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The Wonderful Natchez Trace Parkway

In my last entry, I had just embarked on the Natchez Trace Parkway near its southern terminus, at Natchez, Mississippi.  The Parkway is one of the most fascinating, unique and undiscovered highways in the U.S. 

 

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 500-mile long, two-lane highway 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, troops of the U.S. army and anyone else wanting to travel to the southeast.  For many years before railroads or highways were built, the Natchez Trace was the only overland link between the Southern states and the Northeast.

 

Above:  The Natchez Trace Parkway is a two-lane highway that extends 500 miles from Natchez to Nashville.  You won't see a single restaurant, gas station, or truck here.

The National Park Service manages the Natchez Trace Parkway so no commercial vehicles, including trucks, are allowed on it.  In fact, there aren't any commercial facilities of any kind along its entire 500-mile length.  It feels strange but wonderful to drive on a beautiful, lightly-used, two-lane highway for several hours as you travel through rural countrysides without seeing a single truck, gas station, motel, billboard, or restaurant.  If you need to get gas or food, though, you can get off (and back on) 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 an entire 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 route.  What a great deal, huh?  

 

I discovered the Natchez Trace Parkway in 1984, during my college days when I was doing a road trip through the South, but I only drove a small portion of it then.  This time I wanted to drive the entire length, all the way to Nashville.  Traveling on the Parkway is a tranquil journey into the past.

 

       

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

Above right:  The original Natchez Trace was a wide, north-south trail that had been used by Indians for hundreds of years, then white pioneers in the 1800s.  There are still some sections of the original Natchez Trace, including here.

 

       

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

Above center:  The gravestone of a 15-year old wife.

Above right:  The third strange experience of my trip (along with the disappearing golf ball in San Diego and hearing distant 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. 

The Siege of Vicksburg

 

Here's The Battle Hymn Of The Republic, a song that was popular among Northern troops during the Civil War.

   

As you may know by now, I'm a closet historian (yes, I study the history of closets).  I'm also a big Civil War buff and never take a trip back east without visiting as many Civil War battlefields as I can.  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.

 

During the early years of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union troops in the west (i.e., the Mississippi River valley), tried to cut the Confederacy in half by securing the entire river.  He was making good progress, working his way south from Illinois, until the spring of 1863, when he reached Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. 

 

Above:  Union cannon at the siege line in Vicksburg.  There are over 150 emplaced cannon in the Vicksburg National Military Park.

By April of 1863, he had been trying for a month to figure out a way to dislodge the tenacious Rebel defenders here.  He finally landed his Union troops several miles 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.  Those two losses essentially sealed the fate of the Confederacy, although the war would drag on for two more years.

 

While I was 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 on the Interstate.  I drove into Vicksburg and stopped at the National Park Service's impressive Visitor Center, where I spent a half-hour learning about the siege.  After that, I spent 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 incredible hardships.  When General Grant won here in 1863, he was a hero to the Union cause and was soon tapped by Abraham Lincoln to lead the entire Union Army.  In April 1865, Grant defeated General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in Virginia, ending the Civil War.

 

As I discovered, the city of Vicksburg today is a little frayed around the edges, something like Natchez.  It 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 on the National Park Service's Vicksburg website.

 

   

Above left:  Union trenches at Vicksburg.  Unfortunately, the vegetation has grown so much at this battlefield that it's hard to imagine what it looked like during the siege, when much of this hard-fought area was barren ground.  But if you like reading plaques, Vicksburg is your place.  There are 1,325 military monuments here -- and I must have read every one of them.

Above right:  The massive Union gunboat Cairo (pronounced "Kay-row") was sunk in the the nearby Yazoo River during the siege in 1863.  It was extracted from the mud about 40 years ago and is now being restored. 

Northern Mississippi:  Krispy Kremes, Coca-Cola and Lighting Bugs

After leaving the Vicksburg battlefield around 2 p.m., I drove through town in search of the Biedenharn Drug Store, which I had 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 here in Vicksburg.  I walked inside and felt like I had stepped back in time, then spent the next half-hour getting a tour from a pretty guide.  As I discovered, the drug store is a fascinating place with lots of interesting Coke memorabilia strewn about. 

 

Above:  Coca-Cola was invented in Atlanta in the 1880s, as any Georgian can tell you.  But it was first bottled here, at the Biedenharn Candy Store in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a few years later.

I hopped into my truck and headed out of town.  On the outskirts of town I stopped at a Chevron mini-mart to fill up my tank, then walked inside and got a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts and a half-gallon of milk, to fill my other tank. 

 

I got back onto the Interstate and headed east to Mississippi's capital, Jackson, then dug into a couple jelly-filled donuts, which proved to be a messy but delicious (if not very nutritious) late lunch.  An hour later, I drove into Jackson and spent a half-hour looking for an AAA office that I never found, hoping to get restocked with maps and Tour Books.  After a fruitless effort, I 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.

 

Around 7 p.m., I pulled into a free National Park Service campground, this one located about halfway up the Parkway.  There had been a few other campers at the Parkway campground where I had stayed the night before, near Natchez, but this campground, as I happily discovered, was totally empty.  I cooked up some brats and beans for dinner in the still, humid air, then 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, because 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.

 

Lightning bugs began swarming around my computer screen as it started to get dark, so I closed my laptop and broke out my candle lanterns, along with my AAA maps and Tour Guide books, and 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 about 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 typically sultry Southern evening.

 

   

Above left:  My tour guide at the Biedenharn Candy Store standing next to a 100-year old Coca-Cola soda fountain.  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 first 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.

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

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

A Hunka Burnin' Love

The skies were clear the next morning when I got up, and an hour later I pulled back onto the empty Natchez Trace Parkway and continued driving north.  A few hours later, I drove into the bustling city of Tupelo, Mississippi, the hometown of Elvis Presley.  Elvis was a bit before my time, so I'm not a huge fan of his.  But I am interested in Americana (and had never been to Tupelo), so I wanted to see where he was born.  Besides, Elvis had obviously downed a few Krispy Kreme donuts in his life, so I felt a kinship with him and wanted to pay my respects.

 

 

Here's The King singing Return to Sender.

   

It takes a while to get to The House of Elvis, since it's on the outskirts of Tupelo 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 a 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 trip, it would have to suffice. 

 

I walked into the museum, paid my $5 admission fee and began strolling around the glass-encased displays.  That's 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") and feigned interest in 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, just 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, shortly before the King was born!  Amazing!  OK, I'm exaggerating my excitement.  I was polite, however, and even asked her a few questions.  And actually, the museum was kind of interesting.  But after a half-hour, I'd seen enough sequined jumpsuits to last a lifetime, so I left through the gift shop.  Before escaping, though, I plunked down $2 for a replica of Elvis' first driver's license.  How could I not?

 

The women who worked here (they were all women) seemed to know every trivial detail of Elvis' life.  Although I'm not that interested in Elvis, I always respect and admire people who are interested in things that I'm not especially interested in, whether it be a unique hobby, an obscure period of American history, or a rockabilly singer from Tupelo, Mississippi.

 

I left the museum and strolled over to the house where Elvis was born, which sits about 50 yards away.  After I opened the screeching screen door and walked in, I was greeted by an elderly woman who was sitting in a wooden chair near the entrance.  The woman then 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 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 query threw off her entire monologue.  After answering my question, she tried to regain her composure but I could tell that she was flustered.  She was obviously shaken but nevertheless, and like a good trooper, she stammered through the rest of her well-rehearsed routine with grit and determination. 

 

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, I  downed another jelly-filled Krispy Kreme doughnut.

 

   

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

Above right:  The house where Elvis was born sits a few yards away.

 

       

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

Above center:  After learning everything I ever wanted to know about Elvis (and then some), I got my oil changed in Tupelo.

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

 


 

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