Last Fall, I had the opportunity to ride my bike along the Southern portion of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444 mile long National Park that stretches from Nashville, Tennessee, across the northwest corner of Alabama, and down to Natchez, Mississippi.
I only rode about 150 miles of the Trace, roughly one-third of the entire length, enough to get some of the flavor, if only a taste, of the region and a small bite of the 10,000 year history of the trail. I made a point of stopping at the historical markers along the thruway, many of which highlighted the story and struggles of the native Americans who populated the region for centuries.
At one such stop, I encountered another cyclist at the placard for Osburn Stand, about 90 miles north of Natchez. As I tend to do, I struck up a conversation, which started about her bike, an old-school Masi touring bike (I have a particular affinity for the brand–my first racing bike was a Masi upon which I won more than my fair share of races) laden with an assortment of packs, a sleeping bag, and what must have been a tent.
Yeah, she was pretty hard-core, particularly when compared to me–my bike would likely crumble under one eighth of the load that was laden upon her ride.
She had started at the other end of the Trace, in Nashville, which she had explained was quite a bit hillier and tougher from a cycling standpoint. A bit amazed that she had ridden nearly four hundred miles solo, camping along the way, I offered up what I thought was encouragement:
“You’re going to love Natchez, it is a beautiful town and the people are incredibly friendly.”
She then intimated that she was not going all the way to the end of the Trace (although she had originally planned to)–she was going to visit the Emerald Mound, one of the largest Native American burial mounds in the U.S., used by descendants of the Natchez tribe from about 1250-1600.
She planned to camp near there for the night and then turn around and ride back to Nashville before returning home to Canada. She then proceeded to give me a five-minute lecture of how terribly the U.S. has treated its indigenous populations and that Canadians were far superior in this regard.
While most Americans find Canadians exceedingly nice and engaging, most of the residents from our neighbors to the north that I encounter tend to be either self-righteous jack-rabbits or far, far worse.
The most astounding part of the entire discussion (which I ended shortly after she started to give me suggestions about what my government could do differently) was that she was not going to ride the last ten miles of the Trace into Natchez. Mind-boggling on two levels:
- After riding 434 miles, she would not ride another ten to complete the Trace?
- The town of Natchez is wonderful.
Founded in 1716 by the French, Natchez (rhymes with “matches”), Mississippi is the oldest permanent continuous settlement on the Mississippi River (New Orleans was founded two years later) and is named after the original inhabitants of the area, the Natchez Indians.
The town was controlled by the British and Spanish (briefly) before the Revolutionary War and eventually became home to the second largest slave trade in the country (after New Orleans).
Despite its connection to slavery, there were no Civil War battles in Natchez, and the town survived, largely intact. The town as a whole opposed succession, and many of the residents at the time had moved there from the North. This is why the town, and its nearly 700 antebellum homes, was not burned by Union troops.
Today, Natchez exudes a small town feel while displaying its majestic past. There are roughly fifteen thousand inhabitants in Natchez, which represents about half of the population of Adams County for which Natchez is the county seat.
A few locals described Natchez as a “typical river town with bars that rarely close and gambling.” Some call it the “Little Easy” a calmer, more restrained version of the much more well-known “Big Easy” two and a half hours to the South.
In the century following the end of the Civil War, many of the homes in Natchez were abandoned and fell into disrepair, but in the 1970s, the Natchez Historic Foundation stepped in and preserved many of the historic buildings.
Today, many of those homes are open to the public particularly during the Fall Pilgrimage, where residents (called Natcheesians) dress in 19th century dress and give tours of the homes that have stood for nearly two centuries. Many visitors, lured by the charms of Natchez, choose to stay, thus becoming Natchoosians.
Tourism is main industry of the town, with festivals and celebrations throughout the year, including the Natchez Food and Wine Festival (July), the Natchez Biscuit Festival (September–Natchez is the biscuit capital of the world), and the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race (October). As one might assume, there are dozens of Bed and Breakfasts in the city as well as VRBO and Air B&B options.
Mardi Gras is also a popular attraction in Natchez, but it is a smaller, tamer, more family oriented version of the New Orleans extravaganza, culminating in Natchez the Sunday before Fat Tuesday.
Natchez is also facing its troubled past as some slave houses have been restored and educational programs have been established to confront its connection to that part of the American experience.
I have to be honest, I had a ton of preconceived notions about Mississippi before my visit to Natchez. While getting my doctorate, nearly every study of education in the U.S. had Mississippi at the bottom (if I recall correctly, it was either 49th or 50th in every study). It has also been identified as one of the most unhealthy states in the country, with over a third of its residents identified as obese.
Many of the Mississippians I spoke to were well aware of the perception of their state by outsiders, often mentioning those statistics unprovoked, they still were proud of their state and particularly their town.
I hope that, in the end, my Canadian cyclist “friend” rode all the way into Natchez and stayed there for a spell. Sure, this country has a lot of difficult moments in its past, but Natchez seems far ahead of the curve in addressing, even embracing them.