I spent the drive there pushing away the weight of it, singing with the windows down. It was day one of a five-day getaway and I was reveling in it, that good vibe sensation of free, open days spread out in front of me. I let it creep in as I got closer. I stopped pushing, opened the door to it and let the thought of it, the heft of it, sit with me as I drove. I didn’t try to shape it or guide it, I didn’t fight it, I just let it in and let it be. And then I was there, at the Flight 93 National Memorial in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, where, on Sept. 11, 2001, a hijacked Boeing 757 carrying seven crew members, 33 passengers and four terrorists crashed into a field as part of a multi-pronged attack on the United States.
On the way there, I thought about blood. Blood and how I really should have refreshed my Civil War memory bank before embarking on a long weekend of Civil War battlefield immersion. Blood though, was the thing I remembered about Antietam. It’s what stuck out in my mind, the tiny piece of information I picked up some time in high school and managed to hold onto until now. I couldn’t remember the exact date, couldn’t remember which generals led the Union or Confederate troops, wasn’t even 100 percent sure which year the battle took place, but Antietam, my memory told me, was bloody.
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 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.
“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.
Today, I am 35.
I feel simultaneously very old and very young, which, depending on who you ask, is exactly right. I feel grown up, but not all grown up. I feel like I’ve done a lot, but I know there’s still a lot left to do.
The day I turned 34, I hiked into the Grand Canyon then took myself to dinner in Flagstaff. I told the couple next to me, newly retired, that it was my birthday and we talked about growing up and aging. I told them how much I liked my 30s, how I gave fewer fucks and didn’t spend my days stressing about inconsequential bullshit, how I really liked the woman I was becoming.
“Ok, look,” I said to the cat. She was mostly asleep in a shoe box next to me, the opposite of riveted by our conversation. I’d been sitting in front of my computer for an hour with a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread between us as she snoozed and offered an occasional tail swish. I was researching trails, trying to figure out which ones I wanted to hike, and, emboldened by the cat’s lack of interest, I felt ready to make a decision.
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.
After I wrote about a few recent hikes in Shenandoah National Park, Kate left a comment asking if I’d consider writing about my hiking gear, if I had any specific recommendations for someone interested in embarking on a forest scamper.
At first I giggled. I’m a native forest creature, yes, a girl raised by wolves who ran barefoot through the wildness nearly every day of my youth, but hiking still feels like a new hobby. I’m still acquiring stuff to make my hikes more comfortable, more enjoyable and that will allow me to go further and deeper into the wild. When I read her comment, I felt wholly unprepared to offer any sort of advice.
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.