On a crisp morning last October I rolled on Boxxer’s throttle and headed south toward Florida. I was focused on one thing, which was meeting the requirements of the Iron Butt Association’s National Parks challenge: visiting 50 National Park Service (NPS) sites, in a minimum of 25 states, within 1 year (all via motorcycle of course). But by the end of the first day on the road I almost forgot about the Challenge given what I discovered and what this trip had become.
What do you remember about Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States? No, wrong guy, the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 was won by Andrew Jackson, our 7th President. All I knew about Andrew Johnson was that he was the only President impeached by the House of Representatives besides Bill Clinton. And I remembered that only because the media frequently reminded us that Clinton was only the 2nd.
As I rolled into the parking lot of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, TN, I wasn’t all that enthused about the first stop on my Iron Butt quest. After all, how interesting could the life and contributions of this impeached president be? What the heck, I thought, it is on my way and it will count as a stop in TN, the first state on my list.
I am embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about this man Johnson before I stepped through the door of the NPS interpretation center adjacent to his home, a modest, beautifully preserved red brick house where he lived before and after his presidency. After several hours learning about his life, character and accomplishments, he is now one of my favorite Presidents.
Born in Raleigh, NC, Johnson grew up in poverty. He was apprenticed to a tailor as a boy, but ran away due to abusive treatment. He made his way to Greeneville, TN, where he set up his own tailor shop. With a keen mind and a knack for politics he eventually became governor, a U. S. senator from TN, and then Lincoln’s Vice-President despite being a Democrat. Only days after the end of the Civil War Lincoln was shot and Johnson became the 17th President.
Johnson shared Lincoln’s views on reconstruction and proclaimed general amnesty for those who had taken part in the rebellion. Johnson wanted to re-admit the southern states to the union much as they were, minus slavery, while Congress wanted to dissolve the southern states and impose military rule. This fight led to Johnson’s impeachment by the House only to be acquitted in the Senate by one vote. He prevailed. This country might have been a very different place were it not for this man’s magnanimous faith in the people and his strict adherence to the US Constitution. What’s more, he bought Alaska from the Russians!
From Greeneville it was on to Chickamauga Battlefield in GA, and Little River Canyon, Horseshoe Bend Battlefield, Trail of Tears, and Tuskegee Airmen NHS in AL. Then on to all the “Old Forts” including Matanzas, Caroline, and Castillo de San Marcos in FL and Frederica and Pulaski in GA. On the way back home through the Carolinas, I stopped at Revolutionary War Battlefields at Cowpens, Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse, and the Civil War site at Appomattox Courthouse, VA.
In every case, at every stop, just like my first stop in Greeneville, TN, I was fascinated by what I learned or re-learned about this amazing country. I have been to many of the “big” NPS sites like Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Rocky Mountains, Everglades, Smokies, Acadia, etc., but the NPS sites that deal with our culture and human history are, in many ways, even more fascinating.
When I left for this trip it was all about the Iron Butt Challenge, stopping at a site in each state to get my National Park Service Passport book stamped toward my quest of 50 sites within 25 states. During this first trip to FL and back I visited 17 sites within 8 states.
But it is not about that anymore. Now it’s about visiting all the intriguing NPS properties that I never seemed to care about; you know, those places on all those brown signs along the road to which we pay little or no attention. I feel like I discovered a gold mine.