Into the Nation's Capital...


Day 4 was our day to visit Washington D.C. My wife had visited there before, but for the rest of us, it was our first time in the District. The Comfort Inn of Landover Hills offered a continental breakfast from 7 to 9 AM. The guys had cereal, and I had a donut. Friday, June 25 started out hazy and hot. We backtracked to Interstate 95, which took us south to Highway 50. From there, we followed the highway into the District, where it turns into New York Avenue all the way to the National Mall. 
It was a busy Friday morning in the big city, and although we found the Mall easily enough, we couldn't find a parking place anywhere. Washington's streets were narrow, crowded, potholed and confusing. Many streets weren't marked at all, and turning down a quiet one-way street could dump you on an expressway, as I came to find out. There were hookers, walking the streets. We passed within sight of the White House, but that was as close as we got. After looking for a parking place for the better part of an hour, I made the command decision to find one at any cost. I finally found a free parking lot off Potomac Park, over near the Jefferson Memorial, behind the obscure Cuban Friendship Urn. It wasn't where I wanted to start our tour, but beggars can't be choosers.

We only had the one day to look around. There was so much to see in Washington, I didn't expect to see all of it. But, I figured if we just checked out the monuments around the Mall, that would be a full day. My original plan was to park near the Lincoln Memorial, then work our way in a big circle around the Mall, visiting all the memorials and sights along the way --a grand tour of the National Mall. That didn't happen.

We started towards the Lincoln Memorial, crossing the bridge between the Potomac River and the Tidal Basin. Unexpectedly, we came across a very nice butterfly garden. Flowers and plants that attract butterflies were placed around a relaxing pool. The memorial was dedicated to founding father George Mason of Virginia. He wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the contexts of which inspired Thomas Jefferson while drafting the Declaration of Independence. He was later a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and is remembered for withholding his signature from the United States Constitution. Why? Because it didn't abolish slavery. You've got to admire a guy for taking a stand like that.
 
There was a lot of construction on the National Mall, and there were fences and barriers everywhere. We ended up at the FDR Memorial. It was peaceful, yet powerful, with lots of strong granite and flowing water. There were several "rooms" each focusing on Roosevelt's various terms in office. Bronze statues featured FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, a soup line, a man listening to a "fireside chat" on his radio, and even Roosevelt's dog Fala. The best any memorial can do is give an impression of what a person was like. The FDR Memorial left me with the impression of a man respectful of others, but steadfast in his beliefs. As we went through the different rooms, a Blackhawk helicopter stormed over the Potomac and passed right overhead. I hit the gift shop, and then we moved on. 
We ended up going in a big circle around the Reflecting Pool. Going towards the Washington Monument, we found the new World War II Memorial. It was huge, elaborate, and "busy"-- there were things, words, signs, markings, symbols, and engravings everywhere. A memorial to the war was long overdue, but could have been accomplished with a little more style. It was like some corporate committee got together to make art. The memorial was inelegant, overdone, clumsy, and was about as graceful as a roomful of file cabinets. The cool breeze off the fountains was a nice break from the heat, though.
 
From there, we headed back up the other side of the Pool to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Half of the wall was fenced off, to install some new lights, but Will and I walked around what was still open. The names of the dead just went on and on. For such a simple memorial, it was very powerful– all those names, all those people, all that potential, gone forever. What a waste. 
 
We arrived at the Lincoln Memorial. It was much bigger than the pictures had implied. It was huge. The guys and I walked up the steps and inside, to the big statue of Lincoln. The crowds had been light that morning, but a bunch of people were inside. There was quite a view from the steps, only partially obscured by the hazy weather. We could still make out the Capitol, way down at the end of the Mall. I took lots of pictures. 
 

Down from the Lincoln Memorial was the haunting Korean War Memorial. The statues represent a group of soldiers carefully passing through what might be a mine field. The expressions on the faces are very intense. It made me think of war movies, where they always have established stars in the major parts, stars usually in their late 30's or 40's. Most of the time, however, wars are fought by the youth-- kids, young men with their whole lives ahead of them. The "smudges" on the wall in the background are actually faces-- hundreds of people's faces, all shapes and sizes, etched into the granite. The path from the sidewalk to the memorial doesn't go through back to the main sidewalk. You have to turn around and go back the way you came. The fact that the path is a dead end may or may not be a comment on the Korean War.

We headed towards the Mall. Washington was built on a swamp, and the ever-present humidity makes a hot day even hotter. The heat was starting to get to us, and it was slow going. It took us a long time to pass the Reflecting Pool and walk past the Washington Monument, which was fenced off for landscaping. The Mall was full of tents for a festival, busy with lots of music and craft booths. We headed towards the Smithsonian, beyond several Agriculture Department buildings.
 
We made it to the "castle," the original home of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum had grown so much it was up to nine museums, and the castle was now a big information booth. Every place I'd searched online said that the summer was the busiest time for the museum, and that visitors should be prepared to wait in line for hours and hours. On that day, however, we just walked right in. 

Out of several choices, we picked the Natural History Museum. That's where the dinosaurs were! I'd been dreaming of going to the Smithsonian my whole life, and I wasn't let down. There were exhibits on rocks, insects, marine life, and... dinosaurs! We browsed through the whole place, and I got to see the Hope Diamond. (What a rock!) It was after lunchtime, so we all went downstairs to the "Fossil Café" for some overpriced sandwiches. They were good, though. Nick ended up eating two. When we finally left, clouds had moved in, and it looked like it might rain. The humid heat had drained us of energy. Everyone was exhausted, and we decided that was enough sight-seeing for the day. It was a long way back to the car. So, Zack and I elected to walk back to the car and come back to pick them up. On the way back, we passed a plainclothes cop chewing out a guy in an expensive car. It was a long hike to the parking lot, past the Holocaust Museum and the Jefferson Memorial, but we made it.
The Jefferson Memorial

Then, I had the challenge of finding my wife and the guys again amongst the jumble of Washington streets. I was about two blocks away when my phone suddenly rang. Between trying to find it, open it up and answer it, and avoiing getting crushed by crazy traffic, I ended up turning right instead of left down one street– and ended up on a bridge across the Potomac River. We were in Virginia! Zack and I searched the highway signs, and finally found a place to get turned around. It was the Pentagon! Back in Washington, I was trying to find landmarks when my cellphone rang again! I cut off the conversation to concentrate on driving, and eventually found my way back to Jefferson Street on the Mall, which led right up the front doors of the Smithsonian. Things settled down once I picked everyone up. We tried to head out of the District and get back to the Beltway. We passed within sight of the Capitol, which was as close as I'd ever been, before heading out on Pennsylvania Avenue. We passed a church with a sign out front: "Church of Jesus Christ, Inc." Incorporated? That wasn't right.

It started to sprinkle, and by the time we saw signs for the expressway it was coming down in buckets. We hit the Beltway at 5 PM on a Friday. The radio also said severe weather was moving in. Swell. Traffic wasn't all that bad, actually, and it wasn't long before the rain petered out. (So much for what easterners call "severe" weather.) We made it back to the hotel without a hitch, and after drying off, went over to the Italian Inn next door for supper. The guys had pizza, and Will remarked "It's the best pizza I've ever had," true praise indeed.  We relaxed the rest of the evening. Donna read a book, and the guys watched TV. It turns out we were in Washington D.C. the night the movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" premiered, but I forgot all about it.

 
 
 
 
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Day 8 -- Day 9 -- Day 10 -- Day 11 -- Day 12 -- Day 13 
All original content copyright (c) 2004 by Tim Frayser