Access Monticello by Jeff and Emily Griffin

The narrow paved road leading to Monticello appeared to be exactly as it would have been 200 years ago, without the asphalt of course! The trees were still standing as sentinels guarding the quaint and quiet path that leads to the home of our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Monticello stands atop the majestic hill as a beacon of hope and an invitation to all nations and visitors to come and visit a small part of American history. As my wife and I turned the corner in our car and drove through the threshold of Monticello’s parking lot it was as if we had instantly timed wrapped back to the present as we entered the visitor center’s grounds. The modern buildings and paved parking lots reminded us that we still lived in the 21st century. I was saddened and happy at the same time. I couldn’t imagine living during Jefferson’s time period from a wheelchair! However, I had the opportunity to experience it for a day.
Eighteen years ago I fell from a barn. It left me paralyzed from the waist down, shattering my dreams of playing college football, but since then I have played wheelchair basketball, for the very nation Jefferson helped establish, in the 2004 Athens Greece Paralympic games. I have also traveled the world helping other wheelchair users adapt and thrive. I haven’t let my wheelchair slow me down. With that said, some parts of the world are not that accessible for people like myself.

I parked my car in the handicap parking stall. Since we were ones of the first to arrive, there were more than a dozen empty stalls to choose from. The first tour began at 9:00 am so we wanted to make sure we had enough time to be there.

The visitor center’s modern buildings were very inviting to all visitors including those of us with disabilities. After the United States of America passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the 1970’s, people with physical disabilities were able to explore more because of the access which was made available to the very same nation Thomas Jefferson helped establish. I’m not sure Jefferson could have envisioned how far reaching and impactful his writing of the Declaration of Independence would have for the people of this nation. I was feeling those very freedoms as I prepared to enter the premises.

The visitor center was 100% accessible for all ages and abilities. It was very family friendly and clean. Whenever I travel to new and unfamiliar places I presume that, if I can do it from a wheelchair, anyone and everyone else can do it standing up! I hope this presumption holds true when you decide to come to Monticello. I hope I can give all readers and potential visitors some clarity to help improve their own visits to Monticello. I really believe that if you can see it you can achieve it.

Emily and I entered through the east doors by the Griffin Children’s Center, where a well-informed employee was waiting to greet all who came through those doors. I wondered if we were related to Jefferson or where the connection of the name ‘Griffin’ came from. We continued past the friendly staff and entered the elevator doors that lead directly to the ticket counter. The entrance fee, in my opinion, is a very fair and reasonable and is good for all day. You can go up and down the hill to Monticello as often as you’d like throughout the day. We only spent half the day there ourselves. And even though we only spent a few hours on the grounds of Monticello it was well worth the time spent.
We were so anxious to spend the majority of our time at Jefferson’s house and homestead that we saved the movie for later, which is played every 20 minutes. We continued past the interactive displays of the museum, and went straight to the shuttle bus stop so we could to his house. There was a steady stream of shuttle busses consistently carrying eager site-seers to and fro the Jefferson home. They had a fleet of clean and accessible busses that kept our wait to a minimal. If by chance there was a long line at the shuttle stop you could do other things while you waited. One could talk to the bright and friendly staff or take your picture with Thomas Jefferson himself. There is a life size bronze statue of him holding a spyglass in his left hand – there is always something to do while one visits Monticello.

During our visit at Monticello we discovered that Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Mary Jefferson Randolph moved in with her own family to play host for his numerous parties and to help entertain the number of guests that came to visit Monticello. Our host for the day happened to be Lois Sandy. Lois is one of about 65 hosts and workers that do the modern day duties of Mary Jefferson Randolph. She entertained and informed our group of 25 visitors. She did it with energy and enthusiasm. You felt the love she had for the place and the history of Monticello. We began our guided tour at the east end of the estate near the steps of Monticello.

A light-brown sandy gravel pathway was professionally maintained to welcome all guests who came to Jefferson’s house. As we got out of the shuttle and approached the house we were pleasantly surprised with the 71 degree temperature. In July we expected it to be much hotter and even more miserable. It is well known that Jefferson picked this valley partly because it was protected from the weather. It was fitting and fun to learn that the topic of weather was another passion and love of Thomas Jefferson.

As we approached Jefferson’s front door his thermometer, barometer, compass, and clocks were pointed out as something that Jefferson had built into the architecture of his home. His passion for building, learning, and constructing ideas can be seen throughout the entire house. In fact, he loved learning so much that he had his home laid out and built so he could have his study on the south side of his home to read and study as long as he possibly could before the sun went down. He could only read and write during the visible hours of the day so he planned accordingly. He cherished his time so much and didn’t want to waste it that he even had a clock put in every room, except for one; the guest room so they wouldn’t be pressured with time!
Stepping through the front door of Jefferson’s house was like stepping into a friend’s home. We were welcomed warmly and the first and lower floors of the house were accessible and inviting to all. The second and third floors were not accessible but even the view from a wheelchair wasn’t a problem because one could see the paintings and other artifacts Jefferson collected from his travels. One didn’t need to go to the other floors because they could see most everything from down below. One would be pleasantly surprised that Jefferson built his house in a way that would accommodate all visitors, even those in wheelchairs.

The green painted floor in the entryway invited the natural beauty from outside to within. The other clock on the inside of the house was spectacular. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It not only tells the time but also indicates what day of the week it is. It was unusual to see cast iron balls hanging from the clock but the cast iron balls played a duel role for this particular clock. First, it helped with the moving of the gears to tell and keep the time and second, it was used as a weekly calendar marker as it hung next to the days that were written on the walls. Because Jefferson’s walls weren’t tall enough, holes were cut in the floor and Saturday went under the first floor! The hallways were tight but not too narrow to keep someone from a wheelchair from seeing each room in the house. I was able to see everything that the typical guest could see.

Jefferson’s library of books was filled from corner to corner and covered the entire wall from the floor to the ceiling. His study and sleeping quarters were unique because it was divided by a bed built in the wall. It was accessible from both sides allowing him to enter and exit the bed from either room or side. At the foot of the bed was another clock mounted on the wall. Jefferson truly believed that there should be no wasted sun light. He would get up out of bed and ready for the day as soon as he could see the hands of the clock. Speaking of the day there was much to see that day. There were many more special surprises that could be mentioned at this time. I invite you to come and experience the rest of Monticello for yourself. One can see the secret passageways, tiny elevators, and futuristic inventions! The paintings and portraits will rival any museum in Washington.

Our guided tour ended above the water cisterns on the north end of the deck. This final destination was ideal to share Thomas Jefferson’s ‘ideals’! He wanted to be remembered by three things and nothing more. He didn’t even want to be remembered as the President of the United States. They were so important to Jefferson that he had them inscribed on this tombstone. The end of the guided tour was not really the end. Even though this location was a perfect place to end the guided tour and ponder what one had just experienced and seen, it wasn’t really the end but a new beginning place to discover and explore the rest of the estate.
One could wander down below to the servants’ quarters and stroll around the flower and vegetable gardens if you desired. They were both very accessible! If one chooses to take a break and get a drink or buy a souvenir, there is a gift shop underneath Jefferson’s daughter and son-in-law’s house found on the north end of the grounds. The gift shop has bottled water and other cold beverages to purchase. It also has some very affordable souvenirs for you and the little ones! My wife and I purchased a copy of the Declaration of Independence, for our oldest son that came with a quill and an ink bottle. We also had to buy two homemade cookies in the clear glass cookie jars near the cash registers. No matter what one decides, you can’t leave without eating the lemon cookie, which was my favorite of the three!

If you’re like my wife and like to hear the history behind the displays, such as the plants and slave quarters, Monticello has additional guided tours if you’re interested. If you’re like myself and like to go explore on your own you can do that too. You can pop in uninvited with a tour already in progress if you would like as well. We did just that as the plant specialist was explaining our new favorite plant. We called it “the sensitive plant”. This particular plant folds its leaves together to protect itself when you touch it. We stayed and played with it the longest.

Our time at Monticello was up and we had to get back. With those who have accessibility concerns Monticello is there to help. I was told when I finished my time on top I could go back where I was first dropped off and call an accessible shuttle to take me to the graveyard, which can be found half way down the hill, or back to the visitor center. On our way up the hill I saw that they had a walking path that went right past the cemetery so I asked my wife if she was up for another adventure. She was! So we headed down the path that leads to the family cemetery. It was quite steep but fairly flat! The dirt path turned into a path of pavers. It was very smooth, considering the material that was used. I am fairly active and athletic so the uneven walkway wasn’t a problem for me so I wheelied down the majority of the steep embankment. I’m glad I took this path because we were able to see where the coal sheds that heated Monticello up during the winter would have been.

The paved path ended at a flight of eleven steps; thus the instructions down below to call for a shuttle made more sense. For an average wheelchair user it would have been an exhausting climb back up to the top. Even for me it would have been a challenge but fortunately I spotted an alternative route. The solution was south of the steps in the form of the grassy cut field. I’m sure Monticello wouldn’t want to make it permanent even if there were more adventurous wheelchair users like myself! But out of necessity I went around the steps and made it to the family cemetery. The cemetery was one of my favorite places. It wasn’t spooky or scary but quite the opposite. It was very peaceful and inviting. Jefferson’s three ‘ideals’ were chiseled into the stone as a reminder that an ordinary man can do extraordinary things as long as they set their mind to it. What are the three ‘ideals’ you ask? Come to Monticello and discover for yourself!

I could have jumped on a shuttle bus at this point of my adventure but I wanted to finish what I started and continued down the path. The path along the cemetery was the narrowest but still passable. The final .35 miles of the trail was tranquil and beautiful. Strolling down and along the sandy dirt path it felt like I had gone back in time again. The canopy of the trees was a natural umbrella from the modern world and it protected us from the beating sun making the journey a little more pleasant. The chorus of bugs and birds accompanied the cadence of our steps and encouraged us forward. It was a perfect way to end our stay at Monticello.

There were a few more steps at the bottom of the trail but I spotted a service vehicle path off to our left which made the final decent adequately accessible to arrive at the visitor center safe and satisfied. My stomach was talking to me and the food service center was calling our names. They had tables both in and out of the shade to both enjoy the scenery and savor ones meal. After our walk and visit to Monticello we were ready to sit and take a break from the heat and adventure. The 20 minute film was a perfect way to rest, relax, and be reminded of all that Thomas Jefferson had dreamed and accomplished during his life.

I wanted to be more like Jefferson when I left that day. I wanted to be a builder like him. Not a builder of hammer and nails but perhaps with values and goals to improve and rebuild our own community. I left Monticello wanting to be better at discovering truth and standing up for it. I left the founding father’s estate wanting to be a better father of my own estate! I left recharged and refocused to what was most important to me – my faith, my family, and my freedom! My visit to Monticello ended similar to how it started. I was introduced to a little piece of the past providing clearer and increased vision to help me fulfill my future. My visit to Monticello has sparked a renewed passion from within and I rediscovered the greatness of who I can be. You too can discover greatness at Monticello!