One of the guidebooks wasn’t especially helpful when it came to scenery. Then again, something entitled Rock’n’Roll Traveler USA was always going to be more interested in directing you to the field in which Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, or the Taliesyn Ballroom in Tennessee where the Sex Pistols played the second concert of their notorious and short US tour in 78. The latter’s now a Taco Bell incidentally.
These are interesting places for rock music aficionados to be sure, but most are hardly worth the diversion. But when we read a rare mention of something as un-hip as a nice drive we were immediately besotted.
“Farther south is Jackson, the state capital,” it said in the chapter about Mississippi where we were heading, “connected to Tupelo by the Natchez Trace, one of the nation’s loveliest drives“.
Well, we were aiming our rental up from New Orleans in Louisiana to Natchez on the banks of the mighty and muddy Mississippi. After that we were planning to go on through the Delta and blues country to Tupelo in the north east corner of Mississippi to see the birthplace of Elvis Presley, where our book would surely become more handy.
But this small aside about one of America’s loveliest drives sounded too tempting to miss. If authors Tim Perry and Ed Glinert - who could point you to such minutiae as Madame Marie’s boardwalk hut in New Jersey’s Asbury Park area, as mentioned in Bruce Springsteen’s song <i>Fourth of July</i> - thought this a drive worth doing then we were hardly going to argue. These people had obviously seen a lot of America’s highways and low roads so must know what they were talking about.
“So, y’all goin’ to Tupelo?” says Mike in a small but rowdy bar in Natchez. He’s shouting over the basketball commentary on the radio and the dozen or so patrons who are rooting for a hometeam win.
I nod as we are joined by his friend Ray carrying more beers.
“Man, you gotta drive the Trace,” he bellows, “Prettiest piece of road in the whole damn country.”
It is now mid-evening and we have arrived in Natchez that afternoon. We have driven the quiet streets and at the visitor’s centre picked up brochures for some of the stately homes around the town which rest in quiet gardens under dogwoods and oaks dripping with Spanish Moss.
It is astonishingly beautiful and Natchez, the oldest permanent settlement on the Mississippi River, is where the cotton plantation owners lived while keeping their properties across the river in Louisiana. It is cooler up on the Natchez bluff than the vast and low flatlands on the other side so here are glorious antebellum homes of the kind familiar from Gone With the Wind
Prior to the Civil War over half the millionaires in the United States lived in Natchez and - because the town wasn’t a military target - most of the 500 homes, churches and public buildings constructed in the Greek Revival style have remained intact.
They boast grand and elegant names like Stanton Hall - five levels of rooms built in 1857 - and (the beautiful but incomplete) Longwood, which is octagonal and topped by a Moorish-style dome.
“So y’all seen Longwood then?” says Mike. “Terrible tragedy that story, but then again most of them old plantation owners never lived much to enjoy the homes they built.”
He’s right: Haller Nutt who built Longwood picked a bad time to start construction on his enormous six floor structure. Building began on the family mansion in 1860 and the following year the Civil War broke out. Ever the businessman, Nutt tried to placate both sides as his builders and craftsmen fled or joined the Northern troops. But when the Union army marched into Natchez they had no sympathy for him even though he had provided comfort for their troops. They destroyed his stock-piled cotton then valued at over US$1 million. We can only imagine what that might have meant in today’s money.
Nutt and his family had finished only the basement rooms of Longwood and that was where he died - they say of a broken heart although the diagnosis was pneumonia - three years later.
The owner of Stanton Hall didn’t have much better luck. He died in 1859 shortly after his magnificent mansion was completed. His family remained there for another 35 years, rattling around in a home which boasted six bedrooms on the second floor and has three reception rooms off the 30 metre entrance hallway.
These days many of the old homes of Natchez are administered by the Pilgrimage Garden Club, southern belles who often dress in period costume of layered petticoats and are only too happy to guide visitors around them and tell the stories of the homes’ remarkable histories.
One of these gentle docents had conducted us around Stanton Hall, her petticoats rustling in the cool breeze as we step onto the terrace.
There is another history in Natchez of course, that of the slaves who worked and died for King Cotton. The rundown Natchez Museum of Afro-American History and Culture on Main St is the necessary corrective after enjoying the elegance of the mansions. Here in the former post office another, more tragic story unfolds. The gap between this threadbare museum scraping for donations and the preserved and restored homes of the slave owners speaks of a divide not yet bridged.
But in the Corner Bar at Canal and State a conversation about the history of this town doesn’t mean much when the hometeam is down a few points. Mike and Ray can’t stop extolling the virtues of the Natchez Trace however. Both travel up to Nashville frequently and most times if they aren’t in a hurry they’ll drive the Trace, despite the low speed limit imposed.
“Feels like you’re just takin’ a quiet flight if you travel up that way,” says Mike. “Y’all should check it out.”
______________________________________________________________________________________________Next time Graham Reid travels the Trace.
Check out Graham's website www.elsewhere.co.nz
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