The Natchez Trace National Parkway runs 444 miles near uninterrupted from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. It follows the Old Natchez Trace, a path through dense southern forests carved out by local Choctaw and Chickasaw indians. Today, the Parkway is complete with rest stops and decorative wooden signs that point out landmarks and extant sections of the original sunken road. It is as well-groomed and maintained as any national park. And yet, even under a cloudless September sky, there is something sinister about it. Riding long hours between shadowy forests and through fields of gnarled trees it quickly becomes apparent why early colonists eschewed the Trace’s formal name, “The Columbian Highway”, for the more ominous “The Devil’s Backbone”.
The landscape surrounding the Trace consists of alleys of southern pine forests, where tall and impoverished trees bend and twist in the darkness. Foliage is so dense as to make navigation difficult and photography impossible: no perspective point, no clear lines, no repeated patterns, just a white noise of shadows and misshapen forms. It is as if the woods were home to something inimical, the grotesque shapes along the exterior providing a warning to wayward children like in some German fairy tale. The crisp traffic lines on either edge of the road seem to mark the boundaries of some enchantment cast to protect travelers from whatever malevolence lies deep within.
Every mile-or-so the forests recede and give in to sunlit fields of mangey grass and circling insects, the trees pulled back along the edges of the bright pastures as if sunlight were toxic to them. Lone timbers stand bent and broken in the grass, their deformities emphasized mercilessly by the surrounding emptiness. Small islands of trees, each a different species, grow in such close proximity that they appear as a singular construction, a monstrosity born of a hillbilly Dr. Moreau who combined a holly and an oak and a pine into some Frankentree that was left to die in the open cruelty of the sun.
Evidence of fauna along the Parkway is largely absent, their keener senses guiding them to stay away. Humans, too, are rare: a couple or small family stopped at a roadside landmark provide infrequent comfort amid the long stretches of solitude where the woods seems to creep closer and closer to the road. Endless hours riding through that rhythm of shadowy forests and bright fields create a kind of purgatory where light and dark contest for supremacy. Two centuries after settlers first began trade along its route, the Devil’s Backbone still casts a unsettling specter.