On June 1, Mary and I went on a road trip down South. Headed to New Orleans, LA, we decided not to take the highway, but drive down the Natchez Trace Parkway instead. That turned out to be a great idea for several reasons. First, aside from a few bikers and cyclists, there was hardly any car traffic. Second, the scenery is astonishing for the entire 444 miles from Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi. And, finally, I got to travel some breathtaking bridges.
Just a few minutes after entering the Parkway at its northern terminus near the Loveless Café in Nashville, we crossed the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge over Birdsong Hollow. The night before we went, while hanging out at the Nashville Symphony, I had to fight several nearby panic attacks, because I knew the bridge from walking on it, knew how low the rails are, and I tend to show symptoms of vertigo when it comes to unnatural heights.
Anyhow, driving across it was of course easier than I expected it to be, and it provided not just for an amazing view, but also for a slight feeling of pride for having succeeded the passage. It probably helped, though, that the bridge is at the very beginning of the parkway if you start from the north (milepost 438). Thus I didn’t have much time to think about what could go wrong and freak out while driving.
From then on, we drove in the chill zone. Pretty much all we would see on both sides of the parkway was trees, trees, and more trees. And then, once in a while, the forest opened up and we would look over rolling hills and fields, which would be followed by even more trees. Beside the different greens below, the color scheme was completed by blue and white, from a mix of cumulus and cirrus clouds hanging in the pale sky.
In the early afternoon, we had crossed the northwestern corner of Alabama, where we had passed the Tennessee river (great bridge #2), and entered the state of Mississippi. We left the parkway near milepost 300 and drove to Belmont, MS, to look out for a place to eat. Since it was a Sunday, and Belmont isn’t exactly a town that is prepared to welcome a lot of tourists or wayfarers, the restaurant options were rather limited. However, we found a decent family style Mexican place that served food beyond the regular lunch hours. If Belmont had its own postcard showing the city center, it would look like this:
Having eaten, we drove back to the Parkway and continued our southbound journey. After some thirty miles we tuned into AM 1610, the parkway information channel. Right when the speaker called attention to the Parkway Visitor Center, we saw a sign indicating the same. So we stopped and picked up a neat map of the parkway which would later help us to locate our camping site and give us orientation about the numerous sights to see along the road.
We only stopped once in a while to take a quick look at one of several native american mounds, at a part of the old natchez trace called “sunken trace,” and kept driving until the sun went down. By then, we had passed Tupelo, MS, where Elvis Presley was born, without even noticing, because of one pretty heavy rain shower the was pouring down on us, making road signs invisible. But the rain didn’t last long, and so we drove on over the steaming road through the ascending fog.
When the sun disappeared behind the trees, and the sides of the road started to hide in shadows, some turtles dared to come out of their daytime hiding places and crossed the street at their own pace. I drove carefully looking out for deer and the smaller wildlife, and fortunately we did not hit any of them. We arrived at the Bald Cypress and Tupelo Swamp at milepost 122. At that point we had already driven 322 miles.
The swamp lay there suspiciously quiet. It seemed as if not a single thing was moving, and the air was filled with the steady croaking of frogs, which was complemented by the louder and less monotonous call of bullfrogs. Cicadas and crickets formed the background noises. The cypress swamp is accessible through a short loop road, which includes a wooden bridge that crosses the water not more than two feet above the surface. We crept over the bridge, trying to cause as little sounds as possible, since we did not want to disturb the fauna. Then, after a few minutes of slowest walking, we had reached the middle of the pass, and then we saw him: on the right the Entengrütze (duckweeds) was suddenly pushed apart, and an alligator face showed up for an instant, immediately went into hiding again, and only left a black stain of water, maybe two by two feet big, which was then slowly reconquered by the merciless green water lens.
When we left the swamp, the road was covered in almost complete darkness, the only lights but for our car’s headlights being numberless stars hanging sharply from the black sky above us. Then, the killing began. Approaching Jackson, MS, we drove along the western shore of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. The air turned into a flickering wall of light grey reflecting insects. By driving along the shore I suspect that we caused the death of at least several million mosquitos. As we arrived in Jackson and stopped our car in front of the state capitol, the front spoiler and the outside mirrors were covered in black layers of dead insect corpses.
After checking out the State Capitol and taking a selfie in front of it, we looked out for a place where we could still get something to eat. By then, it was past 10PM, and as usual, we hadn’t prepared anything – neither had we brought any supplies, nor checked out potential dining options along the road. So we ate sandwiches at IHOP. Trying to work on our carelessness, we got some extra pancakes for takeout. We proceeded to the route, and soon we arrived at the aimed-for camping site near Rocky Springs, MS.
We found the campground near milepost 55 entirely deserted. Not a single car or bike was in sight. The two lonesome lightbulbs hanging on each side of the restroom facility in front of the entrance added to the slightly creepy atmosphere. The campground looked pretty much like a simple parking lot for caravans in the middle of the woods, but since nobody but us seemed to stay there, the scene was dominated by the deepest darkness.
Oh, did I mention that Rocky Springs is a ghost town? Well, it is. The last residents moved away years ago, and all that’s left is sprawling trees and a couple of heavy metallic artifacts. And, there is probably lots of dateless spirits floating around. At least that is how we felt when we set up the trunk of the car as our accommodation for the night. To not attract any black bears or other uninvited guests, we decided to leave the pancakes – which were probably inedible by now, anyways – in the bag, knot it and bury it under the passenger front seat. To scare the ghosts away, we smoked our last cigarettes in bed, but soon our weariness defeated our discomfort, and we fell asleep.
On Monday morning, we took a short walk through the remains of Rocky Springs. With the sun out, the place, just some three-hundred yards away from the campground, had lost its spookiness. We saw the left behind safes from the former post office, and the well that used to provide drinking water for the habitants of Rocky Springs. The only remaining building is the Methodist Church, sitting on a small lift aside the old townsite.
For breakfast we ate a couple of Oreos we discovered in the car. I must have smuggled them in and then forgot about them. Still, we decided that we should – instead of leaving the parkway at the next exit and go straight to New Orleans – finish the drive to the southern terminus in Natchez, MS, and look out for a nice place to get a proper breakfast along the road. When we started driving, a look at the map taught us not to expect a lot of eatery options until we would arrive in Natchez.
And so we drove the last 55 miles on the Natchez Trace Parkway with increasing appetite and longing for a shower. Whereas the latter desire had to wait for fulfillment a little bit longer, we found amazing food in Natchez. First, we stopped at Slick Rick’s Cafe, where we had our first cups of coffee and a delicious brunch: a crabcake salad and a baked crawfish tail sandwich with onions and parmesan. For desert, we switched the location and had cheese cake and homemade pie at a nearby café, but only after we walked down the street to see the Mississippi river. Around 2PM we left Natchez, MS, headed east towards New Orleans.
Read the second part here.