“How did you guys decide on . . . Little Rock?” my hairdresser asked. It was a fair question. I’d been telling her about an upcoming get-together with college friends and, yes, I conceded, Little Rock was an odd choice. No one was from Arkansas and – at least from an East Coast perspective – it’s not exactly a vacation hotspot or easy to get to.
“Well,” I said. “It’s kind of a funny story.”
The reason we chose Little Rock was to visit the Clinton Library, I explained; doing a presidential activity on Presidents’ Day weekend has become a tradition with this particular group.
The truth is, it all started as a joke. The annual get-togethers college friends and I had initiated after graduating from Boston University in 2000 were purely social, scheduled yearly on Presidents’ Day as nothing else was ever going on during that long, cold weekend in February.
But during our 2007 gathering, we decided we might as well embrace the historic significance of the date and toured George Washington’s birthplace in Colonial Beach, Va., where we’d rented a house. It was our first presidential dalliance.
We weren’t there to immerse ourselves in early American history. We’d chosen the Northern Neck of Virginia to tour wineries and relax — in fact, we left another tour (of Robert E. Lee’s birthplace) early to go to a winery — but the experience gave a fun sense of purpose to the weekend, and the tradition grew from there. Over the years we moved to different cities, added boyfriends, husbands, new friends, children, and many more historic highlights to our annual trips, our presidential interest growing exponentially as the years went on, until doing something “presidential” during our get-togethers was no longer an amusing side note, it was the main attraction.
We started creating our most lasting memories while soaking up presidential facts, rather than while downing beers at the bar (although we still reserve time for that).
In 2011, we headed to a house in Stowe, Vt., that our friends had rented for winter weekends. There was skiing for the athletic types, and hanging in the lodge for the rest, me included. I remember talking parenthood with my girlfriends — our daughter, Nora, was 2 at the time, and my friends Priya and Andy had a 4-month-old – and visiting famed Vermont institutions such as the Long Trail Brewery and the Ben and Jerry’s headquarters.
The image I remember most from that year, however, was parking our cars along a small road in nearby Fairfield and trekking through a snow-buried field to peer into the tiny yellow house where Chester A. Arthur, our 21st president, was born. The site was closed for the winter but we couldn’t pass it by, laughing as we braved the 3-foot drifts to get face-to-face with this unremarkable little cabin. We stopped by Calvin Coolidge’s childhood home in Plymouth Notch that year, too, priding ourselves on including two presidents in one trip and on our decidedly non-purist methodology; our presidential experiences can be planned or informal.
Two years ago we watched our children — a bunch of them by this point — playing on the grounds of the Harry S. Truman Little White House during a trip to Key West. I remember brushing my 4-year-old son’s hair aside after, sun-baked and exhausted, he fell asleep on my husband’s shoulder as we toured the home, learning about how Truman spent winters there, and about the notable meetings that took place within those very walls.
In 2010 we visited Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where we were charmed by our knowledgeable volunteer tour guide, an older gentleman who showed us the grounds, including an impressive array of stuffed game animals that adorned the unabashedly masculine domain. Afterward, we sampled local beers at the nearby Blue Point Brewing Co.
The next day we settled on the New Hope, Pa./Lambertville, N.J. line. There is boutique shopping and dining in both towns, which are separated by the Delaware river. That’s right, the Delaware. Our first order of business was to take a moment on its banks, reverently setting eyes on the very spot where our first president crossed it.
These are just a few of our adventures. There are many others we enthusiastically recall when we’re together, or during group texts and e-mails as the date grows near each February.
I announced I was pregnant with our first child during dinner at Fraunces Tavern in New York City (where George Washington ate) in 2008; we spent an educational morning at Andrew Jackson’s estate, The Hermitage, in Nashville in 2014; in 2009 (a trip we missed because we were baptizing our daughter — an acceptable excuse, but barely) the group visited the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, as well as the “Atlanta White House,” a smaller replica of the real thing; and during our 2015 trip to Charlottesville, Va., we made trips to visit both James Monroe’s home, Ash Lawn Highland, where we were welcomed by the site’s incredibly friendly staff, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, which is a must-see site, although the crowds made the experience a little more stressful with so many children in tow.
We have another tradition, too. At some point during each trip, we call my dad and put him on speaker for his best party trick: He can recite the presidents in order from first to last – and backward – along with humorous commentary. It’s a skill the more ambitious among us aspire to someday.
Our Presidents’ Day adventures are now solidly rooted in a quest for history, culminating in last year’s trip to Little Rock.
When we planned the trip, we didn’t realize we’d be visiting the Clinton Library following Hillary’s unexpected defeat, or how volatile our country’s political situation would be. I was glad to take a break from my obsessive news guzzling and celebrate American history that weekend.
I’m looking forward to discovering where our quest will take us in the future. Wherever we end up, I’m comforted by our dedication to make good on our standing date with history. And with each other.
Cara McDonough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.