Mex2010 Blog 4 Natchez Trace

 Mex2010 Blog 4                      November 14,  2010


If you ever find yourselves in the western South with two or three days to spare, we recommend the Natchez Trace, 450 miles of two lane road from Nashville to Natchez along one of America’s earliest interstate highways. The first, of course, was the Camino Real, which led up from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It suffered its first traffic jams in the mid sixteenth century, about the time the grandparents of the British Puritan Pilgrims were not imagining where their grand children would end up. The second seems to have been the Post Road from Boston to New York and Philadelphia, a branch of which passed directly in front of our house in Kingston. The Natchez Trace, the third, was carved out of the wilderness at Jefferson’s initiative starting in 1801 to facilitate travel and trade between the Anglophone Northeast and the Francophone and Spanish-speaking lower Mississippi. It was The road for a couple of decades until steamboats made it relatively easy to get from New Orleans all the way to Pittsburgh. The modern version, managed by the National Park Service, closely parallels the original Trace, many fragments of which still slice through the woods fifty yards to the side of the asphalt.

What makes the route so delightful, in addition to the woodsy scenery and the lack of signs, commercial development, and, during our trip, people, are the historical and ecological interest points featured at pull-offs every few miles along the way. Sites of old inns, supply stations, mission schools, Choktaw and Chicasaw villages, mills and battle grounds. The best for us were the nature walks, each advertised as ten or fifteen minutes in length, but generally worth more. Places like these:


And if that weren’t enough, there are a dozen Indian mounds—both temple mounds and burial mounds—within hollering distance of the Trace. Emerald Mound, just outside of Natchez, is the second largest in the United States. It is second to Monks Sunken trace sections. Mound at Cahokia, in Illinois across the river from St. Louis, which we visited several years ago. Both Monks and Emerald are so clearly Meso-American in design and layout, that they set us to musing about how the Aztec missionaries managed to get so far north and whether the cults of Tlaloc and Quetzalcóatl were the forerunners of the Bible Belt. The adventures of the Mexica scouts along the way through the savage Chichimeca lands, the inhospitable deserts of the Mexican north, and the alligator-infested swamps of the lower Mississippi ought to be the stuff of novels. The wonders of new, never-imagined landscapes. The hopefulness, the intoxicating optimism that propel exploration and colonization. Not to mention, from our perspective, the ironies inherent in the fact that within a couple of centuries the Spanish Catholic Missionaries would be imposing their architecture on Tenochtitlán and Tlaxcala just the way the Mexica were doing on the wooded river bluffs of the central Mississippi basin.



No ramble along the trace, of course, would be complete without a visit to the shrine at the birthplace of America’s only royalty:


The memorial park, on the outskirts of Tupalo, projects the sacredness of rock as gospel and EP as its prophet. Like any effective modern shrine, this one has several components supported by ample parking for cars and busses. There is the two-room house where EP was born. Next to it is the church where, a plaque tells us in not quite such precise terms, EP first had his vision of the miraculous fusion. The church was brought here from its original location so that its aura could mingle with that of his white clapboard birthplace. There is a chapel for prayer, a fountain of life for … hand washing? Taking home vials of water like at Lourdes? There’s a museum (adults $12), with biographical exhibits and memorabilia and a gift shop crammed with EP chachkis: T-shirts, jigsaw puzzles, posters, mugs, decanters, books, CD collections, and many more things that we would have noted if a bout of queasiness had not sent us back out into the fresh air and the tree-lined wholesomeness of the Natchez Trace.