Biking Through History: The Biker Babes Cruise the Civil War, Part Two
Wednesday, 30 May 2001 - York to Gettysburg
We left our hotel at 07:00, bound for Gettysburg by way of York. We stopped for breakfast at a Roy Rogers in a rest area on the turnpike – meeting a couple of bikers out from Kentucky – and then exited toward Lancaster, arriving in York at a few minutes after 10:00 – just in time for the 10:30 tour of the Harley final assembly facility! Can you say, good timing continues? The tour was fascinating. We saw the lines for Softtails and the big cruisers, like Terry’s. There were monster three and four ton presses, robotic units, and lots of hard-working people. We bought pins and our signature t-shirts for the ride: dark navy shirts with a lovely pastoral landscape reflected in the polished gas tank of a Harley, with the caption, “Take the long way home.” Yeah!
We stopped for lunch at an Old Country Buffet, and discovered that they had the same weekday menu as their counterpart in Milwaukee – Chinese breaded chicken livers. Yummy!
We rolled into Gettysburg at 14:00, and checked into the Colonial Inn. Terry called Battlefield Harley, a large dealer in town, and arranged for the oil change due on her baby. They told us that they could take the bike right away, so we cruised on over and shopped in the store while the work got done. We only bought pin locks and oil, but Baby got his oil change, and the dealership took a Polaroid photo of us to add to their Harley family album.
Back at the motel, we dropped off the jackets and helmets, and then walked in the town. It was about 16:00, and we decided to opt for the two-hour bus tour if we could get one. We lucked out – the next and last tour of the day was set to depart at 16:15, and we were on it.
The bus tour was wonderful, narrated by a registered tour guide who laid out the three days of the battle across the actual ground that it covered. The lines of battle are marked with memorials all down their lengths – cannon, statues, plinths – in lines like soldiers extending as far as the eye can see. Names I’ve known for years – Cemetery Ridge, Round Top, Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge – are all real to me now. The most real, I think, was a stretch between Little Round Top and Cemetery Hill, the infamous Cemetery Ridge, where Pickett’s charge failed. The tour guide evoked the spirit of the place; I could almost see the past. The fields are farmed by local farmers who rent the land, and must plant the same crops that grew there in years past.
Being on the battlefield gives you a perspective you can’t get anywhere else, not from books, not from films. The land itself was a key player in the battle. At one point on the tour, when we were on Seminary Ridge, the tour guide was pointing out the positions held by the various forces at one point in the fight, and then drew our attention to another tour bus that we could see going along a road ahead of us, one that led across the battlefield. “In about twenty seconds, that bus is going to disappear,” he said, and sure enough, as it continued on its way, it vanished behind a little ridge we hadn’t even known was there, reappearing further along the way a couple of minutes later. Looking out from our vantage, you would have sworn the ground ahead was open and clear – but the land concealed a dip large enough to hide a division full of men from observation, and in the past, that is exactly what happened. You can read about a general surprised by the sudden appearance of an unsuspected army, but until you can see the ground they were on, the account seems somehow unreal. Once you see the land, however, the events suddenly make sense.
We returned to the motel after a stop for post cards. We were really looking forward to a swim and got suited up – only to find the pool a total turn-off. The water had a greenish tinge and wasn’t clear; I could barely make out the outline of the drain in the bottom when I was really looking hard. Mom ran one foot over the top step, and found it scummy. The nearby hot tub was loosely covered by a ratty bubble plastic sheet, and when we drew it back, that water was also greenish, and wasn’t even warm. We went back to our room, after stopping by the front office to inquire when the pool had last been cleaned. The front desk clerk said that the manager had checked and approved it that morning. We questioned his eyesight and his judgment, and as soon as we were back in the room, we pulled out the AAA tour book. We found another motel with an indoor pool – the Hampton Inn, just back down Highway 30 more on the outskirts of Gettysburg, and reserved a room there for the next night. We told the front desk at the Colonial Inn that we would be leaving a night early because the pool did not meet our standards for cleanliness and acceptability. We dinged them badly on their response card, too. Hey – everything else was wonderful, the room was lovely, housekeeping good, and the location perfect – but the pool was downright disgusting, and the pool was the reason we’d come. Sigh.
But Gettysburg is lovely, and I want to go back. I think that touring the battlefield on horseback would really be an experience for a history buff!
Thursday, 31 May 2001 - Gettysburg
We ate breakfast at the Avenue Restaurant, then checked out of the motel and hit the road – for all of about 600 feet, to the gates of the National Park Service Gettysburg Welcome Center!
We started out with a tour of the Eisenhower farm, which adjoins the battlefield. The farm has the loveliest view, and is preserved exactly the way that Ike and Mamie left it. The farm is beautiful, and the tour is definitely worthwhile. You can stay in the vicinity of the house, or walk out along the fields to the show barn. I was amused to note the changes that had been made to accommodate the presence of the Secret Service when the Eisenhowers had been in residence; those poor guys in suits, having to deal with a barnyard!
Back at the National Park Service center, we viewed the electronic map display, which uses lights on a massive topographical map to demonstrate how the tide of battle progressed over the three days of the fight. Then we walked from the center over to the “High Water Mark” – the northernmost point that Confederate forces ever reached – beyond Cemetery Hill: the place where the Union forces broke Pickett’s charge and turned back both the Southern advance and the entire tide of the war. That spot, where the statue of Meade on the ridge faces across toward the statue of Lee down at the edge of the woods, is my favorite place on the battlefield, with Little Round Top a close second. The voices of the past seem particularly close in those two spots, as if history stands close enough for you to reach out and touch it.
We walked across the street from the center to the Lincoln Train Museum, where we saw a lovely collection of toy trains and “rode” a simulation of the train ride Lincoln took to Gettysburg. The train simulator adjusts itself to the weight of the people on board to make certain that the motion of the train will properly track with the film of the trip that you’re viewing on the screen “windows.” It’s a very minor museum attraction, but nice all the same.
We had lunch at General Pickett’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet, which we strongly recommend. The food was varied and delicious, and the carrot cake, highly recommended by our server, was yummy! Pickett’s charge may have failed, but Pickett’s buffet triumphs ...
We headed out of town to find the Land of Little Horses, which breeds and shows miniature horses. Not ponies: true miniature horses, with real horse-type conformation bred down to tiny size. In addition to the herd of charming miniature horses, the farm has llamas, dogs (including three eager-beaver border collies), goats, guinea pigs, ferrets, and heaven only knows what else. For future reference, though, make this a mid-morning to mid-noon trip – the performances mostly occur between 11:00 and 14:00, and we missed them all by arriving at 14:40. We saw one not-quite-show – a training session for the border collies, who were set to chase and retrieve a soccer ball. The funniest part of that little show, apart from the dogs themselves, was the younger of the two llamas. The ball was going into the llama pasture, and this brown llama was convinced that it, too, was a border collie, so it gamely tried to gallop for the ball and play soccer with the dogs. The older white llama looked on snootily as if the antics of the younger one were an insupportable affront to llama dignity. What a hoot! Even though we missed the shows, the place has a lovely layout and is sweet to see. The little stallions are mostly bundles of energy, always in motion, while the mares are much calmer. There were three new foals, two of them just born in May. Lovely!
We drove back to Gettysburg and checked ourselves into the Hampton Inn, and then went to Friendly’s for dinner – Cappuccino Dream sundaes, coffee ice cream with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles, and a cherry. Not nutritionally balanced, but yummy!
Back at the hotel, we went for a swim. A clean pool and a great whirlpool – heaven! Even if the pool itself wasn’t a heated one ...
All the time we were in Gettysburg, we had been seeing a lot of antique cars, and we learned that there was going to be a car show on the upcoming weekend. The cars were really something. Many were done over as hot rods. Funniest so far was an old white Ford Deluxe convertible in absolutely perfect shape, with a cartoon on the trunk of Bugs Bunny holding up a bra, beside the caption “Going topless!” Hilarious!
Friday, 1 June 2001 - Antietam
The Hampton Inn in Gettysburg provided a sort-of continental breakfast – we had cereal, orange juice, banana, and milk. Then we hit the road to Sharpsburg, Maryland, to learn about the battle of Antietam.
We’d been on the road only an hour when we pulled under the roof of a gas station to pull on our rain gear. It was a timely stop, because ten minutes later we rode into rain, and played tag with it all day. For most of the day, it didn’t actually rain, but it dripped for at least a few minutes every hour. We got intimate with our rain gear! Terry swears that she’s going Gore-Tex next time; our current gear traps humidity and doesn’t breathe, so you may be dry from the rain, but you’re soggy from your own sweat by the time you peel it off.
We reached Sharpsburg, and decided to ride on through to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, ten miles on, where we’d be spending the night at the Clarion Hotel. We checked in and dropped off our stuff, and then returned to Sharpsburg/Antietam, reaching the battlefield at about 11:00. The bike made a hit with the Rangers, as usual. We spent the first couple of rainy hours indoors, because the Park Service has two back-to-back films. The first one was the half-hour “Antietam Visit” about Lincoln’s journey to Antietam after the battle and his decision to use the “victory” – well, it was a draw, really, but the South did pull back across the Potomac, so the Union technically held the field – to issue his proclamation of emancipation, giving the South 90 days to recant or lose all slaves. The second film was an hour-long documentary on the battle narrated by James Earl Jones. Both films made a lot of use of re-enactors to bring scenes to life in harrowing fashion. The recreations of the Sunken Road (also called Bloody Lane) and Burnside Bridge were particularly compelling.
After the movies, we took the driving tour of the battlefield, and the rain held off until the third from the last stop, the Burnside Bridge. There is a tall brick observation tower at the end of the Sunken Road, and I took my only picture of the day from the top of that tower, looking roughly back north along the Road, back toward the visitor center. Antietam felt like a smaller Gettysburg, still marked with many memorials to individual combat units, but was not nearly so large and overwhelming as Gettysburg. The Sunken Road, however, still held echoes of terror from the past.
After the tour, it was past 14:00 and more than time for lunch. We learned that there aren’t a lot of good places to eat at odd hours here: every place pretty much stopped serving at 14:00, including the very classy Bavarian Inn (where the maitre’d did not look thrilled anyway to entertain three women in damp Harley rain gear!). We weren’t in the mood for a pizza restaurant, which is about all that Shepherdstown can boast, so we hit the road for Martinsburg and found Chinatown, a Chinese restaurant right by the approach to Highway 81, right at 15:00. They stop serving their lunch buffet at 15:00, but they welcomed us anyway and we ordered off the menu. Terry did a vegetable stir-fry, I had my veggies mixed with a bit of shrimp, and Mom ordered the Hunan chicken. The food was good, but not great, and abundant – we had too much to finish.
Then we went back to the Clarion Hotel to do our laundry, read up for our next day of adventure, and settle in for the night. I had stayed at the Clarion before – it’s attached to the East Coast training facility run by the federal Office of Personnel Management, offering one and two-week residential training classes to higher level federal employees, and I had taken the two-week Science, Technology, and Public Policy course there in February 2000. We had planned it for our laundry stop because I knew that the guest laundry facilities there were good. The Clarion is also historic, because it was the home of all the delegations during the Mideast peace talks in 1999. When Shepherdstown is used as a retreat for diplomatic missions, the State Department takes over the training facility and the hotel under a special arrangement. So – we might have been sleeping in some high mucky-muck’s room! The Clarion is pretty much the only hotel in the vicinity, and is very nice, but alas – its swimming pool is an unheated outdoor one, and hadn’t yet opened for the season, not to mention that the weather was definitely not right for a dip.
Saturday, 2 June 2001 - Harpers Ferry to Winchester
We ate breakfast at the Clarion’s buffet, and then rode to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. That was neat! We stopped at the park station and left the bike, and took their free shuttle down to the Lower Town, where we walked around for a couple of hours. There’s a lot to see: many of the buildings contain museum exhibits on industry, black history, the geography and geology of the region, and the impact of the confluence of the rivers (Potomac and Shenandoah) on the town. A number of the Park Rangers working the site are dressed in period garb and provide demonstrations of businesses and crafts. Much of the town – including all of the mills, heavy industry, and houses on Virginius Island – no longer exists, having been swept away by floods in the late 1800’s. There are many buildings for which only the foundations or front steps remain.
Much of the major history of the town focuses on two events: John Brown’s insurrection in 1859, and the total, explosive destruction of the U.S. Armory by Union forces in 1861 to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands. When the Armory was destroyed and never rebuilt, the town’s industrial importance came to an end, and the town itself started to die as people moved elsewhere in search of work.
A narrow strip of the town is down close to river level, and floods during any year when the waters rise a bit. The park service people point out the high water marks from various floods that you can still see in each of the lower town level structures. The rest of the town is built into and on very steep hillsides, leading to an up-and-down walking experience reminiscent of San Francisco. I took the steep climb up to Jefferson’s Rock, from which Tom J. had said that the view was worth crossing the Atlantic to see, and concluded that the view must have been better in Jefferson’s day, before the highway was put in and the trees grew high enough to make both the town and the confluence of rivers disappear. I took pictures, and then rejoined Mom and Terry to visit old St. Peter’s Church.
The only unpleasant aspect of the visit was that the gnats were out in force, which meant that we spent most of our time outdoors doing the Aussie salute to wave the gnats away!
Leaving Harpers Ferry, we caught lunch at a Golden Corral and grazed off the buffet – good veggies! Then we continued on to Winchester, Virginia, which is a lovely old town with an extensive, well preserved historic district. Winchester is famous for having changed hands more times than any other town during the Civil War – it changed hands over seventy times, and went back and forth thirteen times in one day! It wasn’t badly damaged during the war precisely because both sides kept using it as a headquarters location. We found our hotel – a Wingate Inn, the best accommodations of the trip so far! – got directions to the church (Sacred Heart, which is a HUGE complex, including an academy, with Saturday services at 17:30), and learned that Winchester Harley Davidson was hosting a block party on the mall in the historic district that evening, complete with a biker wedding! The things we fall into ...
We went to the visitor center, where we saw an introductory video on Winchester (“the heart of Virginia’s apple country!”), and then toured Abram’s Delight, a mansion built in the 1830’s. The tour guide was absolutely determined to give us our money’s worth, and went into major historical detail on every aspect of all the contents of the house. (This was one place where we could have done with less ...). The grounds also include a log cabin, which is the oldest dwelling anywhere in the vicinity.
By the time we escaped from Abram’s Delight, it was too late for us to actually visit any of the other museums in town – which include George Washington’s headquarters during the French and Indian War and Stonewall Jackson’s headquarters during the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign – but we were able to pick up the walking tour brochures for the next day. We located the church, and then did our own little impromptu driving tour to get familiar with the city. Then we went to church, and afterward drove over to the mall to park on the pedestrian walkway with over a hundred other bikes – three full blocks of motorcycles! The double line of motorcycles was our introduction to the historic mall – bit anachronistic, that! – and a double biker wedding (two couples at once!) was our introduction to the steps of the historic courthouse. What a lark! Terry observed that the brides were wearing dresses that wouldn’t allow them to climb onto their trusty steeds. The vows were written, “Do you take this biker ...” rather than “man” or “woman,” and all the bikers in attendance were called upon to be witnesses. The wedding reception was the Harley block party, complete with loud music, that hadn’t even gotten into full swing when we left.
We returned to the hotel for a swim and a dunk in the whirlpool – boy, that hotel was great! – and then went to bed. All in all, it had been a lovely day with just a few tiny sprinkles of rain that weren’t even close enough to warrant pulling out the rain gear.
Read Part Three