Not Without My Father

by | Feb 16, 2015 | Interviews | 0 comments

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Not Without My Father 2

Author: Andra Watkins
Title: Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444 Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace
Publisher: Word Hermit Press
Genres: Memoir
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Can an epic adventure succeed without a hero?

Andra Watkins needed a wingman to help her become the first living person to walk the historic 444-mile Natchez Trace as the pioneers did. She planned to walk fifteen miles a day. For thirty-four days.

After striking out with everyone in her life, she was left with her disinterested eighty-year-old father. And his gas. The sleep apnea machine and self-scratching. Sharing a bathroom with a man whose gut obliterated his aim.

As Watkins trudged America’s forgotten highway, she lost herself in despair and pain. Nothing happened according to plan, and her tenuous connection to her father started to unravel. Through arguments and laughter, tears and fried chicken, they fought to rebuild their relationship before it was too late. In Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace, Watkins invites readers to join her dysfunctional family adventure in a humorous and heartbreaking memoir that asks if one can really turn I wish I had into I’m glad I did.



Ray Charles

Dad moseyed through the faded grandeur of the Plantation Suite at Hope Farm, a bed and breakfast in Natchez, Mississippi. Our first stop on my 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway saga. Dad planted himself between two canopied beds. “That the TV?” It was the size of an iPad, perched on a desk. He fumbled with his suspenders and rocked back and forth on the Persian rug, eyeing chairs he knew wouldn’t hold his weight. “How’m I gonna watch that?”

I left him cradling his sleep apnea machine and followed my friend Alice into Mississippi dusk. “What am I doing here?” I whispered.

“You’re gonna be the first person to walk the Natchez Trace as the pio- neers did.” Alice slammed the trunk of Dad’s tan Mercury Grand Marquis and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. My dearest friend was the ballast that would protect me from the onslaught of my father’s outsized personality.

Alice had been part of my life for more than a decade. In my early thirties, my friends were all married, including Alice. I was the only pa- thetic single person I knew. While everyone talked about

the possibility of babies, percolating babies and actual, birthed-and-breathing babies, I chewed my lip and won- dered if I’d ever meet a functional man and contemplate babies.

Or maybe I wasn’t functional.

I sat alone in my house, ate alone at my table, showered alone in my bathroom, and slept alone in my bed; yet, I didn’t want to be alone.

I endured lunches and dinners, drinks and parties, listening to every- one compare notes on the next phase of life, a milestone I couldn’t achieve. They wove their stories on blue-lined notebook paper, while I clung to holes in the margin. I came away from these interactions, my insides shrunken and my life an afterthought. I thought nobody cared about me.

Except Alice.

Even though she was pregnant herself, she tried to steer group con- versations to non-gestational topics. “What books are you reading?” She asked. Or, “Tell me about your last trip.” One time, she interrupted some- one mid-ultrasound photo essay. “We’ve been talking about pregnancy for almost an hour. Can we spend the last few minutes of lunch on something else?”

If friends are a reflection of who we want to be, I wanted to be more like Alice.

While I wove from thing to thing to thing in a vain effort to find my- self, she became partner in an architecture firm and mothered a daughter I considered a niece. She was primary caregiver to her disabled brother and supreme supporter of her husband. I cultivated a friendship with her, because I wanted to be her. I never understood how she did everything, but I thought if I got to know her better, some of her juju would dribble onto me.

A decade on, she was a seminal figure in my life.

Alice and I decided Dad as wingman would be the equivalent of what writers call an unreliable narrator. He might intend to drop me off and pick me up each day, but given the wealth of strangers between miles one and fifteen, he couldn’t be depended upon to be there for me.

Alice agreed to babysit my father and schlep me around for the first week of my Natchez Trace walk. The rest would be just Dad and me.

I didn’t want to think about that.

Not yet.

I shoved the looming time with my father over my shoulder in a moon- lit parking lot. If I thought about what was coming, I’d quit before I took one step.

Alice heaved grocery bags up narrow stairs. “I think that’s everything you’ll need for a long walk.”

“Maybe.” I held the screen door and followed her into our suite. A jumble of athletic gear awaited me. Compression tights. Hiking shoes. En- ergy bars. CamelBak water bladder. Gadgets and creams designed for the extreme athlete.

An athlete? Who was I kidding? In high school, I couldn’t run a mile, score a goal or hit a ball. Why did I think I could walk more than a half- marathon every day for a month at forty-four?

I spread a map across the quilted bedspread. A long rectangle stretched from one side of the bed to the other.

The Natchez Trace.

Almost 450 miles of highway ringed by farms and swampland, its sides were eroded canyons in some places. Ghostly buffalo herds competed with the earliest Native American spirits, Spanish conquistadors, French mis- sionaries and warring armies along a paved federal parkway. I imagined their voices, and I honored them in my novel. Ten thousand years of his- tory.

The Trace was a tunnel through Time.

From March 1 to April 3, 2014, I planned to walk the highway as our ancestors did. Fifteen miles a day. One rest day a week. For thirty-four days.

On the eve of my start, I perused a daunting list of things to do: Stock up on snacks for my daily food kit; buy enough bottled water; organize supplies for easy access as we moved; fall asleep early to

be rested. I flitted between piles of stuff, wondering how I would winnow it into one compact pack. I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about her trek up the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn’t want to carry unnecessary things.

Food, a water-filled CamelBak, Gatorade, a first-aid kit, extra socks, flashlight, toilet paper, waterproof pants, a spare battery pack for my iPhone, cards announcing my novel, notes from readers, a Parkway map, a voodoo doll and mace. Items of necessity. Charms for good luck. One weapon. Two if the voodoo doll counted.

Everything I needed.

I flattened a roll of toilet paper and shoved it into a ziplock bag. “Dad, can you help me go through this list? Check off things as I call them out? Dad?”

Even though Dad wore hearing aids, I had to shout if I wanted him to hear me. He said they didn’t pick up children and women with higher voices, but I caught him turning them off around me. I barreled into the other room and found Dad standing in front of a precarious bureau, his sleep apnea machine balanced on a ledge. An electrical cord dangled from one hand. “Dad! Help me here?”

“I cain’t find a place to plug this thing up.” His filmy eyes scanned walls papered with yellowed clippings of Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Gold- water. “This all seems like yesterday……”

I groped along the walls and felt an outlet behind the bed. “You can plug it right here.” I picked up the end of the cord and scooted under the bed. When I stuck the prongs in the socket, I held my breath. “No telling whether the wiring in this place is up to code, right Dad?” Silence. “Oh well, maybe he can’t hear me under here.” Layers of history peeled back with me as I heaved myself to stand. Coughing, I knocked dust from my knees in the empty room. “Dad?”

I opened the bathroom door, expecting to find Dad spraying every- thing but the toilet, but it was vacant. Foiled, I darted into the other room. “Where’s Dad?”

Alice reclined on one of two mountainous canopy beds, blonde hair splayed on the pillow. Her eyes drooped behind glasses perched on her heart-shaped face, and her voice ran thick like syrup. “He went over to talk to Miss Ethel.”

“Again? Jesus God, it’s after nine o’clock.”

She punched her pillow and settled onto her side. “I guess she’s the only stranger he can find to talk to at this time of night, Andra.”

Miss Ethel was the doyenne of Hope Farm, a spunky wisp of a woman in her seventies. When I checked in earlier that afternoon, she met me at the front door and blinked through thick glasses. “Surely you’re not gonna walk all the way to Nashville, Ondra?”

I winced and bit my lip when she butchered my name, but I didn’t correct her. People usually didn’t get it, even when I smiled and said, “It’s AN-dra.”

Miss Ethel fingered her double string of pearls, her wrinkled face un- readable. “Well. Bless your heart. My Yankee husband’ll be sorry he died before he could meet the likes of you.” She swooshed one silk-clad arm. “Allow me to escort you to your room.” I followed the impressions her black pumps made in the carpet.

Hours later, I looked at the clock on my phone and slipped my feet into some sneakers. “I have a sick feeling I’m seeing what my father was like when he was courting women.”

Information no child, little or grown, wants to know.


Why did you decide to become a writer?

I became a writer because I couldn’t help myself. When stories scream to be written, a writer can’t ignore them.

Who/what are your writing inspirations?

My writing inspirations come from history and from travel. Nothing fills my creative tank more than learning about a new person or seeing a new place.

What are your favorite genres to read?

Check out my Goodreads page. I’ll read just about anything, but my favorite genres are mystery/suspense (Nancy Drew’s fault) and historical, both fiction and non-fiction.

Favorite writing food / snack?

I don’t snack while I write, but my favorite reward for a successful sit is buttered popcorn.

What do you hope readers take away most from your writing?

With Not Without My Father, I hope they go away inspired to tackle challenging relationships in their lives, to turn I wish I had into I’m glad I did by Making a Memory they’ll cherish for a lifetime.

Who’s the favorite character of yours that you’ve written and why?

Merry (aka Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame) in my debut novel To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis. It’s a paranormal adventure I know he’d have if he could, and I’m proud of it.

What is your writing style? Outliner/Planner or Seat of the Pantser?

I’m definitely a pantser. I love letting characters take me places I’d never go on my own.

If someone wanted to become a writer, what tips would you give to them?

Never give up on your writing. Writers give up too soon. Finding an audience always takes longer than we think it will.

Have you ever purchased something from a late-night infomercial? If so, what?

No, I haven’t. But I always wondered whether bacon lube really tastes like bacon…..

If you could collaborate with any other author(living, dead, or undead) who would that be and why?

It’s hard to choose just one! I’d love to write with Stephen King because his book On Writing is a bible to me. And Carlos Ruiz Zafon, because his book The Shadow of the Wind contributed to my writing style.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you do?

I don’t know. I write because I don’t know what else to do.

Coke, Pepsi, or?

Gin and tonic? But between Coke and Pepsi, I choose Mexican Coke. It’s still sweetened with cane sugar and tastes like it did when I was a little girl.

What’s one thing people should know and/or don’t know about you?

I’m the first living person to walk the 444-mile Natchez Trace as the pioneers did. I walked 15 miles a day, 6 days a week, for 34 days.

Is there a character that has the most “You” in them? Or the opposite of you?

Writing as myself in Not Without My Father was honest and raw and sometimes brutal, but it’s all me.

If we lived in a Fahrenheit 451 culture, which book would you want to memorize?

Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlives by neuroscientist David Eagleman.

Has anyone written a fan fiction based on your work?

Not yet, but I’m hopeful.

Is Andra Watkins a pen name? If so, why did you pick it?

Andra Watkins is the name my parents gave me. Against Mom’s wishes, Dad named me after Andra Willis, a singer on the Lawrence Welk Show. He thought she was hot.

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