09 October 2007

Traces of roads, long ago

Last week, during my Birmingham junket (or, to be more precise, east Walker County), I made a daylong trip over to the tortured wilds of Tupelo, Miss., and from there I went over to Madison, Ala. before dropping southward back to the motel. I called this trip "the triangle", as my path kinda resembled one.

With a new and better camera, I wanted to take some improved shots of what I previously had in low-fi digital form. I also longed to take a nice, leisurely joyride ... so that's what I did.

As much as I love making roadtrips with Luvuhmylife Seraphim, I just as much enjoy making the occasional trip by myself. Driving and reflecting. Or "D&R" for short.

It was one for the surreal book, that's for sure. From Tupelo to Madison on the same day. That's like visiting Satan and then going immediately upstairs to break bread with Yahweh.

Yes, Satan. Because only the Devil would've caused an awesome roast beef sandwich to become nearly extinct. Tupelo is home to one of the few remaining Danver's locations.

Tupelo, Mississippi is also the headquarters for the Natchez Trace Parkway, a two-lane 'national parkway' of some 443 miles. Or thereabouts. (Amazingly enough, the other NPS roadway - the Blue Ridge Parkway - is longer than "The Trace"; I only learned this fact the other day!!)

The Natchez Trace visitor center is located north of the city nearby where the parkway intersects with Miss. 145 (a/k/a Old US 45). During my years in Tupelo, this roadway was as much a part of the area's culture as a certain jelly doughnut-swilling favorite son. Plenty of memories arose from the Chickasaw Village site, along the parkway ... there's a cool hiking and "interpretive nature" trail, with plenty of trees. And that's where I learned how Tupelo got its name.

I hadn't done very much traveling of this parkway through my driving years. At least until last week. After leaving Tupelo -- and still wolfing down the last of my Danver's booty -- I drove north on Miss. 145 and picked up the Trace, heading northeastward toward Alabama, where I'd get off on US-72 going east toward Tuscumbia, Decatur and Madison.

When I was little, I found the NTP to be a mite boring. Nothing but trees to look at. As much fun for a roadgeek as watching paint dry.

At age 42, it was different. After, ohhhhh, a handful of miles, I quickly found my groove on the Trace. It's a long National Park ... complete with the brown guide signs, in distinctive "clarendon" font, a speed limit of 50 MPH, and trucks and commercial vehicles of any kind are verboten from traveling the parkway. Billboards are also contraband. Ditto for any roadside commerce. It's a 'limited access' roadway, with overpasses and access ramps to get to and from "civilian" roads.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 100% commercial-free zone. It's a nice alternative to the clutter, hustle and bustle of interstates and regular highways. The speed limit might be lower, but you're enjoying the slower pace.

The radio was tuned to AM 580 out of Tupelo, WELO. The Music of Your Life. Sinatra, Clooney and other 'pop standards' made a splendid soundtrack. And being a weekday, I damn near had this roadway to myself. I don't think I saw more than half a dozen cars.

I loved it. And I was so disappointed when I reached US-72, where I had to exit the parkway. I almost changed my plans and kept northward to the Trace's north terminus outside of Nashville.

Even such roadside drama as state lines are incredibly subdued on the Natchez Trace. No big green "Welcome To Alabama The Beautiful ... Bob Riley, Governor", or gigantic signs screaming "Mississippi Welcomes You." Here it's just a simple "Entering [state]."

In the above picture, I'm straddling the line. I'm Alasippi-ing. Or is that Missi-bama?

The dominant motif along the parkway is the arrowhead. It's the shape used for all the historical marker approaches, and for the entrance signs for the various pull-offs.

One should not press their luck while driving this slab -- speeding on this, or any NPS roadway, is a Federal offense. Me, I set the cruise control for exactly 50 M.P.H. and just enjoyed the ride.

And I found out something really cool:

Driving at that rate of speed does wonders for the ol' gas mileage! Check out the 'trip computer' -- when is the last time anyone achieved 30 MPG in a friggin SUV??!!

Seriously, I filled up in Tupelo and the needle didn't budge from "F" until I was past the Alabama line.

I realized something else, too.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a thoroughfare maintained by government interests, without any commercial traffic, businesses, billboards or anything resembling the conduct of free enterprise.

In addition to its purpose honoring an early pioneer trail, the Trace also serves as an alternative route to get from Tupelo to Nashville or to Jackson.

It's very low-key. It's dignified. It's scenic. It's full of substance in a world where other highways are cluttered and bottlenecked eyesores.

I dare say the Natchez Trace Parkway is the Public Radio of highways.

And I so much want to drive this thing from beginning to end. Seraphim and I shall do just that one of these days.

Isn't it nice to know that roads like this exist?

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Proud to have his tax dollars funding it" Gleck

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