When the park ranger at Fort Union National Monument asked me what I thought about the site, I told him it was creepy. He said that was an unusual response, one he didn’t get regularly, but that I was the second person that day to call the place creepy. I tried to qualify the statement. I told him creepy wasn’t exactly the right word. The place felt eerie, maybe, sort of ghostly and maybe even haunted.
In going to New Mexico, I wanted to experience two things: National Parks and really good food. So, upon my arrival in New Mexico, I went straight for the tacos, at Kelly’s Brew Pub, where I met a bartender who shared my name. I took meeting her as a good omen since she was only the second Terra I’d ever met and then I scampered to Petroglyph National Monument, to get my first taste of New Mexico’s national park scene.
On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the small village of Appomattox Court House. While the official end of the American Civil War would come later, Lee’s surrender marked the effective end to a war that had raged for four years and claimed more than 620,000 lives.
My trip to New Mexico was my first-ever solo trip and I launched into planning mode before I even booked the tickets. I ordered a travel guide, started a Pinterest board, perused the National Park Service website and flipped through some of my favorite travel blogs to see if they had any suggestions on what I should be doing with my time in New Mexico.
I danced in the middle of the road at Valles Caldera National Preserve. And when I say, “I danced,” I mean I fucking danced.
I don’t even know why I did it, not really, just that I needed to do it.
Maybe I was overtaken by the beauty of the place, by the trees and the air and the grass and the streams and the brilliant blue birds that kept jetting in front of my bright red Ford Focus and especially by the perfect loneliness of that road. I’d passed one car by that point, about two hours prior, and had spent the morning bumping over and around potholes in complete solitude. Maybe I didn’t want to leave without expressing how happy I was to be there. Maybe I just needed a middle of the road dance-a-thon to express to nature, the world and myself the incredible joy those battered roads and that beautiful place gave me.
One of the things that attracted me to New Mexico, aside from the sunsets, the National Parks, the mountains, the food and a Buzzfeed quiz, was the opportunity to learn more about the history of the southwestern part of the United States. I can rattle off all sorts of history about Virginia. I can still name the original 13 colonies, know all about the native inhabitants of my home state and the states that surround it and can give a pretty solid account of the colonization of the entire eastern side of the United States. When it comes to the rest of the country though, I don’t know much, or at least not much detail.
The views are great, the rangers are great, the hikes are great, the tour is great and the pigs are great, but the sheep at George Washington Birthplace National Monument are assholes. They’re direct descendants of the original Washington sheep and it’s made them incredibly arrogant. I spent 10 minutes leaning over a fence rail attempting to get a decent look at them. They wanted absolutely nothing to do with me and opted instead to hide from me in the shaded front of an outbuilding.
It took me a week to get to Kuwait when I deployed last year. That’s not normal. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, but for 1o of us, that’s exactly how it did work. We ended up stranded in Baltimore and then Germany and then Qatar before finally making it to our final destination.
In the past few months, I’ve managed to visit something like five National Park sites. They’ve all been tied to a historic person or event and I’ve tried to participate in a ranger-led walk or tour at each one. Sometimes, that’s the only option if you want to really see the site, especially if it’s a historic home or structure. At other sites, there are oodles of options, from hikes, to driving tours or interactive displays. For me, when I visit a historic site, taking the tour has always proved worth it. Yes, I could read the wikipedia page or the official website, but it’s so much easier to have a ranger tell me about it, live and in person with gesticulating included directing me to actually look at what they’re talking about. And that’s why I showed up at Manassas National Battlefield Park just in time for a guided tour of Henry Hill.
The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is only about a mile and a half from my house. It’s my most local National Park. Still, it took me more than a decade of living in Richmond, Virginia, before my first visit, in 2015. I went again this past weekend, with out of town friends.
Before my first visit, I’d seen the name Maggie L. Walker around town. I knew the very basic of basics. I knew she was the first African American woman to charter a bank, that there’s a school named after her in Richmond and that her home is a National Park unit.