Archive for December, 2004

DeSoto National Memorial

Bradenton, Fla.
Visited: December 27, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 131 of 353
NPS Website

Who is that Masked Man?WHAT IS IT?
The memorial honors the life of Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto as well as his tortuous four-year expedition through the present-day southern United States.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The De Soto N MEM is located amid an upscale residential area along the Gulf Coast of Florida. It is beautiful here. The memorial borders both Tampa Bay to the north and the Manatee River to the east. The small park offers walks along the beach as well as a mile-long boardwalk trail through a mangrove swamp canopied by gumbo-limbo trees and black, red and white mangroves. Even though there is no evidence that De Soto ever landed or spent any time here, the setting is a nice place for his memorial.

The memorial’s physical site holds dubious historic significance, as does De Soto’s quixotic 4,000-mile trek through the south looking for gold. In De Soto’s mad journey, he established no colonies, built no lasting roads or trade routes, gathered little information and found zero treasure (gold or otherwise). He was fabulously unsuccessful.

The Site realizes De Soto’s inadequacies and focuses its teachings on Spanish New World exploration as a whole. Costumed Rangers give hourly talks, fire crossbows and matchlock muskets, cook period food and demonstrate the day-to-day life of the conquistadors while exhibits show the lasting effects of various Spanish explorers.

Costumed GabCROWDS (3/10)
We are not the only ones who decided to winter in Florida. When we arrived at the Site, all paved parking spots were taken. While we probably should have just parked in the grass spots next to their paved brethren, Michael drove a half mile back to the Site entrance and wedged the Altima between the narrow road and a drainage canal.

When we entered the Visitor Center it looked empty, until we entered the theater to watch the intro film. 38 of the approximately 40 seats were full. We scurried to the front row, far left corner and craned our necks around an unused television set for the next 21 minutes.

After the film, Gab decided to try on the suit of armor that the Site provides for hands-on enjoyment. After struggling to put on the 50-pound chain mail vest, a ten-year-old kid approached and accosted Gab, “you can’t wear that, you’re going to get in trouble. I’m telling someone.” Never shy about verbal battles with preteens, Gab quickly retorted, “It says right there that you are supposed to wear it. Go tell whoever you want.” The kid skulked away disappointed that Gab was correct.

The Site is not an easy Interstate detour despite its location amidst a large population center. Regardless of where you exit Interstate 75, traveling to De Soto N MEM requires driving at least 10 miles through heavily trafficked commercial roads. The Site is about five miles west from downtown Bradenton. Take Florida Route 64 (a/k/a Manatee Ave) and be careful, it switches from a one-way street to two-way traffic sometime before the turn to the Site. At 75th Street W, turn north. Signs will wind you through the residential neighborhood and to the memorial.

Numerous parks and other sites in the Tampa Bay area carry the De Soto name. Fort De Soto is a state park that lies directly across the Bay south of St. Pete Beach. Know where you want to go and remember that the National Park Site is in Bradenton.

Small stuffed manatees and sea turtles and plastic pointed conquistador hats rest on the shelves along with a few definitive tomes on Spanish exploration in the New World. Books on the most well-known, including Cabeza de Vaca, Ponce de Leon and of course Hernando de Soto make up the bulk of the selection.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

Even with the large crowds, there were plenty of Rangers. Three costumed interpreters held court at the Replica Spanish Camp while three Rangers rotated inside the tiny Visitor Center.

Making a BulletTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
You cannot argue with the quantity. From December through April, costumed Rangers give a talk an hour about three separate topics and chronologies: 1) The Beginning (1539-1540); 2) the Journey (1539-1543) and; 3) The Legacy 1543 on. Gab enjoyed the Legacy talk, which recapped dates and events from the Spanish Inquisition to Francisco Pizzaro to De Soto. Helpful, but not exactly a Legacy of Spanish Exploration talk. Michael was incredulous that there was little mention of the importation of cows, pigs, horse and other hoofed animals to the New World, perhaps the most lasting Spanish effect on the land.

Shooting RangeIn between the talks, the Rangers demonstrate anything from blacksmithing to cooking. We saw a child ask how bullets were made. The Rangers response was to physically make a bullet. Tables of armor beckon the visitor to try them on while the Rangers explain what each part was used for. We saw a marked-up bulls eye painted onto a tree stump but did not have a chance to see spears being thrown or crossbows fired. The Site does a great job at making learning fun and interactive.

Both the film and the Visitor Center exhibits are new and very good. We especially liked the cardboard cutouts that line the boardwalk trail through the mangroves.

FUN (6/10)
Once again, a quick morning visit turns into an all day event. We never had to look far to find something to do. If only the Visitor Center were a little larger to better disperse the crowd.

Gab along the TrailWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (6/10)
We hadn’t imagined the DeSoto National Memorial to rank among popular Florida destinations, but it was not lacking in visitors. It seemed like everyone here had just arrived for their winter stay in one of the warmest states, or was out for some fresh air after a week of holiday visits with friends and/or family. For us, both apply. It was not the usual historical site crowd, but nothing in Florida feels all that usual.

We got the impression that folks here were supplementing their time at the beach, condos and shops with an easy educational outing. Any why not? The setting is pleasant, the information easy to digest, and the armor IS for trying on.

TOTAL 49/80

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Plains, Ga.
Visited: December 19, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 129 of 353
NPS Website; Maranatha Baptist Church

Plains High aka Carter NHS Visitor Center

Numerous buildings in Plains, Georgia, the boyhood and current home of the 39th U.S. president, Jimmy Carter. The Site celebrates Carter’s life as well as life in a typical rural southern town.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Buildings are simple and only as large as they need to be. The few blocks of Main Street barely put a dent in the fields that surround the town. Plains, Georgia has added a few placards to the roads and a few Secret Service men to their population. Other than that, there is nothing to distinguish this quiet town from others nearby. In many ways the town is just like its most famous native son; what you see is what you get.

Jimmy Carter led his improbable runs to Georgia State Senate (1963), Georgia Governor (1970) and president of the United States (1976) here in Plains, Georgia. Carter’s amazing success demonstrates that idealism and good people have a place in politics.

In 1961, when apparently defeated in his initial foray into public office, Carter refused to admit defeat. He and his family braved death threats and the Southern status quo by showing that the Georgia Senate race had been overwhelmingly fraudulent. Many of the long-time incumbent’s votes had come from deceased citizens, voting in alphabetical order. The election results were overturned. President Carter has never stopped fighting for electoral fairness worldwide.

Jimmy Carter currently lives at the western city limit of Plains, Georgia but his home is only about 800 yards from the small town’s center. Preserved at the center is the Plains Depot, the train stop from where his presidential campaign ran.

Waiting for JimmyCROWDS (9/10)
Who could be as excited as we were to see President Carter? Every other person filling the Church and later browsing the old school building/Visitor Center and strolling the main street of Plains. The Church greeter recognized us at the Peanut Patch, a small store downtown. The town of Plains doubles in size almost every Sunday. Visitors are welcomed with open arms and free samples.

It is not often that we feel such a sense of camaraderie with our fellow park visitors. There was a palpable excitement and joy in the air. We believe Jimmy and Rosalynn bring it every time they come home.

The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is the city of Plains, Georgia. Plains is 10 miles west of Americus, GA on US 280. Another NPS site, Andersonville NHS, lies 20 miles northeast of Americus. Both sites can be visited in one day. One long, emotional day.

Each of Carter’s 19 books were for sale, including his newest, Sharing Good Times. Most could also be purchased in an audio or large print version. All come with an autograph request form.

Site MuralSome books seemed out of place until you looked harder. Why is Mattie Stepanek’s Journey Through Heartsongs here? Carter was a hero to Mattie, a young poet and disabilities advocate who dreamed of being a peacemaker, just like President Carter. Mattie passed away last year from a rare form of muscular dystrophy but not before his hero wrote the Forward to his collection of poems.

Each book is here for a reason. Browsing them, one can see the extent of President Carter’s touch and influence on the world far after his presidency concluded.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free. One may give a donation at the Maranatha Baptist Church, but it is not required. We are a little embarrassed to say just how many free samples of fried peanuts and peanut brittle we sampled at the Peanut Patch.

Little known fact: some Rangers rotate among Sites. This is the second time we have spoken with a Ranger and walked away wondering where we had seen him before.

There were two Rangers at the Visitor Center. One or two more may have helped with the post-Church rush which filled the school lobby.

The Jimmy Carter NHS Visitor Center is located in his and Rosalynn’s old High School. The building itself is a part of the Site. The displays are terrific, especially the touch screen computer where the president and first lady answer questions from grade school children. The Charles Kuralt-narrated film recounting the early life of Jimmy Carter is well done.

President CarterThe highlight of the Jimmy Carter NHS is found in the Maranatha Baptist Church, another building that the Site preserves. Nearly every Sunday, President Carter teaches Bible study at 10:00 a.m. Click here for his schedule. He missed a December lesson because he was in Mozambique certifying their second democratic election and will missed last Sunday’s talk because he was in Palestine on the same mission.

Get to church by at least 8:30; the pews only seat 300 and half are reserved for church members. His talk was incredibly moving. He intertwined the message of the Gospel with his amazing life experience and knowledge all the while never forgetting to flash his well-known grin.

President Carter radiates a feeling of love throughout the audience. A couple behind us had traveled the previous week from their home in Tallahassee to the Sunday bible lesson. They were so touched that they had to return. If we lived nearby, we would do the same.

FUN (10/10)
This felt like a once in a lifetime experience even though President Carter teaches as often as he can.

It is hard to believe that a former U.S. president and Nobel Peace Prize award winner makes himself available to the public on a weekly basis for the humble task of preaching the Gospel in a tiny Baptist church. Find your way to Plains, Georgia on a Sunday while you can. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are American treasures.

TOTAL 61/80

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Andersonville, Ga.
Visited: December 19, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 130 of 353
NPS Website

Andersonville MonumentsWHAT IS IT?
Site of the infamous Civil War prison camp officially named Fort Sumter but known in the North as Andersonville. The Park also includes the National Prisoner of War Museum.

BEAUTY (3/10)
While in operation, Andersonville was a real life vision of hell, eerily resembling the writhing hell bound bodies of Jan Van Eyck’s The Crucifixon; The Last Judgment or the apocalyptic images of Albrecht Durer. A large drawing of the Prison Camp hangs at the Site drawn years later by a former prisoner from memory. When you look onto the grounds, you can easily imagine the madness. The visual images and history is so disturbing that we often found it difficult to breathe.

No place demonstrates the insanity of war better than Andersonville NHS.

From February, 1864 until May, 1865 Fort Sumter served as the South’s primary Prison Camp. 45,000 Northern soldiers were held here. 13,000 of those men died at Andersonville. During that time, the Confederacy was in dire trouble. Economic and transportation blockades had effectively removed the South’s ability to feed and clothe themselves. The Confederates could not sustain the living conditions of the Northern POWs while their own people were starving.

The result was one of humankind’s lowest points.

The Andersonville prison was rectangular in shape and only 26½ acres. Prisoners were thrown in the open-air stockade and left to fend for themselves. No guards, no roof, no clean water source, no medical help, no sanitation, inadequate food and extremely crowded living conditions. The Prison maintained an average of 30,000 soldiers; the soldiers had little room to move. Some built makeshift tents while others slept by boring holes into the ground.

Bandits roamed the grounds stealing whatever property one might have smuggled in or later procured. Suicide was common; many simply stepped into the no-man’s zone near the stockade walls and were shot. The Prison guards were given the same miniscule food rations as the prisoners. Their death rate was nearly the same as those interred.

The drama of brother fighting against brother in the Civil War over philosophical ideals always sounds romantic and proud. Even after visiting the killing fields of Chickamauga and Gettysburg, the war somehow feels civilized despite the history of death. Andersonville removes any of those notions.

SheltersCROWDS (8/10)
A good number of people joined us on our Ranger-led tour of the grounds. We all were visibly shaken at different times and the constant probing questions fired from all pulled us back into the tour.

Andersonville can be accessed via a number of winding Georgia roads that branch westward from Interstate 75. All these roads are well marked; you should not have a problem finding the Site.

There are two entire bookshelves of Andersonville-specific titles. The store also stocks POW-related books for all American wars.

COSTS (5/5)
The Site is free as are the Ranger talks and the POW Museum.

Plenty of Rangers all armed with a steely resolve and matter of fact, non-emotional look at history.

Two Ranger-guided walks through the Prison Site leave at 11 and 2 daily. The tremendous talk lasted more than an hour and covered every conceivable aspect of the Prison’s history and life at the Camp. The Ranger was a wellspring of knowledge. We do not know how she can physically talk and learn about such a horrifying place.

The moving National Prisoner of War camp opened in 1998. It begins with an exhibit that explains the rules regarding POW’s established at the Third Geneva Convention in 1949. It is a good start. Multi-media exhibits follow the experience of the American POW from the Revolutionary War up to the Persian Gulf War. There are so many exhibits that the Museum is overwhelming, both in its content and emotional power. Sadly, the Museum glosses over the treatment of Native America POW’s. It forgets to mention the many that either died or were murdered during custody while making a point to mention that during his imprisonment, Geronimo was more of a celebrity than a prisoner.

The Site includes a Prisoner of War Reference Library (available by appointment) and a computer that lets you find the name and personal information for every person imprisoned at Andersonville.

FUN (7/10)
Fun? No. But a moving and an essential visit, yes. The Museum is stellar and the Ranger talks enlightening.

Let Us Have PeaceWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
The only place we have ever visited that felt similar to Andersonville was the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oświęcim , Poland. A place where you see the darkest reaches of human existence. Andersonville NHS is just as difficult a trip, especially because there are no villains. Everything feels so inevitable and so utterly chaotic.

Both the guards and prisoners were reduced to a sub-human existence through exterior forces made unavoidable because of war. We did this to ourselves. We can never allow it to happen again regardless of the situation.

TOTAL 62/80

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Ocmulgee National Monument

Macon, Ga.
Visited: December 18, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 128 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Pre-Columbian SymbolsWHAT IS IT?
Earthen mounds, presumably built about 1,000 years ago by the Mississippian Indian culture.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Ocmulgee Mounds vary greatly in size, shape and function. The Earthlodge is small and conical with a wide base and a low ceiling reminiscent of the lodges we found in North Dakota at the Knife River Indian Villages NHS. The reconstructed interior utilizes the original clay floor, a perfect circle whose circumference is lined with comfy seat indentations which increase in size and elevation as they near the seat directly opposite the doorway.

The Great and Lesser Temple Mounds are massive trapezoidal structures. Their expansive roofs were once topped with rectangular wooden structures. In size, shape and scope they recall the Mayan temples we visited in Mexico and Guatemala. “Might there have been a connection?” we asked. “Of course,” the Ranger explained, “there is evidence of physical trade throughout the continents. Ideas, thought and even architectural style must have traveled as well.”

Six miles of nature trails wind through the many Mounds, into the woods and along the Walnut Creek. We ambled so peacefully on the trails that we lost track of time and had to rush back to the Museum before its 5 o’clock closure.

The Ocmulgee NM does a good job at emphasizing the knowns rather than the unknowns. The Site represents a southeastern outpost of the Mississippian people whose center was at Cahokia, near modern-day St. Louis, Missouri. Nearly 1,000 farming-based people lived at Ocmulgee. The various Mounds served different purposes and the Temple Mounds were built layer by layer over time.

The Visitor Center Museum displays a number of archeological objects found near or within the Mounds, the most impressive being a copper-plated puma jaw that sat on top of a ceremonial headdress. We continue to be surprised at the similarity between the objects we saw at Ocmulgee and those that we have seen in museums in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico.

CROWDS (6/10)
A wide range of people was touring the mounds during our visits. Some were tourists fascinated by the structures while others while others were locals enjoying the warm winter day with their dogs.

The Site is located along U.S. Route 80, a few miles from Interstate 16. The Macon, Georgia skyline is visible from the top of the Great Temple Mound, made accessible by a wooden boardwalk-type staircase.

The bookstore is stuffed in a small-unmanned room adjacent to the Ranger desk. The poor book selection is balanced by a moderate choice of Native American handcrafted jewelry, dolls and arrowheads. The trinkets represent no particular people; in fact, a great number of disparate tribes are represented.

COSTS (4/5)
Absolutely free.

Three Rangers staffed the Visitor Center and answered many of the questions about earth mounds that had lingered since our frustrating visit to the earth mounds at Hopewell Culture NHS seven months prior.

Earthlodge MoundTOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Visitor Center’s Archeological Museum and 30-minute introductory film were particularly helpful in framing our visit to the Mounds. We felt prepared with an understanding of the Mississippian cultures’ people, mound building motivation and life. The teaching tools neither cemented conclusions nor shrouded the Site in eternal mystery. We were neither confused nor overwhelmed.

The short audio program in the earthlodge points out the original clay floor’s many captivating idiosyncrasies. If you can fight off the claustrophobia, don’t forget to start the recording.

FUN (7/10)
We enjoyed our serene stay at Ocmulgee NM, so much so that what we imagined to be a short stop turned into a three-hour visit. This seems to be a recurring theme in our trip.

If you are driving south to Florida for vacation, there are only two Interstate routes, down 75 or 95. If Interstate 75 is your path, why not stop at Ocmulgee NM? It is less than five miles from 75 and is an enlightening and free stop. The kids can easily tire themselves out running up the Temple Mound staircase while you try to imagine the people who constructed these gigantic earthworks over 1,000 years ago.

TOTAL 55/80

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Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Visited: December 16, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 127 of 353
NPS Website

Peace MemorialWHAT IS IT?
The Site consists of two separate Parks commemorating two different battles. The Chickamauga Battlefield remembers of one of the bloodiest battles of the U.S. Civil War. The Battle of Lookout Mountain, fought a month later on October 28, 1863, was less bloody but solidified Union control of Chattanooga. The Site was designated as the first United States Military Park in 1895, the thirtieth anniversary of the War’s end.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Lookout Mountain offers an unobstructed view of the city of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River, giving meaning to the little dots of light on Chickamauga’s electronic map.

Chickamauga’s Visitor Center is spacious and well-designed, opting for large print displays and high ceilings rather than claustrophobic displays that we have seen at other sites which try to do too much in too little space.

The Battlefield at Chickamauga NMP is home to over one thousand marble reminders of the individuals who lost their lives and the states from whence they came. Varying in shape and size, the largest offering a seasonal observation tower, these monuments have been the victims of vandalism and centerpieces of debate since they were erected. Public and private funds are spent on their maintenance every year. Whether you feel it is the least NPS can do for these veterans or an unwise expenditure, the obelisks, plaques and sculptures shape the Military Park and all others since.

Nearly 35,000 of the 115,000 Americans that fought at Chickamauga either lost their lives or were seriously wounded. The Union victory, assured later at Lookout Mountain, gave the North a toehold into the Deep South and allowed for Sherman’s push through Georgia. Control of Chattanooga proved to be a vital strategic advantage, one that facilitated the Civil War’s eventual outcome.

Perhaps even more historically interesting than the September 19-20 Battle is the way that the Park has been preserved. From 1890 through 1895, Northern and Southern veterans returned to the Battleground and meticulously placed over 1,400 monuments to regiments, soldiers and officers in the exact places that fighting occurred and men fell. Chickamauga served as the model for Civil War remembrance and has been imitated at Gettysburg, Shiloh and Vicksburg.

CROWDS (6/10)
We expected larger crowds at Civil War-related sites and here we found them. Even on a Thursday afternoon, the Site had a good share of visitors. While it is nice to see people interested in history, perhaps they could not read the exhibit panels aloud with an outside voice.

View of ChattanoogaEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)

The two Battlefields are not nearly as accessible as they appear especially since they both lie within the city limits of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. If you plan to visit both areas, plan an entire day.

The Chickamauga Battlefield can be approached from both the north (Tennessee) and the east (Georgia). From Tennessee take Interstate 24, Exit 180B and go south along U.S. Route 27 (Rossville Boulevard then LaFayette Road). In about five miles, you will pass through old town Fort Oglethorpe and into the Park. From Georgia, take Interstate 75, Exit 350 and go west along Georgia Route 2 (Battlefield Parkway). In about five miles, turn left onto LaFayette Road and into the Park. Both ways are clearly marked.

The Chickamauga Battlefield has a seven-mile driving tour that takes you through the myriad monuments that mark every minuscule thing that happened during the battle. Reading them all would take forever.

The route to the Lookout Mountain Battlefield is much more problematic. As the crow flies, the Visitor Center is less than a mile from Interstate 24. In practice, it could take you about a half hour to get from the Interstate to the Site. Tennessee Route 148 (at this point named Scenic Highway) steadies up the side of the mountain and levels off through a posh residential neighborhood (road now named East Brow Road) until it gets to the Visitor Center.

Good luck getting onto Route 148. The entrance from U.S. Route 11 (also called 41/72 and 11/64 and Lee Highway!) is especially dicey. If you are approaching from the west on Route 11, you come around a blind curve and then have to make a near U-Turn to get on Route 148 (the Scenic Highway). From the east, you can at least see the left turn uphill but you have to make that turn across traffic with cars speeding around previously mentioned blind curve. Pick your poison.

Whatever you do, go to Chickamauga first. It is the more comprehensive of the two sites and the provided NPS brochure has a detailed map and suggested a travel path to Lookout Mountain.

An entire wall full of books written specifically about the Battle of Chickamauga. Who knew that these even existed? The bookstore’s vast selection of Chickamauga books even made us reconsider this Site as a more important historical location. During our visit, a few people bought an impressive companion to the Auto Tour; a fully illustrated Chickamauga guide that comes with a CD-Rom that narrates the battle and gives you a Civil War encyclopedia and computer screen savers.

The selection of Civil War books is huge. The canonized texts are all here as is an entire wall of nicely priced Dover Thrift editions that include Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. There is an alcove of children’s books, Johnny Reb dolls and movable action fictions, miniature Chickamauga monument recreations, maps and DVD’s; probably every Civil War-related thing you could ever want.

COSTS (3/5)
The Chickamauga Battlefield charges $3 ($1.50 with NPS Parks Pass) to see its multi-media “Battle of Chickamauga” introductory video. Everything else at Chickamauga is free.

Lookout Mountain Battlefield charges $3 for entry into Point Park, a small mountaintop park that offers beautiful views of Chattanooga and access to the New York Peace Memorial.

Entry into all other parts of the Park is free.

A few Rangers rotated at the centrally located information desk. One seemed bothered to answer Michael’s James Garfield at Chickamauga question while the other, his Gen. James Longstreet-style beard indicated he may be a re-enactor, was very helpful.

The exhibits at the newly remodeled Chickamauga Battlefield are tremendous. The panels that line the lobby walls look at the broad historical factors that led to the Civil War with a balanced analytical perspective. We loved their large print, well chosen wordage and helpful timelines. Chickamauga was the ideal Park to begin our foray into Civil War Sites.

Other panels in the lobby look at the development of the Military Park itself and the unique way that Americans honor those who died in the Civil War. Two separate rooms look at the events that led up to the Battle and the Battle itself. Michael loves electric maps and was pleased to find one at Chickamauga. A third room showcases thousands of standard-issue Civil War-era rifles.

Hologram Ghosts of Battles PastThe $3 orientation show is strangely interesting but not an educational must-see. It includes a multi-screen slide show, surround sound, holographic spectral images of a Union and Confederate soldier and a spring-loaded natural background set. While fascinating in its own right, the Museum panels and electric map do a much better job at explaining the Battle.

The only exhibit at Lookout Mountain is an imposing 13×30 foot painting entitled, appropriately enough, “The Battle of Lookout Mountain.” While inside the studio, you can push a button that starts a seven-minute narrative about the painting.

FUN (8/10)
Was it the sunny day, forcing us to get out of the ‘Tima and take a walk? Was it watching the ratio of maroon sweatshirts and jackets of Montana Grizzlies fans steadily increase in the VC and eventually overtake the town of Chattanooga for the I-AA Championship happening later that week? Or was it spending time appreciating the work that Chickamauga has done to modernize their interpretation of these Civil War events that made the day so enjoyable? Probably all of the above.

We spent much more time at and traveling between the two sites than we expected, but we didn’t mind.

Although not the first battles of the Civil War, Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP provides a good primer for even the youngest history student. Interpretive panels at Chickamauga do not shy away from controversial topics, nor do they lean very far in either side’s favor. Anyone who thinks you need big words to convey complex material could learn from the simplicity of Chickamauga’s new displays.

TOTAL 58/80

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Huntsville, Ala.
Visited: December 14, 2004
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Local Website

Space ShuttleWHAT IS IT?
NASA facility where, from 1950 to 1970, Wernher von Braun and his fellow pioneering rocket scientists designed the United States space fleet, satellites as well as terrestrial missile rockets. The Site remains an important NASA facility while opening its doors for tourism through the Center and every pre-teen’s dream solo vacation: Space Camp. Well, at least Michael’s.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Real-life rockets (acres full), moon rocks, moon rovers, space monkey capsules, astronaut suits and underwater training facilities are super cool if not exactly beautiful.

This is where all the planning, research and development occurred for all the American space missions. Tons of space paraphernalia are on display to prove it. Sadly, we slacked on our history lesson in Huntsville, opting instead for the mind-numbing theme park thrills the Center provides.

CROWDS (4/10)
Even with a sparse winter crowd, we waited a while for the space shuttle landing simulator to open up. When he finally got his shot at the helm, Michael wrecked the thing twice, costing taxpayers billions of dollars. A line at the climbing wall thankfully made us rethink what would surely have been a failure-ridden ascent.

If you are traveling on Interstate 65, follow the signs towards Huntsville and get on Interstate Spur 565. Drive about 17 miles. When you see the giant space rockets on your right get off at the next exit. You are there.

One of the first areas you see upon entering the Center is their large bright gift store filled with stuffed aliens, replica space jumpsuits and Gab’s favorite, astronaut ice cream! More fun than substantial, the store was an attraction in itself.

Look Out BelowCOSTS (1/5)
An $18.75 adult entry fee includes the Museum, Rocket Park and an IMAX film. The entry fee also includes a few amusement park rides which, sadly enough, were closed due to adverse weather conditions during our visit. Discounts can be found. We purchased a $15 ticket at the Huntsville Tourism Welcome Center.

The Center advertised a guided walk through the Museum but we did not see said tour. Our interaction with staff was limited to the teams of teenaged workers manning the motion simulator, IMAX theater, climbing wall and gift store. No one looked too knowledgeable and/or professional except the Space Center staff hustling through the corridors to go to work on something much more important than an amusement park. We would have loved to learn about the NASA missions from them.

When we bought out tickets, we were in an amusement park frame of mind. What can we climb on? Which screens have games? Can we touch that? As soon as we found the flight simulator, and video games to test your skills at landing a space shuttle, the explanations and descriptions we were reading became a blur.

The first few rooms are staid. Typical museum-type displays showing actual astronaut gear, including the answers to a frequent question: “How do you go to the bathroom up there?”

For all the information presented in the space of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, we didn’t learn much. Print on exhibits was small and dense, and who can concentrate on reading when there are things you can push and pull and navigate and ride just around the corner?

Where We Really There? FUN (8/10)
The emphasis at the Space and Rocket is on fun more than education evidenced by the motion simulators, touch-screen video games, climbing wall and what John Glenn called, “the finest rocket collection in the world”.

An IMAX show is included with admission. You choose the time and film. Since we had already seen Space Station, we settled for the IMAX featuring NASCAR. Cars revving and racing at high speeds on a spherical screen is cool, but a little overwhelming. Gab swears this experience fried her brain. She has been processing things a bit slowly ever since.

Cold weather made the walk around Rocket Park a shiver-filled experience and shut down the large outdoor rides. Even without the Space Shot (shoots you 140 feet in the air) in full working order, we had a blast.

Weather also closed the outdoor children’s rides helpfully named the Energy Depletion Zone. But never fear, the indoor Mars Climbing Wall (included with admission) seemed to be tiring many a rambunctious youth.

We challenge you to drive past the towering rockets and not feel tempted to stop, especially if kids are in the back seat, or someone in the car has harbored dreams of Space Camp from their adolescence.

TOTAL 47/80

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Tuskegee, Ala.
Visited: December 13, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 125 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Tuskegee Jet

The airstrip and hangar where the first African American Air Force pilots, navigators and bombardiers were trained for service in World War II.

BEAUTY (2/10)
The temporary Visitor Center is located in a trailer and a rusty barbed-wire fence cordons off the still-working airstrip. The hangar, also behind wire, looks to be falling apart. There is nothing to see here.

Up until 1940, African American soldiers were not allowed to fly military planes. A 1925 Army War College study proclaimed them to be unfit physically and psychologically to handle aircraft. When World War II began, flight schools sprung up at colleges throughout the United States notably excluding historically black universities. Protests, newspaper columns and eventually NAACP lawsuits would attempt to change this practice.

In late 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps granted Tuskegee University the right to begin a military flight training school. The instruction occurred here, at Moton Field. By the end of World War II, nearly 1,000 pilots had graduated from the Civilian Pilot Training program and had seen a great deal of combat success over the skies of Europe.

The Tuskegee Airmen played a part in the Civil Rights struggle but it was not African Americans’ first military-related role. Black soldiers have represented this country since Crispus Attucks was killed in the 1770 Boston Massacre, the first casualty of the American Revolution. Black regiments fought in all subsequent wars, including the Civil War. The Buffalo soldier regiments are, in fact, represented at Fort Davis NHS in Texas.

The Airmen NHS leads its pamphlet with unfortunate word choice. It calls the pilot training program the “Tuskegee Experiment”, immediately recalling the sinister U.S. government syphilis injection program that occurred just down the road during the same timeframe, but finds no mention at either Tuskegee Site. A Google search of “Tuskegee Experiment” does not bring up a reference to pilot training until the 57th entry. Is no one at the NPS paying attention?

CROWDS (5/10)
There was no one else at the Site.

The current temporary Visitor Center as well as the future site of the Tuskegee Airmen NHS is located just off Alabama Route 81, a few miles south of Interstate 85, Exit 38, just north of the town of Tuskegee.

The selection is limited but focused. Eight of the dozen titles deal solely with the Site’s subjects, the Tuskegee Airmen.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

Two Rangers, two of us.

Makeshift Visitor CenterTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
We relied upon the Site’s 15-minute video, oversized panels and previous visit to the Tuskegee Institute to guide us. The grounds are off-limits. The Rangers seemed bored. We were hard-pressed to think of questions. A panel with a map and diagram are mounted on the back porch of the temporary VC, giving one the impression a walking tour is possible. It is not.

FUN (3/10)
We didn’t stay long, not because we had a bad time, but because we couldn’t think of anything else to do. Video – watched it. Explanations – read them. Tours – wished for them. Historic artifacts – drove up to the gate and looked at them. The Rangers on site predicted that the new Visitor Center would be ready in a few years, as would enhanced access to the airfield. Today, the Tuskegee Airmen NHS feels like a non-contiguous addendum to the Tuskegee Institute NHS rather than a site in its own right.

The Tuskegee Airmen NHS is an under whelming tourist destination and pales in significance and power to Tuskegee Institute, Selma (Voting Rights Museum and the Edmund Pettus Bridge), the Freedom Trail and Montgomery (Rosa Parks’ Bus, Martin Luther King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Memorial).

TOTAL 37/80

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