Not only has the pandemic forced the cancellation of every one of my planned trips by air, it has also nixed all of my road trips. But at the beginning of August, I decided enough was enough and chose to take a one-day road trip in my fun sports car. It was my first time this year to be out of town and my first time to be out of state.
It was almost exactly 10 years ago that I set off on an adventure in my little red convertible to drive the entire 469-mile length of the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), which I previously chronicled here. Probably thinking about this anniversary got me thinking earlier this year that it would be nice to drive it again. But with all the health safety concerns of a multi-day trip, I knew it was not going to happen.
But then I recalled in 2017 when I retired, I had made a list of the things I wanted to do and, on that list, I included to drive the Natchez Trace Parkway (NTP). While the BRP is a day’s drive from home just to get to, the Natchez Trace is much closer.
If you are not familiar with it, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a National Park Service scenic 444-mile drive through three states roughly following the “Old Natchez Trace,” a historic travel route followed by native Americans and early explorers and settlers which begins in Natchez, MS and terminates just south of Nashville, TN.
Since Nashville is a relatively short 3-hour drive up Interstate 40 from my hometown of Memphis, I would have at least a half-day to explore a portion of it before returning home.
Early one Wednesday morning, wearing my 10-year old BRP t-shirt, I set out on my journey. As I cruised up the interstate, I thought about the fact that I had traveled up this familiar section of highway numerous times having lived in Memphis for over 50 years. Having driven it so many times, there are certain milestones I look for along the way: first just to get to Jackson (about an hour from Memphis), then to cross the Tennessee River, approximately the halfway point to Nashville. Up until the Tennessee River, the topography is mostly flat with little to see but farmland. Occasionally, I would see a car carrier of brand-new Corvettes, dream cars heading west from their Bowling Green, KY plant in route to some fortunate new owner. Now adays, though it is less exciting as each car is shrouded in a protective white cover which only offers an image of their interesting shape.
As I came to the correct exit, I pondered how many times I had driven past this sign and wondered what the NTP was like. No matter, this day I would find an answer to that question. As I took the exit and began the route to the end of the NTP and the real beginning of my trip, I could feel the little car driver in me getting excited.
Not long afterwards, I reached my ultimate destination.
Almost immediately upon entering the route, I traversed this long bridge which, once I had cleared the tree-line, turned out to be quite high. After crossing, I pulled over and walked back to get a shot of the elevation.
After returning to my car, I found a way to drive below and get a photo of this graceful two-arch bridge.
Returning to the NTP, I saw the sign to my destination, Tupelo, MS, 171 miles away.
My first few miles, I loved it!
The road was a well-maintained ribbon of pavement winding through a tree-lined right-of-way that cocooned the route from the modern world. I saw deer and turkeys grazing along the side, showing no fear of my passing car.
Since it was close to lunch time, I found on the directory a picknick area that had a close by waterfall. But just before getting there, I had my first disappointment. When I pulled over for the first scenic overlook, I was underwhelmed.
While I could see some hills in the distance, I was not even at a very high elevation. I realized this was not going to be the BRP with majestic views of mountain ranges everywhere. With my enthusiasm slightly deflated, I came to my lunch spot and enjoyed getting out of the car.
After lunch, I made my way down the paved trail to the waterfalls. It ended in a peaceful setting but somewhat lacking in water, certainly not the image portrayed on the directory. Maybe there was a drought going on.
Returning to my car, I continued my enjoyable drive. Occasionally, I would discover that a creek ran close by to the road, but the temperature had been too hot to roll down all the windows and be able to hear it. Still it was a most enjoyable drive and often felt I was all by myself, cloistered by all the nearby trees as I encountered very little traffic on the road.
The NTP boasts of chronicling 10,000 years of history and there are many historical sites along the way. I came across Meriwether Lewis’ grave site (of Lewis and Clark) in Tennessee and then soon after crossing the river into Alabama, encountered the site of a ferry operated over 200 years ago.
Most of the historical sites had these very nice wooden explanatory markers as well, as site posts, like this one marking the spot of the ferry.
I drove there to see first-hand.
The NTP runs just across the top western corner of Alabama and in no time, I was in Mississippi. The nice stand of trees that had been my constant companion for the drive through Tennessee and Alabama were quickly replaced with farmland. I soon had the sense of traversing any other two-lane rural country road. With 50 miles to my final destination on the NTP, I was happy about the 50 mile per hour speed limit. Reaching Tupelo, I had a short 100 miles home on Interstate 22 (formerly US 78).
I made it home just before 6:00 PM having driven about 470 miles (and all on one tank of gas). Reflecting back on my day, I noted that I had really enjoyed the drive through Tennessee. Even though the sites and views were not the greatest, it was still a very fun road to drive. And that had been the point of the trip in the first place—to experience a fun drive in my fun sports car on a fun road.
Recognizing that I had covered 470 miles in less than a day, I realized if I had driven just 30 more miles, I would have been in Asheville, NC, a city that the BRP cuts through. Or if I drove straight to the southern terminus of the BRP at Oconaluftee, NC, I would have been at the BRP ready for a full day of fun the next morning.
So, once we are through this pandemic and travel is safe again, I know where I’ll be heading—Oconaluftee, NC. And I know just the spot to spend that first night on the road, the Tapoco Lodge, a historical lodge that sits at the tail end of the Tail of the Dragon!