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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Exploring Mississippi's Natchez Trace.

my lifelong friend Lisa and I recently decided it had been way too long since we had taken a Lucy-and-Ethel road trip together. We only had a few days for our getaway and decided to explore Mississippi's portion of the Natchez Trace from Natchez to Tupelo.

Around 12,000 years ago, bison and deer migrated from the lush pastures of central and western Mississippi, through the northwest tip of Alabama, and on to the mineral and salt licks of the Cumberland Plateau around present-day Nashville. Back then, Native Americans hunted them, following their tamped-down trails. Later, the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, settlers, postal riders, peddlers, preachers, trappers, bandits, explorer-conquistadores--like Hernando de Soto--and Kaintucks used the same route. Kaintucks were an integral part of the Natchez Trace's trail-blazing history. They were rugged Kentucky boatmen who, from 1785-1820, manually operated flat-bottom boats downstream from the Midwest to Natchez and New Orleans, delivering essential goods and livestock. Once there, they were unable to navigate the strong currents running against them back north, so they sold their boats along with their cargo, and as many as 10,000 a year walked the 444-mile wilderness trail to get back home to Nashville.

In 1800, the U.S. government felt that, because they were so isolated from the rest of the Union, the settlements of the Mississippi River Valley, might form their own nation. They ordered the Army to clear the preexisting trails, using it as a postal and commerce route, and better connecting Nashville to Natchez. Although it was initially called "The Columbian Highway," the name was later changed to "The Trace," meaning beaten path. After the War of 1812, it was called "The Natchez Trace" because its Southern origin was in Natchez. Inns called "stands" sprang up along the way until steamboats emerged as the preferred method of travel, and many stands closed.

In 1938, the Natchez Trace became part of the National Park Service, and a new road paralleling segments of the Old Trace eventually became the Natchez Trace Parkway. Today, it's a paved two-lane road, clearly marked with brown National Park Service mileposts and historic-landmark signs. The former settlements, now cities and towns with all the amenities a traveler could want, are easily accessible from the parkway.

The speed limit along the Natchez Trace Parkway is 50 mph--less in some places--and is very strictly enforced. Lisa was my speed-limit monitor, so we escaped getting a ticket but passed several people who had been pulled over. Cars, bicycles, motorcycles, campers, RVs, school buses, and tour buses with permits are allowed on the parkway, as well as non-commercial pickups with no more than a one-ton rated capacity and used only for recreational purposes. Commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailers, are not permitted.

Anyone interested in exploring the Natchez Trace should visit natcheztracetravel.com on the web; it's an invaluable tool in helping plan a trip. Because we were limited to four days--one for traveling from Memphis to Natchez and three for exploring Mississippi's Natchez Trace--we chose the places we wanted to see ahead of time, mainly from Natchez Trace Travel's Top 30 Favorites, which gives you the milepost number where you should exit the parkway for each landmark.

The day we drove from Memphis to Natchez, we stayed overnight at Clermont Bluffs Bed & Breakfast, 42 Cemetery Rd., Natchez, 601.653.1120, clermontbluffs.com, owned by Troy Bickford and Doug Adams. It is a beautifully renovated and appointed Colonial Revival home right next to Natchez National Cemetery. We enjoyed dinner that night at Cotton Alley Cafe, 208Main St., Natchez, 601.442.7452, cottonalleycafe. com, which had a nice, relaxing atmosphere, delicious food, and good, friendly service.

Early on the first day of our Natchez Trace journey, I walked to the cemetery--a very humbling experience, with the same reverence one feels at Arlington National Cemetery when seeing the thousands of simple, uniform grave markers of those who sacrificed so much for what they believed.

Before leaving Clermont Bluffs, we enjoyed a breakfast of quiche, poached pears, light and thin biscuits, and preserves like my grandmother used to make, coffee, and juice. Then we drove to the Natchez Visitor Reception Center, 640 S. Canal St., Natchez, where we gathered information and watched a film about the history of the city. From there, we entered the Natchez Trace Parkway and traveled to Milepost 10.3, Emerald Mound, covering eight acres--it is one of the largest mounds in the United States. It was built and used from AD 1300-1600 by the Mississippians, forerunners of the Natchez Indians, and was the site not only for temples, but also for ceremonies and burials of civic and religious leaders. Emerald Mound is still used today for Native American gatherings.

At Milepost 12.4 we saw Loess Bluff, formed during the Ice Age, when glaciers covered the northern half of our country, while dust storms ripped through the western plains and carried 30 to 90 feet of windblown sediment or "loess" to the Loess Bluff area. It landed on a preexisting clay-and-sand base from an ancient sea to form the bluff you see today.

My favorite stop along the Natchez Trace was at Milepost 122, Cypress Swamp, easily understandable as to why it is a Top 30 Favorites pick. It's an excellent place to stretch your legs for an intriguing 15-minute trail walk among water tupelo and bald cypress trees. Occasionally, you'll see alligators cruising in the swamp below the boardwalk.

In Kosciusko, the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey, we exited for the night at Milepost 160 and stayed at Ivey Lane Bed & Breakfast; 211 S. Madison St.; Kosciusko, 601.540.0612, iveylanebb.com, owned by BJ and Lane Jenkins. This charming 5,200-square-foot Queen Anne-style home is on the National Register of Historic Places, and many original features were preserved when it was renovated with a beautiful new addition. That evening, we enjoyed dinner at Old Trace Grill, 719 Veterans Memorial Dr., 662.289.2652, for Southern-comfort food with the locals. Trying the fried green tomatoes is a must.

BJ is famous for her delicious Southern breakfasts but, with notice, will accommodate dietary restrictions. After breakfast, she was kind enough to drive with us to Philadelphia so that we could experience Williams Brothers General Store, 10360 Co. Rd. 375, Philadelphia, 601.656.2651, owned by the family of Olivia Williams Manning, mother of NFL quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning. If you have a half-day to spare from traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway, it's a fun side trip for Mississippi pottery, shoes, clothing, groceries, and gifts, as authentic Manning game jerseys hang above you.

That afternoon, the next stop was at Milepost 180.7, French Camp, which was also among the Top 30 Favorites. From 1800 on, French Camp has been a popular stop and commercial center along The Trace for trading and lodging. French Camp Historic Village depicts early American life, and the Colonel James Drane home, circa 1846, is on the National Register of Historic Places. French Camp is also famous for its bakery, with all types of sourdough bread, as well as Council House Cafe.

The trip from French Camp to Tupelo is pretty quiet, so Pandora entertained us with hits from our lifetime friendship, including those of Elvis, as we headed to his birthplace. What more could we have asked for than to be best friends on a clear blue sky, sunny day, listening to our favorite songs as we cruised along the scenic parkway?

That night we stayed six miles west of The Parkway, just outside of Tupelo, at Moon Lake Farm Bed & Breakfast, 3130 Endville Rd., Belden, 662.420.1423, moonlakefarm.com, owned by Joann and Mike Cunningham. It's a beautiful property, complete with a tranquil 8-acre lake and farm animals--a great place to stay with children. With notice ahead of time and for an extra fee, children can ride Moon Lake's horses in a supervised setting. Fishing (catch-and-release only) in the fully stocked lake is free, and poles are available if you don't bring your own. Loosen your belt for Joann's incredible Southern breakfast buffet, the equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast, including freshly made blueberry muffins and homemade scuppernong jam. In hindsight, instead of driving the 260 miles we chose for our Natchez Trace trip, we should have jogged! Joann's favorite place to eat around Tupelo is Kermit's Outlaw Kitchen, 124 Main St., Tupelo, 662.620.6622, kermitsoutlawkitchen.com.

On our last day, we stopped at Milepost 232.4, the Tupelo Visitor's Center, another Top 30 Favorite. We watched an excellent film there about the history of Natchez Trace and its people. Then we visited the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum near Milepost 259. To see the King of Rock 'n Roll's humble beginnings before we headed back to Memphis, where his iconic, world-renown legacy is enshrined at Graceland, confirmed to Lisa and me that Elvis truly lived the American dream.
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Author:Frei, Cathey
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6TN
Date:Jul 1, 2019
Words:1482
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