Natchez Trace

Days 8-11: Lake Bisteneau, Louisiana, 2233 miles, 12 states

Even more so because it the Choctaw way of thinking, west is the direction of death. That’s the direction that people travel after they have died and left this world, so having to move towards the west in particular made it even more traumatic for Choctaws because it was moving toward the land of the dead. 

Ian Thompson, “The Choctaw Spirit”, speaking of the forced removal of Choctaw people through the Trail of Tears

The Natchez Trace is a National treasure. I hesitate to say much about it for fear that hordes of people will come and overwhelm its natural beauty.

Rather than embarking on a lengthy book project, which the Trace deserves, let me just list some things it does not have and some things it does.

The Natchez Trace does not have:

  • Large trucks
  • Buses
  • Heavy traffic of any kind
  • Billboards
  • Trash

Only a few of the many things the Natchez Trace does have:

  • At least three crossings of branches of the Trail of Tears, including the water trail on the Tennessee River
  • Two thousand year old burial mounds from the Hopewell culture
  • Jackson Falls, a stunning waterfall descending in several cascades over limestone shelves covered with moss and lichen
  • Rock Spring, a short walk along Colbert Creek with beaver dams, secluded pools, wildflowers, birds, amphibians, and carved stone steps across the Creek
  • The award-winning Double Arch Bridge over Birdsong Hollow
  • Trails of all kinds–wheelchair accessible, challenging climbs, horse trails
  • 444 miles of a winding, two-lane highway lined with trees and occasional meadows, marshes, and ponds
  • Stopping points every two or three miles with nature walks, historical sites, and attractive picnic spots
  • Free camping in wooded sites
On the horse, and dog, trail
Vanagain in Natchez Trace campsite
Fire ants, after I disturbed their mound with my finger
Rock Springs
Colbert Creek
Old growth
Lake Bistineau in flood
Jackson Falls

Honey of a campsite

Day 7: Cave Mountain Lake, VIrginia, 1057 miles, 8 states

It all comes of liking honey so much.

A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

After several wrong turns (blame this navigator), one night that was strikingly cold, persistent rain, and some other minor irritations, we arrived at the almost perfect campsite.

The weather was ideal, cool enough to justify a campfire, but not enough to shiver us. Our site was at the end of a loop, with no one else nearby. We mercifully had no wifi or cell service. The comfort facilities were clean and not too far away. We had several pleasant walks and could have spent months doing more in the area.

There was only one problem.

A forbidding sign told us not to leave any food outside or in a tent (no surprise at that), but also no bug spray, no hand sanitizer, charcoal and lighter fluid, toothpaste, or virtually any other item I’d ever imagined on a camping trip.

The problem of course was bears. They can easily become a nuisance or a major danger, and they’re apparently attracted to everything, at least anything that a human has touched.

During dinner, there were three times that we heard major rustling in the woods just above our site. There was no human trail there, and the rustling was much too loud to be from a raccoon or turkey. That night, too, we heard four-footed steps outside our van, enough to make us stretch out the time between needed nighttime comfort breaks.

We might have beeome bear food, but through intelligence, perseverance, and bravery we managed to make it though the night.

Primeval soggy

Days 5-6: Prince William Forest, VIrginia, 824 miles, 8 states

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie”
With the Williams. Guess which baseball team they support!

We stayed last night in Prince William Forest Park, Virginia. There had been a continuous rain for several hours leading up to our arrival in the area, so the grounds were soggy, the air was misty,  and the trees were dripping.

Our stay almost didn’t happen, because we’d made a mistake on our reservation. A ranger happened to pass by as we were considering speaking to the usurpers of our campsite. We learned that they were totally in the right and that our reservation was for a previous day. Fortunately, there was an unoccupied site we were able to use.

The Park sits next to the Quantico Marine Base, and as a reminder of the toll of war, the Quantico National Cemetery. The area of the Forest was once home to several villages, including one for former slaves.

It’s now a lush green landscape, much further along than our cape Cod vegetation and denser in any case. There’s a beautiful Scenic Drive, trails, well-spaced campsites, and limited, but well-functioning facilities.

We visited nephew Mark, his wife Laura, and their two boys in Springfield. It’s a sign of the enforced isolation of covid on top of our laziness that they’ve been in a new home for five years and we hadn’t seen it before.

Mark and Laura may have started a trend. We’ll be seeing at least seven family individuals or groups in domiciles new to us on this trip, and as a bonus, one family in Texas and another in California who’ve sold their homes and moved out, but don’t have a new one yet. In addition to covid, there are growing families and new jobs, maybe a little restlessness appropriate to our times.

Chess masters. Why is there no large screen TV?

Blue heron at Burke Lake

Intrepid explorers

Paulownia bush taking advantage of a disturbed area under a bridge

Cicadas preparing to emerge

The shifting calm of a barrier spit

Day 4: Sandy Hook, New Jersey, 454 miles, 5 states

Peace flows into me
As the tide to the pool by the shore;
It is mine forevermore,
It ebbs not back like the sea …

Sara Teasdale, ‘Peace’.

Sandy Hook is a beautiful, peaceful respite. There are interesting walks and cycle routes all over. The big activities are in other-than-human nature, since the principal human activity was the now dilapidated Fort Hancock.

Beach plums bloom wildly in the spring, promising unlimited jams and jellies. Menhadens litter the beach. Perhaps a school was attacked by bluefish, or seabirds? Ospreys circle overhead, in flocks of four or more, a pattern that I’d never seen before. The tides move inexorably, but the whitecaps come and go as the wind keeps changing. The Raritan bay side and the Atlantic ocean side each have their distinctive character.

Beach plum bush with blossoms

The isolation and calm aren’t for everyone. Sarah Patterson was appointed Assistant Keeper of the Lighthouse in 1867. She assisted her brother, Charles Patterson, who was Head Keeper and tended the lighthouse from 1861 to 1885. She complained about what seemed monotonous to her:

…I get homesick…I can only look at sand and water [here]. We can’t hardly tell whether its spring or not… [because] it is always one thing here; the sand and cedars never change.

Sarah Patterson Johnson in a letter to her father at the family farm in Howell Township, NJ

Sarah never knew that the beach season would disrupt the calm of Sandy Hook starting each June. I imagine that it’s quite different then. Huge parking lots, A through M, imply hundreds of cars, beach parties, loud music, frisbees, dogs, and raucous times.

The summer could offer a fun adventure, but I’ll settle for quiet interrupted only occasionally by the warning horn of the ferry approaching the nearby dock, gorgeous sunsets and sunrises over the water, and sand and cedars that actually change all the time.

The new baby

Day 3: Holmdel, New Jersey, 435 miles, 5 states

I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.

D. H. Lawrence, “The Enkindled Spring”

We’re now seeing family in New Jersey. This means renewing ties that have been too long restricted to email, phone and zoom. But it also means newing (?) ties with Claire, the baby who joined the world last September 5.

Yesterday we went for a walk in Deep Cut Gardens, an enchanting site with waterfalls, formal and informal gardens, statuary, and lush trails. It’s a marked contrast to the life of the man who developed it, Vito Genovese. He reportedly sought a retreat from mob warfare in New York City. See The Gangster’s Garden.

Sandy Hook

Day 2: Sandy Hook, New Jersey, 364 miles, 5 states

Lori H. Ersolmaz, “Fatigue” (Video Poem)

We met Stephen on Tuesday and saw his new apartment in Central Park West.

Afterwards, we picked up a half dozen baguettinis at Perfect Picnic, a sandwich place across from the Park. While there, I learned that the owner wasn’t around because she was in Provincetown setting up a branch there.

It’s not authentic old Cape Cod cuisine but is a welcome addition, especially for a good, easy lunch. We ate sitting on a bench along the Hudson River around 100th St.

We’re staying on the barrier spit, Sandy Hook, which is a miniature Cape Cod (3 versus 339 square miles). It’s part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, similar to the Cape’s National Seashore.

There are beach plums aplenty, cedars more than pitch pines, shipwrecks, ospreys, seals, and inviting sandy beaches. There’s even an old military base (Fort Hancock) and an old lighthouse like those on the Cape.

I’ve received the good news that my new book, Thinking with Maps, is now out. I asked to have a copy mailed to Austin so I can pick it up there.

Packing for the Big Circle

Day 1: Wellfleet, Massachusetts, 0 miles, 1 state

Ring out the old, ring in the new

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells

After eight months hibernating, we’re about to set off on a big adventure. We’ll travel through 30 or more states in our vanagain, camping along the way, and visit well over 30 family members and old friends. We’re leaving just as the cherry tree is about to lose its last blossoms.

Susan and I now have our covid vaccinations and I’ve had my cardiac ablation. These should lessen our danger to others and ourselves, especially with the camping.

We’ve had several smaller jaunts in the vanagain, such as canoeing on the Raquette River. That’s helping us with the packing. We also remember many great adventures with Emily and Stephen in our VW camper.

Off to canoe on the Sangamon RIver, 1992
Off to canoe on the Sangamon RIver, 1992

The new camper van is similar to the VW, but it’s built on a Metris platform. Although much of it is familiar, the heater and AC both work. There’s also better gas mileage and enough acceleration to enter an interstate highway safely. So, a little less drama, but it’s still fun to drive.

The vanagain has all we need for extended travel and camping, but it doesn’t require us to stay in an RV park. It even parks in a standard garage.

Susan, packing the vanagain