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The South

Wheelin' on the Natchez Trace

On the scenic southern parkway, a cyclist rides a trail to the nation's past.

November 25, 2001|KATHRYN WILKENS | Kathryn Wilkens is a freelance writer based in Upland

NATCHEZ TRACE PARKWAY, Tenn. — I'd been waiting years for this moment--riding my bike through the rolling hills of Tennessee on a sunny autumn day, doing 32 mph on a downhill grade, grinning like a fool and thinking I had the two-lane road to myself. Then a headlight flashed in my rearview mirror, the ground shook and a tremendous roar pierced my left ear. Then another, and another and another. You haven't lived until you've had the thrill of being overtaken by 15 Harleys on the Natchez Trace Parkway.

My husband, Ralph, and I had traveled on this historic road that connects Nashville, to Natchez, Miss., several years ago, and I'd dreamed about biking it ever since. After the Sept. 11 attacks, we decided a drive through pastoral countryside would push urban terrorism from our minds. We would concentrate on history instead.

The parkway is a noodle-shaped national park, 444 miles long and a few hundred feet wide. No entrance fees are charged. Along its length are campgrounds, nature trails and scores of pullouts with interpretive signs that describe events as far back as 8000 BC.

What makes driving or biking the parkway such a pleasure is what it doesn't have. Trucks are prohibited. So is any kind of advertising. There are no traffic signals, no mini-malls, no fast-food outlets. Imagine driving on a country lane roughly the distance Los Angeles is from San Francisco. It's one of the United States' most scenic drives, offering views of a grassy verge, with farmland and forests boasting 100 species of hardwood and pine trees from Tennessee's Highland Rim to the Mississippi bottomlands of the Deep South.

I planned to ride alone 25 to 30 miles each morning. Ralph graciously offered to drive the "sag" or support wagon. We would meet for lunch in one of the numerous picnic sites along the route, then drive 80 to 90 miles more in the afternoon, going from Nashville to Natchez in four days.

The Natchez Trace Parkway commemorates and intertwines with the Old Natchez Trace. The original trace, or trail, was trampled into existence thousands of years ago by bison and other wild animals as they migrated from the south to salt licks in what is now Tennessee. Later, Indian tribes--the Natchez, the Choctaw and the Chickasaw--used it as a hunting and trade route.

Part of the Louisiana Territory, the trace was ruled at different times by France, Spain and England. In 1798 the Stars and Stripes waved above Natchez, making it the most southwesterly frontier outpost in the fledgling U.S.

At the time, the trail's most frequent users were "Kaintucks," pioneers from the Ohio River Valley who floated their goods down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to Natchez and New Orleans. They sold tobacco, hemp, flour and even the flatboat itself, for lumber. Then they began the long homeward walk on the trace.

With the advent of steamboats in the early 1800s, the Natchez Trace was gradually abandoned until local interest revived it in the early 20th century. In 1938, Congress designated it a unit of the national park system.

On my first day, after I survived the hills and Harleys, Ralph and I met at the Meriwether Lewis Monument, where a log cabin serves as a mini-museum with information about the explorer's life. The leader of the Lewis and Clark Expeditions was governor of Louisiana Territory when he stopped at a lonely inn along the trace on his way to Washington, D.C., in 1809; that night, at the age of 35, he died of gunshot wounds. Murder or suicide? It remains a mystery.

Because there are no restaurants along the parkway, we brought French bread, cheese and fruit and ate them in the shade of sky-scraping oak and hickory trees. No one else was there to disrupt the quiet.

At milepost 320 we detoured northwest an hour to visit 4,000-acre Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. From April 6 to 7, 1862, in a battle historian Shelby Foote described as "a disorganized, murderous fistfight," nearly 24,000 Union and Confederate troops were killed, were wounded or went missing. The cannons still rest where the armies placed them. The battle was particularly fierce at the Peach Orchard, where blossoms drifted onto dying soldiers like snow.

From Shiloh we followed the Rebs' retreat to Corinth, Miss., where we had a large suite at the Victorian-style Generals' Quarters Bed & Breakfast and refreshed ourselves in wicker chairs on its breezy veranda.

Next morning, after a breakfast of omelet, fresh fruit and the most deliciously flaky biscuits I'd ever eaten, we drove 33 miles back to the trace. Ralph let me off at Freedom Hills Overlook, Alabama's highest point along the parkway.

For safety, I wore a helmet and checked my rearview mirror frequently. A flashing light on the bike's seat post made me more visible in shady areas. I carried identification and our itinerary in case of an accident.

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