(Springfield, Illinois; April 1, 2018) Thus begins the first travel column I’ve ever written that incorporates two states. Two states and four sites. Can I cook, or can’t I?! (You’ll notice yet another new state on my map at bottom!)
A couple of days ago on March 30 I hiked the Fort Donelson National Battlefield Park in Tennessee. Keeping in line with my long-held belief that walking the field helps inculcate a deeper resonance of comprehension, I parked Sarah Jane near the water batteries the Confederates built to secure the Cumberland River, hiked back along the trails to the fort’s entrance, and then hiked along the road back to my car. This was only a couple of miles. The trails along the Cumberland and Hickman Creek are not long, but they’re some of the more advanced trails I’ve encountered in a long time. You will do some serious clambering up and down twisting paths over the ridges. Bring a walking stick and watch your footing!
Fort Donelson was a Confederate fort captured by Ulysses Grant in February 1862. It was the culmination of his first campaign as a Union general in the Civil War. It marked two of the greatest lows of the Confederate military. The first was when the Confederate leadership fell apart, lost an opportunity for their army to escape, and then the two senior generals abandoned their men and fled. The second was in the surrender. Grant bagged the first of three Confederate armies he would capture before the war was over (more intact armies than any other Union general captured). His success opened the Cumberland up to the Union, and set up Rosecrans’ later victory at Stones River.
It also started Grant on his meteoric climb into the historical stratosphere.
The action of Fort Donelson—where the rebels tried to break out—is not land you can hike. Most of that area today is private development. But the fort has some amazing (if difficult) trails and incredible wildlife. The stars of that show are a pair of nesting bald eagles near the batteries overlooking the Cumberland River. After I parked Sarah Jane, I spotted one in the trees near me. After a few minutes, it took off and flew, vanishing over the river.
After I concluded my hike (returning to the water batteries), I happened to glance straight up after hearing something in the tree…and there was another bald eagle about 20 feet over my head. Staring. Right. At. Me.
For a moment I couldn’t tell if the eagle was curious or furious.
In the end it was neither; it apparently decided its American Eagle look was more important and spent the next half hour preening and cleaning its feathers (I watched and timed it).
That was quite an experience. I’ve only seen a bald eagle in the wild once before—in 2012 at Jamestown in Virginia. Last week, I saw two on the same day…and got stared down by one to boot!
The eagles, interestingly enough, weren’t the highlight. The frogs were.
As I descended the trail from the ridge top and came level with Hickman Creek, the woods and water just lit up with this amazing, non-melodic music. All around me notes rose and fell and quavered. Voice came in and went out. Silence fell like a piano on my head…and then the angelic, untamed symphony swirled into being again, washing away the silence of the woods.
The frogs were singing. It was something I’ve never heard before; well, not like this. This wasn’t the one or two frog cries you hear in the nearby pond, nor was it the recorded cacophony you’d get in a zoo or aquarium. There were evidently so many animals and their song so loud it was very nearly painful…except it was so damned beautiful. Go to my Flickr site and find the 30 second video I recorded. The volume of these little critters’ music, and the oddly harmonic tones of their extemporaneous performance will amaze you.
Today I’m in Springfield, Illinois, the former home of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Their house is a national park; the law office Lincoln maintained is part of the site. The state of Illinois maintains the nearby old state capitol, the building where Lincoln finished he career as a state representative, argued cases before the Illinois supreme court, and ran his 1860 presidential campaign. Interestingly, the building was demolished in 1960, then rebuilt using the original exterior stones. Sadly, very few of the furniture or paintings inside are original to Lincoln (the opposite is true at the Lincoln home where 90% of the furnishings are original to the Lincolns).
But the hiking theme continues. Lincoln walked to work ever day—rain or snow or wind or hail. He strolled from his house at 8th and Jackson Streets to his practice at 6th and Adams. Across the street is the old state house (good choice of office location on his part!). He’d walk to work in the morning, and walk home in the evenings. Every day.
After touring his house I walked to his office and the old state house. Today it snowed here in Springfield. It’s Sunday, so the streets were already quiet. The Sunday silence was then compounded by that odd, sound-dampening effect that occurs during snowfall. No modern noises hit my ears today anymore than back at Fort Donelson last week. And that, my good readers, was today’s Gift.
In Lincoln’s day life was much, much quieter. No airplanes, MP4 players, automobiles, or air conditioners blasted into his ears. The noisiest thing he heard was the train. By walking literally in his footsteps from his front door to his office, and not hearing so much as a car engine, I could very easily let my imagination erase the modern buildings around me and almost see the horses, carriages, and very formally-dressed people from the last century passing by.
After touring the state house, I hit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The museum uses artifacts, shockingly life-like figures in superbly staged dioramas, and modern multimedia to tell Lincoln’s story. After getting to not hear modern Springfield, stepping into these dioramas with my tired, trodden-upon feet completed the illusion of time travel. For a moment, for a singular, magnificent flash, I truly felt as if I has stepped back in time and gotten to stroll with the greatest figure in my personal historical pantheon.
I cannot guarantee you snowy weather to quiet a modern city. Nor can I promise you a bald eagle that will stare you down, or the heavenly music of frogs singing in the afternoon light. These moments are but the fleeting gifts given to those who do shed the comforts of modern cars and take the time to walk in the paths of our ancestors. You will never be able to predict when or where or how the next Great Moment will come, but if you take the time to walk, it will come. That much I can promise!
Frog song and bald eagles. A great couple of days!
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Fort Donelson National Battlefield Park: https://www.nps.gov/fodo/index.htm
Lincoln Home National Historic Site: https://www.nps.gov/fodo/index.htm
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: http://lincolnlibraryandmuseum.com/
Old State Capitol (Illinois): https://www2.illinois.gov/dnrhistoric/Experience/Sites/Central/Pages/Old-Capitol.aspx
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