At mile post 41.5 on the Natchez Trace Parkway you will find what is probably one of the most photographed places on our journey along this historic scenic drive – the Sunken Trace.
The Sunken Trace is a gentle but exaggerated reminder of the impact of humans as we interact with the land. When you exit your vehicle you come face to face with a gully in the soil that at some points reaches up to 10′ deep.
This now “sunken trail” didn’t start out this way. The trail loosely follows a natural geologic ridgeline which was used first by migrating animals during pre-historic times as they moved between the salt licks of the south and the grazing lands of the north. Later, native Americans also used this path as it was easier to navigate through vegetation that had been broken and trampled by larger animals such as bison. Eventually European settlers also made use of the route to return north after floating their goods down the Mississippi River.
Around 1809, after heavy use and some improvement, the trail became navigable by horse and wagon, which further added to the erosion of the Loess (LOW-ess) soil. By 1810 an estimated 10,000 Kaintucks were beating away at the soil by foot, hoof, or wheel each year.
Loess is a sandy topsoil formed when dust from the western plains was blow in and deposited during the last ice age. It is estimated that this soil runs between 30 to 90 feet deep in some areas. These deep gullies along the trace, like the one you are seeing here, are most prominent in the southern portions of the trail although there are other areas along the old trace where this deep erosion can also be seen.
This portion of the trail is a place where you can imagine the hardships that travelers must have endured as they were just beginning their almost 500 mile trek back north. Boggy swamps, mosquitoes, disease, stifling heat and humidity, as well as robbers are just a few examples of the challenges that each traveler faced.
Reflecting on these conditions sure makes this girl happy that she could hop back into her airconditioned SUV and travel with ease to her next stop along the trace. But more on that next week.
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