Of Battlefields and Blue Highways

Today we went to Gettysburg, PA and the National Battlefield.

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First, you have to know that this is the weekend of extreme heat warnings and 100°F temperatures, so standing out on an open field in the middle of the day is just a little bit this side of insane. But we have tools (air conditioned car, umbrellas for portable shade, fans for portable breeze) and we don’t take a lot of risks. So we packed up and turned our trusty rental car to the north.

4993206280_d3ca481572_bI trust my GPS apps to take me where I need to go, even when there is sketchy cell service, and today was an example of this. My sense of geography around here is limited, so when I saw the Smokey the Bear “the fire threat today is LOW” I wondered what National Park we might be driving by.  We were in the beautiful, wooded hills of Catoctin Mountain Park and Cunningham Falls State Park near Thurmont, Maryland. We drove the winding roads in amazement. These are deciduous forests, and I am sure that in the fall the colors of the trees is incredible as there were so many different types of trees. What I also did not know is that Camp David (yes, that Camp David) is in the Catoctin Mountain National Park. After considering a move to Thurmont, we kept on toward Gettysburg.

I can’t begin to wrap my head around the battle at Gettysburg. Here are the things that stick with me and that are still buzzing around in my head: the battle took place over three days and over 151 THOUSAND soldiers engaged in the battle, and there were over 51,000 were killed in action or wounded. This is a small town in Pennsylvania and seven thousand dead had to be dealt with as well as 43,000 wounded. Who did this? How did they manage? What kind of fortitude must have that taken? Imagine being a woman living in this town, dealing with the dead and dying all around.

The visitors center has a wonderful film and a chance to experience the enormous and detailed 1880s cyclorama depicting the battle of Gettysburg. It was hard not to think about our current national challenges over race and class and privilege listening to the story of the series of events that precipitated South Carolina’s secession and the chain of events that followed.

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Sam Waterston reads parts of President Lincoln’s dedication of the National Cemetery, reminding us all that the honored dead will not change, but that it is those of us who remain who must dedicate our lives to the ensuring that this great experiment of democracy, the government Of the People, By the People, and FOR the People shall not perish from this earth. As we face our own demons we look to the better angels of our own nature to ensure that freedom is for all people, not just our friends.

Tomorrow we go to Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Boonsboro. The heat is on.

Catoctin Mountain Park photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM

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