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Road Tripper Treks To Presidential Resting Places

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Former President Woodrow Wilson was moved upstairs to the main floor of the National Cathedral in 1956.
Jacob Fenston
Former President Woodrow Wilson was moved upstairs to the main floor of the National Cathedral in 1956.

Brady Carlson is a man with a presidential fixation. But he's not focused on the living, breathing head of state, rather, on the more than three dozen presidents who are no longer with us.

His journey to visit — and blog about — every presidential gravesite began in the D.C. region, the final resting place of four presidents.

Two U.S. presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. President Kennedy is easy to find — just follow the tour busses. But William Howard Taft? His grave is hidden behind the huge memorial to women in service.

"I walked passed it three or four times," says Carlson, who finally had to get directions from his smart phone to find the Taft memorial.

Carlson says each grave reflects something about the man beneath the marble. For example, the fact that Taft's grave is obscured by a much grander one.

"It's almost fitting that his memorial is overshadowed by another, because in life, he was always overshadowed by another president," he says.

Carlson lives in New Hampshire, which boasts one gravesite. This project will take him all over the country, visiting 18 states plus the District of Columbia, and all 38 dead presidents. "It does strike me as a little bit morbid. But I think it's that I can't meet them in person, so this is as close as I'm ever going to get."

Carlson isn't alone in this obsession with presidential graves — it turns out visiting presidents' tombs is actually a legitimate hobby. It's one that got presidential historian Richard Norton Smith hooked at a young age.

"The first gravesite that I actually visited, it was exactly 50 years ago," says Smith. "It was in the summer of 1962." That was a few months before his ninth birthday, the first of many fun-filled family vacations.

"It was the classic station-wagon-from-hell vacation. We'd go off for two weeks, and I would basically plan the itinerary." Of course, the itinerary always included the hard-to-find gravesite of some obscure president.

"I think what drives you to a gravesite is not the site itself," says Smith. "I mean that's part of it obviously. But, you know, there's nothing more democratic than death. All of us will confront it. And how we confront it may be as revealing of character, and certainly as dramatic, as anything else that occurs in life."

While there are four U.S. presidents buried in the D.C. metro region, just one lies in the District of Columbia proper. Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, is entombed in the National Cathedral.

When Wilson died in 1924, only one small chapel of the cathedral was completed, so he was buried there. In 1956, he was moved upstairs to the main nave. Anne Harmon, the cathedral's visitor programs manager, says these days, President Wilson gets a lot of visitors.

"Yes, actually we do have quite a few visitors who are going to various places all over the country to see the final resting places our presidents," says Harmon. "So yes, they will come in specifically to ask about it."

Of course, one of the most-visited presidential graves is across the Potomac in Virginia. Each year one million visitors pass through the gates of George Washington's Mt. Vernon estate, and many stop at the first president's tomb to pay their respects. That includes groups of school kids, like Taylor Hopper, on her senior trip from Springstead High School in Florida.

"It's just really inspiring, because you think about all the things he did, and he wasn't very old when he died," says Hopper. "And it just makes you think you can do that too."

Meanwhile, Brady Carlson, who's visiting all the presidents' graves, is back home, blogging about his trip to D.C. Seeing Washington's tomb, he writes, put him in the state of "breathless hyper-giddiness of a tween at a Justin Bieber concert."


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Photos: Presidential Graves

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