Exploring the Natchez Trace Parkway: motorists cruise into yesteryear on this scenic corridor winding through the heart of Mississippi

Exploring the Natchez Trace Parkway: motorists cruise into yesteryear on this scenic corridor winding through the heart of Mississippi – Tour Of The Month

Carolyn Thornton

In the middle of her front yard, folk artist L.V. Hull stood in her sock feet wearing a purple and white polka dot dress.

“I never was crazy about no grass,” she has been quoted as saying. As proof, her handiwork surrounded her: stacks of lampshades, helmets, polka-dotted flower pots, and shoes–roller skates, ski boots, heels, sandals, tennis shoes, cheerleader boots. Every inch of ground where grass or trees might have grown, L.V.’s yard is covered with shoes and other odds and ends. Many are painted with her favorite polka dot designs.

“You see something you like,” she said, “it’s for sale.”

L.V. Hull and her yard art is one of Kosciusko’s treasures. And Kosciusko is one of the treasures found along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Designed for leisurely travelers (commercial vehicles are barred and the speed limit is strictly maintained), the Trace is marked with scenic and historic signposts and trails that invite travelers to break the 444-mile journey between Natchez, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee. In Mississippi, easy detours introduce visitors to the state’s historic towns, attractions, and occasional eccentricity.

A film at the Trace Headquarters Visitors Center (milepost 266) at Tupelo explains how Indian trails between nations formed the initial footpaths. Later Kentucky and Ohio frontiersmen floated flatboats down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Natchez, where they sold their goods and boat materials. The only way home was overland along the outlaw-ridden Trace. In the 1830s, the invention of the steamboat allowed safer, upriver travel and virtualty ended the Trace’s use.

The modern Natchez Trace’s Parkway, administered by the National Park Service, roughly follows the original mute while immersing today’s wayfarers in the Trace of the early 19th century. You can follow this National Scenic Byway with music and narrative using “Natchez Trace, A Road Through the Wilderness” audiocassettes produced by Mississipians Frank and Eddie Thomas.

Aside from being Trace headquarters, Tupelo is famous as the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Historic markers allow drivers to rock and roll around sites associated with “The King.” It’s also home to more than 250 roaming bison at the Tupelo Buffalo Park, located across from Tupelo’s Gigantic Flea Market held the second weekend of each month (except February and August). In 2003 the Tupelo Automobile Museum opened with more than 100 classic cars on display.

Northeast of Tupelo, near the Alabama border, is Tishomingo famous Chickasaw chief. It offers an eight-mile canoe trail on Bear Creek, plus campsites, cabins, a lodge, and swimming pool.

Stroll into yesteryear at French Camp (Trace milepost 180.7), where freshly baked sourdough bread is served to hungry travelers in the Council House Cafe. A boardwalk links several historic buildings and a museum. After school, girls from French Camp Academy gather for old-fashioned quilting bees in the 1846 Drane House while the boys head for the barn to learn blacksmithing.

French Camp’s most surprising treasure is Rainwater Observatory and Planetarium. Set your watch by the sundials on the grounds or check the sun’s location on the jungle-gym structure that marks the spring and fall equinoxes. Astronomer James Hill has duplicated the relationship and relative sizes of the planets by placing balls on posts. He has also erected a miniature Stonehenge. Lacking stones, he calls his version Post-henge.

Returning to the Trace, you’ll find an information center (milepost 160) that doubles as Kosciusko’s Chamber of Commerce. In addition to L.V. Hull’s yard art, the city claims the birthplace of Oprah Winfrey. Although there is nothing but a sign to mark her birthplace, you can see the nearby Buffalo Community Church, where she recited an Easter prayer at the age of four. Afterward, one of the ladies told her grandmother, “She is the talkingest little girl.”

Cypress Swamp (milepost 122) has a bridge and footpath through a tupelo/bald cypress swamp where an alligator or two reside. The next few miles skirt the Ross Barnett Reservoir just above Ridgeland. Artisans from the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi demonstrate and sell their work at the Mississippi Crafts Center on the Trace (milepost 102.4). Art galleries and antique and gift shops are clustered around Ridgeland’s Old Town.

The Trace Parkway is hot completed between mileposts 101.5 to 87, creating a natural stopover to explore Jackson’s museums: the Old Capitol Museum (with a good selection of Mississippi books and souvenirs), Museum of Natural Science, and Mississippi Museum of Art, among others.

Return to the Trace southwest of Jackson via Interstate 20. Signposts along the lower Trace recount Civil War action (Battle of Raymond at milepost 78.3), the Lower Choctaw Boundary that separated Indian lands from the Mississippi country (milepost 61), and the ghost town of Rocky Springs (milepost 54.8).

Seasonal conditions resulted in changing routes of the Trace. During muddy springs, for example, the route followed higher, drier ridges. Thus, only a few original segments of the Trace remain. Stop at Sunken Trace (milepost 41.5), where a deep gully has worn through the soft loess soil amid towering trees thick with vines.

In the early days, anyone who lived near the Natchez Trace found themselves in the business of innkeeper. The only remaining inn is Mount Locust (milepost 15.5), which hosts occasional interpretive programs spring through fall.

Another detour will lake Trace travelers to Emerald Mound (milepost 10.3), the second largest Indian temple mound in the U.S. What they did here, why they disappeared remains a mystery.

The Natchez Trace terminates at the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Natchez. Before the Civil War, the city was second only to New York and Philadelphia in the number of millionaires who resided there. Fortunately for today’s visitor, most of the homes survived the Civil War, leaving a treasure trove of more than 100 historic and significant buildings.

Contact: Natchez Trace Parkway, (800) 305-7417, www.nps.gov/natr; and Natchez Trace Tourism Compact, (662) 289-2981, www.scenictrace.com.

COPYRIGHT 2004 World Publishing, Co. (Illinois)

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group