50 Shades of Green – A Journey up the Natchez Trace
Two lane road. Tall pines and Live Oak trees with eerie looking Spanish moss dripping from their limbs, line the sides of the road as we curve and weave our way through the forest. It’s been raining in southern Mississippi now for about a week straight. It sure has made everything so beautifully green, you know that light pale shade that appears in early spring when the buds of the trees have first unfolded their new delicate leaves. We’re on our spring migration with our camper in tow and we’re chasing the early flowers and the 50 shades of green all the way to Tennessee. We’re going to go slow. Take two weeks maybe and hopefully let the weather, the blooms, the feeling and the wind drift us north. There’s something special about this road. I can’t put my finger on it just yet, but with each mile marker we pass I get this sense that this journey is going to be like no other we’ve been on. And it was at around mile marker 10.3 that I realized that this road was going to be like no other highway we have been on either.
This was a road not only through beautiful countryside, with no billboards or advertisements allowed anywhere, and a speed limit of 50 MPH, but also a classroom, a time capsule of history and a way to touch, feel, smell and see a slice into this land’s past. This passage meanders through the southern belly of America and it twists and turns through the landscape and the archives that formed her. Perhaps it was our American Buffalo that first blazed the 444 mile long road as they migrated from the lowlands of the Mississippi Delta into the hills of Tennessee. Countless deer and other wildlife probably helped carve this trail of least resistance over mountains, through swamps and across rivers. It was a means for betterment. Soon it became a highway of sorts and the internet of its time long before those words were ever spoken. Blood, birth, life, death, prosperity, devastation and change are written in the stones that are buried in the soil and now I too meander along the path known as The Natchez Trace.
I never really understood the name. I guess I thought that the word Trace was used back in the day as another word for Path or Trail. I didn’t connect that it really was actually both a Verb and a Noun. The Natchez Trace is both an action and marker. Taking a trip up or down the Natchez was both tracing the path and history of the people and societies that lived along this stretch of land and it’s also an outline for a historical route used by animals, Indians, traders, slaves, and military for thousands of years. At mile marker 10.3 we pulled off the Trace and down a short country road leading to our first history lesson and our mouths fell open. It was just the two of us. No other cars, people or life anywhere. We walked in the rain and stood on top of an Eight acre Indian ceremonial mound built between 1200 and 1730 and that was just the beginning.
There are over 1200 things to see along the Trace. There are markers and history plaques at each stop. There are countless hiking trails that take you to waterfalls, old home sites, and historic buildings. There are three free national park campgrounds along the way and several state parks within a short drive from the Trace. We decided to travel about 60 miles our first day and pulled into every turn-out we saw for our history class. The map provided by the National Park is the perfect guide and gave us all the mile marker information we needed to slowly tool along and soak in the scenery and the lessons. Most of the road is without shoulders, which may make travelers towing big campers a little nervous, but going only 50 MPH and with no commercial vehicles or semis permitted on the Trace, we just moseyed on…. until we saw a pickup coming towards us with his emergency blinkers on.
We were about five miles away from the Rocky Springs Campground, when he passed us. I saw he had his brake lights on, so I slowed to a stop as he backed up to us. “There’s a tree down across the road around the corner. Don’t think you’ll be able to get through.” He glances at our 35′ rolling roof doubtfully. “Don’t think you’ll be able to turn her around either. There’s no cell reception here, but I’ll drive to the next rangers station about 20 miles back and let em’ know.” We inch forward and see that he wasn’t joking. A huge live oak that would laugh at the little chainsaw I carry with us was laying across the road. The rain kept coming down and every five minutes or so we’d watch a car slowly come up behind us or up to the other side of the tree and then turn around. We pulled out our chicken salad sandwiches and ate lunch, played a game of cards and I drifted off in thought thinking about the travelers that went up and down the Trace a couple hundred years ago. Trees falling from rains had to happen all the time. Their trip didn’t take two weeks, but more like three months and was filled with thieves, swollen river crossings, and run away horses. Almost two hours slip by and we notice that we are no longer seeing cars coming from the other direction. There must be more trees down along the Trace. “It’s okay babe. ” I comfort Sharon. “We have everything we need. Our wagon is still hitched behind us. We have our bed. The fridge is full. I could run the generator if we need electricity. Heck, this is a beautiful spot to camp…..” I reel in the rest of the pep rally as I glance up through the sunroof and see the canopy of monster trees swaying in the wind. I whisper to myself ,”Please do not fall…. Please do not fall”.
A few minutes later the Calvary comes and they cut a swath through the tree so that we can drive through. Actually they had to do it two more times before we made it to our campsite.
The rains ended and the rest of our trip up the Trace was spectacular. We watched the dark green leaves of Mississippi slowly turn to that light early spring green in Tennessee. We enjoyed watching the different wild flowers bloom and also loved the feeling that new things were sprouting inside of us too. A trip up or down the Trace is altering. It is not just about that Indian mound that we discovered at mile marker 10.3 or the many others we soon would find. And it wasn’t just the lessons we learned about slavery and the civil war that bloodied the road. It was also about the present day. It was about the river towns that it connects and the people that live there. It was about the Jazz that echos in Natchez. The Blues that flows in Muscle Shoals. It was about an 80 year old man we met and sat and talked with for a few hours at mile marker 338 named Tom who has built a breathtaking 1.25 mile long stone wall around his property by hand as a memorial for each step his Grandmother took on the trail of tears.
The Natchez Trace is like a piece of thread that weaves together our American story. It’s a road that must be taken slowly. It’s a journey to take more than once. I have no doubt that its effect upon our spirit will linger for seasons to come.
A few helpful links to help you with your adventure up or down the Natchez Trace:
Natchez Trace National Park – Official National Park website with lots of great information as well as up-to-date road conditions
Natchez Trace Travel – A great interactive site that not only lists official attractions along the trace, but also some great excursions a few miles off the highway
Scenic Trace – Another great interactive site to help with planning
(Be sure to stop at the welcome center at the beginning of the trace and pick up their official all in one map)
Map 1 (540k) – Natchez to Jackson (milepost 1-113)
Campgrounds we stayed in along the way
Natchez State Park – This park is at the beginning of the Trace in Natchez Mississippi. I wouldn’t rush to get going up the trace. Natchez deserves a good three days to explore and the state park is nice too. We stayed in site #36 (Full hookups)
Rocky Springs Campground – The first free campground on the trace. Cell signal was nill. There is no power, water hookups, or dump station, though there is a bathroom. There are several pull through sites and the sites on the top of the loop are a bit nicer. Its first come first serve, so I would recommend always arriving at the free campgrounds early in the day. There are plenty of alternative campgrounds off the trace all along the national park too. From Rocky Springs we took days trips into Vicksburg.
Jeff Busby Campground – This free National Park campground has fewer spots that are big rig friendly, but we slipped in early and got a nice back in. We had good cell signal here. The campground offers a nice hiking trail up Little Mountain Trail, which is one of the tallest mountains in Mississippi.
Trace State Park – The state park in Tupelo Mississippi is a few short miles off the Trace. It offers full hook ups and is on a beautiful lake. There are some great hiking and biking trails within the park and the perfect place to take excursions into Tupelo and the other great state parks and forests in the area.
McFarland Park – This county park in Florence Alabama was a wonderful stay. All the sites are pull thru with full hook ups. The park is located right on the river and the town of Florence was charming. We used this perfect landing spot to explore Muscle Shoals and found some great hiking trails at the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve.
Meriwether Lewis Campground – This is the last free national park campground on the trace and this is where we were planning to stay. When we disconnected from our last spot and were pulling up our landing gear and pulling in slides, we mistakenly had more 12 volt things going on a time and blew a fuse. It started to rain as we hooked up so we decided to save the trouble shooting for our next stop and opted for a state park off the trace where we could have power.
Henry Horton State Park – The Davy Crockett State Park is actually right off the trace and would be a great stay in leu of the free campground, but we opted to travel a little further away from the trace to be close to some friends we wanted to see while we were in Tennessee. Henry Horton is another beautiful Tennessee state park and we took advantage of the park for paddling, hiking and exploring.