Our time in New York was at an end, and what better way to bid farewell to the city than with a cab ride to PENN Station? We had watched the iconic yellow taxis whiz past from the moment we arrived at Madison Square Gardens four days earlier and couldn’t possibly depart without hailing one for ourselves. Or we could, as it happened, because before either Paul or I could object our bellboy had taken the liberty of doing it for us — a disservice we were then expected to pay for.
We arrived in plenty of time for our train to Washington DC, so settled down for breakfast in the station’s food hall and found ourselves already reminiscing about our stay. I watched the departure boards with wistful abandon; as much as I was dying to see the National Mall (the timely return of Chris Carter’s The X-Files duly reawakening my wanderlust) I couldn’t help but imagine myself on all the other trips I might have taken around America, many from this very station — to Atlanta or Boston or any of the countless other cities I even vaguely recognised from current affairs or popular culture.
I love train travel, and now able to afford to go by rail on a semi-regular basis I have enjoyed some incredible journeys around the world. You don’t really have to look past Scotland for examples though, with both the West Highland Line and the East Coast Main Line providing some of the most breathtaking views the country has to offer. With the train due to pass through no less than five states en route to Washington DC — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and District of Colombia — I was anticipating another railway (or railroad) to remember. A tweet from Amtrak promising a scenic ride did little to temper my expectations.
I was slightly dispirited, then, to discover quite how closed in the East Coast Corridor is. The tracks are so densely packed and the surrounding area so heavily industrialised that we saw very little of interest during the entire three-hour trip, neither of us being particularly excited by depots. We passed through Newark, Trenton, Aberdeen (not that one), Baltimore, Delaware and Metropark, but with the exception of some graffiti and a lake mostly obscured by trees there really wasn’t much to see. Poor Paul was desperate to see the Rocky steps, but without the time for a stopover in Philadelphia had to hope instead for a brief glimpse of them from the train. We watched Philly loom large in the distance, swapping seats so that Paul might have the best view possible, only for the train to disappear underground as we got into pole position. It was a good thing the WiFi was free so that we could look up pictures online.
Luckily, we had a sixth state to visit before we could set out and explore Washington DC in earnest. Our hotel was located over the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, and with no desire to drag our suitcases up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial we had to concede a short delay while we dropped them off at reception. It didn’t look far, but after the ease of travelling on the New York Subway we made the mistake of overestimating the Washington DC Metro. I’m sorry, but for a city to have such a convoluted and counter-intuitive transit system in this day and age is ridiculous; I have used machines in multiple languages across Europe, and yet here in the capital of the largest English-speaking country in the world I couldn’t make head nor tails of the instructions. It was like trying to purchase a train ticket from a microwave, so basic was the interface and tiny the display. And our prize for cracking the code; for deducing that a Metro card must be bought, the fare cross-referenced and manually entered (less a dollar, for some reason)? A twenty-minute wait for the next train. Twenty!
Considering that I’d spent the last half an hour impatiently mourning the minutes I could have spent on the National Mall, I surprised myself when, having arrived in Ballston and dropped our bags off at the hotel, I felt compelled to take a look around. After so much time in transit I think I was just relieved to have reached a destination, any destination, though I had to admit that I found Ballston intriguing in its own right. It felt like Main Street at Warner Bros. Movie World, only newer and slightly less lived-in. Paul speculated that the town was probably only a few years old and I had to agree that it certainly looked that way. For a moment I thought that I might have created it myself, as a psychological retreat from the frustrations of the Washington Metro, a theory supported by the way it mirrored my own image of small-town America. The broad avenues, the chain restaurants, the pastel-coloured panel houses with a porch, a flag and basketball court out back — I couldn’t have imagined it better myself. We walked past Starbucks, Macy’s, Starbucks, 7-Eleven and Starbucks, arriving at Ballston Metro Station just in time for another obscene wait for the next Orange Line to the Smithsonian.
By this point we only had an afternoon in Washington DC, so there wasn’t a moment to lose as we made our way up to the Washington Monument. I tried not to let the morning’s disappointments get to me but I couldn’t help but note that the sky was overcast, much of the National Mall was cordoned off and the dome of the Capitol building was under heavy scaffolding. Of course, it’s preposterous to expect entire cities to bow to your will and put on a special show just for you, and I knew better than anyone that it was possible to enjoy a place regardless having been to Rome when the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps were having work done. It’s the price you pay for travelling off-season and during election year, but it’s also an opportunity to acknowledge the amount of preservation and preparation that goes into keeping these places picture perfect. It also motivates you to come back and see it when it’s all finished. But I still wanted to see as much as I could now, on this visit. As ungracious as it sounds.
We crossed 14th Street between two food trucks and made our way up to the Washington Monument. I had to backtrack almost to the road, nearly joining the queue at a burger van as I tried to fit the obelisk into the frame for a photograph. We didn’t have time to go in, as much as I’d like to have overseen the Mall from the observation deck, but we used what time we did have to take it in from below. I left Paul to spectate what can only be described as a game of kick-baseball taking place on the lawn while I pressed on to the next attraction. The World War II Memorial might not be the most famous feature of the National Mall but it’s undoubtedly the most effective. With 56 stone pillars representing the United States and territories arranged into two semi-circles around a shared fountain, each with a large triumphal arch at its centre differentiating the Pacific seaboard from the Atlantic, it’s an immersive and impressive sight that gives you a real sense of the scale and scope of America. From Alabama to Alaska, Hawaii to American Samoa. I couldn’t help but check off those we’d seen: Six down, fifty to go!
The Lincoln Memorial was, for me, one of the main reasons I had wanted to visit America. If, as I suggested at the outset of this blog series, American media had influenced me growing up, it didn’t just leave me with a head full of television references and movie quotes, but had a lasting impression on everything from my understanding of history to my moral compass. I had watched everyone from Lisa Simpson to Ben Stiller’s character in Night at the Museum 2 come to this memorial to seek an audience with Lincoln and ask his advice on a range of issues; I had seen Abraham Lincoln battle vampires and fight alongside Superman and Gandalf aboard a rocket-powered LEGO throne; and I had seen Cesar replace him in this very hall at the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, a sure sign that all was not right with the world. Now, I’m no politico or patriot, at home in Britain let alone here in America, but as I climbed the steps at the far end of the Reflecting Pool I couldn’t help but note that this felt as much like a pilgrimage as it did a photo-opportunity. I was here to meet a hero.
As important as history was in motivating me to visit America, it was a contemporary figure who inspired me to make the journey now — a train of thought that lead me to the White House. Like most Europeans, I think Barrack Obama is pretty awesome. He seems as passionate and patriotic as any president, but he’s also as pragmatic and progressive as those who have stood the test of time — as seen immortalised here; as though he’s building on the work of Washington and Lincoln in the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way. Perhaps his distinguishing feature, however, is his self-deprecating charm — his easy manner that suggest every smile or wave hasn’t been focus-grouped. After eight long years of George W Bush’s senseless, evangelical, unrelenting nationalism it’s refreshing to have someone in charge who asks questions of his country and seek answers elsewhere. Obama’s interview with the BBC in which he airs his frustrations regarding US gun culture may be one of the most open and honest I have ever seen a politician give, let alone a president. The thought that the American people might vote Donald Trump in as his successor is quite simply astonishing. Surely Trump didn’t belong here — if, indeed, he belonged anywhere at all? Washington DC was too dignified, discerning and, well, democratic.
A rumbling stomach saved me from my moment of despair, and with no time to go in search of authentic Washingtonian cuisine we decided to settle for something quick, something easy, something Starbucks. I know, right? What a tourist. I did try to compensate by ordering something new, foregoing my usual hazelnut latte and banana and walnut muffin for a filter coffee and chipotle panini. I’d always found filter coffee far too bitter but had developed a real taste for it in New York, while signs for chipotle had stalked us all the way to Washington DC. I must have been pronouncing it wrong, however, as I had to fall back on the international language of travel and point at it repeatedly until it found its way onto my plate. I’m still not entirely sure what chipotle is or where it comes from, but it tastes OK — or at least the Starbucks equivalent does. We made use of the restrooms and WiFi, and hit the streets once more.
We took Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, past the Old Post Office Pavilion, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Canadian Embassy. Each building seemed grander and more illustrious than the last, until we arrived at Peace Circle and got our first good look at the United States Capitol building. Even with its dome obscured by scaffolding it was an impressive sight — undoubtedly on a par with the finest government buildings the world over. For me, London’s Houses of Parliament, Berlin’s Reichstag and Canberra’s Parliament House are the ones to beat, though when your own parliament is as ugly as Holyrood everyone else’s seems incredible (or even just credible) by comparison. I’d have loved to see inside, or simply to scout out the visitor’s centre, but we were running out of sunlight and I wanted to take in a couple of museums before we called it a day at the Jefferson Memorial. The sky had finally cleared and by virtue of its position near the tidal basin I thought it would be a fine place to watch the sun set.
Because we’d visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York we opted instead to visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for something a little different. First, however, we visited the National Museum of the American Indian — not that it would have been possible to do a comprehensive study of America in six days but I still felt conscious of the fact that we’d all but ignored Native American culture. Not that there’s much room for a reserve in Manhattan. Disappointingly, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of museum inside, as the first, second and third floors seemed to be reserved for a cafe, a gift shop and a children’s play area respectively, and we’d spent so much time queuing to get through security that we didn’t have time to go any further. It was a similar story at the Smithsonian, where a member of staff had accidentally kicked the plug for the X-ray machine out of the wall, but at least we got to see the Spirit of St. Louis and a few other points of interest. Annoyingly, as in New York, this museum also seemed to be preparing for an after hours function, limiting our access to the exhibits.
Thinking it to be little more than a small reservoir Paul and I had originally intended to finish the day with a lap of the tidal pool which would have taken us back into the centre of town just in time for dinner. When we reached the Jefferson Memorial, however, we quickly realised that we had underestimated its size considerably. With nowhere else to go we were free to take as much time as we wanted to admire the memorial, and with Paul declaring it his favourite on the National Mall he was in no hurry to leave. I had to admit, he wasn’t exaggerating; Jefferson may not enjoy Lincoln’s popularity (or prominence) but he still knew how to command an audience. I read and reread the words inscribed inside: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man…all men are created equal…no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief”. This was the America I had come to see; the land of the free and the home of the brave. America as it was, as it is, and hopefully as it’ll stay.
And that was that for my American adventure. We crossed the bridge to Arlington National Cemetery where, after another twenty minute wait, we took the Metro back to Ballston. We checked in, reclaimed our bags and went on up to the room. In peace. By ourselves. Without any fuss. I was so impressed with the service that I nearly left a tip.