The final leg of my amazing journey on the Natchez Trace Parkway and I am dragging my feet, slowing my pace, lingering longer at each stop – reluctant to leave the trace behind.
I heard chatter about a remarkable stop off the trace – Tom’s Wall – but hesitated to visit – it isn’t listed on any official trace publications and is more associated with the Trail of Tears than the NTP but then decided I couldn’t pass it by. Officially, the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall – Tom Hendrix garnered worldwide recognition for building a wall to honor his great-great grandmother, Te-lah-nay. She was a Yuchi Indian forced to leave her north Alabama home and walk the Trail of Tears path to Oklahoma. Leaving Alabama meant leaving her beloved Tennessee River. The Native Americans believed a woman lived in the river and sang to them, hence the nickname “The Singing River.” When Te-lah-nay didn’t hear singing in any of the waters in Oklahoma, she knew she had to return home. Her path back was neither straight nor easy and it took about five years. She was just a teenager at the time, traveled all alone, and is the only person on record to have walked back home. Tom was told “We shall all pass this Earth, only the stones will remain. We honor our ancestors with stones” and those words changed his life – a wall of stones was going to be the memorial and over 30 years later, the monument is truly something to behold. It is the largest un-mortared rock wall in the United States and the largest memorial to a Native American woman. Each stone represents one step of her journey. Also, the shape, height, and width of the wall changes to represent the obstacles she encountered. There are stones from over 120 countries that come in every size, shape, texture and unique geologic features you can imagine. Until his death in 2017, he was at the monument wall every day to greet visitors and tell Te-lah-nay’s story as well as his own. In addition to building the The Wall, Tom tells the tale in the book “If The Legends Fade.” Inside the front cover, he poses the question: “If the legends fade, who will teach the children?” A trip to Tom’s Wall is emotional, inspiring and I leave touched by the dedication of one man to honor his ancestors.
Ahead of me – Meriwether Lewis Gravesite – the brass ring of the Natchez Trace Parkway for this Lewis & Clark enthusiast.
Mile Marker 385.9 – Meriwether Lewis Gravesite – finally I arrive at the stop called simply, Meriwether Lewis, the final resting place of the great explorer. Many times, I have followed the steps of Meriwether Lewis along the route of his life’s crowning achievement – the Lewis & Clark Expedition – along the trace I have followed the steps that led to his death. Lewis led an amazing life. Born August of 1774, he literally grew up with the new republic, he was eight months old when Paul Revere made the legendary ride that signaled the beginning of the War of Independence, and the birth of the new United States of America, which Lewis was to serve with distinction. In January of 1793 the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia accepted the proposal of one of its leading members, Thomas Jefferson, to send an overland expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, the fabled all-water route to the Pacific Ocean. Eighteen-year-old Meriwether Lewis eagerly volunteered to lead it, but his offer was rejected due to his youth and inexperience. That expedition was soon aborted anyway. In 1801, at age 27, he was summoned by newly elected President Thomas Jefferson to serve as his personal secretary and aide. January of 1803, Congress appropriated $2,500 to mount an official military expedition to the Northwest, and President Jefferson named Lewis as its commander. On May 14, 1804, the “corps of volunteers for North West Discovery,” as Captain Lewis titled the expeditionary force, embarked from St. Louis, bound up the Missouri River toward the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River. Captain Lewis was three months shy of his 30th birthday. After two years, four months, and ten days, the Corps of Discovery returned triumphantly to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. He was thirty-two years old. Sadly, Meriwether Lewis died along the Natchez Trace three years later, under mysterious conditions. The truth of his death has been muddled by contradictory accounts; in one account Lewis was found in his cabin after sudden gunshots. In another account, the fearless explorer was found wounded outside of his cabin after an audible scuffle with unknown men. The inn-keepers wife, Mrs. Grinder, claimed that Lewis had behaved strangely during dinner before his death, he was depressed by a recent falling out with President Jefferson and Lewis had previously attempted suicide. Lewis’s money was missing from his cabin and an 1848 postmortem conducted by the Tennessee State Commission concluded that Lewis likely died “by the hands of an assassin.” Although historians debate the circumstances of Meriwether Lewis’s death to this day, one thing is certain: Lewis’s death was an unfortunate early end to the life of one of America’s greatest explorers and a brave adventurer. Today, a humble memorial marks Lewis’s grave, near the cabin where he died. The monument is a broken shaft, done deliberately as was a common custom in the 1800s to represent a life cut short by an untimely death. Reflecting on the life of this great American, I wonder what Lewis would have accomplished had he lived a full life – but, in truth I know, he lived more life in 35 years than most of us ever will.
Mile Marker 391.9 – Fall Hollow – Immediately, I can hear the water rushing over the falls – the first part of the trail is paved and flat and brings me to an Observation Deck. The view from here is a stunning waterfall cascading down a sheer rock face. Most people turn around at this point but if you continue down a dirt trail – a somewhat steep but not dangerous decent the payoff is worth the hike. After a few minutes of walking, I start seeing trickling little waterfalls along the rocks that border the path, the forest gets much cooler and I feel like I have found a secret paradise. As I descend, the waterfalls get bigger and bigger until I reach the most amazing waterfall tumbling into a crystal-clear pool with a path to walk behind the falls – so cool, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
Mile Marker 400.2 – Sheboss Place – There’s nothing to see here, but once it was the site of a stand serving travelers along the trace and today is the site of one of the best laughs I had on the NTP. The widow Cranfield operated an inn, known as a stand with her second husband, an American Indian,
who spoke little English. According to Legend when approached by travelers about accommodations he answered every question by jerking his head towards his wife and muttering, “She boss”!
Mile Marker 428 – Leiper’s Fork – If you have been following my weekly message from the beginning you will remember that I visited Leiper’s Fork and Franklin last fall and couldn’t find words to share the lure of these two homegrown treasures that ooze Southern charm. This time I realize the immediate message is: Somebody loves this place!
Mile Marker 438 – Birdsong Hollow – Stretching across Birdsong Hollow in Franklin, TN is the majestic Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge. In the 1990’s the federal government was planning to bulldoze the steep hills on both sides of Birdsong Hollow to complete the parkway’s terminus in Nashville. However, members of the Natchez Trace Parkway Association convinced the park system to leave the hills intact and build this marvel across the hollow instead.
Mile Marker 444 – And just like that – the unassuming terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway. For the past weeks I have flown high on the wings of anticipation exploring the amazing nature, culture, history, scenery and incredible peace of the parkway and am suddenly landed back in the real world with a thud. My only consolation; Loveless Café – fried chicken and biscuits!
Ghosthunters rejoice!!! Mile Marker 233.2 – The Witch Dance stop on the Natchez Trace Parkway is legendary for its scary tales… the very name “conjures visions of eerie midnights, swirling black capes and brooms stacked against a nearby tree”. The old folks say the witches gathered here for nighttime ceremonies and to dance and wherever their feet touched, the ground withered and died, never to grow again. Who were these witches or from where they came remains a mystery but local Indians immediately began to avoid the scorched patches of ground. During the War of 1812 and the Creek War that followed, Andrew Jackson often traveled up the trace. Though there is no indication that he feared the spots, he did find them interesting enough that he recorded them in his journal. Today these “scorched spots” can still be seen and still nothing grows in their space and people continue to fear to be anywhere near on a dark and dreary night.
Mile Marker 259.7 – Tupelo, MS – Having spent a lot of time in Tupelo earlier in my travels and giving my impressions in detail on an earlier “Guess What Day It Is”, today my visit to Tupelo is quick – long enough to remind you that this is the birthplace of Elvis Aaron Presley. A left turn off Main Street onto Elvis Pressley Drive and the very house in which the ‘King’ was born on January 8, 1935. I read the “Elvis was lucky – that he was in the right place at the right time, that he made cool records in the ‘50s, made horrible films in the ‘60s and then started taking the wrong medication and died in the ‘70s”. Reducing his life to “Elvis got lucky” doesn’t begin to tell his story, he adjusted to a new form of music that wasn’t like any other form of music. He did something original, something that affected everything that came later. That notion of Elvis as just a ‘lucky guy’ is, as Sam Phillips said, “an injustice.” Before leaving Tupelo this time I stop for a ‘Smash burger’ at The Neon Pig – Voted Best Burger in America – this burger really is amazing – made with aged filet, sirloin, ribeye and bacon ground together and served on a thick bun with bacon bits, cheddar cheese, onions, bbq sauce and remoulade.
Mile Marker 266 – The Natchez Trace Headquarters Visitor Center – closed last time and a place I really wanted to visit because it holds all things related to the Trace – this time I was able to view the Natchez Trace Parkway video and talk with park rangers, planning details and interpretive guides for our Daytripping tour next spring. The ranger here convinced me that there is no better time to visit the NTP than when the dogwoods bloom in the spring.
Mile Marker 275.2 – Dogwood Valley – flowering dogwood is common in this neck of the woods and while dogwoods, redbuds and spring wildflowers are found all along parkway, here the NTP passes through a valley with a unusual strand of large dogwood trees towering overhead. I am too late for the springtime bloom this year but anticipate seeing the dogwoods in all their glory next year on the Daytripping bus.
Mile Marker 304.5 – Tishomingo State Park – without a doubt the most beautiful state park in Mississippi – and no doubt the same timeless beauty that enchanted Chief Tishomingo and native American’s centuries ago. I was lured here by reports of the famed Swinging Bridge – built in 1929 by the Civilian Conservation Corps – this 200 ft long suspension bridge crosses over Bear Creek and leads to a wonderful waterfall – a must do, without a doubt. A monument to the CCC workers and trails that follow their original camp also grace the park as a remembrance to those men whose labors we still enjoy today. On my way back to the NTP I stop in nearby Iuca, MS to visit the world famous mineral springs state park and to taste for myself the water that won the 1902 World’s Fair prize for best mineral water.
Mile Marker – 308. 9 – Alabama – the NTP travels 33 miles through the northwest corner of Alabama and crosses over the Tennessee River.
Mile Marker 330 – Helen Keller Home – I detour from the NTP at Tuscumbia, AL to celebrate the “miracle” that is Helen Keller’s life and visit her birthplace and home – ‘Ivy Green’. Trapped in a dark, soundless world after a childhood illness left her deaf and blind, Helen Keller saw the potential in her own mind and went on the read French, German, Greek and Latin in Braille. She entered Radcliffe College at 20, wrote 11 books, and lectured in 39 countries on five different continents. She inspired two Oscar-willing movies and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor an American civilian can receive. Helen’s teacher and lifelong companion, Anne Sullivan was twenty years old when she came to live with the Keller’s in 1857. The pump where Anne Sullivan spelled w-a-t-e-r into seven-year-old Helen’s hand as she held the other hand under the water still stands. Here, Helen correlated the letters with the water flowing over her hand. The breakthrough of learning language that changed the life of Helen Keller and gave hope and help for others living with disabilities.
Mile Marker – 336 – The Shoals and Florence, AL – Internationally known artists including Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw and countless others recorded here and Frank Lloyd built here and the river sang here. I wasn’t familiar with the rich music history of the area but quickly learned. Earliest history noted the thunderous stretch of shallow rapids where the Tennessee River flowed through the hills and valleys of this area. The Cherokees called the river, “Unashay” or Singing River. Legend has it that an American Indian maiden lived in this flowing river and sang beautiful songs. Even today, it is said the magic of the Singing River will cast its spell on you.
Florence is a major stop on the American Music Triangle, thanks to the Swampers – a group of session musicians based in Muscle Shoals, AL. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, these musicians have been associated with more than 500 recordings, including 75 gold and platinum hits. They were masters at creating a southern combination of R&B, soul and country music know as the “Muscle Shoals sound” to back up black artists, who were often in disbelief to learn that the sessions musicians were white.
In 1939, Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum were given $7,500 as a wedding gift from Stanley’s parents, along with a piece of property directly across the street from their house for the construction of a new home. The newlyweds asked Frank Lloyd Wright to build that home. Referred to as one of the “purest examples of Wright’s unique style” the classic Usonian house was designed in a characteristic L-shape and is made from natural materials – largely cypress wood, brick and glass and is capped by cantilevered roofs that cover both living spaces and the adjoining carport. By 1948 the family had grown to include four sons and the couple called upon Wright to add two new wings – a bedroom and a larger kitchen. The Rosenbaum’s were the sole owners of this American architectural treasure until 1999 when they donated the house to the City of Florence. Sweet Home Northwest Alabama!
Next Wednesday, Mile Marker 440 and the terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway are just around a bend in the road.
Last Wednesday, I left you standing on one corner of the old fashioned town square in Raymond, MS where I was in the process of being charmed by a friendly local as well as the unexpected prosperity of this little city.
A short walk down a shady street lined with stately homes, is one of the last grand courthouses of the South constructed by slave labor before the outbreak of the Civil War – a stunning Greek Revival structure – and St Mark’s Episcopal Church which Union soldiers used as a hospital – blood stains can still be seen on the church floors today.
The Battle of Raymond was fought here by Union and Confederate soldiers in 1863 as part of General Ulysses S Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign. Despite hard times after the war, Raymond has survived and today is brimming with grace and good cheer. The Walking Tour brochure describes Raymond as “ A place of history – a place in the heart – a place of promise – a place called Raymond”
Mile Marker 100 – Jackson, MS – A detour off the Trace Parkway to explore Jackson, MS and found another city in the South with an ethically fraught history, attempting to reconcile its conflicts. Jackson is making strides – I found a city in the process of a radical revitalization. I visited the new Civil Rights Museum of Mississippi and once again struck with how much I have to learn. The last exhibit before the exit – written on a mirror the words – If you want to be proud of yourself, you have got to do things you can be proud of. Oseola McCarty – Across town in the Bellhaven District – built in 1925 – is the Eudora Welty House – here Eudora wrote all her major works including her Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘The Optimist’s Daughter’.
Mile Marker 122.0 – Back on the NTP, I meandered along until reaching the Cypress Swamp. Possibly my most favorite natural area on the Trace – just for the sheer other-worldliness of it – the boardwalk crosses through the swamp with beautiful tupelo and bald cypress trees with their knobby knees poking up through the dark water. I see an alligator slip into the water and disappear. It feels like spirits live here and you are compelled to hold hands and hold your breath as you walk deeper into the watery woods. This must be one of those places all the old books say you are supposed to push pennies into the soil for prosperity – I decide it can’t hurt, pull out the brightest penny in my pocket and bury it. In leaving I notice the last words on the Cypress Swamp signage … Allow enough time for the magic to work.
Mile Marker 160.0 Kosciusko, MS – Oprah Winfrey’s birthplace. Born of teenage parents on January 29, 1954, Oprah lived until the age of six with her grandmother Hattie Mae in this small Mississippi farm town. I read that Oprah’s grandmother taught her to read before she was three and she became known as “The Preacher” at her church because of her ability to recite Bible verses. The road Oprah lived on – Country Road 2207, is now Oprah Winfrey Road. The church where “Oprah Faced Her First Audience” with a recitation of the Easter Story is here and a vacant lot where the home once stood. An artist’s rendition of the house is painted on a sign marking the lot. There is truly little to see now, but it gives you and idea of how far she has come.
Mile Marker 180.7 – French Camp – The town was established as a trading post in 1810 by French-Canadian fur trader Louis LeFleur, and quickly became known as “Frenchman’s Camp.” When LeFleur opened his stand, he offered food and rest. Today, it is the soul of hospitality. I turn my watch back to the 1800s – explore the historic buildings, antebellum home, graveyard and sample life of the settlers who carved a way of life from the wilderness. This timeless treasure abounds with a colorful past and reminds that, as with everywhere we visit, the real story is about the people – settlers and Indians, merchants, robbers, the enormously wealthy and the tragically poor all came together here – at the heart of it all. After enjoying this taste of the past I am more than a little hungry and follow my nose to the Council House Restaurant, find a seat on the outdoor deck by an enormous fireplace for a steaming bowl of potato soup served with bread and sorghum molasses made at French Camp,
As evening falls on the peaceful NTP without a stop sign or billboard to remind me of the modern-day world, I drive through a countryside lost in time.
Next Wednesday along the Trace we visit Elvis, Helen Keller, Frank Lloyd Wright, walk a swinging bridge and let the “magic of the Singing River” cast its spell on us.