Highway Robbery–Or Not

An historical marker along the Natchez Trace Parkway explains that this lovely
scenic road was once nothing more than a “snake-infested, mosquito-besot,
robber-haunted” footpath. Rumor has it that such a description still applies to
parts of the trace and that, even today, a woman travelling it alone should be very, very wary.

The 444-mile, two-lane road that leads from Nashville to Natchez is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the country. Motorcycles and bicycles abound. It’s a National Scenic Byway, heavily patrolled by park rangers who are said to lurk around every bend, eager to issue speeding tickets to anyone bold enough to
exceed the 50 m.p.h. limit.

Humans have travelled this famed pathway for thousands of years, beginning with prehistoric Indians who—spears in hand–pursued herds of deer and bison along it. The Chickasaw and Choctaw encountered white explorers on the trace beginning in the 1500s. Under still-mysterious circumstances, Meriwether Lewis died of a gunshot wound there in 1809. And Andrew Jackson earned the nickname “Old Hickory” as he led his militiamen up the trace in 1813.

It was in the early 1800s that the Natchez Trace earned its infamous reputation. Frontiersmen from the Ohio River Valley, known as “Kaintucks” even if they hailed from somewhere other than Kentucky, would load livestock, cash crops and other goods onto wooden flatboats and float them down the Mississippi River to markets in Natchez and New Orleans.

Once they arrived in port, the Kaintucks sold everything, including the logs the boats were made of.  With pockets full of cash and bellies often full of whisky, they set off for home on foot. And, not surprisingly, became an easy mark for bandits.

That’s how the Natchez Trace came to be known as “The Devil’s Backbone.”

More than a century later, during the Great Depression, interest in uncovering and paving the old frontier road–which had gradually disappeared as steamboats came into use–began in earnest. New Deal agencies constructed several hundred miles of the reclaimed Natchez Trace, which became a National Park in 1938. Gaps in the road remained until 2005, when it was completely finished.

Now it’s clean and modern and beautiful. But is it still dangerous? Almost certainly not for cyclists or hikers or sightseers traveling in groups. How about for two women heading south to Tupelo in a car? Dare they stop at a rest area where there are no other vehicles? Or, perhaps worse, where there’s just one other vehicle? And what about when one of those women—me, for instance—had to travel back up the trace, all alone, a few days later?

No worries, I assured myself.  A federal law allows those who legally possess firearms to carry them on the Parkway. I’ve taken and passed the gun class. I own a purse-sized revolver. Yeah, but. Though I applied for a carry permit way back in March, on the day I was to depart it still hadn’t arrived. Should I take my gun anyway? Or would the trouble I might be in for packing without a permit outweigh the safety advantages of carrying a gun into a park restroom?

The answer came to me as I checked to be sure my lip gloss was in the zippered pocket of my purse. There I found a small can of never-used (so far, anyway) pepper spray.  I carried it at the ready every time I visited a Natchez Trace rest stop and am happy to report that I wasn’t accosted by even one robber.

The other good news is that I didn’t get bit by a snake.  Or even a mosquito.

(June 2, 2013)


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