Amazing Natchez Trace Parkway
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?
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
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
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
Siege of Vicksburg
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.
Civil War tune, The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.
RealPlayer. If problems, see
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.
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
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.
Mississippi: Krispy Kremes, Lightning Bugs, and Lots of Pretty Women
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
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.
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,
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
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 prefer 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?
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.
Hunka, Hunka Burnin' Love
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.
RealPlayer. If problems, see
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.
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
(center) with his parents, Gladys and Vernon.
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.
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
Pondering which sequined jumpsuit to wear.
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
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.
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.
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
* * * * * * *
Travels (2001-02) >
U.S. Trip >
June 29, 2001