A Thru-Hike of America's Oldest Trail

By Bill (Samson) Wasser

On January 2, 2017, after spending a wonderful weekend exploring Natchez, Mississippi with my wife Teresa, I arrived at the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway. My goal: “thru-hike” the 444-mile Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. The Parkway was established to commemorate the “Old Natchez Trace.” Subsequently the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail was established, running parallel to the Parkway with several designated trail sections.

 Bill Wasser at the Southern Terminus of Natchez Trace Parkway

Bill Wasser at the Southern Terminus of Natchez Trace Parkway

A “thru-hike” is defined as “a completed long-distance trail end-to-end within one hiking season.” For instance, in 2013 I “thru-hiked” the 2189-mile Appalachian Trail and in 2015 the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. In 2016 I attempted to thru-hike the 3100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Unfortunately, upon entering the snow-covered San Juan Mountain Range of Colorado, I slipped and broke my ankle 880 miles north of the Southern Terminus of the CDT.

It’s not exactly like I would be the first to traverse this 10,000 year old route. Centuries ago Native Americans improved the trail originally forged by migratory bison seeking salt licks. In 1810, thousands of Kaintucks made the 500-mile-long journey north, after floating down the Mississippi and hopefully departing Natchez with all their financial gains. These hardy men walked the length of the Trace to Nashville, Tennessee before dispersing towards home. Some navigated on horseback, but most were barefoot with muskets hoisted over shoulders for hunting as well as protection from highwaymen. Luckily, I didn’t have to concern myself with these Kaintuck worries!

 Old Natchez Trace. The "sunken road" was created by bison millenniums ago

Old Natchez Trace. The "sunken road" was created by bison millenniums ago

My plan was to travel designated trails where possible. However, at times I was forced to walk roadside. Despite starting in the dead of winter I raced against unseasonably warm weather resulting in severe weather for much of the trip. I hiked wet, a lot. One kindhearted park ranger stopped to make sure I was ok and to warn of an approaching storm. This gave me a chance to hop under a dilapidated cabin stuck back in the woods, where I was awarded with several adolescence gobbler turkeys strutting by, while at the same time the boss gobbler sounding off in the woods with each lightning strike.

The journey started surreal amid foggy surroundings which seemed to have the wildlife teaming. I possibly saw more whitetail deer everyday than my entire time on the Appalachian Trail. I also saw one very large alligator, revealing itself as Godzilla before violently exiting the bank and disappearing into the muddy waters below the Trace, unbeknownst to those traveling above.

I would hike daylight to dawn, with intermittent breaks, setting up camp before sundown, at the most interesting and secluded spot possible. I enjoyed listening to coyotes howling, often accompanied with serenades from Barred Owls performing duets of hoots, cackles and caws. Additionally I heard and witnessed other critters rummaging around outside the safety of my ultra-lightweight one-man tent including deer and wild hogs. There would be the occasional sound of an automobile traveling the Trace, totally unaware of my dozing off to sleep in my humble abode perched on some rise. Thursday afternoon I completed the first 100 miles where I merely exited the Trace, walked a few extra miles in the pouring rain, arriving at the comfort and warmth of my Madison, Mississippi home.

 Caption: Natchez Trace Parkway Motor-road

Caption: Natchez Trace Parkway Motor-road

My earliest memories of the Trace are from my early childhood years when my father would drive us from my hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi out Fisher Ferry Road. Upon arriving my older brother and I would explore and wade through the crystal-clear springs. I’ve driven a Harley the entire length of the Trace and traveled by car countless times. However, there is something a bit more magical about walking, listening, and taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells by foot. I spent a great deal of time reminiscing over a lifetime of fond memories collected along the Trace.

The following Monday I walked a few miles from my home to reconnect with the Trace then continued north past Reservoir Overlook. Three days later, at roughly mile 160, I arrived at the Kosciusko Information Center where I was awarded some good advice on where to grab a good hot meal. The following evening, I would arrive at historic French Camp and enjoy perhaps the best bread pudding known to man at the Council House Cafe before my support team (my amazing wife) arrived to temporarily escort me back to Madison.

 Council House at French Camp, Mississippi

Council House at French Camp, Mississippi

Days later we traveled the Trace up to Nashville and spent two fun days enjoying music and sightseeing. Sunday morning we shared an incredible breakfast at the “World Famous Loveless Café.” Afterwards, I merely had to walk out the restaurant’s back-door, backpack in hand, in order to start walking south towards French camp where I would connect the dots. In the thru-hiking world this is termed a “flip flop.”

I arrived at the Highland Rim trail section later that evening amid bikers, cyclist and convertibles enjoying the sunshiny day. My son Joel joined me a few days later at Meriwether Lewis, the spot where Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition met his untimely death. We made several off-Trace hikes while exploring the area. My lone journey ensued and a few days later I exited the Trace directly behind the friendly Parkway Visitor Center in Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis Presley, to grab a hotel room for the night while enjoying modern comforts and a hot shower.

After twenty-two actual hiking days I once again arrived at French Camp, completing the journey, Teresa arriving on cue to drive me home, but not before another celebratory Council House meal. I would travel to Colorado a few months later to complete the Continental Divide Trail and claim the “Triple Crown of Hiking” joining a few hundred others who have completed the three major trails. Most of whom have more notable hiking resumes conquering trails from around the world. However, having accumulated over 8000 hiking miles, I’m the only “Triple Crowner” who God has blessed with the addition of hiking the oldest, most historic trail in this great country, the Natchez Trace.