NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The Natchez Trace Parkway is a two-lane highway that winds for 440 miles through lush forest, gentle pastures and verdant farmland. By law, it is off limits to commercial vehicles: no roaring semis, no motorcoaches. Speed limit: a leisurely 50 miles an hour. It is a unit of the National Park System.
It sounds fabulous. Perfect. Ideal.
"I've heard that comment many times," says Eric Chamberlain, a National Park Service ranger stationed on the Parkway. "If you're driving by yourself, yes, it is. That's why your foot gets heavy. That's why you get tickets.
"But . . ." -- a hint of smile breaks on the face of Eric Chamberlain -- "if you're with someone, it's not boring. Drive with someone, and stop at all the places, and be interested in history."
Be intererested, because for much of the way, the Parkway runs parallel to a dirt road -- the Old Natchez Trace -- that's paved in lore. Born as a loose network of game and Indian trails, it was upgraded to roadness by Thomas Jefferson and traveled by Andrew Jackson and his troops, and Abe Lincoln's father and thousands of boatmen and bandits and Choctaws and Chickasaws.
Grant's army marched up that road. Soldiers from the South staggered home on it, and many rest beside it today in the shadow of Indian burial mounds. Resting there, too -- possibly uneasily -- is Lewis, without Clark.
Today's paved Natchez Trace Parkway extends from a few miles north of Natchez, Miss., to a few miles south of Nashville. We'll drive it and, from time to time, walk on remnants of the Old Trace, because they're there.
By the way, Eric Chamberlain's family has lived alongside the Natchez Trace since 1784. Oprah was born just a couple of miles off the Trace. So was Elvis.
This won't be boring . . .
DAY 1: NATCHEZ TO PORT GIBSON, MISS.
In the 1790s, boatmen from the Ohio River Valley floated their timber, goods and harvests on flatboats down the Mississippi to ports at Natchez and New Orleans. They couldn't very well float back upstream -- steamboats were a couple of decades away -- so in port, they sold their wooden boats for whatever the wood was worth, bought provisions, then walked or rode back on what would become known as the Natchez Trace.
We'll walk some, but mostly we'll ride.
A mile from the start of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a marker points to a roadside stretch of that Old Trace. Here, it is what it was in the beginning: a path through a forest of mixed pines and hardwoods. It's only a Frisbee-throw off the modern two-lane, but on this late morning there's no other traffic; the only sounds are birds, the scrape of shoes on stones, and whatever ghostly noises the mind conjures.
Nine more miles up, a short sideroad leads to Emerald Mound. Only Monk's Mound at Cahokia, in southern Illinois, is larger among Indian mounds than Emerald. DeSoto saw temples there in 1540; the temples, mound-builders and DeSoto were gone when the French got there 200 years later. What's left is a flat grass-covered plateau 35 feet high and 770 feet long.
Like other mounds, Emerald Mound, large as it is, takes imagination to appreciate. For the rest of us, they're just, well, mounds.
Two miles north, a sign announces a "loess bluff" created by centuries of dust blown here during the Ice Age and compacted by time. There are etchings cut into the side of the bluff; they are very likely un-ancient, unless one of mound-building Mississippians was named "Steve."
So we're stopping at all the places, but forgive us if we're thinking this could be a long 440 miles. It's already beginning to feel like a National Park nightmare: an endless road winding prettily to nowhere.