Natchez Trace Parkway


You’ve heard of ribbon development. But what about ribbon non-development?

The buffalo started it all, they and some of the other wild animals of the American South. They migrated up the Mississippi, at first, and then on up to the Buffalo River in Tennessee. As they moved through the lush forests of the valley, they left a trail the Indians found useful as a trade route for more than 3000 years. Salt from the Delta went north, fine stone for arrow and spear points came south. Hunters used the trail, too. The trail became more and more established, although it was never more than a footpath.

It didn’t need to be.

Then came the Europeans, and with them trade took on an entirely new dimension. They wanted to get bulk goods to market from the fertile fields of Tennessee, not just small high value parcels like the Indians. As their forefathers in Europe had done, they used the rivers. Especially the Mississippi, but also all sorts of feeder streams like the Cumberland and the Big Black River. They built flat-bottomed boats or just used rafts; it was easy going south with a current that could, at times, run at 25 miles an hour.

But the same current made it difficult to get back upstream. Well, it actually made it impossible. Even if steam-powered tugs had been available they would have been much too expensive. So the boatmen and rafters pulled their transport apart and sold the bits as well as their cargo and walked home. The obvious route was the old buffalo trail, which soon became known as the Natchez Trace. This particular meaning of the word “trace” is archaic now, but it used to just mean a path.

Why did they walk, when horses were easily available? I asked Dale, a ranger at one of the stations along the trace.

“Oh, it would have been too much of a temptation for the robbers along the way,” he said. “A horse was worth a fair bit more than a life here in the late 18th century.”

The boatmen would gather in Natchez until they felt their group was large enough to deter the highwaymen and then they would set out. To serve them there were exactly 50 inns along the trace, because that’s how many days it took to walk it.

It remained a footpath until 1801, when the US government made it a post road. Later it was widened into a military road but then the steamboats began to ply the rivers and the need for a road was no longer vital. The trace began to revert to nature, a process that continued until the Civil War when there was a brief return to usefulness for troop movements. But that didn’t last and the trees and bushes all but obliterated the trace.

Then, in 1909, the Daughters of the American Revolution started a program to mark the route of the old trace. The Department of the Interior took up the idea and built the trace we have now – actually called the Natchez Trace Parkway to distinguish it from the trace itself, which runs more or less parallel and is accessible at many places along the way, but not actually usable for any distance. The trees and bushes are hanging onto their conquered territory.

The parkway is a two-lane tarred road, kept in immaculate condition and protected by a screen of natural countryside, quite narrow but also quite complete, pretty much all the way from Natchez to Nashville. When you’re riding this road you might as well be in a 200 mile-long park, lined with nature and historical displays and totally without commercial development. In fact, even commercial vehicles are totally banned.

There are some disadvantages to this, including the fact that you have to leave the parkway to get fuel or food, although there are some camp grounds so you will be able to find a place to set up your tent. But there are also advantages; it’s like taking a holiday from the 21st century, because there is relatively little traffic – at least when we were there, in spring. The opportunities to take a look at the historic and ecological displays are well worth taking. The Parks Service has a thorough and deeply committed attitude.

The building at first of the inns from the south, Mt Locust, was pulled apart completely, to the last nail and screw, so the Parks Service could determine exactly when everything was built and how. As much material as possible from the old inn was used to build the current one, but it’s no more than one-third original. The benefit is that it looks original, not like a ramshackle ruin.

One unfortunate aspect of the Parkway’s design is that it can get a little boring after a while. The 50mph speed limit is not too bad (that’s 80km/h; think how many great bike roads in Australia are 60km/h) but you find yourself missing the small towns and working countryside every now and then.

That’s not a criticism of the Parkway; it is a wonderful idea and it has been carried out very well. If you were to take its easterly twin, though, you’d find yourself more diverted. The Blue Ridge Parkway, twice the length of the Natchez and traversing high ridges in the Blue Ridge, Great Smokey and other Appalachian ranges, offers the most staggering views of the mountains instead of the greenery of the river valleys. It also prohibits all commercial use and development. As far as I’m concerned it’s great that we can ride both.

There is one example of a ribbon park in Australia that I know of, and that’s Frank Hann National Park in WA. It protects both sides of much of the track leading from Lake King to the Norseman-Esperance road. This is not, however, good tar, it’s sand.

We didn’t ride all of the Trace this time; I did that some time ago and visited both Tupelo, Elvis’ birthplace, and Nashville, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Yes, okay, I like country music. In fact I like both kinds of music.
What we did ride was enough to give us a good idea of the state the road is in and of the traffic density. I’d stay away on weekends but otherwise it’s fine. Watch out for bicyclists.

On the way back to Natchez we stopped in at the Old Country Store on Highway 61 at Lorman, Mississippi. This establishment claims to serve the best fried chicken in the world and I would be loath to argue – not least because Mr Arthur Davis, who makes that claim, is an impressively large man with several impressively large sons.

The 130-year-old wooden shop is a huge barn of a place that looks like your favourite aunt’s living room, with knick-knacks lined up along the walls. It’s terrific. We, sadly, did not sample the chicken – “hot, well-seasoned and crunchy on the outside with moist, white, tender meat on the inside”. It was too early in the day for us to get stuck into the deep-fried cuisine of the south. But if you’re there, and hungry, give it a go. The store is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm and you can’t miss it from Highway 61.

And if you’re anywhere near its 200-mile plus length, try to ride at least a bit of the Natchez Trace. And forget Graceland; go visit Elvis’ modest birthplace in Tupelo instead. It will tell you a lot more about the man.