Off the beaten Trace

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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.

It can be the dullest scenic highway in America.

"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.

We'll visit.

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.

No geyser. No canyon. No butte. No bear.

Road.

And then, just when a rotting upside-down armadillo would be a nice break from the tedium, comes a marker for another place: Mt. Locust.

It is not a mount, or even a mound. It is a restored house -- its middle rooms built in 1779 -- that, from the early days of the Old Trace's boatman era, served as an inn of sorts, a "stand," in local terms. Once there were 50 of them along the route; this is the only one left.

It looks like just another weather-worn old shack with the usual period trappings. Then we meet Eric Chamberlain, the ranger.

"I was born in 1940, in that room over there," he says. "Fifth-generation."

The first one bought the place five years after it was built, then expanded it, gradually and not all that much, for their 11 kids. His great-great uncle, F. Jefferson Chamberlain, is buried in the family plot down a path from the house. Jefferson Chamberlain was a Confederate soldier who lost an arm at Shiloh.

Lots of Chamberlain tombstones in that patch of earth. Eric Chamberlain knows them all and their stories, stories of sadness and triumph, of corn and of rescued slaves, of strong women with strong beliefs -- and of the Old Trace.

"It's the young ones who call it boring," he says. "When they sign the book with comments, it's 'I am not having a good time.' It's the older people who are interested in history who enjoy the drive."

Quickie sidetrips help. Just up the road from Mt. Locust, one direction takes you to Fayette, an unexceptional little town. The other way, though, finds Andrew Jackson.

Springfield, a plantation house completed in 1791 a mile off the Old Natchez Trace, was the first mansion built in Mississippi. In spring of that year, Andrew Jackson married one Rachel Robards in the mansion's drawing room. Everyone, including Andy and Rachel, thought she was divorced at the time. What they had here was a failure to communicate.

Turns out Rachel wasn't -- there was still a Mr. Robards (an army captain) -- which legally made her a bigamist, and this wasn't Utah. They eventually got it right a couple of years later, but the scandal still emerged during Jackson's 1828 run for the White House (yes, even then). You can see the actual drawing room.

Back on the Parkway. About 10 miles up, another quick sidetrip.

Windsor, the largest plantation house ever built in Mississippi, was completed in 1861. It survived the Civil War, then burned, in a fire started by a cigarette, in 1890. Today, it is a ruin. The 23 ornate columns stand as if holding off the encroaching forest. There is nothing else.

It is absolutely astounding.

Back to the Parkway. Ten miles north: Port Gibson.

"This is a good town," says the mayor, Amelda Arnold. She is Port Gibson's first woman mayor, and the town's first black mayor, and she mixes me a martini in the Old Depot Restaurant she manages.

Port Gibson, on the Old Natchez Trace, like Windsor Plantation, isn't quite what it was.

DAY 2: PORT GIBSON TO KOSCIUSKO

The town, historic Port Gibson, third-oldest in Mississippi behind Biloxi and Natchez, was declared too beautiful to burn by Grant in 1863. So he didn't. Instead, he marched his army from Port Gibson up the Old Natchez Trace to Raymond on the way to taking Vicksburg, but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Some of the beauty that Grant saw is still here, primarily in the white-columned homes -- some grand, some relatively modest -- that endure on Church Street and its tributaries.

The grandest belongs to Martha Lum.

They remember things in Port Gibson. Martha Lum remembers seeing Elizabeth Taylor at the Windsor Plantation ruins for the filming of 1957's "Raintree County."

"You know, she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen," Martha Lum says. "You could hardly look at her, she was so pretty . . ."

It is cool in the courtyard of Oak Square Plantation, the big house. Part of it, and its former coach house, operate these days as an upmarket bed-and-breakfast run by the family.

"My grandmother was 22 years old when the Civil War was over -- and she remembered everything," she says. "My grandfather was a Confederate soldier.

"What do you think the Civil War was about?" I know she's asking a trick question. "You tell me what you think," she says, "and I'll tell you what I know. I know what happened, because I knew the people . . . "

There is gentle bitterness in her 77-year-old voice as she recounts the history she knows. Yet, just when you're ready to file Martha Lum into some cliché-Mississippi pigeonhole, you learn this:

In 1986, a couple of years after they opened Oak Square to guests, she and her late husband, William, bought the town's abandoned 1892 synagogue to keep it from becoming a parking lot. William Lum was Protestant; Martha is a Catholic.

The restoration of Gemiluth Chassed Synagogue is nearly complete. You can visit it.

The South, when you get past what you think you know, becomes a very complicated place.

Back on the Parkway. Just north of Port Gibson, a sign marks a stretch of "sunken trace." Here, who knows how many horses and oxen and heavy boots pounded the soft earth until for miles, the Old Natchez Trace became a trench. Trees spreading above the trail have turned it into a veritable tunnel.

Four more miles up the two-lane, Mangum Mound. It's a mound.

A footpath that begins near the Mangum parking area puts us back on the Old Trace, to where Daniel Burnett's Stand is now dust. The only indication someone was here: an overgrown graveyard, the stones barely legible, one of them for "Jane, wife of John Patterson, born Oct. 19, 1790, died June 8, 1823."

Grindstone Ford was up the Trace. Mosquitoes are here now.

Seven miles north on the Parkway, what once was Owens Creek Waterfall has been reduced by time and nature to Owens Creek Trickle. Twenty miles later, a sign marks the site of Dean's Stand. Grant, on the way to Raymond, headquartered here.

Then there is Raymond.

The Raymond Court House, finished in 1859, was built by slave labor, of bricks made of local clay. It is a classic Dixie courthouse.

"Full of ghosts," says Tommy Rayford, who works for Hinds County. "Especially upstairs, over there.

"Lot of history in Mississippi."

Good, not good?

"It all goes together," says Tommy Rayford.

During the Battle of Raymond in 1863, the courthouse was used as a military hospital. Bernice Moody, a deputy circuit clerk, walks me up to the second floor. "We have had a number of things that are unexplained," she says. "Primarily noises that are unexplainable."

In the jury room on the second floor is a heavy table. It is original to the building.

"We know that during the hospital period, operations were performed here," she says. She has me look at the table's underside. "The stain under here is consistent with other examples of bloodstained furniture."

Noises.

The Battle of Raymond was fought about a mile south of town. By coincidence, thousands of men in uniforms are gathering at this moment for re-enactment of the battle that ended May 16, 1863. One of the men on McPherson Ridge, in blue, is Gary Young of Boscobel, Wis. He will fight with the 1st Wisconsin Cavalry, Company D. He's done this before.

"I've been at it awhile -- about seven years," he says. "Used to do it for real, with Navy SEAL teams."

Back on the Natchez Trace Parkway. There's a break here. The Parkway cuts off south of Jackson and picks up north of town, and will until the linkup is completed, possibly in 2005. For now, the signs take us onto Interstate Highways 20 and 220, and the change -- to 70 m.p.h. -- is, for a minute or so, a giddy release from the shackles of 50.

Then, and this comes as a surprise, it feels all wrong. Everything seems so fast, so frantic. Cars zoom from lane to lane. Semis roar. Billboards. Intensity . . .

We skip Jackson. Just want to get through this.

A sign. We're back on the Parkway, back to 50 m.p.h., back to green. Thank you.

A stop at the Mississippi Crafts Center, a mile past the junction, finds, well, crafts, at decent prices. "Everything you see in here is hand-made, 80 percent in Mississippi," says the woman at the register. Just ahead, the Ross Barnett Reservoir -- honoring a governor whose name generates different responses from those touched in different ways by the struggles of the '60s -- lures fishermen hungry for the lake's catfish and bass.

"Got a turtle yesterday," says a young man with bad teeth from Leesburg, who has nightcrawlers on the three lines he has working. "I let 'im go back. A lot of people eat 'em. I ain't never tried 'em."

About 15 miles farther up, a sign says "Cypress Swamp." There are few natural areas as irresistably otherworldly as a cypress swamp. This one, though small, is no exception: striated reflections on still water, the occasional flop of a startled frog, the streaks of low sun through the trees. The mosquitoes chase me out of there before I'm ready to leave.

But it is time. It is 38 miles from the swamp to Kosciusko via the Natchez Trace Parkway.

The car windows are open. The warm air is sweet.

DAY 3: KOSCIUSKO TO TUPELO, MISS.

Oprah Winfrey hasn't forgotten Kosciusko.

"She's close to some of her kinfolk here, and she came last year to help with a Habitat for Humanity home," says Elizabeth Edwards, a volunteer at the town's visitors center. "We've named a little road out there 'Oprah Winfrey Road.' "

A glassed-in statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko -- the new town on the Old Natchez Trace left out the 'z' by mistake in the 1830s, and the mistake stuck -- stands in the center of the center. Press a button, and George Washington's favorite military engineer greets visitors in either English or Polish.

But in 1954, Oprah Winfrey was born in a little frame house on a patch just east of the town limits. At 4, on an Easter Sunday, she made her first public-speaking appearance down the road in what was the Buffalo Community Church.

The little country church is still there, though it's a community center now. The house is gone, but a sign marks the spot. Kosciusko may be a mystery name everywhere except Mississippi, Poland and Chicago, but everybody knows Oprah.

Here, where she was born and lived for six years, some people really know her.

"I know her," says Mamie Veasley, who lives 6 miles north but attends the new brick church that's across Oprah Winfrey Road from the old one. She is here today to help with a post-funeral potluck lunch. "I know her mother, and I know her aunt. We love them. They're nice people.

"I see the humbleness in Oprah. She hasn't forgot where she came from."

Andrew Jackson and Tom Lincoln walked within a few hundred yards of Oprah's birthplace.

Fifteen miles north, at Cole Creek, another cypress swamp, smaller than the first, earns a look. Then, French Camp. In 1812, a French Canadian -- Louis LeFleur -- built a stand here, along the Old Trace. Folks being folks, they called the area French Camp. Today, it's home to French Camp Academy, a boarding school for kids who need a little extra care; on the grounds are a cabin dating to 1840, an 1846 house, a B&B, gift shop and a small café perfect for a light lunch.

More signs follow inviting explorations of the Old Trace, and we stop at a couple, to break up the drive and stretch our legs and to remind us why Audubon, among others, was drawn to the beauty of this woodland trail.

Always, though, the mind falls back to images of this as a working road, carrying traders, Indians, boatmen, preachers and charlatans, weary soldiers and homesick adventurers working their way through what, except for the Natchez Trace, was essentially wilderness . . . .

A cutoff leads to Mathiston, a railhead with a hardware store that's been there since 1917. On U.S. Highway 82, the road to Mathiston, the 82 Trading Post offers deals on, among other things, all sorts of well-seasoned iron skillets. Another cutoff 25 miles north leads to Houston, Miss. We take it, out of curiosity. Highlight: a storefront "Dixie Diner" that's really a barber shop.

A couple miles up the Parkway: Bynum Mounds. Two Indian mounds, these side-by-side. Weird thoughts suggest we've been on the road too long.

Ten more miles up: a spot near where Hernando DeSoto spent the winter of 1540-41. The Trace wasn't here then, but the Chickasaws were, and evidently they got along just fine. He discovered the Mississippi River a few months later, south of what's now Memphis; the Chickasaws no doubt already knew it was there.

Then, just off the Parkway and a couple of miles from the Old Natchez Trace, comes Tupelo: Tupelo National Battlefield and . . . The King.

DAY 4: TUPELO TO HOHENWALD, TENN.

The wooden house in Tupelo where Elvis made his world debut is about as far east of downtown Tupelo as Oprah's house is east of downtown Kosciusko. Oprah's house, also made of wood, was on what's now Oprah Winfrey Road; Elvis' house is on what's now Elvis Presley Drive. Oprah's name has five letters. Elvis' name has five letters.

Verrrry spooky.

"Elvis and his brother," says the woman seated inside Elvis' birth house, "was both borned raht cheer in this room. 'Course, this was country then. . . . "

The woman guides visitors through the two-room shotgun house (admission $2, $1 for kids) without leaving her chair. Outside, a man asks a boy in a Little League uniform who Elvis was.

"He's a dead singer," says the kid.

Steps away at the very curious Elvis Presley Museum of Tupelo, a cashier is collecting $5 admissions.

"There's a few of his cousins still here," she says. "Our sheriff, Harold Ray Presley? He's a cousin." I don't seek out ol' Harold Ray.

West of downtown (nice magnolias around the courthouse), 3 1/2 miles from the Elvis Birthplace and a mile from Natchez Trace Parkway, is Tupelo National Battlefield. In July, 1864, 14,000 Union troops clashed with 10,000 from the Confederacy here.

It was a Union victory, which probably explains why the entire Tupelo National Battlefield today is just about big enough to host a 12-man pie fight.

Back to the Parkway. Two miles up, the National Park Service has laid out signs and outlines to suggest a Chickasaw village. Real site. Not much magic. A couple of miles north, though . . .

On a low ridge above a stretch of the old Trace rest the gravesites of 13 Confederate soldiers, known but to God. The original stones are long gone, but the 13 replacement tombstones up there today look very much like the ancient creamy-white C.S.A. tombstones in almost every town cemetery in Mississippi and Alabama.

Perhaps they were soldiers coming home from Shiloh. Soldiers who weren't as fortunate as one-armed F. Jefferson Chamberlain.

By the 1830s, steamboats were carrying men and mail and goods up the Mississippi, against the current, to the Ohio River and on to Pittsburgh and to all points inbetween. The Trace was no longer a national link. This great civil war, as Tom Lincoln's son called it at Gettysburg, revived it.

Here, in silence, was this reminder.

Seventeen miles up the Natchez Trace Parkway, more Indian mounds: Pharr Mounds. Eight burial mounds over 90 acres. For some reason, after dismissing the other mounds, these connect. So will Bear Creek mound, a ceremonial mound, just ahead. It takes a while, sometimes.

Lot of history in Mississippi.It all goes together.Twenty miles up, where the Old Trace met the Tennessee River in what's now Alabama, George Colbert was said to have charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his army to the other side. A sign at a junction: to the right, David Crockett State Park; to the left, Waynesboro. John Wayne played Crockett in "The Alamo." Not quite Elvis and Oprah, but the note is recorded nonetheless.

At milepost 375: a 2-mile Old Trace drive. It is one lane, northbound only. It is hilly, which makes it fun, though (by now, historic context is inescapable) we're thinking it was no fun at all for Jackson's exhausted troops or the road-weary boatmen.

We are near the end, but for us, there is no road-weariness.

We had left dullness behind, long, long ago.

DAY 5: HOHENWALD TO NASHVILLE

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's great adventure from the mouth of the Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia ended in 1807. Clark would live until 1838.

Lewis would die in 1809, right here, on the Old Natchez Trace.

"In the Grinder House," it says on the monument atop his remains, "his life of romantic endeavor and lasting achievement came tragically and mysteriously to its close."

The cause was from a gunshot wound, probably by his own hand. He was 35 years old. A chunk of foundation locates the Grinder stand. The Old Trace is steps away.

Northward. The Old Trace is exposed often during this section of the Parkway. Promise of a waterfall at Fall Hollow provides an excuse to walk it again. A tobacco farm exhibit eases into another driveable couple of miles of the original trail.

A sign marks Jackson Falls. The trail is paved but steep. The payoff is an excellent waterfall deep in the forest, and the work it takes to get here is an invitation to rest and reflect.

We've seen a lot on this road.

Three miles up the Parkway is a house John and Dorthea Gordon built in 1818, near the ferry they established 15 years earlier across the Duck River on the Old Natchez Trace. The ferry, and house, are closed.

Back on the Parkway. The cruise control is set at 40 miles an hour. No rush. Too soon, a last "Old Trace" sign. We pull off to a parking area and look for the trail, to walk it a final time.

It is hardly visible. Looking across, it is a barely perceptible dent in the grass.

But looking down its length -- there it is. Trees have been cleared. It is a path. Someone did this.

One last walk with history.

Back on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Then, soon, the Interstate.

And everything seems so fast . . .

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