Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Capitol Fourth 2011

Ten years ago I took my kids to Washington D.C. for the 4th of July. America had lost its innocence the year before in the 9/11 attacks but my kids were still in the halcyon days of their pre-teen, cell phone-free childhood, so it was an exciting adventure for us all. In fact my memories of that trip are so fond that this year, much in need of a shot of patriotic adrenaline, I decided to catch the 4th in D.C. again on my way to Wilmington, Delaware, where I had some personal business to conduct.

Leaving Nashville on the 2nd I decided to take the long way up through the middle of Kentucky on I-65. I stopped in Elizabethtown for lunch and found Jerry's J-Boy restaurant just off the exit. It features oldies music decor and has life size statues of the Blues Brothers in the dining room. I had a philly steak sandwich with real thick french fries, a totally delicous culinary experience.

From there I headed up 65 until heading east on a state highway in search of an ethanol free gas station that I could not find as advertised in Taylorsville. It seems that Kentucky has few such gas stations, perhaps due to the importance of corn to the local agriculture. Undaunted I filled up with whiskey-grade gasoline and headed north until I hit I-64 east toward Lexington and on to West Virginia, a low traffic, beautiful ride through Daniel Boone National Forest and on to the mountains leading in to Charleston, West Virginia. Charleston has a gorgeous domed state capitol building nestled in the mountains by a winding river. It seems like it would be a fun place to spend a Saturday night, but all I can say is if you stop at the exit that has a Knight's Inn and Day's Inn, spend the extra few bucks to stay at the latter. (And by the way, it is no problem to find ethanol free gasoline in Virginia and Tennessee. I especially enjoyed the Patriot stations in Virginia on the trip back, all of which carry pure gas.)

The next day, the 3rd, I drove on into Maryland, again a very scenic and easy route until you get up around the D.C. area, where it gets a bit crowded. I made my way over to the town of Laurel, between D.C. and Baltimore, where I was delighted to find the Quality Inn where I had stayed ten years before, still clean, comfortable, and economical as before, and within a short walk of the train station where you can catch the train to D.C. or to the Metro Station. Here's a tip: leave your car and take the train and/or metro to visit D.C. The train doesn't run on the 4th but it just takes a few minutes to drive to the Greenbelt Metro station where there is plenty of free parking and the fare for an all-day Metro pass was just $9.00. You can take the train all the way in to Union Station in D.C. on weekdays.

By the way, I stumbled onto the best seafood restaurant I've ever encountered right behind the hotel: Bottom of the Bay Seafood. Go hungry. Prepare to encounter a crowd. Don't bother to dress up. It's just long tables covered with kraft paper and garnished with rolls of paper towels where big eaters sit shoulder to shoulder devouring piles of crabs. Personally I did not want to get messy from the crab cracking frenzy and ordered the seafood feast. I could barely walk when I left and could not clean my plate.

Once you get to D.C. virtually everything is free. There is too much to do! I got there early, before the crowds, and walked the mall. Later in the day it would be hot and crowded with people attending the Folk Life Festival, but in the morning it was still comfortable and good for just meandering. When the kids and I went we saw Condoleeza Rice, but I didn't see anyone famous this time except Abe Lincoln, riding in a golf cart. I took in the fife and drum ceremony at the National Archives building, pictured at left, while eating a Kielbasa dog bought from a street vendor. Delicious!

Next I headed toward the Washington Monument and beyond it, the Lincoln Memorial. I found a couple of interesting factoids in the free map of the mall you can get at an information stand. The construction of the monument was slowed for a long time in the mid-nineteenth century because the anti-foreign Know-Nothing party seized it in 1854 to protest the contribution of a memorial stone by Pope Pius IX! Also, it is a little off center because of sandy soil in just the right spot.

They are reconstructing the reflection pool between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, so you have to take a long walk around it for now, but that takes you to the bridge to Arlington if you stay to the left side of the construction zone. It is sobering to stand at JFK's grave, below which I made this photo, but somehow I was even more touched by seeing Mary Todd and Robert Lincoln's graves, along with numerous Supreme Court Justices and of course, the thousands of soldiers.

I can't go into everything I saw and felt that day, but I can tell you this: You would have to be a complete idiot, an utter dolt, an unfeeling blob, to experience D.C. like this on the 4th of July and not be deeply affected by it. My daughter reminded me that when we went in 2001, she wept when the fireworks went off, and she is no drama queen. It is that kind of place and that kind of day. The Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the new WWII Memorial - each could provide a day or more of reflection by themselves.

Alas, by the time I got through Arlington, I was sweaty and tired. My back and feet and even my hips hurt from all the walking and I was jealously eyeing the folks who had rented bicycles, but glad I didn't have to fool with them every time I wanted to dart in some place. I made my way back across the bridge over to Constitution Avenue for the parade. There were marching bands and floats like this one celebrating the freedom that Vietnamese have found in the U.S., the Budweiser horses and the Wells Fargo coach and even the Hershey's Kiss mobile.

After that I had to have air conditioning. I worked for a while on a report for my work blog in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History until the crowds drove me back out into the suffocating heat and I had to again seek A/C, this time in the pavilion restaurant at the Hirshorn Sculpture Garden back near the National Archives. The sculpture garden is a must-see. My favorite is the stainless steel tree. Finally after that, I made my way to the Capitol. See those people sitting on the steps? That was my ultimate destination.

From those steps I took this picture later that night. That's Little Richard on the big screen, bringing on the fireworks over the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument in between. I sat with thousands of others at the Capitol Lawn for hours waiting for the A Capitol Fourth concert which was broadcast on PBS. Steve Martin, Josh Groban, and Kelli O'Hara also performed, all of them great, but Steve Martin's fiddle player absolutely brought the crowd to its feet with his rendition of "Orange Blossom Special."

From the Capitol all the way down and past the Lincoln Memorial there were hundreds of thousands of us cheering on the good ol' U.S.A. There was every color of skin and every imaginable language and accent spoken all around me all day. It is hard if not impossible not to be proud of our country in the midst of such an experience. If you have never been to Washington D.C. on the 4th of July, I implore you... do it!