Walter Mencken 9:21 p.m., Oct. 20
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- Tales of Adventure
Walking In Jefferson's Footsteps
In my own small circle, I'm known for walking the ground in historic locations. Pioneer cemeteries with the graves of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War; Civil War battlefields such as Gettysburg, Lookout Mountain, and Vicksburg; historic homes and meeting places of our Founding Fathers, and homes of later Presidents whom I admire; sites further west, including the Alamo and Tombstone. Walking the ground brings history to life, as opposed to reading some dull account consisting of a line or two in a dry textbook. Roam an old battlefield and you'll see exactly what soldiers had to face... feel the sweat run from your pores as you slog up Lookout Mountain ("The Battle Above The Clouds"), then imagine how daunting it would be under enemy fire, with musket balls sailing through the mist and boulders crashing down from the heights. Yesiree, there's a lot to be said for walking the ground, seeing and experiencing things as they really are, not just as they are described secondhand by some obscure author you've never met.
Many of my favorite walking tours occurred while I was working for an outfit in Otay Mesa that specialized in long-haul trucking. These boys ran from California clear to the Eastern Seaboard on every trip; the shortest runs were to Georgia and the Carolinas, but we also ran to points farther north, clear up into New England at times. The folks in the Otay Mesa office knew I'd run anywhere without complaint... if given a choice of destinations, I'd usually take the longer run, since more miles meant more money, and, unlike most of our other drivers, I didn't have to worry about a wife or children at home. Long runs are great because they give a driver like me more time to plan for "paid tourism"---by making good time on the road, and by planning ahead with an atlas, one can visit some really cool places en route to the ultimate destination. Sometimes, however, the best "commercial sightseeing" is found at the destination itself.
I entered the yard in Otay Mesa one morning, intent upon hooking a wagon and embarking upon a trip. When the company called me earlier that morning, I didn't bother asking where the load was going; often as not, the load assignment would change in the short time it took me to get down to the yard. Walking into the office, I greeted everybody and grabbed the paperwork for my load. Turned out I was heading for Charlottesville, VA, which suited me fine. Bidding the folks in the office farewell, I went out to hook my trailer and bring my logbook up to speed. With a late midmorning start, I didn't dally, I just hit the road to beat traffic and ease on out of California. That night, I made the usual courtesy call to my house, to let my elderly mom know where I was headed and which route I would be taking... something I always do so that if anything happens, at least one person knows my approximate whereabouts.
When I told my mom I was headed for Charlottesville, she audibly brightened and mentioned Monticello. We used to live in Virginia long ago, you see, and my then-united family had visited Monticello in those halcyon days of my youth, but I had no remembrance of that visit. Too much intervening grief, I suppose. When I made this phone call to my sainted and beloved mum, I had not yet checked my atlas for paid tourism opportunities on this trip, but the minute I rang off I cracked that sonofabitch to see exactly how the ground lay. I couldn't pass up a shot at visiting Thomas Jefferson's house as an adult, and seeing with my own eyes the home of the President whom I most admired. Studying the atlas and factoring in a three-hour time difference, I knew I could pull off a whirlwind tour of Monticello, if my wagon were unloaded in a timely manner and I made my way to the estate without any truck-related hassles.
Ah, Thomas Jefferson, what an amazing man and inspirational role model for all Americans! Best known as our third President and the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a man whose range of interests and talents still astounds me: statesman, diplomat, political philosopher, architect, inventor, scientific farmer, musician, librarian and linguist, among many other achievements. He served as Governor, Congressman, Party Leader, Foreign Minister, Secretary of State and Vice President before serving two terms as President. His library was the finest on the continent, and it ultimately became the nucleus of the Library of Congress. He designed Monticello, the University of Virginia, and the Capitol in Richmond. He invented the dumb-waiter, swivel chair, weather vane, storm window, a better plow, and a whole host of other useful items. He developed our decimal system of currency, based upon dollars and cents. He approved what may be the greatest real estate deal in history with the Louisiana Purchase: roughly $15 million for control of the Mississippi and over 800,000 square miles of land. He authorized the expedition of Lewis & Clark, and the expedition of Zebulon Pike into the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest.
Native Americans have reason to dislike Jefferson, since he, more than any other man of his era, was instrumental in opening up the West to settlement. Long before he became President in 1801, Jefferson drafted an ordinance for the political organization of lands west of the Appalachians, including orderly survey, sale by sections and townships, and the reservation of land in support of public schools. A provision to forbid slavery in all territories west of the Appalachians was defeated in Congress by a single vote. Despite common public perception of Indians as savages, Jefferson was fascinated by native tribes: he prepared vocabularies of Indian languages and excavated old Indian mounds to study relics found there. I think he knew that westward expansion of our country was inevitable, and, being the fair-minded man that he was, he was consumed with interest in native people and customs. Indeed, much of the shameful maltreatment of Native Americans came long after Jefferson was dead.
His principles live on in his greatest work, the Declaration of Independence. With supreme eloquence, he set forth the philosophy of democracy: that all men are created equal, that they have inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that government exists to secure these rights, that these same governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and that men have the right to abolish tyrannical governments and institute new governments. Unfortunately, some of these principles are not in evidence today... one look at the country tells me that we've strayed from the path envisioned by Jefferson. Personally, I don't think we've had a President worth a damn since Harry S. Truman, but I won't dwell on that sad reality in this humble blog entry. This work is devoted to Jefferson alone, a man for whom I have nothing but respect.
Excellent horseman, violinist, natural historian, scientist, architect, gardener, diplomat, author and patriot... these are just a few of the terms we use to describe Jefferson today. I often wonder at the keenness of his intellect, and the insatiable nature of his curiosity. His personal library contained almost 10,000 volumes on a vast array of subjects. This was the collection sold to Congress in 1814, to replace books lost when the British torched the Capitol during the War of 1812; Jefferson needed money for improvements to Monticello, therefore he welcomed the sale, and he refilled his shelves with books pulled from storage in Williamsburg. I guess 10,000 books weren't enough... it only makes sense that he had thousands more in storage. Learned as he was, Jefferson was still a man, and he had his foibles: he wanted to abolish slavery, yet he was a slaveholder, and he had an affair with one of his slaves at Monticello... a relationship which makes him more human in my eyes, and reaffirms my faith in human nature.
As I said, I had visited Monticello as a child, but I had no memory or appreciation of that visit. Now I was headed straight for Charlottesville under a load, and I looked forward to my upcoming visit to Monticello with much anticipation. I made good time on my run, and on the fourth night (think three-and-a-half days with my late start) I shut down in a truck stop less than an hour's drive from my destination. Setting my alarm, I had a few beers to tone down my excitement before hitting the lower bunk in my sleeper. Early the next morning I rose, showered in the truck stop, and made my way to the receiver, where I put the truck into a dock by 0600 Eastern Time. Mine was the first truck to arrive, so the warehouse crew had my wagon unloaded in short order. Verifying my atlas directions to Monticello with the forklift operator, I drove the remaining few miles to the Visitor Center at the base of the mountain.
Backing into an open corner and setting my brakes, I walked into the building, where three elderly ladies were situated behind a desk. Explaining my mission and pointing to my truck, which was visible through a nearby window, I asked these nice old ladies if I could drop my wagon in the corner of the lot and bobtail up to a staging area on the mountain itself. I told them I had just delivered a load and my wagon was empty, so there was no danger of it sinking into the asphalt or otherwise marring the pavement. This was early May and it wasn't that hot yet, but I like to be polite and make that distinction: in hot weather, a loaded 53' wagon with no wooden planks beneath the landing gear pads will leave deep holes or sink right through an asphalt lot, particularly under a blazing sun. The charming ladies jointly made a phone call to someone up the hill, and I was given permission to drop my trailer for the duration of my visit.
Soon I was bobtailing up the hill to the second lot, a staging area where visitors board a tram which takes them to the mansion itself. Despite the early hour, the place had a substantial number of visitors, but I found a good parking spot for the truck and headed for the ticket office to pay my tram fare. Boarding the tram, I traveled the short distance to the summit, where I joined a line of tourists waiting to gain admission to the mansion. Here's how the tours work: small groups of visitors are ushered by guides into the building, where they travel from room to room as each group's guide gives a short spiel. This is a very interesting tour if you like history, as I do. Though I still have my brochure, complete with floor plan, I won't give a detailed description of the interior of the mansion itself, since I believe every citizen should experience the pleasure of discovery on his or her own. I was ecstatic simply to walk the same floors and hallways as the great man himself, and see where he performed so many tasks, some domestic and some of great national importance.
Once my group was finished with the interior tour, our guide told us we were now free to roam the grounds and gardens. I spent the next hour cruising around and checking out the estate. Monticello is a beautiful building, the first domed structure in America; Jefferson borrowed this architectural element from the French and the Italians. The air tunnel beneath the building is innovative and cool (no pun intended), and the surrounding gardens are magnificent. Two trees on the adjoining property were alive when Jefferson roamed the grounds, and they are still alive today... a fact which I learned after specifically asking a guide. A vast lawn west of the mansion must have provided the ultimate setting for parties under the stars; I could easily picture Jefferson in perfect weather, breaking out his violin and performing an impromptu outdoor concert for his guests. He was known to regularly perform indoors with his sister, who accompanied him on the harpsichord.
The best part of my visit was yet to come. Ranging further west from the mansion, I came across Jefferson's private cemetery, the burial ground for the great man and his extended family. I've always been fascinated by old cemeteries, and I love reading the stones. This cemetery was surrounded by a high wrought iron fence, gilded and beautifully ornate, as you can see from a photo on my profile page. Peering through this fence, I read one epitaph after another, until I came upon the monument for Jefferson himself... a tall obelisk which stands above the other stones, very dignified and proper for a man of such historic stature. Standing there, a few short feet from this marker, I thrilled to the knowledge that the great man lay such a short distance away. In literal terms, I would never come any closer to my favorite President. Oddly, there was nobody else around; the cemetery lies beneath the brow of the hill, and I think many visitors fail to even realize it is there. Thus I shared a few moments alone with Jefferson, reflecting upon his many accomplishments. What an amazing man, so gifted and so fair-minded.
There are two ways to leave Monticello once you finish your tour. You can take the tram back down to the staging area, or you can walk off the mountain via a trail to the west which leads down to the parking lot. I had already seen the tram on my approach, so naturally I chose the hike. The trail leads past the cemetery and winds through the woods in a gradual descent. Just as I was alone while viewing Jefferson's marker, so I was alone as I made my way down this beautiful trail through the woods. Not another human being in sight, and I'm strolling down a trail frequently used by the great man himself, whether he was walking or riding a horse. Here is where I really felt a strong historical connection, perhaps as strong as that felt while standing near the obelisk. It was a beautiful morning, not too hot or too humid, and the woods were absolutely gorgeous... how many times must Jefferson have roamed these same woods seeking solitude, just as I roamed them on that fine spring day! How many times must he have admired the great natural beauty around him, leaving weighty political matters behind and taking solace in nature!
If you should ever find yourself in Charlottesville, VA, be sure to visit Monticello and take that most excellent tour of the mansion's interior. Marvel at the architectural innovations and the historic associations of that magnificent edifice. Traverse rooms and hallways once occupied by the great man himself. But don't stop there... roam the grounds and gardens, explore the slave quarters, wander west to the cemetery, and make your way off the mountain by walking through the woods. Tread the very ground that Jefferson himself walked and rode back in the day, and you will gain a better understanding of the man as a whole person, not just a diplomat or politician. Feel the essence of the man as you dwell in his stamping grounds, and bask in the historic glory of Monticello. The mansion and the entire estate upon which it rests are a living tribute to Jefferson's soul... here great things happened, here history was made, here a citizen can once again feel proud of politicians, and understand the contributions made to this country by our Founding Fathers.
I'm having some difficulty posting pictures here at this site, so I'll refer interested readers to another site where I've already posted a few pictures of Monticello... punch in TRUCKFORUM.ORG, and scroll downward to the thread entitled "Got Chrome??? How about Armor???" At the bottom of the first page, there are some shots of Monticello... I will try to post more shots of the trail through the woods, I just have to "crop and resize" them first. What can I say? I'm livin' in the Stone Age.