Caution: I Brake For History

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O Public Road … you express me better than I can express myself. ” I first read Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” in Leaves of Grass , as an Ohio schoolboy. The great democratic chant struck me hard, a lightning bolt of simple, authoritative words proclaiming that only in motion do people have the chance to turn dreams into reality. Even as a fourteen-yearold I already suspected this.

 

O Public Road … you express me better than I can express myself. ” I first read Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” in Leaves of Grass , as an Ohio schoolboy. The great democratic chant struck me hard, a lightning bolt of simple, authoritative words proclaiming that only in motion do people have the chance to turn dreams into reality. Even as a fourteen-year-old I already suspected this. After all, my favorite reading, be it Jack London’s Alaska stories, Mark Twain’s Mississippi River tales, or Jack Kerouac’s highway antics, had adventurous escape as a subplot. What sense did it make to be trapped in Perrysburg Junior High School reading Huckleberry Finn when the white bass were running in the Maumee River? If Huck had the good common sense to discover his river, then why shouldn’t I be exploring along the banks of mine? As London wrote in John Barleycorn about his own youth, “I wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew.” Although this was obviously an immature perspective on what constituted an education, it is also true that I learned more about American history by taking a field trip to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in nearby Dearborn, Michigan, than in a traditional classroom setting.

 

In large part my parents are to be thanked for planting in me the impetuous travel bug of history. Every summer of my childhood we hitched our cream-colored Coachman trailer, the “Buckeye Buggy,” to our Pontiac station wagon and took off on an eightweek odyssey. The objective: to learn about our American heritage.

Instead of sunning on Florida’s crowded beaches or waiting in line to see Walt Disney World’s robotic attractions, we would tour Civil War battlefields or visit historic homes like James Monroe’s Ash Lawn and Helen KeIler’s Ivy Green. On those summer journeys it was the sheer sensation of traveling down the open road, absorbing visual poetry out the rear window of our station wagon, that electrified my youthful soul; the destination was secondary. Mornings, I could hardly wait for the Buckeye Buggy to be packed up and unhooked so that we could flee the campground for unknown and unimagined topography.

Odd as it may sound, my obsessive hobby on these trips became snapping color photographs of historic gravesites. Arlington National Cemetery was a bonanza, for this was the final resting spot for scores of my heroes, including President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Dashiell Hammett, William Jennings Bryan, and Gus Grissom. Another favorite was Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, where on Author’s Ridge lie the graves of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcotts. During college I continued this hobby abroad, visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where such notable Americans as Judah Benjamin, Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, and Richard Wright are buried. One afternoon while backpacking in Surrey, England, I sat by the grave of Bret Harte and read his short story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” aloud for only the birds to hear.

 
 

The homes of former Presidents were always my favorite family destinations. In Independence, Missouri, I remember how we peered at Harry Truman’s North Delaware Street Victorian house and wished that the former President were still alive to guide us through his town. We imagined him as an old man ambling down the sidewalk at dusk, his “Open Road” Stetson firmly atop his head, cane in hand, saying neighborly hellos, and thinking back to when Missouri was part of the virgin West.