TOURING Valley Forge National Historical Park should be done the good new American way: Walk, don't drive; ignore official suggestions; and don't follow the dotted lines.
If you go over the 2,800-acre park by car, you not only miss any real sense of the terrain, you'll be harassed by local drivers, who've seen it all before and just want to get on down the road; about eight million commuters pass through the park annually.
The logic of the Continental Army's choice of a winter camp soon makes itself clear to the pedestrian. Ridges and low peaks guard the ground on the east, south and west, whence the British would be likely to approach, and the shallow but troublesome Schuylkill shields the north. Valley Forge is the highest ground around, and in the old days, when the air was clear, you could practically see the 20 miles to Philadelphia -- because the troops cut down virtually every tree that hadn't already gone for charcoal for the forge on Valley Creek.
Start at the Visitor Center, because that's where you get your map and see the 20-minute movie, which sets the scene. Take a flashlight if you want to see what's in the museum exhibit cases. Ask the nice person who's minding the bookstore how the "Surrender Cannon" got bent, and wonder why they didn't just say so on the exhibit card.
Then go out and hike straight across the Grand Parade, steering a course between Mount Joy and the spire of Washington Memorial Chapel. Along the way, consider that even a small army, perhaps 15,000 men, could barely be accommodated in such a vast open space, even when tightly packed in ranks.
Every few days, or perhaps weekly, the troops were called out to see a deserter, spy or traitor hanged. Almost daily, men were brought before the ranks to receive whippings of a few to as many as 500 lashes on the bare back, for theft, chronic drunkenness, profiteering, whoring, gambling . . .
Press on, past the Steuben statue -- throw the "Baron" a snappy salute -- and soon you'll be headed downslope toward Washington's headquarters, of which the point is the bannister, which is original and nobody says don't touch. Millions of hands have caressed the mellow old wood since his did, but . . .
Wander downstream along the riverbank, where you'll be honked and quacked at by Canada geese and seven kinds of ducks, and approach Washington Chapel through its graveyard. Then visit the privately owned museum ($1 admission), which is wonderful even though they've tried to get fancy with some of the exhibits. There's a waistcoat and a pair of breeches, mounted on a torso dummy, that reveal Gen'l. Washington to have been a very tall and well-built man.
And there's Lafayette's camp grill, which starts a train of thought. While men were starving for meat at Valley Forge, horss were dying in such numbers that their carcasses were a serious health problem. Now the camp was overrun with Frenchmen, and the French have always known that horsemeat is in some ways superior to beef; so why . . . ?
Away in the back there's a case containing, among other things, Washington's sucket fork. Sucket fork? The docents delight in explaining: "It's a fork for bone marrow; if you dig it out with this, you see, you don't have to . . . sucket!"
Drift back out into the park. Take your time, and wander where you please. It's a free country.
GETTING THERE -- From the Beltway take I-95 north to U.S. 202 north to U.S. 422 north, which takes you to King of Prussia and the south entrance to the park. Even if the traffic's bad, it shouldn't take more than three hours.