Dust Cloud Risin' from a Mile Away
In glades they meet skull after skull
Where pine-cones lay—the rusted gun,
Green shoes full of bones, the mouldering coat
And cuddled-up skeleton;
And scores of such. Some start as in dreams,
And comrades lost bemoan:
By the edge of those wilds Stonewall had charged—
But the Year and the Man were gone.
- Herman Melville, ‘The Armies of the Wilderness’
The trails lead from the edge of the road. From where the big buses sit idling in the narrow strips of shade on merciless summer days, the dirt paths snake over towards the rocks and the monuments and the view. If you’ve never been there- and if in fact you give a rat’s ass about this kind of thing- then the first time you emerge from the beat-up woods out into the clear sunshine of Little Roundtop at Gettysburg is sort of like the first time you ever walked into a big league ballpark. If you give a damn about that kind of thing, I mean.
The sudden pummeling upon your face from the bright green grass (or the Astroturf if you grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s like me). The utter vastness of the park itself; the overwhelming colosseum-ness of it all. The long white foul lines stretching off into the horizon. The dugouts like big trucks viewed from airplanes. The pause in your step/ the losing your breath.
You never forget that. You can’t.
The same happens for a lot of people when they dodge the thick veiny roots of old trees in the path, slip out onto the hill’s epic topside, and peer off to the west, much like millions have done before.
It somehow feels individual to you, as if you are the first to have ever figured this out. As if you are the very first person to have ever discovered this place and its wildly American significance. It is one of the coolest wonders in this life, that kind of awe. It is pure and good. It is truer, I’d say, than most other ethers we pass through in our time here. There is some kind of genuine wonder/ some kind of magic taking over when you roll out of the dark cool tunnels and see a baseball stadium for the very first time.
And the same thing happens when you walk out on this tired mound of old ass Earth. It hits you. It moves you. Not because you understand what went down there once upon a time, because you don’t. And that’s the problem, I guess. At least for me it is. But still. You stand at the gates of the thing, the reality, even if you can never ever enter in.
The whole Civil War is like that.
The whole damn Civil War is a buxom coquette leaning against the window frame in a room above the saloon. You watch her from the muddy street/ moving her fingers along the dirty glass/ puckering her lips/ motioning with her delicate finger/ come on up, baby/ come on in/ come on up and taste the sin.
You are one broke-ass hoss, hoss, ain’t you?
No gold or silver. Nothing to your name but desire and curiosity and interest and yearning.
Which buys you nothing in this world but pain and shame.
No way of knowing what it would feel like.
My god, it would feel so good just to know.
Even for a moment.
Just a fleeting moment, just a flash in time.
You poor rambling traveler.
There’s no knowing for you here.