Monday, June 21, 2010

words about D.C. (now with bonus practical stuff!)

The post below generated some sparks and doesn't say much in the way of advice on what to do in DC in the summer so here's a little more practical stuff: It gets really hot and sticky by June so if you visit in the hot months you may want to skip taking a walk on the mall during the middle of the day. If you stick to the museums (all of which are worthwhile and way too much to see in one day) you'll have the benefit of air conditioning. The biggest hurdle is getting into town. If you have the money a cab may be the way to go. We were on a tight budget and were staying in Alexandria. The motel had a shuttle to the subway station but we were on our own from there. The subway is very affordable but the fare system is a corker. We found very little online advice about what to do, in particular the DC Metro's own website was murky at best, but if you take some time digging you can get some useful info there. At the time we were in DC (June 2010) we spent $8 each on a day pass for the subway. There are ticket vending machines outside the gates. Some will be broken some wont take cash... the usual hiccups. The day pass is only good after the official morning rush hour on weekdays. We were there on a Monday so we waited for the 9:30 hour. We had found lots of gripes online from locals who wished that weekday visitors would wait and use the subway after 9:30am too, so we obliged. If you are taking just one subway ride in and one back out for the day it is cheaper to figure out the rates and buy the regular fair tickets. For what we did it would have cost only $4.40 for the round trip. This allows you to board before 9:30am but it makes figuring the fare alot more complicated. The vending machines have a poster on each that lists all the destinations from your station and the rate, but beware if you miss the little green sticker that says the rates all went up by 10 cents. You have to add this yourself. The machine will print a paper ticket with a magnet strip on the back and a dollar amount. Feed this into the slot of on the turn style and it will pop back up and let you through. KEEP the ticket. The fair is not deducted until you do all this again when you get off the train. There are vending machines inside the exits where you can add $$ to the ticket if you put on too little to begin with. It's a huge help if you go after 9:30am and I recommend it if it's your first time. There will be fewer people waiting impatiently for you to figure it all out and the Metro staff will be less harried too. On our first trip at 9:00 the Metro worker actually stood at the vending machine to walk the tourists through the whole mess.

Nowthen... read on if you want to hear me gripe about some things and praise a few others. DC is swell particularly for the mass of museums. Give them a few days if you can and try to keep the kids interested.

By the way, the squirrels in the Mall are evil. Don't feed them. They'll climb right up on you and swipe your snack. Evil.

mrs. a-go-go posted some pictures of our visit to D.C. but I thought some anecdotes were in order:

The National Mall: Whole lot'a grass. It was a sweltering day when we went into the mall. I wish we had been able to get there early in the morning. Walking around was a bear in the heat, but we knew it was a work day and the rush hour crowd on the trains would be rough. We took the advice of a D.C. blog and tried to not add to the locals' troubles at rush hour. That meant we came up out of the subway at about 10:30. Way too hot already. The sight lines of the mall are still impressive even with the crazy hodgepodge of buildings that are the back drop to all the familiar white buildings. I noticed that the White house is always photographed from one particular angle because from any other vantage point all the wacky buildings behind it would make for an ugly picture.

I'm not a big fan of huge lawns either. They are swell for lots of things but there is no one having picnics on most of this grass and there are many large patches with "keep off" signs anyhow. Maybe it's time for the mall to set an example and start landscaping with something less thirsty for water and fertilizer. Big patches of yarrow... creeping thyme maybe?... the place was once a swamp (let's call it a wet land to be more appealing) perhaps someone could do their thesis research on what plants used to be there and make the whole mall into a restoration project... Nah, it'll never happen.

The Washington Monument: Still takes the cake for singular, austere, craziness. Quite appropriate I think... after all, Washington did accomplish one truly singular, crazy thing... At the end of the war for independence from Brittan Washington did something really weird (in the context of the way most revolutions in history have gone). The British military had alot on their hands at the time all over the world and had been at last worn down to surrender their hold on these particular colonies. (Mind you there were lots of them who figured they would be able to come back later and set things straight.) This left Washington and his generals with a choice, let the Continental Congress, ostensibly the governing body of the colonies that had been cobbled together to organize the revolution, do its thing and try to form a new country and government, OR keep the reins of power and go the way of so many other revolutions... directly to martial law and put up Washington as despot. Washington pulled out. What? He did what!? He actually handed power to the rabble of intellectuals with their big ideas. And here we are. Is it working? I don't know. I wish we could just get over ourselves and stop trying to tell everyone else how to do things. OK, rant over.

American History Museum: We didn't see everything here, way too much to see, but the interactive exhibits of inventions (aimed at kids) were swell. We visited Julia Child's kitchen, the pop up book gallery, and the robot cars. Fun, but here's my bit of history observation: Just off the lobby was a big marble sculpture of Washington as Roman god. Kinda crazy but it made me think more about all the effort that has gone into trying to make THE FOUNDING FATHERS special, and this is sort of a continuation of all my blathering about the Washington Monument. I think they were kinda special, and did do something historically unique, but I had to wonder while standing there looking at Washington enthroned wearing a modest drapery that covered his ghoulies yet reveled his Apollo like six pack and broad shoulders as he offers the sword of power to the people.... "does anyone in the room here with me see, understand, or even care about any of this symbolism?!" I used to work in a big art museum in Los Angeles and I often wondered at what was going through the minds of the people rushing through the galleries gawking. Is this like a scavenger hunt? Can I check "fine art" off my list for this year? and in D.C... can I check American History off my list for life? OK, rant number two over.

So from there, after soaking up some cool air, we braved the heat to make our way to the Lincoln Memorial. On the way we walked through the relatively new WWII memorial. Hmm... I always get all kinds of awkward feelings about war memorials, positive and negative. Too much there to try to write about here.

The Lincoln Memorial: Nifty in its way, a too overused symbol full of other symbols. Again, I was hit with the rush of wonder about how many of this mob of people taking pictures, see anything but the big white temple they have seen in movies and Lincoln in his chair. The place is loaded, over-loaded, with symbols, and blunt in its message... I couldn't read all the words etched into most of the surfaces. It was too hot and we were cranky in the humidity and human stink. For just a taste of what I had going through my head, "Does anyone see, recognise, or understand what the bundles of sticks around the ax is?" Lincoln's chair has this symbol on the front of each leg (and it's scattered around on other parts of the monument). It's the fascis from Latin meaning bundle or group. It's the root of the term Fascism. Before the second world war that term didn't have such a nasty reputation. It's on the Lincoln memorial for what I hope are obvious reasons, but does anyone think about this stuff? Does anyone else standing there have a rush of history lessons when they see the bundle of sticks? United we stand... the creation of the Italian and German states in the 1800s? and everything that followed? anyone? Metternich? Garibaldi? Mussolini? States Rights? I could go on but I won't.

Ak! this is rambling...

The National Gallery of Art: Several Days worth. Go see it if you have time. Art is super cool if you have a sense of humor, a good companion with you, and a bit of art history lodged in yer brain from school.

The Natural History Museum: The new human evolution exhibit is marvelous, but it won't get through to the folks who need to see it. Oh well. The exhibit on new forensic archaeology discoveries at the site of the Jamestown Colony is marvelous too. And the bug exhibit... too cool, but please don't tap on the glass of the observation bee hive. They really don't like it, kids. Here, let me flick you in the forehead and see if you like it. And, yes, they really are making honey, and no it isn't gross.**

Nuff said. It was an absolutely exhausting day but worth it.

**mrs. a-go-go had this very conversation with a trio of teens...hence the forehead flicking comment.


  1. I LOVE your idea about replanting the mall with indigenous plants-- now seems like a more likely time for it to happen than any other; maybe Michelle Obama can spearhead that one with the help of a team of xeriscape experts and landscape architects. Nothing says "wasteland" like a vast swath of neatly manicured lawn.

  2. The cattle-tourists were so fortunate to have you amongst them! Enlightened, all-seeing you who understands all that komplikated symbolism, and shakes your colossal head at its lame usage (and at the masses' woeful incomprehension of said lame usage)! It is indeed shameful how this "super cool art stuff" is wasted on the uneducated. And the irony of Neanderthal tourists trying to fathom a display on evolution! 'Tis to laugh, old chum! And kudos on sticking up for the insects on display! Those Apis mellifera are far more clever than the idiots tapping at their enclosure, wot? So kind of you to "not add to the locals' troubles" during rush hour. We must look out for the little man. Cattle cars, eh? All that "human stink"? Best to let the herd use the ass-transit, stride out in the hottest part of the day, and then grouse wittily, am I right? All kinds of awkward, indeed.

  3. Always good to hear from you, Anonymous.

  4. heeeheeeee!
    i LOVE how it's sometimes like y'all are on two different trips: Ernie finding beauty in a quasi-racist roadside restaurant/shopping emporium, and Bert being, ummmm, a tad-less-enthusiastic about D.C... (C'mon Jeff, smile, you know I love ya!) I'm thinking your rose-colored lenses may have been clouded by steam and sweat, and I am so sorry I didn't jump in there and throw some advice at you before you arrived... But here goes -- so sadly after the fact -- from the non-local gal who lived in Arlington for THREE record-high-heat summers...
    **Tips Before Venturing Out of the A.C. and into the D.C.**
    } Be One with the Moist. Breathe deeply. Imagine you are in the tropics. Imagine you are having your pores steamed open at a spa. Imagine how goood it is for your skin, all this lovely Moistness... Appreciate that your clothes just naturally un-wrinkle, as if they are being held under a dress-shop steamer...
    } ALWAYS start out during Rush Hour, or earlier (I had to take a bus, two metro lines, and another bus to and from work every day -- not as bad as it sounds, and at least I was only MOIST when I walked the last two blocks, not sopping).
    } DON'T wear a backpack (back sweat!) or a non-visor or non-straw hat (despite the Southern Belle image, hats just hold in more body hat). Or use an umbrella instead.
    } STROLL, and make many, many stops for COLD beverages.
    } Even better EMBRACE THE GO-CUP (booze in a plastic to-go cup) -- really! With enough julep/whatever in your system, you won't CARE about the heat!
    } Onlyonlyonly visit one or two sites a day in the summer -- everything is much farther apart when it's hot -- seriously -- scientific fact: the heat and humidity distort this plane of existance and STRETCH the distances!

    I don't think you guys got to the Botanical Gardens? I think it's on the Mall or nearby? When I was 12 or so -- first time I spent a summer there (during the Boy Scout Jubilee -- wacky to be a young GIRL in a Capital full of Eagle Scouts) -- they had a great bit about the history of the Mall, and how it used to be all industrial, and then all green-house-y, and then had a lot more plantings, and how it's been redesigned over and over since the 1800s by horticulturists. It's actually, weirdly, a National Park (cared for and cultivated by those folks). I don't think xeriscape plants are indiginous to the river basin, and they might not fare well during those long cold winters. Also, it seems that the modern world's primary use for the Mall is a mass gathering place for protests (very important -- democracy in action), inaugurations (eh), and concerts (less historically important, but still, it IS the People's Park)-- none of which is very planting-friendly. There was once talk of making it a big sand/decomposed-granite track again, but the dust would be baaaaaad, and I guess the District needs all the greenspace it can get.
    Oh and dang, but there is a semi-secret restaurant on the top of a posh old hotel that serves cheap salads and ice tea and gives you the best bird's eye view of the White House. I really should have pointed you there too...
    NEXT TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. The wife and I ended up here looking for advice from other recent travelers to DC.
    Wow. Maybe we'll give DC a pass.
    I guess you're entitled to your opinions, and it's not like you're trying to get a book deal, so whatevs.
    I'm signing this Anonymous too, so you can lump me with the faceless masses. OK rant over.

  6. don't NOT go to DC! not sure how this got read all wrong, it was hot yes, and we expected it but overall, we enjoyed DC, plan on returning even, sometimes the thoughts in our heads run amuck and it WAS very interesting seeing the masses out full of country pride and yet kinda missing a heck of a lot that was going on...

  7. Ander says: au contraire mon frere bee barf IS gross when you think about it, but not so gross that he won't eat it.

  8. Mr. a-go-go, have you ever thought about teaching? My history teachers have all made history so boring and never want to delve into other perspectives. "Your history book has thousands of dollars of research in it Domenico. It wasn't wriiten on a whim. Now pay attention." I think it's the nice way of telling me to shut up. Seriously, the classrooms today can use a man like you. You already have the cool name, and your missus could teach us art.



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