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Path finders: for travelers on the Trace, exploring an ancient way through the wilderness is easier and more exciting than ever.

One of Terry Wildy's favorite travel destinations isn't so much a faraway place as it is a long-ago time. When she wants to escape the stresses of modern life, she likes to visit a sunken dirt trail first explored thousands of years ago.

Here on a section of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail named Potkopinu, a Natchez Indian word for "little valley," it's easy for Wildy to imagine the journeys of early Mississippians along a path that has been preserved for a remarkable span of time.

"It's truly amazing," says Wildy, who serves as chief of interpretation for the Natchez Trace National Parkway. "There is no other place like it in the world."

The Scenic Trail, a series of primitive pathways located alongside the more familiar paved parkway, has long been a secret getaway spot for history-minded tourists, but the three-mile Potkopinu section wasn't easily accessible to visitors until the last few years, when the National Park Service (NPS) cleared and rehabilitated the site. The improvements come at a time when the NPS and Trace supporters are seeking ways to encourage more travelers to take trips back in time along the Natchez Trace.

"Rarely do you ever get to travel along a destination where the path is a vital part of the experience," says Stephanie Coomer, vice-president of the Natchez Trace Compact, created in 1999 by five Mississippi cities to promote tourism along the ancient road. The organization, which has grown to 19 member cities in three states, has combined member funds and federal grants to generate more than $1 million to further its purpose.

In addition to advertising and social media marketing, the Compact maintains an enticing inventory of events, attractions, lodging, and dining in the communities that lie along the Trace. "The Compact and the National Park Service work hand to promote the Natchez Trace Parkway," says Coomer. "We are able to use our funds to market the roadway, where the National Park Service's focus is administration of the parkway."

While the Compact sets its sights on drawing travelers to the Trace, the Natchez Trace Parkway Association (NTPA) works primarily to "improve the visitor experience" and to give visitors a better understanding of the Trace even before they arrive, says NTPA executive director Tony Turnbow. One new effort on the road to achieving that goal is the development of an interactive Natchez Trace tour that will soon be accessible via cell phone or mobile app. In collaboration with the NPS and a mobile tour company called OnCell, the NTPA plans to offer audio messages as well as photos and videos that provide brief overviews of selected sites. "The tour will help bring the sites to life," Turnbow says. Tours of five test sites will be released this fall, followed by expansion to several more locations.

From small screens to life-size scenes, the NTPA is also developing a living history program aimed at bringing together reenactors to portray historic events that happened along the parkway. "The goal is to reach younger generations and give them a better understanding of the significance of the Natchez Trace, the people who traveled it, and the important events that took place along the route," says Turnbow. "When children are surrounded by the sights, sounds, and even smells of an earlier century, it makes history come to life for them, and they are encouraged to learn more."

Behind the scenes, the NTPA also has long-term plans to provide support to the National Park Service for interpreting and maintaining the historic parkway sites that have not yet been restored. "Then the parkway will achieve its full potential," Turnbow says.

By adding things like new trail signs, new tour apps, and new activities, all of these organizations hope to answer the same question: In our fast-paced modern lives, why is such an ancient route still such a compelling place to visit?

"The Trace Trace connects people to their roots, which helps put a fast-changing world into better context," explains Turnbow. "Learning about the ways American Indians adapted to their natural environment along the Trace is still relevant. ... The Natchez Trace brought people together and witnessed a number of the struggles for control of the continent."

That universal desire to find a common bond with the people who came before us helps explain why the Natchez Trace is the seventh-most-visited unit in the National Park System, with 5.6 million recreational visits in 2012. Of the parkway's 444-mile length, 309 miles are in Mississippi, making it an easily reachable destination for residents of many parts of the state.

"I think modern travelers enjoy the natural beauty and cultural history ... as well as easy access to popular recreational activities and the opportunity to have meaningful experiences with friends and family," says Wildy. "No matter if you choose to drive, camp, hike, paddle, bicycle, fish, picnic, birdwatch, or stargaze, all activities are free of charge."
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Author:Bozeman, Kelli
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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