Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Archive for November, 2006

Tarpon Spring—Home of Sponges and Greek Food

posted: November 30th, 2006 | by:Bert

Janie Gildart: Welcome to Tarpon Springs, FL

Last night we joined seven friends for an outing in Tarpon Springs, located about 30 miles north of Tampa-St. Petersburg. There lies the bedrock of the world’s largest sponge industry. Adding to this intriguing come-on is a small street lined with incredible Greek restaurants. The town belongs to a group of Greek people who immigrated here in the early 1900’s to ply their trade of sponge diving and marketing.

One narrow, charming street off the strip-mall highway is where it all happens. The calm harbor on the Gulf of Mexico is a safe haven for a line of beautifully maintained Greek sponge-diving boats.

The street paralleling the harbor and docks is crowded with sponge stores (selling also shells and such items as olive oil soap), a sponge museum—and Greek eateries. Greek music spills into the street and groups of men and women gather to discuss life in their native tongue.

It’s Old World ambience at its best.Shop owners can’t wait to show you the various natural sponges. We found finger sponges, yellow sponges, flower pot sponges, a huge assortment for both decorative and practical uses.

Harvesting this primitive marine animal is quite a job. The sponge boats travel about eight miles out into the Gulf of Mexico where divers then spend hours selecting the proper sponges to be cut. No sponge smaller than five inches in diameter or height can be taken.

The sponge is pulled from its host, but a small portion is left in the sea, as the sponge will regenerate at the rate of two to three inches per year. Once a bag of sponges is on board the boat, processing begins by first taking off the skeleton, a porous membrane. Next the sponges are thoroughly washed and squeezed dry, then finally strung in bunches for buyers to choose the best for the markets.

“Sponges contain no bacteria,” one store owner said proudly. We couldn’t believe how soft the dry sponges were, especially compared to the commercial, plastic-wrapped ones we all usually buy. Oh yes, you can color the real sponges with food dye. The uses for these creatures of the sea are infinite.

After sponge browsing (and buying) it was off to the restaurant. We all chose something different—it was share time. Our selections included Saganaki, a flaming cheese appetizer (everyone must shout “Opa” as the waiter lights the cheese); calamari, gyros, dolmades, and on and on. Then…to the dessert! You know, the thing you gotta’ have lots of, then wonder why you did it.

We didn’t know so many varieties of baklava existed. Everything was truly delicious and probably horribly bad for the waist and cholesterol levels. But, when in Greece…

It was a fun-filled night and we think a return trip is in order, perhaps to take the short, daily boat tour for a sponge diving demonstration. I wonder how sponges will go over as holiday gifts this year?

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Bosque Del Apache and Big Bend—Winter Destinations for Wildlife Enthusiasts

posted: November 29th, 2006 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: In a recent conversation with Maggie O’Connell, Public Affairs Officer at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, record snow geese have been recorded for this month. On November 10, Bosque, as it is commonly called, recorded 55,000 snow geese, so when conditions are right, this is the way you might see it–right now.

Though the accompanying photography was taken last February when about half that number remained, the image provides some indication of the magnificence of these birds as they lifted off for a day of feeding in surrounding fields. The sound of their flight and the sight of their numbers was staggering.

Bosque attracts not only snow geese, but as well it attracts Pintails, Gadwalls, Mallards and all the other species we commonly call ducks. Of great significance is that Bosque also attracts Sandhill cranes, and this year Sandhills also congregated in record numbers.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, in February of 2006, when Janie and I were there, crane numbers totalled 19,050, and that, too, represents a record. Who knows what this February might provide, but you can’t go wrong by traveling to this high plains refuge to find out for yourself, and learn more about a successful conservation story.

Briefly, cranes are not endangered to a large degree because of the cooperative practices of land owners throughout the country. Specifically, wildlife managers cooperate with local farmers, who grow barley and some of it spills onto the fields. At Bosque, Maggie says that because the grain is leftover, its loss has no impact on agriculture, but the practice has created crane habitat.

Cranes can be seen in expansive fields of the refuge throughout, and if you’re like the late and great newscaster Charles Kuralt (an inveterate RVer whom I fantasize I’m emulating in my RV), you’ll always remember the haunting calls, which may indeed, as Kuralt once reported, “invade your soul.”

Cranes produce three different calls, the contact call, guard calls and unison calls, and Bosque is an excellent place to familiarize yourself with this magnificent species—and all their social activities. Plan to spend a week, something that is easy to do if you are an RVer, as Bosque Bird Watchers RV park is nearby. For non RVers, motels are also nearby, just a little further away.

According to Ms. O’Connell, numbers of various populations are determined by extrapolation, and using such techniques, she says that on many winter days, visitors can expect to see over 1,000,000 birds of all species, making Bosque one of the places bird lovers should place at the top of their must-see winter list.

Yet another excellent winter destination that we can personally report on is Big Bend. In fact, the fall issue of Airstream Life carries my story on this national park whose Rio Grand River creates a vast portion of the line of demarcation that separates Mexico and Texas. This huge park is another we visited last winter.

Not only is the park well known for its geological beauty, but it is also an excellent destination for birders who enjoy such species as the Road Runner—and for those who love seeing indigenous but unusual mammalian species such as the javelina.

Javelinas are a fascinating animal to watch and we often saw them in our campground—and as we canoed the Rio Grand River. On such occasions, we would beach our canoes to watch—and to learn more about them.

Javelina thrive in this desert park, and during hikes, sometimes made from our canoes, we’d stumbled across cuttings of prickly pear, places where huge chunks of the plant had been munched—and we’d wondered how any animal could eat spines and all from this dangerous-looking plant.

But ingest them they do, and naturalists say they do so by using their feet to hold the pads of this cactus. Then they peel back the skin and spines to eat the juicy insides, often consuming the spines, easy to do, perhaps, if you have a thick leathery snout.

Of course there are many other excellent national parks and refuges, but you will have to work very hard to find any that offers more opportunities for bird photography than does Bosque in winter.

Likewise, you’ll have difficulty finding a national park with more spectacular geology and wildlife than Big Bend.

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Florida Perspectives

posted: November 26th, 2006 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: When we peered between the loblolly pines on I-75 and saw a sign asking:

Where will YOU spend ETERNITY?

followed shortly thereafter by a sign advertising:

Vasectomies: $350

we knew we had made some sort of transition.

In fact we had, and the proof was there, for separating the two signs had been another bold sign and it confirmed that we had departed Georgia and had entered the Sunshine State.

Welcome To Florida—The Sunshine State

Florida is where we now are, and the cultural change does appear dramatic. Signs for seniors, Disneyland and “Adult enjoyment” are everywhere. And, as we headed toward Tampa, our destination for the next two months, we couldn’t help but focus on the billboards, and notice that they seemed to have grown to mammoth proportions. Now, rather than billboards that aggravated by their words, these billboards simply bowled us over—not only because of their messages, but because of the immense size of their message—and towering stature of the billboard itself.

We Bare it All,
said a series of repeat signs in huge lettering. Adult Entertainment, Couples Welcome. Take exit 119.

Specifically, we were bound for an RV Resort that came highly recommended. We were migrating just like the snowbirds we once jeered, realizing that we were suddenly one of them and that the proof was all there, for we now had our Golden Age Passes. But there was a difference, for we would never get caught up with all the accoutrements associated with that age. Nor the cynicism…

And now we are closing in on our destination and the traffic has grown intense, and for a moment we are confused, but the most recent of our electronic necessities, a Garmin 330, helps us out. Knowing that we need to turn, Garmancita, as we now call HER, gently begins to advise us that in .75 miles we must enter the left lane. Then, half a mile later, Garmancita speaks—using the English brogue we have programmed in:

Turn left here!

Because SHE did not tell us to take exit 119, we have skipped that attraction. Instead our Garmin faithfully directs us to the entrance of our home for the next two months, and we have to concede that without HER we might not have made it.

Check in is a simple matter, made easy by several smiling receptionists. First they take our money, then they hand us a sheet of rules, which we peruse. From previous correspondence we knew that trailer and motorhomes that are not well maintained are prohibited.

The handout also emphasizes that excessive noise is prohibited, and we hope that ruling is vigorously enforced. Smiling, we take our receipt and directions and spring back into our truck. We then drive to our site and begin some serious settling in—rearranging the trailer, pulling out the awning, putting down the huge mat on the concrete pad, stringing out the septic tube, inserting a sand filter, whisking away palm leaves; hanging decorative chimes from the awning flaps…

We take the kayaks off the roof of the truck, pull out our bicycles from inside the truck’s topper and decide to make a quick tour—to see how our many neighbors are living.

As we pedal around, we see a few signs throughout the camp, and one mandates that you can not swim in the small manmade lake. Then, on the same panel, it says (without any attempt at humor): “Do not feed the alligators.”

The warning is a serious one for alligators migrate through these swampy areas surrounding the resort, and although the pond might be devoid of alligators one day, the next day it might not be.

Here and there a few people wave as we ride our mountain bikes; and here and there we see a few couples engaged in aerobic walking and we wave vigorously at them. But the couple that catches our eye is one that is being led around by a small poodle dressed in a vest—despite the tepid temperatures.

The woman is platinum blonde and because of drawn skin, we conclude that she has had a recent face lift. Then our eyes are drawn to the to her orange and black skin-tight pants and notice that her buttocks are exceedingly firm, suggesting that perhaps she’s had a fanny tuck. Quickly we turn our bicycles back to site 114, break out the mixings for a gin and tonic to celebrate our safe arrival into this land of itinerates—and then insert a Jimmy Buffet CD, realizing once again that we are in Florida.

Essentially, we’re here to work, but not, by golly, the entire time. And that is where conflicts might occur. The resort offers a range of activities, and the week begins with Monday at the movies in the Rec Hall and progresses through the week with other forms of entertainment ranging from Bingo and penny-ante poker to potluck dinners and a night or two of Country and Western music. Sunday is a day of rest, and I’m sure if we take in all the activities, we’ll need it.

Though we might take in some of the week’s entertainment, we also enjoy our own pursuits, and a 30-second walk from our site places us on a dock overlooking a small marshy area, and sometimes the bird life seems quite rich. Now, as part of the day’s ritual, we began with a short early morning walk to count some of the different bird species. So far we have seen White Ibis, Great Blue Heron, possibly a Great While Heron, and several Little Blue Herons. On yet another nearby walk, we saw several Anhingas, a dark bird that has no oil glands and hence must dry its wings by hanging them out. Because we eschew the image of duffers riding around in golf carts from hole to hole, bird watching will become our pursuit while in the campground. From here we’ll range out, kayaking, biking—and who knows what else. Perhaps we’ll take up windsurfing…

We’re not really sure what the rest of our time here will bring, but are determined to avoid cynicism. Though chronologically we may be seniors, mentally we’re reconstituted young adults, and we know that to maintain that image, we must avoid looking at the world through jaundiced eyes.

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Lessons From Cades Cove and the People Who Once Trod These Great Smoky Mountains

posted: November 20th, 2006 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Leave the Cades Cove People Alone.

That’s a sentiment that prevailed around the early 1930s, and suggests the independent ways that were so typical of the people who once inhabited this rich farming area in the Great Smokies—before this 521,085-acre mass of land became a national park.

We visited the Cades Cover section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, located not far from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and few places have struck me as being so rich in culture—or so poignant in its legacy. The feeling is one that Janie and I apparently share with about two million other people, for each year that’s the number of people that drive the 11-mile loop road that accesses some of the original structures still remaining.

These, of course, are the same structures the government condemned just prior to establishing the park as a park. How they accomplished this condemnation is somewhat of a mystery, for not only had it uprooted farmers in the Smokies, but as well it uprooted people throughout most of the Appalachian Mountains to create Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Parkway—the 450-mile long link that connects these two national parks.

Could such a massive displacement occur again? Historically, this is the same area from which the Cherokee were displaced, creating the infamous Trail of Tears, a forced march in which many died. Apparently, given the right circumstances, man’s treatment of the unsophisticated is reoccurring, and that’s a lesson for all of us.

But there are other lessons to be learned from that which the displaced left behind, and appreciating that is about all we can do now, realizing that today’s men and women of the park service have taken what they have been handed and have done remarkable job interpreting a bygone era.

Cades Cove interprets that resourceful group as a community. Preserved here are several churches, old grave yards, a large number of personal dwellings, cantilevered barns, old rail fences, old grist mills, and exquisite pastures that at times are dotted with deer. In season, volunteers reenact the part of many of the displaced, explaining how they build homes, “carded” wool into threads, made soap, and all the other skills necessary to survive in a raw and sometimes very unfriendly country.

Also contained here is the invisible, the stories that are told by the remains of these skillfully constructed structures and the suggestions that one of America’s most independent and resourceful people once lived here. In part, that may have been their undoing.

Tour of the cove is best appreciated by stopping at the various pullovers and then walking to the point of interest that each stop provides, and the first of these is the John Oliver cabin. It is the oldest log home in the cove and it was at this home that my appreciation of the people who farmed this land was kindled.

From this land, he and members of his family obtained all they needed for survival. They cut trees and knew how to convert them into boards and roofing shingles. They grew cotton for cloths and knew had to convert that cotton to thread and the thread into dresses and pants. They grew corn for sustenance and sometimes for moonshine, understanding the concept of distillation. They butchered and ate their own hogs. They also ate bear, venison, squirrel, Ruffed Grous, quail, rabbit and the fish they caught in surrounding streams.

They built dirt roads and traveled over them to visit neighbors and, as the community grew to 1821 in 1850, used them to attend one of the several churches in Cades Cove.

At the Primitive Baptist Church, we meet Frank and Anna Marie Stefanick, a couple who were volunteering their services to help out the interpretive program provided at Cades Cove. Because our eyes had been drawn to the epitaph of Russell Gregory and the word “Murdered,” they explained that life in the cove was not always peaceful, and that Gregory had been killed shortly after the Civil War by a bushwacker in a dispute over a dead cow.

As coincidence would have it later in the day we again ran into Frank and Anna Marie at a book store in the cove. Knowing our interest, Anna, who had once taught writing courses, suggested several titles. One that has kept me riveted is a book developed by a high school English teacher which has garnered much critical acclaim entitled The Foxfire Book.

The book was developed by Eliot Wigginton and his students, who interviewed a number of Appalachian people. From these interviews Wigginton developed a magazine and a series of comprehensive books that cover everything from Snake Lore and Faith Healing to the Building of Log Cabins. As well there are vignettes of the lives of many of these Appalachian residents which provide such fascinating information that I’ve been reading the book in my every spare moment.

Obviously, the legacy of these independent people is substantial, and though I lament the way in which they were displaced, more then likely civilization as we now understand it would have displaced them. This way we remember their immense skills with a sense of nostalgia and such great admiration that now we are discovering that we can not, in fact, leave the Cades Cove people alone.

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When it Snows in the Great Smokies

posted: November 18th, 2006 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Yesterday (November 17), at elevations above 4,000 feet, it snowed in the peaks of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Down here at Smokemont Campground (elevation 2000’), located several miles from Cherokee, North Carolina, also about the same elevation, no snow fell, but what surprised Janie and me was the departure of campers and resident out of all the small neighboring towns. Rather then to flee from this first manifestation of real winter many did just the opposite.

For awhile, the roads were closed, but when they opened, there was a mass exodus toward the peaks of the Great Smokies, which now reflected back white rather than the smoke-blue, for which they are so well known. We joined them, paralleling as we drove the Oconaluftee River to where it originates near Newfound Gap. Then we entered Tennessee and descended the twisting mountain road now paralleling the tributaries of the Little Piegon River.

And then, we turned around and did it all again.

In a word, this new and fresh landscape we saw was beautiful. Rhododendron bushes were covered in white. So, too, were the rocks in streams, and these white-caped domes complemented those places where stream-waters surged and created rushes of white frothy waters.

People-watching was also a treat, and at Newfound Gap (5046’), forming the demarcation between North Carolina and Tennessee, hundreds—literally hundreds—of people were converting the wet snow into snowballs. Some they threw at friends but in one case a man created a small snowman and placed it on the hood of his car. Then he drove off, presumably back toward home to show all what he had seen.

Yet another couple had dressed themselves in heavy long-rider coats and were strolling around this historic gap where President Franklin Roosevelt stood in 1940 and dedicated the park (formed in 1934). Curiously, these people who had dressed themselves as rugged horseback people were being led around by a small manicured poodle cloaked in a warm red vest.

As with every first snowfall of the year, there were people who had not yet retrieved their “sea legs,” and so there were several minor mishaps. One person had slid slightly off the road and was unable to regain traction. (Later we saw a tow truck.) Other were creeping to such an extreme extent that they were creating some frustration on the part of other drivers, anxious to see something different in this vast winter wonderland.

On the Tennessee side, snows receded as we dropped and soon we reached the Sugarlands Visitor Center, located on the Tennessee side of the park and also near Gatlinburg. Immediately upon entering the visitor center, our attention was drawn to a sign telling us that sometime during the first week of December Sugarlands would host a program entitled “Winter in the Smokies.” The program would feature Appalachian music and Appalachian story telling. My how we wished our timing was different.

Because a ranger had said they might have to close the pass at mid afternoon, we returned early, but the snow from the roads had disappeared and so too had most of the meltwater that would have contributed to slippery roads. As well the road was sanded.

Despite the lateness of the day, people were still arriving to see the first rush of winter, but for the most part, it was too late. Strange, we thought at first that so many should be so appreciative, but quickly realized that we were wrong, for every season has its beauty, and we were indeed lucky to be among the first to enjoy this seasonal declaration for which winter is best known.

Today, that manifestation is virtually all gone, but yesterday, as so many thousands realize, it snowed in the Great Smokies of North Carolina and Tennessee.

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Great Smoky Mountain National Park—Learning from the Past to Preserve the Future

posted: November 18th, 2006 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Great Smokies Mountain National Park exists to a large extent because of an influential lobbying group that surged into power toward the end of the Great Depression, or about the late 1930s. That group was the American Automobile Association of America.

Essentially members of the AAA wanted a place to drive their shiny new cars, and at the time, they looked longingly to the Great Smokies. But blocking their way was a group of Appalachian farmers who were land rich, cash poor—and lacking in sophistication.

In other words, they lacked political clout, and so they could garner but little resistance when the government enacted its power of Eminent Domain, telling thousands of dirt farmers that the land they on which they had given birth to their young and buried their dead for the past 150 years would now be put to a more noble purpose.

Today, for better or worse, the Great Smokies has become the nation’s most visited park in the East. Certainly the mountains comprising this park are popular for their staggering beauty, but as well they are popular because they interpret the very thing they had to condemn in order to become a reality, and that is the life of the small family farm that once numbered in the hundreds…

At the moment, we’re in the park camped in Smokemont Campground, located several miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. But more significantly, as far as we’re concerned, is the fact that one of the area’s best preserved mills is located nearby, and is one of the features the National Park Service inherited when the Smokies became a park in 1940. It is also one of the mills the people who were displaced used, and if nothing else, it reflects tremendous innovation.

Today, several men interpret the life at Mingus Mill, and Janie and I were fortunate to meet them. Because the day was young, we were able to follow Hugh Blanton and George Armstrong in the cycle of creating power to grind corn into cornmeal—and listen to a bit of homespun philosophy about life in the Smokies.

From our campground Mingus Creek is easily reached following a several mile drive. A short walk then took us to the mill and the people devoted to preserving memories of a way of life that essentially died out in the 1950s. One of the men actually lived the life associated with the small mill.

Hugh Blanton is a tall man who once lived on a small farm not far from the town of Cherokee. He speaks with a deep southern drawl that is compelling. As an interpreter at Mingus Mill, he begins the day by opening the gate on the flume that diverts water from Mingus Creek into a 100-yard long “race,” into a hundred yard long flume and then into a penstock. The penstock is a tall structure and because of its height, offers a 22-foot head that contains the kinetic energy necessary to rotate a turbine. Gearing from the turbine then turns a spindle that is attached to two huge hand-made cylindrical blocks of granite that grind the corn kernels into cornmeal. A lever adjusts the proximity of the two cylindrical stones, which in turn controls the resulting texture.

The explanation of the operation is somewhat text-bookish, but not Hugh’s recollections of the simple life once associated with a day at the mill.

“When I was young,” said Hugh, we used to call it a ‘turn-of-corn.’ In other words, we all stood in line and took our turn getting our corn ground up. It was a social event and sometimes we’d just gab but other times we might do a bit of trading. Once, I traded an old pocket knife for something I wanted more.”

Though the day was rainy, it was easy to appreciate the comradery, for as we visited we did so around an old wood stove, listening to the beat of rain on the old shakes that covered the mill, and it was then that George Armstrong, the other interpreter, helped crystallize the direction of our conversation, which contained an elements of nostalgia and philosophy.

Together we applauded the park service for its efforts to restore the natural order of things in this most visited of all eastern national parks—something not easy to do. Today, for instance, managers in the Smokies are confronted with the overwhelming challenge of ridding feral hogs.

As well, they’re challenged with an elk reintroduction program, and only that morning Janie and I had seen some of the results of the 2001 and 2002 attempts. Less than a mile away from the mill, in a large meadow, a huge bull elk had stepped for a brief moment from the timber, but long enough for a quick photograph. Because the introduction is a pilot program, all of the approximately 60 elk in the park are monitored through use of collars. Their ultimate welfare is dependent in part on whether or not the elk “threaten park resources or create significant conflicts with park visitors.” The conditions seem a little contradictory as once elk were native to the Smokies and were, of course, dependent on “park resources.”

Sitting around the warm potbelly stove, we all wondered if the reintroduction has a chance, particularly with the way civilization is encroaching on the few remaining “wild” island in North America. And as the rain continued its staccato-like beat on the wood shingles, we wondered about the future. By reflecting on the past, we arrived, we thought, on an appropriate scenario for the future.

Perhaps the way of the farm life in Appalachia may have eventually been doomed because of a lack of knowledge of sustained yields and more sophisticated knowledge of farming. At the time the government condemned the land for national park purposes that, at any rate, was one of the reasons they cited. And now, the park is what it is. But, today, a new threat seems to be emerging, and that is one created by developers and real estate agents.

“They come in here from outside the region,” said George, “and offer up land to a certain element of society that flanks the boundaries of the park. And then people from these big cities come in—buy a chunk on the top of some mountain peak and build a multi-million dollar estate.”

I knew exactly what he was referring to for much the same has been happening in my home state of Montana—and to many other areas of the country that we had seen. In this same state we’d seen the beauty of the Outer Banks of North Carolina marred by high-rise condominiums which now block from sight the magnificence of ocean vistas—except for the few occupying these high-rise monstrosities. The solution, we joked, might be to vote in politicians who would treat arrogance just as an earlier group of politicians treated the unsophisticated ways of farmers who once worked the mountains of the Appalachians.

“Yes, yes,” we said, agreeing that those who construct huge, unsightly multi-million dollar mountain-top homes and high-rise condominiums will have their domiciles confiscated by rule of Eminent Domain. We’ll declare those people unfit because of an excessive amount of arrogance and pomposity.

The, point, of course, is that in 70 year from now if we want to enjoy the same beauty we enjoy today, then we must work hard to enact new laws that will tolerate only principled development. In view of the overwhelming popularity enjoyed by national parks—such as the Great Smokies—the thought seems appropriate.

Ah, to be king for a day.

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Appalachia, the Blue Ridge Parkway—and Miller’s Camp

posted: November 15th, 2006 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Appalachia!

When you hear the word some tend to think of backward mountain folks who might be illiterate and perhaps incapable of doing much about improving their station in life. Though that has never been my preconception it was a feeling expressed to Janie and me when we stopped yesterday on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina at a campground that had closed for the winter.

“That’s what folks used to say about us when we were growing up,” said Jean Miller. “It’s something we even had to fight with the government about, for back in the 1930’s when they were considering an Appalachian National Parkway, some didn’t always deal with us fairly.”

By anyone’s standards, Jean Miller, age 83, is a most remarkable person. When she was in her late 50s she decided to attend college (after all her children had graduated from college), and when she was 63 completed work earning a degree in horticulture.

“I was never any good at math,” said Jean, “so I had my children and grandchildren help me out.” She’s refers often to her grandchildren and her 22 great grandchildren.Though Jean has succeeded in ways many from outside the Appalachian community might never attempt, her roots are extraordinarily humble. Born in a small cabin located not far from Miller Camp, the campground she and her husband own and operate, she lived the rural life that the Parkway attempts to interpret. “It’s the same cabin in which my mom was born in 1881. It wasn’t much then; probably built in the early 1800s. I don’t know exactly when.”

What Jean does remember is that life consisted of lots of chores. “We never thought of it as hard, probably because we didn’t know any better. We made our own soap; we tended our gardens and our livestock. All in all it wasn’t a bad way, and I remember growing up that the wood and creeks provided entertainment, and we still think they’re beautiful, though we seen them almost every day of our lives.”

Somewhere along the way Jean learned to express herself as an accomplished artist, though I doubt she would refer to herself as such. Nevertheless, Jean paints, and as a wood worker has created exquisite furnishings, such as a table inlaid with various types of local wood such as cherry, walnut and oak—made in the Shaker style. Referring to the table, she says it is one that she “glued up.”

“I just glued it up,” she says of the ornate table that is a composite of local materials. I’ve been taking courses in wood working for the past 20 years.”

Most conspicuously, Jean has created beautiful baskets, and each seems to be a work of art. Some are for holding flowers. Others you’d call wool-drying baskets. One is an urn with a lid, anther a berry baskets, and one, with skis on the bottom she says should be called an item of décor. Same with a basket lavishly decorated with beads.

Jean lives on the same land on which she was born, though it has been slightly diminished. In 1936, the government decided they wanted to make a national parkway out of the land folks from Appalachia lived on, and Jean wanted us to see the original deed. Stepping outside her craft store, we walked upstairs and there, on the wall, were two deeds, each representing a transaction with the government.

“The government wanted some of Mother’s land,” said Jean. “They wanted 40 acres and they paid her $60 total for it. Later, they wanted yet another 40, and this time they said they’d pay her $132. Mom countered insisting on $2,300. When they refused, she got a lawyer and with his help, got the $2,300, but he kept about half for his efforts.”

Today, almost 70 years later, Jean says she is not bitter, that if it had not been for the government the entire Blue Ridge would be developed. “You see a few condominiums, but not many. Imagine what it would be like if the government hadn’t created this parkway.”

Jean says rangers on the Parkway are now some of their very best friends. “We know them all,” said Jean, “and they’ve helped us out lots, particularly with some men who checked into our campground and then drank too much. We don’t allow alcohol, and we consider our campground a family campground.

Perhaps the most moving testimonial to the Miller’s life in Appalachia was provided by her granddaughter, Emily, who now has a doctorate in psychology. Several years ago she wrote her grandparents a letter, explaining what it was like to grow up at Miller’s Campground:

“I grew up at Miller’s Campground… We would play at the barn in the summertime. We’d get shooed outside by Mrs. Wertz who was sewing in the back. We ran barefoot so much that Max Silver and Clark Hubbard called us all ‘Stumpy Toe.’ We rode our bikes in circles around the front until we’d see a trailer off in the distance creeping down the parkway like an inch worm. ..

“Then the whole country side would come alive with spring and the campers would come rolling in one by one and the night air would be filled with laughter, stories and music.

“…We shared our lives with the campers, our childhoods and our adulthoods. We had weddings and funerals, births and birthdays, holiday and pot lucks, tragedies and triumph…

“I have a daughter and I feel so lucky that she got to meet the campers and start her life out with their best wishes. I want to thank all of you with all my heart for being such an important part of my life and for helping to create such loving and supportive community.

“Love Emily.”

Janie and I spent the morning with this remarkable woman about whom Emily wrote so lovingly, and when we departed Jean insisted that we take one of her baskets as a memory of our morning at Miller’s Camp. It’s on our “dinning room” table, and perhaps some day we can return and fill it with rhododendron, azaleas, and mountain laurel, just a few of the flowers that now flank the spring parkway and that you can find in spring at Miller’s Camp.

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Lunch in the Shadow of President Hoover

posted: November 13th, 2006 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: In my last post, I mentioned the potential of great discomfort by wading the Mill Prong of the Rapidan River in my boots and then having to slog on a quarter of a mile to the Herbert Hoover Cabin, my destination. In addition, I would have had to recross the stream and then slog uphill and back almost two miles to my car.

The decision not to cross but to return the next day was made after examining the rain-covered rocks, and although the distance across the creek was not great the potential for slipping and getting wet was great, and so we postponed the trip to the Hover complex.

I want to report in this short blog that yesterday I returned with tennis shoes and shorts and so avoided wet boots—and the potential for blisters. The only discomfort was the painfully cold water, but that quickly passed, and visiting the Hoover cabin was certainly worth the inconvenience.

President Hoover came to the Rapidan Camp for rest and relaxation. He was an avid outdoorsman and enjoyed fishing the many nearby creeks. Thirteen structures provided the backdrop for his vacations, which were often working vacations. Of the original thirteen only three remain: the Brown House (which has been fully restored, inside and out), the Creel Cabin, and the Prime Minister’s Cabin.

On arrival I found the setting to be beautiful and probably much as it was when Hoover retreated to Shenandoah. To him, the retreat met three key criteria: It was within 100 miles of Washington; it was located on a trout stream; and it was 2500 feet above sea level. Because of the historic significance of the area, Congress designated Rapidan Camp (as it is now called) a historic landmark.

Laurel Prong and Mill Prong converge near the camp to create the Rapidan River, and essentially that is what I saw as I sat on the porch of the Brown House and enjoyed my lunch. Below me the river flowed and it was full of deep pools that still contain trout like the ones that enticed President Hoover.

Though I am an avid fisherman, I didn’t carry equipment with me, though I saw several fly fisherman, who shared with me the information that they were using a single barbless hook and that the several fish they’d already caught had been carefully returned to the water, as regulations required.

Next time, I’ll return with hip waders and fly rod.

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Bewitched by Shenandoah’s Late Autumn Season

posted: November 11th, 2006 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is a park where we feel at home. In 1998, we spent the summer here (that’s where we are tonight and have been now for the past three nights) hiking virtually every trail in the park. Our efforts resulted in the publications of two hiking guides to Shenandoah, Hiking Shenandoah, and Best Easy Day Hikes in Shenandoah National Park.

Falcon Press, which is now an imprint of Globe Pequot, published both guides and the books are now in their third edition, and we’d like to say that we are particularly proud of the results, but always ecstatic when we find people actually using them.

One such person was Al Chase, camped next to us (also in an Airstream) and after introductions, he asked us if we were the same Gildarts who wrote the above two books.

That Al knew our names astounded us, and we attempted modesty, and said that “Yes, by golly, we are those very same Gildarts,” and then began reporting to him that to make the book what it was that before the summer was over, we had hiked almost 600 miles or almost 100 miles more than the actual number of trails, which is 500.

We also mentioned to our kind listener that we’d climbed Old Rag, elevation 3,268 feet, and a mountain that contains some of the oldest rocks found in the Appalachians. “Shenandoah,” we emphasized, “is special!” But then Al certainly knew that, for he seemed to be a very capable outdoorsman. And modest, too, a trait I greatly admire.

And so I limited myself to a half hour or so, explaining that we’d hiked all 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail that wind through Shenandoah and had met a number of through hikers who had left Springer Mountain in Georgia, bound for Baxter State Park, hoping to complete all 2000 miles of the “AT” in four long months.

Mentioning all this here, of course, is not crass commercialism, just reporting. And, of course, these were all things we knew everyone would want to know, hence our concerted efforts to provide all the information at our disposal.

Likewise, we seldom if ever report on personal family matters, but in the interest of compassion feel it is appropriate to note the sad news that our entire family has run into hard times, and that it would help immensely for all those who can afford to do so to buy both of our books, else this winter our grandchildren might well go barefoot and their wee little tummies might shrivel up to nothing. To help you help us to help our grandchildren, simply click on either Amazon.com or the book section of Shenandoah. Do it and a beam of light will break through the overhead clouds, illuminating you, and throughout the entire day we can assure you that you’ll be suffused with a warm glow.

Because of these sad circumstances, we are here to work, are now going full tilt—and ready to get somewhat serious.

On this trip we’re here to gather material for a magazine story on Shenandoah, and because this park can be enjoyed at any season, we wanted particularly to see the park in late fall—early winter and a time we’ve only seen but briefly. It’s a magical time of year, a season that can sometimes be associated with fog and some rain. But if you persist, late autumn has a splendor all its own, and sounds that are muted in other seasons by the immense cloak of leaves from over 300 species of vegetation that garb these essentially hardwood forest’s are now transmitted.

Listen, then, as you hike for the sound of deer trampling through the leaves; the sounds of squirrels scurrying in fallen leaves, trying frantically to stash acorns.

Listen as well to the sound of streams gurgling and, sometimes, to the sound of water cascading down lengthy cliff faces. That’s what it’s been like in Shenandoah these past few days, particularly on a lone trail down to Dark Hollow Falls, a major cascade in this quiet winter forest, but just one of the park’s 16 (Gildarts’ informative guidebooks) falls.

Of course, there are other splendors, and with the right frame of mind, one of those can be fog. That’s the way it was for us as we drove the Skyline Drive and watched near Mary’s Overlook as a soft wind began whishing in low clouds that soon engulfed the road and sent us scurrying back to our camper.

Next morning, the silence was intense, and about the only sound was that of two white-tailed bucks contesting one another in front of our trailer over the question of which one would emerge victorious and subsequently pass on its genetic vigor to the nearby does. Antlers were a-clashing, and the battle was at times furious—and fluid—for their arena was the entire woods, and with time, they disappeared, though we could still hear the saber-like clacks.

That, of course, is another attraction of late fall, for November can be an intense time for the park’s 5000-7000 (Gildart’s…) deer. I’m referring, of course, to the mating season, and as we hiked we often saw bucks giving chase to coquettish females—their footfalls telegraphed at other times through the dry leaves and the resulting sounds derived from their running, running, running…

Today, we hope to make the four-mile round-trip hike to the Herbert Hoover cabin, something we tried yesterday, but had to turn back a quarter mile from our destination. Once our 30th president had a cabin here, and claimed this isolated spot deep in these dense woods—along a small stream that brimmed (and still does) with brook trout—was one of his favorite places in the entire world. Recent rains, however, had turned the Mill Prong into thigh-high water and I didn’t want to get my boots wet.

Should have carried old tennis shoes, something mentioned in one of the Gildarts’ books, and that I should have read.

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Harper’s Ferry, Where History Reigns

posted: November 6th, 2006 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: Several days ago, Janie and I stopped in at the Chesapeake and Ohio Visitor Center, located not far from the Hagerstown-Antietam KOA, and as we began visiting with the two volunteers, something triggered recognition. Almost simultaneously, we realized that we had met one another in Virginia in the Dismal Swamp several years ago. I recalled that Jack was a photographer and he recalled I had given him a copy of Airstream Life Magazine, a magazine produced by Rich Luhr, another friend of mine in the writing field.

Jack said he still had the magazine, and then he began to tell us a bit about the life he and his wife, Carla, had been leading. This winter, they said they would be volunteering once again at Big Cypress, just north of the Everglades, and we agreed we would try and rendezvous. To reinforce the thought, that evening Jack and Carla Rupert stopped by our Airstream—bringing with them the copy of Airstream Life (See, Rich, that further demonstrates how much people cherish your magazine!). We talked more about what we might see along the banks of the C&O Canal at Harper’s Ferry, where we’ve now relocated…

And so it was yesterday that we found ourselves biking a trail that quickly had us passing not only along the C&O Canal, but as well through Harper’s Ferry, the Appalachian Trail, and over a footbridge that crossed the Shenandoah River—where it immediately converged with the Potomac, near a series of rapids.

Each, of the major features, of course, has its own story, and we’ve spent the last two days attempting to learn something about each. And, now, after a few days and several meetings with various interpreters, I believe I am beginning to understand a little about the significance of Harpers Ferry and its contribution to the start of the Civil War.

In part, my information came from a Volunteer in the Park, who was sitting in the reception room in Harper’s Ferry just off to the side of a huge painting of John Brown. The mural-size painting shows John Brown with a Bible in one hand and rifle in the other. A hard wind has his ragged beard blown to one side, and in his eye there is the crazed look of a fanatic. (Ranger John Powell pointed out some of these features to me.)

“Brown was an abolitionist,” said Anne Short, the VIP. “He came to Harper’s Ferry with the intention of freeing the slaves, but he went about it in the wrong way. Philosophically, he was joined by the Transcendentalists, a group that consisted of such writers as Thoreau and Emerson, men who believed in the individual worth of man in the spiritual sense. The only problem with Brown is that he took his beliefs too far, murdering people who did not agree with him regarding the abolition of slavery.”

That we learned, is what happened at Harper’ Ferry, and in fact, during our walk we entered the armory fire engine house, where an ultimate irony occurred. Brown was wounded in battle with a detachment commanded on that day in October of 1859 by Robert E. Lee. At the time, of course, Lee was an officer in the Union Army.

One week later, Brown was hanged, and as the film we watched in the Visitor Center said, “Brown failed.” Then, a moment later the film’s narrator asks rhetorically, “Or did he?”

With time, Brown’s fervor became almost contagious, and according to Mrs. Short, the Abolition movement grew. Concurrent with the movement was the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the power of the Transcendentalists. “Remember,” said Mrs. Short, “Thoreau believed in Civil Disobedience. He just didn’t carry it to the extreme that John Brown did.”

In a nutshell, that is the rationale for the existence of Harper’s Ferry as a historic park, but the town is worthy of a visit regardless of your interest in Civil War history. From the Visitor Center overlooking the old town, a shuttle bus takes you down the steep hill to a parking lot, and then to an old, old town.

From the parking lot, we walked the streets and saw homes built in 1799. For awhile, the town was prosperous, but the periodic flooding of the Shenandoah discouraged real growth. Nevertheless, the C&O Canal passed through the area, and one day, we hopped onto the seats of our bicycles and followed the old canal for a distance of about five miles. The canal starts near Washington, D.C., and if you wanted to do so, you could bike the old canal for a distance of 184 miles to its terminus in Cumberland, Maryland.

About ten years ago, I rode a portion of the old canal from Washington, D.C. past the station at the Great Falls of the Potomac, and it was here that I saw a pair of mules pulling one of the old barges bound, I imaged for a moment, to Harper’s Ferry, and then beyond to Cumberland. Yesterday, as Janie and I rode our bikes I could still see in my mind’s eye the mules and the barge. And as Janie and I passed Lock 31 about three miles south of Harper’s Ferry, I could picture the barge waiting until water filled the now dried-up canal. After that the barge would continue transporting its cargo.

That sense of the bygone is, of course, a part of what historic parks attempt to provide.

That evening Janie and I returned to Harper’s Ferry, where we locked our bikes in a rack, then walked through town on the Appalachian Trail. We followed the AT a short distance until it came to the Jefferson Rock. Once, Thomas Jefferson stood here, absorbed the beauty and later wrote:

“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature…”

He was talking, of course, about the beauty of Harper’s Ferry, which sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers, paralleled in part by the old C&O Canal. For Jefferson, it was too soon to think about history; though that has certainly been his legacy, as well as that of this entire region. In part, we can thank Jack and Carla for pointing us in the right direction.

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Arctic Interlude

posted: November 5th, 2006 | by:Bert

Bert Gildart: This evening our cell phone broke the silence in our Airstream, and when we answered, we recognized the two Native American voices immediately, though we had not heard them now for months.

“Greeting from Arctic Village [Alaska] said Kenneth and Caroline Frank, almost together. We’ve been trying hard to reach you.”

Though we’ve been trying to reach them throughout our travels this summer, they managed to reach us first. Because they did reach us—bringing back some wonderful travel memories–we’re going to digress this evening, and share some memories revealing what life in the Arctic could be like—right now, as I pen these words.

Kenneth and Caroline live on the Venetie Indian Reservation, located immediately adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). They are Gwich’in Indians, and as such lay claim to being the northern-most Indian tribe in North America (Eskimos live further north). Despite the distance separating us, they’ve visited us in Montana, and we them in the Arctic on many occasions.

Though Kenneth and Caroline’s ancestors were all nomadic (Kenneth’s into the 1960s), amazingly, they have both advanced themselves in the “White-man way.” Still, they tend to prefer their own culture—and are sufficiently intelligent to walk whatever path they choose. Caroline, in fact, has earned a master’s degree and though the couple could have gone most anywhere in Alaska, they elected to return to Arctic Village, where she not only teaches, but serves as the village principal.

Kenneth has worked in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. As well, he has worked teaching the young people in his village more about their vanishing culture, which is threatened from outside influences.

We’ve known them since 1991, and are flattered that they have remained some of our very best friends, but then, we have shared many experiences, though typically, we always begin our conversations about the weather.

“What’s the temperature, Kenneth?”

“Oh, it’s not cold tonight; maybe 15 or 20 below (that’s Fahrenheit!).

Sadly, it’s been several years since we’ve seen them, and the last time was in conjunction with a trip to Fairbanks, where I was commissioned at the time to cover the Athabascan Fiddle Festival for Native Peoples Magazine. From there, we flew yet further north to see them, flying about 100 miles to the Arctic Circle, then another 200 miles yet further north to Arctic Village. Just like now, it was the first week of November, but what a contrast from where we’re camped tonight near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and their home in the far north, a fact quickly born out shortly after our arrival, and something Kenneth reminded me last night on the phone.

“Certainly not as cold tonight as when we went ice fishing.”

Kenneth was referring to the time that he and I had driven two snowmobiles to Old John Lake on a day when temperatures hovered at about -30°F. (That’s a 70° temperature variation from where we are tonight in West Virginia). Length of day had diminished greatly and though we left at 9 a.m. darkness engulfed us for yet another hour. Nevertheless, we made the 20-mile trip in less than two hours. But that’s when the relatively easy work turned into some very, very hard work.

Kenneth is dedicated to his life as a subsistence hunter and fisherman, and on this trip he wanted to catch fish, and lots of them. Old John appeared frozen solid and deep, though he first wanted to test the ice by walking toward the center of the lake, listening for tell-tale cracks. The lake is not a huge lake and he quickly returned, reassured that all was OK. Then, we began work.

First, we took an ice auger and began drilling a hole, not an easy job as the ice was several feet thick. We accomplished the task in about ten minutes, but that was just the beginning.

“Fun isn’t it?” queried Kenneth. “We’ve got only seven more to go.”

Our goal was to suspend a 70-foot-long net—with leaders—beneath the ice, and to do so, we needed a number of holes oriented in a straight line, which we completed in about an hour. We then took a pole about 12-feet long, submerged it beneath the ice, and began pushing the net from one hole to the next.

At first the effort was demanding but soon Kenneth had the method worked out and within half an hour, the net was suspended so that it was about a foot beneath the lower surface of the ice. If the net had touched the ice, it might have frozen to the ice, making it difficult to draw in when the net was next examined.

That afternoon, we returned to Arctic Village as northern lights danced over head, though it was only about 4 p.m.

Next day, Kenneth and I returned and pulled in the net—along with about 200 pounds of mostly white fish, but not all.

“Look at this,” said Kenneth, “We’ve got a couple of huge lake trout, and we’ll have them tonight.”

Such recollections are some of the memories we always enjoy sharing each time we visit, and that is generally quite often. As well we share memories from summer school teaching programs we both worked in and about a trip we made together down the Chandalar River, to the Yukon, and then 300 miles up the Porcupine River to Old Crow, Yukon Territories. What an adventure that was, stopping at various summer fish camps.

As well, we shared recollections of the one winter Janie and I lived in the Arctic near them and all the wonderful times we had in the evening.

Truly, Kenneth and Caroline are a wonderful couple, caught up like many of their contemporaries in a struggle to preserve their subsistence way of life, and we hope they succeed. In a small way we’ve attempted to help them preserve that style of life, describing as best I could the merits of their culture for many publications (See our Gwich’in Indian Page). In several of those stories, most notably for Christian Science Monitor and National Wildlife, we’ve pointed out that when oil companies say the Central Caribou has expanded, despite massive development at Prudhoe, they’re not providing all the information. In short, they’re not telling the truth!

We continue to think about our wonderful times in the Arctic and thank Kenneth and Caroline for befriending us—and for their persistence these last few weeks trying to find out just where in the world we are. Sometime we wonder the same thing, and it’s our good fortune to have friends who help to provide some grounding. Allow these photographs to augment my words and to graphically suggest what life in the Arctic is like—tonight, this fifth day of November.

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Antietam National Battlefield—Where Bayonets Gleamed Blood-red

posted: November 3rd, 2006 | by:Bert

©Bert Gildart: Almost 25 years ago, Jim Murfin wrote a much acclaimed book entitled The Gleam of Bayonets. The book was about Antietam National Battlefield, and it was favorably reviewed by such prestigious publications as the New Yorker. Essentially, the book recounts the day in which more men died than in any other American battle.

Subsequent to its publication, Murfin became the Director of Publications for the National Park Service and in that capacity, helped me land several book contracts. Later, he and I collaborated on a travel book that focused on each of the various states. Sadly, Murfin died before the book was completed leaving the project to me. But despite an early demise, his name lives on, specifically at Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland.

Here, there is an observation room that provides a commanding view of the battlefield. It’s the same observatory in which rangers conduct daily lectures, and because of its name, the room is just one of the reminders that Murfin’s impact on Antietam was significant.

Yesterday, on a cool fall day with leaves still blazing red, orange and yellow, Janie and I listened in rapt interest in the James Murfin Observatory as Keith Synder, a park ranger at Antietam National Park in Maryland, detailed a few of the tragic events that occurred because the bayonets of Union and Confederate soldiers had gleamed much too brightly.

According to Synder, nine men dropped every two seconds during a 12-hour period on September 17, 1862. That rate of attrition has never have been reached again in any war, and before the day was out, fighting at Antietam produced more casualties in a single day then any other conflict in the Civil War. When the sun set, over 23,000 men had either been killed or wounded, prompting Synder to conclude at the end of his talk in the Murfin Observation Deck that he for one had to wonder what it was all about.

“When the battle was over, neither side gained any strategic ground and were, in fact, in just about the same place they had been prior to the battle. To me that is one of the saddest things.”

One-hundred and fifty years ago, Dr. William Child, a battlefield surgeon, said much the same thing but in a different way:

“When I think of the battle of Antietam, it seems so strange.

“Who permits it?

“…that a power is in existence that can and will hurl masses of men against each other in deadly conflict… is almost impossible [to comprehend]. But it is so—and why we can not know.”

Philosophically, Dr. Child was a profound man, and Antietam does a satisfactory job of probing the battle’s spiritual rational as well as exploring the more secular questions of the battle between Robert E. Lee and Major General George B. McClellan. Panels explain why Lee was attempting to carry the battle to the north and explains how he almost succeeded with his plan. Graphically, it details the carnage, exhibiting a few of the photographs taken by Alexander Gardner just after the battle. The photographs of the dead were the first such pictures ever published of the dead, and one must presume the impact was as profound in 1862 as it is now.

Battlefields are preserved, of course, to honor the men who gave their all for a cause, in this case to preserve the Union—and certainly that was a noble cause. The philosophies of the warring factions were at odds, and one can only imagine the outcome had not Lincoln prevailed and held the nation together. Throughout the battlefield, one senses Lincoln’s despair over the loss of life, but his determination as well, to bring the war to an end.

A house divided against itself can not stand…

And then, the day after the battle as Lincoln toured a hospital and engaged in conversation with wounded Confederate soldiers:

We are enemies through uncontrollable circumstances, and I bear you no malice.

The circumstances that hurled the two opposing faction against one another is a story in itself, but the upshot is that Lincoln’s Army of the Potomac was confronting one of the best strategist of the time. Lincoln’s army was confronting Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and much of the battlefield’s story is devoted to the way in which Lee uses the country to his advantage. Despite the overwhelming numerical superiority of General McClellan, at times Lee appears to be gaining the upper hand, and his methods remain one of the lessons of the battlefield.

Another lesson, however, is the one recounting the incredible loss of life, and just how it happened—and what has been done to honor the fallen.

The battlefield has been preserved by the will of both surviving Union and Confederate soldiers, and throughout the battlefield monuments and panels are everywhere. Janie and I encountered one such monument immediately upon departing the Murfin Observatory and began touring the battlefield. Six generals died September 17, and the park honors their service (both Union and Confederate) with the orientation of cannons. At the spot each general fell, a cannon has been mounted, but with its muzzle pointed downward. So mounted, they are called “Mortuary Canons.”

But the big picture may be even more compelling, something Janie and I realized as we drove this sprawling park. Certainly the geography remains the same, but managers at Antietam have done everything possible to retain the feel of the battle. Corn still stands where it did on September 17, and if you walk Bloody Lane, it is easy to see how thousands of raw young Union men and boys could be mowed down so easily as they charged out from the security provided from the corn’s late-season’s growth.

The depression is deep, and Confederate soldiers simply fired from the road’s obscurity at the young Union soldiers as the rushed onto the lip of the depression. Throughout the day, historians say that over four million bullets were fired, and certainly, soldiers at Bloody Lane fired their share. The horror of the setting is further revealed from the tower that peers down the cornfield, the picket fence, and the road forming Bloody Lane; it shows the futility of the charge and how mistakes were made.

Perhaps the most poignant recollection is derived from a large interpretive plaque posted at Dunker Church, a five minute walk from the Murfin Observatory. On the day following the battle, surviving men from both sides declared a truce and for a few hours, they peacefully convened. The plaque posts the words penned by Russell Hicks, who gave a voice to the church:

I am the Church of the bloodiest battlefield in all American history… I was pierced with cannon ball and bullets, my rafters studded with metal… my furniture splattered with blood…

I still exist as the little white church of the Antietam Battlefield… I am still the symbol of peace and brotherhood. Antietam was the battle that emaciated the slaves; I am a symbol of spiritual emancipation. I represent… the brotherhood of man…

Like many visitors, we departed the Battlefield with more questions then we arrived. But that is just one of the many functions derived from the preservation of such historic areas. Not only do they commemorate—and honor—the dead, but they help us better appreciate our nation’s history. As well, battlefields help generate a personal philosophy that can strengthen us as individuals and certainly as a nation.

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