“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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After learning the history of the building, the tour headed for the Supreme Court Room and then on to the Assembly Room.
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.
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.
At the beginning of 2018, my number one goal for the year was to visit at least 25 U.S. National Park units. That seemed like a lot, especially since I didn’t have a single trip booked, just a few vague ideas about maybe taking myself to the Grand Canyon for my birthday or finally getting to see Crater Lake on my annual trip to Oregon.
I’m not always great at slowing down when I travel. When I visit a national park, I want to see all the things and hike all the trails and explore as many nooks and crannies of the place as I possibly can. So I go and go and go until I collapse into a dreamless sleep around 9 p.m. only to wake up before the sun the next day and do it all again.