If I asked you to name your favorite National Park Service (NPS) places, you’d probably immediately mention parks such as Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Zion National Park and Glacier National Park. We love these particular public lands because they are big and grand, and they offer us some of the most mind-blowing scenery on the planet.
And just like these places themselves, the adventures in them are usually epic: rafting down the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River, hiking up Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome or searching for wolves in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley.
These jaw-dropping, horizon-spanning and adventure-laden locations, however, are but a very few among the 417 units that the NPS manages, which include all national parks and most national monuments, as well as several other types of protected areas in the United States, such as national battlefields, national historical parks, national historic sites, national parkways, national seashores, and national historic and scenic trails.
And, as I recently learned, bigger isn’t always better when it comes to making magical and meaningful memories in National Park Service protectorates. In fact, an unexpected adventure in one of the smaller units continues to hang on tight to my heart, despite its having occurred a couple of years ago.
This park unit isn’t famous, iconic, large, expansive or even beautiful—heck, it isn’t even outdoors.
Behind the bannister
I had what I thought was a good plan. To celebrate the recent centennial of the National Park Service, I made arrangements to go to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with my daughter, Shannon, to visit Independence National Historical Park. As I waited in the will-call line in the visitor center to pick up the entrance tickets, Shannon noticed a large placard advertising the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, the author’s home during a portion of the six years that he lived in Philadelphia. Both avid fans of Poe’s writing, we decided to add a visit to the house following our Independence Hall tour.
Inside the building known as “the birthplace of America,” we stood in a roped-off area as an Independence Hall park ranger gave us a brief orientation, in which she summarized the historical events that led up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution. We were then guided into the Assembly Room, where both documents had been signed and where, later, President Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in repose for two days after his assassination. We stood behind railings and gazed upon the green, cloth-covered tables set with candles, around which our founding fathers had debated and eventually created a new nation. The ranger pointed out a chair, set far back against the wall, that George Washington had actually sat in.
The importance of this site and its gravity were metaphorically palpable. Because of the hall’s historical correctness and almost flawless restoration, it seemed as if the signers had just stepped out for a brief break and that they would return at any moment to resume their congress.
It was easy to convince ourselves that we would be watching from the gallery, witnessing history unfold before us.
Down in the basement
After the solemnity of the Independence Hall tour, Shannon and I enjoyed getting outside in the sunshine for our one-mile walk to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. According to the National Park Service, the years Edgar Allan Poe lived in Philadelphia were his happiest and most productive. Here, he published The Gold-Bug and The Spectacles. While living in Philly, he was able to establish his reputation as a literary critic and perfected his gothic tales, such as The Fall of the House of Usher. He invented the modern detective story—a genre which he called “tales of ratiocination”—when he wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue. He pioneered science fiction narratives and wrote in his favorite literary form: poetry. It’s said that in the basement of this particular Philadelphia home, Poe found inspiration for his famous short story The Black Cat.
In that tale, first published in the August 19, 1843, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, Poe examined the psychology of guilt. A murderer carefully conceals his crime and believes that he is unassailable. But overconfidence gets the best of him. Inadvertently, in his basement, he walls up a black cat with his victim’s body. When the police come to investigate, the wailing of the cat gives the murderer away. At the conclusion of the story, he says of the cat, a nagging reminder of his guilt, “I had walled the monster up within the tomb!”
After making the short hike to the Poe house, Shannon and I stood on the stoop and rang the doorbell, as a sign instructed us to do. A National Park Service ranger opened the door, greeted us and invited us in. The place seemed special from the start—and unlike any other National Park Service unit I had ever experienced.
We studied the exhibits in the foyer, and then we began to wander. We explored the cool parlor, the utilitarian kitchen, the dignified, red reading room and the small, upstairs bedrooms.
Then, we made our way to the infamous basement.
We opened the door and found we had the cellar all to ourselves. It was quiet and shadowy, with a couple of high, ground-level windows to let in some light.
As I walked across the uneven brick floor and reached out a hand to touch the walls and the jagged mortar between the stones, I felt a chill spread up through my fingers and into my bloodstream. Edgar Allan Poe had assuredly stood where I was standing now. Perhaps he had come down here to ponder, to walk in circles as his mind wheeled around the plots of some of his most representative and darkest works.
It was such a contrast with the Independence Hall tour. Here, we didn’t stand behind barriers, looking in on momentous events. Here, feelings of the importance and substantiveness of this place were more than metaphorical. I was in direct, rough, cold-stone contact with the past.
I looked at the cobwebs that were shining in the afternoon light streaming in from one window, and they seemed as if they were the threads—although very fine ones—connecting me, standing here now, to Edgar Allan Poe, pacing this very spot more than 150 years ago.
Shannon came over to me and whispered, “This reminds me of my childhood, when I read Edgar Allan Poe’s books all the time. I feel so nostalgic—and giddy.”
Poe moved from this Philadelphia home in 1844. A year later, he published The Raven, Shannon’s and my favorite poem of all time.
Around the world
I’ve been fortunate to have seen and done many things all over the world that I think are grand and of great import, from Greenland’s ice caps to snowstorms in Antarctica, and from kayaking among Churchill’s summer congregation of beluga whales to tracking pumas in the shadows of Patagonia’s jagged mountain peaks. Such journeys usually involved traveling long distances, viewing extraordinary landscapes and engaging in rare and unique activities. What I didn’t know until recently was that a trip to a favorite writer’s small home in Philadelphia could somehow elicit the same sort of goose bumps.
Another American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, once said, “Enjoy the little things in life because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”
How right he was. Sometimes, a very tiny “national park” can hold some very big wonders.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,