I didn’t realize until a while ago that I haven’t posted in a week. Here’s a portion of a short story I wrote last summer. Enjoy! Sorry for the long post, but I’ve been wanting to put this one on here for a while.
It was a trip like most of the trips my husband and I take. We crammed as much as we could into that six-day trip. History in Philadelphia, hiking and visiting friends in Scranton, a tour of the Hershey factory, a drive through Amish Country and a tour of Valley Forge. Then Gettysburg.
Gettysburg was the middle portion of our trip and while I had fun in Scranton and Hershey, the one thought in the back of my mind was I have to get to Gettysburg, I have to get to Gettysburg. It was a never-ending mantra from the time we stepped off the plane to the time we checked into the inn. Floating through my subconscious as we hiked over the rocks in Nay Aug Park, there in my mind as I sat in the ride at the Hershey guest center listening to how cacao beans are grown, shipped and eventually made into chocolate. Pulling me toward the surface as we walked deeper into a cavern; the stalactites and stalagmites slowly forming as we walked. My husband didn’t understand it and neither did I truthfully.
Once in Gettysburg, I felt at home. Like I had been away too long from where I belonged. A feeling of inner peace and belonging. That feeling you get when you’ve been away on vacation a day too long and you’re ready to sleep in your own bed; that’s how I felt as soon as we hit the city limits of Gettysburg.
We stayed at the Inn at Herr Ridge. A home built in the early eighteen hundreds that operated as a field hospital during the battle in 1863. It had been expanded over the years into a twenty room inn. Supposedly, guests have experienced paranormal activity; footsteps on the wooden boards of the rooms, voices in the hallway and the hushed sound of children playing. The innkeeper told me all this as she showed me upstairs to our rooms.
The two rooms we rented were in the original part of the house; a cheery room with worn dark hardwood floor boards covered with braided rugs scattered throughout. The bathroom was squeezed into one corner of the room. A tub with massaging water jets took up almost half the space. The door sported a handle and lock that looked as old as the house. A four-post canopy bed sat angled from the corner opposite the bathroom door and next to a gas fireplace. Our first night the fireplace was put to good use, helping create the feel of what this room might have been like a century ago.
Our room faced the northwesterly portion of the first days’ battle field. A worn spot on the boards lay in front of the window, the stain rubbed off by countless guests looking out at that same ridge, just as I was. We faced the Chambersburg Road and it was easy for me to imagine Rebel troops marching east toward the town, camping along the ridges as they awaited orders, the darkened clouds outside the window the same color as the Rebs homespun uniforms. The railroad cutout that served as a trench is still there; when the grass blew in the wind, I had to look twice to make sure there wasn’t a soldier peeking out from behind the reeds.
We spent three nights on the ridge. Each day our travels took us through town. We walked the soldier’s cemetery so famously dedicated by President Abraham Lincoln. The rain fit the somber mood that engulfed me as we walked through the circles of marker stones. I felt myself frown when a group of giggling teenagers walked past, biting my tongue before I could shush them. We stood at the spot where he addressed the crowd, wondering who each soldier was under those stones arced around the battles’ commemorative statue. Each of the identified soldiers, whether officer or enlisted, were given the same small markers bearing simply their names and ranks, if known, because each gave the greatest sacrifice in service; their lives. Numbered stones mark the resting place of those poor unidentified souls and serve as a stark reminder of the loss suffered by countless families who never knew for sure where their loved ones perished.
On our wanderings, we found ourselves climbing the slippery rocks of Devil’s Den. “Those terrible, terrible rocks” is inscribed on a marker, apparently spoken by a soldier who survived the skirmish. I can see why he would think that. The rocks jut out from the earth at awkward angles and while at first it may seem like the perfect cover, it could easily become the perfect coffin. Once away from the rocks, it is several hundred feet to either tree cover or the ability to slide down a small hill.
The ground around Devil’s Den has quite a bit of clay in it, giving a reddish hue that can appear to be shed blood when it is raining, as it was the day we walked the rocks. How much blood was shed as troops tried to take the position at the rocks, trying to gain ground and win the day for the Confederacy and ultimately failing? I was surprised to learn that there are approximately forty-four hundred monuments and statues commemorating the battle of Gettysburg. Only ten percent of those are Confederate. To the victor go the spoils, I suppose.
I felt connected to just about every spot in Gettysburg. I probably could have gotten us where we needed to go without aid from the GPS or the map. But, as is the case on every vacation, I navigate from the backseat because I had the maps and had “done the research”. I read exactly one book about Gettysburg before the trip but I don’t think the amount of information in that book was enough to make me feel like I had been here before. The book was more about specific people involved in the battle than the town itself.
I ignored comments from the front seat. “Why didn’t you say something sooner” and “where’s the next street”. Answering in my head, “because I can’t see that far ahead from back here.” How am I supposed to tell them where to go when it is difficult to see the signs from the backseat? So from the back, I navigated the best I could as we made our way through town, down roads marked on the self-guided tour of the battlefields and to the restaurant off of the roundabout where drivers put their vehicles, and lives, at risk trying to get out of the center.
At the end of each day, we returned to the inn. Sooner than I would have liked, but truthfully there was nothing else to see after dark. So we would take our time eating dinner at the restaurants each night, killing time until it was time to head to our room. To me, each day ended with a feeling of being incomplete.
All three nights on the ridge, I woke up suddenly at 12:30, 3:30 and 6:30. Every night, those exact three times. The first night I awoke, I had already thrown off the covers and was halfway out of bed before I realized what was happening. I shook my head, looked around the room and crawled back under the covers. Only to repeat the same thing three hours later. It didn’t matter what time I had fallen asleep, I would wake at those specific times. I never heard anything to indicate someone walking through the inn, but I would be instantly alert until my head hit the pillow once more.
Truthfully, I didn’t think much of it when it happened. I attributed it to a strange bed and being unfamiliar with the house sounds. I don’t think I even mentioned it to my husband. It made for long days because though exhausted, I couldn’t nap for fear of missing something in town.
The morning we checked out, I sat in the wing chair waiting for my husband to get ready. Next to the chair, the room’s journal lay closed on a side table. I make it a point not to read others’ entries upon arrival as to not influence my experience. Cracking open the faded journal, I read various entries. Families on vacation, friends on a weekend getaway. Several entries recalled similar stories of hearing footsteps in the night or the sound of a baby crying; the boards in the hallway creaking as someone checked the doors.
I was shocked. While I hadn’t heard footsteps, I had dreamt of a baby suckling my breast, its warm downy head cradled in the crook of my arm as I walked the creaky boards in the dark. It felt natural and a few times my nipples would tingle with the lingering sensations in those few moments of wakefulness. I have only ever fed children out of a bottle; my nieces carefully ensconced in pillows piled up to assuage their mothers’ fears of me dropping the baby. My three-hour cycle of awakening could be viewed as a feeding schedule for an infant. Was it some ghost speaking through my dreams? Or was it the strong memories of a woman caring for her child tied to the house? Of me caring for a child long forgotten by history?
As suitcases were dragged out to the rental, I delayed the process of leaving as long as I possibly could. I chitchatted with the woman at the checkout desk; I walked the room more times than usual to make sure we had everything we came with. The guys came back in from loading the car to find out what was taking so long. “Let’s go.” We had a schedule to keep.
Wrapping my jacket around me, I huddled in the corner of the backseat. Watching the raindrops glide down the windshield, I cried the first ten miles after leaving Gettysburg. My husband asked what was wrong. I simply said “I don’t want to leave”.
The feeling that had drawn me to Gettysburg felt like it was being ripped out of my chest as we drove further and further away from town. I felt despondent most of the day. A look in the rear view mirror was returned with a glare; a question asked was answered brusquely. The only thing to bring a smile to my face that day was the sight of two small Amish boys driving a tiny carriage drawn by two Shetland ponies. The only emotional highlight of the day was quilt shopping in Lancaster County. Another inexplicable request for my time in Pennsylvania was to buy a hand-made Amish quilt. I had looked at the handmade quilts for years, wanting one but never finding “the one” in any of the shops I’d been to at home.
We drove by several shops that lined the roads and my husband kept asking, “You want to stop here?” I would answer no until we drove down a side road, passing a quilt shop tucked next to a barn on what looked like a horse farm. I yelled “That one!” We had to find a driveway to turn around in as I received dirty looks from both men in the front seat for first scaring them and second waiting until the last minute to say something. Remember, I’m in the backseat; can’t see much from here. I ended up buying an old fashioned design in dark colors and I wonder if it was a reflection of my mood that day.
My husband said the quilt reminded him on ones his grandmother used to make. To me, it was a reflection of a century past where bright colors were only prevalent in certain social circles and a handmade quilt would likely be made from the worn, faded clothing that could no longer be repaired. It felt to me like something that would have graced the feather tick bed of a long-ago resident of the city I’d just left.
So why the pull to Gettysburg?. There will never be a definite answer. Is it perhaps fortuitous that I write this in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the Gettysburg address? I think I will always be pulled to Gettysburg and that I will never be able to sufficiently explain the draw to the town. Maybe I’ll find I’m related to someone who used to live there. Maybe it’s something more spiritual. I wonder if reincarnation was a factor. Who knows? Maybe I did go home.