Driving through this incredibly picturesque and historic region of the US was exactly what I needed to unwind after the Memorial Weekend madness on the Atlantic Coast. The American Piedmont (there is also one in Italy) covers a huge geographical area that is essentially the inland portion of the Eastern United States between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains. It stretches all the way from Alabama up to New Jersey. The Virginia Piedmont that I travelled through is an area within that covering Virginia, parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania.
After few days of rest involving some short drives to get me to inland Virginia, I did the trip covered in this update in one long day starting in Front Royal, Virginia and finishing in Newark, Delaware. Other than the last few hours getting to the coast it was a truly lovely drive that took in five states; Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware. It was quite a surprise to be able to cover so many states in one day after living in vast New Mexico for many years surrounded by even vaster states like Texas and Arizona. After a bit of online research I discovered the Journey Through Hallowed Ground website and used it as a rough guide to the course I should take to Gettysburg.
This area is steeped in American history and whilst the focus is predominantly on white history, it is in fact very significant to Native Americans as well, having been heavily settled by them and the site of some long and ferocious tribal battles. It is not all that easy to find sites or information relating to Native American history as you travel along the route so if you are interested in that you’ll need to do some research beforehand and bring along some notes or a history book. Sadly most of the focus is on what happened after the Europeans drove the Native Americans out so the majority of markers show the history of colonization, the American Revolution and the American Civil War, and they can be found pretty much everywhere you look.
I was mostly taken with the scenery. I managed to get away from the main highways for much of the morning and discovered endless quiet meandering country lanes that were so reminiscent of places like Shropshire and Cumbria in England that sometimes it messed with my head and I had to take a second to remember where I was. Often I would reach a ridge that offered wonderful vistas across farmland to the Appalachian Mountains in the distance but most of the landscape was gentle rolling hills, grassy pastures and thick forest.
The route to Gettysburg took me back to a main highway however that didn’t detract from the beauty or enjoyment of the drive. The road climbed up into West Virginia and it was clear I was back in the Appalachians. I reluctantly bypassed the historic town of Harpers Ferry and soon found myself driving through Maryland over forest covered hills, past breath taking rivers and eventually down into open farmland before crossing into Pennsylvania. I could easily have spent a day or two exploring the many side roads and cute small towns along the way but I had to keep moving. Once again I’ve found a place that needs to go back on my bucket list for further inspection at a later date.
I was intrigued to see Gettysburg and although I’d seen it in various documentaries over the years I was very curious about how it had been preserved and how it would be shown. I’m going to assume that most people reading this know something about that pivotal Civil War battle but if not you can click here for a catch up.
The only other battlefields I had visited had been almost by accident. I once discovered a sign to Bosworth Field, the location of the famous battle in England where King Richard III was killed during the War of the Roses way back in 1485. Today it is a field like pretty much any other except that there is a historical marker. I should probably add that it was in the middle of the night so I didn’t see much of it but that is a whole other story.
I’ve driven through Northern France and Belgium a few times, arguably the site of some of the World’s bloodiest fighting through the two world wars. I wasn’t there to see the battlefields but if you know what you are looking for the scars are still visible on the landscape and it is relatively easy to find buildings that retain holes from shrapnel damage. If you are off the motorways it is virtually impossible to not stumble across at least one or two huge and sobering war cemeteries. But for the most part life continues with farming, industry and housing on the land where these battles took place.
Gettysburg is totally different. Whilst there are still private residences within this huge site and it is surrounded by farms, the main battlefield has been preserved as a National Military Park and it has been done very well. There is a self-drive loop that takes you through the entire area. It is well signed and runs through a series of stops at the most significant places. Unlike most attractions in the US I’ve found so far, the road has actually been designed so that you can stop pretty much anywhere you like and it doesn’t cost you anything.
The vast battlefield is characterised by the prevalence of monuments and markers that have been erected over the years by veterans, their descendents, various historical societies and the National Parks Service. These are everywhere and vary according to who erected them and when. They include statues and interpretive markers as well as a huge variety of monuments erected in memory of specific divisions, soldiers or events.
The scenery is also beautiful and that is one thing that every battlefield I have visited has in common. No matter how hard you try to picture it as it would have been during the fight or in the bloody aftermath, with the sun shining through the trees, birds singing and the distant sound of farmers at work, it is almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like on those hellish days.
I spent about 2-hours exploring the battlefield which is all you really need if you are looking for an overview. A true Civil War buff could easily spend several days here and I should add that it is also great to bike around.
From there I made my way on a fairly awful drive to Strasburg, Pennsylvania to see Amish Country. I passed through the slightly odd town of York that was characterised by the amount of men of all ages randomly sitting on steps outside houses. And they weren’t homeless. I never did figure that one out. I’m assuming it must have been hit hard economically so unemployment is high.
You don’t need a sign to tell you that you’ve arrived in Pennsylvania Amish Country. The sheer volume of horse & carts is enough of an indicator. Because I can be juvenile at times I headed for the town of Intercourse and it went without saying that I had to check in there on Facebook. It turned out to be a cute little town where I stopped at the Post Office and had a bizarre experience buying some international stamps next to Amish folk trying to send packages. The majority of people I saw there were Amish and I was fascinated by how the modern aspects of this town merged with the traditional Amish way of life. Unfortunately I didn’t mail anything from there. I was sending postcards to my nieces and nephews and wasn’t sure that their parents would approve of the Intercourse postmark but I will be sure to explain where the stamps came from when they are old enough.
By now it was getting late and I was getting tired so I only spent a short time dodging horse & carts in this picturesque region before heading back to the main highway and making for Newark, Delaware. I still hadn’t decided if I was going to head north for New England the next day or do a loop around Chesapeake Bay first so it seemed like a logical place to spend the night before making my decision.
As I drove out of Amish Country towards Delaware I hit a very busy highway with speeding traffic and lots of road construction. I will never forget the sight of one Amish family jammed into the back of a cart trying to convince their horse to stay on the shoulder and the terrified faces of two teenage girls peering out the back to make sure they weren’t going to get hit as huge trucks sped past them.
It was a sad yet fitting end to a day soaked in history and highlighted the fact that you can’t stop change anymore than you can keep the past alive. No matter how big and costly a battle may be or how hugely life changing an event is, eventually everything fades into history. Anyone who remembers 9/11 has probably experienced that awful moment when you realise that people who weren’t born then are now in high school. Something so stark and real to us, so fresh in our memories, is already being consigned to school history books just like Gettysburg, Normandy, the Somme and the War of the Roses. Time just keeps marching on and despite their best efforts, not even the Amish can stop it.
Highlights: The Journey Through Hallowed Ground and for me this was less about the history and more about the wonderful scenery in the area | The Piedmont region of Virginia | Gettysburg National Military Park | Pennsylvania Amish Country
Biggest Regret: That America is so big. Despite having 9-weeks to explore the US and giving myself permission to omit visiting any big cities, I still don’t have time to stop and explore some of the wonderful places I have discovered. So rather than checking things off my bucket list I’m having to add more to it.
Travel Tip: The regions I have mentioned in this post are easily explored from Washington DC, Philadelphia and even New York City if you have the time. If you are planning to visit any of these cities I think it would be very worthwhile to see if you can add a night or two then head out for a drive into the Piedmont. It will give you a whole other perspective on the US and you’ll see some truly beautiful landscapes. Try to do it mid-week to avoid the weekend travellers from those same cities. I found the roads mostly quiet until I got past Gettysburg but doubt it stays that way on weekends.