“A place that was ever lived in is like a fire that never goes out,” the Mississippi writer Eudora Welty told readers in 1944. Welty was writing in particular about the Natchez Trace, the old frontier trail that stretches from Natchez to Nashville.
I think about Welty’s words every time I visit the Trace, as I did a few weeks ago when my 12-year-old son and I joined a group of fathers and sons who were camping there for the weekend.
I like that old-fashioned word, “trace,” which can mean “a way followed or a path taken,” but can also be “a mark, footprint, etc. left by the passage of a person, animal, or thing.” We know, too, that “trace” can be an artist’s form of imitation, the course of a line around a shape to make a copy of what’s already there. Calling a travel route a trace reminds us that lives are largely built on precedent, with people following people following people, the years unfolding through force of habit.
In the old river country where we camped, visitors can easily come to believe that time hasn’t moved — that the place where I parked my hatchback and slept for the night is essentially the same as the spot where pioneers once spread their bedrolls under the stars.
But progress works its small innovations, and the Trace of today is a shadow of its early self, not an exact duplicate.
When the federal government, as part of the vast public works projects of the Great Depression, decided to open the Trace to tourism by establishing the Natchez Trace Parkway, following the Trace’s original route wasn’t always practical. Today, in many places along the scenic drive, the little cowpaths and hiking trails of early settlement diverge like tiny tributaries from the asphalt roadways, one draft of history resting beside the other.
We stayed at Rocky Springs, a National Park Service campground near Port Gibson that includes a trailhead through the remnants of a pioneer settlement that was essentially empty by the 1930s. Yellow fever, the Civil War, the boll weevil and poor farming practices ravaged the local population, but a little church and graveyard remain as evidence of better times.
Dropping our knapsacks and removing our caps, we filed into the church, which was established in 1837 and no longer has a congregation, yet continues to host weddings and special events.
In the coolness of the sanctuary, I thought about “Church Going,” a poem by the Englishman Philip Larkin, who was a serious skeptic about organized religion. Larkin says as much while writing about his visit to an old church, but he still finds serenity within its walls. “It pleases me to stand in silence here,” he confesses.
I also felt comforted as we stood within the shelter of an old place from another time, the past within easy arm’s reach.
“Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does,” Welty wrote of the Trace many decades ago. Each of my visits to the Trace reminds me of how right she was.