Public tours of the grounds of the United States Military Academy, a.k.a. West Point, come in two sizes, the 75-minute version and the two-hour version. Anne, ever the American history aficionado — frankly, it’s kind of what she went to college for — signed us up for the deluxe version of their tour that included a walk through West Point Cemetery, an officially designated space since 1817. We weren’t given time or directions to inspect every individual grave, but those we spotted — whether with our friendly tour guide’s assistance or through our own recognizance — was a veritable who’s-who from the past two centuries of American history, from the Civil War to Iraq.
Given the choice, I’d rather be early for appointments than embarrassingly late. I’ve lost count of the number of really close calls I’ve had in my life, when a confluence of my mapping skills, sense of timing, and unexpected obstacles balanced out and saw us arrive at a given destination a heart-stopping minutes before showtime.
The official instructions to our next stop ordered us to be there thirty minutes before takeoff. Despite the previous 90-120 minutes’ foul-ups and misjudgments, we pulled into their parking lot at fifteen minutes till. Anne had given up on making it. I thought we could pull it off, but allowed I might be wrong. It wouldn’t be our first time prepaying for a tour only to have something go afoul and lose us our nonrefundable fees. But no, the sight of the front-gate tank told me we were right where we were meant to be, which is a miraculous thing given that the directions had stopped making sense or matching anything in sight several turns ago.
We were therefore a bit flustered when we walked into the visitors’ main check-in lobby of the United States Military Academy, more commonly known to us civilians as simply West Point.
We’re no strangers to disappointment. Not every plan we make goes through without a hitch. Some circumstances are beyond our control. Some are controllable, but can flop anyway. We do what we can with the skills we have, the circumstances at hand, the prayers that are answered, and the Plan B’s when the answer is “no”.
The average travel blogger tends to skip the parts where things went wrong, or the scenery wasn’t worthy of a magazine cover, or the occupants of the vehicle were severely cross with one another. Longtime MCC readers know that’s not quite who we are. It’s one among hundreds of reasons why we’re not in any of the really awesome blogger networking cliques, but we enjoy what we do anyway, both on location during the trip and in reminiscing online after the fact…especially when we can look back on unhappy moments and savor the relief of getting past them.
On Day Four we had a fascinating appointment planned in the late afternoon, but to make it happen, the early afternoon had to be turned into a 2½-hour marathon of sacrifices and tension. Thankfully that, too, would pass.
Longtime MCC readers know Anne is a lifelong American history aficionado with a deep specialization in World War 2. It comes up in our conversations even after all these years, in her reading matter and library selections, and even in our origin story. From time to time WWII has also come up during our travels. There was the time we spent hours in the massive National WWII Museum in New Orleans, then six months later my tour of the National Museum of WWII Aviation in Colorado Springs, not to mention Anne’s birthday that same year, when we spent the afternoon with concentration camp survivor Eva Mozes Kor, among other occasions.
All told, WWII is kind of Anne’s thing. It was completely understandable that she would be intensely interested in visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, in viewing artifacts and reminders drawn from the life of the American President who was in charge throughout most of that. The museum didn’t disappoint.
The Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY, has many acres and an unwieldy name, but the heart of the complex is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum. It’s filled with genuine artifacts from the lives of President and Eleanor Roosevelt, souvenirs from the turbulent times in which they lived and effected change, and — in a display of candor rarely expressed in single-subject museums — acknowledgments of their flaws, examples of contrasting viewpoints, and mementos of their opponents. FDR was by no means perfect. Some lobbed deep criticisms in his direction, not all of them baseless. But like all the better American Presidents, signposts can be found along his timeline expressing his hopes and ideas of at least trying to improve our nation for the sake of all citizens, not for himself.
I know what some of you are thinking: of the nine American Presidents whose graves we visited on our week-long scenic tour, isn’t it about time we got to a President who had more than twelve fans? First of all, the city of Buffalo thinks people like you should stop being so mean to Millard Fillmore. Second of all, yes. Yes, it is.
It’s not easy to drum up excitement for a President who had to follow a memorable showboat like Andrew Jackson, who inherited a major recession without any tools to deal with it, who got clobbered four years later by William Henry Harrison, and whose Presidential campaign popularized a hand signal that became an acceptable part of American casual communication from two full centuries ago until about fifteen minutes ago last month.
But by dint of the dignity and respect that older generations perceive as inherent in the Office of the President, Martin Van Buren netted himself a place in American history anyway.
State Capitol buildings aren’t an absolute must on our road trips, but we’ll drive near them sometimes when it’s convenient, when they have special features, or when the mood strikes. Longtime MCC readers have seen glimpses — and in-depth tours in a few cases — of eleven such buildings in past entries:
- Montgomery, Alabama
- Denver, Colorado
- Hartford, Connecticut
- Indianapolis, Indiana
- Boston, Massachusetts
- St. Paul, Minnesota
- Columbus, Ohio
- Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
- Nashville, Tennessee
- Charleston, West Virginia
- Madison, Wisconsin
We’ve driven through several other capitals without stopping for their capitols, or much of anything else — Little Rock, AR; Atlanta, GA; Des Moines, IA; Topeka, KS; Oklahoma City, OK; Austin, TX; and Richmond, VA. One of those is now a leading contender for our 2019 road trip destination. Most of the rest aren’t in line for a return visit anytime in the foreseeable future. We had hoped to swing by the New Jersey State House on this year’s trip, but Trenton was among several unfortunate cuts from our overstuffed Day Five.
The New York State Capitol, on the other hand, fit neatly into Day Three’s itinerary in Albany. Unlike several other prominent buildings in the area, it wasn’t closed yet when we arrived.
Contrary to the popular opinion of Americans who forgot everything they learned in school within minutes of graduating or dropping out, New York City is not the capital of New York state. Yes, NYC has a larger population, more square footage, taller buildings, better restaurants, more celebrities, more movies and songs and books and general works of art about it, more airports, more zoos, more Broadway, more Chinatown, more money, and more nationally recognized politicians than the state capital. Brag, brag, brag.
But Albany is older. Disregarding the indigenous occupants and the occasional stray European explorers who came and went without putting down roots, both future cities had Dutch furriers show up around the 1610s, set up permanent shop, and pave the way for the eventual white takeover. Strictly and callously speaking, Albany’s precursors had their settlement up and running eleven years ahead of Team New York. Once state capitals became a thing after the Revolutionary War, Albany’s population was booming, its businesses were healthy, and its location was slightly closer to central NY and less standoffish than NYC’s. In looking at a state map, Utica looks closer to a true center than Albany does, but they took longer to settle.
So Albany won. It has accomplishments to its name and local attractions to show off, but it receives none of the accolades or love letters that NYC does. It’s NYC’s overlooked older brother. If the Big Apple is Bill Murray, Albany is Brian Doyle-Murray. There’s no shame in being Brian Doyle-Murray.