Navigating the Natchez Trace - Jackson, MS

Finally, I got to have a relatively unencumbered ride in Jackson, Mississippi. Due to the city’s deteriorating transportation infrastructure, the roads are in a serious state of disrepair. Like many cities in the United States, Jackson/Hinds County is extremely segregated; there is the mostly Black urban core and the surrounding white enclaves of Fondren and Belhaven. And like other cities - say Detroit, for example - the flight of white residents (and their social/economic capital) from the city's inner core has led to a dearth in tax revenue and services, ultimately hampering the city’s ability to improve its crumbling infrastructure. Couple this self-imposed exodus with decades of municipal/state neglect and mismanagement, and one can better understand the issues facing the city of Jackson. Roads with cavernous potholes make driving – let alone biking – in the city an annoying, and at times, a treacherous task. During my first two weeks in the city I could not help the urge to ride my bike. But, I did so cautiously and for short distances.

To address my desire to ride freely I Googled “bike trails in Jackson, MS.” What I came up with was the Natchez Trace. Unlike many bike trails, the Natchez Trace crosses city and state lines; the parkway meanders through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Pathways known as “traces” are known to some as the country's first interstate highways. Often trekked by groups indigenous to this land, these paths were first established by roving deer, elk, and/or buffalo. From such roadways is where distillers in Kentucky got the inspiration to name their award-winning bourbon – Buffalo Trace. To get to the trail I drove five miles North on I-55 and exited marker 105 in Ridgeland. Signs led me to the Choctaw Agency, an entry point that was once a government installment.

After parking and exiting my vehicle I peered, for a moment, at a large sign and its description of the Choctaw Agency. My thoughts veered; I wondered how it was that I came to be standing on indigenous land and the leisure time I was about to enjoy was facilitated by the seizure of territory that had been long since inhabited by the Choctaw Nation. The sign – an over-sized plaque – lauded Silas Dinsmoor, a supposed friend of the Choctaw Nation. As an agent of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Dinsmoor is said to have “represented their interests.” Contradictorily, the description went on to speak of how he was responsible for surveying Choctaw land, collecting tribal debt, and encouraging them to adopt “modern” farming methods that were not in line with their way of life. The passage ends with a note commenting on how the Choctaw Agency was moved four times to accommodate to “the shrinking land of the Choctaw Nation.”[1] According to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Choctaw ceded upwards of 2.5 million acres as a result of numerous backhanded treaties with the U.S. government – treaties that led to their eventual removal and relocation to Oklahoma.

I acknowledged these ancestors as I prepared for my ride. It was around midday. The weather was sunny, but chilly. Jackson is in the midst of an “April snap,” as the locals call it. The last cool front before Mississippi’s infernal summer consumes us all without discrimination. A few cars were already in the lot and as I made my way to my bike rack, I caught glimpses of pedestrians and peddlers making their way along the trail. The peddlers, true to form, were clipped in and clad in form fitting gear. As much as I love riding my bike, Maybelle, I cannot see myself riding in full biking gear. To me, it screams, “weekend warrior.” Despite my aversion to most bike gear, the more I ride the more I come to appreciate what a good chamois can do for my life… and my derriere.

After contemplating the mass removal of indigenous people, I made a mindful motion towards the trail, deciding to ride southwards back towards Jackson. The trail was not packed. Periodically, I passed a cyclist or two, exchanging brief nods of acknowledgement. The road undulated often. Parts of the trails were behind a well manicured suburban subdivision full of large homes. As I rode, I heard a youth yell out, "Dad, will you come here, please?" For some reason, my mind shot back to Detroit, to the stark difference between Detroit (a majority lower-class black city) and Grosse Pointe (a predominately upper-middle class white enclave). As one drives east on Street the road, the homes, and the cars change immediately after passing Manistique Street - the cut off point before entering Grosse Pointe. Once in Grosse Pointe, one has immediate access to a Kroger, a Trader Joe's, and scores of retail establishments. Here, in Jackson/Ridgeland, as in Detroit/Grosse Pointe, the racial, economic, and residential divide is stark.

I rode for about seven miles, long enough to get a feel for the trail and to build up a healthy appetite. I stopped to eat my lunch at a bench along the trail. Before me was the pathway and the interstate portion of the Natchez Trace, which one can traverse via automobile. As I sat eating leftover spaghetti and a peanut and honey sandwich, I absorbed the sun and greeted passersby, thankful for the chance to enjoy a beautiful, sunny afternoon. As the sun heated my face, I felt, for a moment, as if I were beginning to settle here in Jackson, a feeling that heretofore has escaped me. Here's to more excursions, more stolen moments, and more feelings of grandeur.

[1] http://www.natcheztracetravel.com/natchez-trace-mississippi/jackson-raymond-ms/178-choctaw-agency.html