16 Dec A Small, National Park Adventure to End a Centennial Year
The National Park Service marked its 100th anniversary in 2016. During the year, people from across the United States celebrated by participating in the “Find Your Park” campaign and visiting as many of our national park units as they could. Of course, the iconic places, such as Grand Canyon National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park, were tremendously popular. And, just like those places themselves, the adventures in them were usually big and grand: rafting down the Colorado River, backpacking in the Great Smoky Mountains, searching for wolves in Yellowstone or hiking up Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.
I, too, embarked on an epic adventure in a national park in this banner year. For the first time, I visited the big and beautiful Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. But I also traveled to two smaller national park units. Now, in December, as I reflect back on 2016 in its waning days and hours, I’m finding that one of those tinier spots is hanging on the tightest to my heart. And this place isn’t famous; it isn’t large and expansive—heck, it isn’t even outdoors.
Behind the bannister
I had what I thought was a good plan. To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service—and the presidential election year—I traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in early November with my daughter, Shannon, to visit Independence National Historical Park. As I waited in the will-call line in the visitor center to pick up the entrance tickets, Shannon noticed a large placard advertising the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the author’s home during a portion of the six years that he lived in Philadelphia. Both avid fans of Poe’s writing, we determined that we would make a beeline for the house following our Independence Hall tour.
Inside the building known as “the birthplace of America,” a park ranger gave us a brief orientation, in which she summarized the historical events that led up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. We were then guided into the Assembly Room, where both documents had been signed and where, later, President Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in repose for two days after his assassination. We stood behind a short bannister and gazed upon the green-cloth-covered tables set with candles, around which our founding fathers had debated and eventually created a new nation. The ranger pointed out a chair that George Washington had actually sat in.
The importance of this spot and its gravity were metaphorically palpable. Because of the hall’s historical correctness and almost flawless restoration, it seemed as if the signers had just stepped out for a brief break and that they would return at any moment to resume their congress.
We would be watching from the gallery.
Down in the basement
The Poe house was located about a mile from Independence Hall. According to the National Park Service, the years Edgar Allan Poe lived in Philadelphia were his happiest and most productive. Here, he published “The Gold-Bug” and “The Spectacles.” While living in Philly, he was able to establish his reputation as a literary critic and perfected his gothic tales, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He invented modern detective stories—which he called “tales of ratiocination”—when he wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He pioneered science fiction stories and wrote in his favorite literary genre: poetry. It’s said that in the basement of this particular Philadelphia home, Poe found inspiration for his famous short story “The Black Cat.”
In that tale, first published in the August 19, 1843, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, Poe examined the psychology of guilt. A murderer carefully conceals his crime and believes that he is unassailable. But overconfidence gets the best of him. Inadvertently, in his basement, he walls up a black cat with his victim’s body. When the police come to investigate, the wailing of the cat gives the murderer away. At the conclusion of the story, he says of the cat, a nagging reminder of his guilt, “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”
After making the short hike to the Poe house, we stood on the stoop and rang the doorbell, as a sign instructed us to do. A National Park Service ranger opened the door, greeted us and invited us in. We studied the exhibits in the foyer, and then we began to wander.
We explored the parlor, kitchen, reading room and the upstairs bedrooms. Then, we made our way to the infamous basement.
We opened the door and found we had the cellar to ourselves. It was quiet and shadowy, with a couple of windows to let in some light. As I walked across the uneven brick floor and reached out a hand to touch the jagged mortar between the stones in the walls, I felt a chill spread up through my fingers and into my bloodstream. Edgar Allan Poe had assuredly stood where I was standing now. Perhaps he had come down here to ponder, to walk in circles as his mind wheeled around the plots of some of his most representative and darkest works. Here, I didn’t stand behind a barrier, looking in on history. Here, feelings of the importance, gravity and substantiveness of this place were more than metaphorical. I was in direct, rough, cold-stone contact with the past. I looked at the cobwebs that were shining in the afternoon light streaming in from one window, and they seemed as if they were the threads—although very fine ones—connecting me, standing here now, to Edgar Allan Poe, pacing this very spot more than 150 years ago.
Shannon came over to me and whispered, “This reminds me of my childhood, when I read Poe’s books all the time. I feel so nostalgic—and giddy.”
A year after Poe left Philadelphia, in 1845, he published “The Raven,” our favorite poem of all time.
Around the world
I’ve been fortunate to be able to experience many parts of the world, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and from Scotland’s wild islands to New Zealand’s green forests. Most of those journeys involved massive distances and extraordinary landscapes and activities. But a trip to a favorite writer’s home in Philadelphia may be my most loved adventure to date.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”
How right he was. For me, this “little” national park unit will always be one that looms large.
Happy 100th birthday, National Park Service. I wish you many more monumental—and some small, less majestic—ones.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,