It’s National Parks Week, and this summer will mark the 100th anniversary of the congressional act that created them. Admission to most parks is free through this weekend! Maybe there’s one near you? Short trips and mini-breaks are a priority for me this year, and for the first time in a long time there’s a tangible list of places I feel compelled to see and could actually afford.
We took a road trip to western Pennsylvania last weekend to visit Fallingwater (more than you probably want on that in a bit). It’s about a five hour drive from home with gas and food stops, which is an excellent road trip distance. You may already know this: that’s a perfect length of time to make your
unwilling passenger listen to all of Hamilton. (Twice, if you’re lucky.) Not only that, but they can listen to you get real nerdy about the sublimity of a show that loves hip hop and history as much as it hates the original Cranky Old Fingerwagging Fusspot John Adams. Everybody wins! If everybody is into showtunes, Leslie Odom, Jr, and lyrical jokes at the expense of Thomas Jefferson’s staggering hypocrisy, that is.
The first inkling that we were on an accidental theme vacation came as we rolled through the hills of central and eastern Ohio. It seemed like every time someone on the soundtrack sang or rapped their name, we passed one of the mind-boggling number of American roads, towns, and bodies of water named after these old dead white dudes who never got near to being associated with them. (Not much named after
Emperor Burr, to no one’s surprise.) Good thing there’s no “towns named for Presidents and Cabinet Secretaries” variant of the old Punchbug game.
We took a break from my wittering on about Okieriete Onaodowon’s biceps to listen to Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, the album she did with Jack White that virtually no one bought because they have no taste in music. (The people who didn’t buy it, not Loretta and Jack.) It’s a weird album, I can’t deny that. It’s deeply weird, but all the songs are about heartbreaks familiar to anyone who’s ever heard a Loretta Lynn lyric. For all the modern flourishes by Jack White, and the good-time country girl spin Lynn throws her whole body behind, the whole album feels like a sustained lament. For youth, love and loss, opportunity and change, and everything in between. Even when she isn’t singing about loss, it sounds like she is.
Portland Oregon was my favorite song on the album by a million miles. Listening to it as we drifted over the hills of West Virginia toward the relatively lazy Ohio River, I felt transported. The closest I’ve come to describing the feeling is that instant when you crest a hill in a car and your body briefly loses contact with the seat and you’re almost weightless. But it was also like standing in the nave of a soaring cathedral and feeling some universal but ephemeral connection to the whole awesome, dizzying potential of humanity. Also, frankly, a bit like the start of a panic attack, just before your head starts to float away from the rest of you. On a more terrestrial note, it’s a fantastically boozy duet that makes a great accompaniment for driving through coal country. We put it on repeat a couple of times, unwilling to let it go, but I still couldn’t tell you most of what they sang.
The nearest largish town to Fallingwater is Uniontown, Pennsylvania, an old coal and steel center that was once home to a sizable chunk of the 1%, a spur on the Underground Railroad, and the birthplace of both the Big Mac and General George “I’ll Take Credit for the EU, Thanks” Marshall. Main Street is the old National Road, complete with both authentic and replica mile markers and the glorious Sheetz drive-thru touchscreen menu. And just a dozen miles away is the Fort Necessity National Battlefield.
See, there was a reason I led with the National Park Service.
The park itself comprises four main sites that represent two different eras of great importance in the area: the mid-1750s (when the British and French fought over who would own the land that formerly belonged to the Native American tribes that allied themselves with both sides), and the early 1800s (when the National Road was constructed and fully linked the western frontier to the mid-Atlantic). The battlefield itself is where the 22-year-old colonial Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, as Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, “led [his] men straight into a massacre.”
Outside, in the meadow, there’s a replica of the fort — supposedly built by Washington to protect his supplies from his men rather than his men from the French — complete with palisade fence and ditch. Signs mark the treeline as it would have stood in 1754, and you can walk inside the fence and peer through the gaps in the supply hut’s walls. It’s astonishingly small. Not the meadow, which is a beautifully green expanse, but the defensible position. The whole time we were there I kept trying to imagine how it could possibly have fit 400 colonial soldiers, horses, supplies, and artillery. How much smaller it must have seemed as the enemy came pouring out of the woods. How endless it would have been with men dying on the ground all around you.
Up in the mountains above Fort Necessity, a two-lane road winds between the trees, past deer bounding up at you from leafy ravines, and eventually spits you out onto the driveway for Fallingwater.
Here end all my attempts at keeping my blog from sounding like my Twitter: Fallingwater is AMAZING. It was an #experience. It was transcendent, and every ridiculous pretentious superlative cliche you’ve ever heard about a work of art. Because it is a work of art. For the second time that weekend, I felt as close to religious as it’s possible for me to get outside of the aforementioned cathedral. And it isn’t just a work of art itself, it also houses a museum’s worth: Picasso prints, dozens of sculptures and hundreds of texts, Japanese woodblock art from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an original sketch by Diego Rivera you can literally walk up to and breathe on the glass and frame. I counted individual fibers in its paper!
By the time we hiked up the million-foot hill after the tour, I wanted to own Fallingwater myself. I want to paint it, tattoo it on my body, recite odes to it in sylvan glens like the one it occupies. I want to make it a character in a book somehow! The building itself is remarkable. I wouldn’t have called Frank Lloyd Wright a genius before standing in it, but now I will. And I’ll call the contractor, engineers, local construction workers, and restoration team the same for their dedication to bettering his design by making a livable work of art out of Wright’s plans.
As we walked up the half-dozen staircases in the house and passed through the ever-narrower doorways, I thought about how many different layers of privilege are required for any kind of knowing the house. The tour is kind of expensive — $8 just to get on the grounds to walk around, another $20 or so to get inside the house per person — and the building itself is unnavigable for anyone with mobility issues. The Kaufmanns, who commissioned it, were as rich as you could possibly get in life, with a library and art collection that pretty much made me sick to my stomach with envy. They traveled the world; they had Albert Einstein and Frida Kahlo as houseguests. They also commissioned one of the other great works of modern architecture, the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs. Their son, who studied briefly with Wright at Taliesin, inherited the house after their deaths and donated it to the conservancy organization that still maintains it.
Wright’s motivation for Fallingwater was rather famously to integrate the house into the hillside and the water, so that the building felt like an organic outgrowth of its surroundings. The rooms grow progressively more oppressive and cramped as you move away from the water, both into and up the hill. His aim was to push you out onto the terraces, rather than allowing you to lock yourself away behind the glass indoors. But although that open-air sensibility gets a lot of mention on the tour, there’s so much elided in service of the narrative of a happy, satisfied family restored by their connection to nature. No mention of tragedies large or small. The entire span of Kaufmann, jr’s life after his parents died is reduced to what he did with the house. They never even mention his partner of several decades, who designed part of the visitor’s center every guest passes through. Afterward, I found out that the Kaufmanns are buried at Fallingwater, and that Kaufmann and his partner both had their ashes spread on the property. I wanted to go march back down the hill and over the bridge and poke at all these missing pieces.
Which brought it back around again to Hamilton, with its sometimes hotly contested historical interpretations and the gaps inherent in being a fan whose only experience of the show is the cast album. How much of Miranda and company’s pointed critiques of the founders and subsequent generations are lost without the staging, the lighting, the dancers and actors moving over the stage and interacting with props? I wonder too about the hidden aspects of Fort Necessity, which is now only a replica based on archaeological evidence and mythologies. In fact, it’s not even the original replica, which is still present as a model in the museum and shows a radically different interpretation of the original structure.
As for the historical events themselves, the battle at Fort Necessity is remembered not just as one of the inciting events of the French and Indian War; it’s also a cautionary tale. Washington and his troops vastly underestimated their opponents, and Washington signed the surrender agreement without understanding it. Later he learned that by signing it, he had agreed that he was responsible for the massacre of a French commander — a charge he denied but had already legitimized. Or was his refusal to own up to such a brutal act the apocryphal part?
How do you know which version of a story is closer to what happened? Can one still tell the truth without being faithful to minutiae? Hamilton is hardly an academic history text, but an academic history text is every bit as biased. Hard as I might wish otherwise at times, there is no objective truth. There’s only weighing the stories you’re told and deciding whether they satisfy. Messy and complicated feels authentic, but so can neat and tidy.