It’s Wednesday again, and I know some of you noticed that I was offline last Wednesday, unexpectedly. Life on the road comes with many unexpected twists and turns and last week one of them included a side trip to “Technical Difficulties”. Not a great place to visit. 1 star out of 5, Do Not Recommend. But I am back today, with tales from the Natchez Trace and thank you to all the kind souls who called to make sure I am still alive.
The Natchez Trace Parkway roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” a historical travel corridor – here over the centuries, thousands have passed, carving their footprints and their stories into the land. Used by buffalo, moccasin-clad Native Americans, pioneers, “Kaintucks” – rustic Kentucky characters who transported commercial goods down the Mississippi River to Natchez – once there they would sell the boats along with the goods and traveled by foot home along the Trace – Civil War soldiers and future presidents. During the early 1800’s the US Army expanded the Trace from a foot path to a post road and the Natchez Trace became an official “post road” to expedite mail delivery. Today, the post rider is the official symbol of the Natchez Trace Parkway. After the steamboat was invented the old Natchez Trace was mostly forgotten until 1938, when the Daughters of the American Revolution convinced the powers-that-be to preserve this chapter of our nation’s heritage and create a national historic parkway.
As I begin to trace the path – every mile from Mile Marker 0 to 444 – I am immediately drawn to the quiet beauty and peace surrounding me – no eyesores allowed – the sound of birds in the trees and every mile a fresh treasure! There is so much to see, learn and experience along this fascinating, richly historic route. I hope to immerse myself in this place and absorb some of the adventurous spirit of those who passed this way before me.
My first stop on the parkway – 5.1 miles -Elizabeth Female Academy Site. Now in picturesque ruins – founded in 1818, the first school for women chartered by the state of Mississippi and possibly the first college for women in the United States. Mississippi was a pioneer state in providing education for women and the school was far from a token effort. The young ladies studied Latin, botany, history, natural and moral philosophy, chemistry, mythology, Christianity and John James Audubon taught courses at the academy.
Emerald Mound – 10.3 – One of the largest Indian Temple Mounds in North America, covering eight acres. It’s builders were ancestors of the Natchez Indians and was used between 1250 and 1600 AD as a ceremonial center. We were the only people there and it was an incredible feeling to walk around this sacred place, feel the energy in the air, reflect on the ancient history of the trace and pay respects to those who built it – one basket full at a time … it leaves a lasting impression.
Mount Locust – 15.5 – constructed in 1780 and the only stand still standing on the Trace. Stands were inns where Trace travelers could rest for a night, The restored plantation and historic stand are open for tours but the buildings and gift shop were closed, so I walked the grounds and discovered a cemetery for slaves in the back woods with only one gravestone standing, sad and rather haunting but a true flavor of the Trace.
At Mile Marker 30. I leave the parkway to see the Windsor Ruins just outside Port Gibson, MS. Built in 1859 the plantation was a site to behold – the largest antebellum Greek Revival mansion ever built in Mississippi. Built by Smith Coffee Daniell II, who died from a mosquito bite before he had barely unpacked in his new home. The date was April 12, 1861, the first day of the Civil War. Legend says that from the roof observatory, Mark Twain watched the Mississippi River. A Union soldier was shot in front doorway of the home and the mansion was used as a Union hospital and observation post, which spared it from being burned by the Union troops. However, after the Civil War, during a house party, a careless guest left a lighted cigar on the upper balcony and Windsor burned to the ground. Everything was destroyed except 23 of the columns, balustrades and iron stairs. As I stand gaping, I think to applaud the enslaved people who made the bricks in these columns, which have stood ramrod straight all these years. I want to say that it is a magical place because there is a feeling of enchantment here but I can’t seem to forget this place is an attraction because it’s been very, very unlucky.
Sunken Trace – 41.5 – the sign points away from the ribbon of highway into the deep woods. As I follow, I drop down into a deeply eroded / sunken remnant of the old Trace. In the five minute walk along this sunken trail, I swat a mosquito and my imagination carries me back to the early days and the hardships of traveling the Trace – mosquitos, heat, swollen rivers, swamps and riddled with marauders the thought of walking over 400 miles in these conditions is mind blowing. As, I look back at my footsteps in the wet trail I know I am leaving them for the road to remember.
I end my first day at Mile Marker 78.3 – Raymond, MS – a place of History – as I leave the RV I stop to admire a vivid pocket garden on the corner and see a sign “Garden of the Month” – as I linger to take a picture the lady who owns the garden approached me and said she was tickled to her toes that a tourist was admiring her garden. Then she leaned towards me and whispered – I am no gardener, I just plant whatever comes my way and let it grow however it pleases. Imagine my shock to get Garden of the Month. They must be running out of gardens. Want to see my beautiful blue ribbon”? I can’t wait to introduce you to my new friend when we are here.
More to report about Raymond and my travels on the Trace next Wednesday. We have only just begun.
Guess What Day It Is?
It’s Wednesday, and this Wednesday, the road has led me to Mile Marker 0 of my all-time-dream trip, following 444 miles through 3 states, and 10,000 years of History – that’s right – I’m at the start of the Natchez Trace Parkway and feel as excited as a kid. Taking it slow is new to me, but that is the essence of the Parkway. Tracing it slowly, the slower the better, will allow us to fully appreciate one of the most fascinating and richly historic routes to be explored anywhere in America. So, I am taking my time, making my way from stop to stop on the parkway, and next Wednesday I will begin sharing all the wonders I discover along the Natchez Trace.
Today though, as I get underway, from Mile 0 to the first stops in Mississippi, I am not only reflecting on history, but also thinking about the future, and I want to talk about when we will be back on the bus together for our first Daytripping adventure in over a year! I’m getting so many phone calls and emails and Facebook comments, saying you are all ready to hit the road, that I wanted to respond to that with a heads up about our re-opening.
Our first planned trip for 2021 will be August 29, Oakland A’s vs New York Yankees @ 1:05pm. Followed by August 30, the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, in San Francisco and August 31 – September 3 Laguna Pageant of the Masters. Other trips to be looking forward to this fall: Giants vs Padres Thursday September 16 @ 12:45pm, California Missions September 21 – 23, Fleet Week October 9, Apple Hill October 12, Catalina Island October 31 – November 5, Sergeant Equestrian & Laurelvale Clydesdale Farm, Sacramento Broadway An Officer and a Gentlemen, Death Valley November 14 – 20, Thanksgiving Grand Island Mansion Champagne Brunch November 25, Ashland Christmas Getaway December 6 -9.
I will be sending out an Upcoming Trips Newsletter before the end of June so be watching for it.
And now, I turn my attention to the Old Natchez Trace, and continue my historic trek. I will be vetting each stop for things to do on our tour in the Spring of 2022, when the dogwoods will be in bloom! See you here next Wednesday with scenes and stories of the Natchez Trace Parkway!
I could hear “Old Man River” calling as I approach Natchez, the jewel of the Mississippi River, perched atop the highest bluffs on the Great River – oak limbs spread wide. I stood on the bluff, looked out at the rich bottom land over in Louisiana, took in a deep breath of the hot, humid, history laden air and thought I could hear the Overture from Showboat.
Natchez is the oldest city on the Mississippi River – three hundred years of eccentric history and quirky locals – endlessly fascinating. Famous for it’s antebellum homes, built in the 19th century when the region boomed with cotton. The staggering riches of that era are hard to comprehend. I read that before Federal troops destroyed Clifton, the palatial home of wealthy Natchezians Frank and Charlotte Surget, Union Gen. Thomas Kilby Smith remarked that “one continuously wonders that such a paradise could be created here on earth.” Many of the cotton plantations were actually owned by people from the north, Natchez sympathized with the Yankee Army and provided safe haven for its military units – as a result, the Civil War left the City of Natchez relatively untouched.
Natchez is a challenging city to describe – it is complex and compelling. The locals compare themselves to New Orleans, but they will make sure you know that Natchez is older than New Orleans and better – Natchez draws you in.
To get a quick lay of the land I begin by hopping onboard a horse drawn carriage for a narrated tour of the downtown historic district. As I listen to stories – in the south they call them yarns – of old family feuds and the colorful history of Natchez – I find myself thinking the rambling tales are a bit embellished but the more I learned the more I realize that what I am hearing is actually true. Seems the people of Natchez have always had a flair for the outlandish.
Any tour of Natchez ought to begin where the city itself did—on the riverside strip of land known, suitably, as Natchez Under-the-Hill. The very first French colonists landed here in 1716. A stroll through the heart of Natchez reveals architectural treasure —from classic Greek columns to whimsically carved gables, imposing porticos and enough historic storefronts to overwhelm you.
While I enjoyed driving around and marveling at the Antebellum mansions, I only toured two, first the most famous of them all, Longwood – circa 1861, an “Oriental Villa”, and perhaps the grandest octagonal house in America. The most surprising aspect came after I’d gone inside, seen the “basement” level and was on my way upstairs… Longwood never was finished! That’s right, the upper five levels of this mansion are still just bare wood. It took 75 workers 18 months to complete what exists of Longwood today, construction was abruptly halted with the advent of the Civil War. After falling into disrepair until the 1970s, it was acquired by the Pilgrimage Garden Club. Today, the home is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Landmark. The William Johnson House, owned and built by a freed Black slave that himself owned slaves. Johnson kept a detailed diary until his death 1851, a lovingly preserved artifact from the mid-1800s. Known as the “barber” of Natchez, William Johnson began his life as a slave. His freedom at age eleven followed that of his mother Amy and his sister Adelia. After working as an apprentice to his brother-in-law James Miller, Johnson bought the barber shop in 1830 for three hundred dollars and taught the trade to free black boys.
At the site of the historic slave market – Forks of the Road Slave Market – which by some measures was one of the most prolific marketplaces for the internal slave trade in the United States, I was surprised to find it is only marked by a sign and a concrete slab filled with manacles and chains. Estimates have over 1,000 human beings bought and sold each year in this very spot. It is a sobering reality.
Natchez City Cemetery,1822, is a grand collection of tombs, mausoleums, and ornate iron fences where Catholics and Jews and Blacks and Confederates and Unionists and Spanish and French and wealthy plantation owners, side by side with servants and prostitutes and untold other dead lie in state, buried beneath a jumble of rolling hills, weeping Spanish moss and marble monuments. Right next door is the Natchez National Cemetery, which honors those who served in the armed forces.
Natchez is a town filled with traditions – none more cherished than the Natchez Pilgrimage. The Pilgrimage started back in the 1930’s when the grand Natchez homes were falling apart, and nobody had the money to fix them up. Some of the ladies of Natchez formed The Natchez Garden Club and planned an event to highlight the town’s gardens. Unfortunately, there was a late spring freeze and the ladies scrambled to find something else to offer the tourists. The women decided to open their homes to the public and thus the Pilgrimage was born. There is more to the Pilgrimage than just touring grand homes with period costumed docents – the pilgrimage season also hosts the Historic Tableaux that depicts life in Natchez from its inception to the Civil War through spectacle, song and dance.
I packed a lot into my short time in Natchez, I discovered sugar kettle lily ponds – “Knock-You-Naked” margaritas at Fat Mamas Tamales, Drag Queen Bingo for a local charity ‘Ya’ll Means All’ and a town where locals love of history borders on an obsession, something akin to mine. The best saying, I heard that is quotable; “In Natchez we don’t hide our crazy we parade it out on the front porch, sit it in a rocking chair, and give it a cocktail.”
Natchez rivals the Gulf Coast in breathtaking colorful sunsets, and I am blessed with the very best view from my RV parking spot on the Vidalia riverfront. As the sun sets on another Wednesday I look forward to tomorrow when like Old Man River, I “keeps rollin’ along”…
Bryson City, NC – A Jewel of a Small Town
Back in the Smoky Mountains and I remember the lessons learned on my past excursion. I have turned back the clock to before GPS, am armed with paper maps, have posted a navigator in the passenger seat (like in the old days) and am embracing the forgotten joys of route finding and bickering. And sure enough, here I am in Bryson City, NC without help of my navigation system. I may never use Siri again.
Bryson City is tucked cozily alongside the Great Smoky Mountains and is every inch a mountain enclave. Amid the splendor of its setting, the town itself, a 19-th century delight of brick buildings and broad sidewalks, hums with its own sense of easy charm. This pretty little hamlet could be a set from a Hollywood movie – a modern day Mayberry – beginning with the flower basket festooned bridge spanning the Tuckasegee River, the colorful storefronts along the main street are made for strolling and shopping and the historic Great Smoky Mountain Train Depot is right in the heart of it. The railroad, which makes its home here, is the reason for my visit, and I can hear the whistle of the locomotive calling me to take a ride. I was heart set on riding ‘The Steam of the Smokies’, #1702 locomotive that dates back to 1942 and was an official commissioned WWII Steam Engine plan – one of only two remaining – and disappointed it was not running today. I love a steam engine – there is nothing like a ride behind steam. But the diesel engine train covers the same route so I hop onboard to check out the Tuckasegee River Excursion which take us through the breath-taking scenery of Western North Carolina to the artsy village of Dillsboro, NC where we layover. This rustic longtime art and craft community has been a tourist destination since the late 1800s. With blocks of century old storefronts chock full of crafters, pottery shops, fine art studios and great places to eat. I spend my layover time visiting the Appalachian Women’s Museum – the first ever museum dedicated to Southern Appalachian women offers exhibits and a glimpse into their lives. I entered expecting to see homemade quilts and baskets – hoping for some traditional Appalachian music – but instead learned the stories of extraordinary women living ordinary lives and just how hard life was for women here, raising children with very little means, making a living in this isolated part of America. I also learned that these women faced whatever came their way with determination, grit and grace. No time for lunch so boarded the train for the return to Bryson City hungry. Back at the depot I had been looking forward to participating in the railroad turntable experience – where passengers assist the crew in manually turning the engine around ready for its trip back in the opposite direction – but – they only need to do that for steam engines – I knew I wanted to ride the steam train.
This region has been inhabited by humans since before the Cherokee Nation and if the mountains could talk they would tell you of the forced removal of the Cherokee and their eventual return. They would talk of the national effort to build Fontana Dam in record time helping power the industry that won WWII. And tell stories of former residents like author Horace Kephart – renowned for his classic works Camping and Woodcraft and Our Southern Highlanders – one of the seminal authors of Southern Appalachia. In the Bryson City Cemetery his humble monument reads: Scholar, Author, Outdoorsman He loved his neighbors and pictured them in “Our Southern Highlanders” His vision helped to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then there is the tallest gravestone on the hill with a picturesque angel pointing up to the sky. The grave belongs to Fannie Everett Clancy. While it’s never been confirmed, scholars think the angel is the statue described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.”
When Daytripping travels to Bryson City we will ride the steam locomotive, eat Bar-B-Que, try the local favorite, trout caviar and add our story the Mountain’s history.