You might not think of the City of Brotherly Love as one of our nation's wild places. (Or if you do, it might be a different sort of wildness.) But to me, Philadelphia — site of Independence National Historical Park — has been home to the same sort of transformation and reforging of identity that my great-great-grandfather Theodore Roosevelt experienced in a much different wilderness. Theodore, then 25 and overwhelmed by grief after the near-simultaneous deaths of his wife and his mother, fled west to the badlands of Dakota Territory to escape. Not only did the alien landscape heal him; it also inspired his commitment to conservation and to the preservation of American wilderness, which blossomed into our National Park Service.
Independence Hall is my kind of landscape. It looks sedate from the outside, even quaint — far from the badlands that Theodore described as "so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth." Independence Hall, Georgian-style and redbrick, has been rebuilt several times over the years, but it maintains its original layout: Two wings flank a bell tower that rises 168 feet tall at its steeple — an imposing height in earlier days though almost toylike in scale compared with the towers of commerce that now stand a few blocks away.
Inside Independence Hall there is a courtroom, once used by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Assembly Room, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and America was born. The U.S. Constitution was debated and signed in the same room.
The rooms are quiet; the air is still. George Washington's chair nestles behind a table draped in tranquil green. The Liberty Bell hangs in a nearby building, cracked and silent, enclosed in glass. But there is a sense of tumult here if you reach into the stillness, a feeling of what America would be.
The birthplace of our country cannot show us the end of our story — that remains for future generations to write. But it shows us a fundamental pattern and reminds us of how far we've come. Time and again, Americans have responded to crisis and conflict by finding the seeds of opportunity, by remaking themselves into a better people.
It is this process of struggle, suffering and reinvention that I see as the essence of America. Like Independence Hall itself, our country has repeatedly been torn apart and reconstituted, remaining true each time to its fundamental design. That is the promise of America: that we can always be renewed.
AARP Travel celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service by sharing everything travelers need to know about visiting these precious lands. With articles on under-the-radar sites, ways to explore the parks, tips for great hikes and more, the AARP website has information and ideas for planning a day, a weekend or a whole vacation in the parks. Find inspiration for destinations, from the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The website also provides AARP-member discount information on car rentals, flights and hotels. Learn more at aarp.org/parks.
Kermit Roosevelt III, 44, a constitutional law professor; is the author of Allegiance, a legal thriller.