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June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi) < Previous News  |  Next News >

 

 

The Amazing Natchez Trace Parkway

In my last entry, I had just embarked on the Natchez Trace Parkway near its southern terminus, at Natchez, Mississippi.  The Natchez Trace Parkway is probably the most unique and undiscovered highway in the U.S.  The Parkway is a 500-mile long, two-lane highway managed by the National Park Service that extends from Natchez up through Mississippi and on to Nashville, Tennessee.  The parkway parallels the old Natchez Trace, a trail used for hundreds of years, first by Indians and later, in the 1800s, by pioneers and Army troops.  Before railroads or highways were built, the Natchez Trace was for many years the only overland link between the Southern states and the Northeast.

 

Because the Natchez Trace Parkway is a National Park site, commercial vehicles, including trucks, aren't allowed on it.  Furthermore, there aren't any commercial facilities of any kind allowed on the Parkway.  Believe me, it feels pretty darn strange to drive on a beautiful, lightly-used, two-lane highway for several hours through the rural countryside without seeing a single truck, gas station, motel, billboard, or restaurant.  If you need to get gas or have a craving for a Whopper, though, you can get on or off the Parkway every few miles at intersections with local highways.  

 

To top it off, there are interpretive pullouts every few miles on the Parkway with historic signs or nature walks, so you could easily spend a whole week on the Parkway traveling from Natchez to Nashville while learning about the South.  And if you want to camp, there are three, free National Park campgrounds along the Parkway.  What a great deal, huh?  I first traveled on the Natchez Trace Parkway in 1984, but I only drove on a small portion of it during that trip.  This time, though, I wanted to drive the entire length, all the way to Nashville.  Traveling on the Parkway is a real blast into the past.

 

  Left The Natchez Trace Parkway is a two-lane highway that extends 500 miles from Natchez to Nashville.  You won't see any restaurants, gas stations, or trucks here -- it's very cool.

 

 

       

Above left:  This is on the Natchez Trace Parkway, north of Jackson, Mississippi.  There are interpretive stops like this, each marked with this type of sign, every few miles for the entire 500-mile length of the Parkway.

Above center:  My ol' truck at one of the many interpretive pullouts on the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Above right:  The original Natchez Trace was a north-south trail that had been used by Indians for hundreds of years.  There are still some sections of the original Trace, including here.

 

       

Above left:  A very creepy (but fascinating) abandoned cemetery at Rocky Springs, Mississippi, a ghost town along the Natchez Trace Parkway.  Except for the Spanish Moss, they could've filmed the graveyard scene from "A Christmas Carol" here.

Above center:  Gravestone of a 15-year old wife.

Above right:  My third strange experience of my trip (along with the disappearing golf ball in San Diego and hearing the Navajo chanting in Utah) happened here.  This is a church next to the abandoned Rocky Springs cemetery in a remote area several miles from the nearest house.  I distinctly heard two voices inside but when I opened the door, the church was empty.  I guess I shouldn't have had those Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast!

 

The Siege of Vicksburg

As you may know by now, I'm a closet historian (yes, I'm fascinated by the history of closets).  I'm also a big Civil War buff and I never take a trip around the East without visiting as many Civil War battlefields as I can get to.  In fact, sometimes my trips around the East resemble mad scrambles from one Civil War park to another in a crazy "connect-the-dots" manner.  One place that I had never been to, though, was Vicksburg, Mississippi, the site of one of the most important conflicts of the war.

 

Here's the Civil War tune, The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.

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During the early years of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union troops in the west, tried to cut the Confederacy in half by securing the entire Mississippi River.  He was making good progress until, in the spring of 1863, he reached Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the river. 

 

By April of 1863, he had been trying for a month to figure out a way to dislodge the Rebel defenders there.  He finally landed his Union troops south of town, then circled back and besieged the city and its inhabitants for 47 days before it fell.  The Confederate troops surrendered on July 3, 1863, the same day, ironically, that the Confederates also lost at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a thousand miles away.  These two losses sealed the fate of the Confederacy, although the war would drag on for two more years.

 

While driving north on the Natchez Trace Parkway, I looked on a map and realized that Vicksburg was only an hour away, so I hopped off the Parkway and headed west.  After getting refueled in Vicksburg, my first stop was the National Park Service's impressive Visitor Center, then I spent about an hour driving along the 16-mile long tour road, while passing countless Union and Confederate fortifications and entrenchments.  The Battle of Vicksburg was one of the greatest sieges in American history, and the citizens here had to endure some amazing hardships.  When Grant won here, he was a hero to the Union cause and was soon tapped by Abraham Lincoln to lead the troops to final victory in Virginia.

 

As I discovered, the city of Vicksburg today is a little frayed around the edges, something like Natchez, and had definitely seen better times.  However, the National Military Park, which is run by the National Park Service, was fascinating and I could've easily spent all day here, reading what seemed like about a million plaques and monuments (it honestly does seem like a million, even to this diehard Civil War buff).  More information about the Battle of Vicksburg is available from the National Park Service's Vicksburg website.

 

       

Above left:  These are Union cannon at the siege line in Vicksburg.  There are over 150 emplaced cannon in this park.

Above center:  Here are some Union trenches at Vicksburg.  Unfortunately, the vegetation has grown so much at this battlefield that it's hard to imagine what it must have looked like during the siege.  But if you like reading plaques, Vicksburg is your place!  There are exactly 1,325 military monuments here... and I must have read about half of them.

Above right:  About 40 years ago, the sunken Union gunboat Cairo was extracted from the mud of the Yazoo River and is now being restored.  That's a person in the lower left corner for scale.

 

Northern Mississippi:  Krispy Kremes, Lightning Bugs, and Lots of Pretty Women

After leaving the Vicksburg battlefield in mid-afternoon, I drove through town in search of the Biedenharn Drug Store, which I'd read about in my AAA Tour Guide the previous night.  According to my AAA book, this drug store was the first place where Coca-Cola was bottled.  Yes, Coke was invented in Atlanta during the 1880s, but apparently it was first bottled right here in Vicksburg.  As I discovered, the drug store is a fascinating place with lots of interesting Coke memorabilia strewn about... and the tour guides aren't bad looking either.

 

After saying so long to the pretty guides, I stopped at a Chevron mini-mart on the outskirts of town and filled up my tank, then I walked inside the Mini-Mart and got a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and a half-gallon of milk, to fill up my OTHER tank.  After merging onto the freeway outside of Vicksburg heading east to Mississippi's capital, Jackson, I dug into a couple jelly-filled donuts, which proved to be a rather messy but sinfully delicious (if not very nutritious) late lunch.  About an hour later, I headed through Jackson, drove around for a half-hour looking for an AAA office that I never found, then got back on the Natchez Trace Parkway.  With my now-sticky fingers gripping the steering wheel of my Toyota truck as the sun hung low on the horizon, I continued my northward journey.  

 

I pulled into another free National Park Service campground that evening, this one located about halfway up the Parkway.  There had been a few other campers at the campground where I'd stayed the night before near Natchez, but this particular campground, as I happily discovered, was totally empty.  After cooking up some brats and beans for dinner in the still, humid air, I flipped open my laptop computer and began my nightly routine of downloading photos from my Canon D-30 digital camera.  It's nice having a 1-gigabyte mini hard drive in my camera, since I can shoot over 300 pictures without downloading.  There have been some days on this trip, however, when I've shot so many pictures that I just about filled the camera's hard drive.

 

The lightning bugs began to swarm around my laptop's screen as it started to get dark, so I closed up my computer and broke out my candle-lanterns, along with my AAA maps and Tour Guide books, and I began my nightly routine of planning the next day's trip.  Just as I lit the second candle, a light rain started to fall and, for the next few hours, I sat reading in the fading light while watching the lightning bugs dance merrily in the rain.  The rainfall got heavier and thunder and lightning started rolling in, but I was dry and content sitting under the large oak tree that sheltered my picnic table.  It was a very pleasant and typical sultry Southern evening.

 

       

Above left:  Coca-Cola was invented in Atlanta in the 1880s, as any Georgia native can tell you.  However, it was first bottled here in Vicksburg, Mississippi a few years later at the Biedenharn Candy Store.  Don't ask me why.

Above center:  My tour guide at the Candy Store standing next to a 100-year old soda fountain.  For obvious reasons, I didn't tell her that I drink Pepsi.

Above right:  Coke memorabilia inside the Biedenharn Store.

 

       

Above left:  Kudzu ("CUD-zoo") grows everywhere in the South... and it grows very fast.  In fact, you better be careful whenever you take a nap near kudzu!  Kudzu was brought to America from Japan around 1900 and was planted throughout the South.  People in the South either love it or hate it.  I've seen a kudzu cookbook with recipes for kudzu ice cream and kudzu pie... yum, yum!

Above center:  A close-up of kudzu.  See it grow?

Above right:  Camping in one of the Parkway campgrounds.  This one was totally empty.  It rained here a lot, so I pulled up a tree, sat back, and watched the lightning bugs and thunder – a very pleasant evening.

 

A Hunka, Hunka Burnin' Love

The skies were clear the next morning as I pulled back onto the empty Parkway and continued driving north.  A few hours later, I drove into the bustling city of Tupelo, Mississippi which, of course, is the hometown of Elvis Presley.  I'm not a big fan of The King and I'd never been to Tupelo, but since I'm interested in Americana, I wanted to see where this guy was born.  Besides, Elvis had obviously downed at least a few Krispy Kreme donuts in his life so I felt a kinship with him and wanted to pay my solemn respects.  

 

Here's The King singing Return to Sender.

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It takes a while to get to The House of Elvis, since it's on the outskirts of town and you have to keep your eyes peeled for the small directional signs, but I finally made it.  The small, two-room house where he was born sits there next to large, modern museum.  No, it's not at all like Graceland, the glitzy mansion where Elvis lived and is buried, but since I wasn't planning to visit Memphis on this particular trip, it would have to suffice. 

 

After walking into the museum, I paid my $5 admission fee and started walking around the glass-encased displays, when a 50-ish woman staff member walked up to me and, in a southern twang, asked if there was anything in particular that I wanted to see.  By her eager smile, I could sense that she was a big Elvis fan and from her nicely-coiffed appearance, I could tell that she had probably been a Southern Belle in her younger days.  Not wanting to disappoint her, I didn't admit my indifference to Elvis' music (except for "Return to Sender" which is one of my favorites) and feigned interest in all the Elvis memorabilia.

 

 

Above:  Elvis (center) with his parents, Gladys and Vernon.

 

Apparently taking her cue, she proudly pointed to something in the display which, to me, looked like an old hammer.  Silly me.  As she proudly proclaimed, this was the actual hammer that Elvis' father, Vernon, had used to build the nearby house back in 1935, just before the King was born!  Incredible!!  In all seriousness, though, I was polite and I even asked her a few questions, and after a while she left me alone.  Actually, the museum was kind of interesting but after a half-hour, I'd seen enough sequined jumpsuits to last a lifetime, so I made an exit through the gift shop.  However, before escaping, I just had to plunk down $2 for a replica of Elvis' first driver's license. 

 

After leaving the museum, I strolled over to Elvis' tiny house, which lies about 50 yards away.  As I walked in, I was greeted by an elderly woman sitting in a wooden chair near the door, who started giving me a well-rehearsed spiel about Elvis while staring blankly off into the distance.  This poor woman was obviously very bored -- maybe Elvis isn't as popular as he used to be -- but nevertheless I found her story, which she was reciting for apparently the 985th time, kind of interesting.  

 
 

Above:  Pondering which sequined jumpsuit to wear.

 

But then I made a big mistake:  I asked her a question!  It was a simple question, too.  I merely wanted to know when Elvis moved to Memphis.  However -- and this was where I goofed -- the women was still talking about Elvis' childhood, and this well-intentioned question threw off her entire monologue.  After answering my question, she tried to regain her composure (apparently, no one had actually asked her a question about Elvis before) but I could tell that she was flustered.  She was obviously shaken but she stammered through the rest of her routine. 

 

After I strolled through the two rooms (a living-room/bedroom and a kitchen), I politely bade her a good day and opened the creaking screen door to leave.  "Have a nice day," she said to me as I left.  As I walked out the door, I could tell by her smile that she enjoyed talking to someone who was actually interested in her story.  Well, sort of interested.

 

Altogether, and despite the plethora of sequined jumpsuits (not to mention Vernon's old hammer), I was glad that I saw the Elvis house and museum.  After fueling up in Tupelo and getting my oil changed at Jiffy Lube, I continued heading north and, in a tribute to the King, downed another jelly-filled Krispy Kreme.

 

       

Above left:  It takes a while to find it, but the Elvis Presley Museum on the outskirts of Tupelo is worth seeing.

Above center:   The Elvis Presley house sits a few yards away.

Above right:  Elvis' dad built this house in 1935 just before the King was born.  It costs only $2 to see it, but then there are only 2 rooms.  Beware, though, of the old woman in the living room.

 

   

Above left:  Getting my oil changed in Tupelo, Mississippi.  Well, o.k., I mean getting my truck’s oil changed.  My oil didn’t need changing.

Above right:  In the South, God is almost as popular as Elvis and football. 

 

 

 

Next News

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

 

 

Previous News

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

 

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