Monday, July 7, 2008

23. Washington D.C.

We were excited about going to our nation’s capital again. Decades had passed since our last visits. Bonnie was there in 1970 during a family vacation. Ron was there in 1961 when his high school band represented the state of Washington in JFK’s inaugural parade. We looked for a good base camp, but there are very few campgrounds in the D.C. area to choose from. I guess most visiting dignitaries don’t stay in their Winnebagos. Cherry Hill Park was the most convenient for easy access into the city so we checked in. It was also the most expensive RV park of our vacation (so far), but it had two pools, mini-golf, on-site tourist info, laundry, a store and a nice little cafĂ© with good food.

Getting there tested our patience. It was only 130 miles from our Virginia RV park, but construction and heavy stop-n-go traffic on the Capital Beltway slowed us down. From our observations, the Beltway is the best way to get “around” the City, but it’s also a continuous 8-lane flow of solid traffic all the time.

When we arrive in a “special” place, we like to tour the area first to get a quick overview before striking out on our own. It’s fun and usually well worth the cost. We took the advice of Cherry Hill’s information lady and signed up for an Open Top Bus Tour of the City on a double-decker convertible bus. The tour company provided a 6:45 am shuttle bus from the RV park to Union Station where the tour began. We had to invest in a cheap alarm clock to get up that early.

The two-hour tour covered most of the sites and buildings that were important to us. For the rest of the day and the following day, we could hop on and off the buses anywhere along the route at no extra charge, so it was a good way to get around town. The open top level of the bus provided a cooling breeze and great views, but we had to duck a few times to avoid getting slapped with tree branches as the bus rolled through some of the narrow tree-lined streets. We didn’t always duck in time.

The Georgetown district was one of our favorite places. The bus took us through quickly, but we had to go back for a second look and to walk around the quaint neighborhoods. It's a classic neighborhood that's very popular with tourists and also a highly desirable place to live.

Union Station may not be considered one of the main tourist attractions in D.C. but it's an impressive and fascinating place and deserves a couple photos. It was the largest railroad station in the world when it was built. Restoration and remodeling have added many services, upscale shops and an extensive food court. It was a convenient place to grab a quick bite as we were coming and going.

We spent a couple hours walking around Arlington Cemetery where more than 320,000 veterans, spouses and other important Americans are buried.

The Kennedy grave sites and eternal flame are still very popular.

The Memorial Amphitheater provided some shade for folks waiting to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. They change every half hour around the clock regardless of the weather. Being a guard here is one of the highest honors a soldier can have and they perform their duties with great respect and impeccable precision.

Arlington Cemetery is a beautiful place but we wilted from the 94 degree heat, high humidity and too much walking. Bonnie’s feet were burning and Ron’s shirt was soaked with sweat. It was uncomfortable, but we pushed on, along with the many other overheated tourists.

We were disappointed that the Smithsonian’s American History Museum was closed for remodeling. But, there were plenty others to see. The Holocaust Museum gave a thorough and sobering account of a tragic period in world history. More uplifting was the Air and Space Museum. It had lots of aircraft and historical displays, including everything from the Wright brothers’ first flight to the space age. Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis was a popular craft and Ron especially liked the Eastern Airlines DC-3 and the old warplanes.

The National Museum of the American Indian is one of the newer museums along the Capital Mall and an architectural wonder. We’ve seen a lot of Indian museums along the road, but nothing like this. A nice thing about Washington D.C. is that nearly all the buildings, museums and guided tours are free and there are few, if any, restrictions on the use of cameras.

During one of our return bus rides, the sky turned black very quickly and opened up with thunder, lightening and a heavy downpour. By the time we reached Cherry Hill, the rain had stopped and the storm had moved on. That seems to be typical of local summer storms. They come and go quickly and often pop up out of nowhere.

The National Cathedral was one of the most impressive buildings that we visited. When we first stopped, they were busy ordaining a new bishop from Maryland and, of course, we didn’t have tickets for the event. So, we returned for a complete tour a couple days later.

Theodore Roosevelt was President when the cathedral began construction in 1907 and it wasn’t finished until 1990. It was designed in the 14th century English Gothic style with high pointed arches, large stained glass windows and flying buttresses to hold it together. The massive stone work is incredible and so are the wood and wrought iron details, stained glass, floor tiles and many sculptures and other decorations. It’s no wonder it took 83 years to build. It was intended for use by people of all faiths and was built entirely with private donations. The funerals of Presidents Ford and Reagan were held here. Helen Keller and former President Woodrow Wilson are buried here. It felt like being in the king of all churches. It’s a very interesting and impressive place to visit.

Washington D.C. has traffic and parking problems and everyone advised us to use the transit system, which we did. Cherry Hill Park is served by bus transit which links it to a nearby Metrorail station. Very convenient. Traffic didn’t seem to be too bad in downtown Washington, but most on-street spaces are restricted in some way and parking garages are expensive. The Union Station garage charges $6 for the first hour and $19 for 12 hours or more. The bus and the Metrorail were quicker and cheaper. We hope Seattle will have a system like that some day.

It took a lot more walking along the Capital Mall to get up close to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the war memorials. Ron wanted to see the Vietnam War memorial since he did two tours over there on his Navy destroyer.

The World War II memorial was especially important to Bonnie since her Dad gave his life for his country in 1944. The memorial was designed to be interactive and was a popular place to cool burning feet on a hot day.
Tickets to tour the Capitol building go quickly and are often hard to get. So, we called Senator Maria Cantwell’s office and arranged for a VIP tour by one of her office staffers (Maria had already gone home for the 4th of July). We met in her office in the Dirksen Building and were escorted through tunnels and onto the short underground shuttle train to the Capitol. From there our guide took us all over the building, up and down narrow back stairways and through long hallways. It was very interesting, but also very busy and noisy in the crowded public areas and especially in the rotunda under the massive dome. Even so, it was an awesome feeling to be inside our nation’s capitol and surrounded by oversized historical paintings, statues of past leaders and tons of granite and marble.
The Supreme Court is across the street from the Capitol. We had a little spare time, so we wandered over to take a look. The court wasn’t in session, but we got to see another impressive building with more marble, huge stone columns, statues, etc. We saw the courtroom where the Supreme Court hears its cases, but they had also gone home for the 4th of July holiday, which didn't help the capital punishment protestors in front of the building.

We had a great time in Washington. We wished everyone, especially kids, could go there at least once. We didn’t see it all, but we were approaching the state of mental overload so it was time to move on down the highway.