Monday, April 20, 2009

The Amazing Trace
Dero Sanford

By J. Wes Yoder | Dec 08/Jan 09 | Garden and Gun Magazine

The Amazing Trace

Why drive the ancient route connecting Nashville to Natchez when you can ride?

I’ve never spent much time on a motorcycle, so when I told of my plan to cover almost a thousand miles on the Natchez Trace, my friends who ride told me I was stupid. So did my mother. But I picked up a rented Harley-Davidson one Monday in early fall and stuffed a bag of clothes in one saddlebag and some books in the other. It was a big black machine with lots of chrome and leather. It was wide and heavy, and I didn’t know if I could get it out of the parking lot. The weekend before, I’d taken a motorcycle safety course in which I’d practiced on a toy-size bike and chiefly learned two things: that in educational settings adults are no less socially awkward than children, perhaps more so, and that for some reason a majority of the people who choose to risk their lives on motorcycles are cigarette smokers. It’s just a fact, but not a useful one, I found as I fired up the bike under the watchful gaze of the goateed Harley agent.

Just the word motorcycle has always held romance for me. Like Mexico, it triggers an idea of escape, the fond illusion of freedom. And what better road than the unspoiled, undeveloped Natchez Trace, a 444-mile-long two-lane highway stretching from Natchez, Mississippi (Mile Post 0) to Nashville, Tennessee (Mile Post 444)? Nicknamed the Devil’s Backbone, the trace follows the curves and slopes of an ancient migratory route worn down by bison that drifted from the grazing pastures of central Mississippi, north through Alabama, to the salt licks of southern Appalachia in central Tennessee. Then followed Natchez, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians on the “trace” of the hunt, then explorers, traders, trappers, bandits, soldiers, scam artists, bootleggers, and preachers. The route became obsolete in the 1820s with the invention of the steamboat. But the National Park Service toiled for many years (intermittently, from the 1930s to 2005) to complete a scenic parkway that follows the route of the original trace. It was this route that I sought, an unadulterated Southern landscape, free from commercial traffic, strip malls, Cracker Barrels, and mega churches.

The Natchez Trace as a road trip is not for the young man trying to commune with the memory of Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson. There are almost no signs of human life, besides fencerows and the road itself. There are no billboards or roadside motels or beer halls. There is a different kind of sameness, the continuity of a land with more identity oozing from it than anyplace I’ve been. Vast and discordant truth and legend, where the trees can be more frightening than the ghosts, and a storm more spiritual than a baptism. So the adventure and romance are there, if you are open to them.

I started my journey in Nashville at the north end of the trace. Ten minutes after I left the dealership I was on the road, and as I toe-shifted through the gears, it sounded as if I were cocking then discharging a weapon, six rounds in a row. The curves were delightful. So was the sound of the motor mixed with the wind. An hour later I eased up to an overlook, where I found four official-looking Harley riders: two men with Vietnam credentials, and their girls in tank tops.

It was the first time I’d ever parked the thing, and as I went over to their picnic table, they all called, “Your lights are on.” I fiddled with the controls, and a man started walking toward me. I managed “It’s my first day on a bike,” and they all said they could see that. When I told them I was writing a story for a magazine, they offered to help: “Well, set your camera up. If it’s Hustler, we’ll take our clothes off for you.” They were weathered people who knew how to laugh. They might have offered me a Busch Light if I’d stayed awhile, but dark was coming and I needed to make it down to Florence.

On the Natchez Trace, it seems there is a historical marker every other mile. The National Park Service has apparently sifted every bit of folk history that ever mentioned the trace, from settler’s diaries to Native American oral histories to forgotten generals’ memoirs. If I had stopped to read every nugget on every painted plywood sign, I would still be out there. For me, the markers with the most meaning read only, “Sunken Trace.” Here I stopped off at every chance to see where the old road remains. Before the steam engine, any trader who floated goods down from middle America had to abandon his raft and hike home. And so the trace was paved with footsteps. I liked standing between the earthen walls of the old trail, among the roots that reach out from the banks, but not for long. This was a one-way street through the dark forest, a tunnel almost, and some of the ones who longed for home would never make it. In the half-light and shadows I was most struck by how, after all this time, the path refuses to be erased by erosion or undergrowth, as if damp travelers were still coursing through.

In downtown Florence, I pulled into a place called the Veranda on Walnut. Night was falling and the house was empty, so I got back on the bike and found a Mexican restaurant where I ate too much, drank a bit, and watched every last snap of a Monday night football game that I cared nothing about. In the morning the man named Ron who owned the B&B had his breakfast with me. He explained that he was on a diet as he ate eggs and bacon and grits with diet butter. That’s why he held off on the hot banana bread. A nervous white dog was on his lap, but it was me he called “son.”

I headed out that morning toward Tupelo, hoping the autumn chill would make me alert on my machine. In the dappled light on a low flat stretch of highway, I slowed for something dark in my path: a brown bull with straight horizontal horns that were short and sharp. He was a sickly looking creature with a knobby spine that looked as if he might have been cast from the pasture by a herd of put-off females. I revved the motor. He had stupid eyes and would not move. Remembering my horn, I took a while finding it, then in trying to get it to sound, I took my hand off the clutch and the bike lurched and stalled. The bull walked off into the trees. Before I rolled away, I reconciled myself to him. “Poor fool,” I said, “neither one of us belongs on this highway.”

I motored on between the trees and over the Tennessee River and down into the fertile and fabled Black Belt. Here the defining feature of the land is its will to sink into itself. Your eye goes not to what is high, but to whatever has managed to make itself lowly. It is as if that rich, dark soil is so lustful for moisture that it sinks down toward the water table, and when it gets there it becomes a swamp, never to see light again.

In Canton, I stayed in a place called the McWillie-Singleton House, a B&B that was so nice that I felt embarrassed to be sleeping there alone. I took a pecan brew from the fridge, walked across an ancient heart-pine floor under ceilings high enough to squint at, listened to Delta blues, and shot pool until the fridge was empty.

It had been warm. My wrists and nose were sunburned. But in the morning I could see my breath. I rode along one of the more beautiful stretches of the trace, ten or so miles beside a reservoir east of Jackson, and the wind I sucked was as cool as menthol. The land flattened out, and in the swamps there were trees that had no more branches and were white and smooth and stood like crooked pillars of something that had once been great.

I figure I’ll be trying to pen this land to page until the day I die. But the land changes even as we try to stay the same. Once there were swamps with panthers and gators and bears. But men drained and burned that off to farm. Then crops didn’t pay, so they planted ugly pine trees for making cardboard and toilet paper. And they dug lakes to farm catfish. And today they’re draining those because corn feed is too expensive, and people are scared.

I was coming to Natchez, and I wanted to see that river. But first I stopped in Raymond on a tip that I would find a most unusual record store. I pulled up to the old cedar train station just as a hipster girl was pulling a cardboard Elvis out onto the porch. Going in I noticed the peeling paint on the walls and the fading lettering on a side door that read, “Colored.” Inside there were thousands of albums—only good stuff. Lamenting my lack of trunk space, I bought only two. I asked the girl what this place was doing there.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But they come from all over the world.”

Toward Natchez the live oaks draped in Spanish moss were like limbs coming unbandaged. There were lily pads in the swamps, hay in the fields. That evening, after I had checked into my room and walked down to the river, I ate a slab of ribs, drank some bourbon, and went to sleep happy.

I wasn’t planning on burning the highway back in one straight shot. And I can’t recommend that any novice rider sit on a seven-hundred-pound hog for nine hours straight, but I did. For much of the ride home I counted the mile markers. But two or three times that day, and I’m not sure where, I stopped watching my speed, stopped counting the markers. I saw the trees and the light in them. I smelled the fallow fields and the things the vultures circled. The highway carried me nowhere in those long moments. The land was unbroken—it knew no boundaries, no state lines, no mile markers, and at that time, which was no time, I didn’t either.

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