Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Road to Natchez

When I was seven or eight years old, I was given a book called "Susan and the Rain." I mentioned it in a comment on one of Bellezza's blog posts. Her interest in that book, and in books by Enid Blyton that I had suggested in a comment on an earlier post of hers, got me thinking about another book I had read as a child. I started to write about it a couple of years ago, in one of my Dear Zachary letters to my son, but never finished. Thanks to Bellezza, I got off my writer's behind today, and finally finished what I started. I will now be able to put it on the Dear Zachary page on my personal website, having left a space for it there since some time in 2004.

The Road to Natchez

Dear Zachary:

You know that I love to read. Your Mom and I have always been voracious readers and we hope that you will pick up the reading habit too. Read while you’re young, while you can learn and absorb knowledge easily. I know that as I get older, I have more difficulty concentrating and my always-inadequate memory blurs much of what I read into the morass of the other millions of words that have come to reside somewhere in the recesses of my brain. I’m grateful now that I read as much as I did when I was younger.

It’s strange, sometimes, to reflect on which books have had the largest influence on how we live our lives, how we think, how we interact with others. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” certainly had a major role to play in my development, as did “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert A. Heinlein. Each of the captioned works is a novel with a political and philosophical subtext. Each affirmed my laissez-faire attitude towards others and my free-market views on voluntary trade and commerce between individuals and groups.

Not every book has a monumental bearing on how you live your life. The reading of some might simply induce a further curiosity to explore something or someplace. When I was about eight or so years old, I read such a book. The book was called “The Journey of Josiah Talltatters,” by Josephine Balfour Payne, published in 1953. It told the tale of the Reverend Josiah Talltatters as he travelled from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Natchez, Mississippi. Travel was on foot and on the long, slow trip, the Reverend sought out opportunities to support himself and his orphaned nephew, Jeremiah. They moved gradually southwards, taking turns riding on the back of their horse, Pilgrim. They had some adventures on the way to Natchez and made some acquisitions. When they finally arrived at their destination, their menagerie included Tippet, the parrot; Hallelujah the beagle; Wilful the pig; and Promise the hen.

The values in the story were that hard work brings rewards, that honesty is the best policy, that optimism trumps pessimism. The Reverend Josiah did his best to care for his nephew Jeremiah and he, in turn, respected and valued his uncle. I can’t imagine this book actually making it through the publishing process today. There were no victims in the book; everyone was a winner. There were no handouts; everyone worked for his daily bread. The main male character wasn’t a bumbling idiot, lost in an incomprehensible world without a female to show him the way. He was strong and competent, honest and fair. And then there is the whole matter of values and religion. The reverend and his son had an abiding faith in God and that faith helped them prevail. No, I’m afraid that this book would never make it to print today except, perhaps, as a ‘religious book’ by a speciality publisher.

The book left its mark on me. The story was the sort of thing that would have appealed to any young boy, at least in the era prior to video games and 200 television channels. The Reverend Josiah’s faith in God was largely incidental to the story, so I can’t say that it had any significant influence on me. What intrigued and interested me was the journey itself, the adventure, the triumph over adversity, the resilience of the Reverend and his nephew.

As I grew up, the name Natchez became buried away in the recesses of my mind. Occasionally, the name would pop up somewhere and I would wonder anew about it and whether I might someday visit the seemingly magic place.

I did, eventually. Your Mom and I found Natchez in 1988. We were on one of our protracted driving holidays in the southern United States. We explored the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. We visited Memphis, Tennessee, but inexplicably skipped Elvis’ home at Graceland. We strolled the streets of Music Row in Nashville.

Heading further south from Nashville, we noticed a road sign pointing the way to the Natchez Trace Parkway. I told Mom about my Natchez fixation and she insisted that we visit there to satisfy my curiosity. Although we didn’t really have a fixed itinerary, the side trip to Natchez would mean a considerable detour for us. We had intended to head steadily south-east and rerouting to Natchez would have us heading south-west. I resisted at first, thinking that Mom mightn’t want to lose a full day while we wandered in another direction, but she prevailed and we turned towards Natchez. I am very glad that we did.

The Natchez Trace Parkway runs 444 miles from a point just south of Nashville, Tennessee, cuts across a corner of Alabama and ends at Natchez in Mississippi. It is a beautiful trip and I recommend it to anyone exploring the southern United States. When we arrived in Natchez, any first impressions were coloured by a very overwhelming odour. It was a very hot day in late September, and the heat and humidity were almost unbearable. The emissions from a pulp and paper plant across the Mississippi River from Natchez simply hung in the air with no breeze to blunt the effect. Still, the beauty and historical significance of Natchez soon overcame our inclination to flee in search of fresher air.

There is a lot of information about Natchez on the internet. The city has a colourful history and is a beautiful place to visit. Maybe we will go there together some day.

The visit to Natchez was a brief interlude in a long life. As the years go by, I remember less about the visit. The reading of “The Journey of Josiah Talltatters book, however, and its message of optimism, diligence and perseverance will stay with me always. I hope to pass these values on to you and perhaps you, in turn, will pass those same values on to your children someday.

At this point in your life you are building memories. You will have some unpleasant memories, to be sure, but there will be many good memories that will stay with you forever. They will help sustain you as you make your way in life. Enjoy every day, son. Life is a precious gift. Don't squander it. Realize your potential and, even if you err on occasion, learn from your mistakes.

If you learn anything of value from your father along the way, one day, when you have children yourself, you might remember things that I have said, things that I have tried to teach you, and those things just might help you provide guidance to your own sons or daughters. And that is among those precious things that sustain me now.



  1. Atavist,

    I saw your comment at Bellezza's blog and had to check out your blog, as well. We're just 60 miles north of Natchez, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and I wondered if you'd managed to travel the Natchez Trace Parkway. Glad you did! It is a lovely drive, not one to take if you're in a rush but in the spring it's especially beautiful when the trees are in bloom (usually April). Hurricane Katrina did quite a number on the trees, but the scenery is recovering.

    Incidentally, when we came to Vicksburg to check it out, at the time my husband was offered the job (20 years ago), Vicksburg was just the way you described Natchez - the paper plant was dumping toxins, hence the horrid smell, and there was no wind to give one a break from the humidity. I said, "Nope, let's stay in Tulsa." My husband took the job. It's a hard place to live, but Vicksburg is worth the visit if you're ever back in our area. April and November are the best months.

  2. I loved Mississippi. We dawdled there for a bit, drove along the coast, explored nearby cities, and were very impressed. It was not at all what I had expected, having read and heard all about the civil rights unrest in the fifties and sixties when I was growing up.

    Thanks for ther comment. I checked out your blog and will be pleased to link to it from mine.

  3. Your letter to your son is invaluable. Over the years I have saved cards and letters from my parents, which become increasingly significant as they age. What a treasure your son has to have these letters from you, reflecting your thoughts and wisdom specifically for him.

    I'm thinking I will also write my own son a letter or two, as he is pushing for his independence and often unwilling to accept my "teaching" (at least on the outside). Thanks for the good ideas.

    Also, now I want to visit Natchez.

  4. Wouldn't it be nice, if we could all meet in Natchez.

    I will add that book to my reading list, Atavist, I look forward to a read without horror and despair, such as you have reviewed.

    I love the letters you leave for your son. To read you is to come to know you as a conscientious, thoughtful man and a shining example of a father.

    Your wife is blessed and lucky to have a partner such as yourself that takes such a wide and serious interest in his offspring and legacy.

    I truly believe that being a great father is one of the greatest gifts a husband can give to his wife.

    And, now that I say that, I may have just inadvertently quoted someone else.. it sounds like a quote, but I can't be sure and I am too time-restricted to check.


  5. My wife, Penny, might see things differently. She is married to a man of Teutonic extraction, who is a Leo, who was born in the Year of the Cock (in these politically correct times, The Year of the Rooster) and who has many of the stereotypical qualities one might asociate with these accidents of birth. I don't put much store in such things, but...

    She deserves to be sainted.

    It would be nice to meet someday, wouldn't it. Difficult, given how spread out everyone is in the blogosphere.

  6. There's definitely a lot worth seeing in MS; I could do without 8 months of summer, though. :)

    Thanks for linking up to my blog. I'll do the same. I've been enjoying yours!