I am walking in the woods on the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. I’m in a world of slippery elms, black oaks, and chinkapins, strolling through the Tennessee forest. The last time I walked this trail I was an 8-year-old, holding the hand of my late father. We were singing at the tops of our voices.
There are horses on the trail today. I’m walking beside one such horse, a cocoa-brown animal named Danny Boy. The older man who rides Danny Boy is kind enough to keep pace beside me because he knows I am obsessed with his horse.
I have known this animal for approximately two minutes and I’m already professing my love.
I can’t think of a prettier place to be introduced to a horse than on the Natchez Trace footpath. This famous trail spans three states, stretches 444 miles, weaves from Mississippi to Tennessee, and dates back to 800 A.D., shortly before the birth of Mick Jagger.
Amazingly, much of this national treasure remains almost unchanged by history. But for some reason, the trail wasn’t as well known in nearby Nashville like I’d expected.
For example, at my hotel I asked some employees where the Natchez Trace trailhead was located and they looked at me like I had boogers.
“The WHAT trail?” said a guy at the desk.
“The Natchez Trace?”
“You sure you’re saying it right?”
“I believe so.”
“Wait. Is that the nightclub where the waiters set the martinis on fire?”
You have to worry about America.
Either way, I finally found the trail. And I couldn’t be happier because the footpath is the same as it was when I hiked it with my father.
The Natchez Trace is the granddaddy of American trails, predating the United States itself. In fact, this trail was here before the Chikasaw, the Choctaw, and the Cherokee.
It gives me chills to think this trail existed during the same era the Mayan culture was upon Earth. Or that it was here before the Hawaiian Islands were inhabited by humans.
In those days, this path would have mostly been for hunting. A young native would have followed this road stalking deer, bison, or maybe rabbits. Others would have used the highway for trade and commerce.
Today, however, I’m using it to become pals with Danny Boy. I’m feeding Danny Boy thin slices of apple from my backpack. And even though there’s a bridle bit in Danny Boy’s mouth, he’s apparently able to chew.
The older man tells me he’s never seen Danny Boy befriend a stranger so quickly. My heart sings, because I love horses.
Long ago, I had the adolescent dream of becoming a horse guy. But it didn’t work out. Instead I became more of an Almond Joy guy.
Still, if I had a horse, I would take him on this trail. Not just because of the history, but because it’s gorgeous.
Although there is plenty of history here. This trail has seen everything from Native Americans, to Spanish explorers, homesteading colonists, minute men, revolutionaries, red coats, rivermen, outlaws, pioneers, U.S. presidents, Cub Scouts, and VBS field-trip groups in matching T-shirts.
At one time, in 1810, this old road was servicing some 10,000 travelers each year. And most of these pilgrims were frontiersmen; guys so tough they make my generation of smart-phone users look about as manly as the jayvee chess club.
A few more horses pass us. I hear sound of hooves, the snorting of nostrils, the eighth-note clopping on hard ground.
I turn to meet a middle-aged woman riding a mare named “Pretty.” Pretty has a mahogany coat and midnight hair. Immediately, I am proposing my undying love to Pretty. I notice Danny Boy getting jealous by this. This is what we novelists and writers often refer to as a “love triangle.”
But if I’m being honest, Danny Boy remains my favorite. Danny Boy is 19 years old, and very outgoing for a geriatric horse. The man tells me he originally bought Danny Boy for his daughter as a pony. His daughter chose the name.
“My daughter woulda slept in the barn with Danny Boy if she coulda,” says the man. “She loved him.”
I can’t help but notice his usage of the past tense.
He explains that his girl owned the horse for three years before passing away. He doesn’t say how, all he says is that Danny Boy became friendless almost overnight.
“Some people think horses don’t grieve,” says the man, “but they’re social animals, just like us. Trust me, they miss people.”
This is all the man has to say about it. I ask no more questions.
After another few minutes, it’s time to part ways. All good things must end, and I have a busy day ahead. I give Danny Boy the last of my apples. We bid each other goodbye. And chances are, I will never see this magnificent creature again. Which makes me sad.
So I ask Danny Boy’s owner something silly. I ask if I may kiss the horse on his muzzle.
Admittedly, I feel like a total idiot for asking, but my mama always said the only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask.
“I guess so,” he says. “Just try not to make sudden movements.”
I position myself beside Danny Boy’s head, moving very slowly. I whisper a tender farewell to my new friend and offer a tiny peck on his forehead. And we part ways.
Soon, I am left hiking alone on a clear day, marching this thousand-year-old trail alone. And I am singing to myself:
“But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow,
“Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
“Yes, I’ll be there in sunshine or in shadow,
“O Danny boy, O Danny boy, I love you so.”
Which as it happens, my father once sang in these very woods.