After months of planning, I was headed to Washington, D.C. Accompanied by my buddies Cody and TUBS, we would check out the city for a week before taking my roommate Kenn, back with us to Dubuque for the Fall semester.
With 15 hours of pavement and traffic jams to look forward to, spirits were high. We talked and joked around, listened to music, made fun of passersby, and searched for license plates of every state. We stopped in Michigan to turn in the cans that I had saved up all summer (in MI you get 10 cents a can). I got a good $40 or so out of it, which was definitely needed as Ohio’s Interstate cost $15 to go from one side of the state to the other. And so the drive went, the three of us switching off every 4 hours following the system that was outlined in our “Rules of the Road”: Driver-Bitch-Shot-Gun. (Bitch was the pleasant term for whoever sat in back and took care of food, drinks, and garbage). At around 2AM we called it quits, taking refuge in a Walmart parking lot just past Pittsburgh.
Stiff and sore, we were back on the road in the morning. A pit-stop in the village of Geiger was amusing, but the real joy of the day was the ride through the Appalachian Mountains. Though they pale in comparison to the Rockies out West, they’re beautiful in their own right.
By noon we reached Kenn’s house in Upper Marlboro. To no one’s surprise, he wasn’t even awake yet. Good ol’ Kenn!!! He introduced us to his mom, step-dad, sisters, and the 4 long-haired Jack Russell Terriers they owned.
Then it was time for our first journey into downtown DC.
There was a metro station in Largo, Maryland, less than 20 minutes from Kenn’s house. We parked the car here, paid for a metro pass, and rode the train to the Capitol South station. As we re-emerged onto street level, the sun shined bright on the Library of Congress. This building was wonderfully decorated with murals and famous quotes. The main hall was a scene straight out of the movie National Treasure… this would happen a lot over the course of the week! Just past this was the symbol of our country, the symbol of freedom: The United States Capitol Building! As we rounded it to the front side, we were given a clear view of the large grassy strip that is the National Mall.
The National Mall
The National Mall contains almost all the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, as well many other monuments and memorials. Our self-tour led us down one of two gravel paths that ran the entire length. As we approached the Washington Monument, we also got a glimpse of Obama’s home: The White House. We continued on a loop to the south that took us past the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the WWII Memorial, the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. Each memorial had its own unique style and message. The real joy of visiting these in person is reliving their history. Upon seeing the giant marble Lincoln forever resting in a pose of power on his chair, one cannot help but envision Martin Luther King Jr. giving his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech. We took our time examining each and every monument that we came across, not to mention covered a lot of ground in between. By the time we had gotten up to the White House, it was after 7 and we were starving. Our search for food led us to Chinatown where we ate some really good burritos at California Tortilla. What a great first day!
We woke up to a great breakfast of Scrapple- an East Coast version of sausage patties that comes in a loaf. Then we rode the metro again into downtown. I am a big fan of the DC Metro System! We spent the day visiting several museums along the mall including the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of Natural History. Both were incredible and had extensive exhibits; seriously, you could spend days in each alone! I especially loved the Greek/Roman marble statues- the full body warrior ones were my favorite. After they closed at 5, we got some grub at The Old Ebbit Grille. We ordered a range of food including New England Clam Chowder, burgers, and a Reuben. When Cody asked the waiter what was in the Walrus Burger, he retorted “Baby Seal of course!” After our excellent meal, we did some more wandering before taking a late night metro home. Kenn’s sisters and their friends thwarted our plans of getting some really good sleep.
The Road to a Philly Cheese steak
No Kenn today, but Cody, TUBS, and I were off to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. After finding a cheap outdoor parking spot, we filled up the backpack with snacks and drinks and set off to take Philly by storm. Our first hot spot was City Hall, a unique building in the center of the city. We strolled through an intricate entrance way that had several pillars, each depicting people of various ethnic groups figuratively holding up the structure. This was a nice homage to the city’s diverse population. I made the mistake of asking a friendly guy named Josh where the best cheese steak in the city was. A 10 minute phone call with his friend Chino provided an answer: Jim’s Steaks… something we kept in mind. We headed over to Independence Hall, the place where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and signed. We saw the Liberty Bell, but bypassed a free tour that would have allowed us an up close look (there was a huge line).
We also visited the Christ Church Burial Ground, the final resting place of Benjamin Franklin and 4 other Declaration signers, and the US Mint Building across the street. Elferth’s Alley was a nice detour and provided an insight into how the city used to look; cobblestone streets that were much narrower, side-by-side brick homes, and neat little courtyards. We continued East to the Delaware River and all the monuments and storefronts that lined its bank. Finally, it was time for the main show: A Philly Cheese steak at Jim’s!!!
All three of us went with the classic sandwich; steak with provolone cheese and a mix of onions and peppers all slathered onto an Amoroso roll. It was yummy! So yummy, me and TUBS very heavily debated getting another one. Re-energized, we walked to the other side of town to check out the Logan Circle and the National Ben Franklin Museum. Just down the street from here was the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the “Rocky steps”. When it was time to leave, we all agreed that Philly was a great city.
The next two days of our trip were spent further exploring the museums of the Smithsonian Institution. One of the highlights was the Air and Space Museum. This one is much talked about and it definitely lives up to the hype. The next place we went was Cody’s pick, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This was emotional, as one would expect. Some of the pictures and video clips were graphic and really hit home just how many people were slaughtered. The museum did a great job telling the whole story starting with Hitler’s rise to power. It also personalized it by assigning you a real-life name and giving you tidbits about their story along the way. At the end, everyone was anxious to find out if they survived. I sadly did not. Since the Smithsonian Castle turned out to be just a visitor’s center, we got some grub and checked out Union Station before heading home.
The next day, the three of us hit up the National Geographic Museum and “Embassy Row”. Embassy Row, officially Massachusetts Ave, is the area where many of the countries’ embassies are located. This was neat to see because they are located in old mansions. We got a free tour of one of the largest, the home of Larz Anderson and the headquarters for the Society of the Cincinnati. This place was incredible; every room was decked out to the max. We also made a long hike across the Potomac River to Arlington, Virginia where the National Cemetery is located. The thousands of white headstones served as a last reminder for all the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We caught the changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers before a downpour caused us to seek refuge in the metro. Dinner was at a sports bar named The Green Turtle- Chinatown came through again (3 for 3 so far)!
The National Zoo
Our final days included visiting the National Zoo. This is also run by the Smithsonian Institution and, as a result, is also free. It was a nice zoo, but I think we all had set higher standards for it because it was labeled as our nations finest. The lack of visible animals in exhibits was definitely a letdown, as were the over-hyped pandas who were laying face down on a slab of concrete (poor things). We also visited the National Archives Museum and the National Museum of American History. These contained all three original founding documents, as well as the original Washington Monument, which is a statue of George sitting in a chair in a toga!!!
The Washington Monument
For the cherry on the top of our trip, we toured Washington’s new monument. Unfortunately, the set of 896 stairs were off limits except for emergency (we thought it would be a challenge). This meant an elevator ride to the top, which provided some great views of the National Mall and the city. It was a great parting gesture with a city that we came to love as much as our country.
The next morning as we drove farther and farther away from our Capitol City, we all agreed that this is a pilgrimage every citizen of the United States needs to make. D.C. is the culmination of our historically diverse country. Through its museums, memorials, government offices, and residents, Washington DC tells the story of our great country- land of the free.