Upon receiving my cousin’s wedding invitation, I turned into a cartoon villain. Fingers and brows tented, I smirked. “Excellent,” I said. With that invitation, I had reason to go to Maine, the only state east of the Mississippi River I’d never set foot in and home to Acadia National Park, an almost 50,000-acre wonderland of rugged and rocky Atlantic coastline, woodlands, lakes and ponds. Excellent, indeed.
I had no choice but to move my windshield wiper selector switch to rampage level. The rain was coming down in king-sized sheets and as much as I hate the crazed swish of wiper blades moving at top speed, I was driving on unfamiliar back roads and needed all the help I could get. I was going camping and as my phone pinged with increasingly dramatic weather alerts, I cursed, felt the whisper of anxiety catch in my chest and started laughing. It was going to rain for as long as it was going to rain and no amount of angsty nail-biting was going to change that.
There’s a lot I find appealing about lighthouses. I like that they exist to guide us through troubled waters, the way they serve as bright beacons of assurance in the midst of a mess. I like their history, the stories of harrowing rescues and narrow escapes from catastrophe, stories of vanished lighthouse-keepers or vivid tales of bravery and independent existences. I like how they all have their own identities, their own stories. They’re all different, all built for some specific sea obstacle in varying sizes, shapes and shades.
I felt my shoulders loosen on the drive down. When I got out of the car at the tiny house I’d rented for the weekend, I tilted my head back, looked up at the trees and exhaled, long and slow.
“We should go to Kentucky,” she said. “For the bourbon.” And that was it, that was all the convincing I needed. A few months later we were on our way, heading west on I-64 toward Louisville, a full schedule of distillery tours, bourbon tastings and dinner reservations ahead of us.
“It’s worth it,” I said when I voluntarily heaved myself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday. I’d spent a week deliberating, talking myself in and out of hiking Old Rag and then, finally, in a fit of decisiveness, I stopped making excuses and decided to just fucking do it.
Old Rag is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia. It’s 9ish miles, depending on how you hike it, there’s a 1.5 mile rock scramble I’d been repeatedly warned about and it’s listed as hard or very strenuous, depending on your reference. I was, to be completely honest, a little afraid of Old Rag. The National Park Service says it’s the most dangerous hike in Shenandoah National Park and that was enough to give me pause, enough for me to question whether hiking it by myself was the right choice.
I spent the last four minutes of the Shamrock Half Marathon telling myself not to cry. I’d done the math. I knew I’d made it, knew I was about to set a new personal record and so, when we turned right at the Atlantic Ocean, hit the boardwalk and pushed toward the finish line, my chest tightened, my eyes watered and I felt a lot of things.
I really, really needed this trip. I needed to get out of town, to put on my pack and walk into the woods. I needed to spend a few hours in the car, music up and windows down. I needed to be alone in the woods, to take myself to dinner, to drink new beers, to catch up with one of my oldest friends. I just needed to go.
When a work trip to Fort Benning, Georgia, popped up, I did what I always do: I checked the surrounding area for National Parks, identified a few options, internally debated them for far too many hours before making a decision and then, finally, I made a plan. A few days later I flew to Atlanta, hopped in my rental car and drove straight to Andersonville National Historic Site.
Andersonville preserves the site of what used to Camp Sumter, also called Andersonville Prison, a Confederate-run prisoner-of-war camp located near Andersonville, Georgia. The prison ran for the last year of the American Civil War, from February 1864 to April 1865. Approximately 45,000 Union troops were imprisoned there and of those, almost 13,000 died.
Camp Sumter was built on 26.5 acres to help with overcrowding in Confederate prisons further north, including the ones built here in Richmond. It was meant to hold no more than 10,000 prisoners, but overcrowding swelled the prison population at Camp Sumter to more than 32,000.
It was, by all accounts, terrible. The prisoners were wounded and starving, the water contaminated, shelter was nearly nonexistent and disease was rampant.
Dead prisoners were buried in trenches, shoulder to shoulder, in a cemetery just outside the prison walls. The trenches were three feet deep and ranged in length from 100 to 200 feet.
According to the National Park Service, the first burial took place just three days after the first prisoners arrived.
Just a few months after the war, the cemetery site was designated as Andersonville National Cemetery on July 26, 1865. Within three years, the cemetery included the graves of some 13,714 Union Soldiers, including 921 marked as unknown. Most had died at Andersonville, but the remains of others had come from military hospitals, battlefields and other prisons in the region.
Today, Andersonville National Cemetery is one of a handful of national cemeteries to be administered by the National Park Service. It’s been in continuous use since its founding, with an average of 150 burials per year.
Andersonville National Historic Site also includes the National Prisoner of War Museum. American Ex-Prisoners of War partnered with the National Park Service to create the museum and it was dedicated on April 9, 1998, the 56th anniversary of the fall of Bataan during World War II. It serves as a memorial for all American prisoners of war, not just those imprisoned at Camp Sumter.
The museum is incredibly powerful and the exhibits highlight a variety of themes, including what a POW is, living conditions, escape, the families left waiting at home and, finally, freedom. I generally skim displays when I visit museums, flitting from thing to thing as my attention is caught, but I couldn’t do that here; every piece, every display just seemed to be too important, too personal to skip.
During my visit, I first explored the museum before asking the volunteers there how to explore the rest of the site. They sent me here, to the park’s multimedia page where there are narrated driving tours of both the prison site and the cemetery.
“You’ll learn so much,” the volunteer told me. “It’s really just amazing.”
And she was right. Both audio tours served as excellent guides to their respective parts of the park. I learned about the rules of the prison, about the deadline that kept prisoners away from the stockade walls, the reason the site was chosen and about the “Raiders,” a criminal gang of prisoners that included six men hung for their crimes inside the prison, all buried apart from the rest of the prison dead.
The cemetery was where I spent my final moments at Andersonville. I kept thinking about what I learned before, about the trench burials of these men, how they were buried shoulder to shoulder. It was impossible to forget as I walked past headstones less than a hands-width apart.
Andersonville National Historic Site is home to three distinct features: the prison site, Andersonville National Cemetery and the National Prisoner of War Museum, which also serves as the park's visitor center. Admission to the park is free. The park grounds are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. To explore all three parts of the park, allow at least two hours.
The last trail I hiked in 2018 was also the first trail I hiked in 2019, the South River Falls Trail at Shenandoah National Park.
I went the first time with this bitch a day before the government shutdown. It was her very first visit to the park, despite being born and raised in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It wasn’t the trail I planned to take her on, but a winter storm closed the southern part of the park and I couldn’t get her out to this waterfall-filled trail, so I improvised, opting for the southern-most trail with a waterfall that I could still get us to.