Traveling With a (Macabre) Purpose

This week, I have a treat for you – a guest contributor- my good friend, Ben Osborne!  It’s almost Halloween, so why not learn a little something about his odd, and some might say spooky, travel obsession.  Maybe it will inspire you to create a goal for yourself……..

 

After you are asked “You’re here to see what?” the 100th time you really just want to start making things up.

“A naked Statue of Liberty.”

“The fabled white alligators of the sewers!”

“C.H.U.D.S.”

“Jimmy Hoffa’s grave.”

Well actually that last one if closer to the truth than any fiction I could make up. I have a confession to make. I seek out and enjoy president’s graves.

Don’t think I have some morbid fascination with death or … well … presidents. I think it best to describe me as an OCD consumer of history. What is my first stop on this tour? The last stop for all of the leaders of the free world.

It isn’t even an incredibly odd affliction. Look around the internet and you will find many websites by people who share this interest. A perplexed, but patient New York City cab driver was having a hard time figuring out why anybody would be interested in the imposing, but decaying, mausoleum in Riverside Park on the eastside of Manhattan. General Ulysses S. Grant had been reburied in grand style in a monolithic tomb modeled after one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Well, my wife for one. She never actively opposes these jaunts and often finds them entertaining, but she lacks the same desire I have. The truth is I don’t really care that much about the presidents themselves or in their burial arrangements. I like travel with a goal. For the last five years my goal has been to see all of the presidential burial sites. It could just have easily been any number of other activities. My father went to all fifty states in his lifetime. I guess I felt a calling to the afterlife.

The real reason behind this goal has to do with the journey as much as the end. The presidents are not buried in convenient and easily located places. In the early years of the republic the leaders of the country wanted to bury all of the presidents in the Capital. They envisioned a sort of Westminster-on-the-Potomac. Martha Washington put an end to that. When George died she nixed any attempt to stick him under the Congress and took him home to Mount Vernon. Presidents since have followed the tradition and been buried on their home turf. All except poor Woodrow Wilson. When they completed the National Cathedral, another attempt at a presidential crypt was made, but he was the only one to take the bait.

As such, the presidents are buried in much more humble surroundings. Like Abilene, Kansas or lovely Independence, Missouri. You might have heard of Independence because it is the final resting place of Harry Truman and it’s the location of his presidential library. You might also know it as ground zero of America’s meth epidemic. The day I visited the lovely grounds I took the scenic route through the ruined downtown, and past idyllic trailer parks. Truman loved his hometown even as it deteriorated around him. Up until his death in 1972 he would even give personal tours of the town if you happened to show up on the right day. These out of the way and sometimes desolate sites, always yield surprises that are interesting.

The solemn majesty of Jon Kennedy’s eternal flame is a huge draw to tourists. However, if you have seen it on a postcard you’ve pretty much seen it, in general. It is a hole in the ground, and it’s on fire. How many people can say they have seen the burial place of Zachary Taylor? Widely considered one of the worst presidents, he sits in a surprisingly easy to access gravesite. Just outside Louisville, Kentucky, right off of the ring road, sits a modest crypt with the remains of Taylor, in the appropriately named Zachery Taylor National Cemetery.  Simply drive in the front gate and advance slowly to a parking space right in front of his crypt. What is it about finding something that lights the spark in humans? Taylor’s grave is fairly boring as graves go, but it is the doing that matters.

What also matters? Discovery. While in Louisville I had to excuse to visit other local sights and scenes. Louisville was never on my top list of places to go in the world, but since I was there why not check out Fort Knox? Or sample the local cuisine? Excuses like these for the basis of a fascinating trip or tour. Even there in Zachery Taylor National Cemetery there was wonder to behold. I got a chance to meet another famous denizen of the area. John C. Squires’ was a local boy who fought in died in WWII. He also received the Medal of Honor for his actions. The official citation is long and reads like a Michael Bay script, but the most relevant section to me was where he engaged 21 German soldiers in individual “machine gun duals” and defeated them all.

I am only fourteen stiffs into the trip, and no doubt my journey will lengthen over time (ahem, “W”).  However, no matter how long it takes to find them all, or even if I never find them all I will have found something much more important. No white alligators, but experiences.

Thanks, Ben!

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