Friday, July 5, 2013

Biking the Battlefields

Sixteen years ago I was introduced to a boy who asked me to attend the fireworks with him on the Fourth of July. We went to the beach on that cold Fourth, got separated just in time for the fireworks, and spent the next two hours walking up and down the beach waiting for the traffic to disappear so that he could take me home. We listened to the Eagles, laughed, he frightened me a little with his ridiculous knowledge of fireworks, and we dated the rest of the summer until we both headed off for college. It took a year for me to fall in love with him despite my best intentions not to, and two more years before I decided that he was definitely the guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, but after eleven and half years of marriage I can see no more fitting date for our first date anniversary than the Fourth of July.

You see, my husband is a lot of things, and there are many things about him that lurk beneath the surface. Only those who really know him know how freaky smart he is, how much he reads, and that he is really a closet supernerd. And it is a good thing he is a supernerd, because I'm a not-so-closeted supernerd. I may have a B.A. in history, but he can put me to shame with his random historical trivia knowledge. An appreciation for reading and history have continued to draw us together the longer that we are married, whether it was reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy after seeing Fellowship in the theater just weeks after our wedding, fighting over who got to read the latest Harry Potter book first (at least for six and seven because we got into the game a little late) or planning a vacation. Like this one, for example. Today, on the sixteen anniversary of our first date and the beginning of a rocky courtship that I'm sure still confuses some of our high school classmates who wonder how we ended up together, we traveled the paths of thousands of men who fought to preserve the Union, and thousands of others who fought to preserve what they believed was their right as white American citizens.

The battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, but today has been a busy day for the NPS as they experienced larger than normal (and they are used to large crowds) for the 150th anniversary and the coinciding celebration of our nation's birthday. Today was our day in the park. When we finally got out of the campground this morning we headed to the "new" visitor center (at least it is new to us since it was built after we were here in 2006). The line of cars was ridiculous, so we headed to a far lot, got out our bikes, and biked to the center, speeding past the cars looking for a parking spot and the people walking from the far lots. We learned in 2006 that biking can be a great way to see the landscape. We learned this while speeding past the exhausted people walking to all the major monuments in D.C. We covered them all in an hour and a half and saw hot, sweaty pedestrians look longingly at our bicycles. On that same trip we also biked the incredibly hilly Valley Forge (you would think the name of the battlefield would be our clue), and we did this both weighing a considerable more weight and not in nearly as good of shape as we are now. But I'll get back to the biking in a little bit.

The new visitor center is gorgeous. We got information on the day's events (we are talking the Fourth, after all), got tickets for a 20 minute film, and then sat outside in the shade (it was already HOT) for our field trip style paper bag lunches, all the while trying to stay as hydrated as possible. The film was incredibly informative. Yes, I have a B.A. in history, and I know a lot of it, but something that people who don't study history don't understand about history (or probably any other field of study) is that there is A LOT of history to learn. When people go on for an M.A. or a PhD they have to specialize in an area of study. When finishing my English M.A. I was focusing on writing studies, not American or British Literature, and even that isn't narrow enough of a field. The Civil War, while fascinating to me, is not my area of expertise. As an English teacher I have chosen to focus my history studies on the Holocaust, World War II, and Vietnam, all areas that serve specific novels that I teach. I learned a lot about the Battle of Gettysburg in 20 minutes. (I also started to wonder what the world will do when Morgan Freeman is no longer around to do voice overs. The man just has the perfect voice over voice.) We then headed upstairs to view a cyclerama that was initially painted in the late 19th century by a French painter who then donated it to the city of Gettysburg for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was incredible and they spent five years restoring it before it got a place in the new visitor center. The pictures below only begin to give an idea of the awesomeness of a painting that covers an entire room.

After that came the museum, artifacts, and more information that reiterated or expanded on what we had learned in the film and the cyclerama room. We breezed through that, which was a little unusual because I married someone who has an obsessive need to read EVERYTHING in a museum. (When I was at the USHMM for a conference my husband actually got kicked out of the museum because it took him so long to get through it. I don't even want to know how long it will take us to get through museums in Europe if I ever convince him to leave the continent.) We road our bikes back up to the truck, walked from there to Cemetery Ridge (the place where the Union Army watched Pickett's Charge) and then road our bikes back to the visitor center where we caught a shuttle to the George Spangler Farm Civil War field hospital site.

This was the location of one of many field hospitals in the weeks and even months following the battle and it is a new acquisition for the Gettysburg Foundation, so they are working on restoring the site to look just as it did during the Civil War. Probably the most fascinating part of this site was listening to the descriptions of medical practices during the war, particularly the decent success rate of amputations (and there were a lot of these during the war). Free water from the American Red Cross continued to keep us hydrated but we were still hot. We headed back to the visitor center and our bikes, road back to the truck (by this time we had ridden four miles, I'm not sure how many miles we had walked) and prepped for a late afternoon bike ride.

Even with the heat and the fact that we were probably already feeling the symptoms of heat exhaustion despite the fact that we were constantly drinking water, we headed on a bike ride what was probably 11 more miles. I say probably because both of our phones (and therefore Endomondo) died before the ride was finished. It was a good ride. A hot and sweaty ride, but a good ride. And it was a great way to see the battlefields. There were a couple things that struck me the first time we visited Gettysburg. One, I had never really realized when I heard about the battle of Gettysburg that it happened IN the city of Gettysburg. Yes, most of the fighting took place in fields, but there was this sleepy little town that was suddenly in the middle of a battle that many consider to be the turning point of the war. Second, I didn't realize the scope of the battlefields, the vastness of the area that the Union had to defend and the Confederate army had to attack. I got some of that on our sunset drive-by seven years ago. I really got a sense of that with our bike ride. While there is a lot to learn about the Battle of Gettysburg from visiting the site, I think one of the more important lessons is really an understanding of the scope of the historical event. But that is really something to discuss in a later blog post.

Just one of many locations that shows the vast scope of the battlefield

We made it back to the truck, exhausted, sweaty, hungry, dehydrated even with the constant hydration of the day, and ready to crash. We drove past the one stop that we did not get to on our bikes, but we couldn't get ourselves out of the truck to climb the stairs to see the view from Culp's Hill, and began our quest for a place to eat,  We wanted to go local, as that is something we try to do at least once on a vacation, but found ourselves relaxing in an air conditioned Ruby Tuesdays instead. We didn't catch the fireworks on this July 4th. That rarely happens, but we had seen and experienced enough for one day. We did have a late fire, but that was all we did extra to celebrate our nation's birthday. Bed beacons and so I will edit tomorrow morning before posting.

This is us near the beginning of the ride, still looking fairly fresh.

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