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A Yankee Notebook

October 3, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – A couple of weeks from now, if all goes well, I’ll be standing at the foot of the Virginia State Monument on Seminary Ridge near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Above its base are inscribed the words, “Virginia to her sons at Gettysburg.” Atop the almost white granite monument, General Lee, hat in hand, sits astride his famous horse, Traveler, peering east across a mile of open fields toward Cemetery Ridge. At the foot of the monument, directly in front of him, are seven Confederate soldiers in various aggressive martial poses, all facing the same direction.

There’s no way any of us can truly appreciate what the men from Virginia in Pickett’s Division experienced that day – long-range bombardment with exploding shells; grape and canister as they crossed the rail fence and approached the Union line; and clouds of Minié balls, thick as hail, from the rifles of Hancock’s Union division behind their stone wall. I’ll ask Mother, if she’s willing, to leave me there and drive around to Cemetery Ridge to pick me up at the other end of that once horrendous, but now bucolic, hike. I want, as much as possible, to see what it looked like.

Two summers ago I took a little canoe ride on the Merrimack River at Manchester, New Hampshire, with David Leff, a Connecticut-based essayist and poet. David had just published Deep Travel: In Thoreau’s Wake on the Concord and Merrimack. A crew from New Hampshire Public Television and I were to paddle a bit of his route with him and see what he meant by “deep travel.” As we bobbed downstream and he described the technique, I realized that it’s just what Mother and I have been doing for over fifty years.

Before you leave to go anywhere, David writes, you learn as much as you can about where you’re going. This used to be much more difficult for us than now; the library was hard to get to, books were too expensive for us to buy, and computers, much less Google, were hardly thought of. Nowadays there’s hardly any excuse for not knowing anything about where we’re going.

Travelers with a bent for natural sciences – geology, for example – have a decided advantage, as do those fascinated by history, archeology, and anthropology. Close to home: How does the acidic granite underlying much of New Hampshire affect not only its industry, but its people, as opposed to the carbonates and schists of Vermont? Far from home: How was the pre-medieval, pagan culture of Norway translated into the new setting of Iceland, far from the rule of kings, and a blank page upon which to write the laws and ethos of a new culture amid smoking lava fields?

An example: Probably not a lot of people notice, but many old New England graveyards are located on hills above river valleys. They’re in river valleys because that’s where the towns were, to take advantage of water power; they’re on hills because while we’re alive, we like to think of ourselves spending as much of eternity as possible with a view (my ambition is to spend it with the Great Range of the Adirondacks filling the southwestern horizon); and surprisingly often, they’re located on an eminence that’s locally been called Sand Hill. In post-glacial times, when moraine dams backed up the rivers, the resulting temporary lakes deposited sand along their borders. Before the days of the backhoe, all graves were dug by hand, and sand was a lot better going than bony mountainsides where, as one old-timer put it, “there’s pret’ near one rock to every dirt.”

Mother, as I write, is out in the dining room taping together maps of her route south. She’ll be at a high school reunion on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not far from Charlottesville and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate. But we’ve been there before, so if we’re pushed for time, we’ll skip it. I’m fixing to see nearby Swift Run Gap, a break in the mountains along a geologic fault in the billion-year-old granite of the Blue Ridge “basement” that caused more rapid erosion of the fractured rock along the fault. We’ll follow US Route 33, which switchbacks up into the gap, and try to imagine what it looked like during the Civil War.

By coincidence, the surveyor who in the 1840s reported that Swift Run Gap was impractical for a railroad was also the first commandant of the Virginia Military Institute, where a student from Virginia named Thomas Jackson matriculated and, during his student days, explored the surrounding countryside. Swift Run Gap, unfamiliar to the Federal army during much of the Civil War, was Stonewall’s favorite “sneaky-hole,” through which his army sometimes slipped to surprise Federals on either side of the mountains.

Descending the western side of the gap, we’ll reach Harrisonburg (“Turkey Capital of the World”), where we were married in October of 1959. It looks nothing as it did in those days _ even the church where we were wed has burned down – so we’ll head north toward Harpers Ferry, famous for John Brown’s raid on the federal armory there in October of 1859, just 100 years before our wedding. (Two hundred years earlier to the day, Robert Rogers returned to Fort Number Four from his raid on St. Francis.) The town is much as it was then, and the view from the hillside above was described by Jefferson as “worth crossing the Atlantic” to see. It’s also home to the Appalachian Trail visitors’ center. I want to look for my name in the trail register from 1955.

Then it’s on to Gettysburg and our favorite motel there, irreverently located just beneath the cemetery where President Lincoln gave his most remembered speech. We’ll spend a day or two revisiting that somber battlefield – Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Devil’s Den – and dine in the still-German restaurant on the town square. And, whatever the weather, I’ll stand in front of those bronze Confederate soldiers and follow their trail across that bloody mileE

Photo by Willem lange