PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
Washington D.C. has countless opportunities for sightseeing and exploration. The current preoccupation with security has, however, tarnished the city's reputation for accessibility. Nowhere in our travels have we seen so many barriers rising from the ground, wrought iron fences, and security personnel. Locals say that it hasn't always been that way. With any luck, the current spate of insecurity will fade and we will once again be freer to visit the buildings that we collectively own.
Family can go a long way toward making any town feel hospitable. We benefited by having two different parts of the family in the area. We spent considerable time with our new in-laws, the Chapmans. They truly made us feel comfortable and welcome.
We also had a chance to re-acquaint ourselves with Rob's cousin Trad, his lovely wife Mianda, and their daughter Angela. We were lucky to cross paths with them as they were getting ready to leave for the Congo for a project that would keep them there for several years.
Most of the interesting sites in town are within a healthy walking distance of one another. The Mall is the focal point for most of the monuments and museums. With the Lincoln Memorial at your back you can look over the Reflecting Pool, past the Washington Memorial to the Capitol Building. On your left is the Viet Nam Memorial and on your right is the Korean War Memorial. The newly opened World War II memorial, among others, plus more than a dozen of the Smithsonian museums and numerous governmental buildings lay along the route to the Capitol Building. The Capitol dome is the high point in the city. No building in Washington is allowed to be higher.
The Lincoln Memorial is an inspiring site to see, day or night. It's a grand, imposing, edifice that places his legacy among the foremost of American Presidents. The scope and grandeur of the monument is tempered by a much more significant mark of his importance. His own words, in the form of the text of the Gettysburg Address are inscribed on a wall. Those words remind us not only his eloquence, but also of the enormity of his contributions to our union and lasting values.
Most people have a mental Image of the Viet Nam Memorial. The mirror finish of its dark wall hosts the names of thousands of fallen solders.It is amazing in it's simplicity and grace. At it's core, we realize that it is a reflection of our unity as a people in honoring the magnitude and sacrifice offered by our armed forces.
While the Viet Nam Memorial evokes images of the scope of the conflict, the Korean War Memorial shows the immediacy of the action. It's a telling sculpture during the day, but at night the statues take on a haunted air when a palpable sense of dread settles over the area.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson memorials are nearby but a little more than walking distance. For our family, the most evocative monument in the area is the FDR Memorial. With ironic regard to FDR's wish that no monument to him exceed the size of his desk, the current monument is huge. It features distinct areas that illustrate important images and symbols from both terms of his Presidency. Bronze figures commemorate the radio addresses and the depression era bread lines as evocative imagery from the early years of his administration. Several water sculptures wonderfully transition the different areas in the monument and create superb immersion effect that isolates external distractions. Stirring quotes are carved into the cut stonewalls and ground. This monument merits a thorough investigation. Endeavor to leave time to sit quietly and ponder a favorite quote. A lot of the tourists on bus tours don't walk the full distance to the last 'rooms.'
At the opposite end of the Reflecting Pool is the World War II Memorial. It was only unveiled a little over a year. As large and beautiful as it is, it lacks the stark impact of the Viet Nam Memorial or the immediacy of the Korean War Memorial. It felt like it was designed more with the monument itself in mind than the struggles and sacrifice of WWII.
There is more to Washington D.C. than just monuments. The city is also home to numerous museums and government buildings. While the many of the government buildings are difficult to visit without reservations, the museums are easily accessible and usually free.
Easily the most visited of the Smithsonian museums is the Air and Space Museum. It is a delightful review of machines that fire the imagination and spark the excitement of past milestones. Suspended from the main lobby ceiling are the X15 (still the fastest plane ever), the Spirit of St. Louis (Charles Lindbergh), the Bell X1 (the first airplane to break the sound barrier - Chuck Yeager) and Spaceship 1 (the first private spaceship - Burt Rutan/Paul Allen). Crew capsules from the Gemini (John Glenn) and Apollo 11 (first to the moon) are displayed on the floor. These are not copies or models. The heat shields on the capsules bear the burn marks from re-entering the earth's atmosphere. Many other displays are the backup versions that would have been put into service had the need arisen - space programs always build two of everything. There was a portion of the Skylab space station that showed the living quarters including the toilet system that was on a wall requiring the user to seatbelt himself onto it to use it. A replica Hubble space telescope seemed so undersized compared to the enormity of its contributions to astronomy and our understanding of our solar system.
The Museum of the American Indian is also a mesmerizing museum. It also is only a year old. The displays encompass native peoples from what are now the U.S. and Canada as well as from Central and South America. Most of the displays are provided from the native peoples themselves so they provide a vivid mental image of their reality. Each tribe's presentation is for a term of two years so that all tribes have an opportunity to educate the public in this beautiful and laudable setting. If you visit be sure to view both films that are presented in the museum.
We looked into visiting the Capitol and the White House only to find that it was discouragingly different from what we experienced when visiting Canada's national capitol, Ottawa, where we just walked up and signed up for a tour time later that same day. Visiting the Capitol building requires that you either make a reservation through your Congressperson at least six weeks in advance - time enough for a security check. For anything more than the perfunctory tour of the White House, you have to again contact your Congressperson 6-12 weeks in advance to initiate a security check. We settled with walking around the White House as close as the security would allow. It was very disconcerting to see guards armed with M16s 20 to 40 feet from the fence under the trees making themselves obvious while they scoured the crowds for problems. There were always a couple guards visible on the roof of the White House too.
An out of the ordinary sideline: all over we saw D.C. license plates with the saying "Taxation without Representation." We were puzzled until we realized that it was a protest by the citizens of Washington D.C. That are being taxed as U.S. citizens but not able to elect representatives to the Senate or House of Representatives. Washington D.C. was originally created as purely the site of the federal administration so that no state would have to deal with the intricacies and complications of being the 'home' of the national government. It's an interesting situation.
We made a small dent into all of the opportunities for exploration in Washington D.C. Again, this is another city that we could visit over and over again and never be bored.