Meriwether Lewis Death Site, TN

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN: Click to enlarge.

I visited the site where Meriwether Lewis of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition was killed.  Lewis was traveling the Trace on his way to Washington, DC to present the expedition journals when he died here on October 11, 1809.  The cause of his death remains unknown.  Lewis’ grave lies within 100 yards of the pictured Grinder House in which he died.  The site is located near the Trace’s northern terminus in Tennessee.  As in many parts of the Trace I had it to myself.

Historical information provided by the National Park Service and the Tennessee Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Grinder House in which Meriwether Lewis died, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Grinder House in which Meriwether Lewis died, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN:  Click to enlarge.

Meriwether Lewis Gravesite, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Meriwether Lewis Gravesite, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN:  Click to enlarge.

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN

Meriwether Lewis Grave, Natchez Trace Parkway, TN:  Click to enlarge.

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The Old Trace near its northern terminus outside Nashville, TN: Click to enlarge.

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Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL Part 2

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

It was getting late, so I headed to the coon dog cemetery while there was still daylight.  Only bona fide coon hounds are eligible to be buried there and approval is needed from a local authority.  I found rows of well kept gravestones, with the customary profusion of US and Confederate flags.  If not for the signs and inscriptions, the setting could pass for a human cemetery.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

As I drove back from the cemetery, Junior flagged me down on the shoulder in front of his ranch.  He wanted to show me a raccoon he’d live-trapped in a shed, the latest of many awaiting relocation a few miles away.  The animal was the size of an average cat, with charcoal gray fur.  It hunkered in one corner of the wire cage looking sad.

By this time a local friend had also stopped to chat, though I never caught his name.  He drove a blue-green Chevy pickup that was perhaps 10 years old.  Dressed in a collared Airgas shirt and jeans, the man was heading home from work.  He had an athletic build and spoke with a thick accent that was distinct from Junior’s.  The three of us passed guns around as Junior showed us his vast personal collection out the back of his truck.  After 20 minutes I made my goodbyes and headed back to the Trace to find a campsite for the night.  “You enjoy your time here,” Junior said as I headed out.

Near my highway exit I noticed the other gentleman driving behind me.  He waved and exited to the Trace in front of me, pulling into the first Park Service turnout.  I parked near him and walked over, thinking I had left something behind.  I didn’t know why else he would have followed me.  “You interested in some fun?” he asked.  “No, I don’t get into that,” I said.  “Are you straight?” he asked.  “I’m as straight as they come,” I replied.  The man immediately appeared very embarrassed and apologized profusely.  As he answered texts from his wife inquiring on his whereabouts, he told me in effect that he was new to being gay.  “I don’t know how to read guys,” he said.  What gave him the wrong idea about me was that I looked at him twice while talking with Junior, which apparently is “the signal.”  “Don’t think nothin’ about it,” he reassured me.  With that he drove home to his wife.  I was not upset, but as I drove up the Trace I began to feel sick to my stomach, and that feeling persisted until I fell asleep.

Junior owns what sounds like a burlesque operation, his Buzzard’s Roost Massage business.  As he describes it, groups of older women come to the ranch for a “girls’ getaway.”  Junior performs massages on them.  With a twinkle in his eye, Junior told me that he keeps KY Warming Jelly on hand.  It is customary for customers to hang their bras on a rack of antlers when they leave.  I did not pursue this topic, as what Junior told me in passing was disturbing enough.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL Part 1

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL:  Click to enlarge.

Coon Dog Cemetery, Cherokee, AL: Click to enlarge.

For ten years I saved a 50-word magazine article describing a coon dog cemetery in Cherokee, AL.  Now that I was driving the Trace, I could finally see it.  The cemetery happened to be 35 minutes away from the Trace, and so in the scheme of things I could not have been much luckier.  That assumes one knows the way.  Once you exit the interstate in Cherokee, the roads are poorly marked and intersect at odd angles.

After driving through a neighborhood of ranch style homes, I headed down a rural two-lane road flanked by tall grass and tall trees on both sides.  Seeing a cemetery coming up on the left, I parked in a turnout across the road to see if that was it.  This was the town’s human cemetery, so I crossed back to the truck.  I heard a rumbling around a curve in the road, and soon a large bearded man pulled up in his ATV.  “Whatta ya know well?” he asked in a friendly tone.  His ATV emanated a strong smell of two-cycle engine exhaust, and a large, black, aging dog rode unrestrained in the back.  The man wore a white short-sleeve T-shirt under full-length denim overalls.  The man’s frame was so large that his Timex Ironman watch could not encircle his wrist without digging into his skin and creating a prominent scab.  I told him I was looking for the coon dog cemetery, and he confirmed it was down the road.  His name was Junior Williams, owner of a ranch and massage parlor nearby.

Junior was an infantry soldier in the Vietnam War and made an agreement with God that if he survived the war intact, he would go back home to Cherokee and spend the rest of his life there.  He got through the war in one piece and kept his end of the bargain.  Junior related a recent dispute involving the coon dog cemetery.  Each year the local military veterans hold a picnic at the cemetery and play Taps at the event’s close.  For the most recent event a town council official threatened to retaliate if Taps were played.  Her reasoning was that playing taps for dogs diminished her son’s military service.  The son was killed in action.  Junior explained that they played Taps to celebrate the freedom in our country, not to honor the dogs.  The official was persuaded and the picnic went off as planned.

Junior told me about his run-ins with trespassers.  Two “Yankees” from Illinois parked their sedan off the road to hide their presence.  They were there to pick ginseng and other herbs.  Junior confronted them.  “Have you seen the movie Deliverance?  When they saw me, I think they heard the banjos in their heads.”  The Yankees nervously assured Junior that they would never come back and left in a hurry.

We laughed and Junior became pensive for a moment.  “I got a son that’s a Yankee,” he said in a soft, sad voice as if he were confiding a serious problem.  “I don’t know, you might be a Yankee, too,” he said.  Unaffected, I told him I wasn’t sure how Colorado was categorized.  Cheering up, he told me Colorado was never on one side or the other of the Mason-Dixon Line so I was in the clear.  Roughly a year before, Junior fired a warning shot close over the head of his aforementioned son when the man drove onto his ranch without prior notice.  Despite Junior’s assurance that his son was welcome as long as he called ahead, the man has not returned for a visit.  Junior has had several problems with poachers and other trespassers over the years with little action from the police.  In frustration Junior told the sheriff that the next time Junior reports a trespasser, the sheriff should send the coroner instead of a deputy.  “What I have is mine.  I paid for it,” he said.  “I worked for a company for 37 years – one company.”

Elvis’ Childhood Home, Tupelo, MS

Safety bracelet and good luck charm from a new friend outside Tupelo, MS.

Safety bracelet and good luck charm from a new friend outside Tupelo, MS: Click to enlarge.

Where it passes through Jackson and Tupelo, the Natchez Trace Parkway is used by residents as a convenient local park.  One afternoon, after a fruitless hour on the phone arguing with a vendor, I continued north on the Trace and stopped at the Chickasaw Council House exhibit near Tupelo.  I ran into a nurse, perhaps in her 20’s, making a quick visit to nature on her way home from a tough day.  She was interested to see someone with Colorado plates and had gone to school in Denver.

My new friend told me about Elvis’ boyhood home in Tupelo just a few miles away, of which I was unaware.  We chatted about, among other things, the culture of the South vs. elsewhere.  “We’re behind,” she said. “I don’t mean in a bad way.”  I agreed.  The Southern culture of friendliness, hospitality, and manners was utterly foreign to me prior to this immersion.  People are polite and helpful almost everywhere, but  the South retains a valuable cultural aspect lost and forgotten elsewhere in the country.

My friend had to get home, but she left me with a parting gift.  “My Daddy teaches water safety,” she said, and handed me the rubber bracelet in the photo.  It reads “Be Water Safe.”  The bracelet fit too tightly on my wrist so I slipped it over my truck’s gear shift, where it remains to this day.  It adds a nice touch of color to the black interior.  She gave me a Sharpie pen, “courtesy of North Mississippi Medical Center” as she put it, to aid in my navigation.  I find my way using paper maps and do not own a navigation system.  I still have the Sharpie too.

I found my way through Tupelo to Elvis’ childhood home.  It resembled a small trailer, perhaps 8 feet wide and 16 feet long with an 8-foot high roof and a fenced-in front porch barely large enough to hold 2 chairs.  It was difficult to imagine a family of 3 living inside. The home was relocated here from its original location a few blocks away.  Adjacent to the old home is a bronze, life-size statue of Elvis at age 12 holding a guitar.  A 10-foot high, semi-circular stone and concrete wall features short stories about Elvis’ early life.  Well manicured flowers and trees round out the setting.

At age 7 Elvis’ mother took him shopping at the general store to buy his birthday present.  His first choice was a .22 rifle, and his second choice was a bicycle.  Upon speaking with the salesman, Mom judged both items to be too dangerous and vetoed their purchase.  A guitar was the only remaining option.  Elvis responded petulantly but chose the guitar as better than nothing.  The instrument remained largely a hobby until his 20’s when he achieved great fame.

Hiking the Old Trace, Mississippi

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

I hiked a 3-mile section of the Old Trace, the actual foot trail used by merchants in the 1700’s and 1800’s, starting at the Potkopinu Trailhead in southern Mississippi.  At this point the path is un-maintained and strewn with deadfalls and other forest debris throughout its length.  Round trip, it is one of the toughest 6-mile hikes I’ve ever completed.  The experience is really one of bushwhacking overland rather than trail hiking.

Route finding is easy because the old trace has sunk an 8- to 20-foot depression through the forest over the years in the Mississippi mud.  For those who like reassurance, the Park Service has painted hand-sized strips of orange and yellow blaze every half mile or so on the trees.  It was a hot, humid walk through a dense green canopy with one stream crossing.  Observed wildlife included a palm-sized green and brown spotted frog, several tadpoles, and a mystery animal that ran into the brush in a blur of speed.  It was most likely an armadillo, opossum, or a cross between the two.  A local told me that the two species interbreed, and some strange looking animals can be found in the area.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

Hiking the Old Trace, Southern Mississippi. Click to enlarge.

I never saw any other hikers during the 4+ hours that I was out there.  It took me 2 hours to reach the turnaround point at 3 miles, the northern trailhead.  The walk back to the car was somewhat faster.  I picked up several ticks on my knee and torso, the first time I have ever gotten ticks anywhere.  I respect the old Kaintucks who used to walk this trail for over 400 miles.

Mount Locust Inn and Plantation, Mississippi

Corn snake near Mount Locust Inn and Plantation, MS:  Click to enlarge.

Corn snake near Mount Locust Inn and Plantation, MS: Click to enlarge.

Continuing north on the Natchez Trace Parkway, I almost ran over a corn snake warming himself on the road.  I stopped, picked him up, and moved him onto the shoulder.  This was the only snake I saw throughout this trip to the southern states.  He tamed very quickly.

Mount Locust was established as a farm in the late 1770’s and by 1784 grew to be a larger plantation.  The house, with no more than 1600 square feet of floor space, served as an inn for the Mississippi River boatmen walking north from Natchez, MS.  These “Kaintucks” were charged $0.25 per day, meals included.  After 1825 the advent of steamboats and more efficient roads rendered the Trace obsolete for business travelers.  At that point the inn continued to operate as a resort for locals seeking rural solitude.  It was interesting to learn that such rural escapes were in demand even in 1825, when it’s hard to imagine any real cities in existence.  Paulina Chamberlain, the lady of the house from 1784 to 1849, was known as a hard charger who kept the farm and inn running through two husbands who predeceased her.  This was especially noteworthy given women’s typical roles at the time.  Known as “Grandma Polly,” she raised 11 children while operating the plantation.

A few hundred yards behind the inn, at one end of the agricultural field, there are two cemeteries.  The Mount Locust family is buried in the first, with waist-high headstones bearing easily read inscriptions.  The graves are adorned with fresh-looking Confederate flags.  One memorable headstone listed the deceased as a member of the “Jefferson Flying Artillery.”

A few feet away lay the slave cemetery, where over 40 slaves are known to be buried.  Most of the slaves’ identities, however, are uncertain.  The slaves’ graves are marked simply with fist-sized rocks bearing no inscriptions.  This was a sad place.

Historical information on the Mount Locust Inn and Plantation was provided by the National Park Service.

Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a two-lane highway that runs for 444 miles from southern Mississippi to Northern Tennessee, crossing through Alabama.  The hiking trails and historic sites along the way are managed by the National Park Service as a national park, though the Parkway is not officially listed as such.  Locals refer to the highway simply as “The Trace.”

The parkway closely follows The Old Trace, a foot and horse trail used as a primary trade route in the 1700’s and 1800’s.  Merchants would sail their goods down the Mississippi river from the north to Natchez, MS on unpowered rafts.  Since these rafts could not travel back upriver, they were sold for scrap and the boatmen walked home on the Trace.  Inns and taverns served the travelers along the way.  Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians were a prominent presence during much of the Trace’s heyday.

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

Natchez Trace Parkway, southern entrance. Click to enlarge.

I entered the Trace at its southern end in Natchez shortly before sunset. The dense, towering deciduous trees were a contrast to the bayous I left behind earlier that day.  There was just enough daylight to explore Emerald Mound, a raised terrace of dirt roughly 300 feet tall with a flat rectangular mesa the size of 2-3 footballs fields on top.  A steep, fenced trail led from the parking lot to the top of the mound.  Dense, green, and neatly mowed grass covered the top and sides.  The mound was built by ancient Indians who hauled the dirt one basket at a time on their backs.  The Indians used this site for governing and religious activities according to the National Park Service.

Duly impressed, I headed for Natchez State Park to camp for the night.  I set up next to a friendly married couple from Maryland.  They were traveling to Texas to visit their son in college.  The next morning I was setting up my camp shower, shirtless.  My neighbor informed me of a developed shower a short distance up the road.  “I see, you don’t want to watch me do this,” I joked.  “No, take off the rest of your clothes,” his wife shot back.  I used the shower in the building.