Thursday, April 30, 2015

Washington DC, Part 2: Tourist Edition

After visiting our nation's capital (and Capitol) a few times as a student and an activist, I returned to Washington DC in the Summer of 2012. This time, DC was a destination on an epic road trip that brought Mrs. Tires and me to Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi.

The plan on the first day was to drive all the way from our home in Chicago to my Uncle Steve's apartment in DC. It would turn out to be a trying day on the road.

The night before we left, I drove to a gas station to fill up and put air in the tires. On the way, I heard an alarming squeal when I was breaking that I hadn't heard before. I drove around the city and tested the brakes for a while, and concluded that the sound was too prominent to ignore and would need to be fixed before we hit the road. It was too late to get to a mechanic, so I would have to go first thing the next morning.

Not a good way to start a road trip
Our Camry was the first car on the lift, so we got the brakes fixed fast and hit the road an hour and a half behind schedule. Not bad considering the circumstances. Should be smooth sailing from there, right? Ummm... Well...

As we cruised through Illinois, we started noticing an odd feeling of getting extra lift from the bottom of the car. At first we thought it was just because our car was loaded with supplies, but when the sensation was coupled with a dragging sound anytime we slowed down, we knew we had an issue on our hands. Sure enough, a large metal flap about the size of a skateboard was loose underneath our car. The piece was attached in the front and should have been attached in the back as well, but wasn't. The back of the piece was all scraped up and charred and looked like it had been dragging for quite a while.

We looked up a mechanic in the area and found one in a random Indiana town a couple of exits away. After paying a toll at a small tollbooth manned by a single operator, we navigated our way to the garage. As we drove, we listened for the dragging sound, but strangely we didn't hear anything. When we pulled into the garage parking lot, we took another look. The piece was gone!

We walked into the garage (my second such visit of the day) and described what was now missing. They determined we had lost our heat shield. This metal sheet sits between components on the bottom of the car and the ground. The components can run hot, which can potentially light a fire if we were parked on grass. They said we should be fine without this piece as long as we didn't plan on parking in a field, so we decided to proceed without it.

After tipping the mechanic for his time and petting the one-eyed cat that made its home in the garage, we headed back towards the highway feeling a sense of relief. But what of the piece? Where was it? We realized as we neared the highway that it must have fallen off when we paid the toll.

We approached the booth. I had to knock on the booth's window to get the operator's attention. He opened the window, surprised.

"Hi. Um. We drove through here before. Did a piece of our car fall off?"

His surprised turned to recognition, and without saying a word, he disappeared from the window for a few seconds, and then came back with the heat shield.

He handed the huge, scorched, filthy hunk of metal to us through the window.

"Glad you came back." He said. "I was wondering what the hell I should do with it."

The whole ordeal with this piece had caused a lot of drama, but we couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the moment as we drove away with a piece of our car on our dashboard.

We figured the worst was behind us as we got into Ohio just past noon and stopped for a picnic at a rest stop.

A right proper picnic, with mustard. 
We left the picnic feeling ready to tackle the rest of the journey. This was all despite the fact that we were entering menacing territory. I wrote previously about my misadventures in Ohio. Sadly, this state would do us in again.

Mrs. Tires took over behind the wheel, and was greeted with blue skies. They wouldn't last long.

As we drove, dark clouds started rolling in. It looked like we were in for a bit of a storm. 

Rain fell momentarily, then quickly let up, and a rainbow appeared. Perhaps we were spared? 

Apparently not. Shortly after the rainbow appeared, the skies opened up and the road was violently pelted with rain. It was matched with strong winds, and went from zero to full strength in a matter of a minute. The wipers could barely keep up. It was difficult to see. Eventually the car began to hydroplane. The photo below only gives a sampling of the strength of this downpour and really doesn't do it justice.

Mrs. Tires fought through the storm for a while, but eventually it became too much and we had to pull over to the side of the road. Several other cars joined us on the shoulder as we waited for the storm to pass. We snacked and listened to This American Life while we waited. The windows got quite foggy, so we'd get surprised when an occasional mac truck drove by and splashed us with over-pours of water.

Eventually the storm passed and we got back on the road. We were no worse for wear, other than being another hour off our time. Our eleven hour drive was really stretching out.

From there we had an uneventful drive (a welcome change), and we got into Washington DC late, tired and road-weary. Steve, our host for the next three days, greeted us joyfully despite the 1:00 AM arrival.

Our mission on our first full day in DC was simple: see as much of the capital as possible. I knew from my previous visits to DC that if we started at the the Capitol building and headed west, we wouldn't be able to walk a block without seeing a famous piece of our nation's history. We had been warned that seeing everything around there in one day was impossible, and of course this was true, but we were determined to hit the sights and hit them quickly so we would see as much as we could. We were going for breadth, not depth, and we were determined to have some fun along the way.

Things were pretty quiet at the Capitol early in the morning.

Some resident wackos were having their say outside the building. 

As if his argument wasn't weak enough without the egregious signage errors.  
This statue appears out of nowhere. Wacko. 
Once inside the Capitol building, we were assigned a tour number and were set free to roam around the lobby until our number was called. The lobby was full of statues of American figures from throughout our country's storied history. Each state provides a statue to represent it, and several other statues have been added throughout time. Here are some of our favorites.

Jack Swigert from Colorado
King Kamehameha of Hawaii shows us the way to the restaurant
Helen Keller from Alabama
When it was time for our tour to commence, we were ushered into a theater, where we watched a movie about the Capitol, Washington DC, our government, and indeed, America. (Start 'em with a movie. Very American.) In actuality, the movie was quite good, and it got us excited about the huge dose of patriotism we were about to receive throughout the day. From there, we were ushered into the rotunda, where we walked around and witnessed the multitude of symbols crammed into this area. Statues, paintings and murals were everywhere.

Tanning booth this way
We had hoped to see the chambers of congress, and were caught off guard when we learned that the Senate's chamber was under construction, and to gain access to the House of Representatives, we'd have to get a pass from one of our state's reps. We got directions to the closest Illinois rep's office, and we left the Capitol building. When we did, we found ourselves in front of the Library of Congress. We were quite interested in seeing the Declaration of Independence, so we ventured in.

As it turns out, the Declaration of Independence is not in the Library of Congress! Most of the building is a huge sprawling network of books stacked floor to ceiling. You know. A library. The Declaration of Independence is actually in the National Archives Building. We added that to our list of sites still to hit, and hightailed it out of there, looking to cover more ground in the city instead of cozying up with a good book.

We continued on our quest to gain access to the House of Representatives, and made our way to the office of Congressman Robert Dold of the great state of Illinois. We actually don't live in Rep. Dold's district, but his office was still able to give us a golden ticket to the House, plus a small American flag, just because.

We re-took the Capitol and were granted entrance to the House or Representatives. It was not in session, so there was not much going on. It's a lot smaller than I had imagined. We tried to envision all of congress in there for the State of the Union address, but it seemed like it'd be pretty cramped.

Exiting the Capitol building for the second time dropped us out on the other side, right near the Supreme Court. We decided to take quick peek. Worth it! The inside was classic and not crowded. A statue of Justice John Marshall greeted us when we entered.

We couldn't get into the actual Supreme Court chambers without special permission, but we got a peek.

This spiral staircase is another popular attraction in the Supreme Court building.

Next it was off to the National Archives to check out the Declaration of Independence for real. It was getting hot and the building was a bit of a hike, so we opted to take a cab there.

TRAVEL TIP: If you are going to tour the sites around the capital, rent a bike. It's a bike friendly area, and the sites are just far enough apart that walking to each one takes a lot of extra time and energy. We wished we had thought of renting a bike earlier.

The National Archives Building turned out to be a real treat, as it housed not only the Declaration of Independence, but also the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. It was a very popular attraction, and therefore it was pretty crowded, but the guards kept the line moving and were also quite entertaining. We got really close to the documents, and there was a real energy to them. It was thrilling to be in their presence.

On the way out, we grabbed a souvenir that would become a theme of the trip.

The National Archives Building is very close to the White House, so we headed there next. Again we had not arranged any special visits or anything (what are we, dignitaries?) so we admired the building from afar and pulled out the aforementioned souvenir for the first time.

All the patriotism had made us quite hungry, so we headed over to the Old Ebbitt Grill. This place is both famous in general (it's Washington DC's oldest restaurant) and famous for its oysters, so it provided the perfect break.

I knew from my previous visits that the White House was within marching distance of the Lincoln Memorial and the other monuments that sit on the west side of the strip. We made our way over there, only this time it was more strolling than marching.

As we approached the area, we confirmed what we had suspected from afar. The reflecting pool that stretches from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial was under construction and had therefore been drained. Mrs. Tires was none too pleased with this development.

Fortunately, the Lincoln Memorial was looking as majestic and polished as ever, and its stately vibrancy more than made up for the drained pool.

We also paid visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and the Korean War Veterans Memorial (a favorite of mine from my previous visits).

It was around there that Mrs. Tires started expressing her political side.

All goofing around aside, I am still taken by all of these places. They act as a reminder that real people gave their lives in many bad situations in order for us to hold on to our country's ideals and maintain a relatively awesome standard of life.

We walked from there to the Washington Monument, and along the way, we encountered a new memorial that I hadn't had the pleasure of seeing before. The World War II Memorial opened in 2004. It's a beautiful monument that is as respectful and dignified as it is welcoming and intriguing.

Its rounded shape and its collection of many parts that come together as a whole provide a sense of the entire country pitching in for the war effort. Some of this comes from the tall pillars that make up the perimeter. Each state is represented by a pillar so that veterans from all of these states can be recognized on a more local level. We paid homage to our home states.

Live Free...

...or Die! 

All kidding aside, we did take some time there to think about the many soldiers that fought in this war, including grandparents on both sides of our families.

With that, we concluded our tour of the capital and its surroundings. We got a thrilling taste of the area and were happy with the sheer number of historic sites that we had seen in one All-American day.

After a chill night with Steve catching up and talking about plans for the next day, we hit the air mattress and were out right away.

The next day we had some more exploring in mind, but this time we would be getting into a less-touristy part of the city. In situations like this, we like to find a neighborhood that has things like restaurants, coffee shops, novelty stores, bookstores and/or bars, then wander over there and see what we find. We chose Dupont Circle, which worked out well because we also had dinner reservations there that night. We took the train in and headed right towards the center of the neighborhood. Dupont Circle does indeed feature a circle, as several streets converge at one point. That point features a circular park with benches along the edge and a huge fountain in the center. We sat down on the benches to get our bearings and write some postcards, but we did not stay long, as there was a strong homeless presence there that made things rather odiferous and uncomfortable.

We decided to wander on to one of the more populated streets in the area and stumbled upon a cool and cozy restaurant and bar called Scion. Mrs. Tires described the varied menu perfectly in this tweet.

The food there was fantastic, and the waitress was very friendly. We asked her for advice on what to do in the neighborhood. Clearly we weren't the first tourists to ask her this, and she helped narrow down our options by asking us what we like to do on the weekends (other than watch TV). We answered nature, oddities and bars. This produced some wonderful recommendations, which we followed for the rest of the day.

The first suggestion was a visit to the river that runs through the city. We were only a couple of blocks away from a set of stairs that would would bring us to the river's edge.

The area around the river was quite green, its hidden location made it a real departure from the city life above, and it was noticeably cooler by the water. However, the water was also brown and disgusting, and there was plenty of evidence that shady activity happened there frequently. We snapped some photos but didn't stay long.

The second recommendation from the waitress was a real hit. She sent us to the Bier Baron Tavern. This dive bar is home to a huge menu of beers, stools made out of old casks, vintage decor, and a back room pool table. We chatted with the bartender, sampled some local beer, and got a close look at the bar's museum of beer cans before making our way to the billiards table. 

Mrs. Tires consistently kicks my ass when we play pool, and because of this, I will never let her live down what transpired on the table that day. She scratched on the break (an automatic loss in the nonsensical rules of billiards), but, being the gracious husband I am, I gave her a do-over. After a tight game, she managed to pull ahead, only to scratch on the eight ball and lose again. Two wins for me in one game! I'll take it.

The third destination the waitress recommended was a novelty location called The Mansion on O Street. This place is a hotel that is known for its over-the-top decor and its secret passages throughout the building. We stopped by and tried to get on a tour, but they were booked up by the time we got there. That's one for the Next Time list.

By now it was close to dinner time, so we wandered on to Obelisk, where we had a reservation we made months in advance. Obelisk is a very fancy restaurant that serves five-course meals that change daily. We met Steve there and sat down, not knowing quite what to expect. It certainly was a different experience. There were four waitresses, and they each served every table, meaning no table had a specific waitress assigned to them. The menu that day included a few different options, so we opted to try a variety, though we passed on the pigeon they were serving for one of the main courses. I am not joking here.

One of the courses involved a cheese plate. The cheese ranged from divine to putrid. One of the cheeses tasted like were were eating the stench of a homeless person. We all tried it and had the same horrible reaction. With a huge hunk of it left, Steve dared me to eat the rest of it, offering $20 as incentive. Foolishly, I accepted.

Ingesting $20 worth of putrid cheese
The rest of the meal was a delicious taste-fest adventure. They put things in front of us we had never before had the pleasure of eating, and probably never will again. However, the taste of that homeless person cheese is what will stay with me forever.

Steve's fiancee Lisa flew into town that night, and she joined us the next day when we went to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It was my second visit, and I still couldn't help but stare up at the planes suspended from the ceiling as if I was a school boy looking up at the sky as they flew overhead.

Equally cool were some of the artifacts from the early flights of the Wright Brothers.

The Air and Space Museum also houses several artifacts from early missions into space. These were incredibly cool. While it was clear that the stuff under the hood was very advanced technology, I couldn't help but notice items on the exterior made these space crafts look like giant pieces of junk.

Passengers of yesteryear be like...
Passengers of today be like...
We perused the gift shop on the way out, got some freeze dried astronaut ice cream (classic) and ran into this unfortunate looking sweatshirt, which is supposed to be a storm trooper but looks more like the garb of a white supremacist.

After thoroughly exploring the museum, we hopped on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and headed to Oriole Park at Camden Yards for a Baltimore Orioles game. Check out the post on Maryland for that story.

The next morning was our last in the city. We were determined to swim in Steve's rooftop pool, so we went for a morning dip before we left, even though it was barely warm enough to do so.

After we dried off, showered and packed up, we said goodbye to Steve and Lisa and hit the road to Virginia.

Must See in Washington DC: 
  • US Capitol Building
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Korean War Veterans Memorial
  • National World War II Memorial
  • The National Archives
  • Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Check it out:
  • Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  • Washington Monument
  • The White House
  • Dupont Circle
  • Arlington National Cemetery

The "Next Time" List
  • The Mansion on O Street

For more on this Journey:

Washington DC, Part 1: Student and Activist Edition
Tennessee, Part 1: The Great Smoky Mountains
Tennessee, Part 2: Nashville and Memphis

Check out #raymanroadtrip2k12 on Twitter.

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