Natchez Trace, Day 1: Nashville to Florence
|Natchez Trace Parkway (map from scenictrace.com)|
Early settlers throughout the Ohio River Valley hired traders to float agricultural products, coal and livestock down the Mississippi River on flatboats to markets in Natchez and New Orleans. Because the river current flowed so strongly south, these boatmen would usually dismantle their boats at their southern destination, sell them for lumber, and walk back north along the Natchez Trace, an arduous and often dangerous trek. This was no blossom-lined thoroughfare. Early travelers faced oppressive heat, voracious mosquitoes, swollen rivers, and sucking swamps. If the natural threats weren't enough, hostile Native Americans and roving bandits lurked along the path in search of lone travelers.
After President Thomas Jefferson designated the trace a national post road for mail delivery between Nashville and Natchez, negotiations with the native tribes along the path permitted the establishment of privately owned inns ("stands" in the parlance of the day) to offer basic food and shelter to those journeying on the trace. Generally located about ten miles apart, these rustic structures must have been a soothing sight to weary travelers at the end of a long day.
Stands of hospitality notwithstanding, by the middle of the 19th century, the old trace had fallen into obsolescence as the advent of the steamboat facilitated northward river travel. Almost a century later, interest in the overgrown footpath was reawakened through the efforts of historical researchers and the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1938, the Natchez Trace Parkway became a unit of the National Park System and work began to identify the path of the trace and develop it into a modern scenic road, a task that was not officially completed until 2005.
|Armed with our National Park passport, a few letterbox clues, and Trace brochures, we launch our expedition.|
|Double Arch Bridge|
|Near Birdsong Hollow|
|Shall we stop and see the spring?|
|The house built by Dolly Gordon, completed in 1818|
|A representation of Grinder's Stand (inn) houses the ranger station and interpretive exhibits.|
|Meriwether Lewis monument. The broken column represents a life cut short.|
Our minds teeming with questions about this intrepid explorer and how he met his demise in this patch of Tennessee woods, we returned to the Trace and continued our southward journey through thick hardwoods and across the Buffalo River. At MM375, we turned onto Old Trace Drive, a one-way 2.5-mile undeveloped stretch of the old road looping along a scenic ridge that took us briefly northward again.
|Even Old Trace Drive was much more developed than travelers in Lewis's time would have seen.|
|John Coffee Memorial Bridge across the Tennessee River|
Our crossing today was quicker and exceedingly less expensive on the sleek bridge named for a 19th century Alabama general. Soon we exited the Trace onto AL-21 in hopes of taking in the Helen Keller birthplace in Tuscumbia a half hour away. By this time, the clock was pushing 3:30, and a quick check of the Ivy Green web site indicated we would arrive just in time to see the doors locked for the day. Shifting gears, we settled for a place with no set hours—the Coon Dog Cemetery.
|The well-tended resting places of some fine hunting hounds|
Deep in the Alabama woods near a popular hunting lodge miles outside the little town of Cherokee (pop. 1,237), Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful dog Troop after more than 15 years of adventures together. The year was 1937, and before long, other hunters began laying their special hounds to rest near Troop. Though it hadn't been Mr. Underwood's intention to establish a coon dog cemetery, that's exactly what he had done. Interments are limited to coon dogs and include treasured hunting dogs from various parts of the U.S. Now something of a tourist attraction, the cemetery is well-tended with more flower-bedecked graves than most burial places for humans. Markers run the gamut from simple rocks to traditional granite markers. Our favorite epitaph was one etched out on sheet metal for Track (1976-1989): "He wasn't the best, but he was the best I ever had."
Bidding farewell to the hounds and the other visiting tourists, we continued east to Florence (pop. 39,354), where we plan to spend the night and visit the W.C. Handy Museum before heading to the Keller home and back to the Trace tomorrow morning.
More Photos from Today
|Grand horse farm near Franklin, TN, as viewed from Double Arch Bridge|
|Double Arch Bridge|
|Many locations offer opportunities to hike the Old Trace|
|Cornfields along the Natchez Trace in northwest Alabama|
|An Alabama timber rattlesnake in a postprandial road crossing|
|Track's epitaph, Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL|