I first experienced Stonehenge when I was sixteen. I had visited Windsor Castle in the morning and then fallen asleep due to jet lag. My parents woke me up. “Eric, we’re here.” I started awake and looked out the window. And there it was! We passed it on the road and pulled into the parking lot. I shook myself out of sleep. Surely it couldn’t have just been on the side of the road like that.
My family eagerly hopped out of the rental car and we followed the other tourists down the macadam slope to a ticketing area. Then, through a tunnel under the road and out onto the Salisbury plain, home of the mightiest of stone circles. And my first reaction was one of false joy. I pretended to be overwhelmed by the mystery and magic of this moment. After a while, though, I stopped trying to be happy. The stones themselves were fantastic, but something was wrong. I glanced around. An American hot dog stand sold soft pretzels and Coke. Another vendor sold miniature Stonehenge models. The worst offenders, though, were the roads that intersected at the monument. One road was bad enough, but why two? Stonehenge looked like it was on the median of a highway.
At the time, I felt disquiet with the situation, but was really too young to fully appreciate the mediocrity of it. Here was one of the world’s great monuments, being treated like a ride at Disneyland. Actually, without so much fanfare. An amusement park ride knows its place, as well. But this had been touted in every book and by every expert as a holy place. The name reverberates across our childhoods. Stonehenge! A relic of the past that deserved recognition with the Pyramids, the Acropolis, the Great Wall. But this! This was nothing like that. The stones looked sad, like a child mistreated. It was as if someone had built a feeble imitation for show, while the real circle hid just out of sight.
I visited Stonehenge again recently. Nothing had changed. If anything, the tourism had grown worse, more professional. The stones still towered over the plain, majestic in the way of flowers in the mud. People swarmed the site, snapping photos. I was no different. Some of my pictures magically transformed the site, the weathered stones appearing important and alone. Unless you had been there, you would never know that it wasn’t in the center of some great park, a perfectly mystical remnant of a bygone age. In fact, plans for such a park seemed to be in the works, at least in hopeful theory. But until that day, Stonehenge will remain the most disappointing of great places, a tragedy of tourism, a victim of our incessant need for convenience.