At step 93 I saw them. A family of three, dressed in casual attire, taking photos, looking around. Clearly not here for a workout.
The steps I was climbing, known locally as The World’s Largest Outdoor Stair Master, the McKinley Monument steps, 4 tiers of 24, can put an amazing amount of hurt on your buns, thighs and calves.
Peering over that last set to flat ground (yay), my gaze caught white tennis shoes, plaid shirt, and slow casual gate. Visitors.
At first I ignored them. Completely out of breath and sweating profusely is no way to begin a conversation. Maybe they’ll be gone, I thought, when I round the Monument. But there they were, still in sight, the younger boy and older man had walked halfway down the steps to read the statue’s text. Actually interested in the history of the place? I couldn’t resist.
I approached the woman slowly, acting like I was adjusting my headphones, and asked, “Is this your first time here?” She smiled and said, “No, not for us, but for him”, and she pointed to the younger boy (20-something). “He’s a McKinley, he lives in Wheeling. This is his first time here and he’s interested in his family history.”
I had to slow down and strategize. Pop the question too fast and they’ll think I’m a weirdo.
Have I approached others at the Monument? Downtown? On the Towpath? Yes. Yes I have.
“Can I help you find something? Would you like to know more? What are you in town for? Are you enjoying your stay?” Gosh, I can be so annoying. Here’s the deal: you cross paths with me and appear to be interested in your surroundings, I will most likely approach you……and tell you more about it.
In my excitement I nearly blurted out the question, but caught myself and waited until the two made their way back to the top of the steps. And then innocently, with a Vanna White sweep of the hand, asked, “So…….do you know much about the Monument here?”
The slight swivel of their heads was a green light to me.
For the next 10 minutes I gave them the (condensed version) of our 25th President’s life, loves, rise to high office, assassination, history of the Monument, the architect, what the land was like before the Monument was here, on and on and on.
I turned them around (“Look this way”) to point out buildings in town that could be seen from our vantage point, then swiveled their attention west to the cemetery, and finally to the granite slabs beneath our feet (I bent down and patted them for emphasis) that were put into place by hand-cranked-pulleys.
I checked to make sure they were still interested as I continued, answering questions mid-conversation. They were appreciative, engaged, and at the end, young Travis McKinley reached out and shook my hand. And in that pause, unexpectedly, out of nowhere, came the question I couldn’t answer.
“Why do you know all of this?”
I let the question sink in.
Silence. Shuffling of the feet. Surely this question of all questions, I should be able to answer. But no.
I repeated the word in my head. “Why?”
The “how” is easy, but this one made me pause.
Do I work here? Nope. Am I an intern? No. Docent? Sort of, but nothing official. Student? Historian? City worker? No no no. I mumbled something about having a food tour business but that most food tour operators don’t go into detail like this. They stared at me blankly.
Finally I shrugged my shoulders, and said, “I don’t know. I just like it”
As soon as the words came out of my mouth I wished I had said it differently. “Now they probably think I’m the world’s biggest con artist”, I thought. At the worlds biggest stair master. Why not! They probably didn’t believe a word I said.
They looked at me again.
I had nothing else to say.
The incident ended soon after that, largely because my son, who had been sliding down the edge of the steps with a friend, was tugging at my shirt.
I wanted to give them my contact info but I didn’t have anything with me, pulling pretend pockets inside out to prove my point. I gave them my email address and they acted like they were interested, but they haven’t (yet?) emailed me. Travis was leaving the next day and didn’t know when he would be back. He reached out his hand again, and thanked me. That made me feel better.
I gathered up the kids and made our way down the steps, my legs shaky from the exercise. The scene before me transformed back into joggers, walkers, and stair master enthusiasts. For a few minutes I had tuned all that out. For a few minutes it was just me, three visitors, and 150 years of history. Stuff I find fascinating and like to share.