Miss Dianne and her husband, Larry, insist on giving my husband and me a tour of Collinwood, Tenn., after we’ve settled into their bed-and-breakfast, Miss Monetta’s Country Cottage. As we drive through the town’s softly lit streets, Miss Dianne points out the visitor center, a church and the salon she runs. Collinwood is a small, close-knit community, she says. “If I’m not related to someone here, then I’ve done their hair.”
Farther south on the Natchez Trace, we sit down for breakfast at Rib Alley in Kosciusko, Miss. Miss Tonya, a member of the town’s development corporation, informs us that everything on the menu is good. And that Oprah Winfrey was born here.
We encounter 72-year-old Wyatt Mooring resting on the side of the road. He was hoping that cycling several hundred miles on the Natchez Trace would help him shed some excess pounds, but it wasn’t meant to be. “I just can’t lose weight because of the grits and grease,” he jokes, then grows serious. His journey has been the trip of a lifetime, he says. Not because of the scenery, admittedly glorious. “The best thing about cycling the Natchez Trace,” he says, “is the people you meet.”
The Natchez Trace Parkway is one of America’s 150 National Scenic Byways. With 5.6 million visitors in 2012, it’s also the seventh most popular site operated by the National Park Service.
The parkway roughly follows the route of the original Natchez Trace, a transportation corridor running 444 miles northeast from Natchez, Miss., to Nashville, clipping the northwest corner of Alabama in the process. It was first etched into the ground centuries ago by Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez people as they crisscrossed their homelands. Eventually European explorers and early American settlers added their imprints. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson designated the trail a national post route, and it was widened and cleared, becoming the first highway in the Old Southwest.
Back then, although the Trace was a major trade route, it didn’t afford travelers an easy journey. From thick swarms of insects and oppressive heat and humidity to flooded paths, gnarly terrain and murderous bandits, traveling the Trace was so perilous it was dubbed “Devil’s Backbone.”
Eventually, trains, steamboats and other transportation advancements rendered the Trace obsolete. It might have been forgotten if not for the Daughters of the American Revolution. That group’s efforts to commemorate the Old Trace culminated in the 1938 adoption of the parkway land by the National Park System. It wasn’t fully completed until 2005.
Today the paved roadway for motor vehicles and cyclists is a mostly quiet route that leads through the Trace’s beautiful, if sometimes harsh environments: towering forests of softwood and hardwood; rustling prairielands; buggy, damp wetlands; lush agricultural fields. It also winds past bustling cities and sleepy towns, historic sites and recreational areas.
It’s late October, but I can’t tell here in Natchez. Emerald leaves wave as we pedal onto the parkway, under a bright sun. Since Ed and I aren’t experienced distance cyclists, we decide to stop at every one of the 100-plus attractions along the way — historic sites, short hiking trails, scenic overlooks.
We come upon two important sites during our first day. Emerald Mound, at milepost 10.3, is the second-largest Indian mound in the nation. The earthen mass rises 35 feet and stretches across eight acres. Two secondary mounds on top of the main one raise its height to 60 feet. Five more miles down the road is Mount Locust, a late 18th-century plantation and inn. More than 50 such inns once dotted the Trace; Mount Locust is the only one that survived.
The next few days roll by in a kaleidoscope of vivid colors, sounds and smells. The landscape is gorgeous, yes. But it’s the quirky and unexpected that really make our Tour de Trace sing. Like the day a group of senior citizens zips past us in gleaming Corvettes, horns honking in glee, followed a few hours later by folks puttering along in spindly Model-Ts.
Or the day we stop to explore a section of the original Trace and come upon 13 tiny tombstones solemnly lining a ridge above the trail. These mark the graves of unknown Confederate soldiers, men who, tradition holds, marched and camped along the Trace during the Civil War.
At the main visitor center in Tupelo, Miss., roughly the halfway point, we bump into Hob and Deb McConville. The two are bona fide long-distance cyclists, regularly powering their tandem all over the continent. They weren’t supposed to be here on the Natchez Trace, they say. The couple were following an Underground Railroad trail that begins north of Montreal and incorporates 10 miles of the Natchez Trace. But once on the Trace, they didn’t want to get off. They were enjoying the scenery and historical sites too much, plus they wanted to stay on because of the dogs.
“Have you been chased by a dog yet?” Hob demands.
“No,” we say in unison.
During their previous weeks on the road, the McConvilles were often chased by not-so-friendly dogs.
The adventure ends
Hob had promised that we’d encounter fall colors, and indeed the landscape quickly changes with every pedal stroke. The deep-green foliage lightens and burnishes, then bursts into a brilliant orange-red show. Fortunately, the autumnal display is so distracting, we barely notice the hills now swelling ahead of us with rhythmic precision.
We roll across Alabama, then into Tennessee, stopping to admire the view from numerous scenic overlooks. During one stop, we run into a local fellow out hiking. When we tell him we’re biking the Natchez Trace in one trip, he gives a low whistle.
“That’s impressive,” he says, adding after a pause, “And you’re not kids, either.”
Just like that, we’re gliding past mile marker 442. Two miles left. Strangely, the road suddenly splits. Our choices are bustling Hwy. 100 or sleepy McCrory Lane. We choose the latter, disappointed to find no northern terminus marker. And what happened to miles 443 and 444? We need some kind of appropriate victory photo to memorialize our accomplishment.
Or do we? The Trace’s original travelers had a difficult, often unpleasant journey, yet they received no kudos. We’ve had a glorious time and met numerous friendly, interesting people. We know what we’ve accomplished. And that’s good enough for us.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer in Sun Prairie, Wis.