The day dawned grey and wet; I was gradually and grudgingly awakened to the sound of ceaseless rain, thrumming rhythmically on the hotel window. I looked outside, bleary eyed and lethargic, with a quickly sinking heart. Any other time and I would crawl back into bed, lose myself in a sea of pillows, pull the covers up and read a good book… but I knew that wasn’t an option today. The ski season was over, and what would prove to be a defining period in my life had drawn to a close. Now I was over four thousand kilometres away, sharing a hotel room with my parents in Washington DC. And we had but one day to soak it in. Pun, unfortunately, quite intended.
So, doggedly, we rose in staggered formation to make use of the single cramped bathroom, dressed appropriately, hit up a nearby McDonalds for its world famous sustenance and jumped on the metro. I guess if I was to pinpoint the single moment in time when I would realise that everything in Washington is old, grand and opulent, it was upon walking into our first metro station. And by the gods, was this thing striking, albeit in a kind of concrete, oppressive way. It was over 30 years old, making it something of a baby compared to its surroundings, but I was still mightily impressed. Though I guess that’s not too hard considering I come from a continent where 30 year old history is practically heritage listed…
The train ride was surprisingly pain free, and in a short time we arrived at Smithsonian Station, which – unless my eyes deceived me – appeared absolutely identical to the station we departed from in every way. I certainly applaud consistency in design, but there’s a lot to be said for individual character as well, and the look of vague bewilderment in our faces upon arrival was laughable. In any case, we ascended via a wide and majestic staircase, crowded with questionable individuals hocking cheap and nasty umbrellas.
Now, allow me for one moment to channel my inner geek. You see, upon our arrival on the vast paddock of National Mall, I realised I found certain things familiar – the imposing, flanking museums on either side, the silhouette of Capital Hill staring proudly across the wide expanse of green at the Washington Monument, the vague outline of the Lincoln Memorial in the hazy and foggy distance. How could this be? I had never visited, and indeed had next to no knowledge of this area. I walked around in circles for a moment, recalling furiously, before it hit me; Fallout 3 – a bloody video game for crying out loud. I was having real-life flashbacks of a computer game. And how I feared for my future as a newly-single man at that moment.
After a quick conference, we decided to walk down one side of the Mall, loop around at the Lincoln Memorial and then up the other side, making a slight detour for the White House. We stopped at a few other interesting structures along the way, including the Washington Monument, impressively surrounded by a ring of American flags. At 169 metres, it is both the tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk in the world. Slightly further on we came across the World War 2 memorial, which was sadly closed to visitors due to a nearby function taking place, Secret Service operatives strutting around importantly.
I was finding myself quite excited to see the Reflecting Pool, which I remembered from the Vietnam protest scene in Forrest Gump, and I so desperately wanted to get a photo of the iconic view down the pool to Capitol Hill on the horizon. I’m sure then, you could imagine my disappointment when we arrived, only to find it had been drained and was basically a construction site – a muddy, machinery filled mess. To add insult to injury, I later found out it was an 18 month restoration project that had literally started only the week before we arrived.
Still, the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the ‘pool’ was certainly very stately, and provided a good excuse to get out of the incessant rain – a slight but relentless drizzle. Inside the Memorial we found ourselves being looked down on imperiously by a gargantuan statue of Abraham Lincoln, sitting straight backed and proud upon his throne of white marble. To either side the walls were dominated by inscriptions carved into the walls – the Gettysburg Address to one side, mirrored by Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address on the other. We came, we took photos, we read the addresses, and we left. After all, we still had one more important building to look at.
Ahh, the White House. . Let me just say that this was nothing like what I was expecting. I’ve seen plenty of movies, and they all do a mighty fine job of promoting the vast expanse of green grass and gardens surrounding the building, giving me the impression that the house itself was somewhat lost in a secluded botanical paradise. This is all well and good, but it meant that when we saw the actual White House, crammed in between buildings on either side, it was well and truly a ‘wtf’ moment. If I’m completely honest, if not for the small crowd of tourists milling around the observation area, we could have been in danger of walking straight past it. Still, it was awesome to see the building that got all smashed to pieces in Independence Day. And I did spy a large number of badass snipers patrolling the rooftop, which was all kinds of scary awesome.
So I guess you’ve probably noticed that the majority of my knowledge of Washington DC stems from movies and video games? Well, I certainly can’t argue with that. The sad fact is that I’m terribly ignorant when it comes to United States modern history, and nowhere did this manifest quite like Washington. Everywhere we walked we were shadowed by wide eyed tourists, pointing excitedly at various buildings and furiously shooting photography. It’s a pity then, that most of the time I had no idea of the significance of what I was looking at.
Don’t get me wrong; the buildings, monuments and museums were both stately and majestic. Every structure simply oozed history, and each one had its own story to tell. It’s just that…I didn’t know the story. I don’t understand why the Washington Monument stands surrounded by a ring of American flags, or why Lincoln’s second address is inscribed in his memorial instead of his first address. Now this certainly isn’t a slight against Washington. If anything, it’s a slight against myself; my modern history education that simply didn’t concern itself with North America, and admittedly, my own lack of interest.
This meant that the whole day, I was walking around thinking to myself, ‘I should be getting more out of this’. I would look at a building and say to myself, ‘This building is hugely significant in some way’, the problem being that I had no clue why. And there’s no doubt it impacted on my enjoyment of the place. I left the city thinking that Washington DC is full of cool buildings and monuments, instead of being thankful that I stood at the epicentre of such a rich and amazing history. And that’s the hard part – I know there’s so much more to Washington that I never had the historical grounding to grasp, and to me, an avid lover of history, that’s a hard pill to swallow.
Our day ended with a quick side trip into Arlington Cemetery, spur of the moment on account of the fact that there was a lull in the rain to be taken advantage of. And I’m glad we did, because I found it to be the highlight of the day, ironic because we were forced to hurry through due to the threatening weather and quickly-failing legs after six hours of walking. It seemed almost cruel that, after hours of head scratching in the capital, I finally found a place I could lose myself in and was only given a precious short amount of time to appreciate it. The unending sea of headstones was certainly a sobering sight, commemorating as they did every American soldier to fall in battle for their country.
In hindsight, I’m certainly prepared to give Washington DC another go, if only because I know I wasn’t perhaps in the best frame of mind to truly appreciate it. Coupled with my lack of general history, I was also struggling personally at that time. The ski season had ended, and in quite a terribly abrupt manner. One minute I was at the local on-mountain pub saying good-bye to the many friends I made over the season, and then I was in a hire car making the lonely drive to the airport.
A full day spent alone on various aeroplanes and airport layovers and I found myself in Washington, still running in Big White mode, compounded by no sleep for the last 36 hours. My night at the hotel was brilliant, but I still woke up the next morning about 25 hours down on sleep and absolutely emotionally drained. My mind was struggling to comprehend that the season was over and I would never get it back again. Every time I looked around, there was an afterimage of white snow and good friends.
So, don’t take my account of DC as gospel. Go there, see for yourself, and make up your own mind. But take my advice – if you have no knowledge of the significance of the capital, do yourself a favour and become aware. As I certainly will, should I ever find myself here again.