The rail trip from New York City to Washington presents a panorama of everyday America just outside the window. Rail yards give way to shanties, suburbs, waterways, and wetlands. Barefoot children of every color waive and gawk as polished aluminum carriages fly by. Then, they return to the more important business of enjoying the last days of freedom before school resumes.
On a similar mission, I went with my grandchildren to Six Flags, a water park, the day after I arrived in Washington. To my chagrin, I was stopped at the entry because I possessed a pocket knife and multi-tool. Do they fear I’ll hijack a water slide, sabotage a slushie machine? Later, disarmed, I was refused service at the tiki hut for lack of photo identification. (The kindly barmaid, however, drew me a beer, but rang it up as a Coca-Cola.) The children swam and squealed, splashed and gurgled their way through an intimidating world of high-g slides, mechanically induced waves, and trap doors into tunnels of doom. I thought about the kids I saw from the train, poking around black water tide-pools, throwing sticks for their dogs.
The Pentagon the following day was a complete surprise. Security, although tight and formal, was also respectful, like that at Tienanmen Square. Inside, are a shopping mall, food courts, and whole corridors of museum exhibits and interpretive display. The 9/11 Memorial was touching, not bellicose. I said a prayer.
Mount Vernon, the nearby home of George Washington, also surprised me. Half shrine, half museum, it carries visitors back to an earlier America, one where agriculture, not cocaine consumption, was the conspicuous evidence of wealth. Washington and his peers put their lives and homes at risk when they declared independence from Mother England. These reluctant traitors, changed utterly by victory, became heroes and martyrs. Mount Vernon, which still has domestic animals, but no slaves, helps one bridge the centuries back to that life and their great gamble. As she did in his lifetime, Martha Washington fades into the background. She feared that revolt from England might provoke a slave insurrection, an ever present concern for white antebellum southerners. What would happen if today’s enslaved Americans broke harness, unplugged their televisions?
The Capitol, although a busy, working city, also partakes of museum and showplace. The monuments and public building are set like gems among lawns, gardens, and water features. This feels Parisian, there is an awareness of placement, line, and highlight. The city has the beauty and grace of a woman in full, all eyes turn to her. Radiant, confident in her splendor, she has a Mona Lisa smile.
The FDR and Martin Luther King Memorials made me proud, hopeful that America may yet fulfill the promise of democracy. Multiracial crowds paused to contemplate these great leaders, to be photographed in their company.
During my visit I stayed with my son and daughter-in-law in their home on Bolling Air Force Base, across the Anacostia River from the Capitol. Bolling is where the Presidential helicopter is hangered, also the site of the Presidential Communications Center. Security is firm, photography is restricted, but it’s a comfortable little community with its own facilities, including Starbucks, a shopping mall, and grocery store. What I liked best was its easy cycling access to the Capitol. I could ride Ms Von B along protected bike paths most of the 6.5 mile trip to Capitol Hill.
Cycling is popular in Washington and there are few restrictions on bicyclists. The city has several bike tourist offerings and one can rent a municipal bike by the hour. On foot, walking the major monuments takes several hours. Cycling between monuments, dismounting to visit them, is a fun alternative and saves your feet. A tip – the United States Botanic Garden, at the foot of Capitol Hill, is an island of serenity. Admission is free, the temperature is pleasant year round, and the loos are clean. It’s a nice place to pause, doubly so if plants and gardening interest you. If I lived in DC, the Botanic Garden would be my home away from home.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s centerpiece is the Space Shuttle Discovery, but there is much, much more. I lost myself in the collection of early flight artifacts. You can see the Wright Brothers’ Model A flyer, gyro-copters, ultra-lights, and hang gliders; hot rod aerobatic machines, combat warriors, cold warriors, and Superfortress Enola Gay. All now hang silently as a daily procession of pilgrims trail by. The B-29, Flak-Bait, whose patched skin reflects damage from over 200 bombing runs in WWII, is visible in the restoration shop. At peace now, she holds the record for completed runs over Nazi Germany. She brought all her crews home.