“It’s hallowed ground.”
Everyone says it in reverent whispers. The brick worker who visits Gettysburg regularly looking for ghosts. The KFC cashier outside of Antietam. The Park Ranger at Manassas.
People died here, violently and by the thousands, for a cause many of them didn’t fully understand or believe in. Young boys of 17, no older than my high school students, enlisted thinking the war would be some grand adventure. They thought they’d return heroes. Many never returned at all.
My boyfriend Aaron and I are driving from Pittsburgh to the rural Virginia campus of Sweet Briar College, where I work every summer at a high school writing workshop. On the way down, we’re visiting major Civil War battlefields: Gettysburg and Antietam, the bloodiest; Manassas, the first major battle; and Appomattox, the beginning of the end. We’re also stopping at Mount Vernon and Monticello, encouraged by a growing intimacy with Washington and Jefferson brought on by playing the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat.
It’s the perfect American summer vacation, and I’ve meticulously planned our driving times and printed out all the park maps. My smile feels fake, though, and dread darkens the back of my mind.
I planned the trip as a last-ditch effort to save a five-year relationship with a man who has coerced me into watching perhaps hundreds of hours of war documentaries. I hate them all—parades of grainy black and white photographs with male voice-overs detailing troop movements.
I judge the documentaries by what proportion of their runtime is devoted exclusively to white men. Do the WWII ones ignore Japanese internment camps? What do the Civil War ones say about black troops? Do any acknowledge the fact that women existed at all?
They don’t. But why would they? The goal isn’t always to present history. Instead, it is to appeal to a very particular audience, make them feel special, and make their heritage seem strong and storied.
When we watch these, I often paint my nails, sliding pink or teal across them as Aaron (who, I will note, as a first-generation American with brown skin, may not necessarily fit into the documentary target audience either) nods thoughtfully along with the narration. I’m too tired to ask questions anymore.
That’s how I feel watching our relationship end. It ended before, once, when I moved across the country for grad school. I recognize the signs. It’s like watching a documentary on some other long-past war. I can see the solutions but am too late to enact them.
Perhaps if I can get on the field, if I can see things at ground level instead of taking someone else’s interpretation as truth—maybe then I can make a difference.
At the end of the trip, we’ll decide whether to stay together or break up.
We leave at 7 a.m., and the country outside our window is a blur of green as Aaron speeds down the highway.
“Watch out for cops,” I say. “Let’s try not to go more than 15 over the speed limit.”
He was born in New York City and learned to drive there. He ignores me.
After about an hour on 30 East, the tiny two-lane road we’ve chosen to avoid tolls, we start to see signs for the Flight 93 Memorial. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to it.
We’re seeing Gettysburg and Antietam today, the sites of the bloodiest battle and bloodiest single-day battle in American history. Almost 75,000 dead between them. Isn’t that enough? Then I imagine my father, my hero, the man who is identical to me in every way besides his obsessive patriotism and staunch conservative beliefs. He would want me to stop.
We pull off the highway.
The gently curving road to the memorial is three or four miles long, surrounded by vast fields. The sky is an incredible blue. It’s a little chilly for June, and there’s a light breeze.
“It’s beautiful here,” I say. “I guess it’s a nice place for…”
But then I don’t know.
At the memorial, there’s only one other visitor, and they’re leaving. The sounds of our footsteps seem to echo on the smooth concrete.
Every minute of the flight is catalogued on informational plaques: the hijacking, the frantic phone calls, the resistance, the crash. I pray that, God forbid I am ever in a similar situation, I am brave and creative and strong like they were. A flight attendant boiled water to throw. They used the drink carts as battering rams. Their phone calls gave invaluable information to people on the ground and their interference took the crash away from more prominent targets.
Names are posted with color pictures of the 40 dead. I read each one slowly.
I don’t cry later at any of the Civil War battlefields, though their casualty counts are thousands of times higher. I cry here. It’s different here.
The people in the pictures look like me or like my family or friends—they wear modern clothing and smile confidently at the camera. Most of all, here the date means something.
On September 11, 2001, I was in 4th grade at an elementary school near Atlanta. My teachers cried and rushed from one room to the next. They turned the TV on but faced it away from us. No one would tell us what was happening. Parents came to pick up their children. I learned later my mother had come, peeked in my classroom window, and decided I looked fine, wanting to give me a few more hours of ignorance. But I wasn’t ignorant: I knew, somehow, that everything had changed.
Aaron was in 6th grade in New York City. He remembers his grandfather coming to pick him up, the children scrambling scared and confused, ushered by parents who were similarly scared but trying to hide it. The city smelled of ash for days afterward, and the air was hazy with smoke even at his grandparents’ home on West 97th. He didn’t have to guess at the way the world was changing. He could see it.
As I walk around the memorial, I notice a roped off path to a large boulder. There’s a single bouquet of flowers there. This is where the plane first made impact, although debris was scattered all across the countryside. This one place is private. I think of Steve Kandell’s beautiful essay about the 9/11 Memorial Museum, in which he suggests “everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life.”
“You should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch it be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely.”
Do I even have a right to my tears here? In what way am I perpetuating an inconsiderate, voyeuristic layering of my own personal feelings over tragedies I have no right to? All over the world, hallowed ground has become a tourist attraction, something we feel we all need to be a part of, full of emotion we must experience, however unearned.
Flight 93 is close enough to affect me, but many of my students were born after 9/11. None remember it. I wonder if the memorial would make them cry.
What is the algorithm that determines the degree of distance and separation and time it takes to turn tragedies into mere historical markers, sites that elicit nothing more than a “how sad” as families pass by on summer vacations?
We drive through Gettysburg and Antietam next, following marked car tours at each vast battlefield, only getting out at the most prominent sites. It would take days to do each park justice, and I feel guilty rushing Aaron through. Next time we’ll spend longer, I tell him.
One of the places we get out to look at is a gorgeous rocky valley at Gettysburg. It earned names like “Devil’s Den” and “The Slaughter Pen” for the way soldiers were pressed to a lower altitude, then picked off easily from above. Everyone has their phones out, taking pictures of the scenery. We join them, then continue on our drive. It reminds me of one of those outdoor light shows at Christmas: take a moment to look at each spectacle, then move along. Just keep driving. Just keep driving.
Gettysburg houses the most monuments out of any Civil War battlefield. It’s littered with them: enormous ones you can climb into, bronze statues of important generals, tiny headstones that bear only the number of a regiment. One depicts a soldier holding a rifle at attention. A bird stands on the tip of the rifle, pecking at something. It flies away before I can take a picture.
Later, at a small cemetery at the less-trafficked Antietam, I notice how much I have craved the quiet. I remember the advice of a talkative brick-worker back in Pittsburgh who made multiple trips a year to these battlefields. He told me not to seek the ghosts. That scares them. Instead, he told me to find a quiet place, then imagine what life might have been like for the people who have lived and died where I stand. How did they feel? What did they smell and hear and see?
“They’ll ask you, ‘Why are you here?’ Some of them might even get aggressive. But you just hold your ground, and they’ll start to talk,” he’d said. My father had chuckled. I didn’t. I believed.
I stand at the edge of the cemetery. The sun is just starting to fade into early evening, and it casts a golden glow on everything. A willow tree whispers in the breeze. I shut my eyes.
“You ready?” Aaron asks.
I open them. I don’t feel anything.
After Gettysburg and Antietam, we stop for a night at my uncle’s home in D.C. It feels weird to talk about the future, to pretend everything’s okay in my relationship, but I’m not ready to say it’s over yet, not ready to even hint. I talk about the house Aaron and I plan on buying, how my uncle will have to help us with the renovation. I feel like one of the dolls I had in childhood, the ones where pulling a string elicits one among a litany of catchphrases. The words come out of my mouth, but I do not own them. I do not control them.
In the morning, we go to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. Inside, we are surrounded by school groups who stare into their phones and wander distractedly from room to room. One of the chaperones is excited we’re so interested in history and completely abandons the children he’s supposed to be supervising. He shows us a picture of a historical marker in his own backyard: it’s one of the rendezvous points where French General Rochambeau gave guns and ships to American forces. Aaron and I know of the trade from Hamilton and are delighted, then delighted again when we see the key to the Bastille the Marquis de Lafayette (our favorite character from the musical) gave to Washington hanging on a wall inside.
We are all laughs and whispered song lyrics. I smile, and for a moment it feels real. I trip a little upstairs, near Washington’s bedroom, and grab the doorframe for balance. Chills prick my neck. Who else has walked these halls, touched the same places I have?
We peer into the room in which Washington died. Sunlight tumbles gracefully from the windows onto a clean, white bed. The lumpy down comforter makes it look like someone is hiding under the blankets.
“After his death,” our tour guide says, “Martha Washington had the room sealed. She slept upstairs.” Here, she gestures toward a narrow staircase.
I imagine elderly Martha, in the three years between her husband’s death and her own, passing by the door to the room in which they slept together every night as she trudged up to the bed she occupied alone. I imagine her cold, carrying a candle and wearing a white nightdress. She burned almost all the letters they wrote to each other. I wonder why.
We wander outside, down a long dirt path to Washington’s grave. There are two sites: one he was buried at first, and another grander monument where his and Martha’s bodies now rest.
There’s a long, quiet line for the second grave, and each person or family hovers in front of it for a moment before leaving. There’s an American flag on either side. I am reminded of my few experiences in church, of kneeling in front of a priest, of taking communion, of the dry wafer crumbling on my tongue.
“Why do you think they moved him?” I whisper. We are next up.
“Don’t you read the plaques?”
This is a source of agitation between us. I’ve spent every free moment of my entire life reading: I’m fast. Aaron loves to read every sentence on every possible historical marker or poster but does so at a much slower place. This results in my waiting around, bored, for him to finish and his assuming I don’t care as much as he does about the history.
“I read faster than you,” I whisper as we walk towards the grave. I assume this will silence things.
“Well maybe you should read more carefully.”
I peer into the tomb vault. I ponder how nice it is, that he and his wife are together, that he didn’t let ego separate them. I think about how close I am to the “mortal remains” (as another Washington relative’s tombstone inscription read) of our Founding Father. I wonder whether I believe in immortal remains. Aaron is still talking about the plaques and my failure to read them.
I walk away. It’s hard to believe that we can’t stop arguing, even somewhere sacred. I whisper-yell at him until we are a reasonable distance away, and then I raise my voice. I ask him why everything has to be a fight. Tears well up in my eyes. I bite my lip. I won’t cry. I won’t cry. He asks where I’m going. I say the gardens. He says I’m going the wrong way. I’m not. When we get there, him trailing behind me like a dog, he does not apologize.
A line from Sandra Cisneros’ “One Last Poem for Richard” comes to mind: “There should be stars for great wars/ like ours. There ought to be awards/ and plenty of champagne for the survivors./ After all the years of degradations,/ the several holidays of failure,/ there should be something/ to commemorate the pain.”
I imagine the other monuments that would clutter this landscape if Cisneros’ words were made literal. I think of Gettysburg. Is this how our whole world could look, like scattered crosses on the most dangerous stretch of highway?
What would the monument to this fight look like?
I whisper an apology to Washington, feeling foolish for doing so. I think not of the man on the $1 bill, but the smiling actor from Hamilton. He feels closer. I imagine he forgives me.
After Mount Vernon, we head to Manassas, the quietest battlefield yet, and then on to spend the night in Charlottesville.
At the hotel, Aaron says he has a surprise for me. He goes to the bathroom, turns the lights out, and then walks into the room wearing only a glow-in-the-dark condom. I pretend his penis is a lightsaber, complete with sound effects. I take the condom off, fill it with water, and pretend it is an evil glowing goose with laser vision. Finally, we throw it against the wall in the shower, laughing maniacally. It takes several tries before it bursts. We never use it for its intended purpose. I wonder, as I go to sleep, whether I will regret that.
In the morning, we visit Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. I am struck by the beauty of the rolling hills and the meticulously planned gardens. At his desk, a contraption links two pens together, allowing him to write a letter with one while the other makes an instant copy. In the parlor, we recognize a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette and high five. Later, we share uncomfortable glances as the tour guide stumbles over the word “alleged” each time he mentions Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings.
At the end of our tour, we walk down to Jefferson’s grave. This is apparently the presidential house routine: a grand home, a grand burial. When we get there, the gate to the small family cemetery is open and people are on their knees scrubbing the graves. I guess it’s for some volunteer event. We walk inside.
Slowly, we begin to overhear snippets of conversation.
“So how are you related?”
“This reunion’s better than last year, huh?”
“It’s amazing how spread out we’ve all gotten!”
The realization comes to us in a flash, and we look at each other in horror. We are crashing a family reunion. Not only that, we are crashing a family reunion of one of the country’s most important families. Only then do we see the line of tourists outside, filing past from a direction opposite the one from which we came. We flee, mortified but still giggling, having accidentally desecrated yet another presidential grave.
“What do you think they would’ve done if we just grabbed a brush and started scrubbing?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m related to Henry. Yes, of course! We met at the wedding, don’t you remember?” he jokes.
But we are not those types of people. We walk slowly back down to the car.
I whisper an apology to Jefferson, too, but then realize he might have been madder about my brown boyfriend holding my white hand entering his home at all. I rescind my apology. We keep holding hands.
Appomattox, our last stop, is the quietest. We drive there straight from Monticello, and it’s already hot when we arrive in the early afternoon. The park is set up just like the original little town, with the courthouse, tavern, and private homes central to the battle nestled around a small square.
At the McClean house, we enter the room where the Civil War began its ending, where Robert E. Lee surrendered. The room is small. The tables at which Grant and Lee sat are on opposite sides of the room, and between them a painting shows how the men huddled in two distinct groups before signing the surrender. Grant was gracious: he allowed the Confederate soldiers to take their mules and horses home to help with spring planting and gave rations to the starving troops. As Lee left town, it’s said even the Union soldiers saluted.
A park ranger out front tells us this is the original house, the site of the surrender, but not the original construction. It was torn down and all its components boxed up for a historical display in Washington, D.C., that never occurred. The version we visit, reconstructed from all the original materials that could be salvaged, opened in 1950.
I don’t get the same feeling as I did at Mount Vernon. This feels false, somehow. Once something has been broken apart, even after being put back together it will never be as it once was. Can this place still be hallowed after so many have tampered with it, viewed it as some sort of exhibition?
As David Foster Wallace said, tourists are “an insect on a dead thing.” This thing, to me, feels the most dead of all.
We go out for Italian before Aaron drops me off. I make him sit on the same side of the table as me, something I usually mock couples for. It’s corny.
“I’ll miss you,” I say, and lean my head on his shoulder.
I ask if he’s made his decision yet.
I’ve made mine. Ever the optimist, I guess mine was clear from the start. When my dog had spinal surgery, he carried her up and down three flights of stairs multiple times a day for six weeks as she recovered. When he tells me I’m beautiful, which is often, his eyes are genuine and unafraid. Even when he stays up later than I do, he always tucks me into bed and kisses my forehead. My father likes him. He makes me laugh. Yes, there are problems, but I’m full of second and third and twenty-fifth chances. I love him. That is enough.
Aaron is quiet.
“You still don’t know?”
He says no, but when he mumbles, “I’ll miss you too,” I think I can guess.
After he drops me off, he does it over the phone. I feel hollow and hate myself for ever hoping things would be okay.
I spend the rest of my summer steeling myself against coming to terms with the break-up. I throw myself into my work: spreadsheets, conferences with staff, lesson plans, parent phone calls. A few times, in the early morning hours that yield no good decisions, I call him, sobbing. Nothing comes of it.
On one of my last nights at Sweet Briar, I go for a walk. I plan for it to be a short one, but as soon as I am outside, my path seems predetermined. Each summer, I make a pilgrimage to Monument Hill, where the daughter of the school’s founder is buried. Daisy Williams died at 16, the same age as my students, and her life inspired her family to start the school. I like to say hello to her, to thank her for whatever blessing her presence grants my program. It seems fitting to begin and end my summer with ghosts. I keep walking, the buildings of campus fading into the distance as darkness thickens.
I pass the library steps where I argued with Aaron on the phone after we broke up for the first time, several years ago. I pass the spot where, as my mother recovered from a double mastectomy and underwent treatment for advanced stage cancer, I found out my grandmother had cancer, too. Hers was terminal. I have worked here for five years: the campus is full of my own hallowed ground. Monument Hill is not the only “official” hallowed ground, either. For decades, the slave graveyard lay unmarked and unmaintained—it is just recently getting the respect it has long deserved. I keep walking.
I am wearing the too-tight ballet flats I use for the office and am armed only with a can of Coca-Cola and my dying cell phone as provisions. The cicadas beat themselves into an angry hum, and in the distance a train thunders. In front of me, shadows turn tree branches into specters. I am heartened by the glimmer of fireflies, the scraps of candy-pink cloud quickly melting into night. I keep walking.
Finally, I reach the place where the forest closes in around the trail. It is already coal-black. I do not remember how much farther the trail stretches under the trees. They spotted a bear out here last week. I know I should turn around, but I hate to quit things.
I squint back at the far-off lights of campus where my staff is already sleeping off a long summer’s work, a summer in which we changed the lives of 200 children. Suddenly, it seems more important, rarer, to find ground that has not been hallowed, ground upon which nothing evil or tragic or harmful has ever occurred. With each step, I ask myself: is this the sacred, untainted spot? Is this it? Is this it?
Around me in every direction, the fields stretch to the horizon where they are met by the purple shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I turn back.
Fascinating, beautiful and meaningful.