Does History Matter if We Can’t See It?

By Abi King | Travel Chat

Nov 01

On the road to Salt Lake City and stopping off in Wendover Airfield

An Important Point in Utah

I was dozing in the front seat, the scenery slicking from arid Nevada to salt ‘n’ violet Utah on the journey from Mustang Monument back to Salt Lake City.

The early morning sun seemed breathless, as though struggling to keep up with the pace of our speed and my friends and colleagues behind me fell fast asleep.

The driver had not said a word for many miles come hours.

And then he asked if I was interested in history.

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To which, of course, came the reply.

“Then you might be interested in this,” he said, pulling off the all American freeway into a dusty track complete with water cooler towers and more than a hint of aviation heroes Maverick and Goose.

Wendover Utah Airfield

Wendover, Utah at Daybreak

It was too early for any movement. No trucks, no people, no flights in the sky.

Just a tall wire-mesh fence and an unobtrusive sign.

I slipped out of the truck, heavy camera in hand.

This was Wendover Airfield, a name you probably don’t know.

It serves as a private and military airbase now and its training flights trace all the way back to the heavy bomber squadron days of World War Two.

And while you may not know the name Wendover, I can guarantee other names that you will know.

Wendover Airfield history near Utah

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Little Boy. Fat Man.

Little Boy. Fat Man. Enola Gay. Hiroshima.

The aeroplanes glistened and sparkled as the sun found its stride but the quiet, oh the still, still quiet remained.

It was from this airfield, these very tracks that pilots trained for the morning of 6th August and the flight to Hiroshima. Here, too, the bunkers involved in the preparation for Nagasaki.

And as it happens, I’ve been to those cities on the other side of the world.

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Hiroshima & Nagasaki

Hiroshima, a pulsing, crowded city with little evidence of death and destruction save for a twisted dome of metal and an overwhelming message of peace.

And Nagasaki, a cauldron shaped city with eyes on the outside world. During Japan’s 200 or so years of enforced isolation, Nagasaki was the one port that foreigners could access.

Both have inherent beauty and character.

Both are busy, busy, busy. Both have moved on, although poignant memorials remain.

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Here, though, my boots crunch on the ground, each step kicking dust into the arid, still air.

The only sound beyond that is the click and whir of my camera.

And not for the first time, I have to stop and wonder just what I am doing here. Why I agreed with the driver and wanted to see this place.

Driving from Nevada

Does history matter? Does travel matter?

Does standing on earth and seeing with our own eyes make events seem more real, more connected, more important? Or does it just feel surreal, jarring and almost fabricated.

What went through those pilots’ minds as they walked across this land. What did they think by their return?

It is at once as though we are bound by common humanity and separated forever by the differences of war. How can we navigate through the fog and thunder of hindsight, of the well-rehearsed political debate and the reality that each momentous action in the world ultimately takes place at the hands and feet and eyes of just one or two people.

A dog barks, metallic chains rattle and I startle. Uncertain at the wisdom of photographing US military apparatus alone and in the early hours of the morning, I scoot back toward the van.

The driver looks slowly at me, before quickly pulling away.

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Wendover Airfield Stop

Back to the Rest of the World

Half an hour later, we stop in a roadside café from the movies. There are restrooms, Twinkies, Hershey bars and people who urge me to have a nice day.

And then, the sweet scenery and stories of truckers rejoin our journey. The sunshine heaves itself fully over the horizon in a lazy, melting, golden, mist-tinged kind of way as the salty lakes begin to glitter and glisten with intensity on the horizon.

Like the day so far, it is a powerful sight.

And somewhat surreal.

Morning in Wendover Airfield

PS – On a completely different note, another surprising fact about Wendover, Utah is the tower on the airfield and its place in history…It was built as a prop for the film Independence Day…

What do you think? Have you ever been to Wendover? Would you like to go? Do you think it’s important to visit historic sites or does it make no difference at all?

Historic Wendover USA Visiting the historic Wendover Airfield in Utah via @insidetravellab
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About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • I think it is important to visit historic sites. It makes what happened more real and not just something from a book or a movie. I visited Anne Frank´s House in Amsterdam and it hit me, this really happened. One would think humans would learn from the past, but alas, history does repeat itself. It would be a moving experience to visit Wendover.

    • Abi King says:

      I still feel a little torn sometimes. When I’ve visited places on my own, with the time to reflect, I would agree with you: things seem more real and cause me to think more. I think I’ve had one or two bad experiences where coach loads of tourists have spilled onto a historic site, taking selfies and generally not being interested in the history and that, to me, made it seem less real. Less important. I think the worst case happened at Auschwitz, when a school trip started making fun of the haircuts in the photos of the prisoners… But when I managed to get away from that group, I found the visit incredibly powerful.

      I definitely found my visit to Anne Frank’s house to be a moving experience, but I can understand a friend of mine’s point of view (who lives in Amsterdam) who feels that it’s just a house and doesn’t understand why people queue there to get in. He feels that reading the book and knowing what happened is enough.

      Ah, the endless question…!

  • I’m loving your photos, do you do the photos yourself? Love the bleakness, would be a great place to do a photoshoot.

    • Abi King says:

      Thanks Nick – yes the photos are all mine. There was a gorgeous golden light the morning I was there – I imagine that a black and white shoot with plenty of shadows would look all the more bleak (and perhaps more fitting!)

  • Janis says:

    What an incredibly interesting post, it really makes you wonder how many of these types of places we bypass every day without realising.
     
    I personally think it is extremely important that we visit these historical sites. It may make you feel uncomfortable, or it may move you in a particular way, however, good or bad, these places need to be seen and remembered. It’s our history.
     
    We visited Tyne Cot, Passchendaele & Ypres in Belgium earlier this year, and I was so please to see groups of young children and teenagers, remembering the past.

    • Abi King says:

      I really agree with the “good or bad” “it’s our history” comment. And yes, I wonder what we pass every day without noticing. I had a really strange experience in Krakow after trekking through sleet and snow to the site of the concentration camp featured in Schindler’s List (after the ghetto but before Auschwitz.) There was a tiny plaque but otherwise it was a park, with people walking their dogs and mainstream shops along the edge.

      I felt so disoriented.

      And it’s hard to be critical as Auschwitz is preserved, as is the Schindler factory and there are memorials throughout Krakow. But it still felt strange (and cold!)

      The Nuremberg Rally Grounds have a very powerful museum but the area is so big that some of it has been turned over to parkland as well and you can see kids playing and couples kissing… That felt like a celebration in a way. That those awful events would still be remembered but would not define the city forever.

      Anyway, much to think on. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment!

  • I think it is very important to visit historic sites, even recent history like Wendover. I always feel the impact of these places when I am there.

  • See, this is exactly my worst of place. Now, I’m going to caveat my entire comment by pointing out I am very much a historian, and I choose my travel destinations with that in mind, but equally, I’m a firm believer that “Everywhere is Interesting”, which is especially true from a historical standpoint.

    The big historical sites will always be popular, but I find such a thrill about going to places that, in their own way, were no less important or world-defining. One of my favourites to point out is one unknown even by locals – on the wall of a bank in the northern suburb of London called Enfield is a small blue plaque, easily missed by the passing shoppers and commuters, that quietly proclaims this to have been the site of the world’s first ATM. So important, yet so overlooked.

    More in keeping with the subject matter of the blog post though, “Dark History” is a particular interest of mine and this comes in many forms. Everyone of course goes to Cambodia for the Killing Fields (as well as Angkor!), but very few make their way to the far North of the country to visit Ta Mok’s house, where some of those awful decisions were taken (and nearby is Pol Pot’s grave, for completeness).

    So yes. That sort of place definitely would interest me. Even if there’s not a lot there; very often what’s important is knowing you’re standing in the same spot that something ‘was’, or that something ‘happened’ – it’s the walking in history that matters, rather than expecting to see something.

    • Abi King says:

      Such a beautiful quote: “it’s the walking in history that matters, rather than expecting to see something.”

      I wonder if it’s the travel equivalent of birthdays and anniversaries? On the one hand, we shouldn’t NEED these things to remember people and commemorate events. On the other hand, it gives us “permission” to stop and think about them.

      And the world’s first ATM was in Enfield, London?! I love it!

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