So Why Ride the Natchez Trace Parkway? (Part One)

Well, here I am in Chicago at O’Hare Airport getting ready to board in an hour or so the last leg of a series of all-night flights from Anchorage, Alaska that will deliver my bicycle and me to Nashville, Tennessee just before noon today. I’m headed, as the title of this post would indicate, to the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 445 mile- sez me: more about that later- two-lane road that connects the Music City to the river town of Natchez, Mississippi.

The Trace, as is is called locally, is a relic of those days when motoring in your automobile was a far more genteel and relaxed pursuit than the “are we there yet” madness of today’s superhighway era. With a speed limit of 50 miles/80 kilometers an hour and no commercial or heavy truck traffic allowed, the Trace is a sinuous ribbon of lightly traveled pavement in a 445 mile/716 kilometer long less than half a mile (and often far less) wide park, with not a single gas station, motel, McDonalds, or comparable establishment to be found anywhere along its length. “Park” is in fact a pretty apt term- the Trace is a unit of the National Park Service.

The Trace dates back to the early 1800s, when it was simply a forest trail used mainly by the crews of flatboats and other watercraft that had made the pretty much one-way trip down the Mississippi River loaded with goods produced in the Midwest that could be sold at great profit in New Orleans and the surrounding settled area. Those crews would make the roughly 1,000 mile journey south carried by the river’s ten mile per hour current and then spend months walking back north over the Trace and other early routes. Abraham Lincoln did it- look it up!

By the 1830s railroads and vastly improved riverboat service left the Trace obsolete, and it had mostly reverted to the trackless wilderness of the surrounding area. In a few places, though, segments survived and became incorporated into the local road network.

About a hundred years later, in the 1930s, some Mississippi politicians saw the recreation of the Trace as a (for its time) modern motoring route as a good candidate for a New Deal era public work. A trickle of funds was appropriated and, over subsequent years, the Natchez Trace Parkway as it exists today evolved. This took close to 75 years, and several segments of the Trace were not completed until the first few years of the 21st Century.

Continues in Part Two, coming later today.

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