuries before western expansion.

Rock Spring Nature Trail

Enchanting walks at Rock Springs
Pristine water at Rock Springs
Magical places at Rock Springs
Pico loved Rock Springs
Places to rest and contemplate at Rock Springs

Meriwether Lewis

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Grave site and monument for Meriwether Lewis

One of the highlights is Jackson Falls.

Traffic is mild on The Trace, but motorcycles and cyclists (bicycles) are as common as cars and RV’s

Birdsong Hollow

Double Arch Bridge at Franklin Tennessee.

As always, we missed a few things like the Eudora Welty House in Jackson. Next time. But Jim did find most of his memories …

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Famous Port Gibson church built in 1807
Site of Jim’s grandparent’s Port Gibson home where Jim’s dad grew up. The original home has been replaced but the garage building is still there.
Steps of the First Baptist Church of Port Gibson, where Jim’s mom and dad got married in 1941.

We love The Deep South and though our roots will always stretch toward the natural beauty of the bayou, we’ll be turning the corner now and going in another direction. West! On Historic Route 66!

 

17 thoughts on “Retracing the Past

  1. Look up the history of Rodney, Mississippi and stop by the town, what’s left of it. There is a very large cemetery on a hill behind the church. Very large cemetery. Really old graves.

  2. Thanks for the post. Plan on doing the Trace toward the end of May as we work our way to The Mother Ship. May contact you with questions. I think we are going to need our AC.

  3. We have done it a couple of times, lovely trip, in spite of how little land is public along the Trace, it has a sense of being back in time

  4. Drove it on a Harley with my wife! We also took our time, stayed the night in Tupelo and spent several days in Natchez at a B&B on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi! Great, relaxing trip! Can’t wait to do it in the Airstream. Your pics brought back good memories.

  5. Wonderful summary of the Natchez Trace – now I know I definitely need to make that drive!! Great photos, too!

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