"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

D.C. Visit Part Three: A Chance Reunion and Lincoln's Vista

A Chance Reunion

A week before visiting Washington D.C., I received an e-mail from a dear college friend named Cassie. Though we correspond, we have not seen each other in about a decade. She now lives on the West Coast. In her e-mail, Cassie mentioned she'd been thinking of me because she was going on a business trip to Washington D.C. As it turned out, her and my trips coincided right down to the evening we both had free. It was a joy to hang out with her again after so long.

I had hoped to lead us on a patriotic stroll down to the Mall, but sheer distance, aggravated by me losing my bearings, caused us to run out of time. We resorted to taking a photo in front of some nondescript federal building that totally blocked our view of the Washington Monument. Annoying.

The National Mall at Night
The CRLT Players performed at the Society of Neuroscience on our second night in town. Following the gig, I split off from the group and headed on foot to the National Mall. My plan was simple: traverse the monument-rich west half of the Mall, ending my trip with a finale stroll past the Washington Monument. I began this 2-mile walk at around 9 pm. I figured that would give me enough time to see it all and catch one of the last subway trains out of downtown. (Note to hasty readers, the preceding sentence was an eerie foreshadow.)

At night, the National Mall shimmers with Greco-Roman mythos. New since my last visit is the World War II Memorial. Here are the two best images I could capture with my cellphone camera.

As seen below, something about the pillars adorned with wreaths struck me as perfectly appropriate. There is one for each state in the union.

By the time I reached the Lincoln Memorial I had already walked about five miles that day. By 10 pm, my face was a bit pink and my legs were quite sore. Thus it was with some dismay that I remembered this monument has steps.

Visiting at night I was struck by how, of all the monuments in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial most exemplifies the term shrine. After reading the Gettysburg Address, inscribed on a large section of the inner wall, I walked around the backside of the memorial to get a peek at the nearby John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In terms of quantity of memories, that building holds the most personal significance for me of any in D.C. I'll spare you the blurry cellphone shot and invite you to try out the virtual tour link above.

Coming back around to the front side, I nabbed the below shot of my next destination: The Washington Monument. It's about a mile away, and by this point it was well after 10 pm.

Before I left the Lincoln Memorial I sat on the front steps and took in the panorama. Above me, a badge-like collection of reddish clouds was drifting eastward toward the capitol. And the sky beyond was a deep blue dome accentuated by stars. My cell phone couldn't capture this. No bother. I'm an English Major! As I walked back along the famed Reflecting Pool, I started working on a poem in my head.

Of course, when you are brainstorming a poem, you walk slower. The clock ticked past 11 pm as I arrived at The Washington Monument. This towering obelisk is impressive day or night. Plus, there are no fences around it. With the Park Police doubtless rolling their eyes nearby, I walked right up to the base, leaned my chest and chin against the cold marble, and stared over 500 feet up to the blinking red lights near the pinnacle. Here is a better shot from further back.

The Tired, The Poor, The Huddled Masses
It was approaching 11:30 pm when I finally came within sight of the Smithsonian Metro Station. From a hundred feet away, I heard a subway train passing beneath the ground. I sat down on a park bench and breathed deep, wanting to drink the nostalgia and patriotic feelings in a while longer. On a neighboring bench, a homeless gentleman started bedding down for the night. It was at about this time that a potent sense of calm filled me. It was strange. All I can say is I felt very peaceful, as if I was in the right place. I felt no hurry to leave. I honestly think I could have sat there quietly till dawn without getting bored, just breathing and contemplating. Practicality prodded me to head back to the hotel. I walked quietly past the homeless man toward the subway escalator. The gate was down and locked.

It was now approaching midnight, and I was standing just over two miles from the hotel. My 35-year-old knees were aching, so I found another bench to sit on. I knew other stations were still open, the final trains snaking through downtown tunnels before making their end runs for the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. But I made the decision to hoof it. The obvious dangers of walking alone in D.C. late at night granted, half my route involved well-lit avenues crawling with federal security. Actually, considering my appearance--clutching a carry-on bag next to my untucked shirt in concert with a dazed expression--I initially worried more about appearing suspicious to security than I did about seeming vulnerable to potential muggers.

The final image Washington presented to me was one of homelessness. There were so many indigents, ciphers bedding down in corners and beneath building overhangs. At one point I approached a few garbage bags stacked neatly outside a storefront. But when I came within a couple of paces, I saw a face peering out from them. Passing through Farragut Square just before midnight, I watched a tall mendicant preaching a thundering sermon to no one in particular. It was disconcerting to watch, but not terrifying. Almost uniformly, the homeless disregarded me. Instead of making a conscience-soothing call for charitable giving, I'll simply acknowledge their dismissal of me for what it was at the time: a fair bit of turnabout.

Of course I made it back to my room fine, albeit hobbling past the hotel's bar still bustling with the liquored well-to-do. It took a couple of days for my legs to forgive me. But by the next weekend, I wished I had enough play money for a road trip back to Washington D.C. And as the sobering encounters with poverty mingled profoundly with the images of inspiring monuments and government edifices, I savored my reinvigorated love for our nation’s capital.
I'll close this three-part blog with the poem I started during my night walk on the National Mall. It's written in a form I have consciously blown off since elementary school. But in trying to capture that evening panorama, with its serendipitous color scheme, a haiku seems the perfect choice. I hope you enjoy it. I call the poem "Lincoln's Vista at Night."
Crest of garnet clouds,
Set in starry cobalt blue,
Capping marble's gleam.


  1. I'm glad you're an English major because it made the reading here thoroughly enjoyable.
    I really look forward to going one day.

  2. Washington D.C. truly is one of the world's great cities. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.