We started on our marathon car ride to the nation’s capitol, stopping for the night in Bristol, Tenn. (only yards from Bristol Va.,) in what was possibly our most depressing motel yet. So, you want to pay $56? OK, this what you get. No matter, we were up at the crack of dawn and true to our peripatetic lifestyle we were on the move. We traveled on I-81, forking off to I-66, as we relentlessly pressed on toward Washington like Lee’s army. Yesterday’s trip through the Tennessee’s Crockett country landscape had been beautiful but seriously blighted by the free market profusion of huge billboards that blocked our view of hill and dale. Virginia was even more beautiful if only because there were fewer of these advertising monstrosities.
It’s impossible not to think of the Civil War on I-66 because the road is like a corridor leading through Civil War battlefields. We exited in Lexington, Va., to get something to eat, figuring correctly that something decent could be found in a college town. After lunch, we strolled across the beautiful Washington & Lee University campus, and then wandered into the chapel where Robert E Lee is reverentially buried (His white horse Traveller is reverentially buried outside). Lee served as the president of the university for five years after the Civil War. He couldn’t very well have gone home, because the Federal government had intentionally constructed Arlington National Cemetery on his old Virginia plantation, so he could sit on his porch and reflect on the human devastation he had helped to cause.
When we hit the road again, we simply had to play the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” which of course makes reference to Robert E. Lee. Dylan did not write this song, as one website incorrectly claimed, but he did have occasion to sing it with The Band. Like many Americans, our Bard occasionally been obsessed with the Civil War. In a 2006 New York Times article, we learn: “Mr. Dylan has long been interested in the Civil War: in ‘Chronicles: Vol. 1,’ Mr. Dylan’s autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster in 2004, he writes about spending time in the New York Public Library combing through microfilm copies of newspapers published from 1855 to 1865. ‘I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone,’” Mr. Dylan wrote. (On a more controversial note, it has been alleged that Dylan cribbed certain lines and rhymes without proper attribution from the Poet Laureate of the Confederacy, Henry Timrod, for various song lyrics on his “Modern Times” album.) As we rode through the spectacular Shenandoah Valley, our thoughts returned to Dylan again, not only because of his interest in the Civil War, but because as a young folk singer he had cut his teeth on the traditional classic, “Oh, Shenandoah.” True that song is set in Missouri and has nothing to do with this valley or the War Between the States. No matter. As with all kids who grew up entranced by the mystical and magical sound of the word “Shenandoah,” we didn’t really care about the context in which the word popped up. We were just happy to let the sound meander through our minds.
Before reaching Washington, we made one additional unplanned side trip. We exited the highway and soon found ourselves gazing at the Manassas battlefield where two bloody Civil War battles had been fought. It was just an empty field, bounded by the Interstate and by various malls. Thankfully, these did not intrude on one’s visual field. Something happened here, and we stood there actively contemplating what transpired a century and a half ago. On the quiet field before us, soldiers fought and cavalries clashed. Men and horses lay dead or writhing in agony, their screams interrupting our silence. This was a concentrated exercise in historical imagination, which is also partly what our trip was about.
We left the Shenandoah Valley and entered the outskirts of Washington. Our Civil War was over, but a last few adventures lay ahead.