“Luxury at the edge of the Wilderness” the sign proclaimed. It hung from the side of a building next to my harborside hotel in Seattle, inviting motorists to image themselves away from the traffic. A woman on horseback, wearing a cowgirl hat, rides through soft sunlight—a more inviting alternative than the bumper-to-bumper cars along Westlake Ave. West.
As it happens, I live in Virginia on the edge of an area once known as the Wilderness. It’s not so wild anymore, with three major housing developments tucked in behind screens of trees that try to block them from view from the modern Wilderness National Battlefield.
As a Civil War battle, the Wilderness evokes a mystique all its own. Fighting there May 5-7, 1864, opened Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. The woods burned around the combatants, trapping wounded soldiers in dreadful infernos. Unable to get at Lee, Grant chose in the end to just go around him—a decision that ultimately proved one of the most consequential turning points of the war.
These are the things I’m thinking about as I sit on a shaded bench in front of the hotel, waiting for my ride. That I jump to these thoughts at the sight of the word “Wilderness” written in script letters six feet high reminds me that the Civil War is always with me. “You know,” a friend reminded me, “out West you are going to run into a lot of non-Civil War things called wilderness because they are, well, wilderness.”
His comment makes me laugh because he’s absolutely right. But it’s equally true that we see the world through individual lenses that are entirely personal to each of us. We process what we see in specific ways, often with unconscious or unintentional bias. It’s always good to be reminded of that, too, as Ralph’s tongue-in-cheek noted. This western Wilderness is real and discreet from the images and memories it triggers in my mind, and I would be smaller to miss out on that because I was instead lured into a reverie about what’s familiar to me.
I don’t get the chance to explore “luxury on the edge of Wilderness,” but when my ride arrives, I do get the chance to explore Seattle. I’m leaving these twin Wildernesses behind for the day, but I do so with the thought that the Civil War isn’t just always with me but with US—even if we don’t know it.