The National Park Service brags that the Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile drive through nature and American history, all of which sounded interesting enough for me to attempt the drive over a two-day span. The history was there, with the grave of Meriwether Lewis, a ghost town at Rocky Springs and Native American burial mounds.
The natural beauty is outstanding, too, with a cypress-filled swamp, waterfalls, towering trees hanging over the parkway and a gorgeous bridge spanning Birdsong Hollow. But I came upon a shocking revelation: The parkway is only actually 442 miles long, with the final marker at the exit of the Trace near Nashville, proof that my brochure is full of government sponsored lies. It’s a parkway conspiracy!
Originally a network of Native American trails, the Natchez Trace gained prominence after the settlement of the Mississippi River region, when packet and flat boats carried goods down the river to Gulf ports. Before the invention of the steamship, there was only one way to get back to the city you’d departed: walking north. And the Trace, with its established towns, frequent traffic and relative ease of navigation, was a veritable interstate highway of the era.
Of course, hitching a ride on one of Robert Fulton’s steam-powered paddle boats was even easier. After the turn of the 19th century, merchant’s who’d just sold a haul of goods at market in New Orleans–or even Natchez itself–could take a much swifter route home by river. So began the decline of the Trace, no longer needed as a north-south thoroughfare once the river provide a right of way for two-way traffic.
Neglected, the Trace was rebuilt as a Parkway during the great depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. (Tupelo, Mississippi, the rough half-way point on the Trace, was the first city powered by the TVA, another of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives.) Though started in the 30s, work to completely finish the route wasn’t finished until 2005. Despite its centuries-long existence, it’s only been possible to drive the Trace for six years.
I split my journey into two days, a nod to the length–two miles short of 444–and the 50-mph speed limit. Initially terrified by the plodding pace, I came to appreciate the mandate to slow down, pulling off spontaneously to explore historical markers, take short hikes and fuel up at country stores just off the byway. At one shop, the lone gas pump still had reel-style dials, like you’d see on a slot machine, that hypnotically clinked over as I refueled. There were a few good ol’ boys sitting around inside, chewing the fat with fly swatters in hand.
The most interesting stop was the grave of Meriwether Lewis, the leader of the expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. A memorial column, hewn short of its capital in a nod to Lewis’s early death, marks the grave, set on a large grassy plot, off the parkway. Elsewhere, ruins of the ghost town of Rocky Springs are an erie reminder of the ephemerality of trade routes. Aside from a church that’s been maintained by a local congregation, two hulking, rusting safes are all that remain visibly intact of this town that once had 2,000 residents.
The parkway then is an epic drive through history. Even if it’s not quite 444 miles long.