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Posts Tagged ‘American Icon’

I was having a conversation with someone the other day and they asked a very legitimate question, “where are you?”

liberty bell

liberty bell

Michael and I have been residing in Harrisburg, PA since we ended our trip in December 2005, just a few months ahead of schedule. Bags were unpacked, the ‘Tima got a car wash, items were pulled out of storage and a new home was found (a few blocks away from the old one).

Since then, one of us went back to work, one of us found a new job, we both wrote for a few other places, and in between we’ve gone back to some of our favorite park sites to give them a second look, like Independence Hall National Historical Park, the Liberty Bell and our beloved Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.

New sites were given National Park site designations since we created our original list, like the Carter G. Woodson House National Historic Site in Washington D.C. This was one of our final stops, but our visit was still a little premature. The African Burial Grounds National Memorial in New York is another newbie we have to add to our “still to see” list.

Did we reach our goal of Every. Single. NPS site in the Continental United States?

Almost.

Did we reach our goal of rediscovering America and answering the question, “what, exactly, does it mean to be American?”

We’re not sure if America ever becomes a static answer, or if the discovery ever ends. We found a lot of different answers, and had the time of our lives trying.

And it ain’t over yet.

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Bishop White House; Carpenters’ Hall; Christ Church; City Tavern; Declaration House; First Bank of the United States; Franklin Court; Free Quaker Meeting House; Independence Living History Center; Merchants’ Exchange Building; New Hall Military Museum; Philosophical Hall; Second Bank of the United States; Todd House; Washington Square
Philadelphia, Pa.
Visited: March 23, 2004
Second Visit: December 1,2005
Third Visit: December 7, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 3 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Carpenter's HallWHAT IS IT?
Independence NHP is a collection Old City Philadelphia buildings, museums, cemeteries and parks that commemorate events and people who were integral in the creation of the United States. This review covers the 15 Independence NHP sites whose entry requires no security check and no entry fee. Scroll down for a short synopsis of the sites covered here. There are separate reviews for the Liberty Bell Center, the Independence Hall complex and the National Constitution Center.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The mixture of red-brick Federal, white stone Greek Revival and stately white Federal architectures all set amidst open green park space and cobblestone streets is a perfect enscapsulation of the Founding Fathers’ worldly understandings and lofty aspirations. Their 18th century residences, meeting places and streets speak of English roots but their banks and post-Revolution contructions aim for equality with the Greek and Roman civilizations of antiquity.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10)
Even without the inclusion of Independence Hall, the historical significance of these 15 sites is unmatched by any collection of buildings throughout the United States. Nearly every American Age of Enlightenment-era idea originated or first appeared in the western hemisphere within these grounds: the museum, the post office, centralized banking, the fire station, electricity, meteorology, the library, the philosophical society. It is no underestimation to state that American thought and the idea of the United States began here.

With that came the Declaration of Independence and the shattering of the monarchic inevitability, the notion of democracy and self rule. It all happened here. The First Continental Congress took place in Carpenter’s Hall, these revolutionaries walked and discussed violent rebellion in these same streets, lived in these buildings, wrote the Declaration of Independence here, ate in the City Tavern, lounged on these lawns and changed the world in Old City Philadelphia.

CROWDS (7/10)
Less tourist traffic means more Ranger attention for those who venture outside the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Portrait WallEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
I-676 and I-95 both drop you off in the center of Old Town Philly. Independence Hall is located on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Street. Most of these 15 sites are located within six L-shaped blocks of each other beginning in the north at Arch Street, turning eastward at 6th and Chestnut and ending at 2nd and Walnut. Many of the connecting alleyways and sidestreets are cobblestone and could prove difficult to maneuver.

Independence NHP’s biggest deficiency is that it is not as tourist friendly as Boston’s Freedom Trail. Boston NHP strings the visitor to its attractions via a painted path. Independence NHP tells you to first go to its Visitor Center and to sort it out from there. As a result, the visitor goes to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall but forgets about these 15 sites; sites that could rightly claim to be America’s real Freedom Trail. It is also difficult to discern which Old City Philadelphia buildings are part of Independence NHP and which buildings are unaffiliated and privately-run museums. If you do not arrive with a plan, the Park could get confusing and overwhelming.

These 15 buildings also have variant and often vexing operating hours. Many are open only from Wednesday through Sunday with limited hours. Plan your visit accordingly; we would not come here on a Monday or Tuesday.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5)
The Park’s bookstore is a stand-alone entity located in the Georgian brick Pemberton House on Chestnut Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. The store sells a good selection of books but nowhere near the definitive choice that the definitive American history site should have.

We enjoyed our City Tavern visit immensely. Our favorite part was the Yards Brewery ales which are brewed only for the City Tavern. These beers (the Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale, the George Washington Porter and the Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce) styles are historically accurate and based on the recipes of our Founding Fathers! And they taste good too. If spirit imbibing is not your thing, the Tavern’s lunch and dinner menus are just as historically exacting and just as scrumptious.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry into all of these buildings is free. Carpenter’s Hall, Philosopher’s Hall and Christ Church are still privately owned and all three ask for donations.

There is a series of parking lots and garages in the Independence NHP vicinity. You will end up paying somewhere between $10 and $20 for a full day. Discount parking validation at the Independence Visitor Center or National Constutition Center is a possibility. Metered and free two-hour street parking south of the Sites is possible but could prove difficult.

Dining at the City Tavern is pricey but a fun and historical experience.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
During his 2005 visit, Michael spent a wonderful hour plus at Philosophical Hall openly discussing some of his more unorthodox American history theories. The American Philosophical Society guide was more than willing to contribute some of her own left-field ideas. The two jabbered on and on like long lost relatives. Michael only left in order to beat the rush hour traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway…and to find his wife who was seven blocks away at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

We encountered the same engaging historical conversation with a Carpenter’s Hall docent, Independence Living History Center archeologists (on two occasions) and at the Declaration House. We did not take the Ranger-led only tour of the Bishop White House and Todd House but are confident it elicits the same sort of graduate level talk. Who else but history buffs would tour these buildings?

Andrew Jackson Hates MeTOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
The terrific staff found throughout these buildings is the key to any educational visit. If you don’t engage the docents and Rangers on duty, many of your learning experiences will be underwhelming. The NPS museums at Franklin Court, the New Hall Military Museum and the Declaration House are dated and/or in disrepair.

Thankfully, you don’t have to look hard to find terrific museums.

The small American Philosophical Society museum is stellar and rotates its exhibits yearly. The 2007 exhibit has yet to be revealed but 2005’s amazing display included the only original Declaration of Independence printed on vellum, William Penn’s Charter of Privileges and the first stored and printed computer program. The other treasures on display were just as incredible.

Equally incredible is the newly reopened Portrait Gallery located in the Second Bank of the United States. The nearly 200 portraits on display put a face on the patriots, thinkers, soldiers and historical figures honored at the Park. The skillful Charles Willson Peale characterizations reveal the personalities and thoughts of 18th-century America.

FUN (8/10)
For anyone who loves American history, these 15 sites are paradise. They are a shining American treasure. They don’t have the obligatory feel of the Liberty Bell or the security-addled confusion of Independence Hall. You can experience their wonder at your leisure and either by yourself or with the aid of similarly minded guides. Your time here won’t be force-fed and might be too brainy for the casual tourist.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
There is so much to see at this Site. So much history and so much detail. We have been here three times in three years and have not covered everything. Each building offers untold gems and, with your proactive imagination, an adventure that transports you back in time to the American creation.

TOTAL 65/80

Independence NHP’s Less-Famous Sites

Sorted by our order-of-visit priority.

Second Bank of the United States – From 1816-1832 was the most significant bank in the world. Was the center of Andrew Jackson’s attack on the National bank. Currently is a portrait gallery whose collection composed America’s first museum.

Carpenters’ Hall – Site of the First Continental Congress. Site of first American lending library. Original site of the Bank of the United States, the world’s first central bank not owned by a monarch.

Franklin CourtFranklin Court – Site of the only home Benjamin Franklin ever owned, his residence during the Constitutional Convention and the Continental Congress and his place of death.

Philosophical Hall – Home of Ben Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, America’s most remarkable collective of Age of Enlightenment scientific thinkers.

Independence Living History Center – Working archeology center.

First Bank of the United States – Exemplary example of Greek Revival architecture and perhaps the first American building built with a classical facade. Alexander Hamilton’s highly controversial Bank of the United States moved here from Carpenter’s Hall in 1797 shortly after the Bank’s expensive contruction. The First Bank is not open to the public.

Christ Church – Burial ground for Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and countless other significant Americans.

Declaration House – House where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

City Tavern – Tavern where the Founding Fathers ate that has been restored to its Revolution-era appearance. The tavern serves authentic period food.

Bishop White House – House restored to show upper-class Philadelphia life during the time of the Revolution.

Todd House – 1791-93 home of future first lady Dolley Madison.

New Hall Military Museum – Site of the first Department of War.

Merchants’ Exchange Building – Important example of Greek Revival architecture.

Free Quaker Meeting House – Meeting House of the fighting Quakers; dissident Friends who broke from their church’s pacifist principles during the Revolution.

Washington Square – Site of the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War soldier.

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Philadelphia, Pa.
Visited: March 23, 2004
Second Visit: December 7, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 3 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Multilingual LibertiesWHAT IS IT?
The one ton, 70% copper, 30% tin and 100% cracked symbol of liberty and freedom.

There are separate reviews for Independence Hall and Congress Hall, the non-cordoned off buildings of Independence NHP and the National Constitution Center.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The instantly recognizable Liberty Bell with its creviced exterior and orginial elm tree yoke hangs in perpertuity in a glass-sided gallery that composes the southern extreme of the newly constructed Liberty Bell Center and looks out onto Independence Hall. The Bell’s front faces inward and is spared the constant taunts of its much more beautiful former home. The warehouse-like Liberty Bell Center’s long and narrow shape is more utilitarian than attractive and unworthy of its iconic tenant.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (8/10)
One of Michael’s cheerfully cantankerous University sociology professors once explained that the most powerful ideas are abstractions; concepts that, while somehow real, have no discernable definition and are completely reliant on emotions and individual belief systems. Symbolic icons are often attached to these abstractions in order to allow us a firmer grip on the mysterious. The Liberty Bell is one of America’s most lasting representations of itself and a symbol of the idealized notions of the American Revolution: liberty, freedom and independence.

What is Liberty? What is Freedom? We are sure everyone has different answers. What object symbolizes freedom and liberty to you? We’re guessing the Liberty Bell comes to mind.

The actual history and importance of the Liberty Bell’s role in American independence is tricky. It is impossible to separate the facts from the legends. What is known, however, is that the bell first became known as the Liberty Bell in the 1830’s, over 50 years after the American Revolution. Its name not bestowed by patriotic veterans or romantic poets but by New England abolitionists intent on connecting the abstract 1776 beliefs of freedom and liberty with their anti-slavery cause. Just as in the 1830’s, the Liberty Bell means more today as a symbol and a pop culture icon than it does as an historic entity.

CROWDS (5/10)
The Center’s narrow design does not handle tourists particularly well. All the exhibits are stuffed along the Center’s eastern wall while the western half of the building appears unused. The design crowds people together and, as a result, every exhibit panel we wanted to read already had someone in front of it.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
I-676 and I-95 both drop you off in the center of Old Town Philly. The Liberty Bell Center is located at the corner of Chestnut and 6th Streets. The Center’s north-south length stretches almost an entire city block.

There is a series of parking lots and garages in the Liberty Bell Center vicinity. You will end up paying somewhere between $10 and $20 for a full day. Discount parking validation at the Independence Visitor Center or National Constutition Center is a possibility. Metered and free two-hour street parking is possible but could prove difficult.

During our 2004 visit, we waited almost 15 minutes in the Liberty Bell Center’s security line while a Chinese tourist was searched thoroughly. Our 2006 stop saw a great improvement. The lines moved rapidly and the number of outsourced Wackenhut security guards seemed to be cut in half.

The Real ThingCONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5)
The Independence Visitor Center’s ample square footage hosts a good array of Liberty Bell and American Independence-themed trinkets.

COSTS (4/5)
Seeing the Liberty Bell is free, free, free.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5)
There is one Ranger steadfastly posted next to the Liberty Bell, presumably answering “No, the Bell will never be rung again” and “Yes, this is the original Liberty Bell” twenty times every hour. We are also guessing that same Ranger takes a lot of photos and stops countless people from touching the Bell. The Ranger’s presence encourages questions that can be easily overheard by other visitors. Given the Bell’s popularity, however, more on-site Rangers would be nice.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
We enjoyed the collages of the Liberty Bell as symbol throughout the ages. The panels make it clear that the Liberty Bell as icon and legend are, and always have been, much bigger than the actual object or the functions it carried out.

FUN (5/10)
We are always underwhelmed by the Liberty Bell especially when we compare it to the other Old City Philadelphia attractions. It’s just a bell. The U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence formed the physical, philosophical and administrative basis for United States. They were written across the street. They are not theories or abstractions. They are events. The story about the Liberty Bell ringing after the Declaration’s ratification isn’t even true! We have also never understood why an oversized, occupationally deficient and permanently flawed bell has come to symbolize America and its freedoms. Shouldn’t those things be represented by something that works?

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
If you come to Philly, you have to see the Liberty Bell. It is your obligation. The security hassles have been improved and you should be in and out in no time flat.

TOTAL 50/80

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Boston, Mass.
Visited: April 17, 2004
Second Visit: July 28, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 26 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Freedom Trail Foundation Website

Want More?

Click Here for Gab’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston
Click Here for Michael’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston

Ready for War...or a Parade

WHAT IS IT?
The 2½-mile Freedom Trail. Blazed in Boston’s streets is a redbrick pathway leading from the verdant Boston Common downtown to a 211 foot-high obelisk, the Bunker Hill Monument, in Charlestown. The helpful path guides you (and 1.5 million annually) to 16 sites critical to the birth and early life of our nation.

BEAUTY (8/10)
The redbrick historic structures that make up Boston’s Freedom Trail intermingle well with the surrounding modern buildings. The inner vistas provided by Boston Common’s expansiveness are breathtaking as is its welcoming verdant space.

Many of the historic buildings that skirt the Freedom Trail are archetypical examples of Georgian-style architecture, as in these buildings are the ones shown in textbooks as the most representative and the most beautiful. The State House is an exception as the most famous use of Federalist-style architecture.

No American city’s buildings garner more of a powerful historic sense than those in Boston, primarily because they remain vibrant, living among the skyscrapers of today. These structures never died. Most of them still serve the same purpose as they did in the 18th century.

The Site’s numerous graveyards hold their own macabre feeling of beauty. Many of the ancient tombstones hold fancy etched calligraphy and intricate, symbolic designs including sinister skulls, mourning angels and mirthful skeletons. These designs, while pleasantly normal in Puritan New England, would be out of place in a modern cemetery.

Midnight Ride ManHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10)
Downtown Boston and its famous portion of the Freedom Trail are the epitome of American history. It is our self-imagined vision of what American history is: Georgian-style, redbrick buildings; stern men with white wigs saying important things; men with tri-cornered hats on horseback; lots of talking and rabble rousing; serious churches and Revolutionary War success. Our history-deficient country takes history-themed vacations here where we “follow in the footsteps of history” and clamor to listen to high-priced tour guides recount facts we tried not to listen to in school.

What exactly happened along this part of the Freedom Trail? Well, from Stops 1-11 (the downtown section) there was a lot of talking and political planning and a lot of everyday boring activity that occurs in every large city. History remembers many of the important people buried in the cemeteries along the way.

Stops 12-14 (the North End section) are where the fun starts and where the legends were made. OK, stop 10 is the Boston Massacre site but if you blink you’ll miss it. Its only marked by a circle of cobblestones and is located next to a busy auto intersection. Where were we? Stop 12 is Paul Revere’s House, the oldest house in Boston and Stop 13 is the Old North Church of two lantern lighting fame. If you want the rest of the Patriot’s Day story go to Minute Man NHP. Stop 14 is another cemetery.

Stops 15-16 are located in Charlestown, a long walk (bridge crossing included) from downtown Boston. Stop 15 is the USS Constitution, our first and greatest warship and Stop 16 is Bunker Hill, site of the Revolutionary War’s first major battle. FYI, the Boston Tea Party ship is NOT a part of the Freedom Trail and the National Park Service but it is within walking distance of downtown and was the sight of a significant historic event.

CROWDS (8/10)
Downtown Boston is perpetually crowded with cars, tourists, workers and everything in between. In addition, Beantown’s streets are maddeningly circuitous, cross at weird angles and make it very easy to get lost. No worries, though, the redbricked and clearly painted Freedom Trail changes everything.

It’s OK to be a tourist and almost impossible to get lost once you get downtown and onto the Trail. You share the walk in this vibrant beautiful city with its citizens and the sightseers around you. There is so much to see and so much to take in. Time quickly becomes irrelevant and the crowds become a joy.

The First American SoldiersEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
First, the bad parts. Parking is a nightmare. We tried and it nearly reduced us to tears. We repeat, do not attempt to park on the streets. Parking garages are a pricey but do-able option; the garage under Boston Common runs $6 for the first hour, $18 for up to nine hours. Downtown Hotel self-parking runs about $25 per day. Boston traffic is notoriously bad. The Big Dig collapsing has made things worse.

The good parts. Well, once you get downtown you should have no worries. After testing the car option, we stayed on the outskirts of town, took the subway (the T) in and had no problems. Many Boston tourists choose one of the myriad guided tour trolleys that circumnavigate the historic areas. They allow you unlimited re-boarding privileges and take you to most tourist-friendly parts of town.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
The National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Center bookstore stocks a half-hearted selection of Revolutionary War-era books. You are better off looking for that perfect title at one of the bookstores in the privately-run Freedom Trail sites. Remember, no admission price is necessary if you are just going to the bookstore.

Freedom Trail Stop 8 used to be the Old Corner Bookstore, once home to Ticknor and Fields the Boston publisher who brought the world Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, Alcott and Stowe, among others. As recently as our 2004 visit, the building housed the Globe Corner Bookstore. No longer. The current resident is the Chicago-based diamond retailing chain, Ultra Diamonds, who have 143 nationwide stores where “you should Never Pay Retail”. Why must one of them be in one of America’s most storied literary buildings and a part of the Freedom Trail?

The Globe Corner bookstore is now located across the Charles River in Cambridge. If books are your thing, you might as well go to Cambridge and browse its many clean and well lit bookshops.

Park Street Church COSTS (3/5)
The NPS portion of Boston NHP is free. However, the NPS maintains only a few of the Freedom Trail’s attractions. Still, only three of the 16 units charge an entrance fee: the Old South Meeting House, Paul Revere House and the Old State House. Entry into the Trail’s three churches is free but a donation is suggested. The USS Constitution Museum, while free, also asks for donations.

Check the listings at the bottom of the review for the following information: Freedom Trail Site and Stop Number; whether the Site is free; if the Site offers free tours; if the Site has a Museum; and with whom the Site is affiliated.

Boston and the Freedom Trail can be as cheap or as expensive as you would like. Just be careful. Staying in the city, parking in the city, visiting all the Freedom Trail stops, taking a guided tour and riding a tourist trolley will make your costs skyrocket. If you stay outside the city, ride the subway in and around town, walk the Freedom Trail, visit only the free sites and take only the NPS, State House and USS Constitution tours your day could be surprisingly inexpensive but also long and tiring.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
The NPS presence at Boston NHP takes a back-seat to private and public entities who are, in turn, seen as Park affiliates, as well as the numerous for-hire tour services. There are Rangers here who give tours and talks but unless you are looking for them, as we were, you might not even realize that the Freedom Trail is a National Park Site.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The Freedom Trail is easy to follow, stacked with informational help and sufficiently self-guided. We skipped the Ranger-led tour along the Freedom Trail but hit two other wonderful (and free) Ranger-led talks which included a humorous look at the history of Faneuil Hall, from inside the so-called “Cradle of Liberty”, and a terrific tour of the USS Constitution.


Our Guide
The tour of the 200 year-old Old Ironsides, still an active warship, is given by the U.S. Navy. Our guide was an active duty sailor. Despite the large group, 80 or so, he answered every question, cracked jokes, and explained everything we wanted to know about the ship. He was superb. Arrive early to ensure a spot on the Old Ironsides tour. There is limited access, security checkpoints can be an issue and the waiting queues sometimes grow out of control.

FUN (9/10)
Great free Ranger talks, sunny days, hours spent lounging and reading in Boston Common, easily followed tour paths, superb people watching and gorgeous views made our trips to Boston NHP unforgettable. There are also plenty of restaurants, shopping opportunities and taverns along the Freedom Trail in case you need a break from walking through history.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10)
Of course. Walking the Freedom Trail will bring every American History test you have taken come to life. Seriously, though, Boston sits among the pantheon of American cities and the Freedom Trail is a perfectly created tourist center. We prefer the suburban Boston Minute Man NHP but you cannot go wrong in downtown. Just don’t forgot to visit the North End and Charlestown portions of the Freedom Trail; the Old North Church and the USS Constitution are Boston NHP’s shining gems.

TOTAL 61/80

Stop No.; Site; Cost; Free Tours?; Museum?; Administrator

1. Boston Common; FREE; NO; NO; City of Boston
2. The State House; FREE; YES; NO; Comm. of Mass.
3. Park Street Church; FREE; NO; NO; Self
4. Granary Burying Ground ; FREE; NO; NO; City of Boston
5. King’s Chapel; FREE; NO; NO; Self
Follow History's Footsteps6. First Public School; FREE; NO; NO; Old City Hall
7. Old South Meeting House; $5; NO; YES; Self
8. Old Corner Bookstore; FREE; NO; NO; Ultra Diamonds
9. Old State House ; $5; NO; YES; Bostonian Society
10. Boston Massacre Site; FREE; NO;NO; City of Boston
11. Faneuil Hall; FREE; YES; NO; NPS
12. Paul Revere House; $3; NO; YES; Self
13. Old North Church; FREE; NO;NO; Self
14. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground; FREE; NO; NO; City of Boston
15. USS Constitution; FREE; YES; YES; U.S. Navy
16. Bunker Hill Monument; FREE; YES; YES; NPS

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Lexington and Concord, Mass.
Visited: April 18, 2004
Second Visit: July 27, 2006
NPS Site Visited: 27 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Want More?

Click Here for Gab’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston
Click Here for Michael’s 2004 Patriots Day Open Letter to Boston

The Minute ManWHAT IS IT?
Battle Road, Hartwell Tavern, the North Bridge and other sights preserved to commemorate the events of April 19, 1775, Patriots Day. The day that the American Revolution began. Also included at Minute Man NHP is The Wayside, the Concord home of Louisa May Alcott, later purchased by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Minute Man NHP is situated along Boston’s outskirts, in between the city’s urban sprawl and the beginnings of the Massachusetts countryside. In fact, the Battle Road portion of the Site ends before it reaches Lexington because of U.S. Interstate 95, the road that is effectively Boston’s beltway. The Site itself is not particularly beautiful; it looks like a pleasant suburban park. The significance is historical, not natural, as are the visual draws: the Lexington and Concord Minute Man statues, the oft-rebuilt North Bridge and the period structures that still stand along the Battle Road.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10)
The place where the American Revolution began. That’s the popular, understood and correct contextualization of the events of that fateful April day. At the time, however, the event was purely a local phenomenon. A single national consciousness and determination began to form over a year later when the Declaration of Independence was signed. And even then the solidarity was dubious and pragmatic at best.

Bostonians wanted the British out of their backyard. Simple as that. At no time did these unruly and violent rebels see themselves as either a part of a greater national whole or catalysts for a world-quaking governmental revolution. Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, William Dawes and thousands of Bostonians probably never thought they were starting a War. The British only thought they were seizing contraband rifles.

The notion that the United States of America, in every sense, began and exists today due to a few Minute Man who fired back because they (mistakenly) believed the Redcoats were burning their rural town is overwhelming. We wonder if those Minute Man are the epitome of the American spirit: determined, hot-headed, reactionary, delusional, resourceful and stubbornly successful. They started it all, right?

If that is not enough, the Site also includes the house where much of Louisa May Alcott’s novel “Little Women” took place, perhaps America’s most beloved children’s novel.

Crowded StatueCROWDS (6/10)
Our first visit to Minute Man NHP came on Patriot’s Day, 2004. Understandably the crowds were large and the excitement was tangible. A whole lot of people were wearing three-cornered hats. If you can visit Boston during their Patriot’s Day holiday, do it.

Our next visit was a lot less hectic, although there were no open spaces in the Minute Man Visitor Center parking lot (too many bus spaces). On Patriot’s Day everyone parked on the grass. On a mid-summer weekday, however, the crowd tended more towards babysitters and their obligations, local joggers enjoying their park and (gasp) foreign, even British, tourists.

Most out-of-town Boston vacationers appear to stay downtown where they slog the Freedom Trail, relax at Boston Common and enjoy the city from their centralized hotel. Few venture out to the sticks to see where the Revolution began and that’s a shame. But who can blame them, Boston’s subway does not drop you off here and the traffic can be horrific.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Site’s Minute Man VC is located right off U.S. Interstate 95, about 20 miles west of Boston. Take I-95, Exit 30 (Massachusetts Route 2A) and go west. The Minute Man VC will be on your right in about a quarter mile. The Site continues westward from the Minute Man VC along the Battle Road. A driving route parallels the Battle Road Trail for about four miles until you get to the town of Concord and the North Bridge Visitor Center.

There are five parking lots located along the Battle Road Trail if you wish to walk the historic trail. The trail itself consists of crushed stone and might be difficult in a wheelchair. Both the Hartwell Tavern, a restored tavern that sits along the Battle Road, and The Wayside are only open from May through October.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The Minute Man NHP Visitor Centers vend a good selection of Revolutionary War books as well as books by and about the Concord-area writers: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

COSTS (4/5)
Battle Road and all Minute Man related sections of the Park are free. There is a $5 per person charge (free with the National Parks Pass) for entry into The Wayside and the mandatory Ranger-led tour.

ReloadingRANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
The Rangers were working hard on Patriots Day weekend. Most were dressed in period costume. Lectures were plentiful. We spoke to the musket-shooting Ranger about Revolutionary War-era Tavern culture and the events of April 19 for about 20 minutes. After his lecture, we saw him walking with about seven other people explaining incidents along the Trail. He was wonderful. He had a nose for people who wanted to ask questions.

Our second, less eventful visit, happily brought the same level of Ranger surplus and attentiveness. And a few were still dressed in period costume! They probably dress in modern clothing when off-duty. Then again, who knows?

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
We really enjoyed the multi-media Road to Revolution theater presentation shown at the Minute Man VC. The show, which combines electronic maps with set pieces, video screens and a moving clock, does a terrific job at establishing the complicated geography and time frame of the day’s events. Michael had been inculcated with the “one if by land, two if by sea” story since he could read but never fully grasped its complete topographic meaning before the multi-media presentation. Start your visit here.

The best part of the Site is that Minute Man NHP posts a few of its Rangers at the important Battle Road locations, instead of just at the Visitor Centers. We love this method and wish that more Parks would put there knowledgeable staff at the places where the questions are sparked. The Rangers at Minute Man NHP know their history and are immediately engaging. Our interactions delved into historical theory, legend creation and 18th-century tavern life. And yeah, they all shoot muskets too!

We were disappointed by the confusing, abstract designs of the Minute Man VC and in the lack of substantial learning opportunities at the North Bridge VC but the Rangers and the intro film more than made up for any static display shortcomings. The Wayside Tour was a little under whelming and very slow; perhaps the privately-run Concord area writers’ museums (Louisa May Alcott’s The Orchard House and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Old Manse) offer more engaging tours.

On the Road to FreedomFUN (9/10)
Pictures of the North Bridge and Daniel Chester French’s Minute Man statue are so ubiquitous in tourist photos and history text books that seeing them in person feels revelatory. The distant past, the reckless bravery, the fiery chase down the Battle Road, the manic urgency and the epic drama become inescapably real. The ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ is instantly imagined; this is a place where the World’s political path irrevocably changed, moving towards a system of representative government and away from the monarchy not because of political decisions, voting solutions or protracted thought but because an angry farmer fired a rifle.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
The Battle Road from Lexington to Concord, with its leafy shade, forested turns, restored buildings, oft-pictured statues and famous bridge, is the real Freedom Trail. Don’t be distracted by the moniker of downtown Boston’s wonderful tourist walk. No visit to New England is complete without a visit to Minute Man NHP and no place offers a better visceral understanding of the American Revolution and the American character.

TOTAL 62/80

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Flat Rock, N.C.
Visited: October 26, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 270 of 353
NPS Website

Goats!WHAT IS IT?
Longtime home (and goat farm) of Carl Sandburg, famed 20th-century American poet and Abraham Lincoln biographer.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Sandburg’s whitewashed clapboard house is probably the least impressive home along the streets of Flat Rock. Its interior is equally drab, save for Carl’s thousands and thousands of books. Furniture and wall hangings are sparse, at least that’s what we were told. Much of the home’s items were under plastic wrap during some necessary restoration work on windows and walls.

If we lived in the Sandburg home, we would spend much of our time where Carl did: outside. Connemara’s 245 acres overlooks the rolling pastures dotted with Mrs. Sandburg’s prized goats, a lake stocked with trout and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10)
Carl Sandburg wrote about a 1/3 of his literary output here at Connemara. Sandburg is remembered as singularly American because of his populist poetry, his Illinois prairie roots and his vast and iconic Lincoln biography, often called the best work written about America’s most-written-about hero.

Lovely ConnemaraCROWDS (7/10)
Tours of Connemara max out at 15 people. Our 9 am tour of the house reached capacity and felt even larger since we had to squeeze past several NPS employees already working inside. We were carefully herded through the halls and around the protected belongings of the Sandburgs. Space was tight. This house tour is not for the claustrophobic, especially when there are acres of pasture, forest and a lakefront to enjoy.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
Flat Rock, NC is just south of Asheville, NC and north of Greenville, NC along I-26. Carl Sandburg Home NHS is reached via exit 22, US-25. Once you are on US-25, turn on to Little River Road which is between the post office and the Flat Rock Playhouse (Flat Rock is a very small town), go just 0.1 mile and the parking lot will be on your left.

The Site’s brochure says just follow the signs to the Sandburg Home NHS, but if you are coming up from Greenville, signs are less prevalent and the exit is easy to miss. We did.

The walk from the parking lot up to the Sandburg home and Park VC is a steady incline which may prove difficult for elderly visitors or those with physical disabilities. Luckily, there is a small information building at the foot of the walk with a phone. You can call up the hill and, if staffing allows, a Ranger will come get you in a little shuttle.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The best bookstores are ones that offer treasures to every budget range. Mr. Sandburg’s writings were available in lovely hardbound editions as well as dollar paperback versions.

COSTS (2/5)
A tour of the Carl Sandburg house runs $5 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. During our tour the House’s star attraction, Sandburg’s vast book collection, was hidden behind dust-resistant covers for cleaning and inventory purposes. If we had paid the $5, we would have been very disappointed.

The SandburgsRANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
We found two Rangers at the Goat Barn letting the goats out to graze. After oh so many goat portraits, we wandered back to the house where another Ranger invited us in the basement Visitor Center, gave us our tour tickets and settled us in for the film. We assumed she would be giving the tour. Not so.

A kind, but less than knowledgeable volunteer escorted us through the Sandburg home. With a limited timeframe and a tour group that tended towards tangential questions, we would have appreciated a more dexterous and informed guide.

We were even more frustrated by this bait and switch when we peeked through half-opened doors to find several Rangers engaged in inventory inside Connemara.

TOURS/CLASSES (5/10)
The Park’s introductory film is a must-see whether you are a Sandburg scholar or are just taking a side trip from your Asheville fall-colors vacation. The film is just a rebroadcasted Carl Sandburg interview done by famed journalist Edward R. Murrow. Sandburg sings, recites poetry, speaks philosophy, plays with his goats over the course of 20 minutes. His personality jumps off the screen and pleasantly frames the rest of your visit. You see Sandburg’s quirks and whimsies in his books, his farm, his views, his house and his life.

The volunteer-led tour was not so great. Your experience could be different. Sandburg 14,000 books were covered; you could not even see the titles. Had we known, we would not have taken the tour.

FUN (8/10)
Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats!

Well, HelloWhat is more fun than running around a stunning Appalachian mountain estate with friendly goats? We say nothing. Well, maybe listening to Gab’s impressions of Carl Sandburg reading his poetry. Maybe she can upload a .wav image, because you cannot capture her mimicry skills in print.

The wonderful thing about Carl Sandburg’s vast estate is that it is now Americas to enjoy. He has given it back to the people. Five miles of trails weave through the mountains and pastures. His views are now our views, his inspiration now ours.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
The NPS’s roster of literary-related sites will do nothing to dispel the myth that writers are bonkers. Edgar Allan Poe, Eugene O’Neill and now Carl Sandburg. While Poe and O’Neill’s sites might throw you into a severe depression, Sandburg’s will just make you feel good. He was kooky and lived in a separate planar dimension but he loved life, humanity and America. It is impossible to leave Flat Rock without a warm feeling towards the bard, his wife, his wonderful prize-winning goats and even yourself.

TOTAL 52/80

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near Merced, Calif.
Visited: May 24, 2005
Second Visit: August 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 199 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Bookstore Website

Rainbow at Vernal FallsWHAT IS IT?
A stunning Sierra mountain valley immortalized by Ansel Adams’ iconic black and white photographs. The valley holds the largest concentration of waterfalls in the world. After the winter melt, the granite valley becomes alive with cascades.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Its signature landmarks are numerous, stunning and contained in such a compact area; the Park feels more like a planned outdoor amusement park than a natural wonder. Its attractions carry names that are indelible to the American outdoor conscience, from the tremendous granite behemoths El Capitan and Half Dome to the graceful beauty of Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
A small reconstructed village behind the Visitor Center indicates that Native Americans inhabited the Yosemite Valley for as long as 8,000 years. Aging exhibits display the crafts and ornaments of these people, but offer little more in historical insight. A small woman quietly sat among one of these displays weaving a new basket, similar to the ones behind the glass. We might have asked her, had we not been so taken by surprise.

An 1864 Act by President Abraham Lincoln granted the Yosemite Valley to the State of California as a public trust. The area encompassed by Yosemite NP was the first piece of land set aside by the federal government solely for protection and public enjoyment. As a result, the Yosemite Valley has been the inspiration for photographs, paintings, sketches and other art forms for well over a century.

Gab on Top of the FallsCROWDS (4/10)
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.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
You can approach Yosemite Valley from three cities situated along California Route 99 and America’s agricultural center, the San Joaquin Valley. From the north, the Yosemite Valley is 118 from Modesto via Calif. Route 120. Merced is 78 miles west via Calif. Route 140 and Fresno is 90 miles south via Calif. 41. The Park is a feasible day trip from Sacramento (180 miles away) and the Bay Area (about 180 miles away, too).

Measures to make the park accessible to visitors (the shuttle bus, day use parking and advanced reservation campsites) did not help us. The shuttle bus is superfluous at best. Cars can and do travel on all park roads. The loop drive is all idling cars all the time. Our shuttle was packed with people but covered the slow roads at a crawl, two miles in 45 minutes.

Yosemite FallsUntil you get onto the trails, the Yosemite Valley experience is chaotic. Dust and construction line the pathways. Access paths and roads are unmarked. There are few Rangers and volunteers armed to help. We had no idea where to go and what to do. We were not the only ones. A British couple pleaded to us, “we’re just trying to figure out what’s here to do. Seems a bit disorganized, innit? Especially for being in America. Usually you guys have everything in order.” After we concurred with their judgment, they felt relieved. “Well then, it’s not just us. Good luck.”

We could not help but compare Yosemite NP to Zion NP in Utah. Both are situated in a valley, both have shuttle buses and droves of tourists. In contrast to Yosemite NP, cars are not allowed on Zion NP’s loop road. Shuttle buses run every 5 minutes and everything moves smoothly. Unlike Yosemite NP, Zion NP has numerous outdoor exhibits that explain what to do at the Park.

The Zion NP Visitor Center stands alone, a few steps from day use parking, and serves as a visual center and meeting place. The Yosemite NP VC is hidden in a cluster of independently owned restaurants, concessionaires and bookstores, collectively called Yosemite Village. The VC is also a two-mile walk from day-use parking.

Nothing about Yosemite NP is accessible or easy. You need to plan all aspects of your trip ahead of time. This flagship National Park deserves better.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
Yosemite Valley counters its lack of organization with an overwhelming glut of concessionaires. If you go hungry, cannot find the right book, Ansel Adams picture or souvenir then you have not looked hard enough. There are 12 restaurants in the Yosemite Valley, an Ansel Adams gallery, a well-stocked (if not pricey) backpacking specialty store, a terrific (and reasonably priced) supermarket, at least four bookstores and one store dedicated to all things black bear. Unbelievably, all these places were crowded on a pre-Memorial Day Tuesday afternoon.

COSTS (1/5)
Park entry is $20 per car.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
There did not seem to be any Rangers at Yosemite NP, only volunteers surrounded by questioning tourists. We felt lost at Yosemite NP.

There can be no excuse, funding or otherwise, for a dearth of Rangers at Yosemite NP. The other Parks in the National Parks pantheon, Yellowstone NP, Mt. Rushmore N MEM and Grand Canyon NP all had sufficient staffing. Yosemite NP should not be an exception.

TOURS/CLASSES (2/10)
Yosemite NP feels like it is in the late stages of a transition from the classic National Park to a privately run nature-based theme park. The NPS presence is minimal at best.

NPS offers two tiny, decaying museums and an introductory film. We searched for the theater but could not find the entrance. We visited on a Tuesday in May along with tens of thousands of other people. There was only one Ranger talk that day. We missed it. In May, when the Park’s waterfalls are at their most stunning, there is never more than one Ranger talk per day. Yes, even on weekends.

Your tour-led Yosemite Park learning and discovery must be done through the Yosemite Mountaineering School, the Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts Division, the Sierra Club or the Ansel Adams Gallery. Most of their offerings are fee based.

Nevada Falls at Full BlastThe Yosemite NP brochure and newspaper rank among the NPS’ least helpful. You are on your own.

FUN (9/10)
Yosemite NP beauty is overwhelming. We found it difficult to believe our surroundings were real. Take time to breathe everything in. Bicycle around the Valley. Hike up the edge of waterfall on the Mist Trail. Stare forever at the countless plummeting cascades. Humble yourself in the awesome mass of El Capitan and Half Dome. Lose yourself in the energy of this magical place.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
Even with its lack of Rangers and post-renovation logistical challenges, Yosemite NP remains a must-see American attraction. Were we disappointed? Well, yes. But all of our grumblings were drowned out by the roar of snow-fed cascades and the shrieks and laughter of visitors getting soaked as they got closer and closer to the subjects of their photographs. Have we seen anything more beautiful than the Yosemite Valley? Nothing comes to mind.

Looking for a free guided tour or a place to pitch your tent on a spur-of-the-moment camping trip? Keep looking. Yosemite NP is neither cheap nor user-friendly. Still, a full day in this magical place and a few miles up and into the mist of Vernal and Nevada Falls were all we needed to confirm the legendary beauty of the Yosemite Valley.

TOTAL 47/80

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