Upstate New York is populated by the remains of so many famous dead people that it’s tough for any serious history aficionado like Anne to pass all of them without at least a cursory courtesy visit. Hardcore fans of the Revolutionary War who want to complete their gravesite set will have to detour far into the sticks west of the Adirondacks to pay respects to one particular Prussian whose assistance was instrumental to securing America’s freedom from the British monarchy, at least in a bureaucratic sense if not necessarily in a head-space sense.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Since 1999 Anne and I have taken one road trip each year to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. After years of contenting ourselves with everyday life in Indianapolis and any surrounding areas that also had comics and toy shops, we chucked some of our self-imposed limitations and resolved as a team to leave the comforts of home for annual chances to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between. We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
For 2022 we wanted the opposite of Yellowstone. Last year’s vacation was an unforgettable experience, but those nine days and 3500 miles were daunting and grueling. Vermont was closer, smaller, greener, cozier, and slightly cooler. Thus we set aside eight days to venture through the four states that separate us from the Green Mountain State, dawdle there for a bit, and backtrack home…
Sunday morning we departed Syracuse and journeyed northeast through a series of distant small towns replete with farms and forests in equal measure. We tried following directions that were challenging to navigate in areas where the locals had apparently abolished all street signs. At many points we had to rely on the odometer to match the mileage counts and nail certain turnoffs. More than once we successfully took cues from buildings named after the signless streets they were on, the sort of directional clues you’d expect more from a video game than from a real-world civilization. You learn to appreciate the nuances of big-city infrastructure when you’ve wandered someplace that’s forsaken them.
Despite all those backroads’ attempts at anonymity, we only missed one turn. We passed by a lone hiker and his giant dog, realized we might’ve missed a left turn a half-mile, did an about-face and drove past their puzzled expressions. This literal Sunday drive might’ve felt more charming if I hadn’t let us dwindle down to our last quarter-tank of gas.
Eventually we located our quarry: Steuben Memorial State Historic Site, a.k.a. Baron von Steuben Memorial Park. Once upon a time in the 1770s, a Prussian military nobleman named Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard August von Steuben was convinced to come to America and lend his training prowess to our cause. In the winter of 1777-78 he showed up at Valley Forge and volunteered his instructor services to General Washington and his starving, anguished, ragtag freedom fighters. Von Steuben whipped them into shape like the star of a manly-man sports film complete with inspirational drilling montages. The Minutemen were a bunch of beaten-down Rocky Balboas and von Steuben was their Mickey. He was the Walter Matthau to their Bad News Bears, the Jack Black to their School of Rock, the One Samurai/Magnificent One/Yojimbo/Shang-Chi to their threatened villagers.
Thanks to his efforts, independence would be ours. He was one of three commanders on hand when General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. He was nicknamed “Father of the American Infantry” and in certain quarters remains kind of a big deal when it comes to giving Revolutionary credit where it’s due. To this day no one’s ever made a $200 million blockbuster about him, which seems a missed opportunity.
The closest we’ve seen to a loving tribute is a 2003 episode of the PBS Kids animated series Liberty’s Kids, in which the intrepid commander was voiced by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the very personality we saw exalted back in Columbus. In the episode “Valley Forge” written by Marc and Elaine Zicree (contributors to Trek fandom and TV, among other shows), Washington’s men are disgruntled because they hate the idea of someone with a foreign accent forcing them to do unconscionable, effortful things such as wear uniforms, march in straight lines, clean up after themselves, not leave animal carcasses lying around everywhere, and not get murdered by the Redcoats like a bunch of chumps. An exasperated Arnold mocks their ineptitude (“You would lose against an English statue!“), demonstrates the importance of delegation (“Corporal, yell at him for me! I need more English words!”), teaches them the dual values of discipline and flanking maneuvers, and helps one idiot soldier learn that maybe, even a few years after 9/11, xenophobia is stupid.
To my mixed delight, the entire episode is on YouTube. Viewers are also treated to the voices of Walter Cronkite as Ben Franklin and singer Aaron Carter as young soldier Joseph Plumb Martin. (Carter also performs the Liberty’s Kids theme song’s rap break.) Arnold’s first line (“There!”) is at the 5:07 mark, but he doesn’t really come in till 6:50 (shortly after Carter introduces Our Heroes to fire cake) and several scenes beyond. Sadly it’s the sort of old-fashioned, anti-artist cartoon that fails to provide specific voice credits beyond the main cast, but the “Additional Voices” section in the end credits name-checks contributors to this and/or other episodes, such as Newhart costar Tom Poston, Charles Shaughnessy from The Nanny, Broadway star Andrew Rannells, and at least three of Cronkite’s relatives, including Walter Cronkite IV. It’s probably for the best that those who played the French characters remain in witness protection, especially whoever gave Lafayette his painful freedom-fries accent.
In von Steuben’s later years he settled near Rome, NY, until his death in 1794. Years later his executor and rather close friend Benjamin Walker had his body moved from his original gravesite to a donated 5-acre parcel called Sacred Grove, 18 miles northeast of Rome. The large monument standing there today was built in 1872 after the previous limestone marker eroded. Sacred Grove is now in the middle of a 50-acre park dedicated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1931. Fans did not exactly flock to the area and create an entire city around the park; hence our long drive to the middle of nowhere.
The park barely counts as one. Sacred Grove is a parking grove in the middle of the forest. One building houses the restrooms (blessedly well-kept); another is a 1936 replica log cabin based on an 1857 engraved rendition of an 1802 pencil sketch of von Steuben’s original. The gravesite is at the end of a path barely 200 feet long. Signs are in abundance; visitors were not. One other car was parked by the restrooms, but we saw no living beings anywhere.
From the park we bore east into the Adirondacks, where no gas stations presented themselves over the course of the next fifty lovely, nervous miles. We were down to our last two gallons when I pulled into the first station we saw, a crowded lot in the camper-happy village of Speculator. We weren’t the only travelers in the long line who hadn’t filled up before entering the wilderness.
TOTAL ROAD TRIP MILEAGE AS OF GAS STOP #3: 870.
Two hours and many mountain highways later we arrived in the somewhat larger town of Ticonderoga, which sits on the edge of beautiful Lake Champlain. That and a few more attractions were at the top of our to-do list, but our first order of business was lunch. We were tempted by a place called the Hot Biscuit Diner, which sounded like a perfect postscript to the mountain drive.
We walked up to the diner’s door at 12:57. The sign cautioned us they closed at 1:00 on Sundays. In case we were tempted to impose, a waitress swung by and reconfirmed closing time would be strictly enforced. We retreated to our car and tried searching for other options. After running across a couple others that likewise closed early or had closed altogether (curse this stupid endless pandemic era), all that remained were cheap chains. Each year we allow ourselves one (1) McDonald’s stop, which in better years we’ve been able to withhold until the final meal of our final day. Ticonderoga left us no choice but to play that card early. I was annoyed, but starving.
A sign on their front door begged for our patience with their understaffing due to “graduation weekend”. I’m not sure if their local school years really do run all the way to the end of June or if this was their defensive euphemism of choice for dealing with today’s churlish customer epidemic. We fed and forgave.
To be continued!
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