Natchez Any Old Trail Run Nov. 4th
HARDWIN HEADLAMP ARTICLE
How long does a 45-mile trail run on the Natchez Trace take you? If you said 10,000 years, then your PR about equals the amount of time humans have inhabited this scenic sylvan stretch. (By the way, 10,000 years will not qualify for this event; John’s patience is vast, but not infinite.)
However, if you could run for that long and set out ten millennia ago, then you would have seen quite the story unfold along the Natchez Trace. The trails were originally blazed by bison. Back in the day, these big bovines – six feet plus at the shaggy shoulders and a ton of chunk on the hoof – thrived in the thick forests of the Southeast. Migrating across millennia between seasonal feeding grounds along the Mississippi and the salt licks of the Cumberland, the bison bulled their way through the brush, making a path which, for the Native Americans who later came along, was nothing less than the information superhighway of its day, allowing for communication and trade over distances that otherwise would have been impossible. Since there would be no horses until at least the end of the 16th century, a champion Native American trail runner must have been treated like a combination of rock star and FedEx delivery guy.
By the time the settlers barnstormed their way in, punctuating the equilibrium with their pigs and cattle, gunpowder and iron, whiskey and diseases, the Native Americans along the Natchez Trace had formed a nation of their own: the Chickasaw. By 1796, the year Tennessee became a state, the Tennessee Valley Divide – current day milepost 424 – formed the southern border of the United States. To venture further required permission of the Chickasaw. One man who got it was John Gordon, a buddy of Andrew Jackson’s. In 1803, Gordon went into business with the Chickasaw and opened a ferry where the Natchez Trace crosses the Duck River, leaving behind the Gordon House, a piece of standing history that, should you see it, is a sure sign that you’ve run too far. (Turn back around and find that last flag.)
Many of the customers of Gordon’s ferry would have been the Ohio Valley farmers of the early 19th century. In the days before steam, these “Kaintucks” floated their wares downstream on flatboats to markets in Natchez or New Orleans. (Their wares consisted of lots and lots and LOTS of whiskey, by the way: the average alcohol intake per American over the age of fifteen during this period reached a whopping seven gallons per year!)
Once their goods were sold, the Kaintucks would walk, or perhaps stagger… their way back along the Natchez Trace to their farms, a distance of some 500 to 600 miles and typically taking about forty days. (One wonders if any were asked to drop.) In 1810 alone, just before the dream of steam upstream was widely seen, it’s estimated that about 10,000 Kaintucks travelled the Trace. And, of course, just five years later, so too did Andrew Jackson, leading his army back from victory in New Orleans and earning along the way a nickname that would seemingly apply to every other street in Nashville two centuries later, Old Hickory.
But that was then and this is now. It’s your turn to make history! It’s your time to make your mark on the Trace! While there is not a 500-mile option – um, at least not yet – you do have a solid marathon and a 45ish ultra from which to choose. And, thanks to existence of something called a bus, this year the marathoners will get to enjoy the complete course while the ultra-runners, of course, still get to enjoy it all twice.