The news earlier this month of the reopening of the Statue of Liberty, once again letting tourists wiggle their way through the iconic figure on Liberty Island, had me tumbling backward to a memorable trip my family took to New York in the early 1990s.
Right here in metro Atlanta, of course, we have our own hotspots – Stone Mountain, the Margaret Mitchell House, CNN, the Big Chicken – but eventually most of us Southerners get a hankering to visit the Big Apple. If you plot out the details before arriving, over a long weekend it’s possible to visit the Central Park Zoo and the Museum of Modern Art; dash through The Plaza Hotel and walk along Fifth Avenue; nosh your way through a foot-high corned beef sandwich at the Carnegie Deli and catch a matinee at the Gershwin Theater in Times Square; hop aboard the subway and stroll through Chinatown and Little Italy, then jump into a cab and visit Wall Street.
And since you’re in the neighborhood anyway, you might want to pay a call on Lady Liberty, standing tall and proud just off the southern tip of Manhattan. She’s the lady who’s been offering hope for decades, the first tangible sign for hundreds of thousands of immigrants of the grand idea called the United States of America. She remains a beacon today. She’s also, of course, one of the must-see sights when visiting New York City.
Initially, it seemed just too much of a hassle to make our way to Liberty Island. But we decided to work the lady into our itinerary, thanks to my niece Amy, who happened to be working for the U.S. Park Service at the time. Don’t tell anyone, but Amy, who was assigned to Ellis Island, arranged for us to catch a ride on one of the park service’s boats used to ferry workers to their jobs.
My wife Wendy, daughter Lauren and I arrived early, hopped aboard one of the waiting craft and headed off toward Liberty Island, only about 15 minutes away. Our initial plan was to continue on to Ellis Island and beat the crowds at the recently opened museum there. But all that changed when Amy introduced us to one of her friends who handled tours and crowd control for the Statue of Liberty. Before we had a chance to say “God Bless America,” she invited us to join her and get an up close and personal look at the statue.
We accepted the offer, thinking that we’d stand around for a few minutes at the base of Lady Liberty, snap a few photos, then be on our way. Instead, when our little group reached the base of the statue, my niece asked if we wanted to climb to the top.
My wife, who has an issue with heights, passed on the offer. Lauren and I immediately accepted. This was turning out to be a spectacular day and a moment later it got even better.
“Well, go ahead,” Amy said, pointing to the entrance.
Travel, at its best, is about stumbling onto the unexpected, doing and experiencing something that is different and special. Climbing through the innards of the statue of Liberty falls into the “special” category. Making the climb with just my daughter, the two of us momentarily having Lady Liberty all to ourselves, revved the experience on up to transcendent.
We casually walked to the entrance, passed through an area where tourists wait – often for hours – filled with photos, paintings and historical documents that detail the history of the island and park. It took us only a minute or two to make our way through the room and up the base to a circular mountain of stairs that twist and turn through the center of the statue. We began our climb actually jogging, circling ever higher, dashing through the statue where people normally shuffle along at a snail’s pace.
There was something unique about our rush through this space, a father and daughter bonding in the heart of an icon, a place that is bigger than life, all wrapped up in ideas and concepts – liberty, freedom, equality – that define America at its best.
We rested for only a moment before making our final assault on the crown, stepping into a smallish area lined with windows. I walked up to one, my daughter standing on tip-toes at my side, both of us glancing out at the skyline of lower Manhattan, a million-dollar view that we were being offered for free.
I don’t recall if I put my arm around my daughter and told her to always remember this moment, the day we stood together sharing an extraordinary gift at the top of the Statue of Liberty. I like to think I did.
I do know that my grandparents, immigrants who had passed this way decades earlier, were in my thoughts. So, too, my father, one of the millions of Americans who fought for Lady Liberty during the dark days of World War II.
We lingered in the crown, enjoying the view, then slowly retraced our steps. As we entered the base, tourists were already queuing up in a long line at the entrance. They would all eventually make their way to the top. But at that moment I knew my daughter and I had experienced something profoundly unique, a moment alone with The Lady. And it was sweet.