Traveling for a week on the Natchez Trace Parkway was one of the best trips we’ve taken in the RV. We had only a loose plan, no reservations, and all the time in the world to enjoy ourselves. We drove about half of the Trace, some 200 miles out of its total 444, from Nashville to Tupelo. And we took about a thousand pictures.
Back when Kentucky was the western frontier (circa 1800) and before the steamboat was invented, adventurous men would deliver trade goods down the Mississippi River on rafts to sell their wares in New Orleans. These wild frontiersmen, called Kain-Tucks, would then walk all the way home, some 500 miles. They traveled along Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian trails, wore the ground smooth, and reached Nashville a month later.
When the gray skies of February become too much to bear we look to the South for sun and surf. For us the closest beach is the Florida Panhandle. It’s a couple of states away and a long drive on Interstate 65.
Loretta Lynn’s Ranch
Hurricane Mills, Tennessee
There’s not many singer/songwriters who have flourished over 60 years. Music tastes change, artists become irrelevant or burn out. The small handful that can sustain a career over half a century are rare indeed. I can think of only a few – Tony Bennett, Frankie Valli, Rolling Stones. And to this rarified company you can add the Queen of Country, Loretta Lynn. She is still writing songs, recording, and performing. And she’s 84.
Back in 1962 Loretta Lynn and her husband Mooney bought a large piece of property just west of Nashville. Actually they bought the whole town, Hurricane Mills. It had a general store, post office, and a pre-civil war mansion. With a lot of improvements Loretta made this place a home, and still lives here today when she’s not on tour.
The tiny town has been reconfigured as a tourist attraction. The old grist mill is a souvenir shop and buildings from Loretta’s childhood have been recreated, like her log cabin from Butcher Holler and a simulated coal mine tunnel. Even the mansion that was her home for many years is available for tours – frozen in time with her 1970’s decor. (Loretta now lives in a bungalow behind the mansion.)
Much of the film Coal Miners Daughter was shot on location here and you can take a guided tour of all the buildings for a hefty $25. Because some of buildings were used in the movie the interiors are “copyrighted” and photographs aren’t allowed. I snuck a few shots anyway. The walls of the mansion are lined with her album covers and photos of her children. Cast iron skillets are hung in the avocado kitchen. On the floor of her pink bedroom lie a pair of Patsy Cline’s slippers.
Artifacts of Loretta’s early life are on display and our tour guide diligently pointed each out: her daddy’s lunch bucket, her mama’s treadle sewing machine, Loretta’s only church dress. Loretta Lynn saved everything from her career and it’s all on display in the main museum: her cars, costumes, awards, and guitars. Even her original tour bus is parked inside.
Overall Loretta Lynn’s Ranch has a lot going for it. This is a big property with much to see and do, and the campground was pretty good. But as a destination resort the list of disappointments kept growing, such as the camp store being closed for three days. They seem mighty short-staffed for the height of the summer season.
Golf carts were supposed to be available for rent to cruise around the ranch. In fact we counted on that and didn’t bring the motorcycle with us. But the gals at the office issued so many ridiculous excuses that I just gave up trying to rent one. They said the following, practically in the same breath: There are no golf carts anymore. They are all rented out. They are all broken. Housekeeping is using them. You are the first on the list. We don’t take lists.
So instead of an easy golf cart ride we had to pack everything up, unplug the coach each morning and drive the RV two miles down the hill to the Western town where all the attractions are located.
I had the same luck with canoe/tube rentals. Hurricane Creek flows lazily around the ranch and I was looking forward to a nice cool float in the heat of the afternoon. But I was told, again in the same breath, We don’t have tubes for rent. Nobody has the key to unlock the shed where they are stored. The maintenance guys are too busy. We’ll call you when the tubes are ready. Of course they didn’t call. And the big inviting swimming pool near the campground was padlocked all week, too. So we just napped in the coach during the hot, sweaty afternoons and waited for the heat index to drop below 100.
Oddly feral cats were everywhere – slinking around the Western town, lolling on the mansion porch, and skittering through the campground. And while that usually wouldn’t bother me, there was an expired kitty down in the Coal Mine. Our tour guide nearly cried.
And speaking of odd, here’s weird news:
Armadillos have migrated into northern Tennessee! I wouldn’t have believed it but Tim saw a family of three ‘dillos ambling through the campground.
Overall, we did have fun at the Ranch. And I’d be willing to return if they can pony up their game.
It’s Valentine’s Day and we are headed out for a romantic getaway to the closest beach. The drive will take a couple of days because we move pretty slow and lazy-like in the RV and the nearest spot for sun & surf is quite far away.
Today’s trip held a couple of surprises – the first was driving through a dense snow shower in the morning. That storm system wasn’t supposed to arrive until evening, but it made an early appearance at the Tennessee border. A bit of a white knuckle drive, especially when combined with the second surprise: A bad tire. Again.
I should hardly be surprised at this anymore. Lately any long-distance trip we undertake has involved emergency tire replacement. Even though we have Six Brand New Tires on the coach.
The tire in question is the same one we had to replace on the fly last August when traveling south. (We got 6 whole months out of it! Not bad for our luck.) The bum tire has gone soft, thumping and wobbling, and is just plain unsafe.
So we aborted the day’s drive several hours early to tuck into a KOA campground in Nashville. Being a Sunday, there are no tire stores open today. We selected this overnight spot because it is right beside a giant Camping World service center. In the morning we’ll be the first in line at the service counter for repairs.
Meanwhile, this campground is also next door to a favorite crazy restaurant we like – Cock of the Walk. Thus a delicious Valentine dinner was enjoyed there tonight and we managed to make the best of this unintended stop.
Cedar Creek Campground
Old Hickory Lake
Mt. Juliet, TN
Just past Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate is Old Hickory Lake. It’s really a misnomer because this isn’t a lake at all, but a vast flooded valley of the Cumberland River. It’s a large body of water, twisting and turning for miles of coves and side branches, with the main river channel running ever deep through the middle.
Here we have settled under towering pin oaks and beechnut trees at Cedar Creek Campground – a Corps of Engineers (COE) property. As I have often mentioned before, COE camps are always a delight, being spacious and shady with generous green spaces between.
Our campsite rolls down a gentle lawn to the lapping shore of the lake, where our cousins have conveniently beached their pontoon boat. Nearby blue herons and great white cranes poke about in the weeds, and the air is soft and mild.
It’s a real treat to cruise this placid lake in a swanky boat! Our cousin, Mark, has a depth finder on his console, and we were astonished to realize that most of the water is only 2-5 feet deep. Then, within a yard or so, the depth suddenly plummets to 60 feet as we cross into the main channel of the Cumberland River. Barge traffic carefully picks their way through the channel, guided by giant buoys – green on the right, red on the left. It’s a bit like a Connect-The-Dots game to keep on course!
We’ve spent a couple of days lolling around camp, trying our luck at fishing for croppie, and eating our way extravagantly through the evening. Forking over twenty bucks at a nearby marina got us a fishing license for 3 days, and so far I’ve caught one $20 fish. It was a small bluegill – “Just enough to stink up a piece of bread,” said Mark. Cousin Wanda had better luck, catching a couple of good sized red ears.
The camp has a lovely sandy swimming beach and today I may forego harassing the fish, opting instead for a float in the water. Or maybe just some knee-high wading like the blue herons.
Traveling east from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville a dozen or so easy miles, the Hermitage manor lies hidden down a long cedar-lined drive. We’ve seen the highway signs for this historic site and heard tales of its splendor, but I never understood the true import of the place until today.
Hermitage was the private home and expansive estate of General Andrew Jackson, our 7th president. On 1000 acres of rolling meadows near the Cumberland River, Jackson farmed this cotton plantation for 40 years.
Andrew Jackson was not only a president, but he was also a celebrated general. Back in 1812 after British forces skirmished around Lake Erie, burned Detroit and then the Capitol in Washington DC, they made one last rally to gain control over New Orleans and its valuable shipping port. They sent their vast armada sailing to the Gulf to face a handful of American ships. It was an easy sea victory for the Brits, and General Jackson was left to defend New Orleans on land with a small but determined army. He built a series of ditches and bulk works in the path of the invading force, which proved so treacherous that the Brits suffered great losses in battle after bloody battle and eventually conceded defeat, withdrawing forevermore their ambition to dominate North America.
“Old Hickory” became an American hero, feted far and wide, and especially lauded here in his native Tennessee.
Hermitage is an exceptionally well preserved property, and we were delighted to visit this first-class museum. Jackson’s home has been meticulously maintained with its original furniture, draperies, and household items. Even the French hand-colored wallpaper is original – 179 years old and preserved in splendid condition.
Just beyond the magnificent gardens is President Jackson’s tomb, a granite cupola surrounded by a stunning display of flowers. The property also has preserved log cabins (slave quarters) and a horse drawn wagon ride which will tour you around the estate.
The museum was one of the best we’ve seen, with extensive displays and artifacts as well as interactive maps of Jackson’s best known battles. Included with your tour ticket is a self-guided audio presentation – hand held equipment is issued and there are numbered sign posts around the grounds where you can stop and listen to a narrative. A large gift shop offered souvenirs and we enjoyed a lovely lunch at the museum’s café. They’ll even rent you a picnic blanket if you want to dine outside!
Hermitage was truly a perfect place to visit for an afternoon, and as an extra bonus they even have a dedicated RV parking lot. Presidential!
Down south, just a few hours away, we had our nose pointed towards Nashville. This excursion was more lively than usual as we are caravanning with cousins who have their own RV and are towing a good size pontoon boat behind them.
We’d only been on the road for about an hour when I heard a familiar and most unwelcome sound – a low thumping growl from the rear of the coach that steadily increased in tempo.
“We’ve got a bad tire,” says I.
“No way!” says Tim. “We just replaced all the tires this year.”
All but one that is. That’s right, the last Michelin tire left on the rig was about to blow. We radioed to our cousins to pull off the highway (that old pair of walkie-talkies have come in handy) and we limped into a Camping World service bay for repairs. It was a many hour delay, and the shop manager said we caught the tire just before a bad blow-out.
Thump thump went my heart.
An hour later we smoothly rolled into Nashville on new rubber, arriving just in time to grab a quick dinner and head out for a show at the Grand Ole Opry.
Whether you’re a country music fan or not, this is a first class venue with outstanding performers. It’s a variety show with about a dozen acts – a mix of well-known musicians, newcomers, and old-timers. The music was hot and lively, the audience was singing, and we had a grand ole time!
Thump thump went the beat.
Now that’s the kind of Nashville Thump I’d rather hear!
We are staying overnight in Manchester, Tennessee – a town of substantial enough size to warrant two interstate exits and have five bars of cell phone service, but zero television stations via antenna. So we’ll be watching a DVD of all 23 episodes of Champion The Wonder Horse – a TV series from 1955, long lost (and with good reason) and available at your local flea market for $1. And the first ten minutes of the show will confirm that you’ve paid too much.
We are camped at Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park. This park features a peninsula of about 50 acres located high on limestone cliffs and encircled by two rivers which form a natural moat. About 2000 years ago the Woodland Indians (so-called because their real name has been lost to the dust of history) built a stone wall fortification around the top of the peninsula. It’s a rare and unusual undertaking for people who had only clumsy stone axes to construct such a permanent and monumental structure. Eons later, after the Indians were long gone, white settlers saw the stone walls and assumed it was a fort – hence the name, Old Stone Fort.
In fact archeologists haven’t a clue about the purpose of the wall, or why a primitive culture would expend such enormous effort to build it. There’s no evidence of a village here, no burial grounds or troves of artifacts have been unearthed, and of course no Indians left to explain the legend of the place. So, as often happens in the field of archeology, when the purpose of something is unclear they wring their hands and scratch their stubbly beards and label the thing a Ceremonial. And that is the explanation offered today at the park’s tiny museum – it was a ceremonial place.
What sort of ceremonies might have taken place here, or why they needed to be protected by such an ambitiously planned fortification is left to the visitor’s imagination. The only clue ever discovered was a found by a farmer in 1876, who decided to have a poke around the rubble of the old walls and somehow unearthed a finely carved stone pipe. The Raptor Pipe became the iconic symbol of the area, and then was promptly whisked away to the Smithsonian. So it’s not even on display here.
The ancient stone walls are also not visible, having been buried by the detritus of the surrounding woods for a couple of millennium. Instead all that can be seen are a line of vague mounds ringing the top of the cliffs. Disappointing, really, for a state archeological park. You’d think someone would have taken the time to excavate a few feet of the wall so you could at least see what all the fuss is about.
But the park does have a lovely loop trail, easily walkable and running right next to a series of fetching waterfalls. For that alone, the trip here is worth it. Even if your evening entertainment turns out to be Champion The Wonder Horse.