Graves & Guns on the Natchez Trace

Photo of cannon at Brices Cross Roads
Cannon at Brices Cross Roads
My earliest memories of childhood holidays are of sitting in the back of our family’s Ford Cortina, driving through France, and being suitably impressed whenever my dad knowledgably pointed out: “See how straight this road is? That’s because the Romans built it.” And I’d sit back and picture the armies of Rome marching north to bring sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads and all rest to the ungrateful hordes of Britannia.

There aren’t too many roads in North America whose roots go back over two thousand years, of course, but the Natchez Trace is one of them. First travelled by bison making their way north to saltlicks in the area around what is now Nashville, Tenn., the trace has since been followed by Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians and, later, by French and Spanish explorers.

In the late 18th century, frontier farmers from the Ohio Valley walked home along the trace after floating their goods down the Mississippi to markets in Natchez and New Orleans. By 1810 the wilderness trail had become a bustling thoroughfare, wide enough to accommodate wagons. Just two years later, however, the arrival of steamboats on the Mississippi marked the beginning of a rapid and terminal decline of the Natchez Trace as a trade route, and by 1830 it was officially abandoned.

A century or so later, work began on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile-long road that runs parallel to the original trace and was built, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, to “protect the nation’s natural and cultural heritage.” Some might find a certain contradiction in the construction of a two-lane highway through pristine woodland in order to protect the country’s natural heritage, but somehow it works. With just one gas station, no motels and, perhaps uniquely amongst U.S. highways, not a single food outlet along its entire length, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a corridor of real beauty and tranquility.

The parkway runs from Natchez to Nashville, but Carole and I are joining the road just north of Tupelo, Miss., at the official Parkway Visitors Center. As always, I walk out amazed at the knowledge, patience and general helpfulness of those representing the U.S. National Park Service (NPS). You go into these places with a vague list of interests and requirements (Civil War … no major hikes … somewhere to pick up supplies for lunch … aiming to be in Nashville by about 6 p.m.) and seconds later you’ve got a personalised itinerary marked out on one of those wonderfully collectable NPS leaflets with the black strip along the top.

The parkway is particularly well suited to this kind of advice, too, as there are mile markers along the entire route. Our first recommended stop, at the graves of 13 unknown Confederate soldiers, is at mile point 269.4. This is just 3.4 miles north of the visitors center so we’ve hardly started before we’re stopping again, but it’s worth it as the five-minute walk through the woods takes us along a section of the Old Trace, giving us a good idea of just how primitive – and narrow – this trade route really was. At the end of the short trail are the graves themselves, each marked by a marble headstone bearing the inscription “Unknown Confederate Soldier.” If visitors were to resist the urge to litter the site with Confederate flags and gaudy fake flowers, it might even be a moving place to visit.

Our second stop-off point, just a few miles on but requiring a brief detour from the parkway, is the site of the Battle of Brices Cross Roads, an important Confederate victory secured in June 1864 over much larger Union forces. En route, we stop off at a local gas station-cum-convenience store for water, provisions and, it turns out, an impromptu demonstration of the rights protected by the Second Amendment as the owner pulls one gun after another from under the counter and explains that he keeps them there “in case them Mexicans say stuff ’bout my mama.”

It’s not every day that you walk into a store to find someone who, in his own words, is “a bit hillbilly,” showing off his extensive collection of firearms and itemizing the different ways in which various racial groups manage to annoy him, but his words are delivered with such absence of malice that it seems completely normal. We leave feeling we’ve met nothing more than a colourful Southern character and it’s only now, looking back, that the encounter seems a bit more bizarre.

After half an hour’s wandering among the memorials, cannon and, it must be said, fairly poorly maintained graves at Brices Cross Roads, we make our way back to the parkway and settle into an unhurried drive (a 50 mph speed limit makes sure of that) along the sweeps and turns of the parkway as it makes its way through the oak forests of this northern section.

At mile point 286.7 we pull over to view Pharr Mounds, a complex of eight Indian burial mounds built about 2,000 years ago. They vary in size from those that are little more than a bump in the landscape to large domes rising a full 18 feet from the otherwise flat landscape. Ten miles or so further north, we enter the northwest corner of Alabama and, almost immediately after crossing the Tennessee River, turn off to visit “Tom Hendrix’s Wall“, a site that we’ve been told is a must-see. And it is.

For the last 20 years or so, writer, artist and conservationist Tom Hendrix has been building a huge, dry stone wall to commemorate his great-great grandmother Te-lah-nay who, having survived the Trail of Tears – the forced relocation of thousands of American Indians to Oklahoma in the 1830s – walked all the way back again. Every single stone in the wall has been brought in on Hendrix’s truck and laid by his own hand. The wall now extends for more than half a mile, ranging from 4 to 5 feet in height and up to 10 feet wide. At a rough estimate, that’s somewhere around 3,000 tons of stone.

Unfortunately, our visit coincides with one of Hendrix’s frequent trips down to the creek to collect stones, but his wife, Doreen, invites us to have a look around. As well as the outer wall, there are also inner walls, stepped sections, seating areas and a prayer circle. It really is a remarkable endeavour. I like to think that a few thousand years from now historians will speculate about the purpose of this wall in the same way they do today at Stonehenge.

Back on the road we head north once again, crossing the border into Tennessee. With time pressing on, we’re forced to ignore the sign at mile point 375.8 inviting us to turn off and drive a 2.5 mile section of the Old Trace. Ten miles on, though, a scribble on our map indicates another ranger recommendation, and we pull off the parkway to pay our respects to Meriwether Lewis, whose life ended along the trace in 1809, in an inn just a couple of hundred yards away, and whose remains lie under a striking monument in the park.

The monument is in the form of a broken column, symbolizing an untimely death, for Lewis died of two gunshot wounds: one to the head, the other to the chest. Some believe that there may have been foul play – robberies were not uncommon along the trace – but the fact that Lewis had already attempted suicide twice is enough to convince me that the fatal wounds were probably self-inflicted.

Lengthening shadows and the need to find a hotel dictate that the last 50 miles of our trip down the parkway must be break-free, and it’s a wonderful drive along an almost empty road. That’s something that cannot be said of Tennessee Route 100, the highway that intersects with the northern end of the parkway. However, what Route 100 lacks in tranquility, it makes up for in directness. Point the car northeast and the road leads not just into downtown Nashville but right through to Lower Broadway, home of dozens of bars, restaurants and, of course, live music venues.

We begin with beers at Legends Corner, cross the road to Merchants Restaurant for crab cakes and ribs, and end up at The Stage, where I experience the twin firsts of (1) enjoying country music and (2) being groped by a rather forward woman who finds Carole’s presence no obstacle to her amorous advances (she may even have seen us as a two-for-one deal).

As it happens, the look of frozen, rabbit-in-the-headlights fear on my face isn’t the response she’s looking for so she moves on in search of more willing prey, leaving to me to enjoy my beer in peace and smugly reflect on having been found attractive (or, more likely, simply “male”) by someone other than my wife for the first time in as long as I can remember.

All in all, then, a great end to a memorable day.