Gettysburg, 150 years later

Unknown to us, we arrived at Gettysburg, PA as the town was preparing for its 150th commemmoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, running June 28 to July 7.  I wanted to come here simply because of the famous Gettysburg address, which Abraham Lincoln delivered in two minutes on Nov 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ Military Cemetery.  In my Literature class (not History) many moons ago, memorizing and delivering this address was a requirement.  So I really wanted to experience where it was originally delivered.  The beginning iconic phrase of the address still rings in my ears and is stuck in my memory, but I now have a better perspective of the emotion and depth of the message of that historic speech.

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…Abraham Lincoln, 1863

Lincoln Address Memorial
Although the actual location is a couple of hundred yards away, this is the Lincoln Address Memorial inside the Soldiers’ Military Cemetery

On our visit, I got so much more than I came for.  I really didn’t know what to expect until I arrived.  We have been to some of the Civil War Trails in our journey, where I learned a lot about American history, particularly the Civil War era.  But on this stop I felt a profound understanding, education and realization about how pertinent the Gettysburg Address still is today.

New York State Monument
Soldiers’ National Cemetery; numbers represent unknown soldiers, and there are thousands of them

We learned that to get a good grasp and understanding of what happened here 150 years ago, one should go to the visitor’s center first.  Unfortunately, the center and its parking lot were already jam-packed full when we arrived on our first day, so instead we took the Guided Battlefield Bus Tour.  There are several ways to see the battlefield, but we opted for the Licensed Guide Bus Tour.  We felt that a self-guided auto tour might be a good option, but with so many people in town the traffic and parking situation was not looking good.  Had we known the significance of this weekend we would have arrived at dawn!

Battlefield at Gettysburg
Observation Tower, note the crowd

Another way to explore the battlefield is by bicycle, and we recommend this option.

Biking at the Gettysburg Battlefield
Look how these smart folks visited the Gettysburg Battlefield – no parking issues for them!

The 24-mile, two-hour tour of the historic fields of Gettysburg traces the three-day battle in chronological order.  The licensed guide offered us a unique perspective into the struggles of the battle.  The guide was engaging and knowledgeable, and we could sense his passion and love of his job.  Through his narration we visualized and imagined what it was like when he described significant actions during the fighting.  He gave us a few minutes to reflect and try to understand what happened here.  We highly recommend this bus tour; between it and several hours at the visitor’s center you can come away with quite an education.

View of Oak Ridge, Gettysburg Battlefield
View of Oak Ridge and a monument of the 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry

Many areas look much as they did in July 1863, though some are more densely covered by trees.  And of course now you will see the 1,320 monuments remembering the three-day battle’s 51,000 casualties; 23,000 Union Army and 28,000 Confederate Army.  These figures count the dead, injured and lost among them.  The peaceful rolling fields pay silent tribute to this tremendous sacrifice.

Devils Den
Devils Den as viewed from Little Round Hill

The well preserve Gettysburg battlefield, a sacred ground, was considered the turning point in the Civil War 150 years ago.  It is a very poignant reminder of the bravery of the soldiers on both sides.  Below are just a few of the 1,320 monuments, 410 cannon, and plaques within the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Gettysburg Battlefields Monument
Gettysburg Battlefield monuments

Cemetery Hill Attack

Gettysburg Battlefield Monuments
More monuments
Pennsylvania Memorial
Pennsylvania Memorial the largest memorial in the park.
Virginia Memorial
Virginia State Memorial

Gettysburg Battlefield

We came back again very early on July 1st, hoping to beat the crowd at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.  Even though we arrived before it opened, there was already a line ahead of us, which reminded me of the Black Friday shopping lines.

Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center
Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center

We watched the 25-minute film “A New Birth of Freedom”, which was narrated by  Morgan Freeman.  It gave us an unforgettable perspective about the Civil War – in other words, I finally got it!  The Gettysburg Cyclorama is a sound and light show of the spectacular 377-foot painting by Paul Philippoteaux, depicting Picket’s charge, completed in 1884.  It was quite a unique experience, like an IMAX of the late 1880’s where  the vast circular painting put us in the middle of the battle.  Canon flash effects on the canvas and sounds of the battle all around gave the illusion of movement.  There were rocks, weapons and other objects in front of the painting that brought a sense of depth.  Very well done!

Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama
Visitors experiencing the Cyclorama presentation
Gettysburg Battlefield Cyclorama
Just a small section of 377′ Cyclorama

The movie, the Cyclorama and the museum is well worth the $12.50 entrance fee.  We highly recommend this historic park to everyone!

As we headed out of town we saw long lines of cars in the battlefield areas and living historian volunteers preparing for the reenactment of the battles by section.

Battlefield Reenactment Volunteers
Battlefield reenactment volunteers
Traffic at the Battlefield
Traffic and parking were tough at the Battlefield
Sally, the Union Mascot
Sally, the Union Mascot




Meandering along Skyline Drive – Northern VA

Driving through the state of Virginia, we learned quickly that it is not only steeped with history but also rich in natural beauty.  This was very evident as we drove north along country roads to our next destination.  We were  graced with the green lushness of the countryside dotted with wildflowers, the beautiful farms and the small charming towns.  Our last stop in Virginia was at Luray in scenic Page County.


On our first day at Shenandoah National Park we headed south and were met with heavy fog at the higher elevations.  We drove slowly, but because we were unfamiliar with the curves of Skyline Drive we turned around as soon as we saw a safe place to do so.  We did not intend to leave the park empty-handed; instead we looked for a place where we could wait out the fog.  We learned later on that it was at Mile 35 near the Pinnacles Overlook where we made our u-turn.

Skyline Drive

Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles.  At its southern end it joins the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we were a few days ago.  Unlike the Blue Ridge Parkway where most of the scenic overlooks have overgrown trees blocking the view, Skyline Drive has beautiful and plentiful overlooks.

Shenandoah Valley
Shenandoah Valley viewed from Stony Man Overlook

Once we got back below the fog, we stumbled onto a gorgeous hiking trail, Buck Hollow.  This is the  3-mile portion of a longer trail, and it’s pretty much a constant descent and rather steep in several sections.  We were paralleling the Buck Hollow stream and at some points made a few rock-hops across the water.  The constant descent going in let us know we’d get a good workout on the way back.  Steve saw a black bear cub, but it smelled him quickly and ran away.  This is really bear and deer country.

We saw these colorful critters and some mushrooms or fungi.

The fog had lifted after our hike , so we continued on to the highest point of the park at the Skyland area.  We stopped first at the Stony Man overlook and took a picture of Stony mountain, where we could follow a trail that led to Stony Man Summit.

Stony Man Overlook
Stony Man Overlook, viewed from the summit…
Stony Man summit
…and Stony Man summit viewed from the overlook

The trail to the summit was an easy 1.6 mile hike, ending with excellent panoramic views.  Unfortunately, some patches of fog were still there and partially obscured our view on this day.

Stony Man Summit
We made it to the Stony Man Summit

The next day was sunny, and we wanted to make use of our 7-day, $15 entrance fee.  This time we headed north and pulled off at many of the over 75 scenic overlooks to see the views.  We went almost all the way to the north entrance and stopped at Mile 5, the Dicky Ridge Visitor Center.

On this drive we met some of the frequent visitors cruising along Skyline, motorcyclists of all shapes and kinds and colors.  It was wonderful to see the wildflowers blooming and wild animals running away from us as we cruised along.

Skyline Drive
Bikers of all colors, brands and sizes
Blooming Wildflowers
Blooming wildflowers along overlooks

There are over 500 hiking trails to explore in the park, and on this day we tackled the Compton Peak Trail, a steady elevation increase of about 835 feet to the summit of Compton Mountain.  There were some steep spots, but the 2.4 mile hike was fairly easy.  At the summit were two side trails, one leading to broad mountain views…

Compton Peak
A pose at Compton Peak

…and the other to an interesting rocky outcrop with columnar joints.

Columnar Joints at Compton Mountain
Looking up at the rocky columnar joints

And along the way we saw more interesting mushrooms or fungi.

There are many more hiking trails and miles for us to explore along the Skyline Drive, we’ll just have to come back to experience more of the Shenandoah National Park.

Finally during this stop, we took a quick side trip for a tour of the Route 11 brand potato chip factory.  We had never heard of the wheat and gluten-free Route 11 brand of chips until Steve stumbled on it while searching for an RV park in Luray.  The Mama Zumma’s flavor, packed with Habanero pepper seasoning, set our mouths on fire and had us grabbing for a cold beer.  Several flavors of these yummy chips are sold at Whole Foods and other stores.

Our base camp was at Outlanders River Camp and we chose it for its proximity to the Shenandoah National Park.  We loved it, for we were surrounded by beautiful greenery and all of the nearby mountains.  You can see Steve’s review here, if you’re interested.

Outlanders River Camp
Panoramic view of Outlanders River Camp

And when the sun came out we enjoyed it to the fullest, with a campfire – even on a hot and humid day.

Outlanders River Camp
Enjoying the sunset

And these lovely duckies were fun to watch!

These guys were checking us out as we approached on our evening walk
Green Bee
Green bee – see the ant looking at him?




Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – Thomas Jefferson

 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….an excerpt of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson.

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is at once the nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson’s most enduring monument.  We were reminded of that and learned much more history at Monticello.

Monticello, “Little Mountain”, is a remarkable house and one of America’s most famous.  This  was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third US President.  He designed and redesigned and built and rebuilt  his home over a period of more than forty years.  The 35-minute house tour allowed us to see the inside areas filled with ingenious devices and mementos of this brainy revered founding father.  We were extra attentive, as no photography is allowed on the house tour.  Hearing the docent tell stories about this amazing man took us back over 200 years.  What struck me the most was the polygraph that he invented and used.  It is a copying machine with two pens, where when he writes with one pen, the other made an exact copy – very ingenious!  He started his day at 3AM, writing letters for the next fours hours.  His eloquence in writing prompted John Adams, the second President of the US, to ask Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence.  And of course the issue about his dalliance with Sally Hemings, an enslaved lady’s maid, was asked and confirmed – TJ was the father of her children.

The house tour was a little rushed, but if you are a history buff and admire architecture you will love it.

Little Mountain – Monticello

We took the time to check out the basement, which used to be the hub of “dependencies”, activities where slaves performed their daily household work unseen and unnoticed by guests.

On the grounds we joined the Slavery at Monticello Tour, at the Mulberry Row.  Since the structures no longer exist, we listened and imagined the guide’s many stories about activities and life at Mulberry Row.  This street was populated by more than 20 dwellings, the center of work and domestic life for dozens of people — free whites, free blacks, indentured servants, and enslaved people.  Some of the buildings are due to be rebuilt within the next year or so.

Mulberry Row
Mulberry Row
Thomas Jefferson's Vegetable Garden
Dubbed “Revolutionary Vegetable Garden”, this is where TJ did some farming/agriculture experimentation.
Jeffersons Grave
Jefferson’s grave

The visitor center holds various exhibits that required some time and attention to go through.  Below is an illustration of the development and ongoing influence of his core ideas about liberty, on a wall of 21 flat -panel LCD screens and seven interactive touch screens.  I even learned that some sayings my mom used to teach me were actually written by Thomas Jefferson, such as ” Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

Boisterous sea of liberty

The next day we stumbled onto yet another historical place, the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park.  Little did we know that we had just closed the loop on the Confederacy Trail from Montgomery, AL where the first salvo to cecede from the Union began, to Appomattox Court House, VA where the civil war ended and the nation became one again.

On April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee, commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered his men to Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all United States forces.  We walked the old country lane where these events took place and in the solitude imagined the activities of those April days in 1865.

Appomattox Court House
Appomattox County Jail

But the best part of this stop was visiting my cousins Vellie and Phebe.  We visited Phebe and Dan at their home in Lynchburg, VA where they showed us their organic garden and served up a delicious meal.

Harry and Vellie Hall gave us a tour of their B&B and Boutique at Diamond Hill Retreat in the city of Charlotte Court house, VA.  It was great to see them again!

Our three-day stay at Paradise Island RV Park was packed with historical lessons and reconnecting with cousins.  We didn’t like this RV park much, so it was fortunate that we spent very little time here – Steve’s review is here.




BMW Zentrum – Spartanburg, SC

While in the Greenville area, I remembered that John and Pam of Oh the Places they go wrote a story about a BMW factory tour they took in Spartanburg.  It turns out that the BMW Zentrum Museum and “Plant Spartanburg” were only 25 miles from our campground, and I just knew Steve would love the tour – I was right!  The plant, where the X3, X5 and X6 models are built, is the only BMW manufacturing facility in North America.

BMW Zentrum
BMW Zentrum museum and manufacturing plant

This place is HUGE!  There are 7,000 employees working at this plant, and it has been under almost constant expansion since it opened in 1994.  They already have over 4 million square feet of factory space completed, and it will be around 7 million when the current expansion is finished.

We were extremely fortunate to get on this tour.  We had reserved about a week ahead, and only got into their Thursday tour because of a cancellation.  Then we found out that the next day would be their last tour for many months, since they had to re-tool the factory for the expansion and full production of the new X4.  Whew, that was close!  The museum will remain open, of course, but it was the vehicle assembly tour that we really wanted to see.

This was a great tour.  Our guide took us from the point where the bare, painted body enters the assembly plant to where the completed vehicle is driven out the door.  We would have liked to see some of the actual construction of the steel body prior to painting, but it was not part of this tour.  We did learn that once the body is painted – with the doors attached – the first thing they do is remove the doors and send them via conveyor to another part of the factory that does just door assembly.  We were told that door assembly is one of the most complex parts of building the vehicle.  Once the doors are completed, they are put back on the conveyor and sent over to meet the vehicle they belong to near the end of the assembly line.  The inventory control, scheduling, robotics and other complex machines were fascinating to watch.

We can’t compare this tour to other manufacturers, since it was our first, but it was very impressive.  The non-union workforce seems to really take pride in their work, and the job benefits available to them are good.  The assemblers work 4 10-hour shifts per week, and each of them is trained to do 4 different tasks on the line.  During their shift, they are rotated every 2.5 hours to another one of their task specialties, which reduces the chance of repetitive injuries and boredom.

Unfortunately, cameras were strictly prohibited so we have no photos to share with you.  This is a must-see if you are in the Spartanburg, SC area.  But you must make reservations well in advance!  We tried to reserve a tour at the Hyundai factory near Montgomery, AL while we were there and found it was booked for a whole month in advance.  Apparently we aren’t the only ones who like factory tours!

Photography was allowed at the Zentrum museum and here are a few images.

James Bond first BMW
BMW Z3, the one James Bond drove in the movie “Golden Eye”

We stayed at the Ivy Acres RV Park near Greensville during this stopover.  Steve’s review of the park is here.  We loved this quiet park with a view of a beautiful green meadow.

Ivy Acres RV Park
Wide open space at Ivy Acres RV Park

We both enjoyed downtown Greenville a lot – it has many miles of walking/biking trails, and sort of an old-town feel, even though it has a population of about 70,000.  There are many excellent restaurants and other stores too, and parking is readily available.

Falls Park on the Reedy
Falls Park on the Reedy
Liberty Bridge, Greenville
Liberty Bridge

We spent two days walking both directions on the 17-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail, and the images below are what we saw along the way while eating yummy food.  We would definitely come back here again!

At the Michelin store
Main St, Greenville
Children’s Park along the trail
Major Rudolf Anderson Memorial
Major Anderson from Greenville was the only casualty during the 14-day Cuban Missile Crisis