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.
Nan - January 22, 2021 8:27 am
Chris - September 12, 2021 5:08 pm
We drove from TN to Tupelo in the trace one weekend this year. It was wonderful. Plan to finish it next year. You are right most people say “you went where?”
Lucretia - January 22, 2021 8:41 am
Thank you, Sean, for the stroll down such an ancient path. I am a little sad that you and Danny Boy will part. I guess sometimes we just take away the feeling that can last forever in some cases. Thank you for allowing me to pull away from the present, if but just for a short while.
Martha Black - September 12, 2021 7:21 pm
You should get a horse. I had one when I was a young girl at home, but I couldn’t take her with me when I married and left home. I’ve always regretted not having her with me. Having a horse is just as rewarding has a dog. My cousin runs a business of rehabilitating & rescuing abused & no longer wanted horses for good homes. You’d be surprised just how lovely most of them are. Horseback riding is good for you, physically & emotionally. You’d be a great “horseman”.
Jimmy - January 22, 2021 10:39 am
In the morning, when I rise
You bring a tear of joy to my eyes
And tell me everything is gonna be alright ~ Loggins
Corny but then again, it’s really why I’m here ~ every day!!!
Leigh Amiot - January 22, 2021 11:42 am
Some might call it coincidence or serendipity, but I call this a reminder from the Lord, He hasn’t forgotten you or the sorrow you had to finish growing up with. What a happy memory you so vividly shared; thank you again for baring the vulnerable places in your heart.
Andrea - January 22, 2021 11:48 am
Virginia Russell - January 22, 2021 12:34 pm
You made me cry again. I’m thinking of my long ago horse.
Bob Brenner - January 22, 2021 1:11 pm
A very touching tribute! Thanks for sharing this story of yours…❤️🐎
Judy Mercer - January 22, 2021 1:15 pm
Beautiful! Reminds me of a horse from my distant past named “Honeybee”…my horse of choice and my heart when I was a teen.
Debbie g - January 22, 2021 1:35 pm
Heidi - January 22, 2021 1:52 pm
They are with us always.❤️
Gwen Woodard - January 22, 2021 2:07 pm
I loved this! We raised five children and took them on trips to see their Granny in Nashville many times via the Trace. We live in rural Mississippi and took the trace from Cherokee Alabama to the terminus in Nashville. We stopped and played in the water in various places and picnicked. Precious memories!
LINDA BROYLES - January 22, 2021 2:17 pm
This was wonderful. Thank you❤
Teresa Tindle - January 22, 2021 2:23 pm
It was meant to be.
Tammy S. - January 22, 2021 2:24 pm
Oh wow, that ending. It left me speechless and in tears. So thankful for God-timed moments like this one for you, Sean. Some would say, “What are the odds?” But I say, “God-timed.” Thanks for sharing such a special moment with us all.
Jan - January 22, 2021 2:47 pm
A blessing from God! Thank you for sharing.
Helen De Prima - January 22, 2021 3:02 pm
You just made me add a new entry to my bucket list: ride the Natchez Trace. I’ve ridden in Kentucky and New Hampshire, on the beach in Georgia and chased cows in Wyoming, but this sounds delightful.
jondragonfly - January 22, 2021 3:09 pm
You vividly brought to mind a couple of totally separate memories.
My horse was Molly. Loved riding her among the farms of western Louisiana.
And, separately, you reminded me of a few years ago living out a lifelong dream of singing “The Happy Wanderer” while hiking an Alpine trail.
Life has been good.
Judy Waldrop - January 22, 2021 3:12 pm
Wish I could send you a picture of two horses kissing I bought at the Craftsman Fair in Gatlinburg last fall. The photographer’s name is Clay Thurston. http://www.clay thirst in.com. 865-621-4250.
Judy - January 22, 2021 3:13 pm
Barbara - January 22, 2021 3:32 pm
I hope you stopped at the Loveless Cafe at the beginning of the trail–best biscuits ever.
Deb Storin - January 22, 2021 3:40 pm
Jane - January 22, 2021 3:46 pm
Judith Frost Treadaway - January 22, 2021 3:52 pm
What a beautiful tribute to one of the over trillion beauties of our America, as well as to one of God’s finer creations, horses.
When we lived in West Texas, we had two horses, Poco and Jody, and we would work our German Shorthaired Pointers off season via horseback. Poco had obviously been rodeoed in his previous life before we purchased him. He could also herd cattle which I was privileged to do to help a friend.
Jody had the privilege of carrying one daughter and being led by the other daughter during the local Christmas parade. The girls were dressed in long green velvet dresses and caplets I had made, identical to what the model wore advertising British Sterling on television and in magazines. We owned the drugstore on the square, and I thought what better advertisement for British Sterling in the small West Texas town of Seminole. Green satin adorned the saddle, and Jody’s hooves were sprayed with green glitter. Kim, on the saddle with a knee over the pommel, carried a silver tray with a couple of British Sterling bottles on top. In later years, Kelly mourned the fact that she had to sidestep horse and cow patties, what a menial job dressed in velvet.
So many stories to be had by an 83 year old woman.
mevely317 - January 22, 2021 3:55 pm
I love that you kissed Danny Boy! Up until my mother’s death, I used to enjoy ribbing her — “You and daddy gave me everything a girl might have wanted — but I’m still waiting on that pony.”
Rene Eiland - January 22, 2021 5:18 pm
This past spring we went to Natchez ( Southern Trail head) and stayed in a lovely B&B up on the bluffs above the river and right by the big cemeteries which were fascinating to ride thru and look at.. Then My husband, son and Daughter rode the trace on their bikes. ( I was the follow vehicle) I would bring lunch and catch up to them for a picnic. So many interesting stops along the way. We stayed in a wonderful B & B owned by the nicest older couple and a stunning home in the small town of Port Gipson. You would love them. Drove to see the abandoned ghost town of Rodney, MS.. and then the next day they rode to Jackson. They hope to pick up there at some point and ride the rest of the way to Nashville. It was really nice. If you ever want to go I can find the names of the B&B’s. They even sent us Christmas cards this year!
Janet Mackenzie - January 22, 2021 5:28 pm
I often look for the “like button” after reading your writings. Today was one of those days. Thanks.
christina - January 22, 2021 6:09 pm
I smell love in the air, in the trail, in Danny Boy, and in the beautiful memories with your father.
Susan Kennedy - January 22, 2021 8:40 pm
Horses, like dogs, are angels. Not a doubt in my mind.💙🐶🐴
Linda Moon - January 22, 2021 10:10 pm
I know and love a gingerhead who spent time with his late father on the Natchez Trace. They preferred trails to towns. I’m worrying less about America after re-reading “Dear America” from yesterday and remembering the story of her spirit. I would have loved to hear your father sing, and I bet my gingerhead would, too…both your father and his, again. They loved their boys, Sean.
Becky Harsha - January 23, 2021 3:25 am
This was my first post from you – and I’m hooked! What a pleasant trip down memory lane from the few years that I lived in Mississippi. Some friends took me on a drive through part of Natchez Trace that’s in Mississippi. A lovely ride with wonderful friends. And reading about the song “Danny Boy” made me chuckle. I was at a slumber party in high school and had just started dating a guy named Danny, so I was singing that song at the slumber party – I’m sure to the dismay of my girlfriends! And that guy – Danny – is sitting beside me right now, 50+ years later. 😉
Sandi. - January 23, 2021 8:44 am
Sean, for the first time in many long years, reading this delightful post triggered fond remembrances of our quarterhorse named Rex, when I was a young girl.. My older sister, younger brother and I took turns riding Rex, and the thrill of the wind blowing in my hair as we trotted along dirt trails was exhilirating.
Keith - January 24, 2021 9:31 am
I became obsessed with the Trace, We were doing an article with a motorcycle magazine and I wanted to test the bike I was selling them… so I took this old BMW with a side car up the trace from Natchez, When i got to Maryweather Lewis’s Monument the place left an irresistible urge to learn all out bout him and his wanderings… Fascinating story
Harvey Roberts - January 24, 2021 9:12 pm
My long ago horse was named “Showdown.” He was a stubborn idiot, but I loved him dearly.
Linda Stone Holmes - January 24, 2021 11:54 pm
You had me with Natchez Trace and horses. My love of history is only overshadowed by my love of horses. It seems history has always been a part of my life. As a kid, I was fortunate to have parents who took vacations to historical places such as St. Augustine and Washington D.C., The Alamo and a number of forts like Ft. Morgan and Ft. Pickens, Sherman’s march to Atlanta (it took us two days cause I had to read all of the Historical Markers.) I became a history teacher. But the love of my life was horses and all things horse. When I was young, I vowed to wed Trigger, and Roy Rogers as a side dish. Then my teenage uncle got a horse which I could ride at my Mawmaw’s. With the wind in my hair, bare feet, and occasionally bareback if I slipped by my mom, I was in Heaven. That ended suddenly when my uncle sold Lightening to buy a car. Devastation. Santa never came through and then I was a teenager. Nuff said. I never owned a horse of my own but I never got over the feeling until I was 60. Yes, I remarried, retired, and relocated. Twelve years later, we still have two beauties in the pasture and one looks a lot like Trigger.
chip plyler - January 28, 2021 1:09 pm
…wow, in my family we call those occurrences “God Winks”
Charaleen Wright - February 5, 2021 6:23 am
Julie - February 7, 2021 2:06 pm
So happy you came upon a link to your Father…and “Danny Boy” provided that connection‼️ Some people call that “Divine Intervention”…I call it a “God Wink.” Who knows…maybe you’ll meet up with “Danny Boy” again? No matter what, your Love for your Father remains strong❣️
Candy Mallas - September 12, 2021 1:57 am
This is beautiful. I live in Leiper’s Fork, mere feet from the Natchez. I’ve walked our portion of the trail a few times and, unless you’ve been there and experienced it, it’s hard to describe. It’s a quiet like no other. You can almost hear and feel the presence of native Americans living and hunting here. And you can sense the Civil War soldiers who traveled and camped along this trail. It’s a beautiful and sacred place.
Karri - September 12, 2021 10:27 am
I live off of the same road that the Trace begins, Hwy 100, just 7 miles down. I’ve driven the whole Trace before. If I had run into you I would have taken you to breakfast at the Loveless Cafe.
Janie Gentry - September 12, 2021 3:24 pm
The Natchez Trace is on my bucket list and has been for a long time. I live 450 miles away from Memphis in the other end of Tennessee, but one day soon I will make my way there. And I will sing Danny Boy and think of that beautiful horse.
R. Wiegers - September 13, 2021 12:24 am
The only other place I ever heard the Natchez Trace mentioned was a few Louis L’Amour books. I enjoyed this.