A Quick Visit to Washington, D.C.


The final day of my trip was devoted entirely to Washington, D.C.  I planned to meet a couple of friends for lunch and dinner, and in between, fit in some sightseeing.

There is enough to see and do in Washington to fill an entire guidebook. My very brief exploration of the city probably won’t provide you with much guidance, but I’ve shared the rest of my trip with you, so why shouldn’t I share this part too?

I had about an hour to explore before lunch, so I headed to the National Mall.  As you most likely know, the Mall is a long, grassy clearing that stretches through the middle of Washington.  On one end is the capitol, the White House is off to the side, and on the other end is the Lincoln Memorial.  Various museums and government buildings line up along the sides, and the Washington Monument is in the center of it all.

The Washington Monument is one of those landmarks (sorta like the St. Louis Arch or the Golden Gate Bridge) that you’ve seen in pictures and you think you appreciate, until you see it in person.  It’s such a simple structure, and yet so magnificent.

The ring of flags around its base adds to the Washington Monument’s bold appearance.

You can take an elevator ride to the top of the monument, but you must arrive early to reserve a ticket.  By the time I arrived (before lunch), all the day’s tickets had already been taken.  That was okay, since I didn’t plan on making a return trip anyhow.

The World War II memorial is one of the newest additions to Washington’s long list of memorials.  The oval-shaped pool separates the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of battle.

President Clinton authorized the building of the World War II Memorial in 1993.  Construction began in 2001, and work was complete in 2004. The World War II Memorial was built almost entirely with private funding (contributors pledged $197 million, the federal government provided just $16 million.) 

My quick walk on the Mall used up all the time I had before lunch.  So, I hoofed it back to the Smithsonian Metro station.

You’ll need to get acquainted with the Metro system during your visit.  Washington, D.C. has one of the best subway systems in the world.  It’s relatively clean and safe, and extremely handy.

After lunch, I wandered back towards the mall.  This time I headed through the National Sculpture Garden (which is sandwiched in between the National Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery of Art, along the north side of the Mall).  If you know what this sculpture is, then you probably didn’t learn to type on a keyboard.

The east building of the National Gallery of Art has a few interesting examples of modern art, including some of Andy Warhol’s soup cans…

… and, um, this.  Sorry, I didn’t catch the artist’s name.  I’m art ignorant.  But hey, it makes for a nice desktop background.

The west building is much larger, and I spent much more time there.  You could easily spend several hours (if you’re art ignorant like me) or several days (for the more cultured among us) wandering around inside.

A rainstorm kept me inside the National Gallery of Art building for an extra half hour or so.  Eventually I decided to get wet, and head over to the National Archives for a peek at the Constitution.  I had walked by earlier, and seen the line stretching out to the street.  Now, I hoped, the rain had chased off the crowds, and I wouldn’t have to wait long.

The National Archives building is very, very large, which makes it tough to imagine why they would require visitors to stand in line outside in the heat, or in my case, the rain.  When I arrived at the National Archives building, the line was half the length it had been earlier in the day.  A sign at the street said to expect a half-hour wait, but the line didn’t come close to reaching that sign when I got there, so I assumed I would only wait for, perhaps, ten minutes or so.

I was terribly, terribly wrong.  The line simply didn’t move.  The only time I stepped forward, is when someone in front of me gave up and left.  The rain went from a drizzle to a downpour.  The Archives staff had, perhaps, a dozen umbrellas to distribute to the crowd.  A dozen umbrellas don’t go far, when a hundred people are waiting.  No one came out to apologize, or tell the crowd how much longer it might be.  As I stood there, I thought, “the government is handling this situation so well, I can’t wait to see what they do with health care!”

The doors finally opened about 45 minutes after my arrival.  I have no idea how much longer the people in front of me had waited. Once inside, I went to the rest room and used about a hundred hand towels to dry off.  Then I checked out an expansive exhibit, which absolutely no one else was visiting.  Why on earth couldn’t they have boxed up this pointless exhibit, put some chairs in here, and let the crowd wait for the next available tour?

Of course, there is only one reason 99% of visitors come to the National Archives.  They want to see the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence.  All of these precious founding documents are stored under the building’s rotunda.  The room is dimly lit with a strange yellowish glow, to protect the ancient papers.  There is another line here, and once again you must wait — but thankfully, this line is dry and comfortably air conditioned.

The security guard provides a lecture on appropriate behavior, beyond the giant gate.  It boils down to this: no flash photography.  The flash can damage the documents, so if you flash, your camera will be confiscated.

You can wander around and check out all the exhibits that surround the room, but most people go directly to the most famous documents.

Almost everyone, it seems, tries to take a flashless picture, but very few of them will turn out.  The room is dim, the documents are behind glass, and you just can’t get a good angle.  But go ahead and try.

Despite all the effort, the lines, and the pouring rain, it’s still a remarkable experience to lay your eyes on the pieces of paper that created our country and secured our freedoms.  It’s also reassuring to see so many other people are willing to have the patience to do the same thing.

After the Archives, I met my friend for dinner, then headed back to the hotel.  The flight back home left early the next morning.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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