I should have known there would be more than meets the eye to my trip to Theodore Roosevelt Island. It’s set just northwest of the National Mall, not far from Arlington Cemetery, but somehow manages to make you feel far, far away. I first set out to find the island on a Monday, though my smartphone’s GPS navigation actually steered me away from the place, as if to say, you must not go there, I will save you from yourself! The clouds darkened, rain threatened, I nearly ended up trying to cross the nearby George Washington Highway by walking through a patch of what looked like poison ivy.
I should have known because TR’s own history suggests there’s more to the man than meets the eye. In 1912, just weeks before the presidential election, a man called John Schrank dreamed the ghost of William McKinley rose from his graveand pointed to a Roosevelt-like figure dressed in monk’s robes. “This is my murderer,” Ghost-kinley said. “Avenge my death.” Schrank tried – he took a shot at TR in Milwaukee, though Roosevelt more or less shrugged the shot off like an alpha male would – he insisted on giving his campaign speech “if it’s the last thing on earth I do.” Ninety minutes later, he finally went to the hospital. So did Schrank – in his case, it was the state mental hospital in Oshkosh. They said he was crazy… or was it some malevolent force at work?
I should have known because of TR’s closest brush with mortality, his expedition to the then-uncharted Rio da Duvida – the River of Doubt – in Brazil. All nineteen men on the trip caught malaria; one man drowned; another went crazy and killed a colleague, and was left behind in the jungle to fend for himself. The indigenous people were watching, following, ready to defend themselves if the crew did anything hostile. TR caught a nasty infection in his leg, spiked a 104 fever and became delirious to the point that he repeated lines from Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” Later Roosevelt urged the men to leave him behind and save themselves. They didn’t, and he lived on, but was never the same.
Come to think of it, each of my Washington friends who talked about how “Teddy Roosevelt island is totally awesome” seemed to be in a trance – a little Stepford Wives-style, in fact – when they talked about it. Their eyes glazed over, and they lost any inflection in their voices, as if they weren’t fully in control of themselves when they talked about it.
Yes, I should have known.
Still, I decided to go back a few days after my initial attempt – I had better weather and better directions, so I thought maybe I’d have better luck. I crossed the highway and made my way down the stairs and pathways that lead to the Island.
That’s where I first started hearing them – the whispers. At first I thought it was just the river, but the river wasn’t moving. And it wasn’t other visitors, either – there was only one other person on the long bridge to the island, and he wasn’t whispering. No, he was cackling – the kind of bone-chilling, high-pitched laugh that comes from a man who broke down long ago. “Yes,” he taunted as I walked past. “Yes, go! Go on! Yes!” I hurried on. When I reached the end of the bridge, he was gone. Vanished, I supposed.
The whispers got louder as I approached the information kiosk – the one that informed me that “The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial will be undergoing extensive rehabilitation… for the duration of rehabilitation work water service to the island will be cut off.” Those last two words – “cut off” – seemed to refer to a lot more than water.
Even as I pressed on, determined to put myself to the test – as Roosevelt himself would have done – my doubts grew, especially when I came across a giant tree that had fallen right on the path. Even the trees, it seemed, feared what might happen if I carried forward. The foliage was dense – not even sunlight could pass through. Every sound echoed back at me as if it was trying to bypass my ears and go straight into my heart. On a sunny, warm day, I felt the coldest wind imaginable. And the whispers grew louder still.
Then I saw it: a labyrinth of concrete and steel – made of human material but… it was almost as if it had risen out of the ground. As if it had been grown and not built. The fountains, as promised, were not in use, leaving a silence more terrifying than the whispers at their loudest. Giant pillars of stone, proclaiming the need for bravery and nature and a call to greatness, none of which I was feeling anymore. All I could feel, in fact, was my knees starting to shake.
I took a few steps into the space, sure that each one would be my last. I had unwittingly closed my eyes, too fearful to look further. But something told me I would have to look. And I did.
It was him.
Teddy Roosevelt himself, or, at least, his towering statue. And this was not the ailing post-president weakened by the River of Doubt and the gunshot in Milwaukee – this was the man in his prime, the man who extolled, and exemplified, “the strenuous life.” Though inexplicably wearing a suit in the wilds of nature, he looked completely in his element – his right hand raised with authority, his face a mask of manic zeal. He looked as if he could work his will over me or anything else on the island.
His eyes were what stopped me in my tracks. Even in statue form they seemed full of fire and vigor. Once, as a third grader, I decided to lead my school friends in a trudge through the school’s baseball field on a February day that was somehow muddy and frozen at the same time. After a few steps my navy blue moon boots bonded with that sticky cold mud and my grade school legs could not pull free. The bell rang. My friends left me, lured by the lateness of the hour and the importance of trying to get a good spot in line. I struggled again, to no avail. Someone must’ve pointed me out to the other kids, because they all began watching… at which point I fell into the mud, surrounded by the laughter of third, fourth, fifth and sixth graders, every kid I knew. Laughing. In the face of this giant bronze Roosevelt, I was that child again – frozen in place. Powerless.
Theodore Roosevelt’s statue did not laugh, however. Instead, it spoke softly – or at least I thought it did. You, it told me, like so many before you, are now mine… I have a special expedition planned for you… we’ll leave at once!
I realized it was now or never – that if I didn’t find a way to move now, I would soon become one of those voices whispering “No! No!” as unsuspecting visitors crossed that long bridge onto the island. I thought of Woodrow Wilson and how he managed to defeat TR, wrenched myself from the statue’s gaze and ran, ran for what felt like days, ran until I was back on the bridge and then back in the sunlight, back in Washington. Tired beyond belief, I stumbled back to the Rosslyn Metro Station and fortified myself at the nearby ice cream shop. I felt I had learned an important lesson – that being brave in the face of impending doom was for other people. I would simply allow myself to panic – or, better yet, avoid any kind of panic-inducing trouble in the future.
And that I did – though I did hear the whispers again late one night at my house in New Hampshire. It turns out that I was just really dehydrated that day on Theodore Roosevelt Island – had I brought a water bottle there would have been no whispers, no cold wind, no malevolence in the statue’s eyes, no need to run away. With a little more water in the tank I would have had a perfectly lovely afternoon on one of the nicest outdoor spots in the greater DC area.
There was one lingering mystery, though: the cackling man on the bridge, yelling “Yes, go! Go on! Yes!” That couldn’t be explained by me being thirsty. Later I remembered a crucial detail that solved the mystery: he was looking at his smartphone, watching clips of baseball’s Washington Nationals, who were then on their way to the playoffs for the first time. One of the big attractions at Nationals games is the race between the presidential mascots – a race that, until that fall, the Teddy Roosevelt mascot had never won.
So maybe there was something going on at the Island…