Today was one of the best days of our Lap Around America. Partly, that is because we saw two cool and interesting sites, but much of it was our drive through Pennsylvania. We woke up in Somerset, PA, which I chose because it was close to the location of the Flight 93 Memorial.
By early morning (and by that, I mean Dawn’s early morning) we were at the Memorial. A word here about Google Maps, though. In the last two days, Google Maps has seriously mis-directed us. Typically, I don’t use Google Maps for the long stretches of our trip, but I use it to zero in on a location once we’re close, as my maps generally don’t have that kind of detail. Yesterday, when we went to Harpers Ferry, it took us to a location about four miles away from the park. Today, it took us to a blocked-off road that looked as though it hadn’t been used as a park entrance for some time.
Once we found our way in the proper way, we were impressed by the memorial. Before we got to the visitor’s center, we found a place where we could pull off the road and look at the small town that Flight 93 narrowly missed on its way to its landing in a deserted field. Here’s a picture of that little hamlet, just to show you how small the surrounding area is:
There are a number of first person accounts of people hearing a tremendous noise rattling their windows, going outside and being shocked to see a huge jet barely skimming over their town. I can only imagine.
I’m sure everyone remembers Flight 93, but here’s the condensed version: On September 11, 2001, four airplanes were hijacked with the intention of slamming them into important US landmarks: The World Trade Center, Towers I & II, the Pentagon, and, theoretically, the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Three of those jets, of course, connected. The 4th was Flight 93. The passengers learned of what had happened on the earlier flights, knew what was going to happen to them and rushed the cockpit. Flight 93 crashed in this empty field 20 minutes short of DC.
With that background, this memorial can’t be anything but somber, and it is. I found it to also be tasteful, thoughtful, and extremely well done. In fact, having hit an awful lot of National Parks in the past five weeks, I am impressed with the job the National Parks Service does with all their locations. I have yet to see a bad one.
Inside the Visitor’s Center is a gift shop. We didn’t linger there. It’s hard for me to imagine many people wanting an orange Flight 93 sweatshirt, but someone must, as they are for sale. There are half a dozen long walls that establish a timeline for the events of 9/11, including television broadcasts of the day, mementos of the flight, pictures of the passengers and crew, etc. It gives a good overview. There’s also an observation deck where you can follow the flight of the plane to its landing spot, marked by a boulder. Here’s a shot I took from the observation deck:
That wall to the right of the gate contains the name of all the passengers and crew, as shown here:
The third name from the right is Todd Beamer, of “Let’s roll,” fame.
When we left the memorial, we had a choice: I-70, or Hwy. 30. I-70 was a little faster, but by now I’m sure you know our choice. We’ve driven a lot of nice country roads on this trip, but I don’t know if I liked any of them as well as Hwy. 30 between Somerset and Gettysburg. Parts of it were so twisty that I was glad I never get carsick, and a lot of it was 45 MPH, but it was an incredible way to spend a few hours. Pennsylvania doesn’t look like anything we’re used to – not the houses, the small towns, the foliage, none of it – so it was all new to us. Seeing the old houses, all decorated for fall, with the leaves beginning to change colors, put us in a happy place.
Which, I admit, was good, because after the solemnity of the Flight 93 Memorial, we headed to Gettysburg, which is about as somber as a place can get. It’s actually a lovely, small town, as I’m sure it was prior to the battle of 1863, but let’s face it, it’s known for being the place where an awful lot of Americans died in battle.
You may have noticed that I went all the way through the South without talking about the Civil War. Truth is, I am not a big Civil War buff. I watched the Ken Burns documentary when it was on PBS, but that’s about the extent of it. Yesterday, we drove right by where the Battle of Antietam was fought without even stopping.
But. Gettysburg is different. It wasn’t just the bloodiest battle of the war, it has become a national touchstone that symbolizes the way our nation was torn apart. At least, it is to me. I read on my FB page where people say that our nation has never been as divided as it is right now. When I read that, I remember why my editor, JK Kelley, constantly cautions me against using modifiers like “never,” and, wow, do people have short memories. We might have deep factions of conservatives and liberals in our nation, but thirty thousand people aren’t dying on a battlefield like in Gettysburg.
Have you been there? One thing I didn’t realize was how huge the whole thing is. It’s not confined to a single field, or connected fields. It’s spread all over the entire town. When we first pulled up to the Visitor’s Center, we had no idea what to expect. It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived, and I knew we were short on time.
The Visitor’s Center is immense. And popular. It was a Tuesday afternoon in late September, and it was packed. In fact, when we picked up a few things in the gift shop, I had to stand in line so long to buy them that Dawn had time to find two more things before I got to the cashier.
There’s an array of things you can do at the Memorial, including a trick movie and presentation, a car tour, etc. Gettysburg isn’t cheap, though. It’s free to get in, but if you want to go on the car tour, it’s $65. The movie is $12, which is reasonable, but I sure didn’t feel like driving thousands of miles to Gettysburg, then sitting in a theater to see it.
So, we chose to do the guided driving tour with an audio CD. If you’ve got the time, I really recommend doing this. They say you can see the whole thing in 90 minutes. PFFFT. Whatever. Dawn and I went through the 26 mile drive with the two CDs in about three and a half hours. It was awesome.
As I say, I’m not a huge Civil War guy, but being at the locations and listening to the excellent narration completely brought the three days of the battle to life for us. It’s enough to make me want to go home and watch the whole Ken Burns documentary again. The driving tour takes you through 16 stops, all over Gettysburg. You get to park and overlook all the key locations – Round Top, Devil’s Den, Culp’s Hill, the Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Ridge, where Pickett made his charge.
If you, like me, aren’t exactly a Civil War scholar, the short version of the whole conflict is that the Confederate Forces, led by Robert E. Lee, were trying to push the action to the north. They ran into the Union forces, led by Robert Meade. They clashed in various sites around Gettysburg over July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, 1863.
There were a number of strategic errors made by both sides that I didn’t begin to understand until I could see the battlefields spread out in front of me and understood where each army was positioned. In the end, it was Lee’s decision to order his undermanned forces in a charge known as Pickett’s Charge that was bold, ballsy, and ultimately, a bad decision. His forces were rebuffed by the strong position of the Union forces, torn apart, and the whole Confederate force ended up retreating to Virginia.
It was a devastating loss for the rebels, but it certainly didn’t end the war. That stretched on for almost two more years. From a historical standpoint, it was the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. (According to the Parks Service CD. I don’t pretend to know these types of things.)
Here are a few shots I took as we went on our tour. Isn’t it easy to picture the opposing forces clashing on this field of battle?
By the way, there are statues and memorials everywhere in Gettysburg. If there’s an acre of land that doesn’t contain at least a few memorials, I’ll bet it gets made fun of by all the other acres of land. Here are a couple that impressed me:
That’s the memorial for Pennsylvania. It’s the biggest memorial in the whole battlefield. Let’s call it home field advantage.
By the time we got to the end of our tour, we were standing where Pickett made his charge, and the sun was going down.
Oh, those 272 words I mentioned in the title of tonight’s blog? Those words, of course, would be delivered by this man:
And these would be those words:
I had thought that my love and admiration for Abraham Lincoln couldn’t grow any more, but seeing the place where he delivered those few words inspired strong feelings for him all over again. He was a great man, an incredible writer (so hard to say in a few words what most people would say in many) and, apparently, a great orator. Not to mention a man who stuck to his principles and always strove to do the right thing, even at great personal cost. I wish there were any present day candidates that I could say the same thing about. Alas.
As always, thanks for coming along with us. We’re really glad to have you with us.
Cheers, and safe travels.