Many people write novels, but not everyone goes as far as Andra Watkins of Charleston to promote them in a novel way.
Watkins' work, "To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis," was published last month. And on Thursday she finished walking the 444-mile-long Natchez Trace, from Natchez, Miss. to Nashville, Tenn., to promote it and to connect personally with the novel's main theme and setting.
But it wasn't the intellectualism of her adventure that drew the most response from her blog and social media.
It was the blisters on her feet.
"I'd really like to have a good foot massage right now," she said shortly after she reached the 444th mile. "I had some pretty awful blisters the whole time. I posted a picture of my feet on Facebook at one point, and it got more commentary than just about anything else I put up there."
Watkins made the walk to raise awareness about the Natchez Trace, a historic path created first by buffalo and other animals traveling between the Ohio River Valley and the salt licks on the lower Mississippi River.
"The Natchez Trace is older than the pyramids," she said. "It's a wonderful piece of history and an asset we have as Americans."
The route was turned into a post road early in the nation's history, though those who traveled it often fell prey to land pirates, or "highwaymen." The trace fell into disuse once steam power arrived in the 1820s and boats could travel up the Mississippi against the current. It got new life during the Great Depression, when the Civilian Conservation Corps began turning it into a scenic road like the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the Tennessee portion wasn't completed until the 1990s.
Watkins said, for all she knows, she is the first person to walk the entire length of the trace since the early 19th century, while staying in homes and bed and breakfasts along the way. It's not exactly friendly to pedestrians or cyclists, several of whom have been killed trying to share its narrow lanes with car traffic.
"There's no trail to walk on. I'm walking on the road or the side of the road," she said, adding a third of the trash she found along the way was beer bottles and other alcohol containers. "I did almost get hit once. A car just went to pass and almost hit me. They never stopped. I don't know if they saw me."
Another problem is the Natchez Trace has very few public restrooms.
She said the most difficult day was when she got beset by a stomach bug on a cold, windy day about one-third of the way through. "I had a number of conversations with myself about quitting," she said. "Then I came around this bend, and the sun came out and there was this field of daffodils. I was exhausted, and I went and spread out on the field and looked at the flowers, looked at the sun and the sky. As I lay there, I thought, 'This is why I'm doing this, to have these moments.'"
One of the most famous, or infamous, events along the trail came in 1809 when explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame was found dead of gunshot wounds in a boarding house that served travelers along the trace. Historians and Lewis' family descendants still debate whether Lewis took his own life at age 35 or was murdered.
Lewis plays a role in Watkins' novel, a work of historical fiction with a paranormal twist (it's set in 1977, 168 years after Lewis died).
Watkins said her best day was March 24, when she saw a Lewis and Clark nickel on the side of the road. "I picked it up and said this is a gift from Lewis. It just has to be," she said, adding she carried a similar nickel from Charleston to leave on Lewis' Tennessee grave.
Watkins' father, Roy Watkins, made the trip with her in a car, and other family and friends joined her for stretches along the way. "The book, at its heart for me, is about a father-daughter relationship," she said. "Because of that, I asked my dad -he's almost 80 - to come on this trip with me and have one last grand adventure."
She walked the trace six days a week, 15 miles a day, and her blog drew interest from readers across the country and beyond. "I had readers fly from New York and Massachusetts to walk with me. They had never heard of it before they read my book."
Watkins said her story also underscores the value of reading because it was her reading "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose's history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, that planted the seeds for her book and subsequent adventure.
"I wonder how many things we miss because we don't take the time to read anymore," she said. "I would challenge people to take the time to read more, because who knows what adventure you might find from doing that."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
Andra Watkins poses with her book at mile marker 442, near the end of her trek on the Natchez Trace.×
Andra Watkins (center) stands with her father, Roy, and mother, Linda. Roy drove the length of the 444-mile Natchez Trace as Andra walked it.×
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