Thursday, April 8, 2010

American Icons: A DC Trip Blog

For you, a day-by-day account... I've spent several hours on this, so I hope that it earns me a comment or two!! :o) Enjoy!

Thursday: Reunited and it Feels SO GOOD!

Time seemed to tick-tock super slowly on Thursday as both faculty and students at CHS looked forward to a long-awaited spring break. The kids had an extra event -- prom was taking place that evening and all the juniors and seniors attending were parading around with their hair-dos and manicured nails (well, the girls were). It was a rule that any student attending prom had to be in school the entire day, which was really as much of a punishment for us teachers as it was for them. But we managed to get through the day without any bloodshed or tears.

And then the fun began.

I stuck around after school ended to help the rest of the staff set-up the atrium for prom. It was cheaper to hold prom here than to find somewhere else to do it. And instead of having it in the gym (which is what they'd done in past) the committee thought it would be nicer to have prom in the atrium -- which makes sense... I mean why would you want to have it in the gym when you had such a nice space just a few feet away?

We tried our best to be helpful as we set up. Many of the teachers were returning later in the evening to chaperone. All those who were junior advisors were expected to stay, and everyone else had the option of lending their services or not. I thought about going, but when I found out how late it ended (12 AM), I knew I wouldn't be able to do that and still get to Raleigh in the middle of the night.

I left the school around 3:30 PM, got home and finished packing for DC. I'd decided to take only what I could fit into a backpack -- but I still managed to fill it full! I grabbed a snack and hit the road around 4:30 PM. I had originally intended to head straight to Raleigh, but I ended up having to make a 1 hour side trip to Hope Mills (near Fayetteville) to pick up packages at the UPS depot. It made the trip longer, but I didn't much care... I was too excited!

As I headed towards Raleigh, I was thankful that I was travelling into the city instead of out. The traffic headed east on I-40 at 6:30 was crawling!! I zoomed past them and arrived at "our hotel" at 7:00 PM -- right on time! As I was checking into the hotel, the airport shuttle pulled up and Mom got out. It was fantastic timing as I think we were both worried that the other would be left waiting.

We dropped our stuff off in the hotel room and walked across the street to Wendy's for something to eat. It was so great being together again -- I'm not sure which one of us talked more (probably me)! Back at the hotel we watched a little TV and then fell asleep. The alarm was set for 6:00 AM the next morning.

Friday -- The Train Trip that Wouldn't END!

We woke, dressed and ate early to make it with plenty of time to catch our train. Our cab driver was very friendly -- she had a lot to say and even offered to let us sit in her car while we waited for the train. I'm sure it was just so she could have some company while she waited for her next fare, but we wanted to check out the station before the train came.

Not much of a station to be had. Just a small waiting area inside. I knew that because we were departing from a satellite station in Cary and not the main station in Raleigh. Still, it was a gorgeous morning to wait... And of course we were still excited after not seeing each other for a few months. The train was supposed to come at 8:15 AM, but by 8:40 AM it still wasn't there. It came a few minutes later, and we left about a half-hour late. Oh well. We'd still make it there nearly on time, right?

Wrong. The first part of the trip was uneventful. The only drawback was that our seats didn't have much of a window for viewing out of. We talked, read, tried to nap a little. Easy travelling, you would have thought.

Just outside of Alexandria, VA, the train slowed, then stopped, then sat... for several minutes much to our frustration. An announcement came over the PA, but it was too quiet for us to hear. The conductor came through our car to tell us that the signal on the track was glowing red for some reason, and the engineer couldn't advance the train until it turned green again. A few minutes later, we were told that there was some sort of disturbance in Alexandria, and that the police were not allowing the trains to run through the town. Still later, we learned that a man had barricaded himself inside his apartment with guns. Some passengers were calling others on the cellphones trying to find out more information. There wasn't much else to do but wait.... so we waited. And waited.

And waited.

About 2 hours after we first stopped, we saw a train pass us going in the other direction. Hurray! Still, it was about a half-hour longer (maybe more) before we got moving ourselves. And still the train was slow, because perhaps there was another train ahead of us. Once we got through Alexandria we knew that DC was only a few minutes away. It felt like ages for us to get there! We finally arrived at Union Station at about 6:30 PM -- only 3.5 hours later than we'd originally planned!

We caught our first few glimpses of DC when we stepped outside of Union Station to catch a cab to our hotel, which was in Maryland. After a ride from a navigation-ally challenged cabby (he had to call for directions!) we were dropped off at our hotel for the next four nights.

Right across the street from a bus stop, a Walmart and a Safeway, the hotel was decent enough for the easy price. It was undergoing renovations, but the interruptions weren't so bad. Sure, our toilet never did flush without sounding like we were drowning a small dog, and we didn't have a remote control for our TV the first night, but it was safe and comfy anyway. We stopped at Walmart to pick up some rations and then back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Saturday: Clang Clang Clang Went the Trolley!

I'd booked us tickets for the Old Town Trolley Tour in DC, and the first trolley left at 9:00 AM, so we didn't want to waste time. On the map, it didn't appear that our hotel was too far from DC's main attractions, but when we factored in the bus trip with connection to metrorail, it took us about an hour to get from one place to the other. Oh well, we definitely got to see the good of the district along with its not so pretty parts.

It was cool and overcast on Saturday morning, so I was glad I'd taken something warm to wear. Mom was in capris and a short-sleeved shirt, and I wondered many times if she was cold. Luckily the sun came out later in the morning and we had great weather from then on out. We boarded our first trolley and headed to our first tour stop -- the Lincoln Memorial. We didn't get very near the monument though, because we didn't want to miss our connection to the buss that would take us to Arlington National Cemetery.

The amount of visitors in the DC area this weekend was expected to be the highest of the year. Many people were taking advantage of spring break, Easter weekend, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival to make the capital their destination. I don't know what it's like on a regular weekend, but on this Saturday it was mass entrance. Very chaotic.

Arlington National Cemetery was very much what I expected, and very much what I hadn't expected. I don't know if anyone can describe the scope of land that this memorial covers. It was amazing, haunting and serene at the same time. We found the Kennedy plots, and toured Arlington House (Robert E. Lee's house), and stopped at the tomb of the unknown soldier. The grounds are beautiful.

On our way back from Arlington, we passed by the south lawn of the White House. Our tour guide was courteous enough to slow down as we did, so we could use our zoom lenses to get a good shot on our cameras. He told us to ignore the horns that would honk around us. No more than a minute later, as we waited in traffic, he pointed out the parade of cars that was going through the intersection not 100 yards ahead of us. He told us to look for the ambulance and then count to vehicles ahead of it. Yup -- PRESIDENT OBAMA himself was in the Suburban that passed right in front of us. Very cool.

As we made our way back into DC, we decided that it was a good time to take a break for lunch. Luckily the next place where we connected with the trolley offered several selections. We choose to eat at a local establishment rather than at a chain restaurant -- a small diner near Ford's Theater (where Lincoln was shot). Good food and good service! We peeked inside a Welcome Center/souvenir shop and caught the trolley that would take us up to Georgetown.

We saw the National Cathedral and several typical Georgetown streets, including some cute but pricey real-estate! Took a drive down Embassy Row, and was impressed by our guide who was able to rattle off all 30-some-odd countries in less than 90 seconds! Whether he was correct on any of them, who could say?

We got off the trolley at the north end of the Ellipse, which is the park that separates traffic from the north lawn of the White House. As we walked towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we saw all the people that were pressed up against the wrought iron fence getting their prime photo-ops. Of course, the street in front of the house is closed to traffic (and has been since the Oklahoma City bombing), but we could get as close to the building as anyone could by foot. There were several protesters fixed on the sidewalk, with their different messages (mostly about the war) I took a few pictures of the most famous residence (non-monarch) in the world right before the camera died. We walked up the street and into a gift shop that had replicas of the presidential desk and the presidential press podium for you to perch yourself behind. Walked back up to the Welcome Center near the diner and caught our last trolley of the day to take us back to Union Station. We had originally planned to eat dinner at a nicer DC restaurant, but opted instead to head back into Maryland and see what the little Italian place next door to our hotel had to offer. It was a long and tiring day, but we knew that another two more were right around the corner so we wanted to make sure we conserved what energy remained!

Sunday: W is for Walk.

The Easter Bunny found me, even in Maryland, and left me a bag of Lindor chocolates on my hotel bed that morning. We ate breakfast and then made the trip into DC around 8:30 AM. This being a holiday, we expected it to be quiet as we emerged from Union Station. What a treat it was to walk towards the Capitol on a gorgeous morning. The trees and flowers were in full bloom, and the squirrels came out of hiding to do some early foraging -- we must have counted a dozen as we walked! Stopped and took some pictures, and got another family to take a couple of the two of us. Made our way from the east side of the Capitol to the west side, and got a great picture of the National Mall on Easter Sunday (before all the crowds arrived). Our first destination that morning was the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.

This building was on my "must see" list for the St. Laurent exhibit inside. Back in 2005, the exhibit is part of one in which several native North American communities are profiled. Several of my former students (and some co-workers) have made their spot in history by being featured in photos and videos. When the exhibit first opened, a whole contingent from "Sunny St. Laurent" came down for its unveiling. A sketch of the building hangs on the wall in my old school, and I've finally gotten to see it in person. It was great (re) visiting a community that I considered a second home for four years.

Our next stop on museum row was the Air and Space Museum -- one of the most popular in the area. No kidding! While the American Indian museum was calm and content -- this one was more vibrant and energetic. Things hung from the ceiling, planes and rockets and everything else that flew. If it had to do with air... or space... it belonged here. Including the Wright Bros plane and, a replica of the Hubble Telescope, a lunar module and more! We didn't spend a whole lot of time in here, but probably could have if we were more in the mood.

Continuing onwards, we stopped inside the Smithsonian Castle (the original museum, now just an information and generic exhibit place). Great architecture and landscaping! We walked (and walked) up along Independence Avenue towards the Holocaust Museum.

One thing to say about all the attractions in DC. There are many of them, and even in three days you can only visit a few. But most are free to the public, which is fantastic. Granted, it means there are larger crowds and line-ups through security and for the restrooms, but it's so great to see families and school groups enjoying American history without having to worry about admission prices.

Now the cafeterias in these museums... not free. My $9.00 knish/apple/sweet tea lunch at the Holocaust museum was good, but was a little more than I expected to pay.

Entrance into the Holocaust museum was timed, so we got tickets for 3:30 PM. With time to kill, we decided to walk towards the Washington Monument at the end of the Mall, then to the WWII Memorial. The quietness from the morning had all but vanished as throngs of people from all over the world took advantage of the great weather, the long weekend and the CB festival. We were tempted to put our feet in the fountain at the WWII memorial, or go for a swim in the reflecting pool, but thought we might get arrested.

So instead we decided to walk towards the Lincoln Memorial and try to find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. So we walked. And walked. And walked.

We found the Veterans Wall, but we opted not to go any farther to visit Lincoln. It's unlikely our feet would carry us the 1/2 mile farther, and the hundreds of people swarming the steps were not very enticing. We're sure that Lincoln didn't miss us.

The Veterans Wall is impressive at best. It didn't appear that the names were in any order, but there was a directory that you could look up to let you know which number wall your loved one's name was on.

Back at the Holocaust Museum, we enjoyed a rest on a padded bench while we waited for our entrance time. At 3:30 PM we started our self-guided tour -- and promptly spent the next 1.5 hours in one of the most haunting exhibits I've ever visited. Wow. There are no other words to describe... You know what I mean. If you ever find yourself in DC... Visit.

The long, arduous task that faced us at the end of the tour was the walk from the most western edge of the Mall to Union Station. If we'd been smarter, we might have taken a bus. But hunger, heat and exhaustion were playing with our heads... I can't say how far it was exactly, but I swear I shed a few tears of joy when we reached the end of Louisiana Avenue!! We ate dinner at the food court in Union Station and then decided that we deserved some Ben & Jerry's for all the miles we clocked that day. Well, if the ice cream was worth missing the last bus that should have taken us back to our hotel, then I suppose we made out okay. Instead we had a few moments of frustrated panic at the metrorail station before we found someone who would help us get back to our "home"... for a price, of course (private driver for a grocery store). We were blessed and thankful for the rescue, because otherwise we would have been stranded in not such a nice area!

Monday: When in DC...

We'd decided that today was the day we'd finish up the last of our intended museum visits. Upon closer inspection of our map, we discovered a closer metrorail station that would take us closer to where we wanted to be and give our feet a bit of a break. I wish that I could say that the metro system in DC was easy to use. It really isn't. Mom's got her own stories to tell, but in my opinion they really aren't much of a convenience to visitors. Still, it was faster than taking the bus, and cheaper than taxi, so we tried to use it like the locals do!

We walked up towards the White House again with a freshly charged camera in tow. Monday was the day that the Easter Egg Roll was taking place, and we knew it would be a popular destination, even for those of us without kids. At the White House Visitors Center, we learned that a lottery had been established for tickets to the Easter Egg Roll, and over 3 million entries had been submitted in a short amount of time. Of those, approx. 15,000 lucky families got the invite -- WOW! The roll started at 8:30 AM and went all day... It was cute seeing kids walking up the streets dressed in their Sunday best with their Easter baskets in tow.

Because of the roll, we couldn't get close enough to the WH to take any good pictures. People lined the block. So we walked around for a bit and then headed back towards the National Mall. We wanted to knock off two museums this day.

We started with the Museum of American History, where we saw everything from Dorothy's ruby slippers to the original Kermit the Frog, Archie and Edith Bunker's chairs, and Carol Burnett's Scarlett O'Hara costume. We learned about the history of the birth control pill and the creation of the first American flag. We spent some time in an exhibit dedicated to the First Ladies and their stylish inaugural dresses. We even saw the set that Julia Child used on many of her shows.

We ate lunch outside the museum, and slipped our feet into the pool that surrounded the fountain in front. Who cares if we were allowed or not. It was worth the misdemeanor.

After the rest, we made our way next door to the Museum of Natural History. Mom wanted to see the Hope Diamond and other gems, and I thought I tagged along for the trip. However, after entering the building and seeing (again) the drones of people that swarmed the place, a wall went up that signaled I'd reached my limit for crowds, kids and other tourists. I couldn't enjoy myself among everyone else, so I found an empty spot over the atrium and perched myself while Mom snapped photos of sparkly things. We toured the Earth and Space exhibits and visited the gift shops (less people) before leaving the museum.

A mutual decision to return back to the hotel was made, so that we could pick up a few things for dinner and the train ride home the next day. We made it an early evening, and napped on an off while watching television before finally falling asleep. It was a long, fulfilling few days for us!

Tuesday: Never Thought I'd be So Happy to Call it Home

Our train left a little later on Tuesday than on Monday, but we were still up pretty early to get ready and packed for the trip back to Cary. We'd picked up some provisions for lunch on the train and made sure we had everything that we'd strewn about over the last three days. We wanted to hang about Union Station, pick up a few souvenirs and take a few pictures before heading to the track.

The ride home was uneventful -- which was a blessing -- and we got home early enough to still drive home in the daylight. Stopped off at Walmart for groceries for the next morning and finally entered familiar territory and the comfortable confines of my apartment in Clinton.

It was a very much anticipated and enjoyed trip. Tiring, sure. Eye-opening, yes! But something to knock off the "to-do" list while I'm down here! I highly recommend a trip to DC for anyone who is interested in American history and culture. It's exactly like it looks in the movies, but much more.

I hope you enjoyed the trip blog. Mind the spelling mistakes and grammar errors. After three hours (minus a dinner break) I don't really care!


Blair said...

Glad you two had a good time. I am expecting a lot more pictures though. Are you able to burn them on a disc for her to bring back? Did you get a picture of Obama in the Suburban?

Steph said...

wow girl, i got tired just reading this. you guys backed so much into three days! but i can tell you had a wonderful time!

as it old you, i really want to get down there soon. the last time i was was 8th grade. that's quite some time ago, i don't really recall much about it. this'll get me there :D