If my daughter is any indication, the eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C., is never just about learning American history and appreciating our institutions. Disembarking from the bus at the end of the trip, she announced that she and her bus partner/roommate were no longer on speaking terms. The highlight of the trip seemed to have been an incredibly varied food court in our nation’s capital. “Youth is wasted on the young” comes to mind.
But forget the kids for right now. After the last highly partisan four years, it’s the parents’ turn to go to Washington. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but one cure for the politically torn and weary populace is experiencing the city in the flesh. To heal as a nation, we’re in dire need of seeing the big picture of what America stands for rather than being laser-focused on our own personal visions of the USA.
For hordes of chilled activists in January of 2017, the Women’s March precipitated their first return to the city since adolescence. It seemed miraculous that the Metro could budge, given the thousands of bodies squashed up against the walls and windows of the cars. When the cars unpacked us near the National Mall, I was surprised to see such short buildings constructed on a decidedly human-friendly scale. Half-expecting people in togas to emerge from the formal porticos, I’d forgotten how blindingly white and neoclassical the architecture is. The presidential inauguration had barely concluded, and here we were – 470,000 people – peacefully protesting with very little visible law enforcement. The long vistas and grand, orderly layout of the Mall seemed perfect for hosting the vast demonstration as if America had intended from day one of its design to be a country that accommodates or even invites dissent.
Like a journey to Mecca, Tibet, or even Manhattan in December, one to Washington, D.C. is bound to elicit a little awe in even the most jaded soul. Maybe a pilgrimage could help cleanse the aura of cynicism that we seem to be trapped in as a nation. The year 2020 has been chock-full of upheaval of all sorts, and Americans could use a psychic recalibration. Let’s call it a massive sage smudging to dispel some of the bad vibes and negative energy of recent years. With the pandemic going strong, we’ll have to postpone a visit, but it should be near the top of the travel bucket list when things settle down.
After a week or more in Washington visiting iconic museums, monuments, and memorials, some of us might leave the capital feeling more appreciative of fellow Americans’ diversity, dedication, and sacrifice. The capital can be pricey, but there are 15 free museums on the National Mall. These are not minor museums like the Gallery of Potato Stamp Art or The National Unicycle Museum. Just a few of the museums that charge no admission fee are the National Air & Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The relatively new National Museums of the American Indian and African American History and Culture are also located on the Mall. Their exteriors are breathtaking, let alone the treasures inside.
When people decide on a vacation, beaches, seafood, and margaritas often come to mind as the ideal getaway. Flying from north to south, Washington is flyover country on the way to Hilton Head, Orlando, and the Caribbean. Flying from west to east, it’s a popular interchange on the way to Europe. Although it’s not a magnet for tourists searching for casinos, scantily clad waitresses, headliner shows, and concerts, there’s no chance of boredom setting in. You can’t invite 175 countries to establish embassies in Washington and provide them with Olive Gardens and Golden Corrals. The array of ethnic restaurants, as well as those offering American menus, is mind-boggling. Together with the special events and concerts presented by these embassies, the exotic cuisines endow D.C. with an international ambiance that requires no passport.
The trending opinion, reinforced by some news sources, is that Washington is populated by lobbyists, lawyers, and politicians representing their interests more than ours. “Draining the swamp” is now a famous metaphor. The overall impression is that it’s a political Disneyland with the seven deadly sins lurking around every corner. Quietly staffing the offices that help our country run as smoothly as it does (and patiently weathering periodic shutdowns) are countless devoted government and nonprofit organization employees. Maybe a week in Washington milling about with the people who work there and using the same public transportation would begin to dispel the notion that the capital is simply a cauldron of manipulative career politicians out to defraud America.
As the vote tally continues, Americans anxiously devour every morsel of election news. Regardless of the outcome, we already know one thing for sure – we are rancorously divided. Of course, it’s not the first time that citizens have indulged in so much political animosity. A D.C. trip that includes the Lincoln Memorial would remind us how to proceed post-election to dissipate this bitterness. In his second inaugural address near the end of the Civil War, Lincoln, the ultimate mensch, advised angry Northerners to be compassionate. “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” was his advice to the Union, thus abandoning the urge to punish the Confederacy. He wanted to work with the South and heal the nation. Including some war memorials in a visit also brings home the message that the nation’s fallen soldiers from farms and cities have been a mix of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. These soldiers understood how vital it was to be united as they fought.
It’s been a tumultuous autumn. Let’s hope that we’ll get a chance to visit an inspiring, gorgeous, and peaceful Washington soon. But if we find ourselves revisiting sooner than expected to voice our concerns over the election in a massive demonstration, that too is what America is all about. Washington belongs to all of us. We are the caretakers and contributors to this living, multimedia scrapbook city where our past is on display to inspire us as we move forward.