Welcome back to Natchez Trace
The Trace is perfect for a leisurely drive
We took a spin on the bikes
Wildflowers lined the road
A motorcycle group enjoys a morning ride
We take a side road to visit an Indian Mound
Riding down the side of the Indian Mound
A barn in the distance
This split-rail fence had no joinery - the rails were simply
laid on top of each other
Cows in the distance
Bursts of color everywhere
A lone tulip celebrates the
Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi
March 20-21, 2009 - We reluctantly tore ourselves away from the sparkling waters
and soft sands of the Emerald Coast and made our way north.
We could have stayed on that beach forever, but we had two problems in the trailer
that needed attention. From day one our stove had acted up: if you cooked
something for a long time, eventually the burner knob wouldn't turn and you couldn't
adjust the flame. This meant that it was just about impossible to shift a pot from a
rolling boil to a gentle simmer.
Also, the sliding pocket
door that separated the
main room from the
bedroom had fallen off its
track. Neither of these
repairs was something
that Mark wanted to
since the trailer was
still under warranty.
So we decided to
make a trip to the
NuWa factory in
where the experts
This change of plans
meant we would
retrace our steps
from last year,
traveling up through Alabama and Mississippi through Arkansas to the
southeast corner of Kansas. Poking around on the map we were happy
to see that this put the free campground at Rocky Springs on the
Natchez Trace right in our path.
The Natchez Trace is paradise for anyone that likes the simple pleasure
of going for a drive. It's a place to meander and ponder rather than a
route to get you somewhere. There aren't a lot of dazzling sights, but
there are endless miles of peaceful scenery with minimal traffic, clean
pavement and sweeping turns. It is ideal for bikes, motorcycles and cars that aren't in a hurry.
We rolled out our bikes and took a leisurely ride out and back along 15
miles of the Trace south of the campground. The air was fresh and clear,
flowers sprinkled the edges of the road with vibrant colors, and we
murmured to each other for the umpteen-millionth time, "What a great life!"
The Trace is layered in history, from prehistoric peoples to more
recent Indian cultures to the early settlers to modern America. The
ancestors of the Natchez Indian tribe lived along the route, and
evidence of their unusual customs has been found in their ancient
burial mounds. One Indian mound in particular had caught my
attention last year, and we took the little side route off the
Trace to see it once again.
There is not much to see but a small grassy hill topped with
informational plaques. However, their tales took my breath
away. Apparently the ancients had a radically different view
of the sanctity of human life than we do today. When a noble
man died, his slaves were strangled and buried with him. Far
more shocking, when a parent died, sometimes the surviving
parent killed their children as a sign of respect and grief.
It is easy from our viewpoint at this time in history to dismiss those
customs as barbaric, cruel, and unfair. However, in their society it
was somehow right and good and proper. Where our society would
have screamed "Murder!," theirs might have been nodding solemnly,
saying, "Yes, that was the right thing to do."
This was all very heady stuff, stamped out in a few brief
sentences on rusting metal National Park Service plaques placed
around the mound. The violent acts of the early peoples were
hard to fathom in such a bucolic setting. In the distance, the
cows were munching the grass, a barn stood quietly against the
treeline, and a split rail fence snaked its way across the meadow.
All around us the spring flowers were
bursting with color. Yellows, pinks
and pale blues filled the fields.
If you looked really closely, some of
the tiniest little blooms were the most
elaborate, but as a group they
formed a carpet of color.
Back at the campground, right outside the bathrooms, a
single tulip was opening up and greeting the day. How could
that bulb have possibly gotten there? There wasn't another tulip for miles around. It seemed yet
another mystery in this very mysterious place.
We said goodbye to the people we'd met at the campground, a young woman riding her bike
down the Trace for Spring Break and an older grey bearded guy on a motorcycle going the other
way. A little more north off the Trace for us, and we would soon find ourselves in the Ozarks.
Natchez Trace Parkway
The Old Trace
Mount Locust "stand"
Dining room - with seating for 6
10 kids slept here (5 in each bed?!)
Grandmother and eldest daughter slept here.
Driveway to Stanfield
Stanfield, where Andrew Jackson was married.
Rocky Springs Campground
Population 1860 - 2,616
Population Today - 0
Rocky Springs Church, built 1837
Rocky Springs Graveyard
Natchez Trace & Jim Henson Museum, Mississippi
April 29-May 2, 2008 - We left Natchez and ventured onto the Natchez
Trace Parkway, a 444 mile road that follows a primitive trail linking
Natchez, Mississippi with Nashville, Tennesse. The Parkway is a
remarkable two lane road that is closed to commercial traffic and has a
speed limit of 50 mph. The National Park Service oversees the Parkway
and maintains three free campgrounds along its length. Because of the
low speed limit the traffic is non-
existent and we often drove for many
miles without seeing another vehicle.
There is a lot of history along the
Trace and at times it felt like we were
viewing layers of history. We saw
Indian burial mounds from 4,000
years ago and travelers' "stands" or
inns from 150 years ago.
The original Trace was created by buffalo and other animals migrating north-south. The ancient
peoples used the trail for their own migrations. In the 1700's European traders would bring furs
and other goods down the Mississippi by boat, sell their goods in Natchez (and even sell their
boat for lumber) and then walk back to Nashville and other points north to do it again.
The Trace became a popular
place for highway robbers, as the
folks walking north from Natchez
had money in their pockets and
little protection. In the early 1800's, seeking to bind the vast and
turbulent frontier to its northeast seat of power, President Jefferson
ordered the army to widen the trail and make it a road passable by
As was noted by the Secretary of State at the time, "the passage of
mail from Natchez is as tedious as from Europe when westerly winds
prevail." The Trace vastly improved communications, but by 1830 it
fell into disuse as steamboats going up and down the Mississippi
river offered easier transportation. The Natchez Trace Parkway
weaves along the original Trace route. At times the original Trace is
visible. It is a mere hiking trail. After the Trace was built into a road,
"stands" or inns popped up along the route. These offered food and
lodging to travelers -- on a very simple scale.
We visited the Mount
Locust stand. A family
operated this stand with
51 slaves. In the main
house the parents slept
in one bedroom. The
grandmother and eldest
daughter in another.
The other ten kids slept
in the remaining
mattresses were made
of corn husks and rope.
Visitors made do on the
Looking at these
accommodations it was
hard to imagine that
arriving at one of these
stands was all that
inviting. However, after
walking or riding a horse
all day on a dirt trail
these intrepid travelers must have been accustomed to truly roughing it.
Nothing like us, with our motorized transport, smooth paved roads to drive on
and a buggy with a well stocked fridge, freezer, hot shower and 12 inch mattress.
We stopped briefly at Stanfield, the mansion where Andrew Jackson was married.
Like others we had visited, there was a long tree-lined drive up to the house, and
the house was a
At Rocky Springs Campground, one of three lovely and free
campgrounds on the Trace, we were treated to a gorgeous morning
with filtered sunlight pouring through the trees.
On the edge of this
campground is the
ghost town of Rocky
Springs. All that
remains of this once
bustling town is the church, the graveyard and two bank vaults. The abandoned
bank vaults reminded me of the vault we had seen in the Gulf Coast town of Bay
St. Louis, MS. However, the once prosperous rural town of Rocky Springs wasn't
devastated by a hurricane. Instead its death came from many sources: bad land
management that cleared hillsides for cotton leaving
erosion scars that can be seen today, the Civil War, a
yellow fever epidemic in 1878 and a boll weevil infestation.
It was eerie to walk a small trail through the woods where
there had once been cotton plantations and 2,616 residents.
There is nothing but trees now.
Up on the hill the church is still used, but
the cemetery's stones all date from the
1800's. How can a town vanish in just a
little over 100 years?
Port Gibson is one of the larger towns at
the southern end of the Trace. At one
time it was considered "too beautiful to
burn," but we didn't find it particularly
inspiring. There was an interesting mural
on the wall of one building, and a small street with a handful of
stores, some in business and some shuttered. More intriguing were
the homes on the outskirts of town where the Confederate flag was
flying. Some flew the flag along with the American flag, and some
flew it alone.
We took advantage of this ideal area for cycling to do a few rides along
the Trace. With no noticeable traffic, modest rollers, and interesting
historical sites every few miles, we thoroughly enjoyed our rides. One
day, while camped further north on the Trace at Jeff Busby
Campground, we rode our bikes down to French Camp. This was a
bustling community in earlier days and had several pretty buildings.
Besides the recent historical sites that can be seen on Natchez
Trace, there are a lot of prehistorical sites as well. We stopped
at several Indian ceremonial and burial mounds. Archaeologists
have dug through these mounds and made some startling
discoveries. At one site, when the leader of the tribe died it
seemed that all his attendants were killed and buried with him.
Often they were killed by strangulation. Likewise, when a parent
died sometimes the rest of the family would be strangled and
buried with the parent. As I pondered all this back at the
campground -- in the pretty setting sun -- it occurred to me that even though lots of people have concerns about individual rights in
our culture today, at least we don't do that.
After we left the Natchez Trace Parkway we headed west and
north towards Arkansas. I was dozing when suddenly Mark
said, "Look, Kermit the Frog...!" I woke up just in time to see a
billboard for the Jim Henson museum. We spent a very happy
hour at this little outpost in Leland, Mississippi that is a
charming museum of Jim Henson memorabilia. It is run as a
labor of love by a woman who raised her children watching
I remember when that television show first aired in 1969. As a
nine-year-old its alphabet and numbers lessons were a little
juvenile, but I remember loving the gentle humor and I
watched it for many hours with my younger sister.
Mark knew the show from raising his kids watching it. He had been a
teenager when it first aired, so he never saw the episodes I did. It was
amusing standing around with the proprietor and realizing that all three
of us had watched it during different eras and we remembered different
things -- even different muppet characters.
This little stop in Leland rounded out a delightful visit to Mississippi.
From there it was on to the Ozarks in Arkansas.
Magnolia Hall, 1858
Driveway to Longwood
Griffith McComas House
Glen Auburn, 1875
Melrose - from the front.
Melrose - from the back.
Slave quarters at Melrose.
April 25-28, 2008 - Driving inland from Bay St. Louis, we stopped in Natchez, Mississippi
for a few days before starting up the Natchez Trace Parkway. This plantation-era city,
the first city built on the Mississippi River, is loaded with beautiful homes. Some are
"antebellum" mansions, which we learned means "before the rebellion," that is, before
the Civil War. Plantation owners engaged in serious one-upsmanship with each other,
building homes that were ever more elaborate. The most stunning of these homes grace
the outskirts of town where they still stand on very large and grand parcels of land. Most
of these mansions have been
lovingly restored and are open
to the public as museums.
Some are even available to host weddings.
Urban aristocrats of the 1800's built elegant homes in town, many of
which now offer overnight accommodation as guest houses. Wandering
around this town and these homes made us feel like we were peering into
a bygone era of immense wealth and of gracious, slow--paced, elegant
living. We toured much of the town by bike. It was a perfect way to
experience it. The traffic was fairly light, and the downtown area was so
tightly packed with mansions that we were constantly hopping on and off
the bikes to admire them. Each mansion has a a story to tell.
Perhaps the most dramatic was the story of Longwood. At the time
that this mansion was being built, it was on track to be the largest
mansion by far. Being octagonal, its construction was complex. It
took 600 slaves 9 years to build it, and by 1859 only the exterior
was completed. However, when the war broke out construction
stopped. After the war ended the man of the house died. His wife
raised their ten children in the basement of the house -- the only
finished part -- and she lived in the basement until her death, some
25 years later.
beautiful, but its sad
story hung like a
cloak over the whole
estate. The ancient
trees on the
loaded with Spanish
everything a heavily overgrown feeling. It made me think of Sleeping Beauty
and the prince who had to cut his way through the thick overgrowth to find his
beloved fast asleep in her cobweb filled castle. Up close Spanish moss has
the appearance of cobwebs growing between the leaves.
As we rode back into town one afternoon we discovered
that the Natchez Bicycle Club was hosting their Belles on
Bikes century ride that day. The ride was strictly for
women -- the men in the club were relegated to providing
SAG support!! We hung around and chatted with some
club members while the women came in from their
vigorous ride along the Natchez Trace Parkway. After a
morning of mansion-gawking and pondering Mississippi life
in the mid-1800's, it was refreshingly familiar to hear about
the hills and wind out on the Parkway. Mark chatted with
the bike mechanic about the bike
business while I snuck behind the club's
peep-through painting of a 19th century
Belle with a Bike.
There is a certain fantasy about
wearing those beautiful long
hooped dresses and wafting
about your plantation mansion
as an elegant and beautiful
young southern belle in 1850.
It's a girl thing. The bike club
had it right when they painted
the peep-through dress for
photos of their Belles on Bikes.
The Natchez Bicycle Club jersey is certainly a cool
jersey, and at times in my life I've probably worn more
cycling jerseys than any other garment. But when we
went into the visitors center and I saw the pink
hooped dress on display -- the real thing -- my inner
princess came alive. What fun it must have been in
those days. It might have been impossible to sit
down, but wouldn't it have been a thrill to be the Belle
of the Ball in that dress in one of those mansions?
Sadly, not everyone was able to live
that way, and when we climbed on
our bikes again we decided to go to
other parts of town to see how the
non-mansion-dwellers lived. It was
startling to see the degree to which
the mansion owners shoved their
wealth in the faces of those around
them. Just one street away we
found rows of homes that
were as modest as the others
were lavish. Suddenly the
conspicuous wealth that had
seemed so dreamy a
moment ago now felt
offensive. We wandered
beyond these homes to
back parts of town that were
truly struggling, even today,
and we heard loud voices.
Turning a corner we came
across a group of men
shooting the breeze on a
dilapidated porch. They
were seated on battered
couches and kicked back on
broken chairs, laughing and
joking together as we rolled by. I waved, and they waved back and called out, "Hi there
Lady!" I felt as though we had finally found the real Natchez, the one that isn't mentioned
in all the brochures about the civil war, the plantations and the mansions.
The Mississippi River was cresting at a record high during the days we were in Natchez.
We rode to a bluff that overlooks the river and Louisiana on the far banks. We got talking
with the folks around us and discovered we were surrounded by local people who had
come to see the swollen river. Several told us they had lived in Natchez all their lives and
never paid much attention to the river, but now they were watching it everyday because it
was rising higher than it ever had. We rode down to "Natchez Under the Hill," the rowdy
part of town in the old days. We found it was not only under the hill but under water! The
Isle of Capri casino boat was still tied to the docks, but the parking lot for the casino was
totally submerged. As on the bluff, we found more local residents down in this area
staring and taking pictures of the high water.
A group of adorable kids
was out for a look at the river with their moms. They were so cute
Mark asked if they'd mind lining up for a picture. They were tickled at
the idea and huddled around him afterwards to look at the shot in the
back of his camera. They had been searching for alligators because
there were warning signs posted at the water's edge. They weren't
lucky enough find one, but that didn't matter. They started looking for
The National Park Service maintains Melrose, one of the antebellum
plantation estates. It is a large complex with outbuildings in addition
to the main house. The back of the house is almost as grand as the
front. I was surprised to learn that some of these Natchez mansions
were essentially just winter homes for their residents. Several
families spent summers in the northeast or touring Europe and
returned to Natchez for just a few months a year. It was hard to
assimilate the idea of that lifestyle with the slave building at Melrose
which housed several families in very tight quarters. Kids began
helping their parents work at age 6, parents were deliberately split up
and sold to separate owners, and the only rest anyone got was after
Back in town we
home was built
in 1902 by the
effort to create the
Parkway -- the next
stop in our travels. We
just liked the look of the
house and the sculptures in the back yard,
and we paused for a moment to admire it.
What a surprise it was when the gates
suddenly swung open and a Lincoln
Continental pulled out of the driveway. It is
still a residence!
After enjoying the history and culture of Natchez
we struck out to the north along the Natchez
Words of hope on a building in Old
Town Bay St. Louis, MS
One building reborn. Another waits its turn.
Missing steeple but lots of faith.
Old Town Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
April 20-24, 2008 - We drove along the Gulf Coast of Florida and, after crossing
Alabama on I-10, we dipped down to the coast again in Mississippi. The further west we
drove the more we encountered the fallout from Katrina. It was startling to see how
extensive the damage was. Not living anywhere near this area, it had been easy to think
that life returned to normal once Katrina was out of the headlines.
Instead, we found a
coastline still reeling
from the devastation
three years earlier.
The coastal road in
Mississippi was in the
that lined the road were stark
reminders of the raw power hidden in
the innocent, sparkling waves that
lapped the shore. Only one in five of
those coastal mansions had been
repaired. The rest stood forlorn and
vacant, windows blown out, roofs
collapsed, walls wrapped in "caution"
tape. The weeds grew thick and tall
around the foundations and the
gracious lawns that swept down to the sea were
overgrown. We drove in awed silence. We had had no idea.
We stopped in a visitors center,
and the host spoke almost
reverently of the Mississippi
governor whose savvy use of
federal funds had apparently
begun to breathe new life into
a region that had been like a
war zone. On his advice we
took a detour and stopped at
the tiny coastal community of
Old Town Bay St. Louis. What
a delightful find.
This town shared the epicenter of Katrina with eastern New
Orleans. A tiny community, it sits right on the water. Some of
its businesses used to line a waterfront road. After Katrina
roared in from the Gulf, all that was left of a one-time bank
building was the bank's vault. The massive door was totally
rusted and was stuck partly open. The concrete wall on the
side of the vault had a single spray painted word: "solid."
Today Old Town Bay St. Louis is rebuilding itself as a kind of artists' colony, with
cute, funky homes and shops. As we drove into town with our huge rig we were
greeted warmly and shown where to park so we could walk the town. What a
contrast from Gulf Breeze, Florida, which we had just left, where the visitors
center had a huge sign out front, "No Motorhomes," and the mammoth
empty parking lot across the street had similar signs posted every few feet.
In Old Town Bay St. Louis, with its tiny streets and tight parking, they were
hungry for visitors, even those pulling large trailers.
Reconstruction takes a very long
time. Next to a building that had
found new life we would see one
that was still hoping for help.
However, the homes that were
completed exuded a relaxed kind of
charm, with pleasant porches and
beautifully tended gardens.
A beloved Live Oak tree was
encircled with a pretty white
deck. Graceful stairs
beckoned visitors to climb up
towards the heart of the tree.
This tree was tougher than
Katrina and still stood straight
(for a live oak) and proud.
Others leaned to one side.
Looking around town there was no
mistaking which direction Katrina took
as she blew through the area. Trees
and signs all leaned in one direction,
and lampshades were dented on one
side. It was startling to imagine the
force of the wind that would leave
sturdy trees forever tipped.
But today the town was filled to
overflowing with colorful flowers.
There was an air of happiness,
purpose, accomplishment and
whimsy everywhere. Pretty
gardens, funny weathervanes, and
unique gingerbread houses made
the tedium of reconstruction seem
Relaxation seemed important in this
town too. Many homes were fronted
by inviting porches cradling comfy
chairs and bright flowers.
A row of little homes right in the center
of town has yet to be rebuilt. I have no
doubt that these cute buildings will be a
focal point in a warm, chatty community.
As we walked around we saw that
little houses weren't the only ones
hit hard by Katrina. Even the
county courthouse came away
from Katrina battle scarred and
was now wrapped in a bandage of
Not everyone displaced by
Katrina ended up in a FEMA
trailer. Some simply took a
trailer frame and erected a tiny
traditional house on it. We saw
one parked and another
heading down the road. They
were cute, but we still loved our
little Lynx. We were interested
to learn later that our Lynx was built to the same
specs with the same materials by the same
people and in the same factory as over 300 of the
FEMA trailers. Our trailer was a delightful home
and I wrote to the Fleetwood factory workers --
who were so saddened to see their hard
work after Katrina maligned in the press --
to let them know they had a happy
customer here. Maybe the difference in
our experience with our trailer is that it was
our ticket to freedom, and we paid for it out
of our own pockets.
From the Gulf Coast of Mississippi we
made our way inland to historic city of