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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By 1820, the advent of steamships ushered in a new era of upriver voyaging. This quicker and safer option back north all but eliminated the need for the Natchez Trace. Though the forest largely reclaimed the old road, its history as one of America's great early passageways was not forgotten. In the late 1930s, construction began on the modern Natchez Trace Parkway. Today, the meandering route manages to stay quite faithful to the original trail, still offering a fairly direct route from Natchez to Nashville, wholly unencumbered by trucks and, for the most part, traffic in general. The trials and tribulations so common along the old Trace have been replaced by a seemingly endless parade of pullouts, picnic areas, and rest stops. Nearly all of these waysides sport signage celebrating historic events, unique geological facts, or locations of cultural significance associated with the surrounding areas.
Never having been to the Trace, I jumped at the opportunity to explore this unique roadway. I had heard dozens of riders sing the praises of cruising this unhurried stretch of two-lane bliss - now it was my turn to follow some true southern roots. And being astride Victory's Vegas Jackpot, arguably the King of the factory customs, my ride for this late April jaunt could not be more perfect.
With a full tank of gas, I point Big Vic south on the Natchez Trace just outside of Nashville. Before I can log ten miles, a pullout overlooking a stunning concrete double-arch bridge brings me to a stop. Linking the Trace across the ridge tops of Birdsong Hollow high above Tennessee Route 96, the 479-foot span gracefully rises 155feet above the valley below. The clean, fluid lines of this stark, yet beautiful structure earned it a Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1994. Have the camera handy; you'll need it here.