TW: Murder, specifically: Rebecca Wight, the Colonial Parkway victims, Julie Williams and Lollie Winans, and Abraham Lincoln. Some reflection of death in the abstract. Description of blood in paragraph 2.
When I was thirteen, my family took a trip to Springfield, Illinois over Memorial Day weekend. Where we’re from, Abraham Lincoln’s name comes up often when scoping out a place to take a weekend trip, as every state in the region likes to boast some claim it has to Lincoln – Kentucky is his birthplace, Indiana has claim on his boyhood home, Illinois is where he lived out his adult life, Ohio…will swear up and down that it was important to Lincoln somehow, not to be outdone. We didn’t have a lot of money at the time, but we still wanted to go somewhere for vacation, so being the lot of nerds we are, we decided to pack up and head to Springfield for a couple of days. While there, we visited the Presidential Library and Museum and the office where Lincoln worked as a young lawyer, and it was fascinating! As we stood in the room where he had once worked, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized, despite the fact that the restored room was largely bare and unimpressive. I was standing in the same room that the president had once stood and worked. I remember looking out the grand windows and wondering if he had ever looked out the same windows and felt inspired. If I looked hard enough at his desk, I could almost see him writing at it – hard at work on an important document, surely. It was as if we had connected, if only for that brief moment that I stood in his office, just by being in The Place Where It Happened.
At the museum, I had a similar experience upon reaching an exhibit that showcased Mary Todd Lincoln and the items that had once belonged to her. There were elaborate dresses, and those were nice, and there were letters and tiny framed photos, and those were nice, but toward the end of the exhibit, there was one item, just one, that stirred this same kind of reaction. It was the white fan she had held at Ford’s Theatre, bearing one small, visible drop of her husband’s blood. I remember looking at it for a long time, tying to picture Mary Lincoln holding it, calmly watching the play and maybe laughing when her life suddenly changed forever. In that moment, I wanted to visit Ford’s Theatre, to stand at The Place Where It Happened. Being that close to it all was a fascinating experience.
I have always been one of those people who desires to go to the Places Where Things Happened, for reasons that are hard to describe. There is something about walking the grounds where something important occurred that is powerful, at least it has always been that way for me. And I’ve thought about it for years, going to some of the sites where the victims spotlighted here lost their lives – but I’ve never put any plans into motion until now. I think I have always been a little hesitant about this, never certain I want to see the sites where people were murdered, never certain of how I would react once there. This year, I made the decision to act on what I have been thinking about since I was that thirteen-year-old standing in Lincoln’s office. I made plans to visit Michaux State Forest, the Colonial Parkway, and Shenandoah National Park next spring as part of what I have taken to calling my “senior trip”.
It’s a personal trip for me. I have roped my family into coming along with me, but it is truly my trip. I need to go, for me. I am not sure what I want to get out of visiting the sites, but I want to experience them, see them for myself. It’s not about “closure” – that’s such a meaningless word. At one point long ago, I thought that I might be able to achieve “closure” with these stories and move on from them, but I’ve long realized that I can’t, and in all honesty, I don’t want to. These sites are important; these people are important. These are The Places Where Things Happened. There’s a certain power in these sites – these are the places where five members of our community fell – and I think I need to make peace with them. Right now, I have the full intention of staying over at at least one of the sites (I have not yet decided whether or not I feel comfortable staying overnight in Shenandoah, given that Julie and Lollie’s murders are unsolved.) I have already given my family the instructions for when we visit the Colonial Parkway: you do not pull over, for anyone, if we are on the Parkway by ourselves. Not for officers, not for park rangers. No one. You will drive into a town before you will consider stopping. The same goes in Shenandoah.
This trip is significant for me for a few reasons. Not only will it be the first time I have visited any of the sites, it will mark my first “real” trip out in nature, and as the others coming along have made it abundantly clear that they do not want to stay overnight in the woods, especially not at a murder site, it will also mark my first semi-solo experience in the wilderness. You see, I only had my “environmental awakening” last year, a little late at sixteen. I grew up in the suburbs of a small town that didn’t have a lot to offer nature-wise with a family that Doesn’t Do Nature – combine that with a fear of crawly things (insects, etc.) and you have a kid who thought she disliked the outdoors. As it turns out, I don’t – as I discovered when I went out into nature one time determined to discover what it was that had so allured Rebecca Wight and the others to it, refusing to allow myself to return until I’d found it. I did, and returned with a new-found appreciation and an unexpected adventurous side. This will be my first time staying in the woods for any extended period of time. Though they feel less safe than they might have had I no knowledge of the deaths that have occurred there, I am determined to reclaim them. These are The Places Where Things Happened, but the killers can’t have the trails. This trip, like the one to Springfield, Illinois, is certainly going to be an experience.