When we woke up this morning, the skies were dark and gloomy, but at least it wasn’t raining. Even on a full sunshiny day, the forests in this part of Mississippi can be a bit gloomy with no leaves on the trees. I asked the park ranger what hardwoods were represented here and he scratched his head and said, “I don’t really know…maybe some white oaks and red oaks?” I could see there were probably a dozen kinds of brown leaves in the thick layer on the forest floor, but not being well versed in southern hardwood forests, I had no clue what they were.
Jeremy especially loved this campground. It is funny how he responds to different places. When we first land, he is at the door, anxious to get out and see his surroundings. Sometimes he jumps right out and runs around, other times he sniffs from the step and decides to do a tentative look around before exploring. Here, however, he wanted to be outside all the time, sniffing the leaves and probably finding little critters underneath.
As we were packing up, he jumped outside and decided with a purposeful stride to go directly down to the lake for a look at whatever he might find on the shoreline. Mo called him, and he ignored her, very unusual. She walked down to him and said, “You get home now!” and he did. He is so good about obeying those kinds of commands, and “Get Home” will most often see him ears flattened and going back up the step and into the MoHo.
Even though the Natchez Trace Parkway is more than 400 miles long, I was still excited to be traveling even a small part of it on this day. The gloomy skies and barren trees did make me wish that we had been just a little bit later in the season, although during a “normal” winter, many wildflowers would have been out at this time and the trees often begin leafing in early March.
The Trace is a National Parkway, a strip of protected land without ads, rest stops, or towns, other than old historic settlements that once were important along the way. Reading about the Trace, I noted some reviews that said it would be boring for kids, and that there wasn’t much to see, and no shopping. Kind of reminded me of folks I heard one time when traveling in Glacier National Park wondering why there wasn’t an escalator installed at one of the viewpoints.
Although the Natchez Trace begins officially near the town of Natchez, we entered from the Natchez State Park area. At that point, just a few miles west of the Trace, is the Emerald Mound, the second largest temple mound remaining from the Mississippian Era of mound building in the United States. The Mississippian mound building period lasted a few hundred years, between 1250 CE and 1600 CE. Excavations at Emerald Mound indicate that the mound was used extensively for ceremonial purposes.
The mound was built by hand, with people carrying buckets of soil from some distance to build the hill in several stages. Standing on this wide topped man made hill, I tried hard to imagine how many baskets of soil it would have taken to build it.
Continuing north on the Trace, we came to the site of the Mount Locust Inn. Mount Locust is the only one of more than 50 inns that served weary travelers along the Trace and has been restored to its 1810 appearance, the time when travel on the road reached its historic peak.
Another comment made in one of the reviews, was that traveling the Trace required using a lot of imagination, since many of the sites along the way are just signs showing what was once there. I think that aspect was one of the more delightful parts of the trip. Imagination can go wild thinking of what it must have been like to travel these forests after the long boat trip south on the Mississippi and dreams of a Kentucky home, perhaps a wife and children, waiting many miles distant.
The dreary day helped imagination go back to how hard it must have been to walk and walk through these forests when it was cold and dark. I would have loved to drive the road on a sunny spring day, photographing flowers and green forests and finding wildlife and birds along the way. We did see cardinals, but my skill at identifying “little brown birds” in leafless brown twiggy trees is less than stellar, so only the red guys and the ravens were visible to us.
The 80 miles or so that we had on the parkway was peaceful, and we saw only an occasional car along the way. Stopping at milepost 41.5 to view the Sunken Trace, it was a bit of a stretch to figure out which sunken portion was the actual original trail and which portion was simply erosion. I think we found the “real” trail, and I let my imagination wander once again, wondering if my favorite pioneer icon Davy Crockett ever traveled this part of the road.
Our last stop was at the site of the town of Rocky Springs, another place stimulating lots of imagination as to what it was once like. One building was still standing, however, the beautiful Baptist church, built in 1837, still stands, and until very recently hosted a local congregation. The church was open, with signs inviting us inside, and I couldn’t resist the piano. The cemetery behind the church was a treasure for anyone searching out family heritage, with some stones recording deaths in the early 1800’s.
A slower pace, with time for hiking and photography, for actually feeling what it was like to travel the Natchez Trace would be a luxury and a delight. We only saw it, and the weather and our plans weren’t conducive to a more leisurely trip. If you plan to travel the Natchez Trace for real, and to experience it, it would take as much time as you could give. I do have more photos of our short time on the Trace here if you are interested.
By the time we left the Trace and arrived at Vicksburg, it was raining hard. The visitor center at the Vicksburg National Military Park was surprisingly busy. In the rainy weather, we were happy for the extensive exhibits that explained the importance of the Siege of Vicksburg and the outcome of that struggle to the ending of the Civil War.
The movie explained the battle on a more personal level, but my favorite display was the fiber optic depiction of the military strategy of the Union army as they struggled to take Vicksburg and thus control the Mississippi River. The illuminated dots representing the reds and the blues somehow brought it all to life in a way that even a well done movie couldn’t do. Later, as we drove the 16 mile road of the battlefield, the memories of those lines helped us understand more clearly what we were seeing.
The drive itself is winding and impressive with the many monuments that have been erected to honor troops from many states involved in both the Union and the Confederate armies. Much of the area has been cleared and is open and grassy. Surrounded by thick brushy forest in the natural areas, it was obvious that the actual battles were fought in this incredibly thick brushy and steep landscape.
The dark day and rainy skies made it seem all the more real as I imagined the troops trying to function in those trenches day after day during the cold winter, and then into the muggy, buggy springtime until the siege ended with General Pemberton surrendering to General Grant on July 4, 1863.
All the state memorials are impressive, scattered along the tour road, but the Illinois State Memorial is huge. The dome is open to the sky, and bronze plaques with the names of the troops from Illinois who participated in the siege of Vicksburg line the interior walls. As we explored, a family took rubbings of the name of a long dead ancestor who died at Vicksburg.
Visiting a Civil War battlefield is sobering. I found myself in tears a few times, trying to comprehend the magnitude of this war and the tragedy of lives lost. The movie was hard to watch, the history is hard to read. The rain kept coming down in buckets as we left, once more on the road north and west toward Arkansas and Missouri for a long awaited visit with my son.