Thursday, June 20, 2013

Washington DC: Memorial Trekking

The Capitol building marks the east side of the National Mall.  American flags fly only when Congress is in session, a relic of pre-electronic times when they served as signals for members of Congress to assemble. 
Note: This is the first part of a planned three-part travelogue on our recent vacation in Washington DC.

Jennifer and I recently celebrated 25 years of wedded bliss in part with a trip to Washington, DC. Originally, we had planned to visit Chicago this summer but when our daughter won a major art contest we received free tickets to our nation’s capital. But the award conflicted with my daughter's summer schedule so her parents decided to use the tickets for their summer getaway.

I am not sure my daughter could have handled the pace and intensity of our tourist onslaught on DC. In the course of four days Jennifer and I visited about 13 museums, a plethora of statues, monuments, and memorials, visited DC's Chinatown, and toured a fashionable area around a distinguished private art gallery. The trip was not for sissies. It was far from relaxing though we were enriched by it and enjoyed all the wonderful art and history. Of course, it was by no means extensive. There were plenty of things we never got around to seeing. Four days is just not enough for the many attractions DC offers.

The flights up and back were uneventful. Worthy of note was a lady who sat next to us on the flight up from Atlanta while reading Flow on her iPad. I read an article on Gustavo Dudamel on the iPad app for the magazine Intelligent Life. The back issues of this outstanding publication are available for free as of this post and I recommend them as the best example I know of how to design a magazine app. It is published by the fine folks at The Economist.

Washington DC is an exciting place to visit. Few places in the America compare with the National Mall, which is where we spent the majority of our time. The Mall is dominated by the many museums and exhibitions of the Smithsonian Institution. That was the primary aim of our trip and we spent two full days there. The Mall is conveniently located near our upscale accommodation, The Liaison, a boutique hotel (it was our 25th anniversary after all). It is the first hotel where I have stayed that offered guests a pillow menu. Down pillows came standard with the room. Jennifer requested an additional hypoallergenic one, I selected a buckwheat pillow from the menu. Basically, it was a sack of grain in a fine linen casing. It was a fun novelty to sample but I ended up sleeping with the down feather pillows and used the much firmer buckwheat one for propping up in bed.

The food in DC was our biggest disappointment. There were no really good (affordable) restaurants located in the area around the Capitol. We enjoyed one exceptional breakfast at our hotel. But the $50 price tag for it discouraged us from sampling there again. We had authentic Chinese food at the Wok and Roll in the Chinatown district, but it was only subtly distinctive from Chinese food I can get locally. Jennifer had some good beef stew one evening at another restaurant but my fish and chips was bland. Another evening I enjoyed a unique burger at The Dubliner but Jennifer was non-plussed by her selection. Eating at The Center Café in the middle of Union Station offered an interesting setting but the menu choices were rather mediocre. However, we didn't starve either. We enjoyed drinks one evening at the hotel bar. I sampled their excellent Macallan single malt scotch. Jennifer had a couple of fruity vodka drinks. Very nice and set a fun tone for the evening.

Other than that it was walk, walk, walk, see, see, see. We were tourists with a passion for art and history and we attacked the city with fairly sustained abandon, knowing full-well we could not cover everything we wanted to see. Still, we experienced a lot and certainly the trip was filled with wonderful, vivid memories and a few surprises. The evening we arrived we took an Old Town Trolley tour of the major memorials. The open-air bus tour guide provided a wealth of information and we were given a few roughly half-hour stops to walk around. We strolled the Iwo Jima Memorial, the FDR/MLK memorial area (they are adjacent), and the Lincoln Memorial/Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Special mention should be made of the comparatively modest Japanese-American Memorial which was next to our hotel. It was the first drive-by location on the trolley tour out of Union Station. I walked back over to the space a couple of evenings later and got some close photos. On it are the names of several internment camps where Japanese-Americans were held prisoner by the United Sates government during World War Two. The numbers in the tens of thousands are engraved in large font around the space along with the inscribed names of all Japanese-American soldiers who died fighting for America against their native country in the Pacific. The monument aptly contains the words "Here We Admit A Wrong..." That probably makes it one of the most unique memorials on any government's grounds in the world. What other government makes such words so public practically next to its capitol building?

The Supreme Court building as photographed by Jennifer from our trolley.  Like much of DC it is undergoing renovation and repairs.  To mask the mess the building is currently draped with a enormous canvas image of itself.  A bizarre symbolic simulacra.  Pay no attention to the justices behind the curtain...
We drove past the Washington Monument, of course, which was covered in scaffolding due to repairs from damage it suffered during a 2011 earthquake in DC. As a matter of note, there is a reason it is called a "monument" rather than a "memorial" like practically everything else in this blog post. The monument was conceived and the land for it acquired while our first President was still alive. All other structures mentioned were erected after the death of whoever they pay tribute.

Our first stop was at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial which was interesting but slightly disorienting in its design. It was located in a more wooded area than most of the other memorials and we actually ran up on a fox making his way through all the tourists in the semi-natural, semi-urban landscape; quite a surprise to see something so wild roaming so freely in that context. The path of the FDR Memorial led us down to the area's Tidal Basin where Jennifer and I took photos of the Jefferson Memorial from across the water. I discovered Jennifer's new iPhone took far superior pictures to my pocket Samsung; though I got a couple of good shots on the trip which I feature in this travelogue. From the edge of the Basin we turned and walked past the FDR area toward an enormous white engraving in the distance of MLK.
The Martin Luther King Memorial was especially powerful to me.  Dr. King stands as an emblem of hope wrought from the center of the Mountain of Despair.
The Martin Luther King Memorial was very impressive. I understood the triangulation of Dr. King emerging from the rock, once the center of the “Mountain of Despair” that stands behind his gigantic relief. It was a line from Dr. King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech made manifest in stone. A wonderful experience. Of his many sayings engraved along the entrance to the monument I noticed one from Norway in 1964 made upon the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” Inspiring and filled with idealistic hope that seems almost quaint today.

The famous statue at the Iwo Jima Memorial.  In twilight.  
The Lincoln Memorial brightly lighted against the night sky.  The crescent moon is in the upper right.  This marks the western extremity of the National Mall opposite the Capitol, some two miles away.
The Iwo Jima Memorial was next, taking us past Arlington Cemetery where I briefly saw John F. Kennedy's Eternal Flame from the great distance of our bus. The Flame was set against the strengthening darkness at sunset. It seemed to shine red like Mars but was the size and brightness of Jupiter to the naked eye, affixed upon a hillside instead of aloft in the early evening sky. The famous Iwo Jima Memorial itself was wonderful to behold. It was not yet too dark to ascertain its subtleties, set on a line from the Capitol far to the east, the Washington Monument between us in the foreground but looking rather small. This was followed by the Lincoln Memorial. Brightly lit, it is beautiful to behold at night. The lighting is a spectacle. It was particularly impressive gazing back from the towering front steps to the east along the entire length of the Mall at night toward the thumbnail sized Capitol dome, about two miles away, with the Washington Monument looking smallish in the foreground about seven/tenths of a mile away. This gave me an excellent feel for the magnificent space of the Mall.
The first names on the Vietnam Veteran Memorial wall.  The memorial is less than one foot high at this point.  Its dark stone and dim lighting made it somewhat difficult to locate to unversed toursits like Jennifer and myself as we walked from the light of the Lincoln Memorial into the night.
This shot gives you some sense of how dark it was around the Vietnam Memorial wall.  You could not easily read the names without some lighting assistance.  The lights along the base point directly up and do not cast much illumination toward the surface of the wall.
The brightness of the Lincoln Memorial was contrasted by the darkness nearby where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stood. Somewhere. Jennifer and I decided to use the bulk of time at that stop to search for it but light became scarce as we walked away from the Lincoln Memorial. We accidentally happened upon the statue known as The Three Soldiers but the memorial itself briefly eluded us in the dim light. In truth, the park beside the classically lit Lincoln building was dark. Only a few pathways are minimally lit. Of course, there is a busy highway nearby with plenty of traffic sounds. So, we weren't lost, but we couldn't see the Vietnam Memorial either. Jennifer located it with her GPS on her iPhone but we still couldn't see the memorial wall. It seemed we were walking toward a retaining wall for the highway.

But it was the Wall vaguely illuminated in subdued lights that did not shine directly on the dark reflective stone surface. You could only faintly make out the names on the memorial, needing a flashlight or some other illumination to read the inscribed names with clarity. Without the direct, bright lights that graced the other memorials it was next to impossible to read or even fully see more than 20 feet in any direction at night. But there were people walking about, talking in hushed tones. We walked to the middle, to its highest point in the Wall and stood there for a moment, meditating. I took a couple of photos and the number of names of mostly young Americans at this point was transformed into a huge weight, a burden. It was a moving memorial.

I thought it somewhat symbolic and metaphorical that Jennifer and I stumbled around trying to locate it and then could not see it clearly once we found it. Sort of like the convoluted, divisive war itself. She and I talked about that as we bought bottled water on the way back to the trolley to quench our thrusts in the humid summer night. The trolley took us back to Union Station past the World War Two Memorial and past the north side of the White House. From there to The Liaison was a bit less than half a mile’s trek through a small jungle of homeless people.

Two nights later there was a brilliant blue sky sunset. A storm front had moved through leaving us with cooler, less humid conditions. Jennifer, who was developing a sinus cold before we ever left on the trip, was totally exhausted from the day's activities. After a (mediocre) supper she crashed while I walked from The Liaison down the length of the Mall and beyond the Washington Monument where I found the Tidal Basin again. A hike of an additional half mile (probably a bit over two miles all total one way) took me down around the Tidal Basin and eventually brought me to the Jefferson Memorial 30 minutes before sunset.

As I have mentioned before, Thomas Jefferson is my favorite patriot. Though we had driven by his memorial on the trolley tour it was not one of our stops. I was dissatisfied with this and decided there would be no better time to undertake the lengthy hike to the memorial than while Jennifer rested. I can cover some ground at a very brisk pace when I hike on my own. I enjoyed my time there, watching the sun set, and how the rays of fading light played off the beautiful marble of the structure. I took photos from every angle both inside and around the memorial. I visited the museum underneath the structure and learned of some of the difficulties (including protesters trying to save the trees that were cut down and heavy lobbying against continued construction after World War Two started) FDR faced after construction began in 1938. I want to study this more in-depth in the future. These small government interpretive centers rarely give you more than a brief digest of what actually transpired. In the end, FDR got his way and the memorial was dedicated in April 1943, right in the middle of the war. It was a hike well worth it to see this most appropriate tribute to the man I consider our greatest Founding Father.

There were other monuments and memorials that Jennifer and I saw as we trekked around DC. Too many to mention, of course. But, these were the major ones, dotting the National Mall area giving it a sense of almost sacred grandeur to the past – to some of the great human beings that forged this nation and the great events that our nation has endured. It is easy to be critical and even cynical about many aspects of American history and present politics. But, to walk these grounds and gather the collective magnitude of what is represented here left Jennifer and I both moved and appreciative of the heritage of our great and still unfolding American story.

My hike back from the Jefferson Memorial took me back through the full length of the Smithsonian buildings along the National Mall. Approaching the Capitol from this direction was wonderful with its great, brightly lighted dome set against the clear night sky. I was a bit surprised by how dark the middle of the Mall was in the evening. If the Milky Way had been out I would have been able to easily see it due to the lack of background lighting. The flip-side of this was that I was walking in darkness that rivaled the Vietnam Wall area. It was somewhat unusual walking that long distance in darkness through such a large public space in front of our nation's capital building though security was tight and I wasn’t bothered by anyone, not even the homeless who roamed more freely the closer I came to our hotel room.
The Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin in the orange hues of the setting sun.  It was marvelous to behold and well worth my four-mile round-trip trek to see it up close.  If you look carefully you can see Jefferson's statue facing the camera looking toward the White House which can no longer be seen from it due to new constructions. 
The Jefferson Memorial on my approach after circling the path along the Tidal Basin.  I find the architecture elegant and inspiring.  Great care has been taken to preserve the various trees surrounding the memorial.  Two elderly cedars can be seen abutting the foundation of the memorial in this shot.

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