Andersonville National Historic Site, POWs and the Civil War

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.

Repeated Scampers on the South River Falls Trail at Shenandoah National Park

South River Falls @ Shenandoah National Park ||

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.

Getting Lucky at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park

Independence National Historical Park ||

I’d taken one look at the thick, winding line for tickets to tour Independence Hall, cackled, cursed and said no, thank you, to the whole busy mess.

“I’m too mean to wait in a line that long,” is probably what I told my friend Tara, herself a resident of Philadelphia, as I scowled at the line and once again rattled off all the other options for National Park scampers, as if I hadn’t been prattling on and on about them since my arrival the day before.

Independence National Historical Park ||

Fast forward to later that morning and there we were, standing outside Independence Hall. There’s a handful of historic buildings there and we asked a passing park ranger if there were any we could enter without a ticket or a lengthy line-wait.

“How many are in your party?” he asked.

“Just two,” I said.

“I might have room for you on the next tour,” he said. “No promises, but wait by the bench over there and I’ll let you know in a few minutes.”

We thanked him six or seven times before heading straight to the indicated bench, exchanging giddy, sideways glances as we went.

“Park rangers are the best,” I said, smiling, trying not to let my hopes of getting into Independence Hall get the better of me.

A few minutes later the ranger was back, motioning us from our bench. He led us into the East Wing and told us to take a seat, that the tour would begin soon. As soon as he left the room, we squealed quietly at each other, trying not to drawn any attention to ourselves while marveling over our luck and the absolute delight of getting a spot on the tour without having to wait in the terrible, no-good, very bad line.

Independence National Historical Park ||

Once the rest of the tour group arrived, a ranger gave us an overview of Philadelphia’s historic importance in American history and told us the story of Independence Hall. Construction started in 1732 on what was then the Pennsylvania State House, built to hold all three branches of Pennsylvania’s government. It was completed in 1753 and then it became the “birthplace of America,” according to the National Park Service.

In 1775, George Washington was appointed as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army inside the Assembly Room. Later that year, Benjamin Franklin was appointed as the first Postmaster General and from 1775 to 1783 it was the primary meeting house for the Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation were adopted there in 1781.

Oh, and the Declaration of Independence was approved there too, inside the Assembly Room, on July 4, 1776. It was then read outside in what is now Independence Square. More than a decade later, in the summer of 1787, America’s founding fathers debated and completed the United States Constitution there, windows shut tight to keep their deliberations a secret.

Independence National Historical Park ||
Courtroom of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court || Independence Hall 

After learning the history of the building, the tour headed for the Supreme Court Room and then on to the Assembly Room.

Independence National Historical Park ||
The Assembly Room || Independence Hall

As an American history lover, I’ve spent a good chunk of time standing in fields where American history was made. I’ve often stood in reconstructions of what was or even what might have been. And that’s fine. We’re young. We don’t have thousand-year-old castles, but we do have this, Independence Hall and the Assembly Room where our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were deliberated and decided. It’s different, yes, but standing there in that room, looking at the chair where George Washington sat as our nation was founded was incredible.

Independence National Historical Park ||

On the way out of Independence Hall we again thanked the ranger who got us a spot on the tour and quietly made our way outside.

“Wow,” I said, because I didn’t have any other words that could explain what being there was like.

Independence National Historical Park ||

Independence Hall is part of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Tickets to visit the Hall are free and required. Information on how to get tickets is here. The park is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with all buildings closed on Christmas Day.

SHUTDOWN NOTICE: Due to a lapse in federal funding, Independence Hall and most other sites within Independence National Historical Park are closed to visitors during the partial government shutdown.

10 Scamper-Worthy Sights to See at Death Valley National Park

Ugh, you guys, Death Valley is so good. It's so good I cried on the way into the park. It was so pretty, so breathtaking, so different and so brilliant that it brought fat, literal tears to my eyes, tears so fucking big they rolled down my cheeks.

This is surprising to me because I've always thought of myself a forest creature, but here I am, spending all my vacation time in the desert, scaring lizards from their sun-soaked perches, guzzling water by the gallon, talking to cactus friends and falling madly, deeply and truly in love with America's deserts. 

A Fated & Rainy Day at Petrified Forest National Park & a Lack of Words

By the time I finally got to Petrified Forest National Park, it felt long overdue. The park had been stalking me for years, showing up in the books I was reading, the movies I was watching, the podcasts I was listening to. It was everywhere, jumping around on the edges of my periphery trying to get me to pay attention to it, to actually visit.

“Fine,” I said, when I started planning this year’s birthday trip. “I’ll go to Arizona.”

I’d been thinking about the Petrified Forest since I drove past it on a cross-country road trip a few years ago. It felt like fate when I got there, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Until a pronghorn walked across the road and I reached for my camera and realized it wasn’t there.

“No,” I said to the pronghorn. “Not fucking possible.”

But it was. I’d left the camera on the bed of my cabin, more than hour behind me. I stared at the pronghorn as it pranced across the road, cautious of me and my rental, then drove through the park, stopping a handful of times to gaze at the place I’d been dreaming about for four years before heading back to Flagstaff to get my camera and explore a few parks closer to my cabin.

Petrified Forest National Park ||

I went back the next day, early.

“Ok,” I told myself. “This one’s for real.”

And it was.

Petrified Forest National Park ||

There’s a way I laugh when I’m delighted by a park, a very specific sort of cackle that comes out of me. It’s involuntary and uncultivated, but it exists and I have noticed it escaping from me in moments of awed delight. I don’t know where it came from or when it started, but it’s there, my National Park-induced cackle.

It’s the sound I made when I scampered down the hill into the backcountry of Petrified Forest National Park, mud sticking to my boots, a swirling sort of mist making the day feel eerie and empty. It’s the sound I made over and over again as I got deeper into the park, as the colors changed from red to blue and back again. It’s the sound I made almost every time I got out of the car and it’s the sound I made when I looked at the colorful swirl of mud I’d accumulated on my boots at the end of the day.

Petrified Forest National Park ||

Petrified Forest National Park ||

Petrified Forest National Park || terragoes.comI wish I had more words for the parks, more ways to describe the way they make me feel, the heavy fullness they generate in my heart. I use words like amazing and magical and special a lot when I talk about them and sometimes I feel like a broken record, going on about how this place is amazing over and over again, but it’s true. They’re all amazing, all the parks, the big ones and the littles ones, the ones you’ve heard of and the ones you haven’t.

Petrified Forest National Park ||

Petrified Forest National Park is easy to visit if you’re heading east or west on 1-40. It’s on the way, no matter what direction you’re heading and is a beautiful and convenient scenic detour. Plus, this is the only park that includes part of the Mother Road, old Route 66, marked today by a 1932 Studebaker and a line of telephone poles that disappear into a field.

Petrified Forest National Park || terragoes.comThere are several easily-accessed trails, many of them paved, along with opportunities to head into the backcountry and explore off a maintained trail. There’s the petrified wood, of course, which you should not remove from the park, and some incredible desert landscapes as well as a few tasty historical morsels involving the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Park Service and Fred Harvey and his girls.

Petrified Forest National Park ||

Admission into Petrified Forest National Park is $20 for 7 days. The park is open every day of the year expect Christmas Day. During the busy season (June-September), the park is open 7 a.m. – 6 p.m., and 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. the rest of the year. 

Exploring the Bodie Island Light Station at Cape Hatteras National Seashore

The first lighthouse I ever remember seeing was on Lake Erie, probably near Cleveland. I was 10, maybe 11. It was windy, like it often is when you’re walking around a giant lake, and late enough in the fall that most of the leaves had fallen from the trees. I was wearing a jean jacket over an orange sweater and my bangs were cut too short.

There were probably other light houses before this light house,  but this is the one that I remember. This is the one I was first captivated by.

I can’t explain it, really, the lighthouse thing, why I find them so delightful, fascinating and intriguing.  There’s just something about them, something special.

Maybe it’s the scene they set, the pop of interest they add to an already stunning shoreline. Maybe it’s the drama, the tales of pirates and shipwrecks, a fascination evoked early in me with countless playings of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Maybe it’s just their association with the shore and the sea, an association that makes them feel exotic no matter where they are, Ohio or some godforsaken craggy coast in a faraway land. Maybe it’s the mystery and intrigue they invoke, this power they have to make me wrinkle my brow and wonder about them, wonder about the people who manned the station, who sailed past it, who built it.

I can’t look at a lighthouse without wondering about its story.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

The northernmost lighthouse along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is the Bodie Island Light Station. Legend will tell you that Bodie, pronounced like “body,” is named after the bodies that washed ashore after shipwrecks. The waters off Cape Hatteras have claimed more than 5,000 ships since record keeping began in 1526 and the area is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

By 1837, the Cape Hatteras Light Station, now the tallest brick lighthouse in the country, was already built to the south of where the Bodie Island Light Station would eventually sit.

By order of the federal government, Lt. Napoleon L. Coste searched for potential sites for an additional lighthouse along the cape. Of Bodie Island, he claimed, “more vessels are lost there than on any other part of our coast,” and determined that ships heading south needed a beacon on or near the island to help them navigate.

Congress provided the funds for a lighthouse the same year, in 1837, but land purchase complications delayed construction by a decade. An unsupported brick foundation was laid at the behest of the project overseer, who had no lighthouse experience, and within two years the tower started to lean. By 1859, after several attempts to fix the tilted lighthouse, it was abandoned.

A second lighthouse was constructed nearby in 1859. Then the Civil War started. Confederate troops feared it would be used by the Union, so, in 1861, they blew it up.

Bodie Island remained dark until 1871, when construction began on the third Bodie Island Lighthouse, this time on a new 15-acre site purchased for just $150.

On Oct. 1, 1872, the Bodie Island Light Station exhibited its light for the first time.

Sixty years later the light was electrified, in 1932, and then, in 1953, the majority of the site was transferred to the National Park Service. Historic renovations have been completed on both the keeper’s duplex, which now serves as a visitor center, and the lighthouse, which still serves as a functioning navigational aid and is open for public tours.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

As I drove past the entrance sign for Cape Hatteras National Seashore I tried to remember if I’d ever been inside of a lighthouse, if I’d ever had the opportunity to actually climb one. There are plenty of tight-spaced stair climbs in my memory, but none that I could positively identify as lighthouse related.

So this one, Bodie Island, would be my first.

I arrived early, like usual, purchased my ticket for the first lighthouse climb of the day and at 9:10 a.m., I followed six other visitors up the spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse.

There are nine landings on the way up, only one person is allowed on each flight of stairs at a time and only eight visitors are allowed entry per climb. It’s slow-going as you stop and wait for the person in front of you to make their way to the next landing, but there’s plenty to admire on the way up.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

“Hold on to your hat,” the ranger at the top said. “It can get pretty windy up here.”

And it was.

“You can stay as long as you like,” she added.

So I walked around the gallery deck maybe five times taking in the view from all angles, listening to the other visitors talk  about what they could see, the places they were going or had already visited and could spot from the air. I listened as the ranger answered questions about the lighthouse, about the amount of visitors it gets, about how busy it gets up top, about where else she’d worked and how she was enjoying her time at Cape Hatteras.

I watched as an older woman tucked herself just inside the lighthouse and peered out onto the gallery platform, hand firmly placed on the door frame. She said she appreciated the view very much, just not the heights and was fine looking out from within, thank you very much.

The ranger pointed out the line where the the National Seashore begins. It’s easy to see from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It’s where the giant beach houses stop, where the coast goes wild. There’s some 70 miles of wild coast after that, all protected by the National Park Service.

“It just goes on and on,” I said to the ranger. “That’s great.”

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

I made my down slowly, pausing at each landing, peering around the twist of the stairs to see if anyone was heading up, careful to follow the rules, like always.

I stood outside and looked at the lighthouse for a while, leaning into my car trying to imagine all that happened before I showed up and climbed the 214 stairs to the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse.

What was it like, I wondered. What was it like to live in this place, in the duplex below a lighthouse that helped stop ships from wrecking?

Cape Hatteras National Seashore ||

The Bodie Island Lighthouse at Cape Hatteras National Seashore is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day and climbs are available every 20 minutes, starting at 9:10 a.m. every day. Tickets are required and can be purchased for $10 from the visitor center starting at 9 a.m. Tickets are available on a first come, first serve basis and go quickly on weekends and holidays. The light is not air conditioned and can be hot and cramped, especially during the warmer months. Climbers must weigh less than 260 pounds and be taller than 42 inches and be able to climb the stairs on their own. Only eight visitors can climb the tower at one time, however there’s no time limit once you’re inside the lighthouse. The Bodie Island Lighthouse is one of three lighthouses within the boundaries of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Edgar Allan Poe, Philadelphia & his National Historic Site

If you visit me in Richmond and I take you on a driving tour of the city, chances are good I’ll take you past St. Paul’s Church. It’s where Patrick Henry gave his “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death” speech and it’s where Edgar Allan Poe’s mother is buried. I’ll tell you that on the tour, I promise, and then, when you ask about Poe’s connection to Richmond, I will tell you all that, too.

I’ll tell you that his mother died when he was three, that his father was already gone and, an orphan, he was adopted by John and Frances Allan in Richmond. I’ll tell you he considered Richmond his home, called himself a Virginian and gave one of his last readings of “The Raven” here. I’ll tell you about The Poe Museum and the two black cats who live there, kept by the museum in honor of Poe’s love of cats. They’re named Edgar and Pluto.

When I went to Philadelphia, I realized I have some very strong feelings about Poe and what cities should be able to claim him. Philly is home to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, and that makes sense because Poe lived and wrote there for six years. They were some of his happiest and most productive years.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site ||

While Poe lived in a bunch of houses during his Philadelphia years, the house where the National Historic Site now resides is the only one still standing. He rented the house in 1843 and probably stayed there for less than a year with his wife Virginia and mother-in-law Maria Clemm, who was said to always be busy cleaning and cooking for the couple.

He wrote some of his most-known works in Philadelphia, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and, in total, he published 31 stories during his time there.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site ||

While no remnants of Poe’s time in the house exist today, the National Park Service has done an incredible job telling the story of his time in Philadelphia and in the house. They fill in the details where there are none.

The site includes the original home Poe and his family lived in, along with two adjoining residences built after his time there, now used to house a welcome area, a gift shop, theater and a few exhibits.

There’s even a creepy basement.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site ||

Poe and his family moved out in the spring of 1844 and a few other families rented the house until Richard Gimbel bought it in 1933. He was a fan of Poe and opened it as a museum, leaving it in his will to the city of Philadelphia. In 1978, the National Park Service took control of the home and opened it to the public in 1980.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site ||

The ranger here was incredible, which was actually pretty standard for all the park rangers I encountered during my time in Philadelphia. As I walked up from the creepy basement, I told the ranger I thought Poe would approve of the place, that I think he would have liked it. He said he liked to think so too, especially when the spiders were busy in the basement and the slugs were sliding their way across the walls.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site ||

So, Philly can have part of Poe. They can claim him, just like Richmond can, but what I learned in Philly is that I’m really not good with Baltimore hogging all the Poe-related attention. Yes, he lived there for a bit, but mostly he died there – on his way from Richmond to Philadelphia.

He was 40 then, in 1849, when he was deliriously wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was taken to Washington Medical College but died Oct. 7, 1849, and no one really knows what happened. The clothes he was wearing weren’t his own. He allegedly called out the name “Reynolds” a handful of times the night he died, but no one knows who he was talking about, and his medical records and death certificate are lost.

That’s mostly all we know. There were rumors, of course, that he was drunk, that it was rabies that killed him, or syphilis, or heart disease. But mostly, we don’t know.

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site ||

Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site || terragoes.comEdgar Allan Poe National Historic Site is located in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, although it’s more than a mile from the main historic district.

Admission is free and the site is open Friday-Sunday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. You can request a tour from a ranger or you can pick up a self-guided tour guide and explore at your own pace. There’s a Reading Room on site, too, and visitors are invited to read or listen to Poe’s stories and poems.