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A return to the Sea, part II: The Freedom Trail

January 19, 2012

My last entry left thing on the morning of september 29, on arrival in Boston. As a general observation, Boston is both somewhere I had never seen before, and somewhere that, as far as cities go, has always been fairly high up on my to-visit list (well ahead, for example, of New York). I remember, as a thirteen years old when my family went to Cape Cod, asking my parents to stop by Boston quite a few times, but that never happened.

The result of which being that my visit to Boston, though short, was packed, and that I don’t know if I can fit it all in one entry (also, unlike my visit to New Haven two years ago, I wasn’t limping on a still-sprained ankle the whole visit).

Anyway. A cloudy day in Boston…

After finding the luggage claim area at the Boston bus station, and grabbing something to bite (a spinach/feta croissant), I head out in the streets of Boston. At this point, I’m, if not hopelessly lost, at least a bit perplexed as to my location. I’ve never been here, and I have only a vague idea (I did look at Google Map first, obviously) where I want to go. There are a few guides with what passes for maps in the train station, but they’re less than ideal.

I end up wandering my way down a commercial street past a Macy and some other stores, until I get more or less where I wanted to get, which is Boston Common, the green/park next to the Massachusetts State House. It’s a rather nice sort of park: several monuments (one particularly memorable one honoring the first regiment of black volunteers who fought in the Civil War), decorations, etc. Some of the trees have started turning red, but not so many.

Also, a rather nice-looking Merry-go-round. (One of the figures, not pictured here, is of a black cat with a fish in its mouth. Cute.

There are quite a few sights around the commons, too: a number of old buildings,offices, churches (including one that has the infamous “No, Obama is not a brown-skinned Anti-War Socialist who gives away free Health-Care…you’re thinking of Jesus” banner hanging in front of it), and the offices of the local Fox Channel (a woman – who works there, I think – stops me in the street as I’m taking picture around to ask if I’m trying to get a picture of one of the channel’s local celebrities. Quite nice woman, too.).

There’s also the State House and its surrounding monuments to a variety of people (including Daniel Webster, of “The Devil and…” fame (also various political accomplishments), and Mary Dyer, best known for being hanged in Boston over the highly reprehensible act of being a Quaker in a land full of Puritans). Like every state house in New England I’ve seen so far, it has a big golden dome. (To be fair, googling it indicate that the other two are more sensible about architectural choices like that).

It was tacky when Connecticut did it, and it's still tacky when you do it, Massachusetts.

Around that point I notice the lines on the ground indicating what I figure (rightly, it turns out) to be the Freedom Trail. Since that’s where all the cool historical monuments of Boston (including the one that tops my must-see list) are, I figure I might as well follow the yellow red brick road.

It takes me straight to an old (very old chapel, and, far more fascinating, the burial ground next to it. And the next several pictures in my camera are all pictures of the tombstones to be found there: they’re fascinating. Near all of them have some representation of death carved on them: here, a skull with wings blowing water from the top of its head (as in, like a whale),  and some far more elaborate. Several figures (the skeleton, obviously, but also a winged figure with a beard that looks like tentacles right out of a Lovecraft novel, an hourglass in hand) appear quite repetitively. Presumably the second figure represent Death, but if so it’s quite different from the images of Death I’m used to.

Here: A skeleton, chained flowers, and angel cthulhu with an hourglass.

The trail goes on, past the old city hall (and a statue of Ben Franklin), and a strange statue representing a donkey on the one side, and a pair of footmark in the ground on the other, in which an elephant is carved. I’m still debating, months later, whether the message is A) “Stand upon the elephant and resist the donkey” or B)”Trod the elephant underfoot to show your allegiance to the donkey.” Given the openly avowed political nature of the work, I’d rather not know which it is. There are more monuments, too: one to the Great Potato Famine and the Irish immigration to the New World that followed.

The road moves on, past many other historical monuments (seriously, you can’t walk go a street corner without encountering two monuments along the Freedom Trail), a tourist information center with a nice collection of revolutionary era flags (cool), and actual useful maps of the Freedom Trail and Boston in general (genius!).

The OLD State House. Note the absence of tacky golden domes.

I go on, through Quincy Market (which is a suitably huge market, considerably larger than Byward Market in Ottawa. Of course, Boston is about four time the size and three time the age of Ottawa, so this likely explains that. There are plenty of other interesting little things here: assorted old (very old) taverns and restaurants, including an Oyster House that’s been in operation for near two centuries by now).

On the other side of the Rose Kennedy Greenway (a large belt of parks along major streets/higways) the trail enters North End, a district that’s both the oldest part of Boston (it’s where Paul Revere lived, among others – his house being, of course, on the trail), and also (somewhat later in history) Boston’s version of a Little Italy (which can mostly be seen today by the large number of Italian restaurants).

The presence of a church named "Sacred Heart Italian Church" is also a tip-off.

Further along the way is a mall (not a shopping center; a park) named for Paul Revere. While the park is named for him, it honors far more than just him: there are plaque and signs honoring nearly every famous Bostonian of the first few centuries of the city, as well as plaques honoring the people of the North End who fought and died in the Revolutionary and Civil War. There is, of course, also a statue of Paul Revere riding, positioned so that the trees lining the side of the mall point straight toward the bell tower of the Old North Church (which is where the lanterns were reportedly hung to signal whether the British were coming overland or by sea). Today, the bell tower (pale white) is barely visible in the mist and clouds.

There is another memorial in this mall, and it’s by far the most touching, in my opinion. It consist of several posts strung in the ground, cords or ropes hanging between them. From each of the cord or rope hang dozens if not hundreds of blank soldier identification tags. I’m not absolutely certain, but I think it may be one for each life lost in Afghanistan and Iraq (it’s definitely honoring the dead of those two wars). One way or another, it strike me as perhaps the most tasteful way I’ve seen of honoring those who die on the battlefield.

Not a great and flashy monument: but a powerful reminder of war's cost, and a stirring memorial to those who paid it.

Past another, much larger (but with fewer of the truly fascinating sort of tombstone seen earlier) graveyard (that hold the grave of, among others, Cotton Mather), and a house right along the road with a small Quebec flag stuck to the window above the street number (I can’t help but notice that sort of thing!),  the road reaches and crosses the Charles river, giving me a first good glimpse, through the fogs and clouds, at the chief reason I decided to walk this trail.

Who, me? A naval history geek? Filthy lies!

I was going to stop this entry here, thinking, “well, this is about midway through my visit”, only looking back at my picture collection, it turns out that this was roughly three-four hours into the visit, with six-seven yet to go, so I’ll actually finish the freedom trail in this entry in that case, and keep next entry for my further wanderings in Boston (the second entry may be shorter).

In any event, the ship is, for those not familiar with Boston’s famous landmarks, the USS Constitution, one of the last few sail warships still in existence, a few day shy of its 214th anniversary as of this visit (it was launched on 21 October, 1797). It’s possible to actually visit the ship, but doing so require going through security measures that look a lot like getting on a plane, and a waiting line that’s fairly impressive, so since I want to see as much of Boston as I can, I decide that visiting the ship itself can wait until next time I’m in town.

I still, of course, spend a long time visiting the docks, admiring the ship. It’s a beautiful, black, white and silver, and also quite impressive – much larger than what I used to  have in mind when the term “sailship” is thrown around. It’s one thing to read descriptions in books, and quite another to see the real thing up close, and realize that there is no comparison between the everyday sailship we’re familiar with and the great sailships that used (see the above picture, compare the ships in the foreground with the masts of Constitution in the background). In a way, that we were able to build ships this large that moved only on the strength of wind and were actually (largely) seaworthy is more a testament to human ingenuity than the massive oil and nuclear-powered vessels of the modern day.

Is she not beautiful?

There’s also a World War II destroyer next to Constitution. This one actually has no waiting line and no security screening to visit it (it’s a full museum ship, unlike Constitution which is still an official ship of the United States Navy). It’s an interesting visit, but much as World War II naval combat interests me, it just isn’t the constitution, in terms of history, in terms of looks, or in any other way you could put it.

After a brief visit to the nearby Constitution museum, it’s back to the freedom trail, on which there is only one landmark left, which I may have mentioned in passing earlier. It’s the sort of landmark that’s visible from quite some distance away, because 1)It’s a huge obelisk, and 2)It’s built on top of a hill.

Rather hard to miss.

As can be seen above, there’s a window atop that obelisk (which is the Bunker Hill monument, again for those unfamiliar with Boston), 294 steps on a narrow stairway above the hilltop.

What happens next is fairly obvious, at least to anyone vaguely familiar with me, or who has read my past entries:

294 steps later, looking down toward the Harbor. Note the Constitution (and its size relative to everything else).

And, since this is the last monument of the Freedom Trail, it’s just as good a time as any to end this entry. Join me again, next time, as I continue to explore Boston.

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