By guest author Margie Hunter
Natchez Trace—the name represents a rich evolution of natural, human, and U.S. histories spanning millennia: an upland bison trail to salt licks near present-day Nashville, footpaths among prehistoric settlements, trade circuit for Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, entryway for eighteenth century explorers, burial place of Meriwether Lewis, military route for General Andrew Jackson’s soldiers in the War of 1812, county roads and town streets in the late nineteenth century, site of granite markers erected by Daughters of the American Revolution, scenic motor parkway, recreational trails for horses and hikers.
The original trace follows a comprehensive arc of emerging civilization from forest game trail to well-traveled wagon road and back to forest as newer, quicker routes developed elsewhere. From this natural progression, sprang the unexpectedly convoluted and sometimes spurious underpinnings of the parkway project, a tale equally rich and telling of our all-too-human tendencies, with its own curious set of fun facts.
Such diverse yet related histories blend and blur when cruising the parkway’s 444-mile winding asphalt ribbon. Comforts of air conditioning, restrooms, overlooks, and kiosks make for a relaxing drive but set us apart from a true sense of place, diverting our attention and diluting our experience. Give me a trail any day.
Outfitted with nothing more luxurious than sturdy shoes, snacks, and water, walking the trail sets you on par with Native American scouts, fur traders, and soldiers heading home. Out here, history isn’t presented in four-color panels. It surrounds you, rising in the heft of oaks and hickories, lying beneath your feet in packed, sunken earth.
Out here, history isn’t presented in four-color panels. It surrounds you, rising in the heft of oaks and hickories, lying beneath your feet in packed, sunken earth.
Only a few short sections of the trace’s hiking trails follow the original path, and they don’t stray far from the parkway. Yet even this bit of wildness is sufficient to shake the grasp of twenty-first century culture and fire the imagination. Out here, the youngest of our future historians feel the first stirrings of a shared heritage beyond family. Out here, future biologists discover fresh communities of life inextricably tied to their own. Out here, future artists find their voices, each a unique expression of understanding.
Opportunities to step away from the pace of our technologically driven lives are as close as the nearest park: municipal, state, or national. Long before electronics rose to dominance, wise citizens and civic leaders recognized the need for retreat and the value of preservation, setting these lands aside and providing resources to maintain them. Our parks and national monuments provide a critical connection linking us to our past and informing our future. They help us remain grounded, in touch with our better selves. These protected lands never outlive their usefulness, becoming exponentially more precious as time goes by. Their intrinsic worth ecologically, historically, and spiritually surpasses any conventional economic measure.
Some of the most dramatic and iconic American landscapes are preserved as national monuments. Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah features fantastical formations sculpted by the elements over millions of years—colorful slot canyons, sandstone arches, and a 126-foot waterfall. Trails take you to and through this astonishing wonderland.
Giant Sequoia National Monument in California protects 33 groves of Sequoiadendron giganteum, the world’s largest single tree and one of the world’s oldest living organisms. If trees the height of a 26-story building aren’t enough, perhaps two lakes, a plateau, wild and scenic whitewater rivers, canyons, prehistoric archaeological sites, and six designated wilderness areas will provide sufficient outdoor enjoyment.
These are two of the 27 national monuments initially placed under review by the Trump administration, along with Cascade Siskiyou (Oregon), Sonoran Desert (Arizona), Craters of the Moon (Idaho), and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks (New Mexico) to name a few. Most are located in western states, but Maine’s Katahdin Woods and Waters and several marine monuments in coastal waters are under scrutiny as well.
The review by the Department of the Interior could recommend no change, downscaling, or outright repeal of these national monument designations. Downscaling acreage or repeal of the designations would end protections for recreation and conservation given to national monuments. It could also open them to oil and mining operations—so-called “exclusionary uses” that are allowed on federal lands but don’t coexist well with land uses like recreation and conservation.
Fortunately, Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail is not currently under review but imagine if it was. Put yourself in the hiking shoes of those who live near the trails and lands under review. Natchez Trace is an example of what our parks and national monuments do best. From a history predating written records, it tracks nature, tribes, events, and famous people along a simple forested trail leading to each of us.
These connections, evidence of our collective past, are treasures to hold dear and pass to future generations, whose need for and benefit from such connections will be even greater than ours.
Take this day, June 3, to walk a trail leading anywhere, everywhere, nowhere and enjoy every minute of it. Then go home, contact Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and voice your support for trails, like those under review, and their value in our lives.
Comments to the Department of the Interior are accepted online, but only until July 10.
About our guest author
Margie Hunter is a writer, hiker, naturalist, and amateur botanist from Nashville, Tenn. She blogs about her quest to hike all 900 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Hiking In The Smokies. She also is the author of Gardening with the Native Plants of Tennessee: The Spirit of Place.