Trail Notes

By David A. Fryxell Premium

I’m old enough, alas, to remember the days of black-and-white television. What a thrill it was when we finally got our first color TV (its immediate successor, I believe, was still in the basement of my frugal parents’ house until recently). Suddenly, the world on our small screen sprang to life, and Captain Kangaroo, the Lone Ranger and Lassie seemed to pop right out into our living room.

For travelers, I’ve come to think, history is a lot like getting color television. Sure, you can visit a place and see the sights, dine at the restaurants and buy your souvenirs. But without the history, it’s like visiting a place in black and white. One destination is hard to tell from the next (much as on our old TV, the Lone Ranger, whom I later discovered was clad in powdery blue, looked an awful lot like the dun-costumed Rifleman with a mask). The place has no character because you don’t know how it came to be that way. It’s just a collection of buildings, as flat and dull as the Hollywood sets so many of my favorite shows were shot on.

History puts the color into the places we visit. Once you know something about the why of a destination — the “backstory,” to stick with my Hollywood metaphor — you’re better able to appreciate what you’re touring.

To use an extreme example, consider Mount Vernon. If George Washington had never lived there (or if you didn’t know he’d lived there, or didn’t know who George Washington was), Mount Vernon would be just a big old house. Impressive, sure, but nothing that would draw streams of visitors.

Not far from Mount Vernon, in nearby Prince William County, Va., lies another such place that fully resonates with visitors only when you know what happened here: Manassas battlefield, site of the first real battle of the Civil War (as well as a second, much larger battle). It’s a beautiful place, rolling green hills and a prim, white farmhouse. But you have to know why the cannons picket the hills for this place to make you catch your breath: That long, bloody, bitter chapter of American history began here, as naive picnickers watched, thinking the war would be over by afternoon.

We tour Manassas and its history-rich region in this issue — putting the color of history, we hope, into your picture of what otherwise would be just another stretch of suburban Washington, DC, sprawl. Not far away, we also visit the National Archives, to show you how to get the most from your visit to the “nation’s attic.” Without their rich overlay of history, of course, the treasures in the archives would be, well, just stuff — not much different from what you’d find at a good neighborhood rummage sale.

But places don’t have to lie in the shadow of the nation’s capital for history to turn them into Technicolor experiences. As this issue shows, you can find heritage just about anywhere — down the Natchez Trace into the heart of the South, or across the Southwest to Oklahoma City, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Phoenix. If you have Irish ancestors, like so many Americans, even a place as distant as Ireland can come to colorful life — green, of course — with not only a nation’s history, but also pieces of your personal past.

Trust me, once you’ve seen the world in living color, made vivid by history, you’ll never again settle for that old black-and-white view.
From Family Tree Magazine‘s summer 2003 Heritage Travel.