Thursday, November 6, 2008


Where the Zip Codes Start

This week we watched an amazing ritual. After what felt like a decade of campaigning, Americans turned out in record numbers and cast their votes. In some places they waited many hours. It was a moment that should fill us all with national pride. Whether it was our preferred candidate that won or lost, we all made our voices heard. Now, in the most powerful country in the world, we will soon witness another completely peaceful transfer of power. This is the true miracle of democracy.

The elegant simplicity of democracy in action reminded me of our national treasure and capital; Washington DC.

This is the city we love to hate. We casually discuss how this city "corrupts" and "ruins" the otherwise good people we send there. Of course blaming a city for the sins of its residents is perfectly ludicrous. Quite the opposite, when one spends any time in Washington they typically come to realize the essential core of democracy.  The fact those in the world that despise us cannot grasp: we are American's, we may differ on opinions, but when adversity strikes, we are one.

This is the one city in America that everyone must come to at least once. They must come and spend enough time to fully absorb it. And they must bring their children.

Actually I find myself inspired and filled with pride on each trip to DC. I don't see how anyone can walk through any wing of the Smithsonian or the National Archives and not be moved. 

It is hard to define a perfect trip to Washington DC, so I'll just describe the places I find special. 

• A City of Memorials
The City was laid out initially by Pierre l'Enfant. He is the one to blame for all those diagonal streets. If you despise them, take heart he was fired and never paid for his work. He is, however, also the one to thank for a city whose very fabric is designed so well for memorials.

To me the most emotional acre of DC real estate is the Vietnam Memorial. Three decades after its construction, Maya Lin's controversial tribute to our fallen soldiers is recognized as a modern masterpiece. Yet, when initially selected, her plan was widely criticized by veterans groups and politicians alike. No one really anticipated how strong its interactive nature and ability to strike raw nerves would really be. Anyone that walks from one end to the other will walk among family members rubbing the name of a loved one and witness the daily offerings of toys and momentos left to commemorate lives surrendered too soon.

Nearby is the Lincoln Memorial. The site where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his world changing "I have a dream" speech. The very act of climbing its steep steps makes us realize that perfecting democracy is hard work. While at the top, and while under Mr. Lincoln's gaze, take the time to read the text of the gettysburg address. The pure elegance of this speech (which Lincoln felt was "not very good") is soul stirring.

Also in the vicinity are the new memorials devoted to the Korean War and FDR. The Korean War memorial is stunning, especially after a fresh snow, when it looks like there truly are cold and weary soldiers moving among us. FDR's memorial is probably one of the best of all. It has the power to teach and takes us through a series of carefully crafted outdoor rooms.  These vignettes describe American life during the great depression and our greatest world conflict. The memorial is carefully linked together by a flowing stream that culminates in a larger than life sculpture of FDR himself in his draped wheelchair with his loyal dog Fala at his feet.

Like America itself our capital is always a work in progress. As you proceed down The Mall take a careful look at the Washington Monument and notice the difference in stone where the monument was stopped when funds to build it ran out.  When restarted a quarter century later, the stone to finish it had to come from a different quarry. It initially looked the same and then after weathering changed to a slightly different color.

Don't miss the classically inspired new World War Two memorial and the Jefferson Memorial at the nearby Tidal Basin. If you are lucky enough to visit during the spring this is where the cherry blossoms will be found.

Across the Potomac above the Pentagon is the striking and sparkling new "Missing Man" Air Force memorial.

Tucked in the trees the Marine Core Iwo Jima war memorial is sacred land to any Marine. Every Tuesday in summer this is the site of the "Sunset Parade" a nightly performance of the Marine Band and Silent Drill. This is the official band of the President. It was once led by John Philip Sousa and has performed since August 21, 1880. On other days in summer check the performance schedule (other nights of the week the band performs at the historic Marine Barracks). The Marine Band and the amazing "Silent Drill" are witness to the pursuit of perfection.

While many other memorials abound, the only other ones I'll mention here are the Albert Einstein Sculpture at the National Academy of Sciences (across Constitution Avenue from The Mall) and the National Police Officers Memorial located just outside the National Building Museum at Judiciary Square. It too is simple, yet soul stirring. 

In Washington we are constantly reminded how many hero's have leaned into their fears in service to the rest of us.

• The Museums
Our national museum's in DC are peerless. I remember on my first trip to Washington I planned to spend "a whole day" at the Smithsonian. Of course I entered the History Museum in the morning and had to be shooshed out at closing time. It had so many things Id never thought I'd see. From its buzzing display of roadside southwest neon signs to the first ladies gowns (the day I was there was actually the day Betty Ford delivered her gown). This museum is truly wonderful and recently reopened after a two year refurbishment!

Years later my family experienced the same thing at the Natural History wing. They joined up with their Uncle Jerry and all went in and wound up staying till it closed. Of course Air and Space is the favorite of most people. But I actually find it kind of tired.

My simple point is that the Smithsonian takes days.

Another special place for me is the National Building Museum. This grand building was constructed as the HQ for the National Pension Fund and took five years to build (completing in 1887) and features one of the largest spaces in Washington DC and (because of its cavernous interior) plays a role in every presidential innaugeration.

The most intense museum in DC is the Holocaust Museum. It delivers raw emotional power. Carefully designed so that kids (or short people) cannot see the most horrible images, the rest of us come out tearful, drained, and changed. A must see.

The most fun museum is probably The Spy Museum. I have lots of friends raving about that one, although I have not personally had the chance to go there yet.

• Pure History
The White House Tour is probably the number one ticket in the District. With a little preplanning, you can frequently request VIP tickets from your local elected official. SImilarly this is available for the Capital.

The FBI offers tours of its headquarters, but alas the world famous crime lab is no longer on the tour as it is now located in its new digs at the campus of the FBI National Academy in Quantico. I know all that as the new lab was one of my firm's projects!

The National Cathedral is amazing.  Look to see if you can find the bust of Darth Vader (I'm not making this up), that was the last icon chiseled into the cathedral.   

Fords Theater, site of Lincoln's assassination is an amazing place. Opened in 1861 it suffered a fire and was rebuilt and re-opened in 1863. When John Wilkes Booth murdered President Lincoln the public demanded that the (then only two year old) theater be closed.  It remained closed almost 100 years. In 1968 it was reopened for plays and as a museum. So, aside for about 4 years, the theater has actually served its original purpose for only the past four decades. It is now once again undergoing restoration and will reopen in the winter of 2009. After reopening I'd sure put this one on my list to see. 

While the idea of visiting a graveyard while on vacation may be foriegn to some, Arlington Cemetary is the exception. Right in the middle of the cemetary is the Custis Lee Mansion. Originally built by George Washington's adopted grandson George Washington Parke Custis. After his death, his daughter Mary Anna then lived in the house with her husband Robert E. Lee. When the Civil war erupted Mary Anna left the house. Union troops were then garrisoned on the site and Brigadier Montgomery C. Meigs, frustrated and distressed, decided to render the house and its property uninhabitable should the Lee's ever return. So he decided to "plant the fruit of war in Ms. Lee's rose garden".

The Capital is a must stop in DC. Tours are continuous and if the legislature is in session you can peek into the viewing galleries. Look at the wonderful state sculptures and go check out the famous whispering spot. 

Washington's home at Mount Vernon is a wonderful day trip from DC.

• For Kids
The National Zoo is free, fun, and has panda's!

• Food
With lobbyists seemingly everywhere it makes sense that excellent restaurants abound seemingly everywhere in DC.  My favorite is the Old Ebbitt Grille.  Steps away from the White House, they serve the best crabcakes in DC period.  

• Hotels
The Mayflower Park and The Willard are traditional favorites. There are also lots of hotels near National Airport in the hideous "blade runner" hotel/office ghetto called Crystal City. To me this cold disorienting place is truly the scariest place in the DC region. 

I very much like the new Hilton in Alexandria and it is right on the Metro.
• Getting Around
Park the car somewhere else and ride Metro. It is safe, clean, and efficient. It serves all of DC except (strangely) Georgetown. The only place you will need a cab is the National Cathedral. The only place you will need a car is Mount Vernon.

You can fly into any of three airports, National, Dulles, or Baltimore. I personally love the convenience of National Airport with its in terminal Metro stop.  Dulles is the least convenient, but is home to the most international connections.  Baltimore is actually a long way from DC but has a direct Amtrak and commuter train connection to DC's gorgeous Union Station where you can then catch the Metro. I usually avoid Baltimore when I plan to rent a car as their new consolidated car rental facility seems like it is 5 miles from the airport.

Come see where democracy gets re-tooled every day. Visit DC. Come jaded, leave proud.

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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