Why Plymouth Rock Is New England’s Biggest Tourist Trap


Have you ever been to a tourist trap? A scam of a site, something over-hyped and talked about until it can’t possibly be worth it? The sort of thing you walk up to, snap a photo of and curse as you walk back to your car?

I saw one just the other day. It was Plymouth Rock, the lump of granite that supposedly marks the spot where a ragged band of English religious refugees washed up on Massachusetts’ shores.

It was such an awful disappointment, and here’s why.

There’s just nothing to it. You know why they call it Plymouth Rock? Because that’s all it is. A rock, covered by a little pavilion, guarded by a small rail. The day I visited, a historian was standing nearby, not doing much of anything.

Tourists, including me, would walk up, take a look, take a photo… and then shrug. There it is, I thought, if that’s actually the rock. Questions of authenticity were not assuaged, at least for me, by the fact that 1620 has been stamped into the stone and the sandy footing on which it rests has been manicured like a Japanese rock garden.

It reminded me of other totems to which we travel, only to tick them off our list. Old Faithful is one, the Statue of Liberty is another. You’ve heard so much about them, had them drilled into your head as an essential piece of American lore, heard grandiose promises about the meaning they hold. And yet nobody seems to actually enjoy them. When you visit, you visit to click the camera shutter and to say, “Oh yeah, I went there on vacation and saw it. Great time!” when you’re at a backyard barbecue with those neighbors you don’t really like. That’ll show ’em.

Was it totally the worst thing ever to go see Plymouth Rock? Of course not. I’m sort of humble-bragging about it with this post! But there was so little happening aside from the rock itself-a few ice cream shops, a couple of t-shirt stands-there seemed little reason to visit Plymouth but to see the disappointing rock.

I could be wrong about that last bit. But I didn’t leave time to explore Plymouth. I was just there to see its Rock.

The Secret Lost World of New York’s Finger Lakes

The funny thing about road trips is that you end up spending a lot of time behind the wheel of your car. There’s always another city to get to, asphalt to be consumed, another waypoint to hit. So by the time I pulled into Watkins Glen, a small town in New York’s Finger Lakes region, I was ready to get out and stretch my legs.

Fortunately, the village is home to one of the coolest state parks in New York, hidden in plain sight, right off the main drag.

Traveling the American Road – Watkins Glen State Park


Watkins Glen State Park is home to a “staircase of waterfalls” that cascade down through innumerable layers of shale and sandstone, guarded by towering cliff faces from which heavy drops of condensation fall, splashing on hikers’ heads. It’s a Lost World here, with electric green ferns dangling, water whooshing over ledges and swirling in natural Jacuzzis, mist hanging heavily in the air and amateur naturalists armed with telescoping aluminum walking sticks and floppy, broad-brimmed hats. (Another secret of the park is that the pathway along Glen Creek, while sometimes slippery, is hardly a technical hike.)

The park is a verdant escape, a place for a one-hour break from reality, planted right in the heart of a town best known as a car-racing capital, the home to Watkins Glen International, one of the country’s most storied road tracks. There’s no doubt the park gets crowded on the weekends, but during my Wednesday morning visit? I was happy to have my time outside the car to myself.

Remembering the Confederate dead

Civil War,civil war, ConfederateNext year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. As state and local planning committees gear up for a host of events, a quiet spot in western Missouri has been commemorating the war for more than a century.

The Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville, 53 miles east of Kansas City, opened as a retirement home for Confederate veterans in 1891. More than 1,600 former soldiers and their families lived amid quiet forests and placid lakes. Remarkably, the last one didn’t die until 1950. John T. Graves was a veteran of General J.O. Shelby’s Iron Brigade, the best cavalry raiders west of the Mississippi. The Iron Brigade saw countless battles throughout the war but Graves survived them all, to die in the modern world at the age of 108.

Today the Confederate Memorial is still a peaceful spot. You can stroll through the woods where old men once hobbled along swapping war stories, or fish in lakes that fed more than a regiment of veterans. The chapel is open to visitors, as is the cemetery, where the tombstones preserve the names of some of the best, and worst, men who fought for the South.

The most notorious rebel to be buried here is William Quantrill. A bandit turned Confederate guerrilla, Quantrill was the terror of the border states, looting and burning civilian homes as much as he fought Union troops. A young Frank James, brother of Jesse James, rode with Quantrill and participated in his biggest atrocity–the burning of Lawrence, Kansas, where Quantrill’s band killed about 200 mostly unarmed men and boys. Quantrill was killed in the last days of the war in Kentucky. Part of his body is buried in Louisville, some of his remains are interred in his hometown of Dover, Ohio, and the Higginsville memorial has three arm bones, two leg bones, and a lock of hair.

More honorable soldiers are also here, including several from the Iron Brigade as well as other units that saw action in every theater of the war. In fact, every Confederate state but one is represented here. Many veterans moved to Missouri after the war to farm its rich, underpopulated land, so a wide cross-section of the Confederacy ended their days at the home.

So if you’re driving through Missouri on I-70, take a quick detour and check out a piece of history. And keep an eye out next year for lots of Civil War articles here on Gadling to mark the 150th anniversary.

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Frank James and the Civil War Battle of the Hemp Bales

Frank James, Jesse James, Civil War
Jesse James must have been jealous of his older brother Frank. Jesse was only 13 when the Civil War started. Frank was 18, the perfect age to go off to war. Coming from a slave-owning farm family Frank naturally joined the Confederate army.

Many Missourians, especially city dwellers and the large German immigrant community, remained loyal to the North, while the majority of rural farmers supported the South. Most people actually wanted peace, but attitudes hardened as events spiraled out of control in the spring and summer of 1861. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to quell the rebellion, Missouri’s governor defiantly refused. Then the Unionist General Nathaniel Lyon captured a group of state guardsmen camped near St. Louis, fearing they planned to capture the city’s federal arsenal. The capture went off without a hitch (except for Lyon being kicked in the stomach by his own horse) but when Lyon’s troops marched their prisoners back into town they got attacked by a secessionist mob. A soldier and about twenty civilians died in the ensuing riot.

The secessionist government fled, soon replaced by a loyal state government, and the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price declared their loyalty for the South. Lyon led his Union forces from St. Louis west along the Missouri River valley, took the state capital of Jefferson City, and defeated a small State Guard force at the Battle of Boonville, one of the first battles of the Civil War. Price retreated with the State Guard to the southwestern part of the state to organize and train his green troops.

One of his new recruits was Frank James. He arrived with a group of Clay County boys, some armed with shotguns and squirrel rifles, others with nothing. They all itched for a chance to fight the Yankees. They didn’t have to wait long. On August 10, 1861, Lyons’ Union forces attacked Price’s Confederate camp at Wilson’s Creek. The Union soldiers came in from two sides, and as cannonballs flew through the State Guard tents, Frank James and his companions marched off to face the enemy.

%Gallery-108346%He and his unit charged up a hill overlooking their camp on which Lyon had placed the bulk of his force. Almost immediately the position earned the name “Bloody Hill”. Missourians fought each other through thick underbrush, attacking and counterattacking for hours. Meanwhile the second pincer of the Union attack was being wiped out to the south of camp. The battle tipped in the rebels’ favor, Lyon fell dead from a bullet, and the Union army retreated.

The fight left more than 1,200 casualties on each side, but the rebels exulted in their victory and marched into the center of the state towards the Missouri River port of Lexington. If they could take it, they’d control the river and the most populous pro-secession region in Missouri.

Col. James Mulligan, a tough Irish-American, had 3,500 Union soldiers at Lexington. While Price’s Confederates numbered more than 12,000, Mulligan decided to fight anyway. He dug trenches and earthworks atop a hill with a commanding view of the town. A stone building that served as a Masonic College added extra protection. The rebels arrived on September 13 and immediately surrounded the position. For a week they sniped at the Union troops on the hill. Volunteers swarmed in from the countryside to join Price. An account tells of how one local, an old man, arrived every morning with an antiquated flintlock rifle and a packed lunch, spent the day blasting away at the Yankees, and went home every evening.

Inside the fort Mulligan and his men grimly held on. No help came, and after a few days the rebels cut off their water supply. They threw back several determined attacks, and when the rebels heated up their cannonballs in an attempt to set the Masonic College on fire, Mulligan sent a boy with a shovel running around inside the college building, picking up the red-hot iron balls and chucking them out the window.

Frank James must have been getting nervous by this point. It had been a week and the fort still hadn’t fallen. Sooner or later a Union relief force would show up and there’d be real trouble. Then someone hit upon a clever idea. Missouri was one of the nation’s largest hemp regions. The cannabis plant was used for rope, paper, cloth, and many other purposes besides the recreational smoking that eventually got it banned. The harvest had just been brought in and the river port was filled with heavy bales of hemp. The rebels made a wall of these bales, soaked them with water so they wouldn’t be set on fire by hot lead, and started moving this wall up the hill.

Mulligan’s Union soldiers soon discovered these bales were bulletproof. Even cannonballs only rocked them. From behind the wall of hemp Frank James and his friends were able to get better shots at the defenders and the Union casualties began to mount. The noose tightened. Cut off, low on water, and with no help in sight, the defenders finally surrendered. Marijuana had won a victory for the Confederacy.

It wouldn’t last long. General Price realized his position was too exposed and headed back south. Frank fell sick with measles, a potentially fatal illness in those day, and got left behind. He was captured, gave an oath of loyalty to the Union, and returned home. Soon he was back in the saddle, however, joining William Quantrill’s guerrillas. Later he followed one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bloody Bill Anderson, and his younger brother Jesse joined him.

Frank and Jesse James’ war years were the beginning of their training as America’s most famous outlaws. They learned to ride, shoot, and hide out in the woods. Fellow members of Bloody Bill’s group formed the core of their bandit gang. With these experienced warriors they’d blaze across half a dozen states and into American folklore.

Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield has a museum and tours. The Battle of Lexington State Historic Site also has a museum (with a hemp bale they had to get special permission to import) and is in the center of a fine old town with lots of historic buildings. Check them out for more information about two Civil War battles that aren’t very well known outside of Missouri.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: On the trail of Jesse James.

Coming up next: Jesse James’ greatest escape

[Image of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek courtesy user Americasroof via Wikimedia Commons]

Top state parks in each state offer options for seeing native wildlife

If you want to find out which are the best state parks from the point of view of the director of each state park system, check out The Best of the Best State Parks at About.com

Darren Smith sent out a request to each director for his or her top choice. Because many directors turned in more than one offering, Smith included all suggestions. As he points out, a park that’s best for birdwatching may not be best for skiing. What’s “best,” therefore, is subjective. In the case of a best of the best list, the more the merrier.

Subjective or not, what makes these state parks standouts, according to Smith, are their natural beauty and natural resources, as well as, in some cases, their cultural and historical significance. They are also perfect for spotting the wildlife that is native to each state.

What intrigued me about Smith’s list of state parks is that there are many that are often overshadowed by the national parks and monuments that happen to be in that state as well. New Mexico is one such state.

I lived in New Mexico for nine years and traveled to every corner more than once. Although I did take in a few state parks, other travel options kept me busy.

I vaguely remember going to Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park and the City of Rocks State Park— two parks on the Best of the Best list, years ago. Part of the reason for my fuzzy recollection is that New Mexico state parks have plenty of competition with national parks and monuments located there.

White Sands National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park are just a few of the wow factor locations I’ve been to more than once.

The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, however, is where seeing wildlife native to New Mexico (and elsewhere) is a given. Prairie dogs, mule deer, bison and road runners are part of the critters who live in the Chihuahuan Desert where the park is located. The park is also involved with a program to ensure the survival of the Mexican Gray Wolf. These wolves are native to the southern part of the state.

What Smith was getting at when he compiled his list is that, although national parks often get more attention, state parks deserve notice too. Smith’s list is also a reminder that there are hidden gems worth discovering across the United States.

Sure, a national park is a fine destination, but while you’re on your way, add a state park to the itinerary. Because the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens is near Carlsbad Caverns, for example, you can easily take in both on the same trip.

When planning a trip, use Smith’s list as a handy starting point. Each park has a link to its website, plus there are descriptions about why a particular park made the list and the wildlife you’ll see if you go there.

The photo of the fox was taken at Wildlife Prairie State Park near Peoria, Illinois. That park not on the Best of the Best list, but perhaps it should be. Wildlife Prairie State Park features 150 animals that are native to Illinois. The fox is one of them.