Call me a sucker, but man, do I love celebrating the 4th of July. I love the fireworks, the fatty food, the ridiculous ways we choose to sport our reds, whites, and blues. But these things are to Independence Day what Santa is to Christmas: fluff. Roll your cynical eyes all you want, but I advocate that the 4th is a time for thinking; we need to remember not to take for granted our glorious heritage and freedoms. Our Independence Day recalls one of the most momentous events in all of human history, a day in which a people proclaimed their God-given rights and declared that they would be ruled by laws and not men. As Jeff says in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books…Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.”
And so it was that our trip to visit some East Coast friends turned into the most Americantastic 4th of July ever. See our itinerary to see what I mean:
Day 1: Shenandoah National Park; Watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that evening in our cabin
Day 2: Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson; drive to Washington DC and view the fireworks over the National Mall.
Day 3: Explore DC, including our first-time visit to Theodore Roosevelt Island
Day 4: Explore DC, travel with friends to Philadelphia
Day 5-6: Explore Philadelphia, including Independence Hall, Christ Church, grave of Benjamin Franklin; run up Art museum steps like Rocky; eat cheese steak and Amish donuts.
In case your holiday was not quite as Americantastic, here are some top moments for you to ponder:
#1: Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you…
On our first morning we woke to sunny skies peeking through the windows of our cabin. A short drive and a bagel later we arrived at the gates of Shendoah National Park. The familiar wide brimmed hat of the park ranger who admitted us was a welcome site. I have such deep admiration for the men and women who have protected the parks over the years, and I highly recommend Dayton Duncan’s book, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, as well as the accompanying Ken Burns documentary by the same title, for learning the stories behind these heroes of our American wilderness. Once inside the park, we drove a little ways to reach the trail head. The ensuing meandering pathway took us down to the base of a magnificent waterfall. We waded in the chilly water and cooled our selves in the misty spray. I remembered John Muir:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
America is awesome. We just need to get out and see it.
#2: Huzzah for the new Americans!
Sometime during the planning for this trip we discovered that Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, hosts a naturalization ceremony every 4th of July. This event overlaps with an Open House and an ice cream social, a tradition that has been going on every Independence Day since Jefferson was alive. We arrived via shuttle and were ushered up to the top of the hill where hundreds of white chairs were assembled at the back of the big house across the great lawn. At 9 AM we listened as Thomas Jefferson’s gong rang to open the ceremonies, which was followed immediately by a reading of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. We heard from the president of the foundation, from the keynote speaker David Rubenstein (some billionaire), and from several judges before watching the candidates for citizenship take their oaths. Through all of this, I wondered whether we would hear any of the citizens’ stories. As many of us know, becoming a citizen of the US is an extremely difficult and lengthy process. I wondered what the roads were like that brought these people to Jefferson’s doorway on that sunny day. Much to my delight, the citizens were invited toward the end of the ceremony to share their thoughts on their new American identity. One by one, several of the new citizens shared their thanks and relief and hopes for the future. Then one man’s story blew us all away. He shared that he was originally from Kuwait but had lost everything when he fled the country during the Gulf War. Most unfortunately, he had fled to Iraq, where a few years later he, once again, lost everything as a result of war. During that time he became a translator for the US military, a service which enabled him to move to the US. We listened intently and gratefully has he finished his story with a bold statement: “Today is the first day I am truly free.” He will now work tirelessly to bring his two daughters to the US to join him.
Also, Monticello has the most amazing gardens.
#3: John Adam’s pyrotechnic pride
John Adams once famously and prophetically wrote to his wife that Independence day “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Thus it was with great pride that we joined the thousands of other Americans on the National Mall in Washington DC to witness what I felt were the best fireworks I ever saw.
#4: Bully for Teddy
Josh and I recently read biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and since then have been steeping in admiration for our country’s most vivacious president. I have even gone so far as to think of him as the ebullient grandfather I never had. We perked up, therefore, when the idea came up to visit Theodore Roosevelt Island and see the monument to his legacy. None of us had ever been there before and we were all pleasantly surprised by what we found. The island sits in the middle of the Patomac and is accessible by only one footbridge. Once across the bridge visitors have their choice of woodsy paths that wind themselves around the small island. Looking around, the place seemed a bit unkempt and overgrown, but we all agreed that this would have made Teddy like the spot even more. Wildness was one of the things Roosevelt treasured most. In the center of the island the paths open up to an elliptical glade where a massive statue of Teddy, posed emphatically mid-argument, welcomes visitors to ponder his metaphorical and literal bigness. The statue was framed by enormous stone panels, two on each side, which displayed famous Teddy quotes espousing four of his notable virtues: Nature, Manhood, Youth, and State. I was particularly struck by one of the “Manhood” remarks: “No one is fit to live who fears to die; no one is fit to die who has shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.” Seriously–who talks like that anymore? He was so cool. I hope to meet him in heaven.
I hope these reflections have fueled your patriotism. The 4th may be over, but we have so much to be thankful for.