Russell Cave National Monument, AL.

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Down few winding roads, on a lovely spring day, we stopped to visit Russell Cave National Monument. The beautiful setting looks like a lovely spot for a picnic and a nice spot to linger, and I suppose that must be what many, many, many generations of people before us thought as well. Russell Cave is just this, a spot many chose to stay and live from prehistoric times through early Native Americans. We are talking 10,000 BC to 1650 AD. Excavations reveal ample tools, supplies, and details to the daily lives of many on these very grounds.

As always, the boys participated in the Junior Ranger program. We ran into a fellow Junior Ranger-er who had a vest chock full of badges. Thumbs up gal! What we did find was this was one of the most detailed, intense booklets we’ve encountered yet. I suppose with SO much history they wanted to cover it all, but phew, the boys were getting a bit restless with this one. In fact, said Junior Ranger gal’s mother and I were puzzling and pouring through our pamphlets trying to assist with downright detailed questions. I did mention this to the Ranger, and of course it’s no harm done. We just feel we really earned those badges this time.

The spring dogwoods were blooming, the caterpillars were everywhere, and the water was flowing. It was such a peaceful place, but the Ranger told us there will be much activity soon. They intend to excavate again, now. We were just shy of their start date. I’d love to have seen that in progress, but again, the quiet we enjoyed was so appealing, too.

 

Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, MS.

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I learned a lot about the Civil War while volunteering at Stones River National Battlefield. I’m not so great at recalling exact maneuvers, tactics, or names. Instead it’s the stories of survival that stick with me. I’ve read about a soldier so weary from battle and bad weather, he went inside an old house to sleep. Wondering why those inside didn’t argue him off for lack of space, he awoke to find them all dead. I read a story of a soldier so excited to find a chicken, he stashed it while fighting, elated to return to it and cook it for dinner. Also of a soldier running by an enemy soldier who stopped and tried to repair his battered legs and return his boots to his feet for protection from the cold. It’s those singular stories that stick with me.

Vicksburg National Military Park had more of these stories. The civilian stories were memorable here for me. There are stories of women and families who relocated to nearby caves to avoid getting hit from cannons and debris. Families who stood on a town road overlooking the river in fear of attack. Those who starved for lack of supplies.

This park is quite different from Stones River in that it has stone monuments along a long driving path from each state commemorating their soldiers’ service. We stopped a bit longer at the Illinois Monument (the white dome photographed) which had a reflection for peace engraved around the top exterior, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us have peace.”

We also visited the USS Cairo which was about halfway through the drive. It is an iron clad steamship that was sunk trying to pass Vicksburg during battle. Did you read that final photo? Sunk in 12 minutes and none aboard perished? Intrigued? It was built in a few short months during the Civil War, sailed down the Mississippi with a few other sister ships, sunk, sat underwater until about 100 years later when they raised and eventually reassembled and made museum worthy. Inside the museum features loads of recovered artifacts as well.

We enjoyed half a day at this park and ship museum before heading north some more.

USS Alabama, Mobile, AL.

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While driving along the coast, we noticed a large battleship in the port of Mobile, AL. We craned our heads to see why it was there, only to notice some strategically parked tanks and airplanes too.

“Can we visit that ship?” Dear Husband asked as I consecutively searched my phone for the answer.

“Yup, we can, it’s the USS Alabama, a World War II battleship, but there is more on their site and it looks highly recommended from other links.”

“Do you boys want to go see it? We don’t have but a second to decide, the exit is right here,” we asked the boys rapidly.

“Yes,” they cried and we made the exit just in time.

We figured this would be a few hour stop on our way, the perfect break from a long drive. We were anxious to see the ship first, and with “map” in hand we boarded. The map was actually numbers that correspond to painted arrows throughout the ship. That ship was huge and everything looked really similar so frankly we got quite confused often. White or black pipes overhead, metal doors, tiny signs, more pipes, more doors, and so on. We’d poke our heads into rooms, look for clues about it’s purpose, find it on the guide and move to the next room.

This ship housed 2,205 enlisted men and 127 officers. This tank was truly a floating city. Not only does it have everything for battle (guns, torpedo storage, drilling rooms, etc), but it has everything to support the people needed to fight (laundry, mess halls, bedding and lockers) and everything needed to run a ship (engines, navigational equipment, etc). This ship blew my mind. In fact, it took two solid hours to see most of the ship.

We did locate the machine shop. I wanted to make sure the boys saw this room because my father served in the Navy at the tail end of Vietnam. He was a machinist who learned his lifelong trade aboard his ship.

Afterwards we needed to regroup. Really we needed to just sit. We still wanted to see the USS Drum, a submarine, the tanks, and indoor aircraft display. We started to look at the aircraft, but decided the submarine and tanks were more up our alley at this point. Time and energy were waning.

Fortunately, the USS Drum submarine was so small it took maybe 20 minutes to walk through it. It was like one long railroad car, but pretty darn short being that the men lived here full time. I feel truly sorry for and thankful to the enlisted men who served in these quarters.

We wrapped up our visit by walking Mack through some unique tanks and popped in the car tired and inspired. The perfect moods for some lengthy driving. The boys had plenty of Lego builds in mind.

Congaree National Park, SC.

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Large. I just don’t know how to express this besides, large, huge, mega, something along those lines. Congaree National Park has this little entrance and little signage, but when you enter you start getting this picture, it’s one of feeling really small. Or that your surroundings are really big.

The visitor’s center has a fabulous movie that made me feel even smaller. They have helicopter footage flying over their immense park and it’s just prehistoric looking. Then they show researchers climbing the trees and your jaw just drops. Sadly, it’s a kind of feeling I get where my eyes glaze over and I can’t grasp the size. Like when I think about space or how deep the Grand Canyon is. Still I tried. In this location where trees max out due to the nutrient rich swamp and flood plains, where champion trees are made and found and still being found, where you can walk along boardwalks and feel tremendously small and peaceful, our family looked UP and UP and UP.

Loblolly pines reach 100 feet, Cypress trees are WIDE, and even the echo of the singular owl we heard while hiking seemed huge. Ironically, Congaree was owned by a logger who kept it in case he needed to harvest it. Due to the consistent flooding it was too difficult for this. And it grew. And it was saved. And my boys and Dear Husband and I could look up and up and up and remember what a spectacular thing an untouched wood could be.

Mammoth Cave National Park and Visiting Stephen Bishop’s Grave.

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Last month we finished up Journey to the Bottomless Pit: The Story of Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave by Betsy Mitchell. The boys and I were fascinated by Stephen Bishop’s discoveries in Mammoth Cave. We were intrigued by the owners of the cave before it was a National Park. We loved hearing about the excursions, visitors, and news in the 1800s. Finally, when we read he was still buried in a little cemetery at the park, I thought it would be crazy not to go one last time and see it.

Last week’s warm Friday provided the perfect chance for a visit. We arrived around noon and spent time surveying our National Park passport options. Our first book is weathered and needs to retire. We thought new books for this road trip was in order. The boys settled on the blue passports (they have different kids versions or larger more elaborate versions) because they have ample stamping room and are pocket-sized. Each fella got his own book to stamp as he wishes at all the National Parks (and probably State Parks) we’ll encounter. The store employee was incredibly helpful and instrumental in helping us decide.

We then met up with some school friends for a hike to the grave site and around the grounds. It was a quick walk to the site and with clear signage we located his stone placement easily. We headed just a bit further to Sunset Point and looped down and around to the natural entrance. Little fella kept breaking off icicles in large sections. Dear Husband and my older son walked ahead at Mack’s (our dog) pace.

After the hike, we meandered into the museum. I was thrilled to catch a short movie about Stephen Bishop and his two fellow guides Mat and Nicholas. It spoke to their adventurous spirits and contributions to Mammoth Cave. I watched it through and then found the boys and watched it with them as well. I’ve not seen this movie at the museum before and wonder if I just didn’t notice it or if it was new. Either way, we enjoyed it.

Feeling satiated, we headed back for the evening. Passports in hand, their first stamps and National Park clicked off, we were ready for another National Park the next day.

Volunteering.

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Last winter I searched the local National Parks for volunteer opportunities. Being an avid National Park camper and hiker, the thought of volunteering at one was a dream. Fortunately, just about an hour away, Stones River National Battlefield has an outstanding volunteer program. Scrolling through the listings I found “photographer” and about jumped for joy. I contacted the park, took some required online classes, got my uniform, and started shooting.

One year later, I’m remembering the days I’ve lingered there with camera in hand. I can’t express how fun it is to slither along the ground on my belly to shoot bike riders on the trails, or river side trying to capture floating leaves. It’s wonderfully fulfilling to pursue and capture shots in not only natural surroundings, but at a park with historical significance as well. Civil War era reenactments provide so much photographic interest. Finally, to be honest, it’s also just darn nice to do something I love, without interruptions.

Through the past year I gained a better appreciation for the Civil War, the land and river where the battle was fought, the cemetery, and the people who continually share its stories. I’m ever so appreciative for Stones River’s rangers and volunteers who work daily to keep that history and land alive for all passersby. I am delighted to share the stories through photography.

Check out Stones River National Battlefield for hiking, bike riding (they even have ranger led bike tours!), reenactments, and a peaceful, tidy cemetery walk. Follow them on Facebook and/or Instagram you might catch a photo or two of mine. If you get a chance to visit, give Ranger Jim a high five for his encouraging volunteer program too.

Sam Davis Home.

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On a beautiful summer day, perhaps a touch warm, I took the boys an hour South for the Sam Davis Home Heritage Days. On the amply shaded grounds we meandered between too many stations to squeeze into a day. We visited what looked interesting first and whittled the day away indulgently. I enjoyed the “old-timey” photographer but the boys had little patience for it. We all listened to the candle maker, baker, and butter churner thoughfully. Honest Abe spoke about his boyhood home and chores and how he met Mrs. Lincoln, and the boys walked away saying he “wasn’t so bad after all.”

Let’s see, we also fed chickens, saw bees, wool, pigs, and mules. The boys played baseball with the 1865 rules and league members who play throughout the year. I was asking tons of questions in the shade while the boys sat on the bench and waited their turns in the sun. Why no gloves? (not yet invented) Where do you get the balls? (China… unfortunately) How many strikes and balls per batter? (doesn’t matter) and so on.

The potter was fabulous. We’ve seen him before. He chats away shooting spelling and math questions to the kiddos while they watch pots form in his hands. Then he cuts them loose and shares them around, to smash and shape again.
Stones River National Battlefield brought a cannon to the grounds and drilled the kids like soldiers. The boys liked trying new positions for this as they’ve done (and enjoyed) the drilling.

There was plenty to see and do. The boys liked the baseball best. I laughed as they batted and raced around the bases crying “home run” when they arrived back home. They actually were out at first base, but ignorance is bliss. On that high note, the grounds closed to get the school kids back in buses. We headed off, happy to have seen another Civil War Era site.

Firsts.

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The boys and I had some firsts this week.

Little fella found his very first fossil (the neighbor boy found the other). I’ve heard they are very easy to find in our area, but we haven’t had luck as of yet. He brought them in the other night and forgot to show me until the next day. I was so excited for our professed future paleontologist. I told him we need to box and label those so he can look back upon them one day as his very first find. (And if he doesn’t go the paleontologist route, hey, that’s cool too.)

My older fella finished his very first chapter book. 95 pages. Robinson Crusoe. According to him “It was fine.” I’m delighted he pressed through such a long title. He’s not the lay around and read type, so this is an accomplishment! Congrats kiddo. He’s onto a WWII choose your own adventure title next.

For me, I’m continuing on my first knitted blanket. The cabling is coming along beautifully. I’m in love with the yarn and blanket pattern.

Old dogs, new tricks. Firsts fun.

Ghost.

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Saturday night I felt fortunate as I lay my belly in the cool grass of the Stones River National Cemetery during their Hallowed Ground presentation. While the Park Ranger led the participants to different period dressed presenters, I journeyed ahead shooting. Volunteers shared untold stories of long ago, the lantern light adding extra warmth to an already hot summer night. I even caught a “ghost” in the last shot. (Straight across from the woman looking down, before the tree, can you see it?) What began as a sweaty night of volunteer photographer, ended with magic.

Long Hunter.

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On the drive over, I told the boys long hunters got their names from their long guns. I was wrong. They didn’t. It’s as simple as these men went into Indian wilderness and hunted for a long time. Yup, long hunts make long hunters. Sorry boys, Mom was wrong.

Bledsoe Creek State Park was hosted the above photographed Long Hunters and their program last week. Beyond the props, costumes, musket fire, booklets, and general setting, the most memorable part was their love of sharing history.

Have you ever had the pleasure of listening to a person who was passionate about something? Anything? I don’t care if it was dogs, nuts, ice cream, toll collecting. The passionate person is engaging. They bring you into their world, complete with their research and knowledge, and make, say, toll collecting sound intriguing. (Not picking on toll collecting here just selected it randomly.)

The above presenters are passionate enough about the history of long hunters to wear hand sewn costumes, take gun safety courses, sleep in hand-built structures, and most importantly present all of this to whomever would like to hear. We did like to hear. We will be back in October for their promise of an enlarged program complete with a hand-made log cabin trading post and Native American camp. When we return I’ll be able to remind the boys how the long hunters got their names, correctly this time, of course.