A trace is, simply, a line etched across a plane. A feature like the famous Natchez Trace (featured in Eudora Welty novels) is, then, a line in the dirt etched across the land. Boones Trace, Daniel Boone’s famous hunting path through the Cumberland Gap, was similarly a line etched along the mountainous plain of the land. Traces are old game trails that have evolved into human footpaths. They are ancient thoroughfares first cut by hooves and claws, and followed by indigenous walkers. Only when white men “discover” them do they become “traces.” The Natchez Trace, running from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, is prehistoric in origin. It was used as a walking route by Chickasaws and Choctaws until explorers, traders, and boatmen made it the busiest highway in what was called the “Old Southwest.” Mississippi boatmen would float their goods down the river, then walk from New Orleans to the Trace and head north. America’s original serial killers, the Harp brothers, set up their bloody operation along the Trace; Andrew Jackson marched it; mailmen followed. For a time, outlaws attracted by trade made the Trace the most violent place in America. Meriwether Lewis committed suicide—or was murdered—at an isolated inn on the Natchez Trace. Perhaps the Natchez Trace can be called America’s original exurban strip mall. Historians note that the boots of thousands of travelers cut a gap in the ground at the southern end twelve feet wide.

Luis Alberto Urrea