“So get a load of this,” I tell my wife, sitting in her parents’ kitchen on the Outer Banks.
“It turns out the daughter of Aaron Burr—” I begin.
“He shot Alexander Hamilton!” my two-year-old interjects. It does not come out sounding exactly like or in as many syllables as “Al-ex-an-der,” but it’s close enough.
He’s still riding the Hamilton wave that my boys have been surfing since March.
It turns out that Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, married a South Carolinian called Joseph Alston, who was Governor of The Palmetto State from 1812-14. In December 1812, she left Georgetown, SC, to go visit her old man in New York. Her ship—the Patriot—was lost somewhere around Kitty Hawk, and Theodosia never made it to see the damn fool who shot Alexander Hamilton.
It appears that she may have been the victim of pirates, who trolled the Outer Banks throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The North Carolina coast is famous for the shipwrecks that litter the offshore seabed, including German U-boats and, most recently, a reconstruction of HMS Bounty, as in Mutiny on the. The reconstructed British naval vessel is now on the bottom of the ocean off Cape Hatteras, presumably with the Patriot and the mortal remains of Theodosia Burr.
I had never heard the story about Burr’s daughter until I came across it in the WPA Guide to North Carolina: The Tarheel State, which I’ve been consulting for the current leg of a five-week road trip to Québec and back. The on-board research material: WPA Guides to North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.
I started collecting WPA Guides maybe twenty years ago, and I have volumes for maybe ten states (and the District of Columbia, the first and fattest WPA Guide in the series, and a persuasive four-pound argument for a Kindle). But I haven’t given up on my life goal of having a full collection, one of each of the 48 WPA Guides made between 1937-41. But my acquisition efforts have slowed, and become, like my priorities, more surgical. For the collection I started before I had children, I bought the guide to Arizona and have never really looked at it; for this trip I downloaded a copy of Rhode Island: A Guide to the Smallest State because in my life not having that volume is the sort of thing that seems like an emergency.
My wife and I try to provide an intellectual, artistic, cultural, spiritual feast for our children, a banquet of ideas and experiences that will nourish them for the rest of their lives, and provide them an imaginative home enriching enough to want to return to. That feast is meant to be rife with opportunities for the “science of relations,” to allow them to make connections between one book and another, between one book and a lived experience, between one lived experience and another.
This road trip has become an extension of that philosophy: an opportunity to practice the bookish Wanderlust that compels me not just to load six people I love into a car for thousands of miles, but to think that maybe it will be something my wife and children will enjoy and remember too.
We set off at first light.
Not really, but an imminent embarkation on a long journey seems to call for a dramatic statement. In truth, we will leave whenever The Big Ass Car is gassed and fully loaded, and not a moment before, with The B.A.C. already running, I’ve taken at least a half-dozen short, increasingly annoyed trips back into the house for at least a half-dozen forgotten items. It may be much less dramatic, but it is true, if only in aspiration:
We set off just in time for the two-year-old’s afternoon nap.