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Perry Cuskey

Pre-hike Report

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Hi folks,

As you may have gathered from a few of the notes already posted, we had a really good time at the anniversary hikes last weekend. Bjron did his usual excellent job of creating a vivid image of the events he described, and Jeff Gentsch gave us a new appreciation of how the terrain and other geographic features of the battlefield helped influence the battle in a number of different ways.

I also enjoyed getting to meet Mona for the first time, as well as having a 2007 hike reunion with Dan and our fellow park traveller from last year, Steve Cantrell. Also met several other folks who were on last year's hikes. A bit like old home week, except that it was old park week. But I enjoyed it all very much. Learned some new things, got to meet a bunch of nice folks, and got to spend a few days in one of the best battlefield parks in the country. Like Bjorn jokingly said on Monday afternoon, we spent the weekend walking through mud, getting wet, dealing with ticks, blisters, sunburns, and sore muscles...and loved every minute of it. That's exactly right.

Last year I started to write a series of 'reports' about the various hikes, and made it exactly halfway through before they just sort of faded. Maybe someday I'll get around to finishing them. (Quit laughing. It isn't polite.) I'm going to try and do the same thing this year, at least with some of them, and Dan is going to pitch in on the rest. He's already got things started with a good report on our Henry Morton Stanely hike. So we're off and running. Or rather hiking. And I'm hoping that other folks who were there will chime in with their experiences as well. The more, the better.

This "report" is from Saturday, the day before the hikes actually began. I'll get into the first hike probably tomorrow, or at least by the end of the weekend.

I made it to the park around 2:30 in the afternoon, following a 10-hour drive from Oklahoma City. I'd already set up camp for the day and decided to spend as much time in the park as I could for the rest of the afternoon. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was that there were a whole lotta of folks in the park. The living history events originally planned for the weekend had been cancelled due to all the rain - which relates to the other thing I noticed - but the park personnel were still putting on various events related to the anniversary. And they were clearly keeping busy. At one point I briefly ran into Bjorn at the visitor's center, during what must have been the only free 2-minutes he had the entire day. There were scheduled events, hikes, talks, and demonstrations for most of the day. It all had a wonderful sense of organized chaos, and everyone seemed to be having a grand time.

But one of the nice things about Shiloh is that even if it's "crowded," you can still find places in the park where you'll probably be off by yourself, or darn close to it. It's big enough to hold a crowd without feeling crowded. Since I was there for a series of formal hikes and would be part of a group, I decided to spend the first afternoon wandering around on my own.

One of the best things about being part of a group on a pre-planned tour - which is really what the hikes amount to - is that you have the chance to learn from experts, and interact with other people who share your interest. I recommend giving it a try if you ever have the chance.

One of the drawbacks to all this though, is that you are confined to the structure set out in the schedule. You will be here at such-and-such time, and see this particular area within a certain time frame. Then move on to the next item on the schedule. There isn't a lot of room for individual exploration.

Understand, I'm not knocking the group, set-schedule approach - as I say, there are advantages here that you simply cannot get when you're off by yourself. But there are also advantages to being "off by yourself," which is how I'm used to doing it most of the time. I also recommend this approach, if you can manage it now and then. Just as with the group approach, there are experiences, moments, and memories, that will make it worthwhile. Just in different ways.

It may sound odd to some folks, but most of the time when I arrive at a battlefield park, the first thing I like to do is just drive around. Sometimes I'll have a destination in mind, and if something catches my eye I'll stop and get out for a bit. But usually, at first, I just like to drive and look. Not to re-familiarize myself with the park. But just to sort of soak in the fact that I'm here.

As is always the case, I will keep coming back to this during the course of the weekend. There will be moments when I'll just sort of step back in my mind, and look around. And think to myself, I'm glad I'm here. There is a theme to each hike, and, I think, a theme to the weekend itself. But for me personally, the theme that plays itself out is the constant interplay between the park, and the battlefield. The way in which I will find myself drawn first to one, and then to the other. They are one and the same, and yet they are different. The park commemorates the battle, and the battlefield. They share the same ground. The park - that beautiful, haunting, transfixing park - exists as a park because of the battlefield. But a battlefield the park is not.

It is an irony that I can never shake.

My drive around the park literally takes me all the way around the park, all the way back to the visitors center. I stop in for a few minutes to pay my entrance fee and check in for the hikes. Then it's back out into the park. This time I stop near the Crossroads, and get out to walk around for a bit. I've been re-reading some recently about the fighting here, and wanted to have another look at McClernand's line. After driving around the park, it's now time to visit to the battlefield.

Almost the moment I step out of my truck, the first thing I notice is the squish. The ground is not wet. The ground is soaked. As I saw driving across Arkansas and western Tennessee, the area has been deluged by rain for several days. And it shows. Walking around along McClernand's defensive line in the woods north of Review Field, it's almost like walking across a marsh. And as I'll soon see, the streams in the area are quite full. Some of the streambeds that were dry last year at this time are filled with running water. It will be one of the themes for the weekend - water.

After wandering around McClernand's line for a while, I head on over to the other side of the park, and spend some time out by Stuart's first position on the far Union left. Dan calls me while I'm there and we arrange to meet at the visitors center in 15 minutes. You can be at the visitors center from just about anywhere in the park in two shakes and one skip, so I figure I've got time to wander around a bit longer. A "bit longer" turns out to be longer than it should have, and I'm late meeting up with Dan.

We've both been up for hours, had long drives to reach the park, we're tired, we're hungry, the sun is going down, and there's a restaurant very close by. So we do the logical thing. We head back into the park.

We meander out to Spain Field, and re-trace Gladden's approach to Miller's first line. We get out, walk around, and debate this and that. Command decisions are discussed, formations pondered. Musketry and cannon fire echoes across the decades. The battlefield lies before us. The park, for the moment, recedes into the background.

But with darkness descending and tummys growling, it's time to leave the battle in the past for the moment, and get something to eat. We head off to Haney's, north of the park, and have a good, albeit late, dinner. Then it's time to head off for the night and get what sleep we can. A  day of hiking and learning awaits us. The Dawn Patrol is only hours away.


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