The day we chose to visit Mt. Vernon they were recovering from a lightning strike nearby that had cut power to the museum. We were offered either half-price admission for the day, or full-price admission with the right to come back another day. Well, given that it was a 43-mile round trip from our place that only left us a limited time for sightseeing once we got there, we opted for the second option. Good choice, as we stayed there each time 'til the last possible minute that would get us home before sunset. Of course we toured the house (no photos allowed inside, alas), but also roamed the grounds to see this last remaining slave cabin, and had a fascinating time visiting with "Lady Washington," who declared great astonishment to hear that there were new states further west than Virginia and Pennsylvania, and was quite flabbergasted to hear that one of these new states was named after her dear husband!
In the area between the canal and river are a series of loop trails called Billy Goat Trail A, B and C. Billy Goat A was the most scenic, such as this rocky promontory where we stopped for lunch, but the trail was quite rugged. After more than enough rock scrambling and crawling across bridges, we were glad to be on the much less challenging other trails and the even tamer canal towpath, even if it involved meeting a snake or two.
We also had a terrific visit from daughter Lisa, her husband Ray, and our darling grandkids Elise and Issei. They lived in the District for several years so were very happy to see some familiar places and explore a few new ones. Our apartment was around the corner from a playground where the little guys got to unleash some pent-up energy, and our place also had a nice sofa for story time with grandma or grandpa each evening. We visited the zoo one day and met up with friends of theirs and the friends' own impishly cute kids (the ones on the right of the photo), then spent another day visiting the Old Post Office and the National Museum of Natural History.
The Old Post Office is the third-tallest structure in DC after the Washington Monument and the top of the Capitol Building, and the easiest to get to the top of. We had virtually no wait to ascend via two elevators, and got a panoramic view of Washington and nearby parts of Maryland and Virginia. You can click on the photo below (or any other photo in the blog) to enlarge it and see the familiar icons of the capital, from the Lincoln to the Jefferson Memorials, with the red roofs of the federal triangle office buildings just below you. Elise was particularly excited when she recognized that the tiny little Lincoln Memorial off in the distance was that thing she had seen so many times on the back of pennies. We've heard since then that she still gets excited to look at the back of each new penny she sees to see the building she saw in Washington DC.
One last activity to discuss before we get to the many museums and other tourist sites -- we were surprised to find that DC has a less vibrant theater and music scene than Seattle. The only choice for theater was a revival of Hair at the Kennedy Center (South Pacific, which we would have happily gone to see, starts there in December). We could not find any other live theater worth mentioning.
As for music, we learned too late that you need to go to the individual web sites of each Smithsonian museum before you get to town and to each one's calendar of upcoming concerts and lectures. We missed a few good ones, though we did follow that advice with the Phillips Gallery and as a result were able to hear an outstanding Russian pianist perform Scriabin and Liszt in the music room there. We also went to hear the National Philharmonic Orchestra, not to be confused with the older and more prestigious National Symphony Orchestra but nonetheless an excellent group of musicians, perform in Strathmore Hall in Bethesda. This is a new hall a short walk from one of the suburban Metro stations, and it is quite beautiful indeed. They performed Dvorak's Cello Concerto and his New World Symphony. Our admiration for Antonin Dvorak reaches almost religious levels of adoration, and in fact we did a pilgrimage, by bike of course, to Spillville Iowa some years ago to see the town he spent the summer of 1893 in and to visit the place he called home while he composed the American Quartet and polished up the New World Symphony. We'll definitely do more planning the next time we come to town.
Our one other performing arts experience was Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Kennedy Center, which we thoroughly enjoyed. On leaving we found ourselves quite distracted. In the lobby they had an fascinating display using rice to illustrate all sorts of numbers. Each grain of rice represented one human in each of 30 or 40 displays of statistics, such as the number of centenarians in the US or the astonishingly large pile of rice representing the number of Americans without health care insurance. Some others shown below are the three piles representing Barack Obama addressing the crowd in Berlin, JFK in Berlin, and M. L. King giving his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington (note: look for the single grain of rice in each, representing the speaker); and finally the very tiny collection of rice grains representing every human who has walked on the moon. What a creative way to convey "dry" information!
Which is a wonderful segue into the rest of our time in DC. On three fourths of the days we spent there, our primary activity was of course visiting museums that made dry information come alive. The most moving, the Holocaust Museum, shall go without illustration here, partly because photos are not allowed, more importantly because the experience is far too visceral for any photo to do it justice. We spent an entire day absorbing it all, and as familiar as we are with the many of the facts of the Holocaust, it's quite another matter to experience it here. We came away feeling like the victims were real people, people we had come to know if only a little, people who were not mere statistics or grains of rice in the hourglass of time.
Another powerful exhibit was at the Renwick Gallery across the street from the White House, and called "The Art of Gaman," referring to the Japanese word for "putting up with something." This temporary exhibit showed us dozens of objects, some of great beauty, created by Japanese-Americans sent to the internment camps during WW II, and crafted with whatever they could scavenge from the camp environs. We could fill up the blog with dozens of examples, but this one wood carving will have to suffice to keep the blog manageable. Upstairs in the permanent exhibits were many other outstanding examples of crafts, the focus of the Renwick, including this whimsical wood sculpture entitled "Rejects from the Bat Factory."
Of course the various Smithsonian museums kept us busy for weeks. In what used to be the offices of the Patent Offices, the ostentation of which you can see below, the Smithsonian has created two museums under one roof, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art. We poked our heads into the portrait galleries thinking that a portrait collection would be boring, but the one-paragraph summaries of each person's life (and often the portraits as well) were compelling, even Alan Greenspan's, and we found ourselves as transfixed as we were by the rice statistics at the Kennedy Center.
Another early stop was the National Museum of American History. We had been here before but still dropped in a few times for an hour or two each to see a variety of objects that form a part of our history as Americans, such as the original Kermit the Frog, Archie and Edith Bunker's favorite easy chairs, and Julia Child's kitchen, seen here from opposite corners of the room. This wasn't her studio kitchen, this was her real kitchen, from her home, and the Smithsonian has kept it just as Julia Child left it, dishtowels and all.
We also enjoyed the halls of mammals, some quite unusual such as this Chinese Water Deer with tusk-like canine teeth, and the hall of skeletons that show how similar we are to our primate cousins.