I live a couple of miles from the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which the National Park Service describes as “a 444-mile drive through exceptional scenery and 10,000 years of North American history.” The two-lane billboard-free road meanders north from the delta lowland of Natchez, Mississippi, to the rolling hill country near Nashville, Tennessee. Motorists will meet no eighteen-wheelers and see no fast-food neon, but will probably have to brake for plenty of deer and wild turkey.
The parkway more or less follows an ancient footpath that began as an animal track thousands of years ago, maybe even ten thousand. Bison traversed between southern grazing lands and salt licks on the Cumberland Plateau. Later, prehistoric mound builders used the Trace to move between villages. Its native wanderers eventually included the Choctaw, Chickasaw and the Natchez.
European explorers utilized the old path but its heaviest use was from about 1785 to the 1820’s when the “Kaintucks” of the Ohio River Valley floated goods downriver to the ports of Natchez and New Orleans and returned on foot via the Trace. It was notoriously dangerous: organized gangs of (literal) cut-throats lay in wait for the travelers. Robbery was the least crime feared on the journey.
Today, the biggest threat of traveling the Natchez Trace might be mindlessly enjoying the scenery rather than eyeing your speedometer. Park rangers abound. (I can vouch for the fact that the speed limit is a strict 50 miles per hour.
Occasionally, I drive for a ways down the parkway just to relax and take in the sights. I think about those who walked here…the mysterious natives whose burial mounds can be seen along the route. John James Audubon may have sprawled on a boulder to sketch a cocky bluejay. I imagine the tramping of Andrew Jackson’s foot soldiers on their way to fight the Battle of New Orleans.
A few sections of the Old Trace remain.
Near Mile 386, is a memorial to America’s greatest pathfinder Meriwether Lewis, who died here at Grinder’s Stand. The details are sketchy and historians are divided as to whether he was murdered or perhaps committed suicide. He was known to suffer from what President Andrew Jackson called “sensible depressions of mind.”
Here lies Meriwether Lewis. Milepost 385.9, near Hohenwald, Tennessee (NPS Image)
Sometimes my Sunday drive over the Natchez Trace, and all those ancient footprints, turns philosophical. As a writer, I recognize that I follow a path that is not only well-worn, but that has been worn very well. Particularly in the western genre, we have just one time period to write about and just so many character types to choose from. The possible scenarios come (and please, Lord, let them come) from an unseen creative well.
My hope is that I can, now and then, find a new way to say the old thing, to delight a reader with a previously-unvoiced expression or description. But a look at my own bookshelf tells me the hard truth. Others have ridden this way. Bret Harte. Mark Twain. Grey…L’Amour. McMurtry…McCarthy. Wister…Leonard. I’m a piker…and I know it. A greenhorn, if you will.
Oh, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t take the journey. I’m not only writing for readers. I write for the love of the genre and the great period of American history that it represents.
There’s another reason I write too. You see, others ride behind. Someone has to point the way. With every story, we keep the old trail worn, revered, relevant.
Vonn McKee is Louisiana-born but has called Nashville, Tennessee, home for over twenty years. She has spent time in the music business, the construction business, and has even waited a few tables along the way. Vonn has written songs, radio jingles, magazine articles, short stories and is at work on her first novel. She has a real heart for historical fiction, especially the Old West.
You can keep up with the latest news at https://www.facebook.com/VonnMcKee.