My wife and I homeschool our two children. For months we’ve been teaching them about early U.S. history – the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, the Boston Tea Party. They know history in the same way that they know their prepositions, that is to say, they could tell you that George Washington was the first president but what they really want to know is if there is any ice cream left. We recently drove from Nashville to Washington D.C. because we wanted them to see the genesis of our country, and the American legacy they’re set to inherit.
I imagined what they might say, how their sweet, young faces might express their amazement of laying eyes on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Halfway between the White House and the Capitol, we are standing in front of the National Archives. My wife leans close, tells me that she can’t believe that we have a city with buildings like ancient Greece and Rome. It’s absolutely true: the building is magnificent. I am awestruck. This must be precisely the feeling that John Russell Pope had hoped to summon in people when he designed the building. Reading President Herbert Hoover’s remarks upon laying the cornerstone of the Archives on February 20, 1933, I know he had the same feeling:
“The romance of our history will have living habitation here in the writings of statesmen, soldiers, and all the others, both men and women, who have builded the great structure of our national life. This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul.”
I look down at our son to see him squinting up at the statues. I’ve played out this moment in my head dozens of times over the past week, and here we are, finally. I’m brimming with my prepared remarks, a father’s wisdom. I’m about to make one of those memories that will stand up to the ravages of time, I know it. I talk about how the building is surrounded by depictions of the four watchers, the defenders of knowledge: Past, Future, Heritage, and Guardianship. We’re next to the entrance on Constitution Avenue in front of the statue of the past – a female figure holding a baby and a sheaf of wheat with her right arm. On her left is an urn that has been filled with the ashes of past generations, and at her feet is a quote from the abolitionist Wendell Phillips: “The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.”
“Isn’t it amazing, Grover?”
“When are we gonna ride the train?”
I look to June. “What do you think, honey?”
“We’re gonna be in this line forever.”
This pretty much sums up the day. Leaving Ford’s Theater as I monologue about Lincoln and the chaos of that night in 1864, a few people carrying the dying the president across the street to an old man’s bedroom to try to save his life: “Can we get a hot dog?”
Touching the doorframe of the Old Stone House, the oldest standing structure in all of DC: “Can we ride in a Crown Victoria taxi on the way back?”
Walking along the Reflecting Pool, looking ahead to the Washington Monument: “Why are there so many bugs here? Can we go to Starbucks?”
The next morning we gathered up our things, packed into the car and got on Route 66. I was so confused. Things were not going according to my plan. Our children didn’t have the kind of reaction that I had imagined and had so looked forward to. We had one last stop, outside of D.C. It was an afterthought, and we nearly didn’t go. About four hours South of D.C. in Rockbridge County, Virginia, at a 215-foot-high limestone arch called the Natural Bridge is where we all felt, in our own way, the full spirit of America.
Out here among the stands of ancient arborvitae trees at the Southern end of the Shenandoah Valley the stillness reveals us to one another. Standing before the arch of the Natural Bridge feels like a solemn and sacred homecoming. Close your eyes and the waters of Cedar Creek sound like far-off applause. Cedar Creek calls to our son; the sun on its ripples, the language of its motion. He’s running around the mouth of a cave where Jefferson himself mined soil during the War of 1812, when he was nearly 70 years-old. That soil was purified into saltpeter that was used to make explosives. Our quiet daughter is making whooping sounds and laughing as they echo through the corridor. During the Revolutionary War the bridge was used as a shot tower. Soldiers carried molten lead up to the top and poured it into Cedar Creek. On the way down, drops of lead were pulled into spherical shapes by gravity. When they hit the cold water of Cedar Creek they solidified into balls that could be fired from a rifle. My wife points out a Great Blue Heron, and I’m so content that I feel, well, confused.
Thomas Jefferson described the Natural Bridge in his Notes on the State of Virginia:
“It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here; so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light; and springing as if it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!”
Today the land remains virtually unchanged since 1774 when 31 year-old Thomas Jefferson purchased the bridge and 157 acres surrounding it from King George III for 20 shillings. He built a log cabin guesthouse and left a visitor’s log for travelers to sign. That log book is long since gone but the humanness of our history can be seen in the hundreds of initials carved into the rock of the Natural Bridge. Each person compelled to leave behind evidence of their presence by simply standing before something so beautiful, and strange. George Washington himself was moved to carve his initials as a young man of 18 when he became the first to survey the bridge in 1750. You can still see the initials “G.W.” are cut into the southeast wall of the bridge. I run my fingers across a particular engraving: J. Hey Phila 1855.
I imagine Mr. Hey standing in this very spot some 17 decades ago. He didn’t know who Abraham Lincoln was. The Civil War hadn’t yet happened. The Declaration of Independence was read aloud from municipal steps less than 80 years prior. And here I am, with my computer chips and contact lenses, awestruck in the very same way. Hey may well have been a son-of-a-bitch. He might have been a gentleman. Either way, his name joins in the solemn chorus of posterity, so deserving of the sweet attention of a passerby. Most days I feel like we have fallen short. We’re familiar with words like posterity and providence but, just like our children, we struggle with the application.
I want to tell my kids about this, pack it all into some profound fatherly statement. I want to give them my fleeting reverence, but I can’t. Whatever words I have for this place, even now, are insufficient.
The sun is beginning to set behind the Virginia peaks by the time we get back to the car. I take a last look at the wellspring of the laws of nature and nature’s God, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, and my heart is filled with immeasurable gratitude. The determined stewardship of this land by private individuals administered over the centuries, though often curtained by the bustle of our age, is palpable here. It feels like a gift, and we are all happy to accept it.
We pull onto Route 81 and drive toward the sunset in silence, pleased.