Travel/Natchez Trace Parkway | A haven for those not in a hurry

Travel/Natchez Trace Parkway | A haven for those not in a hurry

BY FRANK HOSEK

Road trips are as American as apple pie. Piling into your car with a map (GPS on paper for the younger generation), your iPod full of tunes and setting out on an adventure. Driving along under clear skies and enjoying the sites along the way. But when was the last time you took a drive like that?

The best trips are those that don't have an agenda, letting serendipity be your guide. The Natchez Trace Parkway lends itself to just such an adventure. A 444-mile scenic drive through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, it's a two-lane ribbon of well-maintained tarmac that penetrates the interior of the mid-South. In 1938, it was designated as a National Scenic Byway that is preserved and maintained by the National Park Service.

With nothing more than the notion to see where Meriwether Lewis, of Louisiana Purchase fame, was buried, we decided to pursue the northern end of the Trace, just outside Nashville, Tenn.

Every road trip includes a hearty breakfast, and there is none better served than at the Loveless Cafe, a quintessential southern dining experience. A modest single-story, green-shingled, white-clapboard house on the side of Highway 100, adjacent to the Trace, the Loveless has been serving up mouth-watering vittles since 1951. It all starts with their biscuits. The made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits slathered with homemade preserves are enough to induce a steady stream of diners.

A barbecue pulled-pork omelet (its Tennessee after all), chicken-fried steak, over-easy eggs and a side of grits fueled our Trace adventure. As we started to leave, our waitress presented us a bag of fresh-hot biscuits "for the road."

From the Loveless, we entered the Trace, crossing the double-arched bridge that spans Birdsong Hollow. Rising 155 feet above the valley floor, the bridge carries Trace travelers 1,648 feet across the valley.

We were soon rolling through an avenue of budding trees under cloudy skies threatening rain. The terrain is gently rolling, sometimes even flat, and the views are of forests and fields. The early season trees had yet to leaf out, leaving the ornamental color of a few red buds to announce the coming of spring.

The trees occasionally thinned out and gave way to open meadows with a few contented cows, followed by a ploughed field. In the distance, a rust-red roofed barn stood suspended in time. A couple of vultures soared overhead and with little in the way of other traffic, we wondered their intent.

If you travel the Trace, be prepared to mosey, to linger and to observe. On the Trace, the journey is the goal not the destination.

The Old Natchez Trace was a series of paths carved out of the landscape by migrating bison, American Indians, European explorers and American settlers.

Thousands of Kentuckians and Tennesseans who had floated their trade goods down the Mississippi to Natchez, Miss., in flatboats, rode or hiked northward each year up the Trace to return home. At night, they might have slept in one of the few way stations or rude inns, always watchful of the highway men that roamed the Trace in search of easy pickin's.

Every few miles, a historical sign compels you to park your car and explore on foot.

Our first stop was Timberland Park (mile marker 437.2). There is an interpretive center with restrooms (take advantage of them, restrooms are few and far between) and a deck that overlooks the park. The trails are based on old logging roads. For generations, the wooded property comprising Timberland Park was logged by hand and loaded onto wagons pulled by mules and horses.

Gen. Andrew Jackson marched his Tennessee militia along the Trace during the Creek War and the War of 1812. During one particularly trying journey along the Trace, Jackson's admiring soldiers gave their tough old general the nickname "Old Hickory."

At mile 426, we found the 1812 War Memorial. Erected to honor the nameless who died as they marched to war and are buried along the Trace. Pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters cover the base of the memorial, placed by visitors who wished to pay their respect.

The Gordon House and Ferry Site (407.7) is a circa 1818 homestead that housed the husband-and-wife operators of a ferry across the nearby Duck River. The house is one of the few structures left from the Trace's early days.

The pace of the Trace is decidedly laid back. You aren't going anywhere in a hurry. The maximum speed limit on the Trace is only 50 mph, with much of it limited to 40 mph. On more than one occasion, we slowed to under 20 mph as we viewed the surroundings with little concern about approaching traffic. In fact, we spied more bicyclists than autos.

There is a notable absence of manmade distractions. No billboards, utility poles or roadside souvenir stands. Turkeys, deer and coyotes were spotted; however, the most abundant sightings were the black vultures and armadillos, in many cases the former hovering over the prostrate bodies of the latter.

At Jackson Falls (404.7), one of the Trace's most popular sites, a steep trail 900 feet long took us to the base of the falls. A double-tiered cascade, Jackson Falls drops 40 feet over its total descent, making a 90-degree turn before spilling like a curtain as it follows the stream's descent into the Duck River.

There is the Tobacco Barn (401.4) from the early 1900s, complete with real tobacco hanging from the rafters, and Fall Hallow Trail (391.9), where several small creeks converge into a pool at the bottom of a rock overhang. There were also portions of the original Trail throughout the trip to explore.

Our final stop was the grave of Meriwether Lewis which lies along the Trace (385.9), where he died under shadowy circumstances.

Capt. Meriwether Lewis, along with William Clark, led the Corps of Discovery's historic trek to the Pacific documenting President Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase.

Upon returning from the Northwest trek, he was appointed the first governor of the Louisiana Territory. During his time as governor, his health deteriorated, he began to drink in excess and claims of malfeasance were leveled against him.

In September of 1809, Lewis began a journey to Washington D.C., to defend himself against charges of mishandling government funds.

Lewis and his companions stopped on an October evening at the Grinder House for lodging. It was a remote inn located on the Natchez Trace that provided food and lodging to travelers in the middle of the wilderness.

Later that evening, gunshots were heard, and Lewis was found with two wounds: one to the head and one to the chest. Lewis' life ended on the morning of Oct. 11, 1809, at the age of 35.

While most historians accept the fact that Lewis did commit suicide, there are still more than a few that believe his demise was brought on by foul-play, possibly bandits or even the Grinders themselves.

We found a somewhat stark cairn of stacked, cut limestone topped by a simple, erect but broken shaft of granite symbolizing a life cut short. At the base of the shaft, President Jefferson is quoted, "His courage was undaunted ..."

It seemed a melancholy shrine for one of the nation's great explorers.

Today, the site occupies a 900-acre tract that contains a reconstructed version of Grinder's Inn, which provides a brief history of Lewis. Over two centuries after the event, we may never be able to discover exactly what happened that night long ago.

The Natchez Trace is a haven for those not in a hurry, who appreciate nature's distractions and don't mind being lost in thoughts and imagination. Our trip was but a small portion of the trail, but a journey worth taking.

Frank Hosek of Bourbonnais is director of human resources at Carpet Weavers Inc. in Champaign. His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and photography.

Topics (1):Travel