Tuesday, February 16, 2016


As My Beloved and I traveled around the country, we visited a number of places that could qualify as shrines. There were the occasional informal roadside memorials where people who had lost loved ones to car accidents have erected crosses, or left candles or flowers to mark the spot of the tragedies; those gave us a momentary pang as we drove by, wondering about the lost ones and their families. 

We also visited places that were more formal shrines, such as the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas; The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home near Nashville, Tennessee; or the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. There are so many places in our country that mark historic or meaningful events.

The ones that stay in my memory now months later are not always the formal ones, but there are plenty of those. Vicksburg, Mississippi is one of the most powerful. During the Civil War, a battle was fought for Vicksburg because it was built on a critical bluff for controlling supplies up and down the Mississippi river. We happened to be in a hotel that was just across the highway from the battlefield so we decided to detour through it on our way out of town. Little did we expect to be so moved and shaken. 

The smooth, narrow, two-lane road runs through, with towering stone monuments on both sides to mark where troops from both North and South were positioned. Reading about the battle, we learned that nearly 20,000 young men died at that site, roughly half from either side. The woods crowd the lawns bordering each side of the road and the positions are very close to each other; it is easy to imagine the fear the soldiers must have felt when the woods concealed the enemy so well. What began as a lighthearted drive turned out to be a sobering lesson in the tactics of death. As we drove away, My Beloved remarked that before we are ever tempted to declare war again, we should fly our Senators and Congressmen down to Vicksburg to tour that battlefield.

Happily, there were also more positive shrines to enjoy. The Natchez Trace, a footpath that stretches from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi was one we loved. These days, most people drive the route because there is a beautiful parkway that follows the route, but in the old days it was a major north-south trade route used first by the Native Americans  for thousands of years and later by the European settlers. We drove along on our way south, but we stopped and walked for a short time on the original trail. I literally got goosebumps thinking about all the history it had seen. The trail was beautiful, surrounded by woods and dished in the middle by the centuries of footfalls, with autumn leaves decorating the path like bright confetti.

One of the shrines that surprised me was Graceland, the home of the late Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee. I fully expected that my snide side would emerge to sneer at this kitschy landmark; instead, I was oddly touched. I always enjoyed Elvis' songs - his were more or less the soundtrack of my youth until the Beatles arrived from England - but I am not the kind of faithful fan with whom we rubbed shoulders at Graceland, people who wept at his grave and keep pictures of him in their homes. But even I was touched and impressed by the "small town boy makes good" feel of the house and the sad ending for such a huge talent.

Sam Walton's daughter has created a shrine to American art in her home town of Bentonville, Arkansas. When we read about this place, we resolved to put it on our itinerary, and we are glad we did.  Crystal Bridges is amazing, both the collection and the architecture. The museum is built over a creek and the water pools around the "bridges" of the museum. We spent two days there, first enjoying the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house that has been moved to the site from New Jersey and rebuilt block by block, then going back for their permanent collection the next day. There is also a shrine in Bentonville to her father's success, the original store where he began Walmart.

We loved it all!

In Texas, which we liked far more than we expected, we stopped in San Antonio to visit friends and to re-visit My Beloved's days as an Air Force recruit in the mid-sixties when the Vietnam War was in full cry and the Alamo was a mostly-neglected, crumbling ruin. Texans have, in the meantime, decided that the Alamo is an important landmark of Texas history, so they have restored it, built a small park around it, and even established rules of conduct for those touring it. A sign outside goes so far as to outline what kind of attire tourists may wear, and urges them to speak in respectful tones. A shrine, indeed, with an atmosphere more churchlike than the original mission church the building was before the battle that made it famous.

Also in Texas was Big Bend, a desert landscape of awesome beauty with plants and animals weirdly adapted to the harsh environment down by the Rio Grande that forms a border between the United States and Mexico. From out of that flat desert rise "sky islands," mountain ranges so separated by the harsh desert that the animals and plants on them are adapting separately from each other, rather like the Galapagos Islands finches that fascinated Charles Darwin. It is a spectacular landscape. We visited because it is a "dark park," a place where in our rapidly developing country one can get far enough from city lights to see the amazing blaze of the Milky Way that was evident in my childhood every night but is now mostly obliterated by electric lights. Big Bend is a shrine to darkness and the miracle of adaptation. We can't wait to return to that amazing place.

We need shrines to help us remember and celebrate the people who built our country and the places that make it unique. In the months since we returned, I have gone back in my memory many times to relive the experience of appreciation and, in some cases, downright awe that such places give me.