Chasing History and Memories: A whirlwind family road trip to the East Coast
I had been looking forward to the 2013-2014 school year for over a decade. It was the year that our three children would be in 5th, 8th and 11th grades – all the years in which California students study American history. I had visions of showing them the places where all that crazy rebellion, revolution and nation-forming happened; places I had visited in a distant past and which I was eager to see again myself through the new lens of older eyes.
As the magical school year approached my husband and I had no plans to follow that particular dream. Fly five people to Boston? Please.
But then something more profound than a star-aligned school year happened. In the summer, on a shoestring, we took a bus and a train down to Mexico to tour the Copper Canyon. It was a family adventure, and it was one of the best experiences of our lives. It hit my husband and me the same way. We realized that we are in the midst of a very special window in time, wherein all of our children are old enough to really appreciate and understand what they see, and wherein all of them are still at home and, yes, wherein they are all still subject to our schedule and our whim. That window is a narrow one. We have to make the most of it.
So as autumn drew near and the anticipated school year began, we started dreaming about the east coast again. Maybe we could do it. Maybe we could beg, borrow or steal the money. Who needs airplanes anyway? We have a minivan, and a minivan is almost all a family needs for making memories.
Three weeks passed between the time we made the decision to go for it and the day we pulled out of our driveway. We took the kids out of school, pleading the educational value of the trip, and we decided we would drive straight through; no hotels until Williamsburg, Virginia, our first destination. The only two regrets were that we only had a couple of hours in Memphis (where we stopped to spit in the Mississippi for good luck) and we missed a lot of scenery as we drove through the nights.
There is nothing like a no-holds-barred, non-stop cross-country road trip to give you a sense of the great natural diversity of the United States. If man is in any measure a product of his environment, then it is a marvel that our country has stayed united as long as it has. Arid coasts turn into dry deserts that turn into rocky mountains that turn into humid plains that turn into forests that turn into mountains again, this time lush and touched with the brilliance of autumn, before they deliver you, richly, to a new coast that is riddled with rivers and inlets of every size. Driving is so much better than flying.
DAY 1: REVOLUTIONARY INKLINGS
Our first encounter with history was in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Known as the Revolutionary City, Colonial Williamsburg is in the heart of modern Williamsburg, preserved as a national landmark. The entire town is a reenactment of the Revolutionary era. We were taken on a tour of the Capitol Hall (where the House of Burgesses debated the prospect of independence and crafted the foundations of our nation) and my 8th grade son’s eyes lit up as the guide walked us through revolutionary proceedings that he had just been learning about the week before, all of which happened in the room we were standing in. We visited the wig maker and the stocks; we witnessed live cannons fired and got a glimpse of George Washington on horseback (spoiler: he was just an actor). Our daughter was flirted with by a gentlemanly militiaman who gave her his arm for the duration of two colonial blocks.
DAY 2: SURPRISING GETTYSBURG
Colonial Williamsburg was always on the wish list, but Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was an afterthought. When we ended up with a one-day gap in our schedule, we decided to make a visit, even though it was out of our way. For me, it ended up being the highlight of our trip. The entire battlefield is now a national park. You can walk the grounds and see it as the soldiers saw it. There are monuments on site from just about every state, because sons of just about every state bled there on that field. I cannot express with enough enthusiasm the experience of letting an expert historian and tour guide drive us around the battlefield in our own car, unfolding for us as he drove the events of those three heartbreaking days. The new museum at Gettysburg is one of the best I’ve ever visited, and that part of the country is unspeakably beautiful.
DAYS 3 & 4: CAPITOL WANDERINGS
Washington, D.C. was our next destination, our first big city. For having only a day and a half to see all we could, we packed it in. We toured the Capitol building, got a glimpse of researchers working at the (stunning) Library of Congress, looked up the soaring walls of the Washington monument (scaffold-covered for repairs to damages caused by, of all things, an earthquake!), walked by the World War II memorial, touched the Vietnam Wall, stood in awe of Lincoln’s much larger than life (in reality and in spirit) marble figure, visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, strolled the National Gallery of Art and encountered Picasso, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Dali and others through works we had no idea were housed there.
We ended the day by tracking down the office of our representative, Loretta Sanchez. We stuck out like five sore thumbs in the network of government buildings trying to find the little office. It was staffer after staffer taking double takes at us as we walked through the halls. Ms. Sanchez wasn’t in, but her assistant, an Anaheim native, was very nice. My kids will remember it as an aggravating hike through endless corridors for nothing. I will remember doing my duty and showing my kids what Washington “really” looks like. There may or may not have been tears at the end of that very full day. Fortunately, we had a killer hotel room at Hotel Rouge awaiting our Washington-weary feet.
DAYS 5, 6 & 7: THE BIG APPLE
From D.C. we were N.Y.C.-bound and the kids were downright giddy. Isaac and I had both been to New York previously, but driving ourselves into the city via New Jersey was entirely unlike our previous experiences. As you drive up along the Hudson the city grows in your view as it grows in your anticipation. As parents, it was more precious to watch the excitement and wonder the kids felt as they took in that storied city for the first time. Literal squeals of delight turned to gasps of awe as we emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into Midtown Manhattan.
A couple of days is not nearly enough to do New York City justice, but you take what you can get – and the city will give it to you. Two days of watching our kids have one first after another – first subway ride, first New York pizza slice, first Broadway show, first sight of the Statue of Liberty from the top of the Empire State Building, first stroll through Central Park, first visit to the Met, first glimpse at the bedlam that is Times Square, and a first confrontation with the reality of 9/11 at the in-progress memorial site in Lower Manhattan. NYCgo, the visitors’ resource, helped us make sense of the madness and the Omni Berkshire Place, built in 1926, offered a perfect “home base” to rest our sight-worn bones while keeping us connected to the city’s history.
DAYS 8, 9 & 10: THE CRADLE OF LIBERTY
After New York City, Boston feels like a small town where you can’t turn around without bumping into a gravestone of a Son of Liberty, running into an historical landmark or stumbling upon a legendary building. It’s the Cradle of Liberty full of lessons from history; it’s Beantown, heavy with cultural significance; it’s America’s Walking City, full of pedestrians who dig their rickety old subway cars because they’re the oldest and the coolest.
Boston famously offers its Freedom Trail, a path of bricks that takes a walker throughout the city past its most significant sites. Along the Freedom Trail are the most politically significant landmarks but also several “oldests” and “firsts” such as the Omni Parker House and the Union Oyster House, the longest continuously running hotel and restaurant in the country, respectively. The Freedom Trail makes it easy to discover your nation’s history on your own, but there are also excellent tours that are educational and entertaining. The Boston CVB helped us identify two walking tours that brought
the history alive for the kids. The Freedom Trail Tour took us from Boston Common to Faneuil Hall, past the Granary Burying Ground where Paul
Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and others are buried, including all five victims of the Boston Massacre; and past the Old State House where those five were slain and where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to the public.
Our second tour was a walking tour of Cambridge – mostly Harvard. A guide from Cambridge Historical Walking Tours, in top hat and in character, shared one juicy Harvard secret after another as he led us through town and campus. My favorite? Standing next to the vent at the back of Widener Library, which blew up warm air laced with the scent of old books from the depths of its basement. The kids’ favorite? The statue of John Harvard, also known as the Statue of Three Lies, the bronze left foot of which is shiny from all the good-luck rubbing it gets. Right after the guide told us that mischievous Harvard students like to crawl up on that statue and pee on that left foot, a family of tourists walked up unawares and rubbed it for good luck. We all snickered behind our sleeves. Then, like any good parents would do, Isaac and I made our kids take a photo rubbing the foot for good luck, assuring them that because it had been raining, it wasn’t gross.
As silly a highlight as that might be, that’s rather what became the point for us. We started out chasing history but ended up chasing memories. We were lucky enough to get both. It only required a little over 80 hours of drive time and a realization that the window is open now, but won’t always be. M