At the end of my run, I walk from the road down to the Daughters of the Revolution Monument and take refuge in its slender zone of shade. Speed and sweat recede as I emerge from the single-mindedness of exertion. Early afternoon, late summer. The grass surrounding me is around the tallest it will be this year, and even in the heavy heat it bristles with energy, sending up glinting motes and insects with the slight breeze. Fifty yards uphill, the Washington Memorial Chapel’s bell tower rises from the field’s tousled blur to a height that seems storied in the full light. The far pines quiver as layers of air shift in my line of sight.
I’m a five-minute drive from home, but this is no ordinary park tucked into suburban Pennsylvania. This is land that saw men through the most trying hour in early American history. This is Valley Forge, and two hundred thirty-six years after Washington’s frostbitten troops endured a winter here at the edge of despair, I run daily through the sweeping fields and robust woodlands to the base of this obelisk, where I witness the triumph of high summer.
Summer at Valley Forge, of course, is nowhere to be seen in the textbooks. A short history refresher: in December of 1777, with Philadelphia occupied by the enemy, General Washington and twelve thousand men set up an encampment twenty miles away on a forested plateau. Over the next few months, more than two thousand died from disease and exposure. But thanks to rigorous military training implemented by Prussian-born Baron von Steuben during that time, the Continental Army gained fighting skills they had desperately needed. The troops gained resolve as warmer weather arrived, and when the British withdrew from Philadelphia in June of 1778, Washington left Valley Forge to retake the city.
To most, the place has receded into the distant realm of the tactical. Some might ask why we should even try, in the twenty-first century, to extract new lessons from a well-known comeback story. There are no cutting-edge developments at Valley Forge, no solutions to today’s social problems. Yet I return again and again when I’m in town and revere its August afternoons, because no personal or political cynicism stands a chance against the ideals that permeate its grounds. To simply remember Valley Forge as an arena of passing misery doesn’t capture its significance: if the miserable soldiers had let their lack of food and clothing destroy their dream of independence, there’s no telling how different America’s rise would have been. The troops didn’t simply suffer—they sheltered the flame of a country that has prospered boundlessly on the principles for which they sacrificed everything. Seen as a test of their devotion, these hills are imbued with more hope than distress.
Justice across generations. In high school I felt it during cross country practice, when we pushed hard on the last repeat up that slope over there, arms pistoning, Asics and Nikes flying over tracts of land that once stung the feet of shoeless men. The pain they felt threatened not only their lives, but also their cause. The only pain we felt was the safe, exhilarating pain of able-bodied athletes, and the only trials we faced were time trials. Running and relaxing in the once-unforgiving fields meant to me a direct connection, spanning centuries effortlessly, between hardship and the vast fruition of peace.
True to its status as a national landmark, Valley Forge has the capacity to inspire people of every creed, ethnicity, and political ideology. In the nave of the Washington Memorial Chapel, plaques honoring local religious leaders mix with etchings of foundational texts under stained-glass depictions of Washington’s life. In an adjacent courtyard, a statue of a woman kneeling over a grave is simply titled “Grieving Mother”; it’s as universal a depiction as possible of the price of war. This composite furnishing is meant to speak to every visitor, religious or atheistic, local or foreign.
On a Saturday afternoon last summer, I accidentally walked into a religious service at the chapel and could not have looked more out of place—a nineteen-year-old Chinese-American kid, not the least bit religious, among sixty- and seventy-year old folks in the midst of their routine worship. Deciding that leaving would be disrespectful, I sat stiffly in a pew. The priest’s words, imbued with higher meaning for all the others, sounded to me soothing but far from enlightening. Towards the end of the service, the priest shook my hand with startling warmth, understanding and respecting that I had not come for God. After that, without discomfort I saw the nave as a space consecrated by its secular subjects as well as its religious ones. I felt in the creations of its stonemasons and sculptors a love for country that matched and articulated my own. I was moved that a structure so modest could house towering American ideals and—more importantly—reconcile them with the humanity of artistic expression.
Another run, another afternoon, late, late summer. The carillon starts ringing as I rest at the monument, and with the road uphill obscured by the grass, I am the only listener in sight. It offers a cacophony of spilling cadences. There is no history in this song—to bend it into some narrative would be burdensome. Outside its chapel this park avoids historicizing, making sure not to overwhelm its visitors with important dates and developments. I think of the past only when I want to, and when I don’t, it recedes to the background to join the quivering pines. So I fill the music with my own thoughts and hear a celebration and an elegy in the same melody. I’m heading off to college in a few days. I wonder whether the people and places of the next four years, so great in magnitude, will reduce this memory to a silhouette or frame it in the soaring, vivid annals of childhood.
The carillon reminds me that I must not forget reverence in the irreverent world of youth to which I’m accustomed. On whether that reverence will find its greatest fulfillment in soldiers suffering for posterity, in flawed and vulnerable artistry, or in God, the bells are of course silent. What I know as I begin to jog back towards the road, though, is that Valley Forge has assuaged my worries and elevated my spirits, sending me off into my own small battles stronger than I arrived.
Michael Mei grew up in Connecticut as a Red Sox fan in a sea of Yankee fans, which caused brutal lunchtime arguments in elementary school. He currently lives in Philly. Send him Onion articles about Joe Biden or serious articles about Scandinavian economic policy at firstname.lastname@example.org.