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.
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.
For an island getaway Chincoteague, VA is a must – a hidden gem – the seaside, unspoiled soft sand beaches, relaxing in nature, taking in the wildlife, eating salt water taffy but for me the wild ponies are the lure – made famous by Marguerite Henry’s 1947 novel, “Misty of Chincoteague”.
My route from Cave City to Maryland’s Eastern Shore by way of the 23 mile Chesapeake Bay Tunnel – a mesmerizing bridge that transforms into a tunnel – an engineering wonder – and a thrill to cross. I take the well-marked turn-off to Chincoteague – the best part of the drive is when the I75 leaves behind the forested mainland and transforms into a silver causeway that spans a sea of iridescent green marsh grass, wetlands covered in wildflowers and shimmering blue water finally delivering me to the secluded little island on the horizon. I have the distinct feeling of truly moving into another place and time. The quaint village occupies an entire barrier island and connects via a short bridge span to another barrier island, Assateague, which is home to both the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague National Seashore.
Eager to see the ponies, I have a private boat tour scheduled first thing so head to the pier to meet Jake -who turns out to be the great pony magnet and guide extraordinaire. Originally from Ohio, Jake moved to the island five years ago but now knows the waters as well as any native – he is incredibly knowledgeable about Chincoteague, Assateague, the history, the community, it’s ecosystems, and of course, all about the ponies. Out of the harbor and fifteen minutes from the pier we see the first band of ponies – and amazingly they are wading in the water. Over the two-hour tour we saw more than 50 ponies at multiples spots. It was especially enchanting to see a white foal – great grand-son of Sufer Dude – the most famous Chincoteague pony since Misty – a dark colored stallion with striking blond mane and tail with a bold personality to match. His son Riptide, born in 2009, has now taken over his dad’s band of a dozen mares. Jake took the boat right up to the beach so I could see the beautiful creatures up close. I learned that the ponies are fully supported and managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. They control the herd size with a pony auction in July. Each year tens of thousands of spectators come to watch the Saltwater Cowboys swim the pony herd from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. In addition to the Chincoteague ponies, we saw bald eagles, pelicans, ospreys, ducks, egrets, herons, and oyster beds. We also caught a magnificent view of Assateague’s lighthouse. Then Jake ventured out to open sea in hopes of finding a pod of dolphins, but we did not. We did however have a great view of Wallops Island. NASA has been launching small rockets from Wallops since 1945. In recent years, Wallops has become better known for the large scale rocket launch taking place from the facility. Rockets like Northrup Grumman’s Antares, which routinely launches from Wallops, carrying supplies to the International Space Station. Sadly, I had missed a launch by just three days…
Over lunch at Ropewalk – an open-air waterfront restaurant – while enjoying the most the most delicious Crab Cake Eggrolls, Fried Green Tomatoes and a sliver of Key Lime pie – I decide that the charm of an island is the art of doing nothing on the beach – searching for shells and listening to the waves. So, just before sunset I drive to Assateague Island State Park beach to wade in the surf and watch the sun go down in to the wrong direction – it is difficult to wrap my head around the sun setting with my back to beach – here I discover the essential magic of this place.
Most epic day ever… how I wish you had been here.
I take it as a sign of a great day ahead when we spot dolphins off the bow of the Lewes/Cape May ferry – they followed along, escorting us to the Cape. Back on land, Exit 0 takes me to Cape May, NJ – one of the nation’s oldest seaside resort’s – people have been vacationing here since the 1700’s. In the same year that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, a Dutch captain, Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, explored the Delaware River and named the peninsula Cape Mey, after himself, in 1620. The spelling was later changed to Cape May. Over a century later in 1761 Cape May became the first seashore resort in America. It has been legend here that Abraham Lincoln and his wife spent time here. Five United States presidents, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses S Grant, Chester Arthur and Benjamin Harrison spent summers at the grand Congress Hotel, escaping the sweltering heat of Washington, DC. In 1882, the famous composer John Philip Sousa composed a march in honor of the Congress Hotel, the “Congress Hall March”.
Cape May is a picture postcard of the past – what sets it apart is it’s sheer number of Victorian homes – the second highest concentration after San Francisco – a fire in 1878 which devastated the city explains how this came to be; the town quickly re-built itself with the modern style of the day – Victorian. These grand old homes, ornamented in gingerbread trim, garnished with pastel paint, boasting airy front porches with people rocking away, line the streets. Apart from the wonderful architecture, horse-drawn carriages weave around town – the sound of their clip-clopping over the stone pavers providing background music to the day, gas lamps dot the sidewalks and trolleys can be seen giving tours. The adorable streets downtown are jammed with mom and pop shops, nostalgic candy and ice cream parlors and a plethora of old-fashioned B&B’s –downright quaintness.
After poking about town, I am eager to go to the beach, but first visit the famous Cape May Lighthouse. Built in 1859 it is one of the oldest in the United States and one of the most photographed. As impressive as it from the ground you really must climb the 199 steps up the cast-iron spiral stairway to see the staggering view. Right down the road, I discover a couple slices of history – a WWII Lookout Tower built in 1942 – one of 15 such fire control towers stretching along this portion of beach, used to triangulate the position of suspicious ships and submarines. And slowly sinking in Delaware Bay – the WWI SS Atlantus – widely known as the “Concrete Ship” – the SS Atlantus first set sail in December 1918. It is the best-known of a dozen concrete ships built to serve in WWI Emergency Fleet; but the war ended a month prior to launch, so the SS Atlantus became a transport boat for troops and then retired to a salvage yard only two years later. But that is not the end of the story, six years later it was purchased, repaired and towed to Cape May along with the two sister ships to create a ferry dock. However, a storm hit and broke the ship free of its anchorage, causing it to crash off the coast. More than 90 years later, the SS Atlantus remains a permanent fixture in the bay continuing to sink – with just the stern visible today.
At last, I am heading to the beach to put my feet in the sand … I settle in to watch the sun set over Delaware Bay while taps play and Old Glory is lowered for the evening – a 40 year tradition. I have a special spot in my heart for this quaint beach town on the cape — Cape May.
We talk a lot about privilege these days and I am thinking one of the greatest privileges is the prerogative to go where we please, when we please. Today is all about having the free rein / privilege to change course when I get wind of something new.
We all know the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Outer Banks are why I am in the neighborhood rethinking Daytripping’s OBX tour. But the Inner Banks is a term new to me – turns out Inner Banks is new – the term “Inner Banks” is part of a 21st – century attempt to rebrand the coastal plain region of eastern NC previously known as the Carolina Sandhills. Around the time of the Civil War, people from this area were known as “Goobers”. But that is a story for another day.
The highlights of the Inner Banks are the Great Dismal Swamp and the town of Edenton, NC. – where I am fortunate enough to spend my day.
Forbes Magazine has called Edenton the South’s prettiest small town. I am particularly drawn to small towns – especially the ones where time moves at its own pace and one look can send your spirit soaring. Edenton is more than just crazy pretty – history is vividly evident here – you cannot make a turn without bumping into history and significant players in that history – this town has character and authentic old charm.
Edenton was founded in 1712 on the banks of the Albemarle Sound and is the oldest continually settled place in North Carolina. After Jamestown failed, people moved here. Early on it was a prosperous seaport village. After the Civil War, it was an important railroad hub and then an industrial center, producing cotton textiles, peanuts, and lumber. It was North Carolina’s Colonial capital in the early 1700s, birthplace of fugitive slave, writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs, home to James Iredell, one of the first Justices of the Supreme Court appointed by George Washington and Joseph Hewes signer of the Declaration of Independence. Standing on the corner of Broad and Water Streets, pondering which direction to wander, a slow moving Trolley passes by and I hear the tour guide saying “Edenton homes are known for their porches” – a town of porches – what could be finer.
The historic district is lined with stately Victorian homes all wrapped with grand porches, adorned with swings and Southern-style rocking chairs. Grand homes with gables, sleeping porches and historical markers. Quiet treasures preserved through the years. The town’s 1767 courthouse – North Carolina’s oldest – faces the water and overlooks a lawn lined with gracious homes. Including the 1782 home that belonged to Penelope Barker, who was one of America’s earliest and best-known female activists. During the American Revolution, Penelope signed her name to a piece of paper, and another woman signed the same paper, and another did, too, and more followed, until 50 of them had organized the first full-blown women’s movement in the United States history – the 1774 Edenton Tea Party – boycott of British goods.
Downtown is right out of the quaint, small-town handbook and triggers memories of hometown main streets before malls. On the town green along the waterfront sits an amazing little lighthouse – the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse, believed to be the last remaining original screw-pile light house left in the US and the world. Originally situated along the river close to town, in 2007 the dilapidated lighthouse was moved to this location, restored and is now a beautiful landmark.
In the harbor, I stumble across the “Liber-Tea” a spiffy electric boat offering scenic cruises, at the Visitor’s Center, I learn that the Women’s Club presents a biannual Pilgrimage tour of historic homes and gardens with docents in colonial attire, carriage rides and afternoon tea in the court house – still more reasons to make this a must stop on our next Outer Banks tour.
Whether it is the horseshoe-shaped town surrounded by cypress tress and the Ablemarle Sound, the flag lined main street, the scent of honeysuckle in the air or the weathered headstones from the 1700’s under the shade of giant magnolias in St Paul Episcopal cemetery – I love this little town and conclude that “Eden”ton is a fitting name – charming and historic – a real garden of beauty and history.
Now, I am headed off to look for some of that “Liber-tea” and a scone. See you here next Wednesday.