Reliving the trip here on the blog has been wonderful; I was able to go back and journal my memories, share my and my friends' antics with you. I don't doubt this will be the last of our adventures, nor do I think it will be my only visit to Canada.
After strolling the streets of Centralia, we drove straight to Gettysburg. It didn't take us long to see the signs for various tours and amusement parks. Resort hotels. Shopping districts. Double-decker buses.
"Why are there signs for outlet malls and putt putt golf at Gettysburg?" Ty demanded.
I turned around and smiled at Zoë, who--like me--braced for an entertaining rant.
"Is nothing sacred?" he continued. "The greatest loss of life here on American soil and we commercialize it. I know it's apples and orange, but--WHAT IF--we put a shopping mall up next to, saaaaay, Auschwitz?"
It was true. Though there were many historical buildings in the area, and many of the businesses catered antiques and old-fashioned techniques, there was still a lot of modernism. Malls and retail space surrounding a national park, a solemn reminder to our own devastation. America's commercial tendency to develop any natural or historical tourist destination was beginning to really upset me.
Once we had reached the battlefield, we rushed ourselves through the museum. We had only 45 minutes to educate ourselves on the war and the battle itself, so we rushed through the hallways and exhibits. From what I did read and see, though, the museum paints a wonderful narrative. It examines both sides of the war, various generals and soldiers and camps. It has letters, posters, propaganda. Artifacts. Weaponry. Uniforms. Rosters. Video clips. Segments of each day, of each struggle, of each death.
Back outside, the day had calmed. It was not as hot, the sun had lowed. The air was a bit more still, though cooler. Rather than do the entire driving tour (which would take about three hours), we opted to hit the main sites, the turning points of the battle.
We first popped out of the car while in the middle of Plum Run Valley, a place that was called "The Valley of Death" during the battle. We took some pictures of some replica cannons, looked up at Little Round Top, the hill on which we would spend most of our tour.
Next, Devil's Den, a piece of land rugged with huge boulders that were deposited by glaciers eons ago. The Den, known for its excellent and natural defense, had been used by infantry and artillery snipers, as there were many crevices, nooks, and built-in walls to hide in and behind. The road that carved itself between the Den and the creek was now paved, a tourist path, but had once been a dirt road, a trail for traders years before the Civil War. However, the rocks were nearly identical to how they had always looked, save for the fact that decades of foot traffic had worn them down. There were bridges across a couple of the rocks, cleaving the gaps. Little Round Top to our left, the fields to our right, in the distance. And the Slaughter Pen.
The Slaughter Pen was directly across from Devil's Den, and is disturbingly, but expectantly named. Man upon man had emerged from the woods and had fallen into the rocky creek bed, taken down by troops determined to hold their stand. I winced when I stared at the ground, imagined the piled bodies, their blood staining the ground.
Zoë and Ty seemed to be in equal contemplation, and also wandered about the rocks. Hopping, hobbling, climbing, stepping, sitting, photographing, staring. We didn't speak much, though others in the area did. Families with children. A boy and a girl, accompanied by their father, who encouraged their photography. A group of teens gathered atop one of the rocks, sitting, swinging legs over the edge and talking of nonessential things.
The site was already humbling, and I was eager to get to Little Round Top, to see the entire picture from the ground above. But, for now, I looked around me. Looked into the crevices of the rocks, watched my feet, careful to not trip over weeds, stones, litter. I was a bit disgusted with the amount of trash tourists had thought to deposit in the rocks' hidden nooks. Pop bottles, food wrappers, the outer wrapping of disposable cameras. The defacement irritated me; was there no respect for this monument? A place where people fought, died, battled against their own family? This had been the place where men had breathed their last breath, seen the sky and the trees and the rocks and their fellow soldiers before succumbing to darkness. Go ahead, climb on the rocks. Pretend. Imagine. Picture. Shudder. Wonder. But don't trash it. Don't leave the commercial garbage of today's America on respected soil of what had been a divided country.
Our last stop on the battlefield was Little Round Top, where Confederate troops led an unsuccessful assault against the Union soldiers. As we excited the car and walked up, we passed a woman doing downhill, and talking to her friend.
"Hey, Kat!" she half-yelled as they walked back to their car. "This battle? I gotta say, at least the Americans finally learned something from Indians. They knew how to hide behind trees."
Almost immediately, I whined. "Zoë?" I called. I took a few more steps toward her. "Did you hear what that woman just said?"
Zoë turned to me, her lips tight, eyes wide with the judgmental YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG face. She nodded.
I laughed awkwardly. "Oh. mygosh," I said, hugging her. "I. I can't believe she is actually being honest with that statement." I shook my head. "I mean, I know we say some pretty terrible things, but its because we're imitating any or all radical sides."
We shook our heads once more, split up to explore and educate ourselves about Little Round Top. Here, under my feet, was what was considered to be the turning point for Gettysburg. The Union soldiers, after repelling several Confederate charges, had run low on ammo. They fixed bayonets and, under the direction of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, charged down the hill. It turned the end of the Confederate line, and led to the end of the battle.
While atop the hill, I gazed everywhere. The Valley of Death, the Den, the fields to the west. There had been thousands of bodies strewn upon this ground. The three-day battle--and especially Pickett's Charge--had resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. 8,000 had been killed outright, and had remained in the hot summer sun. There were horse carcasses, blades of red grass. For three days, there had been skirmishes and firing. And on the fourth day, July 4, 1863, it rained. Melancholy. Saddening. Terrible. Solemn.
The air was light with the golden glow of the setting sun. It was the golden hour, and the rocks, the grass, the hills, were aglow. It was beautiful, really. Solemnly beautiful. And humbling. It really was a picturesque field, one strewn with the occasional rock, the stubborn tree. I marveled at the area's beauty, teased my imagination with images of a battle. I realized that if Gettysburg had not taken place, had not taken the lives of so many Americans, that this area, like many others in our country, would be raped of its beauty. Flattened, leveled, built into suburbs and retail space.
My friends and I discussed this while sitting upon a rock wall near the car. Ty smoked a cigarette, and we watched a rowdy group of Boy Scouts play Frisbee and board a designated charter bus.
Ty took a drag. "You know," he said, exhaling. "For being so against the homosexuals, the Boy Scouts sure do love the neck tie."
Zoë and I laughed, shook our heads again.
"Okay, okay," Ty conceded. "I admit. I stole that one from Stephen Colbert." He took another drag, changed the subject. "Did you guys see all the trash that was all over the place? Especially in Devil's Den?"
"Yes," I answered.
"That really upsets me. People trashing and graffiti-ing it. I would love to instill some sort of Old World law, like, you litter at a state park, you get your hand cut off."
"Well, they keep telling us anything is possible in America. I mean, all those people who died here, in this battle, this is what they fought for, right? The free right to litter where one chooses?"
After a few more grumbles, we remarked on the things we thought were interesting. "Did you see the remainder of the rock line that they built?" "Morbid as it was, I kept trying to picture all of the bodies everywhere. The sound of the cannons and gunfire." "It's pretty cool that they let you climb up and over all those rocks." "It's definitely informative." "So pretty in the sunlight." "Humbling." "Beautifully solemn." "My grandpa needs to come here." "I told you it was worth the visit."
Before the sun set, we visited the Soldiers' National Cemetery. There were the graves of those who fought in the World Wars and the Korean War. Monuments and informative plagues about the Gettysburg Address. The Soldiers’ National Monument, the focal point of the entire cemetery. Here, both the identified and unidentified Union soldiers were buried, the graves arranged in gentle arcs. And here, in November 1863--before the burials were complete--there was a public dedication. This is when Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
The clouds were pink and orange as we left the battlefield. It seemed fitting that we had visited this place so late in the day. We were quiet again, but not disheartened. We were all in our own moments of reflection, our own highlights of the entire journey. It wasn't until we got to our last hotel--an inexpensive one that made Zoë and I crawl--that we joked and laughed. Drank beer. Watched The Birdcage. Laughed and quoted each other, the movie.
"You're not a woman."
"Oh, you bastard!"
"I don't wear the shoes because they make me fall down."
"I'm in hell. And there's a crucifix in it."
"One does want for a hint of color."
"One does want for a hint of color."
"Shouldn't you be carrying the cross? It is the prop for martyrs."
It was late--nearly 2:30 or 3:00--by the time we changed and readied ourselves for bed. In the dark and quiet of the room, Ty spoke.
"You know, I'm glad we decided on coming down here. It was nice to see a piece of American history and learn more about it, and I am grateful that I was able to do it with such good company."