When the locals ask “But…why are you here”? You know you’ve strayed from the road most travelled. ‘Here’ was Saltilo, Mississippi and indeed why was I here? I hadn’t planned to be here but on this 64 day, solo road trip from New York to San Francisco. I hadn’t done much planning at all, particularly for anything west of Nashville, and as someone who loves a good plan but is also an exceptional procrastinator, my route plotting experience spurned an ongoing inner conflict between the fastidious side of me and the side that just wants to watch TV.
That latter side already had much to answer for: not only viewing ‘Behind the Candelabra’ and inflicting my eyes and mind with the image of Michael Douglas as Liberace, but also a badly researched and poorly timed trip to the Smoky Mountains – it was Memorial Day weekend and it took more than half an hour to drive the 1.5 miles through Gatlinburg town centre. Now I was on a long drive from Nashville to New Orleans and a quick glance online showed that the best way to drive those 630 miles might be on the Natchez Trace. While lazy planning provides room for the inconvenient and frustrating, it also thrusts you into the wonderfully unexpected. The Natchez Trace Parkway certainly falls into the second category.
An ancient route, once used by Native American Indians thousands of years ago, the Natchez Trace became the main road to what was then South West USA and remained an essential thoroughfare well into the nineteenth century. Now the course is a part of the National Park Service. The current road, completed in 2005, runs through Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi from Nashville to Natchez. It is a glorious change to driving the interstate; it’s quiet, offers some lovely views and is packed with historical sites. Granted, most of these sites involve staring at a mound of grass, but that still beats the mania and dull grey of the highway. Also, at the risk of sounding like my dad, it’s a good road – smooth, sleek and sans pot-holes. It feels like the kind of route Jeremy Clarkson would zip along in something shiny and royal blue while making disturbing erotic noises. It may not be as breathtaking as the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah, as glamorous as the Pacific Coast Highway, or as iconic as Route 66 but something about this road really captured my heart.
The person questioning why an English girl would ever choose to be in North East Mississippi is a Cracker Barrel waitress – Cracker Barrel are a chain of restaurants that I have been assured provide an authentic plate of Southern Fare; I have no benchmark for authenticity, but the food was delicious and the generosity abundant. As I looked at the waitress’ startled face I felt pity for my own home town – I hope it has plenty of outsiders passing through and appreciating it in a way those of us who have known it all our lives cannot. Wrapping up the cornbread and biscuits that had been mysteriously served to me with jam and butter as a starter, and feeling smug that breakfast was already sorted, I headed back out onto the Natchez Trace where dusk had turned the sky a soft pink and the once lush green surroundings now stood in stark silhouette like a painted backdrop to an early Technicolor movie. No cars had passed for some time and as the last of the sunlight eased away, the van’s front beams caught the first of the evening’s new companions; little emerald green pinpricks that flashed in the air like a miniature camera bulb. Fireflies! I’d never seen any before. At first just a few hovering and quivering at the side of the road but soon the route was flanked by thousands of them skimming the grass verge or spiralling upwards with those more adventurous making it high above the road to appear like distant spaceships – or perhaps they were distant spaceships. Suddenly, presented with this unendingly bewitching sight, anything seemed possible.
A complicated mixture of feelings that I’d been determined to ignore surged up from somewhere, and the full impact of this trip hit me square in the chest for the first time – I was driving across the USA by myself. Up until now I’d only allowed myself to think a day or so at a time, the route was simply from ‘A’, my current location, to a vague ‘B,’ but determined ignorance had lapsed, the mental map had rapidly zoomed out; now ‘A’ was New York and ‘B’ was San Francisco and I still had another 3,700 miles to go. Flooded by equal measures of panic, pride, fear, excitement, nausea, and anticipation I could feel that swirl of overwhelming emotion engulfing the van. “She’s right, why am I here? What am I doing”?
The moment was cut short as a small group of deer skittered across the road, the brakes were slammed and the glare of the front beam caught their night jaunt; they turned their heads in unison to stare. I’ve never received an affronted gaze from a deer before, surprised, yes, and even incredulous, but never affronted. However, over the course of those last few miles to the campsite it seems every deer in the area arrived to take their turn leaping into the middle of the road and serving up a glower of indignation that the van and I should dare be here too. It was like the end of the world was nigh, Douglas Adams style, but this time only the deer knew about it – I imagine their exit song would be a rather more sarcastic “So long and thanks for all the hunting, you bastards!” The remainder of the journey was done at a max of 10miles an hour for fear of creating a dozen new Bambi stories.
It wasn’t until I awoke the next morning and sat in the sunshine, munching on my cornbread and biscuit breakfast that I recalled that surge of emotion from the night before. Happily the deer had arrived at just the right moment; life had thrown up a little reminder that I should calm the heck down and get on with it. Looking about me now at the beautiful, leafy and secluded free campsite, of which I appeared to be one of three users, I felt nothing but fortunate. Yes, I still had another 3,700 miles to go. Yes, I’d probably find problems and have bad days. Yes, there would be moments so wonderful that I’d feel sad I had nobody with whom to share them. But I was so incredibly lucky to be ‘here’ and I was ready to welcome whatever was next.