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Visit where a screen idol died, and other historic places along the road

From time to time I like to pull out some old photos of places you might just pass by while on the road. Small places that cast big shadows. Here are three of those places…

Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton’s home

She may have inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.” Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton was Poe’s childhood sweetheart as a teenager in Richmond. Then she married a man who became a very wealthy transportation executive. He died after they had four children, and he left her a lot of money, but there was a stipulation that if she ever remarried she’d lose most of the fortune. In 1848, Poe came back into her life, and they rekindled their teenage love affair. Though he wanted to marry, Sarah was reluctant. She did not want to upset her children. A year later, Edgar Allan Poe bid farewell to his beloved on this staircase in front of her home. He was on his way to Baltimore. Four days later, he would die there.

Wandering the city of Richmond, you feel Poe’s presence in many places. A house where he gave his final reading of “The Raven,” the place where his mother acted, as well as where she is buried. Poe’s cryptic visage is everywhere. The dark, brooding Prince of Goth with those dead black eyes – on pole banners, signs, brochures, flags, postcards, T-shirts, coffee mugs and more. This is the Poe to whom most of the world relates: the marketed grim reaper poet with a blood-filled pen. Yet on this staircase, a different Poe stood, and so a different story is told. Here, a quixotic Romeo, who wanted nothing more than to marry the woman he adored, pledged himself to her under the stars. It was here, a man remained hopeful. Here, the great Edgar Allan Poe bid farewell to his darling, not knowing it would be forever.

The spot where James Dean was killed

Fifty years to the day, in fact to the moment, before this photo was taken, the actor James Dean was killed at this spot, driving a Porsche Spyder just like this one. Because I’d written a book called James Dean Died Here, a National Public Radio program asked if we could drive the entire 200-or-so-mile route together that Dean took on September 30, 1955. Along the way, I’d narrate the trip, pointing out various landmarks like where he picked up his car that last day, filled his gas tank, was stopped for speeding, and so on.

So, we meandered from Hollywood up to this speck on the map called Cholame. A bunch of Dean aficionados were waiting there to hold a ceremony, including a man who drove this car there. I took a bunch of photos at the site, but this one stood out for me because it seemed to capture the loneliness and desolation of the moment. Those hypnotic, rolling hills at the bottom of the Polonio Pass that would have sucked up the sound of the crash are still the color of yellow death. The stubborn, suffocating breeze still blows hot, and the fading autumn sun that kissed this curvy machine a blink before it was crushed by the big Ford is dipping fast into the hills. The landscape is virtually unchanged.

Seeing this car at that site in the final moment on the clock compressed time for several seconds. You wanted to yell, “Jimmy, hit the brakes!” in the hope that he might hear you, downshift, and buy himself just a little more time. But then again, if he did, who knows if he ever would have become the magical creature we now know as “James Dean,” who has the power to draw us out into the middle of nowhere, searching for ghosts in creeping, amber shadows.

The location of Pickett’s Charge

Gettysburg has no shortage of spots to stop, reflect, and let your mind wander across the fields, thinking about the brutal, bloody intensity that took place in these now-peaceful meadows.

Pickett’s Charge, of course, was the infamous infantry assault ordered by Robert E. Lee against the Union on July 3, 1863, the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The path you see here is the exact one the Confederate soldiers carved as they charged up toward Cemetery Ridge. I believe I took this photo on July 4th, just a day after the anniversary of the event. Visiting historic sites on or near the same day is important for me because it provides the best chance of replicating what the weather, tone, and mood may have been like on the actual day.

Pickett’s Charge was a bloodbath, an avoidable failure that resulted in thousands of casualties. But you would never know that from where I am standing. Like so many other battlefields around the world, it’s the silence that becomes deafening. The winds that today whistle through high, dry grasses would have been drowned out by the endless cracks of gunfire and screams in 1863. Today, however, they are the sound that dominates, providing some peace and calm across grounds that are still healing.

Read more from Chris Epting here

Chris Epting is an author, award-winning journalist/photographer and dedicated road tripper. His best-selling books including James Dean Died Here (the locations of America’s pop culture landmarks), Roadside Baseball, and The Birthplace Book, along with many others that remain popular with many travelers and RVers throughout the country and world. He is excited to be contributing to RVTravel.com and looks forward to helping to lead you places you may not have discovered otherwise. You may learn more about Chris at his author’s site, www.chrisepting.com

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Roger Worley
11 days ago

I remember, a dozen years or so ago, stopping at a corn field in Wisconsin and walking back to the spot “Where the Music Died”.

Suka’s Mom
16 days ago

Thank you for this article. I like going to places that make me think.