Saturday, February 18, 2012

On the Road Again

I have bad news and good news. The bad news: I appear to have grabbed the wrong AC adapter for my computer and for the moment I have no way to charge it once I use up the remaining 72% of the battery. It looks like I took the adapter from my old computer (you remember the old computer – that’s the one that died in the middle of Utah last summer. It’s the gift that just keeps on giving). Fortunately there also appears to be good news about the bad news: There’s a Best Buy about 20 miles down the road from the middle of Shenandoah National Park and that store purports to carry all manner of AC-adaptive thingers. So my new plan for tomorrow includes getting up a little earlier, doing the first half of the park as scheduled, then taking a 20-mile detour to Harrisonburg, VA before getting back on Skyline Drive and finishing the park in time to get to Blackrock Mountain by sunset. The most disappointing thing about this mistake is that it will certainly introduce more stress into tomorrow morning, much like my quest last summer to “do” Crater Lake one morning and get to a camera store before it closed that evening.

The real good news is that I successfully spent the afternoon in Gettysburg and then made it to world-famous (or not) Front Royal, Virginia without getting a speeding ticket (more on why that’s significant another time).

Leaving Colonia on schedule (a rarity for me), it took a while for me to get reacclimated to having the car set up in “road trip mode.” Since I haven’t been using the camera nearly as much as last summer, I had to think a little harder when trying to take pictures while driving (my fancy new lens that weighs about 5 times as much as the old one wasn’t helping, either). By the time I stopped for gas and ice, though, things were back to normal.

I arrived at the Gettysburg National Military Park right on schedule. For some reason, maybe because my part of the country is on vacation, maybe because today was Saturday, maybe because Gettysburg is so close to so many population centers, I expected the place to be crowded, so I didn’t have a problem when I could only find parking in the overflow lot. In the end, although there were lots of cars on site, there didn’t seem to be very many people. There are so many different sites to visit at Gettysburg (the auto tour alone has 16 recommended stops) that I was never sharing any of them with more than a dozen fogies… I mean visitors. As far as I could tell, there were only 2 types of people there today: 75-plus-year old couples who I assume had a personal connection to the battle (read: they fought in it), or thirtysomething history professors who had brought their under-5-year-old children with them (probably because once the kids get older than that they begin to understand the implications of “family road trip to Civil War battlefield” and much drama ensues). The kids in particular, who looked like they were having a great time yelling into cannons, posing with the hundreds of bronze statues, or climbing boulders on Little Round Top, created a somewhat unsettling contrast with the reason why this place had been set aside as a national park.

For the first few hours I tried to piece together how the Battle of Gettysburg had unfolded, so that I might understand why the Union and Confederate armies were moving in certain directions, but I didn’t have much success. While I had thought that the park’s suggestions in the visitor center that I watch a video (which wasn’t free) or hire a guide (which was even less free) were just ploys to get me to spend money, at the end of the day, I think either would have probably been a good idea. Oh well, Gettysburg’s only 200 miles from Colonia, so there’s always next time.

The most dramatic part of the battlefield tour came when I was standing on Little Round Top – the hill where Union soldiers for three days successfully held back an advancing Confederate army, gaining an important strategic advantage. Or, as I know it better, the part of the battlefield that Nick Brody told his kids about on Homeland while contemplating whether to blow up the Vice President. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you need to watch Homeland, because it’s one of the best shows on TV.

Anyway, standing on Little Round Top and looking down at the steep, narrow, and rocky valley through which hundreds of Confederate soldiers scrambled and died, I could imagine the moment they were about to capture the hill when thousands of Union reinforcements came up behind me just in time to hold them off. Just the plain facts on the info signs there made it clear that the only embellishments movies must have needed to make the scene more dramatic was background music.

The other point on the tour where I thought I had a sense of what this grassy field must have looked like with tens of thousands of cannons and rifles firing over the course of three summer days was the High Water Monument. Located near the center of the “field” part of the battlefield, approaching the marker felt like driving through a cemetery, with its expansive flat land crossed by barely-visible roads, and dotted with stone monuments. For such a significant point in the time and space of the United States, the High Water point was rather unassuming, its most prominent feature a cluster of 3 trees with a little fence around them. Apparently, the last desperate Confederate offensive – the famous “Pickett’s Charge” – reached as far as this “Corpse of Trees” before Union were able to force a retreat. Earlier in the day, I had been to the point on the other side of the field where the charge had begun, and where General Robert E. Lee himself had watched it on horseback. It seemed to be about 2 miles away. In fact, most of the distances at Gettysburg were further than I would have expected. However, the info sign at the High Water mark pointed out a small stone wall only a few dozen yards ahead of me and said that hundreds of Confederate soldiers climbed over that wall, running towards the Union lines. After a day learning about long-distance artillery, the effectiveness of sharpshooters, and the scale of each side’s advances and retreats, to imagine hundreds of desperate men, all armed with large weapons, bearing down on my at such close range was truly frightening. Fortunately, not only was this as far as the southerners advanced during the Battle of Gettysburg, but it was as far north as they were able to penetrate in the entire war. That small stand of trees was the literal turning point of the Civil War. From that point, it was all downhill for the Confederacy.

Of course, no visit to Gettysburg would be complete without a stop at the site of one of the greatest speeches in American history. At the center of the newly-dedicated national cemetery there, Abraham Lincoln was surrounded by 20,000 spectators and delivered his 2-minute Gettysburg Address. I tried to imagine 20,000 people on this small hilltop and just how remarkable it must have been for the President to give a speech under complete silence with no amplification. Every new thing I learn about old Abe makes him even more incredible. 

Surprisingly (or maybe not), the fact that I was standing on the same spot where Lincoln gave this famous speech was not the most poignant aspect of the national cemetery. Divided by state, over 6,000 Civil War dead are buried there in the outline of an amphitheater, with a memorial statue in the center. As this was the last stop on the tour and it was nearly dusk, I was the only living person there. At first I was confused because I saw no headstones, but as I got closer I realized the ground was studded with hundreds of what looked like 4x4’s driven completely into the soil about a foot apart. Each was stone and each was numbered. Since so many bodies from the battle could not be identified, this was how they marked the graves. But because the burials are so close together, you can see the entire cemetery at once. The realization that I was looking at 6,000 boys who gave up their lives so people like me would have the opportunity to do things like visit the place where they made that sacrifice was quite moving. 

Leaving Gettysburg, I continued south through Virginia, West Virginia, and then Virginia again for some reason, over the numerous steep humps that apparently make up every state road in this Commonwealth, eventually arriving in what the signs said was Front Royal a few hours after dark. The darkness has messed with my anticipation of tomorrow’s adventures. I couldn’t see anything around me, and I didn’t notice the car climbing, so I assume the Blue Ridge Mountains lay just to my south, although I haven’t really seen any evidence of that yet. Tomorrow I have the pleasure of seeing a mountain range appear out of the darkness and I really don’t have any idea what that will look like. But you’ll find out shortly after I do.

As long as Best Buy has those AC adapters in stock…

No comments:

Post a Comment