Sunday, September 17, 2006

Natchez, Mississippi to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee via the Natchez Trace

Lendon Brown, cotton farmer

After crossing a broad reservoir on the Tennessee River, I was somewhere near the Alabama-Tennessee border at sunset, when I walked out to photograph a cotton field. A pick-up truck stopped along the Trace.

"Take some cotton!"

“Is this your field?”


I met Lendon Brown, who said he's been a cotton farmer since he was “a pea in the pod”. He owns 730 acres here that are “rotten”. The heat has shriveled his crop.

Cotton farmer Lendon Brown stands in his fields along The Natchez Trace. The crop has been damaged by excessive heat. The plants should stand twice as tall, he said.

He said California investors are coming in and buying up everything they can, offering $2,000 an acre for land like this, for which Lendon says he wouldn’t give $1,200.

"If they offer me $2,000..." He paused. It would be tempting.

Lendon says all his workers are from Mexico. "They're good workers, and they don't come to work Monday with a hangover like some of the local boys."

He wondered if I were in town for the “Trail of Tears Rally”. I told him I hadn’t heard of it.

11:00 PM

David Crockett State Park, Tennessee

The campground is just a short distance from Highway 64 – hardly the remote retreat I had anticipated. As it was last night, the tent is set up on a concrete slab. No complaints. It stays clean, and my air mattress provides enough cushioning. And, I’ve got my own picnic table, faucet and an electrical outlet, should I need them. I just hope this place settles down for the evening!

For dinner, cooked up a package of "Zatarain's" beans and rice with sausage. Lately it seems I've been living on “Combos”, (“the perfect hunger management snack” brought to us by M&M/Mars!) At the moment, they’ve replaced peanuts in my diet. I picked up the "Combos" and a 20 oz. soda at a nearby convenience store. 20 oz. is too much - I end up throwing a third of it away. But it’s the only size many stores offer, especially now that the vendors are furnishing custom plastic "cooler display systems" which prevent other products being displayed in the space.

Traveled 460 miles today, at a very mellow pace.


Began the day at Natchez State Park. It finally cooled off last night, but never to the point where I needed more than my cotton sleep sack.

While at the campground, I replaced the front brake pads, since the old ones were screeching so loudly. (62,500 miles. The old ones still had life in them, but perhaps they’re no longer flush with the disc?)

After I put the bike up on center stand, I found a pool of oil underneath and thought I had blown another seal. After inspecting, concluded I must have overfilled it, and the oil simply ran out the crankcase breather tube.

By the time I had everything packed up, around 9:30, I was already soaked in sweat, clothes sticky. Went up to have a shower before leaving the camp. Washed my t-shirt and underwear in the shower. Packed them on the outside to dry in the air (if that’s possible down here.) It’s so much like Central America, or the Yucatan. I want to get away from this Gulf of Mexico influence as quickly as possible. My camping neighbors said rain storms are expected today.

Had to go into Natchez however to begin my official trek along the Natchez Trace. Quiet on the roadways this Sunday morning. Followed signs to the Visitor’s Welcome Center near the Mississippi River. A beautiful complex with a staff eager to help. I asked one staffer what I should do if only spending an hour here. She told me to wander the downtown streets.

A couple of facts noted at at the center: Natchez has been part of New France, British West Florida, New Spain, the United States’ Mississippi Territory, Confederate States of America, and the USA. The Mississippi flows 3,184 miles from its source in Minnesota to the sea.

Looking north along the Mississippi at Natchez

Looking south along the Mississippi River at Natchez, Mississippi

Drove down to "Natchez Beneath the Cliffs", a touristy area of shops and restaurants. A couple of coffee shops were mentioned by the woman at the visitor's center. I found the Natchez Coffee Company. Not quite what I was looking for, I thought, but it would do. I chose the coffee described as "pleasant". It turned out to be very good. And a chocolate chunk cookie would give me all the chocolate I’d need for a couple days the owner told me.

When I asked where the coffee came from, she said “Seattle - it's 'Caffe d’Arte' coffee." The owners are from California (her husband is from the area originally.)

Outside “love bugs” are in the air everywhere, mating. "They come up from the south twice a year. But lately, it seems worse," she said.

The newspaper showed a big low pressure area sinking through the nation’s mid-section with heavy thunderstorms expected to reach this area tomorrow and storms beginning this afternoon. That set today's agenda: get out of here fast! I didn’t want to be stranded in the tropics. "Been there, done that. And didn't really enjoy it."

With temperatures hovering around 90 and humidity at 80%, I needed to find some drier, cooler air. Returned to the Trace and began my journey north toward Nashville, nearly 500 miles away. As I left Natchez, rain clouds were already moving in. I started to run into a shower every five or ten minutes. It actually felt rather refreshing. I was torn about making any stops at all. With the image of the "monster" storm system engraved in my brain, I imagined any delay could strand me.

The Natchez Trace Parkway parallels the original trail from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. Nearly 500 miles in length, there are no billboards, no Wal-Marts, no fast food restaurants or gas stations and no 18-wheelers. (These can all be found by exiting the Parkway and driving to nearby towns.) It's truly remarkable to travel all day through forested and pastoral landscapes and be free of those "unsightly influences". (Of course, it helps to have a perfectly-maintained tarmac and comfortable vehicle.)

Part of the original Natchez Trace, "The Sunken Trace", a trail worn into a deep rut by heavy traffic during the early 1800s.

By the time I reached Jackson, the showers had stopped. There is a break in the Parkway here, and it's necessary to jump on Interstate 220 (an unpleasant shock after the solitude of the Natchez Trace), skirt Jackson, then pick up the Parkway again northeast of the city, where it runs along the shores of the Ross Burnett Reservoir.

The Trace is truly amazing: no advertising, no fast food franchises, no big rigs, no hotels, gas stations, condos, subdivisions, no country clubs or estates, no power or cable lines, cell phone towers, no street lights!

The speed limit is 50, but I usually found others driving faster, then paced them from some distance behind. In this way, I was able to drive at 70-75 mph much of the time. I saw a few police cars on the Parkway, but didn't experience the authoritarian presence I had been warned of.

I just can't get over it! I kept thinking of all the things I'm missing. No Family Dollar, Dollar General, K-Mart! Just forests and farmlands. “Boring” some may say. Enormously refreshing, I would say.

It was essential however that I leave the Parkway in Tupelo to refuel and pay homage to Elvis Presley. The tiny house that was his birthplace is now the focus of many a pilgrimage.

Elvis Presley's birthplace, Tupelo, Mississippi. From here to Graceland is only about 100 miles.

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