Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Twilight's Last Gleaming: His Version

We’d lived in Baltimore three years without having visited Fort McHenry, one of the city’s most historic sites, and one of the places where Baltimore turned the British back during the War of 1812. So when good friends visited last month, we suggested a trip.

It was a warm day, hot when the wind quieted, and we all wore hats and carried water bottles, wondering as we entered the visitors center whether anyone inside would enforce the “no drinks” sign posted at the door. Not at all. The ranger, an elegant man with old world manners, directed us to the counter to answer our questions and take our money.

As Sheri wrote in her most recent post, “Politely, the ranger … asked whether any of us had an America the Beautiful senior pass, or whether we would like to purchase one for $10.” We asked for details, and he allowed as how the holder of such a pass would gain free access along with up to three guests to any national park in the country.

It’s almost as if that’s the only thing I heard. I love the national parks, and Sheri and I have enjoyed some of our finest times in them: watching wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota, hiking in Acadia in Maine, Glacier, Yellowstone … The idea of getting into all these places for free with my wife seemed to me a great gift, a reason to be happy with my government and country, and to cheer. I did cheer ­– a whoop or holler befitting a fort where soldiers endured a British bombardment and sent the King’s men on their way. Free admission! Great news!

We’re on the same side, Sheri and I. Yet at Fort McHenry, even though we won, we suffered a casualty. Now and then, I forget Sheri’s older. She makes it easy to do.

So as I whooped, she reached into her wallet for her driver’s license, and she glanced at me as she handed proof of her age to the ranger, her smile tight and false.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Twilight’s Last Gleaming

Of 56 national parks in the U.S., I have been to 14. My much younger husband is almost even with me at 13.

We figured this out at the beginning of the summer, on a road trip to central Virginia. While Michael drove, I discovered the national parks page at the front of our new 2010 road atlas. Ever competitive, and frequently restless during a road trip, I began counting the parks we’d been to. We’ve been together almost 20 years, so most of them have been joint trips: to Acadia in Maine, Hot Springs in Arkansas, Glacier in Montana. Our first national park together was Shenandoah.

But in my longer-than-his life, I’ve also been to the Everglades and Mount Rainier and Minnesota’s Voyageurs Park without him. He’s gawked at the redwoods in California and seen the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde without me. At the start of every one of those trips and at other historical sites, we paid our entry fee – we’ve never managed to make it on those free-admission weekends.

But no more. Last month we brought some visitors from Arkansas to see Fort McHenry, the national monument on a peninsula in the Baltimore harbor from which the flag flew during the War of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem. The entrance fee was $7 and we all dug into our wallets.

Politely, the ranger who would receive our money asked whether any of us had an America the Beautiful senior pass, or whether we would like to purchase one for $10. Of course, I was the only one who met the age requirement, and I was way out ahead of my companions in their 40s and 30s. Such a deal for them! If I confessed my age, all three could also get in free. So at this battlefield where bombs had burst in air, I had my own internal war.

It was a war we all won when I pulled out my driver’s license to confirm my age. Buying the $10 pass means free admission for the rest of my life — for me and any three people with me — to any national park or monument or recreation site. But it also means another admission: I’m 62, drat it.