Friday, August 07, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, The End

Day 5:

Walden Pond – To be a transcendentalist was to be, in a lot of ways, pretty friggin’ awesome. If my general readership is anything like my American Literature students, the term “transcendentalist” might as well be in a foreign language for how much meaning it holds. But for guys like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the original transcendentalists, it was a way of life more than a philosophy. In Thoreau’s case, it took him out into the woods for two years.

One of the cornerstones of the transcendentalist philosophy is a love for nature, so in 1845 Thoreau built a little cabin on a patch of woodsy land owned by Emerson so that he could spend some legitimate time with nature. It had, he thought, lessons to teach him about simplicity and beauty. After two years out there he got what he wanted to get out of the experience, and returned to real life in Concord, Massachusetts, just a short distance from the Pond where he’d been living.

That pond was our first stop on the way home, and immediately Amy and I could tell how Thoreau could learn about beauty here. Walden is just a small kettle hole surrounded by trees, but the water itself some of the clearest I’ve ever seen. There’s a trail along the outskirts of the pond, and about a half-mile back is the location of Thoreau’s cabin. Considering it was built from questionable wood a century and a half ago, the actual structure is long-gone. In its place now are small concrete markers that show the general dimensions of the one-room structure, as well as where the woodshed would’ve been out back.

About ten yards to the left of the cabin site is the area believed to have been the cabin site for years before a professional came in and found the real thing. I’ve got to admit that for a wild guess they did a pretty good job. At the incorrect cabin site are stacks and stacks of stones that people bring from all over the world to place there, some of which were marked with people’s names and birth/death dates. I’m guessing the families of big-time Thoreau fans would bring those stones and place them there as a final sendoff to a loved one. Considering it just so happened to be Amy’s dad’s birthday, she added a small stone to the pile as well.

On the walk back we had an issue with a broken walkway that resulted in relatively wet feet for us travelers, and we bumped into an overweight skinny-dipping soprano loudly humming some medieval melody. We were sort of in the area furthest from the entrance, but yeesh! Those were breasts I could’ve died perfectly happy having never seen.

Like Thoreau, we had seen what we’d come to see, and it was time for us to head to Concord. Having only been on the road for a little over an hour, we’d already seen way more than our fair share of beauty for one day.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – No, not that Sleepy Hollow. The cemetery used as a backdrop for Washington Irving’s famous story about the Headless Horseman is actually in New York. But that doesn’t mean this particular Sleepy Hollow doesn’t boast its own little claim to fame. Up on Author’s Ridge are buried four legendary American authors: Thoreau, Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne (author of “The Scarlet Letter”), and Louisa May Alcott (author of “Little Women”).

Click HERE for More Concord Pictures!

The difference between Thoreau’s and Emerson’s headstones was almost laughable. Thoreau has a tiny traditional marker about the size of a school textbook, with only the word “Henry” etched in the middle. Emerson, on the other hand, lies beneath a five-foot-tall slab of what appeared to be (I’m no geologist) quartz, with an impressive metal plaque at eye level. These two guys were like best buds, but clearly Emerson had a little more cash to deal with his postmortem living quarters.

Alcott and Hawthorne have stones similarly modest to Thoreau, with Alcott’s being nothing more than a small brick with her name on it laying even with the surface of the grass. What was cool to see was all the trinkets left at these graves. Thoreau had a little wooden fife, Hawthorne a silver cross necklace, and Alcott a number of different flowers and pens.

It may not have been THE Sleepy Hollow, but it brought up the rear very nicely on our weeklong tour of famous graves. At the end of it all, the list looks like this:

Ben Franklin
Betsy Ross
John Hancock
Samuel Adams
Paul Revere
The Five Victims of the Boston Massacre
John Hawthorne (Witch Trials Judge)
William Bradford (Plymouth Governor) and other Pilgrims
John Adams
Abigail Adams
John Quincy Adams
Henry David Thoreau
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Louisa May Alcott
Nathaniel Hawthorne

I wouldn’t say we’re obsessed with dead people, just interested in sharing the same space as some American legends. Damn, that’s a list, isn’t it?

Homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott – The night before Amy and I had discussed the possibility of making a stop on the way home. It was going to be an awesome stop, but in order to have time for it we’d have to cut some things out of our original plans in Concord. The Awesome Stop happened later that day, but it came at the expense of the Emerson and Alcott homes.

Emerson’s place is, quite simply, an old white house kept in immaculate condition. We peeked in the windows a little bit but really didn’t spend too much time worrying about it. Inside, Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance,” “The American Scholar” and a host of other essays that made him the 19th Century’s most famous thinker.

Down the road is Alcott’s Orchard House, where she both wrote and pressed “Little Women.” Personally, I never liked the book, being a man and all, so we just took a quick little walk around the grounds and scooted. Would these tours have been historically worthwhile? Probably. Was spending time there more important than the Awesome Stop we’d hoped to visit later in the day? Nope. Not a chance. So while we would’ve loved to get more out of these places, we didn’t, and I refuse to regret that.

Old North Bridge, Site of “The Shot Heard Round the World” – Unofficially, the last stop of our vacation in Massachusetts, the Old North Bridge wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it would be. For some reason I was under the impression that we’d drive over it, but that wasn’t the case. After doing some walking we found our way to the place where the first shots were fired in the American Revolution.

As a result of those shots a battle ensued, which the American Minutemen won. We know how the rest of the war panned out. USA! USA! USA!

North Bridge spans the Concord River, and on one side is the famous Minuteman statue meant to commemorate the “Shot Heard Round the World” that happened at the spot where it now stands. On the other bank is a memorial to the British soldiers who died, as well as an obelisk commemorating where the bridge stood before it was rebuilt in 1875. It’s been rebuilt three other times since then, the most recent in the 1940s. So the bridge that’s there isn’t the real bridge, but you can’t fudge the history. In some ways, it was in that spot where the United States of American got started. It was also in that spot that our vacation ended.

Well, sort of…

Baseball Hall of Fame – There was no way Amy and I were driving 18 straight hours back home, so we’d made plans to stay the night about halfway there, in Erie, Pennsylvania. I made the reservations on Priceline for some ridiculously low price, so whatever we did the rest of this day we just needed to make sure we’d make it to Erie by bedtime. After breezing through Concord all morning, Amy and I decided to take a very small detour to Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While only about a half hour out of our way, the drive was long and winding through the rain, and as we got further and further away from the tollway I found myself wondering where the hell we were going. Sure, there were signs for Cooperstown the whole way, but the drive is like 50 miles of two-lane highway through Nowheresville, New York. At one point Amy asked me why the Hall of Fame was even located in Cooperstown. I had to admit that, at the time, I didn’t know.

Click HERE for More Cooperstown Pictures!

Turns out that a committee in the early 20th Century was put together for the sole purpose of nailing down where the modern game of baseball was invented. The final consensus led the committee to Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown. So there you have it.

In any event, finally driving into Cooperstown was like entering an entirely new dimension. All of a sudden everything was beautiful and green and quaint, with the Hall right smack dab in the middle of Main Street. We quickly parked (for free, by the way), and headed inside to the place where baseball legend goes to live on.

Amy was most enamored with the Babe Ruth section, but not because it housed his uniform or the bat from his 60th home run or the bat from his called shot homer, but because it had a book he signed the night he died, certified by a letter from the nurse on duty that night. Just like a woman to find the sentimentality in a building filled with manly baseball stuff, right?

Some of my favorites included Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run balls, the mitts of Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe Jackson, and the No-Hitter wall, which spans an entire end of one room with the baseballs and photographs of every no-hitter in baseball history. For Nolan Ryan, who threw seven of them, they have an extra display with his game hats.

For Barry Bonds, who broke Aaron’s all-time home run record in 2006, they’ve got a case with memorabilia from that memorable season. The fan that caught the ball, however, sent it to the Hall only after having an asterisk emblazoned in the leather. For those unfamiliar with baseball, Bonds is very, very likely a one-time steroid user, meaning his prestigious home run record is questionable. The asterisk thing was awesome. Not only did the guy have the audacity to put that symbol on there, but the Hall of Fame actually put the thing on display.

The place is just littered with baseball history—memorabilia from Stan Musial, Micky Mantle, Ernie Banks, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Ted Williams, Lou Gherig, Cy Young... it just goes on and on and on. It wasn’t the Field of Dreams (which I’ve also been to), but it was just as magical an experience. Any baseball purist needs to make the trek out east because it’s totally worth it. People wear the hats and jerseys of their favorite team and the gift shop alone is worth the trip.

I, of course, wore a Sox shirt and Sox hat and took pictures with the old pinwheel from the original Comiskey Park scoreboard, as well as the hat Freddy Garcia wore the final game of the World Series in 2005. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Chicago stuff, right?

We had a great time, not just at Cooperstown but for the entire trip. We went home absolutely exhausted, but this was a sight-seeing vacation, not a sit-by-the-beach-and-drink-pina-coladas vacation. Besides, as teachers we’d get plenty of time to relax when we finished the rest of our drive home.

The only problem we’ve got now is, since we did so much in our week out east, how much history is there left for us to discover?

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