Assassinated Presidents and Andre Reed: The Great Appalachain Marathon Trip

The parking lot was full.

Serioulsy? At 11:15 a.m. on a Wednesday the parking lot at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site was full? I wasn’t entire sure what to make of this sitatuion. I circled the small lot and discovered an empty space. As I sauntered over to the welcome center a National Park Ranger hurried me inside.

“Do you want to go on a tour of the house? There’s one leaving RIGHT NOW.”

I ripped open my bag to locate my wallet and hastily forked over my $7 fee. Within 90 seconds I was listening to Volunteer Ken describe what the property would have looked ike when Garfield bought the Mentor, Ohio farmhouse in 1876.

So basically I had no time to make sense of the situation. Life threw me right into the tour with no time to think. I was forced to be in the moment.

That was perhaps the greatest gift life could have given me to start my trip.

Thinking was gone. Instinct took over.

This was my first planned stop on what I was calling my Great Appalachain Marathon Trip. On Saturday I would be running the Hatfield-McCoy Marathon on the West Virginia-Kentucky border, but I decided to make the travel to the race an adventure in itself. It was a solo journey, a fact which seemed to confound most people.

“You came all this way alone?” It was both a question and statement filled with equal parts awe and disbelief.

Yes, I did.

For years I whined about not having anyone to play with. The struggle was (and continues to be) real. Friends bail. Or they change priorities, and sometimes personalities, midtrip. Or you spend lots of time locked up with them in a small space and realize this is the last person in the world you want to be a car crash with.

There are few things I know for sure.

  1. If I only did things I was good at, the only thing I would do is watch “Law & Order” reruns.
  2. If I waited for people to do things with, the only think I would get to do is watch “Law & Order” reruns.

I have done some incredibly cool things with amazing friends and I don’t mean to diminish those experiences at all. But if the choices presented are:

  1. Wait indefinitely for someone cool.
  2. Go with someone marginal.
  3. Go by yourself.

I’m gonna go with Choice No. 3.

That’s how I ended up the youngest person rushed onto a tour of the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, at 11:15 a.m. on a Wednesday.

Are you familiar with the 20th President of the United States?

Garfield was the last U.S. president born in a log cabin. A native of Ohio, he became a scholar and a teacher. He was a lieutenant colonel during the Civil War and spent time in Eastern Kentucky, trying to secure the region for the Union along with valuable resources. He left when the infighting of the region between Hatfields and McCoys got to be too much of a logistical challenge. (See how this all dovetails nicely into my Great Appalachain Marathon theme?)

He reluctantly became the Republican presidential nominee in 1880 and here’s where the house I toured had it’s claim to fame. Public campaigning was frowned upon in that era so instead of Garfield going out to see people, people came to see him. This was the site of the first “front porch campaign.”

Yes, I think this is totally cool. Yes, I’m a total history nerd.

I asked Volunteer Ken question after question about Garfield and the election and about his widow, Lucretia, and the elaborate expansion of the house. I asked so many questions our tour ran long and Volunteer Ken got in trouble. I dislike that he got into trouble but that’s kinda how I roll.

Onward to Canton.

One of the rights and privileges of being a sportswriter is a little thing called “Marriott Points.” Some sportswriters are Marriott Points Whores. They will stay 20 miles away from the event they’re covering if it means finding a Marriott property. They will rack up points and take their wives to Europe. I think some believe they can pay for their child’s college education with Marriott Points. If I could arrange this with my mortage company, that would be swell. But until then, I will cash them in on occasion, like when I want to break up an eight-hour drive from Buffalo to Williamson, West Virginia and crash for the night in Canton, Ohio.

But before we reach the Fairfield off the highway, there’s another reason to stop in Canton.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As a native Western New Yorker from a family big into sports, I grew up a Buffalo Bills fan, a fact I had to admit in order purchase my admission ticket. (Not really. It’s all about marketing and analytics, but I’m creating a narrative here.) While my trusty AAA membership card got me $2 off my admission, I was told they were charging $10 to park that day.

Sorry Pro Football Hall of Fame but I kinda call bullshit. You own a ginormous parking lot that was only a quarter filled on a late Wednesday afternoon in June. Yet somehow this fleecing (and willingess to be fleeced) seemed appropriate for the current state of the NFL. So I forked over the money.

I meandered through the exhibits on the history of football up through the modern NFL with storyboards and artifacts and video explanations of the West Coast Offense.

But the purpose for me was to see the Hall of Fame Gallery and the collection of bronzed busts of the inductees. My only goal was to find Andre Reed.

Flashback to 1983 when I was in junior high school and Reed was a rookie with the Buffalo Bills. He excelled in the preseason and I wrote him a fan letter to wish him luck for the year. (See kids, back in the 1980s we used to write letters with paper and pen and put them in envelopes sent to people through the U.S. Postal Service. Kind of like hard-copy email.)

Much to my surprise, not only did Andre Reed write me back, the handwritten note came torn fresh from a spiral-bound notebook. It was a kind and classy move and one that I will never forget. You can have Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith. Andre Reed was my guy. And he was my main motivation for my Pro Football Hall of Fame stop.

All sportswriters start out as fans. Some may tell you different, but I’d bet you a stack of panacakes (the most valuable currency in my world) they are lying. At various points, the job requires you to be unpopular. You need to be fair. You have to be critical. You need to question and poke and prod. (All things, by the way, I believe can be done without being an uniformed, cocky asshole, but that’s an entirely different conversation.) But at heart, you were drawn to do these things because you loved the game and all the metaphors and microsms it presents.

For a few moments, in the Hall of Fame Gallery, I was that junior high girl enamored with the skill and class and confidence and humility of Andre Reed. Only this time I had an iPhone and spent 10 minutes trying to achieve the perfect selfie with his bronze statue. (Because what good is reminiscing without utilizing current technology?) 

At my stop for the night, I checked in with my mother who asked if I knew that the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum was in Canton.

I did not.

At some point my mom’s obsessive need to have every inch of my itinery was going to come in handy. Today was the day.

I don’t think I knew that McKinley was “Canton’s favorite son.” I always associated him with the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo where he was shot and killed by an anarchist. 

This was turning into a tour of presidential assassinations. (Which reminds me, I never finished Sarah Vowell’s book “Assassination Vaction.” I should get on that.)

The McKinley Museum is located on a beautiful park, highlighted by thte McKinley National Memorial. The massive mausoleum has 108 steps which were used this hot June morning by a number of people as their outdoor gym. Teams of teenagers did various drills up and down the steps. Other individuals just ran up and down, securing their workout for the day. Part of me was jealous that I was in taper for Saturday’s marathon and couldn’t throw on some kicks and do a few sets. Another part of me was happy to lazily walk to the mausoleum entrance and take a few moments of silence in the dome. The double sacrophagi, which held the coffins of McKinley and his wife Ida, were elevated. “The visitor must raise his head in reverence,” the official material explained.

Sufficently creeped out, I walked back down the 108 steps to head to the library and museum.

I’m not sure what the building used to be, but it has a former school or minor government building feel to it. The museum features the McKinley Gallery,  rather small room but filled with a solid presentation of McKinley and his public life. But there are other exhibits, including a street of shops representative of the late 1800s in Canton and an interactive science display.

At the admission window, the women asked if I had been here before.

“No, I’m actually from Buffalo,” I said. “And I feel I should apologize.”

They laughed.

“That was a long time ago,” one of them said.

I think Canton may have just recently come to terms with Buffalo. Maybe.

It was explained to me that in the McKinley Gallery was a tiara that had belonged to Ida McKinley. It was passed down through the generations and nobody knew what happened to it until one day when it showed up on an episode of “Pawn Stars.” The museum, which is operated by the Stark County Historical Society (so you know it’s dripping in money), went about fundraising so they could buy the tiara back.

It’s all fun and games until your American history ends up for sale on the Las Vegas strip.

My day continued on to Williamson, West Virigina, my home base for marathon weekend.

The details of the actual marathon can be found on my race report, but a few notes about Williamson:

  • The Mountaineer Hotel is pretty darn cool. Fairly plain from the outside, it is an old hotel in the grand style on the inside. When rail was king of travel, many famous people (from the looks of it, mostly country musicians) would stay the night in Williamson. The lobby is unqiue and fantastic. My room was small and sparse but clean and comfortable and with every TV station I could imagine so I could chill out to the NHL playoffs and find a variety of Law & Order reruns.
  • The people are incredibly friendly. I went to dinner the first night and my server at the bar asked if I was in town for the race. I took this as a huge compliment that I looked like a runner, when in fact it was probably pretty easy to figure that out since (a) I wasn’t local and (b) didn’t look like a person who was in town to ride ATVs on the dirt trails.
  • There are a lot of fast food chains, but the further south you go, the more difficult it becomes to find any type of chain which specializes in a cup of coffee and a bagel. You never truly appreciate having a Tim Hortons across the street from a Dunkin Donuts with Starbucks down the street until you can’t locate one for hundreds of miles. So there’s another thing I now know for sure.


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