Highway to Hel
Following the Dead: Road Trip, Part 2
We passed the first night quietly, dining at Dobbin House, one of the oldest buildings in Gettysburg. The food and service were amazing. Of course, I should have known from my experiences at the restaurant that this wasn't going to be a pleasure jaunt. On the second floor, Dobbin House has a tiny Civil War museum/display, including a hiding hole that was used by the Underground Railroad. I didn't want to go up and look at it (I was there for the military dead after all and I can get tunnel vision sometimes in my work); my ancestors, however, insisted. So up I went.
Looking at that small space, and it was very small, was wrenching. To think that human beings, sometimes whole families, had once had to squeeze into a space barely large enough to hold two large, packed suitcases in order to win their freedom had me all but bursting into tears. The place stank of desperation and fear and something else too: bitter resolve. I returned to my traveling companions and took my place at the table shaken and quite emotional.
The rest of the meal passed without incident and then we took some time to walk around the town of Gettysburg, just as twilight was falling. One of my companions, having been raised by a medium, was quite sensitive to spirits and kept commenting that there were ghosts all over. I'm afraid my response was a less than elegant "No sh-t! Just wait till we get to the battlefields tomorrow!" We returned to the hotel fairly late and though I had intended to walk out to Culp's Hill to make my first offerings after dinner, I decided this could wait until the morrow.
The morning came all too quickly. I was urged awake by a press of my own ancestors and the collective military dead of that place. Well before 7:00 am, I was told to walk out to Culp's Hill (perhaps a quarter of a mile from the bed and breakfast, maybe less) to meet the battlefield, commune with the dead, and begin my round of offerings. (I've found that there is a protocol to honoring the dead, but for us, its restoration is often a matter of trial and error, since we are just now relearning how to do all of this properly. I suppose ease and excellence will come as the restoration of our ancestral ways progresses but for now, sometimes I need to be prompted by certain of my dead).
During the battle, Culp's hill was a key point in the Union's defensive line and suffered several thousand casualties. It was rather eerie walking out alone into what is now a memorial park. I could feel the point where I passed into the place that had seen the worst of the killing. It was as though I had crossed an invisible divide. I could smell it. All along the way, I stopped at various monuments (Gettysburg battlefield is littered with them, many raised by individual regiments to commemorate their fallen comrades) to leave offerings of alcohol and tobacco. I was pushed to go further, beyond the monuments and to address the spirit of the field itself. It has a relationship with the dead that dwell there, and it needed to be honored first. It's impossible to go far off the paved trail, for most of Culp's field is now occupied by cattle, but I was able to lay more tobacco in the field itself and spend a fair amount of time with the land spirits there and with the dead.
The author of several books on the Northern Tradition, Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, shaman, and devotee of Odin. She blogs at Gangleri's Grove.