The Trip to Washington D.C

 

            On January 23, 1999 I headed south from Ft. Monmouth to visit Washington D.C., or as they say in Washington State, the other Washington. It was raining and foggy when I left but the trip south was uneventful. Things cleared up by the time I got to Baltimore and I was able to get a good view of the city before paying the $2.00 toll and diving under the Patapsco River on the Ft. McHenry Tunnel and continuing south on I-95.

            D.C. is a surprisingly short distance from Baltimore and there are no specific signs pointing to downtown Washington. I was expecting something along the lines of “Downtown” or “Civic Center” or some other sign along those lines but no such luck. By the time I figured out that there were no tourist-oriented signs I was already south and east of the city. By this time I was looking for a Park-N-Ride train station so I could take the train into the city. I spied the icons signifying food, fuel, and train on an exit sign for Largo and figured that this would be good bet, as it satisfied the three most pressing needs at the time.

            I found a gas station and a place to eat but did not see the train station. This happened to be one of the exits for Jack Kent Cooke stadium (the home of the Washington Redskins) so I got a look at that while searching for additional signs for the train station. I did put fuel in the car and then headed over Applebee’s for lunch. This turned out not to be such a good idea as I waited for a server. And waited. And waited some more. Appeals to the person up front were fruitless. After thirty minutes I got up and left, more upset with the amount of time lost than not getting served.

            A little further south on I-95 I saw an exit sign for Pennsylvania Ave. and turned off, hoping that it was the Pennsylvania Ave. It was. I followed the road into D.C. and eventually spied the massive piles of architecturally enhanced stone for which this city is famous. I drove by the Capitol and numerous government office buildings. I drove by the FBI building but did not see Mulder and Sculley hanging around. At this point I was desperately searching for a Metro station and some parking. Neither was apparent. I did see a few public parking signs but I had no idea where I was exactly so I drove around a bit more. I did see the Washington Monument covered with 555 feet of scaffolding. As I traveled toward the Potomac River I saw the Lincoln Memorial and the Arlington Memorial Bridge, probably most famous as the site of the Air Florida crash in 1983. This area is right at the point where airplanes enter short final and start their climb-out from Washington National and the big birds are very close to the ground here.

            After a few more attempts to find a parking space I headed toward the National Zoo in the hope that there would be some sort of tourist information there. Along the way I traveled up the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. This is a very nice drive in the western part of the city and the topography is rather hilly. This was a surprise, since I had always thought that D.C. was flat all over. I knew that the central part of the city is reclaimed swampland but I was unprepared for soaring arch bridges over a small canyon.

            I asked a parking attendant at the Zoo (“This is a stupid tourist question, but...”) where I could park and catch the train and he told me that in this part of the city parking was problematical at best. I had already noticed that getting a space on the street required a dispensation from God so I turned my attention to finding a drugstore (to get a map) and a place to eat. After wandering around a bit more I stumbled onto the western section of the Adams Morgan district and found that Connecticut Ave. is nothing but Restaurant Row. There are more Southeast Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean), Irish, and Indian restaurants in this area than any other area I have seen. I managed to find a parking space on the street only about a quarter-mile from the Avenue in an area overrun with embassies and walked down to feed my hunger. Along the way I saw a BMW Z3 with the vanity plate 2IFBYZ3. After purchasing a map at the drugstore I ate a light lunch and enjoyed the 70 degree (in January!) air.

            I had noticed a few things about the city of Washington D.C. while driving and walking. There are a lot of time-specific traffic signs but they are visible and not overly confusing. There are a lot of women in this town, and a lot of them are riding bikes or jogging or walking dogs (the most socially popular ones, I’m sure). The south side of D.C. looks like any other large city but it is easy to tell that the money is in the northern and western parts of the city. There are some very nice neighborhoods in this town. Traffic is heavy but bearable and there seems to be a decent mass-transit system.

            After lunch I went back to the car and perused the map. I noticed that I was not far from the National Cathedral and headed in that direction.

The National Cathedral is located atop a hill and is, in a word, stunning. The only other cathedral I had seen was St. Patrick’s in New York City and the National Cathedral is in every respect much more impressive. During my visit there was a wedding going on and I wondered what strings have to be pulled to get a wedding in such a setting. I signed the Washington State book in the Visitor’s Center and read a few of the entries. I was surprised that I was the fifth or sixth person from Washington that day.

No matter what one’s religious convictions this building inspires feelings of awe and reverence. Everyone whispers amid the sheer scale and beauty of the structure. Most impressive to me were the stained glass and stonework. Everything in this building is hand worked, from the stone carvings to the Main Choir to the leaded glass. There are no castings, plastic, or prefabricated parts in the structure. Like the great cathedrals of Europe, no structural steel is used. This building is structurally identical to those in the Old Country. And also like the European cathedrals, it is a labor of love. Words fail in the face of this extraordinary exhibit of devotion to craft.

            After the visit to the cathedral it was time to figure out how to get out of D.C. and find a hotel room. I had figured that I would head some ways out of the city in the hope of finding an inexpensive hotel room and then drive back the next day for a full schedule of touristing. Getting out of the city was relatively easy once I managed to get onto the right road. D.C. is full of one-way streets and it is not always a simple thing to turn around. Little did I know that I was about to embark on the three most frustrating hours of many a trip.

            Most places you can count on heading up a State road and finding several mom-and-pop hotels in the business district of some small town. Not in Maryland. After a couple of hours of cruising the Maryland countryside I was convinced that there were no hotels in the entire State. I had tried some of the smaller towns with no luck and finally decided to bite the bullet and headed for Gaithersburg, a medium-sized town 15 miles northwest of D.C. I couldn’t find a hotel here, either, so I stopped at a store and asked directions. I got directions to the Gaithersburg strip and proceeded to get lost. It was raining, dark, and there were a lot of people behind me who did know what they were doing. A case in point occurred when I made a left turn onto a divided highway and apparently didn’t turn far enough. I thought that the curb seemed a little close and then the road narrowed and then I was faced with a multitude of cars headed in the other direction. Fortunately they stopped as I slammed on the brakes and turned the car violently to the left. I didn’t quite do a 180 but I didn’t have to check out the airbag operation either. I hope Hertz doesn’t install motion sensors on its cars.

I went as far as I could and asked directions again. By the fourth iteration I had gotten to within four blocks of the intended street. After finally finding the (nearly) mythical street I found that there just aren’t that many hotels in this part of the country. I stopped at an EconoLodge and the price was almost right so I took it. At 2030 I wasn’t going to press the point too much. After checking in I went to another Applebee’s for dinner and was pleasantly surprised. My order was taken promptly and the food arrived with gratifying speed. I donated a dollar to the cook beer fund and left to look forward to another day in D.C.

 

Waking up on Sunday morning it was wet and grey. I checked out and headed South on I-270 toward D.C. I-270 South turns into I-495 South so I just followed the signs. Presently I saw the signs for I-395 North which is the spur into the city. Following this road I was soon back into downtown D.C. As the road deposited me in the downtown area I set about looking for a place that sold film and a place to eat. I finally found a place to park on the street (!) and went out to hunt and gather. After securing the desired items I took a look at the map to plan my tour of the city. I considered leaving the car where it was since I was close to the tourist areas but, mindful of my experience in Boston, I elected to secure more legitimate parking. A glance a the map guided me to a parking garage on 13th St. Between “E” and “F” St. The garage charged $6.00 for the day and was conveniently located close to a Metro station. After securing the vehicle it was time to get out and start walking.

The first stop was the White House. Here I stopped at the iron fence that everyone stops at on Executive Ave. and took a few pictures. Next I turned my attention to the official Zero Milestone located on the Ellipse. This is the official marker for the start of mileage from D.C. to anywhere else. After walking around the Ellipse I made my way across the field-turned-swamp that surrounded the Washington Monument and then turned toward the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial. There is a surprisingly large greensward around these structures and the wide streets in this part of the city set it off nicely.

The Reflecting Pool was actually overrunning it’s banks from the rain and the grey skies did not allow it to show off it’s beauty but it is not hard to imagine how this area would look on a sunny day when the weather is warm and there are leaves on the trees. One advantage to coming here in the middle of winter is that there aren’t too many people around so there is plenty of time and space to enjoy the scenery.

After a photo stop at the eastern end of the Pool I headed off down the tree-lined walkway along the bank and made my way to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. The memorial is at once both a simple and very moving place. The polished slabs of black granite set into an embankment with the names of the dead and missing from that war evoke a sense of loss and reverence. No-one talks loudly here and there are flowers and other mementos laid at the base of the monument. Perhaps the most moving element is the statue of the three soldiers set a short distance away and oriented so that they look toward the Wall and the names of the comrades who will never return.

Not far from here is the Lincoln Memorial and I could not help but think that President Lincoln would be embarrassed at the scale of this structure. Everything about this building is monumental. I’m pretty sure that some Roman gods didn’t get temples this grand. While Mr. Lincoln’s contributions are indisputable the entire building feels a bit overdone. The interior contains the familiar statue of Mr. Lincoln sitting on a throne (this seems incongruous with stated American ideals) and the text of the Gettysburg Address on one wall and the Second Inaugural Address on the other. One aspect of the experience that I hadn’t expected was the constant stream of people having their pictures taken in front of Mr. Lincoln’s statue. This action seemed to me to miss the point of the experience, that is to say, the purpose of the monument is not to provide a backdrop for a vacation picture, but to call attention to the man and the ideals that he represented.

The next stop was the Korean War Memorial. This memorial is unusual in that it is a static display with a dynamic presence. The memorial consists of nineteen men in ponchos (one of the rare instances where the statues were dressed for the weather) arranged in a vee and trudging toward a single spot. From the expressions on the faces of the statues and from the arrangement of the memorial the overall feeling was one of melancholy and despair. Here again the visitors spoke only in hushed tones. 

After visiting here I walked along the Reflecting Pool and stopped at the marble gazebo that commemorates the war dead from the District of Columbia. Here the names of the dead are inscribed on the base of the structure. There are a lot of names.

Across the street is the Tidal Basin and I set off on the walkway surrounding it heading in the direction of the Jefferson Memorial. On the walkway the water was high and the tree limbs are low. Along the way I came across the FDR Memorial and stopped for a bit to have a look. The memorial is laid out in the form of a park constructed of red granite and features a collection of decorative waterfalls interspersed with bronze statues and bas relief icons that chronicle the time period of America’s longest serving President. There are a number of the President’s quotes inscribed in the walls of the monument. Overall the memorial gives a fairly complete history lesson of that time.

A little further along is the Jefferson Memorial. This memorial seems a bit less imposing than the Lincoln Memorial but is suitably impressive. The building sits directly across from the White House across the Tidal Basin and there is a large bronze statue of Mr. Jefferson standing in the middle of the rotunda and there are excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers and one other quote that I did not recognize inscribed on the interior walls. The interior is large and airy and the lighting is such that the marble does not feel cold. The overall design is based on that of Jefferson’s home at Monticello.

I talked to one of the park rangers about the monument and the disposition of mementos left at the various war memorials and about the other sights in the city. The ranger told me that winter was a good time to visit as in the summer the city is overrun with tourists. By way of example he pointed out that there were often several hundred people in the Jefferson Memorial at any one time during the height of the tourist season as opposed to the seven or eight that were there when I visited. A couple of hundred people in that building would amount to a seething mass of humanity and picture taking would be pretty much impossible.

After the visit at this monument it was time to consult the map and find out what else was in the neighborhood. It was getting late enough in the day that I had to make some choices. I could visit one of the Smithsonian museums or I could walk down to the Capitol. I elected to walk to the Capitol and look in the windows of the Air & Space museum on the way. Along the way to the National Mall I passed the Holocaust museum. The entrance was blocked by construction barriers and I began to get the impression that winter is when the Public Works department in Washington does their job as the Lincoln museum, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument and environs, and the Holocaust Memorial all had some kind of work going on. At any rate, this museum was the second Holocaust memorial I had seen recently (the other was in Boston) and I again wondered why these monuments are located in this country rather than in Israel or Germany. It is important not to forget this horror but it seems that the memorials would be better placed at the scene, so to speak.

The National Mall is one long piece of real estate that extends for well over a mile from 14th St. to the Capitol. Here again the streets are broad and there are a number of museums lining the park. Along the Southern side are the various buildings of the Smithsonian Institution and I took a look through the walls of glass of the Air & Space museum as I walked past. The scale of this building can be appreciated by the fact that hung from the ceiling I saw a DC-3, Bell X-1, the Apollo-Soyuz spacecraft, and several other aircraft. I have always wanted to tour this building but time was pressing and I will see it on the next visit.

Eventually I came up to the Capitol and noticed that it is suitably impressive. I suppose that it should be impressive since the quadrant divisions of the city are grounded on this spot.  There is a reflecting pool directly in front of the building that probably gives a good view of the Capitol on a sunny day but this was not one of those days. I did notice that there was a fair amount of seagull effluent on the walls of the pool. There were also some signs that warned against skating on the pool but these seemed incongruous given the relatively mild temperatures at the time.

            I have always noticed on TV and in the movies that the steps to the Capitol appear to be numerous and steep. This is in fact true. There are a lot of steps. While walking up these steps I could not help but think that “Mr. Ivey goes to Washington.” There is a portico at the top of the steps where the central area of D.C. is laid out in a panoramic view. This is where everyone stops to take pictures and I was no exception. The building is large enough that the feeling is of being in a granite and marble landscape. After the photo session I looked around for a way to get into the building. On the Western side the entrances are roped off so I followed the barriers around the building until I got to the eastern side and found an unbarricaded entrance. The door was marked as the staff entrance but I noticed other people going in so I figured that I’d give it a try. On the way in I noticed the stand-by ambulance parked under the Eastern stairs.

            The visitor entrance is unremarkable except for three things. First, the doors are surprisingly heavy. They take two men and a boy to hold open. Second, there is an airport-style metal detection gateway inside the door, and third, there are no less than three armed guards to defend against terrorism. On this day one of the guards looked like he ate nails for breakfast and I ended up going through the detector three times before being allowed in the building.

            Once inside I tried to find out where anything was because there are no signs directing people to the various tourist venues. Since this is a working building I did not expect any locational signs but I did expect something along the lines of the directories that most office buildings are equipped with. No such luck. I didn’t want to appear too ignorant since I didn’t want Mr. Nail Eater to ask me what the heck I was doing. Eventually I just walked up the nearest staircase and hoped for the best.

            I did find the museum located in the building where the various designs of the Capitol are rendered in architectural models. There are also actual column header pieces from the original building on display. After looking around here for a while I attempted to find the space under the rotunda. At first I ended up in one of the wings but after looking out of the window and getting my bearings it was easy enough to get to the central part of the building.

            The rotunda area is more impressive than I had expected. There are a number of well-done paintings on the walls of the room that depict various events in American history. The roof of the rotunda is 180 feet above the floor and there is a painting located there that depicts the accession of Gen. Washington into heaven and there is a piece of circular limestone under the exact center of the dome. An additional highlight is the copy of the Magna Carta given to the U.S. by the government of England in 1976. This copy has been etched onto a sheet of Plexiglas and edge lit so that the words appear to float in air. The document container is covered in gold and various precious jewels. It is nice to see one of the predecessors of the American Constitution on display here.

            The atmosphere in this place is one of respect (well, by the adults, anyway) and I felt uncomfortable with a camera in my hand. I noticed that I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. I did take some pictures and when the motor drive kicked in people turned around and looked. I noticed that a few people looked at the guard to see if he would bust me. When he didn’t I saw a few more cameras come out. This is not a real good commentary on the state of our nation. I was always taught that everything is permitted if it is not expressly forbidden.

            Leaving the rotunda I came upon one of the impressive chandeliers in the stairwells and then I wandered over to the old Supreme Court chamber but it was closed for the weekend. In fact, Sunday is the only day that it is closed. So much for timing.

            Exiting the Capitol I saw a pro-Clinton demonstrator having her picture taken with her placard in front of the Capitol. There were a few older women who looked askance at this but I thought that it was great that anyone could display their political views in the seat of American government.

            Perusing the map again I saw that Union station was pretty much right across the street so I walked over there to catch the subway back to the parking garage. At this point I was pretty darn tired of walking and was looking forward to some motorized transportation.

Union station is impressive from the outside and is a hub of rail travel in this part of the country. Amtrak has installed all of the latest travel aids and the interior of the station feels like an airport. Actually it feels like a shopping mall located at a train station. The station has been fully restored but this restoration comes at the price of commercial support. There are a number of signs pointing to the various trains and it wasn’t too hard to find the correct Metro train. The ticketing works exactly like the BART in San Francisco so the situation was familiar. The stations of the D.C. Metro are similar to those in the City by the Bay and the trains are identical. The facilities are certainly much more attractive than those in New York but of course, they are much newer. Without too much delay a train appeared and I rode down to the station next to the parking garage.

 Now I had a new problem. I knew about where the car was located but I had failed to write down the exact street address. Since there were only three parking garages in the area I started to check them all out. The second one was the charm and after stowing supplies I headed out onto the streets of D.C. and back toward New Jersey.

I headed down Pennsylvania Ave. since I knew that this would get me back to the Interstate and cruised through now-familiar territory and on through the town of Suitland (what a name!) and then to the gas station immediately prior to the Interstate entrance. After that it was straight-up 70-mph cruise control to New Jersey. The only anomaly was the $1.00 toll northbound through the Francis Scott Key tunnel in Baltimore. I still haven’t figured out how why these cities charge disparate rates depending on the direction of travel.

Two hundred fifty miles later it was back to Ft. Monmouth and another week of work.