Day 7: Finishing the Trace and Mississippi River Ferry

Another gentle, beautiful day cruising on the Natchez Trace. The southern portion of the Trace goes through the bayou country of Mississippi. The gentle hills that the Trace runs through up north have given way to a flatter, though still enjoyable, drive. The folks who designed the road created a route that has gentle curves, perfect for setting the car on autopilot at 50 mph (the speed limit) and just sitting back and enjoying the drive.

From Jackson, I headed south for the final 100 miles. There are still many spots to stop and get out to stretch and view the actual trace. Many trees still bare at the beginning of March, but no snow here.

The Trace was well worth the trip and the three days I took to cover the 450 miles gave me time to enjoy the ride and soak up the history. I recommend it.

For more information on the Trace, go to the official National Park web page.

Ending up in Natchez, I drove around the small town a bit, stopped in the Visitor Center on high ground above where the riverboat casino is docked on the Mississippi, but chose to continue on. I headed south on US 61 toward Baton Rouge, LA.

One detour… the ferry across the Mississippi River at St. Francisville, LA.

Louisiana still runs many car ferries around the state, most across the Mississippi River. Because it was a Sunday afternoon, there was a line of cars filled with families out for a weekend drive and the wait was about 30 minutes, but well worth it. I arrived just as the ferry was taking off for its run to the other side of the bank.

The “Big Muddy” Mississippi is pretty brown at this stage but very impressive. The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes and it’s free, so take it if you can. There were a few barges up river, hauling coal or sand or something… I could only see mounds of something as cargo; the barges were a half-mile or so upstream.

From here, I wound around through Point Coupee (any relation to “Al Coupee and the Sports of the Day… hya, folks” … a reference for you native San Diegans 50 or older), New Roads, Louisiana State Highway 1, US 190 and into Baton Rouge.

By the way, I’ve been to Baton Rouge several times and I always get lost. It’s one of those cities that seems to have had its streets diagramed by a Pickup Sticks game… dump a bunch of sticks on a map of the area, then draw the streets as they come up. Just part of its charm.

I treated myself to a steak dinner at Sullivans, an upscale steak chain. By the way… if you’re the hostess at Sullivan’s and reading this, just let me know when you want me to come back and do a photo session. And the meal was pretty good, too.

Next: On to New Orleans.

Day 6: Snowy Trace

A great day on the Trace. My car was a snowdrift (white snow on a white car) but was quickly cleared. I did call the Visitor Center to see if the road was clear… it was. After checking out the beautiful snow scene around my hotel, I scraped off the car and headed out.

The Trace was beautiful with the dusting of snow. Like a Christmas tree lot full of flocked trees. Especially beautiful areas were around Tockshish, which was the midpoint on the original Trace between Natchez and Nashville.

I pulled off on US 82 and headed to Starkville, home of Mississippi State University, for lunch. Where I stopped, a the Bulldog Deli, which boasted that it was a “New York Style Deli” but didn’t have rye bread… gives you an idea of the rest of the experience. Did stop in my second Piggly Wiggly.

Back on the road, the bare oaks were mostly replaced by pines… I’ll have to check but I think these are Bob Villa’s favorite trees, Southern Yellow Pines.

Another disappointment — the visitor center and museum at Kosciusko was closed, even though I was there well before the posted 4 p.m. closing time. Maybe the volunteer didn’t make it because of the weather.

Stop for the night: Jackson, Miss. Back tomorrow for the last 100 or so miles to Natchez.

Day 5: Rain, snow and the Trace

After an overnight in Columbia, Tenn., and heavy rain all night, the weather broke and I decided to head south on the Trace. It was an overcast day, but just as enjoyable.

South from Columbia, the Trace continues to meander over the rolling hills of southern Tennessee. The history continues to be amazing, with frequent spots where visitors can see the actual trail, markers for historic sites in a few Indian mounds, ancient burial spots.

The trees in the adjacent forests are mostly bare… even more than usual. I stopped at a visitor center off the trace, in a very small town (I’ll get back to you on the name), and she said the trees were even more bare than usual this year. It seems that while the leaves die off in the fall, lots of them don’t usually fall off. So, my winter view through the trees is unusual, according to her. And we’ll have more from her later… wish I’d written down her name.

There was a little rain here and there, but not enough to mess things up. The wind did kick up whitecaps on the Tennessee River, which at Colberts Crossing is a half-mile wide. It seems one Mr. Colbert ran a ferry across here two centuries ago.

By the time I got into Tupolo, the snow was getting a bit heavier and I found a hotel for the night. That was around 4. By the time I went to dinner the snow was coming down harder and as I write this, about 8 p.m., the snow is starting to stick a little.

Folks say they don’t get much snow… in fact they don’t get any snow here. The ground is warm, though, and it doesn’t look like it will stick.

Still, I’ll call the Trace visitors center in the morning to see if the road is open and how it is before leaving. The lady at the other visitors center (again, I’ll get back to you on the name) told me the story of how she and her husband were slammed by a skidding van once on the Trace during a snowstorm. The van slid into them on the icy road. They were OK, but because cell phone service is iffy and the only patrols are the park rangers or other drivers, they had to wait for hours for help.

If I have to stay in Tupolo for two nights, well, it could be worse. Stay tuned.

Day 4: Loveless Diner and the Trace

A beautiful day greeted me as I began my trek down the Trace.

After recommendations by everyone I met in Nashville, I stopped in at Loveless Cafe, near the north end of the Trace Parkway, and had breakfast, even though it was lunch. And the biscuits are everything that everybody says they are.

One of those tourist-embarrassing moments: As I was leaving, I stopped at the hostess stand to ask where to buy postcards… One of the two women there turned out to be their famous biscuit maker, Carol Fay. She told me where to buy postcards… in the gift shop across the parking lot. I thanked her for the directions to the postcards but said nothing about how excellent the biscuits and breakfast were. Sorry, Carol. The food was excellent. (Note: Fay has since passed away.)

After my botched encounter with the celebrity chef, I picked up a couple of postcards and headed out on the road for the highlight of my trip.

The Trace was beautiful. A meandering, park road with plenty of places to stop along the way.

Not much traffic, so I was able to enjoy it. The overlooks and design of the road make it particularly enjoyable.

I stopped at a couple of spots where the actual Trace route crosses the parkway. It’s maintained as a hiking trail — which, of course, it was originally. I walked about a half-mile up the Trace; I’ll spare you all the inspiring words about sensing 500 years of humans using this trail; just use your imagination. It’s a beautiful place to hike, with the trees — even when bare — providing a nice canopy. Oak leafs crunched under my feet and the trace itself was worn down two feet or more from the surrounding terrain.

One of the highlights of the north end of the Trace is the Double Arch Bridge at mile 438, just west of Franklin (the mile markers run from south to north). As the name says, the bridge is has two beautiful arches and reminded me of the bridges on California’s SR-1 through the Big Sur area.

Exiting the Trace at SR-7, I got a hotel for the night in Columbia, Tenn. The weather was getting nasty.

Next: On to Mississippi.

Day 3: Nissan Smyrna Plant

Nissan Symrna factoryAfter doing nothing on day 2 except driving around Nashville in the rain and light snow, I headed out on Day 3 to the NissanPlant in Smyrna, Tenn. I was lucky enough to have a personal tour by the PR director, who took me around the mile-long plant that makes the Xterra, Frontier and Altima.

If you’re never been in an auto plant, put it on your list of things. This was the second tour I’ve taken (also been to Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant). Smyrna does everything from stamping sheet steel into body parts to final assembly.

Nothing says “auto factory” like stamping and body assembly. Stamping takes sheets of cold rolled steel and huge machine presses stamp the flat sheets into doors, fenders, structural pieces and roofs. The huge machine we watched is encased in an apartment sized building that reduces the noise, so all you hear is a muffled clank and feel the floor shaking.

At body assembly, sparks fly as robots put the pieces together into a carcass of a car… sort of the reverse of boning a chicken.

After, I went to Nissan’s HQ in downtown Nashville to meet with the press fleet and technology folks to talk about the future of GPS devices in cars.

All in all, a great day.