I’m a battlefield groupie from way back. I remember on the first of my six visits to the States, in 1993, spending a cold and atmospheric hour or two with a then-girlfriend wandering in the rain through the misty Union lines outside Vicksburg, Mississippi. Somewhere there’s some pictures in an album. Sometime…
My two-day “thru-hike” of Gettysburg in 2006…
..following the course of the battle while everybody else there flew between lookouts in cars or tour groups, is a highlight of my walking CV: the combination of perfect walking weather, poignant history and some of the prettiest rural scenery I’ve seen in America.
On the Appalachian Trail you’d often come across remnants of Civil War history right there next to the path. And sometimes glimpses of far older conflicts, like this one, also in Pennsylvania, one misty morning just a few days after the Gettysburg ramble:
America’s great for that satisfying blend of war and walking.
Kate and I often discussed what I wanted to see and do during my last trip. Time was scarce, but a walk through the Saratoga National Historical Park was an early goal. The Revolutionary War seems positively ancient compared to the Civil War; Australia had only been “discovered” by Europeans a few years earlier. A good stroll through the site of the turning point of the whole conflict, and indeed of world history, would help me visualise things — but really who needed a good excuse for a walk in the woods with Kate?
The welcome spell of balmy weather was only just getting started that afternoon when we spilled out of Kate’s van at the Visitor Center (might as well stick with the American spelling here). Check out that sky and those nice lush woods:
As you’ve probably guessed from this post’s title, the “we” on this day was not Kate and I on a romantic ramble through the site of this momentous pair of battles. Nope, we had company. And after a necessarily rushed spin through the historical displays inside the Center (three-year-olds can inflict appalling collateral damage on battle dioramas, and even safely neutered vintage firearms can quickly become weapons of mass destruction in their devilish hands), we retreated to the lawns.
Soon we had more company: one of the rangers came out to gently warn against the cartwheels and other acrobatics being executed with great flair (if anyone from Ringling Bros. happens to be reading, maybe we can work something out) on Park property. He could see lawsuits, or at at the very least a visit from the paramedics.
Not to worry. There across the lawn was the beginning of the Wilkinson Trail, the main battlefield path, and I for one was itching for a walk. We left the plaques behind (how nice to see a Fraser rather than a Frazer or Frazier in the States — I actually have a cousin called Simon Fraser)…
..and began wandering.
I was in a cranky mood. My back was giving me hell — it took a while after every car trip to walk upright — and I’ll confess this is not how I’d imagined my pilgrimage. I like to get the context clear in my head before any walk through a historical site, study the maps, work out my directions. I need some time to, er, “get into character”. It’s not like I dress up in period garb and go belly-crawling through the undergrowth in my quest for authenticity — not in company, anyway — but I like quiet, and solitude, the freedom to pause and backtrack and circle and try to see the place through the eyes of a participant.
The Wilkinson path is beautiful…
..but I confess I still have only the vaguest idea of how the battles played out on this scenic spread of terrain.
That angle could wait till another visit. It was obvious that this was not the day for patiently exploring the unfolding of events as I had at Gettysburg.
This would be a nature ramble. I could live with that.
We didn’t even have a map and there’d been no time to study the information boards. And nobody ever said, “Let’s walk the entire path and loop back here to the Visitor Center.” We were just moving, and rather selfishly, I suppose, I aimed to keep us moving. The more I walked, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more I wanted to keep walking. Back straighter, spirits floating higher, I kept on strolling, kept the caravan inching further from the VC.
Nobody complained. At least not at first.
We progressed at an erratic pace into the trees and the Summer afternoon. Flowers leaned onto the wide, freshly mown track from the tangled grass and weeds of the bordering fields. The trail wound on, almost deserted, between shady copses where bracken flourished and the mild sunshine bathing the fields. The kids would run, stop, run back, sit, throw the occasional tantrum, laugh, cry, and demand to be carried, often within the same minute.
I’d love to do this walk again in early, dewy morning, or even better, in a light rain.
The kids did really well, actually, for their first real “hike”. Nobody else was dressed for it — take my word for it, I made up for that — and I wouldn’t recommend thongs (as we call them back home) for even a stroll to the mailbox, let alone a 4.2 mile loop.
Kate handled the occasional complaints (“Mom, I’m getting bored”) much better than me, as well as the demands to be carried, and I was secretly plagued by spurts of guilt for leading the party beyond the point of no return.
The afternoon stretched on, shadows lengthened, woods darkened, and I was grateful for the headlamps in my pack.
But we didn’t need the lights.
By the end, when the Center came into distant view across the fields, I was helping out with twin-carrying duty. Whoever designed kids, by the way: not your best work. How about something more ergonomic, or at least a nice handle?
Anyway, we made it with no casualties. Overall, our light infantry had performed admirably and a bloodbath was averted.
Camille marked the end of her first forced march by breaking into a little jig…
..and we made it to the closed Center and the deserted parking lot without further rebellion.
Kate and I will be back, but next time we’ll be travelling light — if you know what I mean.
The Death of Simon Fraser:
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote