THE MEANDERING Natchez Trace winds through lush forests and expansive fields of yellow wildflowers, offering a serene escape from the beaten path.
But it also offers a bridge to the past -- where bandits waited in the shadows and American Indians struggled to survive the advance of settlers, traders and soldiers.
This spring, a paved, two-lane road that roughly follows the original, centuries-old trail was finally completed.
Work on the Natchez Trace Parkway began in 1938. The last two segments -- about 21 miles near Jackson and Natchez -- were finished in May, allowing visitors to drive, hike, bike and ride horses along all 444 miles of this historic route.
The parkway -- which begins south of Nashville, Tenn., clips part of northwest Alabama and slices southwest to Natchez and the Mississippi River -- is a National Scenic Byway and part of the National Parks system.
Sights along the way range from waterfalls, wagon trails and ancient Indian mounds, to antebellum mansions and the Double Arch Bridge, near Franklin, Tenn., which stretches 155 feet above the parkway and won the prestigious Presidential Design Award in 1995.
The Old Natchez Trace was a series of paths trampled into the wilderness by American Indians, explorers, settlers and traders. The paths were linked over the years and the Trace became one of the most important commerce paths in the South.
A rich landscape, a rich history
Today, the Trace flows through forests where the smell of honeysuckle and jasmine fill the air and warm, spring sun drips through miles of forest.
Joe and Pat Barella, along with their daughter Perette, recently bicycled a portion of the ribbon of blacktop.
Pat Barella, 64, of New Hartford, Conn., watched yellow butterflies dancing in the breeze as she looked out over the canopy of trees that faded into Jeff Busby Park north of French Camp, which at 603 feet is one of Mississippi's highest points.
"I never knew Mississippi was so beautiful," she said. "I would have never believed all the hardwoods and beautiful trees."
The Natchez Trace experienced its heaviest use from 1785 to 1820 by the "Kaintuck" boatmen who floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to markets in Natchez and New Orleans. The weary boatmen would sell their cargo at markets, dismantle their boats, sell the lumber and begin the trek back north on foot.
In 1800, the Trace became a national road for mail services. Its rich history revolves around such famous Americans as Gen.
Andrew Jackson, who marched troops from Nashville to the Battle of New Orleans. Other noteworthy travelers include Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians, Davy Crockett, Aaron Burr and Meriwether Lewis, whose grave is the site of a park and monument along the parkway near Hohenwald, Tenn.
Lewis died of gunshot wounds at an inn there under mysterious circumstances in 1809, three years after his famous expedition ended.
In those days, the journey through the wilderness was beset with perils -- poisonous snakes, alligators and murderous bandits like John Murrell and Samuel Mason, who are said to have dispatched many a traveler in violent robberies.
Falling out of use
The Trace became obsolete once steam-powered engines made it possible to travel upstream on the Mississippi River by boat.
In 1905, the Daughters of the American Revolution began an effort to place granite markers in every county through which the Old Trace ran.
Others, including the founding members of the Natchez Trace Parkway Association, along with local, state and federal political leaders, embraced the idea and suggested paving the parkway.
The parkway today is dotted with historic markers, campgrounds and nature trails.
Lambert Frank and Standue Uatsa recently explored a portion of the original trail south of Tupelo -- a path worn several feet into the earth by countless wagons and horses -- and said they had heard about the natural beauty of the parkway in their home of Berlin.
"It's nice -- the nature of this area," Frank said in a thick German accent.
Perhaps as striking as the hardwoods and serpentine streams that line the road are those things visitors won't see -- power lines, traffic signals, commercial vehicles and roadside trash.
Near mile marker 180 in Mississippi is the French Camp school built on a site Louis LeFleur established in 1812.
The school was opened by the Presbyterian Church in 1822 and remains a Christian academy. Regina Phillips, who works at French Camp, said visitors enjoy its antebellum homes and an annual tradition of making quilts and sorghum syrup.
"We've had lots of people say it's the best stop on the Trace," she said.
Greg Wearne of Lincoln, Neb., said Cypress Swamps, just north of Jackson, was his favorite spot. And, he said, the drive itself is worth the trip even without stopping along the way.
"The whole thing is like driving through a tunnel of trees," he said. "It's kind of like a big bike trail for cars. There isn't any commercial traffic, there aren't any stop signs. It's relaxing."
Jerry Pendelton, management analyst for the park system, said the Natchez Trace draws nearly 13 million visitors a year, making it the nation's seventh most visited park system.
Nearly 900 varieties of plants along the Trace support 57 species of mammals, 150 types of birds and 70 species of reptiles, she said. The park has 356 archaeological sites, 36 cemeteries and Civil War battlefields.
But, she said, "What people enjoy the most is the Southern pastoral scenery that they're able to see along the way."
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