By Frank Hosek
Cherry Blossom Time at Washington’s National Mall
Situated on the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, The Jefferson Memorial which was dedicated 80 years ago this past April, houses a 19’ tall bronze of Thomas Jefferson that dominates the white marble interior.
The circular, open-air memorial based on the Pantheon in Rome is 165 feet in diameter, with an exterior made of marble. Under the dome, four quotations from Jefferson can be found carved on the walls inside.
The one that continues to resonate and the one we seem to struggle the most with begins:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”
Contrary to popular belief, and your personal politics aside, the District of Columbia is not a swamp, nor was it built on a swamp. Instead, it is a gently rolling landscape that slopes steadily towards the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers which frame it. After all, it is called Capitol Hill.
Cherry Blossom Trees
Seeking out a more cheerful expression of spring we headed east to Washington DC with its thousands of stunning cherry trees.
The remarkable cherry blossoms around Washington’s Tidal Basin are nature’s fiery announcement that spring is here. The famous trees, a gift of Japan in 1912, signal the beginning of the season with a burst of color that surrounds the Tidal Basin in a sea of pale pink and white blossoms.
So, on a path girdling the basin, covered in a gentle layer of petals like the first snowfall of the season, we strolled towards the Jefferson Memorial and embraced an unseasonably warm day in our nation’s Capital. It was a good beginning to our first trip to DC.
The day had not started out quite as promising. Arising before sun-rise, by 7:30 we had joined the queue for the release of walk-up tickets to enter the Washington Monument. Online tickets had been sold out for weeks.
While in line, we met Teri, a nurse from Michigan, and her son Matt. They are hosting a Korean exchange student and wanted to share the country’s history with him. They could think of no better place than the Capitol city.
By 8:45 ticket window opened the line had exceeded a hundred strong. We had inched to within 5 feet when a sold-out sign was placed in the window. With groans, we wished each other better luck next time and went our separate ways.
America’s Front yard
Thus, we found ourselves on the 2-mile trail around the 107-acre Tidal Basin, part of the National Mall.
The trail also passes by the towering granite Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, inspired by his line, “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
There is also the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial which, In honor of FDR’s four terms, is divided into four outdoor displays that include one of his most memorable quotes “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Two men who spoke of seeking better lives for the downtrodden.
There are blister-free options for seeing DC, but Washington is a city best seen on foot. And the National Mall, without a doubt, is the most walked stretch of the city.
The Mall is the very soul of Washington, D.C. It is an amazing strip of emerald landscape in the heart of the city that stretches over 2-miles from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. Filled with monuments, memorials, and museums it is a swath of land honoring the legacy and history of the United States and is often referred to as “America’s front yard.”
It is where the values of our nation and those who have championed them are enshrined. And the west end of the National Mall is full of some of the most iconic monuments and memorials that many have only seen in books or on the back of their money.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s somberness is palpable. Finished in 1982, it does not have a grand façade, it does not have a palatial vaulted ceiling, nor is it a soaring tower. Instead, its sloping black marble walls are recessed into the ground.
The intersecting walls list more than 58,000 names of those who died. While we were standing there, one woman used paper and pencil to etch a name, while another placed a small bouquet of flowers. Further along, an older gentleman gave a brief salute.
It is a memorial that may have helped to heal, but it has not erased the scar.
Korean War Memorial
Directly east, past the reflection pool, stands The Korean War Memorial. Nineteen larger-than-life soldiers clad in ponchos on perpetual patrol slogged across a “rice paddy”.
Their weary wary expressions permanently etched in bronze gazed upon us as though they wondered if we were friends or foes. It is devastatingly effective.
At the eastern end of the reflection pool is the World War II Memorial. 56 granite pillars encircle the Rainbow pool which is enhanced by matching fountains.
Entering the circle, we walked along walls which pictured scenes of the war. Our serene stroll around the 7-acre memorial seemed completely at odds with such a shattering conflict.
The Washington Monument
The Washington Monument dominates the skyline of the District of Columbia. Wherever you are in the city, you can fix your bearings by looking skyward for that venerable stone needle.
It had taken us two days of trying, a few hours of standing in line and some anxious moments, but we were now ensconced 500’ above the green lawn below atop the world’s tallest stone obelisk.
We had returned even earlier the following morning from our disappointing try the day before. We were rewarded with tickets for the first entry of the day. The views were truly amazing.
Construction began in 1848 as a privately funded enterprise. However, it came to a halt due to a lack of funds. When work restarted in 1877 it was with marble from a different source. When you are up close, you can see a clear line where the color of the stone changes partway up.
The monument opened in 1885. An original steam-driven elevator, which took about 10 minutes to reach the top of the monument, was replaced in 1901 with an electric elevator.
From the viewing platform, you can see the White House, The Capitol Building and virtually all of the most recognized memorials and sites.
Known as “the nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institute tells the story of our country. Repository for all of the United States’ important historical artifacts, the sheer volume of that responsibility has forced it to expand to 21 museums, art galleries and the National Zoo, all open and free to the public.
If you have lots of time, I’m talking weeks in fact, the Smithsonian museums offer a window into the nation’s history, culture and what it took to pursue its “experiment” with democracy. Eleven of the museums are located on the National Mall
We, unfortunately, did not have weeks or even days, so we settled on one.
One of the most celebrated Smithsonian Museums is the Museum of Natural History, which is literally packed to the roof with exhibits on natural sciences.
It was obvious that the Museum is a favorite with kids from an exact replica of a North Atlantic right whale diving from the ceiling to the massive African elephant in the main hall but especially the dinosaur gallery with its Triceratops and a 14-foot-tall T-rex. I confess the dinosaurs were a favorite of mine also.
Our visit coincided with Spring-break for a greater part of the country which was obvious by the throngs of students that had descended upon Washington.
Under normal circumstances, the youthful crowds could have deterred us from some of the sites or even diminished our enjoyment. However watching them embrace the treasures, discover the history and learn of the individuals who helped to shape the nation they live in was gratifying.
Their enthusiasm, brought on not by some over-stimulating theme park but by the riches of our country added to my own gusto for the experience.
National Symbols of the Republic
The national symbols of our republic, the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House, nearly book-end the mall. They are both enduringly familiar at a distance, but up close they are incredible visages.
We had been unable to procure tours of either site. However, both have wonderful visitor centers that are a must-visit.
The underground Capitol’s visitor center is especially intriguing. In the center’s exhibition hall, visitors can touch an 11-foot model of the Capitol’s dome. The facility’s skylights offer striking views of the 215-year-old building above.
Historical documents, relics and interactive displays provide a timeline of the Capitol’s major events.
Among the artifacts are a letter from George Washington to the Continental Congress reporting the defeat of the British at Yorktown and Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech.
Standing on the western side of the U.S. Capitol, the General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial honors the commanding general of the Union Army — who later became the country’s 18th president.
With the Capitol behind him, the imposing figure of Grant mounted on his horse faces the Lincoln Memorial almost two miles to the west, as though the two men who helped save the Union are sharing a silent acknowledgement.
Don’t leave DC without checking this
A visit to Washington D.C. has to include, what I believe, the most revered of the memorials.
When we climbed up the four scores and seven steps towards the marbled chamber that holds the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, each footfall increased the tangible anticipation that enveloped us.
Standing before the 19’ tall, century-old sculpture, conflicting feelings of both pride and sadness finally retreated into a wonderment.
Although the 5-story Greek-styled temple was inundated with visitors, a reverent hush pervaded the hall. Even though you feel small compared to its massive proportions, Lincoln exudes an almost intimate feeling.
The great protector of the Union and the benefactor of the 13th Amendment, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14 1865, days after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Immortalized in marble, the 16th President sits beneath these words “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
I could not help but think that his stoic countenance contemplated the crowds with the protective gaze of a loving father.
Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy. He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people that make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines and travel websites.