DRIVING THE NATCHEZ TRACE – in a Miata
By David Hauman
Many people, myself among them, consider the Miata to be the contemporary iteration of the classic British sports car. Small, front engine (some say a little under powered), rear wheel drive, manual transmission and a top that for the most part is water-proof. The Miata checks all of those boxes and was the car of choice for this trip.
Our trip began in Bloomington, IL. We were at first a bit wary of being able to pack for two people for eight days and get everything to fit in the trunk of a Miata. Fortunately, we had two carry-on bags that just fit with a few cubic inches to spare.
Since we were going east, we decided to make our first stop in Cincinnati to visit friends and overnight. Then it was off to Nashville and the Natchez Trace.
The Natchez Trace began as a way for wildlife, including bison, which were plentiful in the area at the time, to reach the salt licks located around the area which would later be known as Nashborough and later yet, Nashville, Tennessee. The Choctaw and Chickasaw found it a convenient route for inter-tribal trading. As the Cumberland River Valley became more settled and pioneers/farmers flat boated their produce and trade goods down the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers to a trading center as were Natchez and New Orleans at the time. The Trace provided a path for the long walk north and home.
Ironically, just as the volume of traffic on the Trace was near its peak, the Trace suddenly became irrelevant. The advent of steamboats provided a faster, more convenient and far safer way home.
Today the Natchez Trace Parkway is 444 miles of smooth, uninterrupted, two-lane blacktop without a single stop sign or traffic signal. All intersecting roads use either an underpass or an overpass. Speed is limited to 50 mph and sometimes 40 mph. Traffic, at least when we were there, was extremely light. So, we set the cruise at 50 mph and watched the trees go by, some of which were tall enough and straight enough to warrant being made into sailing ship masts and spars. The Parkway has dozens of historic sites (more of this later), picnic areas, overlooks, and restrooms. There are also spots where the original Trace intersects the modern Parkway where people might hike a portion of the original path. The Parkway transverses three ecological zones, containing no fewer than 100 species of trees, 215 species of birds, 57 species of mammals, and 89 species of reptiles and amphibians. We only saw three wild turkeys and one turtle that I missed while he was crossing the road. But there are NO franchise eateries or gas stations.
We had hoped to again visit the Lane Museum. Unfortunately, it was closed the day of our visit. The good news, however, is the National Corvette Museum was open. It is a must stop for anyone with even a mild interest in automobiles. It contains the definitive history of the birth, life, and near death of the Corvette. All of it attractively displayed, including the 2014 30 foot deep and 40-foot-wide sink hole that swallowed 8 cars, some of irreplaceable value.
We entered the Parkway on the north end in Franklin, TN with a posted speed of 50 mph. Quite frankly, the road twists and turns, with many blind corners, I’m not sure how much faster any prudent person would want to travel on a public roadway. So, if you’re looking for a “tail of the dragon adrenaline rush,” this isn’t it. But the overhanging trees and the split rail fences along the sides make for a very pleasant drive.
Our stops included Grinder’s Stand (“stand” meaning a place where a traveler might spend the night) now a reconstructed log cabin. Merriweather Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, stopped here to overnight. On the morning of October 11, 1809, he was found dead of a suspicious gunshot wound. Many suspect it to be suicide. A monument marks his burial site.
Our next stop, Tupelo, is as everyone above the age of 60 knows, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. And the good citizens of Tupelo are not about to let the world forget it. The restaurants all feature Presley themed sandwiches, including peanut butter and banana. The city fathers named two of their streets Elvis Presley Drive and two others Presley Drive and Presley Circle. Our visit coincided with Elvis Presley weekend. We were warned that unless we were big Elvis fans to avoid downtown. We did.
The next day brought us to Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital. We decided to retire early. The following day was a detour off the Parkway to Vicksburg, the siege of which was a turning point in the Civil War.
Both the Union and the Confederacy understood the importance of Vicksburg. Jefferson Davis called it “the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.” Abe Lincoln said that Vicksburg was “the key! The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
Vicksburg sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and thus controlled the flow of traffic on the river. If the Union could capture Vicksburg, it would cut off the supply of cotton from Louisiana and beef from Texas, thereby limiting the Confederacy’s ability to feed and clothe their troops. It would also allow the Union to control the Mississippi from the port of New Orleans north. After some clever maneuvering of Grant’s troops and a 47-day bombardment from both the artillery of Grant’s troops from the east and from Union gun boats from the west on the river, General Pemberton surrendered the town on July 4, 1863.
The National Park Service operates the large National Battleground Memorial that forms a crescent (essentially the positions of both sides during the siege) around the town of Vicksburg. Every state that had troops participating in the battle has a monument honoring its soldiers. Some states had monuments for each military unit. Illinois has constructed the largest rotunda with 47 steps leading up to the dome, one step for each day of the siege.
From Vicksburg, we got off the Parkway and took the more direct route to Natchez, thinking that we could travel the last few miles of the Parkway going north.
Natchez proved to be a fascinating town. During the “boatman” era, the “under the hill” area of Natchez housed all sorts of allures to separate the newly cash rich boatmen from their money. Taverns, gambling houses and brothels were plentiful. And if the pioneers escaped the temptations of Natchez, they still had to travel 450 miles of dangerous pathway lined with bandits and highwaymen.
With an eye toward safety, the boatmen frequently met at King’s Tavern to form larger traveling parties. Today, King’s Tavern is one of the oldest surviving structures in Natchez.
In addition to the bandits, there were the native Americans who were none too happy about the settlers moving across their hunting grounds. And they were particularly clever in ways to put their captives to a slow and agonizing death. Constant vigilance was a necessity for travelers. And frequently the path was several feet below the surrounding countryside, making it difficult to spot both bandits and Indians.
Evidence of early habitation and the Mississippian mound culture can still be seen along the Parkway, including Bear Creek Mound, the Chickasaw Village Site, Owl Creek Mounds, and Bynum Mounds. The Park Service distributes a free detailed accordion-folded map highlighting these and the many other significant points along the current Parkway, including where gas is available on the intersecting highways.
Today’s Natchez is a welcoming throwback to the antebellum era. We were told that Natchez has more restored and untouched antebellum mansions than any place in the south. And from what we saw, I wouldn’t doubt it. Our guide said it is because when Natchez was surrendered to Flag Officer David Farragut, and in sharp contrast to what happened in nearly every other Union capture of a Southern city, he ordered his men NOT to ransack the town. They were to leave everything as it was. Hence the claim.
I subsequently learned that this was not just a benevolence. The Union quickly appropriated the mansions for both personal and military uses. Ulysses S. Grant, after his victory in Vicksburg, moved his temporary headquarters into one of the mansions in Natchez. Sometimes benevolence can be self-serving.
We shared a seafood platter for dinner. I tried once again to acquire a taste for catfish. It didn’t work. Unfortunately for me, fried catfish is a nearly ubiquitous item in local restaurants.
The next day we drove the Parkway north (the portion that we had not yet driven) to Jackson, MS where we picked up Interstate 55 and headed back to Bloomington. Along the way we encountered two hellacious, but short lived, thunderstorms. Fortunately, while not completely water tight, the Miata was still infinitely dryer than one of our other toys.
I had hoped to reach St. Louis, thus making a short 3-plus hour trip to Bloomington. But such was not to be. When nearing Cape Girardeau, MO, we decided we had had enough fun for one day and stopped for the night. After a hotel supplied breakfast, and a large go cup of coffee, we pointed northeast and arrived home around noon.
Someone asked: “What was it like spending eight days and traveling nearly 2,000 miles with the same person in the cozy confines of a Miata?” My response was that we’re still married. And to the best of my knowledge, neither one of us has called an attorney.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR : Dave Hauman was the Champaigne British Car Festival’s Organizing Committee Chairman for seven years, attracting over 140 cars annually from throughout Illinois and the adjoining states. He’s also served as a concours judge at Road America for several years. In addition to Road America, he and his wife Diana attend races at Black Hawk Farms, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Talladega.