Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Joel & Amy Across America, Part 8

National Monument to the Forefathers – Our last full day in Massachusetts took us an hour down the coast to Plymouth, which is where the Pilgrims eventually settled after coming over to America on the Mayflower. It’s one of the most fabled stories in our history, and that’s why someone built an 81-foot monument in the middle of a huge grass park hidden towards the back of modern-day Plymouth.

As far as monuments go, this one is friggin’ ornate. The centerpiece is a toga-clad personification of “Faith,” which is flanked by four smaller figures meant to represent Freedom, Morality, Law, and Education. Higher up are two huge lists of those aboard the Mayflower etched in marble, and the many other small details are too tedious and too many to spend more time on.

Built in 1888 it was originally designed to be almost twice as tall, but the whole point was to have it face Plymouth Harbor and be dedicated to those men and women that braved the Atlantic Ocean to start a colony in the New World. For us it was a precursor to the rest of the day in Plymouth, which would prove to be one of the coolest things we did all trip.

Plymouth Rock – What better place to head next than the most famous stone in America? Growing up both Amy and I were taught that this rock was the place where the Pilgrims first disembarked to start their colony. So what if that’s not exactly true? This was Plymouth Rock, people! A rock!

Okay, I’m being a little facetious. It really was pretty cool to stand right at the shore and look out on the water, knowing that almost 400 years ago the Pilgrims stepped off a boat and decided that this was the place they’d live for the rest of their lives. When they landed in 1620 they had almost no idea what was out there, other than the Natives who very likely would make things as difficult as possible for them.

A few times on our trip I would be inspired to stop myself and just imagine the history happening before me, and this was one of those times. Granted, nowhere in Plymouth governor William Bradford’s “On Plymouth Plantation” does he mention a rock, but it’s been generally accepted that the rock has always been there. It might not have been the first place they landed, but it was a landmark for incoming ships looking for Plymouth Harbor.

The Pilgrims didn’t even land at the rock and then immediately set up shop. The first land they saw was the tail of Massachusetts, and then they spent a month on the boat while search parties scouted the area for a desirable settlement location. Bradford’s wife, for example, lasted the boat trip over from Holland, but died before Plymouth was chosen as home base.

So yeah, Plymouth Rock isn’t quite the icon some history books have made it out to be, but it was still a cool moment to stare out at the cape and imagine the Mayflower moored somewhere out there. Then to turn around and see the high sloping hill where the colony was started… well, it was just a cool moment. And it was free.

Plimoth Plantation – The replica Wampanoag village and Plimoth settlement a couple miles down the road was not free, however, but despite the relatively steep price (nothing was more expensive on this trip except the Red Sox tickets), it was absolutely worth the price.

Set up exactly three miles to the south of where the real Plymouth colony was founded, Plimoth Plantation is essentially a living museum meant to resemble that colony as closely as possible as it would’ve been in 1627. We were told that the English village was actually built in 1950s and is about one-third as big as the original would’ve been. Actor/Historians come from all over the country to be part of this project, so not only is every building and tool and food item on site totally authentic to the era, but the “colonists” who reside there (from 9am-5pm) know what the hell they’re talking about.

These people stay in character the whole time, so any question they’re asked they come back with an answer pretty close to what a Pilgrim would have actually said. For example we asked one guy what he was cooking for lunch, and he looked at us as if he’d never heard the word. Because he never would’ve heard the word. Back then it was called dinner, so when I corrected myself he was able to answer me properly.

Then, trying to catch him with a question that would throw him off, I asked about religion. Because I teach this Puritan stuff to my American Lit students, I tossed out a little diddy that went something like, “What’s it like living in a Puritan community considering you didn’t come here as a Puritan?” Then I sort of leaned back and smirked. That will show him.

Except he went off for like seven or eight minutes on how offensive it was to call him a Puritan instead of a Separatist, and then explaining why he feels the way he does and how much the religion has helped him and philosophically how the whole thing works for the people at Plymouth. It was nuts. When it came time for my rebuttal I was like, “Cool. Enjoy your dinner,” and Amy and I just sort of nodded and left. Dude wasn’t rude or anything, but he definitely showed me. I dare him to talk me about basketball, though.


The other cool thing about this place was the Wampanoag home site, where the Native people that wear authentic garb and spent their days doing authentic Nativey things, actually are descendents of the area’s Wampanoag people. They dress the part, but don’t have to stay in character the way the Plymouth actors do. You just ask them what you’re thinking and they answer. The guy we talked to new literally everything about the area and its history, so we spent about thirty straight minutes chatting him up. It would’ve been a great place to take kids for a field trip. It’s only an 18-hour drive. Totally worth it, right?

Those two things combined kept us busy for a solid four hours, and if we hadn’t been starving it’s very likely we would’ve stayed longer. When we found the whole place is a non-profit facility and the only thing keeping it going was the steep admissions price, we didn’t feel so bad. Still, we could’ve spent the day at Six Flags for that kind of bread. But this wasn’t a Six Flags sort of vacation. It was about learning, and dammit, we certainly did plenty of that.

Mayflower II – After lunch at a seafood place back in Plymouth, a lunch in which I demolished my first entire lobster for the low, low price of $18, we walked to a replica of the Mayflower moored at State Pier, available for self-guided tours.

Anybody can build a boat that looks sort of old-ish and boat-ish, but to create a faithful reproduction of the Mayflower, which was a well-used boat even when the Pilgrims got to it in 1620, requires a lot of research and specialized builders. Built all the way back in 1955, this particular replica was done the right way.

Plimoth Plantation had wanted a replica of the famous boat for some time, and actually had commissioned a specialized ship builder to put together blueprints for one and start building it. The guy they hired did meticulous research about ships of the era and combed primary sources for any information about the original Mayflower, then he combined all that information and made what would prove to be the most accurate replica blueprint to date.

What P.P. didn’t know was that an English organization wanted to build a replica Mayflower as well and actually recreate the journey across the Atlantic. They just didn’t quite have the funding to do it, and had no idea where they’d permanently moor the boat when the voyage was over. Naturally, this group, called Project Mayflower, joined up with Plimoth Plantation and made it all happen.

Before sailing across the ocean, as the Pilgrims did, Project Mayflower had to make the blueprints into a tangible boat, and they did so as authentically as possible. The accuracy of this vessel went down to every minute detail—carefully chosen English oak timbers, hand-made nails, hand-sewn linen canvas sails, real hemp cordage, and exactly the sort of Stockholm tar used by ship builders in the 17th Century.

Today, the boat is still seaworthy (it sailed to Rhode Island in 2002), but it’s mostly just used to educate people about the Pilgrims’ journey to America. Just like at Plimoth Plantation there are costumed role-players on board telling all sorts of stories and answering all sorts of questions. Seeing the way the crew and passengers slept and ate was more than a little remarkable. To think of 120+ people shoved into that tiny a space for two months was a little overwhelming, but those original Americans were under no illusions that the trip would be an easy one. It was a heck of a lot easier for Amy and me; we just walked up a ramp, looked around for about a half hour, then walked down a different ramp. Our journey to America was a can of corn compared to what the Pilgrims must’ve gone through, but that’s the advantage of being born in the 1980s, I suppose.

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