Today, I’m happy to welcome Andra Watkins, author of Not Without My Father, to my notebooks. She’s talking a bit about her walk on the Natchez Trace.
Everything Old Is New Again
by Andra Watkins
For 10,000 years, souls both animal and human have walked the Natchez Trace. It’s older than Egypt’s pyramids, more ancient than the hanging gardens of Babylon. Animals first trekked its natural ridge line thousands of years ago, migrating from the Ohio River Valley to Mississippi’s salt licks. When the Native Americans arrived, it was natural for them to settle along the Trace. Who wouldn’t covet a ready food supply and ample space to build ceremonial mounds visitors can still experience today?
I’m no athlete, but I was curious. Walkers ruled the Natchez Trace for millennia, but in the 1930’s, they were displaced by a ribbon of pavement from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. A historic footpath overrun by cars and camper vans. With no facilities for through hikers, almost no one walked the Natchez Trace anymore.
Could I walk the Trace as our ancestors did? Even if it meant walking a highway?
From March 1 to April 3, 2014, I trudged a flecked line of white paint and listened to whispers of ghosts. For thirty-four days, the Natchez Trace Parkway would bow and dip under my lacerated feet, a raised roadway through an endless cypress swamp. I would make history fifteen miles at a time. The first living person to walk the Trace as the pioneers did. Fifteen miles a day through eroded Loess cliffs and Mississippi Hills. Thirty-four days navigating tornado alley and climbing the Tennessee plateau. A woman following an all-male route. While pioneer guys traveled in packs, I walked the tarmac alone.
The morning of my fourth day, I telescoped my eyes from right to left over black water and almost fell when a splash rocked the silence. I squinted into swirling-skirted cypress trees, but my frozen breath blinded me. As I wiped sleet from my eyelashes, I told myself it was too cold for gators or snakes.
Maybe it was too cold for me. On my fourth fifteen-mile-day, I didn’t want to think about the twenty-nine remaining, the challenge our ancestors left. I tugged the stays on my waterproof hood, balled numb fingers inside my gloves and dragged bloody feet along a line of white paint.
Sleet and hail bounced on pavement, innumerable impacts that reverberated behind my eyes and clogged the mechanism of my brain. Or maybe my thought processes were always flawed.
How could I fail to question my sanity as I shivered across a Mississippi bridge at Little Bayou Pierre? Spent hail tornadoed away from each footfall. Underneath the crash of my boots, I heard laughter. It burbled from the roadway, whistled across a barren field and turned to hail when it scraped the sky. Eyes stinging, I hugged the bridge barrier, leaned my head over the side and watched a thousand pockmarks rake across muddy water.
“What am I doing here?” I whispered, but my voice was sucked into the cacophony of winter. A wind tunnel howled over my shoulder and slammed me into concrete. Tears froze on my cheeks before I could scrape them dry.
As I struggled to stand, another blast of wind pummeled me, tugged at my clothing, and directed my gaze downward. To the center of the bayou, framed by cypress trees. And a great blue heron, its wings almost spanning the water’s width. It splashed the frigid water and rested there, one eyeball trained on me.
I won’t give if you won’t.
Did I imagine those words as the heron soared overhead, as it guided me through thirteen more miles of hail, of sleet, of wind? I still couldn’t answer that question, even as I staggered into Nashville twenty-nine days later, borne on the wings of a thousand birds and a soul that wouldn’t quit.Not Without My Father by Andra Watkins
Published by Word Hermit Press on January 15, 2015
Purchase at Bookshop.org
Can an epic adventure succeed without a hero?
Andra Watkins needed a wingman to help her become the first living person to walk the historic 444-mile Natchez Trace as the pioneers did. She planned to walk fifteen miles a day. For thirty-four days.
After striking out with everyone in her life, she was left with her disinterested eighty-year-old father. And his gas. The sleep apnea machine and self-scratching. Sharing a bathroom with a man whose gut obliterated his aim.
As Watkins trudged America’s forgotten highway, she lost herself in despair and pain. Nothing happened according to plan, and her tenuous connection to her father started to unravel. Through arguments and laughter, tears and fried chicken, they fought to rebuild their relationship before it was too late. In Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace, Watkins invites readers to join her dysfunctional family adventure in a humorous and heartbreaking memoir that asks if one can really turn I wish I had into I’m glad I did.
HIT THE ROAD JACK
Dad moseyed through the faded grandeur of the Plantation Suite at Hope Farm, a bed and breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. Our first stop on my 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway saga. Dad planted himself between two canopied beds. “That the TV?” It was the size of an iPad, perched on a desk. He fumbled with his suspenders and rocked back and forth on the Persian rug, eyeing chairs he knew wouldn’t hold his weight. “How’m I gonna watch that?”
I left him cradling his sleep apnea machine and followed my friend Alice into Mississippi dusk. “What am I doing here?” I whispered.
“You’re gonna be the first person to walk the Natchez Trace as the pioneers did.” Alice slammed the trunk of Dad’s tan Mercury Grand Marquis and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. My dearest friend was the ballast that would protect me from the onslaught of my father’s outsized personality.
Alice had been part of my life for more than a decade. In my early thirties, my friends were all married, including Alice. I was the only pathetic single person I knew. While everyone talked about the possibility of babies, percolating babies and actual, birthed-and-breathing babies, I chewed my lip and wondered if I’d ever meet a functional man and contemplate babies.
Or maybe I wasn’t functional.
I sat alone in my house, ate alone at my table, showered alone in my bathroom, and slept alone in my bed; yet, I didn’t want to be alone.
I endured lunches and dinners, drinks and parties, listening to everyone compare notes on the next phase of life, a milestone I couldn’t achieve. They wove their stories on blue-lined notebook paper, while I clung to holes in the margin. I came away from these interactions, my insides shrunken and my life an afterthought. I thought nobody cared about me.
Even though she was pregnant herself, she tried to steer group conversations to non-gestational topics. “What books are you reading?” She asked. Or, “Tell me about your last trip.” One time, she interrupted someone mid-ultrasound photo essay. “We’ve been talking about pregnancy for almost an hour. Can we spend the last few minutes of lunch on something else?”
If friends are a reflection of who we want to be, I wanted to be more like Alice.
While I wove from thing to thing to thing in a vain effort to find myself, she became partner in an architecture firm and mothered a daughter I considered a niece. She was primary caregiver to her disabled brother and supreme supporter of her husband. I cultivated a friendship with her, because I wanted to be her. I never understood how she did everything, but I thought if I got to know her better, some of her juju would dribble onto me.
A decade on, she was a seminal figure in my life.
Alice and I decided Dad as wingman would be the equivalent of what writers call an unreliable narrator. He might intend to drop me off and pick me up each day, but given the wealth of strangers between miles one and fifteen, he couldn’t be depended upon to be there for me.
Alice agreed to babysit my father and schlep me around for the first week of my Natchez Trace walk. The rest would be just Dad and me.
I didn’t want to think about that.
I shoved the looming time with my father over my shoulder in a moonlit parking lot. If I thought about what was coming, I’d quit before I took one step.
Alice heaved grocery bags up narrow stairs. “I think that’s everything you’ll need for a long walk.”
“Maybe.” I held the screen door and followed her into our suite. A jumble of athletic gear awaited me. Compression tights. Hiking shoes. Energy bars. CamelBak water bladder. Gadgets and creams designed for the extreme athlete.
An athlete? Who was I kidding? In high school, I couldn’t run a mile, score a goal or hit a ball. Why did I think I could walk more than a half- marathon every day for a month at forty-four?
I spread a map across the quilted bedspread. A long rectangle stretched from one side of the bed to the other.
The Natchez Trace.
Almost 450 miles of highway ringed by farms and swampland, its sides were eroded canyons in some places. Ghostly buffalo herds competed with the earliest Native American spirits, Spanish conquistadors, French missionaries and warring armies along a paved federal parkway. I imagined their voices, and I honored them in my novel. Ten thousand years of history.
The Trace was a tunnel through Time.
From March 1 to April 3, 2014, I planned to walk the highway as our ancestors did. Fifteen miles a day. One rest day a week. For thirty-four days.
On the eve of my start, I perused a daunting list of things to do: Stock up on snacks for my daily food kit; buy enough bottled water; organize supplies for easy access as we moved; fall asleep early to be rested. I flitted between piles of stuff, wondering how I would winnow it into one compact pack. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about her trek up the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn’t want to carry unnecessary things.
Food, a water-filled CamelBak, Gatorade, a first-aid kit, extra socks, flashlight, toilet paper, waterproof pants, a spare battery pack for my iPhone, cards announcing my novel, notes from readers, a Parkway map, a voodoo doll and mace. Items of necessity. Charms for good luck. One weapon. Two if the voodoo doll counted.
Everything I needed.
I flattened a roll of toilet paper and shoved it into a ziplock bag. “Dad, can you help me go through this list? Check off things as I call them out? Dad?”
Even though Dad wore hearing aids, I had to shout if I wanted him to hear me. He said they didn’t pick up children and women with higher voices, but I caught him turning them off around me. I barreled into the other room and found Dad standing in front of a precarious bureau, his sleep apnea machine balanced on a ledge. An electrical cord dangled from one hand. “Dad! Help me here?”
“I can’t find a place to plug this thing up.” His filmy eyes scanned walls papered with yellowed clippings of Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Gold water. “This all seems like yesterday……”
I groped along the walls and felt an outlet behind the bed. “You can plug it right here.” I picked up the end of the cord and scooted under the bed. When I stuck the prongs in the socket, I held my breath. “No telling whether the wiring in this place is up to code, right Dad?” Silence. “Oh well, maybe he can’t hear me under here.” Layers of history peeled back with me as I heaved myself to stand. Coughing, I knocked dust from my knees in the empty room. “Dad?”
I opened the bathroom door, expecting to find Dad spraying everything but the toilet, but it was vacant. Foiled, I darted into the other room. “Where’s Dad?”
Alice reclined on one of two mountainous canopy beds, blonde hair splayed on the pillow. Her eyes drooped behind glasses perched on her heart-shaped face, and her voice ran thick like syrup. “He went over to talk to Miss Ethel.”
“Again? Jesus God, it’s after nine o’clock.”
She punched her pillow and settled onto her side. “I guess she’s the only stranger he can find to talk to at this time of night, Andra.”
Miss Ethel was the doyenne of Hope Farm, a spunky wisp of a woman in her seventies. When I checked in earlier that afternoon, she met me at the front door and blinked through thick glasses. “Surely you’re not gonna walk all the way to Nashville, Ondra?”
I winced and bit my lip when she butchered my name, but I didn’t correct her. People usually didn’t get it, even when I smiled and said, “It’s AN-dra.”
Miss Ethel fingered her double string of pearls, her wrinkled face unreadable. “Well. Bless your heart. My Yankee husband’ll be sorry he died before he could meet the likes of you.” She swooshed one silk-clad arm. “Allow me to escort you to your room.” I followed the impressions her black pumps made in the carpet.
Hours later, I looked at the clock on my phone and slipped my feet into some sneakers. “I have a sick feeling I’m seeing what my father was like when he was courting women.”
Information no child, little or grown, wants to know.