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Archive for November, 2007


Lincoln Memorial Full Frontal

Thanksgiving weekend. Did you leave your house? Then you’ll completely understand this week’s theme: most crowded National Park Sites. On Monday we went to the crowdiest of them all: Yosemite. But not every crowded Park Site teems with people because of their extreme popularity. Some, like Manassas National Battlefield Park, just happen to be located in population centers.

And sometimes large crowds aren’t a bad thing at all. Often the buzz of hundreds of people and their infectious spirit makes visits a joy. Into that category we would place the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.’s steadfast memorial to what America should be.

When we visited there were a lot of people here. There are always a lot of people here! The mass of humanity that was milling about, ascending and descending the stairs and waiting patiently to be photographed next to Lincoln’s knees, were all in celebratory, dare we say, jubilant moods despite the heat of the day. This classic American landmark’s grand size can handle all comers with ease.

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Busy IntersectionDid you leave your house last weekend? Then you’ll completely understand this week’s theme: most crowded National Park Sites. On Monday we went to the crowdiest of them all: Yosemite. But not every crowded Park Site teems with people because of their extreme popularity. Some just happen to be located in population centers.

Battlefield sites are especially at risk for claustrophobia for many reasons. Warring armies never planned out where the fight would be. In fact, they usually met at highly trafficked crossroads. And if you live anywhere in the northeast you know that road locations and patterns don’t change much over time. Route 30’s path from Lancaster to Philly is the same now as it was in 1795. Don’t even get us started about New England roads.

A great number of battles also took place near urban centers. Except there’s more people now than there was during the Civil, 1812, and Revolutionary Wars. We all need a place to live. In addition, many battlefield sites didn’t even become parks until after people had decided to move onto said battlefield land.

The most famous “endangered battlefield” is Gettysburg National Military Park which has successfully repelled siege attempts from an unsightly 300-foot tower, a casino, and dozens of fast food restaurants. Next up, evidently, is a water park proposal. Of course that too will fail because some obscure statute states that you can’t have fun at Gettysburg unless your wearing a heavy wool field jacket.

However, at the end of the day Gettysburg is still in the country; it doesn’t have to worry about really heavy traffic. Unlike Manassas. The Federal and Confederate armies met twice at Manassas because it stood at a transportation crossroads, namely the intersection of the Warrenton Turnpike and the Manassas-Sudley Road. These roads and their heavy traffic remain. The Warrenton Turnpike, now U.S. Route 29 a/k/a the Lee Turnpike bisects the Park.

The Second Manassas Auto Tour follows these high volume arteries. Good luck keeping your wit’s end trying to pull into parking lots while 18-wheelers tailgate you with signature zeal. A Park Ranger suggested doing the Auto Tour only at a very early hour.

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Yosemite FallsDid you leave your house last weekend? Then you’ll completely understand this week’s theme: most crowded National Park Sites. First up is the crowdiest of them all: Yosemite.

Over 3,000,000 people pack into Yosemite NP every year, most of them visiting only the Yosemite Valley, home to all the marquee attractions. In addition, the tourists come primarily between the spring snowmelt and the first snow of the fall. Odds are it will be very crowded when you come to Yosemite Valley.

The large crowds are a double-edged sword. First the good: Everybody is happy and having tons of fun. Kids are excited and smiles are everywhere, you might as well be at Disneyworld.

Now the bad: The large crowds necessitate advanced planning, especially if you want to spend the night. There are no same day openings from April through October. You NEED to book a campsite five months in advance. Yes, FIVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE. Everyone from Rangers to tourists to the birds above repeated this planning mantra. Since we have not had to plan at any other National Park Site we refused to believe in Yosemite’s exclusivity. Now we believe. Book your lodge and hotel rooms well in advance too.

Do not expect to find you own secret hiking spot in the Yosemite Valley. All ten trails are full of people with varying levels of hiking skills and perfume amounts. Even the very strenuous Half Dome hike (up over 4,000 feet in 9 miles) is full of people, most of them greeting you with warm hellos. Michael first gained his love of hiking here, mostly because of the kind nature of his fellow hikers.

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Salem Maritime NHSNothing says Thanksgiving like turkey, football, and pilgrims. We took care of the turkey bits at Mammoth Cave National Park and the football at Wyoming’s Fossil Butte National Monument. (See Below) But what about the pilgrims? Through vociferous readings of our website we are sure that you know that there is no National Park Site dedicated to the pilgrims. The puritans are forgotten too! We’ll try to right that grievous wrong with our Salem Maritime NHS story which includes a pious complaint. But first, forget about our moaning and have a HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

We left our $35 a night (thank you priceline.com) Courtyard by Marriot in Woburn, Mass. at 9:00 a.m. hoping to have missed the commuter traffic. We had. Once Gab had successfully determined our route to Salem (I-95 to Route 128 then Exit 25 to Route 114) she started reading from Michael’s university history book. Today’s lesson, naturally, is about the famed Salem witch trials. We both slightly remembered the context from grade school. Possessed women, hysteria, spookiness, ghosts. Right? Wrong.

The Salem Witch Trails of 1692 were series of real events with real consequences. Hundreds were wrongly imprisoned and 20 died. The base cause of the trials was the movement away from a purely religious Puritan society and towards a society heavily influenced by commerce and trade. The witch trials were a culmination of a growing class struggle as well as a struggle to retain a Puritan societal order in the midst of increased independence and individuality. The primary victims were land-owning women and the aggressors were the conservative male theocracy. “Whoa,” we thought. “We can’t wait to learn more. This park is going to be fun.”

We put the book away as we neared Salem’s center. The town’s tricky one way streets and odd intersections couldn’t damper its old New England beauty. We stared at its broad common, and stately Georgian and Federal style buildings. We parked and entered the Visitor Center. Sailing ships, commerce history, trade displays. Were we missing something? It was as if history began after the trials; the Puritans had already lost the hearts and souls of Salem.

We walked down Hawthorne street, down to the harbor, down to the wharf. We learned that Salem was America’s second largest port in the 18th and 19th centuries. We learned that eastern countries believed Salem to be a country of its own because so many boats bore the city’s name. We learned about trade goods, scales, and storage systems. We were a little bored.

Our path back to the car would pass the Old Burying Point Cemetery. Maybe there would be something about the trials there. We turned onto Liberty Avenue and, lo and behold, witches galore. Witch wax museum, store after store selling cheap supernatural paraphrenalia, crystals, broom hilda-esque cardboard cutouts and candlelit host tour vendors. an unending barrage of lowest common denominater madness. More Bewitched than The Crucible, more Buffy the Vampire Slayer than The Scarlet Letter.

Why would the Park Service ignore the Witch Trials? Why would it leave the retelling of this socially significant and often remembered American event to amateurs and spectral tour guides? A 2003 AP article revealed that Salem wanted to change its image from chintzy Halloween destination to stately historic place to live. Why must the two be mutually exclusive? Why can’t the trials be taught by National Park Service. Why can’t they take dominion over the past?

In 2005, Viacom’s TV Land network unveiled a nine-foot tall Elizabeth-Montgomery-as-Samantha-the-Bewitched-witch statue at the corner of Essex and Washington Streets, two blocks from the Park’s Visitor Center. What happened again in 1692? We’ve already forgotten.

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CrazylegsNothing says Thanksgiving like turkey, football, and pilgrims. We took care of the turkey bits at Mammoth Cave National Park. Today we talk about the football. Puritans will follow.

We’re driving through one of the more sparsely populated places in the lower 48’s most sparsely populated state. Southwest Wyoming. The sagebrush and large flat buttes never seem to end. It’s Sunday. Whatever cars might have been driving to and from work are not on the road. The landscape is lonely.

Michael’s mood is subdued and tense. It’s a September sunday. Week 2 of the NFL season. Rams vs. Falcons. Might someone be showing the game in southwest Wyoming? Doubtful. We keep our eyes open but restaurants are few and far between. As in maybe 1 restaurants every 75 miles. Luckily we have our trusty satellite radio. It’s broadcasting the game. Kickoff is about 90 miles northwest of the park site. “Gab,” Michael pleads “are you cool to take all the notes for this park? I’m not sure I’ll be able to concentrate on the film.” Gab reluctantly says OK; she wants to listen to the game as well.

The Falcons score on their first drive. 7-0. They then snooker the Rams with an onside kick. They soon score. It’s 14-0. Michael is down. He calls his father with his trusty cell phone. No people live here but somehow there’s phone coverage. His dad says, “the game looks as bad as it sounds.” It’s nearing halftime. The score is now 17-7. Fossil Butte is about 20 miles away.

When we arrive at the Park halftime has just ended. The game is about to start again. Michael announces, “I’m going to stay in the car.” No one is shocked. While Michael rides a roller coaster of visual imagination and football-related tension Gab watches the story of fossilized fish. The Rams tie the score at 17 and Michael decides to tell Gab.

Michael enters the park’s museum, sees no Rangers and beelines to Gab. “Be quiet,” she says “this is interesting.” Michael heads back to the car. The Falcons are already in scoring position. “What happened?” Michael asks his dad. “It’s not worth talking about. Long pass, missed interception, Vick ran around. It’s fourth down now..oh shoot. Touchdown, Atlanta.” his dad responds. The radio is ten seconds behind the television feed. Michael hears the bad news twice.

Michael goes in to see Gab. Still no Rangers. “This stuff is cool,” Gab says “sorry about the Rams. They still have a chance.” Thinking the commercials are over, Michael heads back to the car. Falcons 34, Rams 17. How did that happen? He calls his dad. His sentiment is not worth repeating. Now Michael can finally enjoy Fossil Butte.

This entry time there are two Rangers sitting at the front desk. They stare intently at one computer monitor only looking up at Michael for a split second. Michael knows that look. He knows that dogged intensity. They’re watching football. Another Ranger approaches the desk. “What’s happening,” he hurriedly asks. “They’re winning and it looks pretty good,” a female Ranger responds. “What game are you following,” Michael asks hoping it’s not the Rams-Falcons. “The Bears,” she responds “I’m from the Chicago area and so’s another Ranger. We love our Bears.”

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Gobble Gobble

Mammoth Cave’s Thanksgiving connection is probably lost on anyone except the usa-c2c.com team. Here’s a hint: look at the accompanying picture. Yes indeedy, Mammoth Cave is where we saw the trip’s first wild turkey. What a turkey it was! His red gullet was swinging, his large breast was fully puffed, his feathers were furled, and his strut was a sight to behold. Where are the fine lady turkeys? Surely somewhere close.

We however were still in our car and moving towards one of the world’s grandest cave systems. But the turkey wouldn’t be our only above ground experience in this underground wonderland. No siree. We were camping for the first time ever in the United States. Yes, the first time. At the campground check-in, the Park Ranger suggested a nice spot so we followed her advice and took Space #76.

All night we were serenaded by gobbling turkeys, chirping crickets, and other less identifiable but surely benign things. That is until the rains started. Rain. Nice to sleep in when it’s outside your apartment window, not so nice to sleep in when you’re in a tent and the water is seeping in. We were having shelter issues in a cave-based National Park. It’s funny in retrospect.

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Ghost Pier at Port ChicagoIn honor of Veterans Day, today we are remembering a forgotten set of American servicemen, the 200 that were killed by the 1944 explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine and the 50 seamen who were then wrongfully charged with mutiny and, over 50 years later, offered a pardon by the President of the United States.

The story goes like this:

On July 17, 1944 an ammunitions explosion that blew up two ships parked side-by-side on a loading pier exploded and killed over 300 men. Port Chicago was the largest stateside disaster during World War II. Over 200 of those killed were enlisted African American seaman, 15% of all WWII African American deaths.

Many factors led to the incredible tragedy of Port Chicago: a segregated military force, no training for ammunition loaders, the loaded ammunition was live and two ships were loaded simultaneously side-by-side. The Navy addressed all these problems within years of the explosion largely because of the lessons learned at Port Chicago.

However, Port Chicago’s pull on our American psyche does not end there. The Port Chicago disaster holds great historic significance because it has been effectively erased from our collective national memory. It is not a story we repeat about our greatest generation.

The African Americans at Port Chicago had enlisted in the Navy with the understanding that they would be fighting overseas. Instead, the Navy sent them to Concord, California to load live ammunition.

Immediately following the disaster, other African American regiments spent the next weeks cleaning up the destruction, taking in the loss of their fellow seamen. The devastation caused by 5,000 tons of explosion was removed in just three weeks. At that point, the seamen were ordered to begin loading ammunition again, in the same way and in the same place where their fellow seamen had fallen.

Three divisions, 328 men, agreed to keep working but refused to load the dangerous ammunition. They were all taken into custody, 258 of them imprisoned on a floating barge and charged with mutiny. The threat of firing squad dwindled the number of resisters to 50.

50 Years in the MakingThe Court Martial began in September of 1944, the judgment coming soon after: dishonorable discharge and 8 to 15 years in jail. Future Supreme Court Justice and then NAACP attorney, Thurgood Marshall, watched the trial and was disturbed by its “obvious racism”. He argued for the seaman’s benefit before public officials and for the press. President Truman agreed and released the men once the War ended. The Court Martial and the explosion are often cited as the reason Truman desegregated the military in 1948.

The Navy has never taken responsibility for the disaster. They have always blamed the soldiers. Racism sears through their argument. The families of the fallen African American seamen have never been compensated. In contrast, the Navy immediately compensated the families of white Officers who died in the blast.

The memorial to the fallen seamen took 50 years to build. The remembrance saw the light of day only because of the tireless ten-year lobbying of a local Congressman and a president with a sympathetic ear. Five years after the memorial’s dedication, in 1999, President Clinton pardoned the 50 mutineers. Only one of the soldiers accepted the pardon, the others still believe they had done nothing wrong.

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