Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Chris Myers, Richard Rothermel
Many of the roads loved most by motorcyclists are timeworn remnants. Too often, when a forest or mountain stands in the way, it's been a simple matter of putting the big equipment to work indiscriminately slashing trees and moving tons of dirt to fashion the perfect point-A to point-B route. Thankfully though, we still have roads that follow the path of least resistance, and some of the best are age-old trails.
Centuries ago, before the sound of engines, horse hooves, or any human walking or running ever broke the quiet of the forest, the Natchez Trace was a busy place. Its first wanderers were buffalo, deer, and other wildlife, following their migratory route from the banks of the Mississippi River to salt licks near modern-day Nashville. As time marched on, the Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples adopted the path, at first to follow the game, then later for trade purposes. As early European explorers arrived, they too trod the well-established trail on forays inland. Even the gold-obsessed Hernando DeSoto and his men are said to have clanked along parts of the Trace in their search for the shiny stuff.
As the United States expanded westward in the late 1700s, agricultural and industrial output increased too, and those goods produced in the Ohio River Valley had to be delivered more efficiently to the large seaports in New Orleans and Natchez. The answer came in the form of flatboats. Essentially rafts, these large, flat-bottomed crafts were loaded with cargo and piloted down the Ohio and then Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. But until the invention of the steamship, it was a one-way trip back then. Flatboats were all but useless once unloaded at their final destinations. The men from up north, known as Kaintucks, would then dismantle their impromptu barges and sell the wood for lumber. Now product light and cash heavy, they set out on foot, in some years by the thousands, on the arduous 30- to 40-day hike up the Natchez Trace to Nashville and then on to points north, east, and home.
By the early 1800s the Trace was the most heavily traveled wilderness-road in the Old Southwest. Of course as traffic increased, opportunists weren't far behind. Along the way, inns - or stands as they were known - began springing up to feed and shelter weary footsloggers. Though comforts were basic, the stands were a safe haven from the highwaymen and thieves also attracted by this new source of "income." Additionally, the Kaintucks faced the unpleasant prospect of Indian attacks. Many of the natives, fed up with being pushed from their lands, retaliated against the travelers. These manmade threats combined with Mother Nature's sudden fits of storms, floods, and attacks by disease-carrying insects made the Trace a pretty dangerous area. Even an ill-placed step on the wrong root or rock could lead to a broken leg or ankle, a virtual death sentence in the wilds.
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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2008 back issue.