Phoenix Jackson makes her biannual visit to Natchez, walking for half a day in December to reach the medical clinic at which she receives, as charity, soothing medicine for her grandson. Having swallowed lye, he has suffered without healing for several years. Phoenix has made the journey enough times that her path to Natchez seems a worn path. Furthermore, part of that is the old Natchez trace, a road worn deep into the Mississippi landscape by centuries of travelers returning northeast after boating down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Phoenix is the oldest person she knows, though she does not know exactly how old she is, only that she was too old to go to school at the end of the Civil War and therefore never learned to read. Mainly because of her age, the simple walk from her remote home into Natchez is a difficult enough journey to take on epic proportions. She fears delays caused by wild animals getting in her way: foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, and raccoons. She comfortably reflects that snakes and alligators hibernate in December. Thorn bushes and barbed-wire fences, log bridges and hills are major barriers for her. The cornfield she must cross from her initial path to a wagon road is a maze, haunted to her nearsightedness by a ghost that turns out to be a scarecrow. She must also struggle against her tendency to slip into a dream and forget her task, as when she stops for a rest and dreams of a boy offering her a piece of cake. Her perception of these obstacles emphasizes her intense physical, mental, and moral effort to complete this journey.
Despite the difficulty of her trip, she clearly enjoys her adventure. She talks happily to the landscape, warning the small animals to stay safely out of her way and showing patience with the thorn bush, which behaves naturally in catching her dress. She speaks good-humoredly of the dangers of the barbed wire. Her encounter with the “ghost” ends in a short, merry dance with the scarecrow, a celebration that she has not yet met death. Difficult and important as her trip is, she extracts pleasure from it, which further reveals the depth of goodness in her character.
On the trace, a dog knocks her off her path, leaving her unable to rise until she is rescued by a young hunter. Though he helps her, he is also somewhat threatening. He is hunting quail, birds with whom she has spoken on her walk. When the hunter accidentally drops a nickel, she spots it quickly. She artfully diverts his attention by getting him to chase off the strange dog, so she can retrieve this nickel. Her behavior contrasts ironically with the hunter’s. She feels guilty about taking the nickel, thinking of a bird that flies by as a sign that God is watching her. Meanwhile the hunter blusters and boasts of his skill and power. He assumes that her long and difficult walk is frivolous in intent, that she is going to town to see Santa Claus. The contrast between their perceptions and the reader’s judgments tends to magnify the difficulty and the goodness of Phoenix, emphasizing especially her true courage in contrast to his foolish bravado.
In Natchez, she must find her way by memory, because she cannot read, to the right building and the right office in the building in order to get the medicine. There she encounters the impatience of clinic personnel who are acutely conscious that she is a charity case. Having found the right place, she momentarily forgets why she has come. Her effort and concentration have been so great in making the journey that she has lost sight of its end. When she has the medicine, one worker offers her some pennies for Christmas. She quickly responds that she would like a nickel. Then it becomes clear that she has a specific need for ten cents. She announces that she will buy her grandson a pinwheel and reflects, “He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world. I’ll march myself back where he waiting, holding it straight up in this hand.”