I went on my first trip to Washington, DC when I was a senior in high school. It was my first time on a plane, my first time east of metro Denver, my first visit to a major city (surely places like Seattle, Portland, and Salt Lake didn't count?). We stayed in a hotel and rode around on tour buses with students from three other states, hitting the highlights: the Capitol, the monuments and memorials (except the Washington Monument, which was closed for maintenance), the Natural History and Air and Space Museums. We were there during the time of the first Gulf War, so the White House was closed to tours, but we had lively discussions about free speech during a time of war (you can guess which side I was on). Everything was so new, so exciting, so different, that I bought about 200 postcards and took a similar number of photos (in the days of 35 mm film).
I've been back a few times for work, each time taking in a little more of the city: an Art Nouveau exhibit at one of the Smithsonians, Pakistani food in Georgetown. Once I was passing the White House during my lunch break just as they were about to close off the tour line. I hestitated, considering skipping the afternoon round of meetings, but my sense of duty took over and I went back to a long, boring meeting at EPA headquarters, about what I don't even remember, and have been kicking myself ever since.
We'd planned to take the kids to visit their nation's capital for years, but never got around to it. Then this summer came and I realized it was almost too late—one kid was about to fledge into the world and who knows if he'd ever want to go on a vacation with us again. Coincidentally, C's stepbrother, who lives in DC, made a casual comment like "you should come see us sometime," and we took him up on it (be careful with those casual invites).
We had an amazing time. We hit the highlights: the Capitol, the monuments and memorials, including the new FDR and MLK memorials (George Washington still closed for maintenance; I'm beginning to think it's a hologram), the Natural History and Air and Space Museums, the National Archives. We did not bother looking into White House tours, but had a moment of mourning while looking at the white columns from the ellipse. We also fit in some nature (Constitution Gardens, Botanic Gardens, and National Arboretum), spent a weekend in Baltimore with a pirate cruise, a view from the observation deck, a visit to the other Washington Monument, and food from Little Italy. We ate empanadas at a street food event and injira in an Ethiopian restaurant.
Most impressive, educational, and moving were the five-plus hours we spent in the Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a lot to take in—sobering, uplifting, and really, really unsettling. Humanity has such a range—from brutal and barbaric to magnificent—it's hard to wrap your brain around. While I was looking at a display that included a book by Toni Morrisson, a woman turned to me and said, "Do you know who Toni Morrisson is? She died yesterday." I thought of Beloved and how much that book affected me.
The kids were the perfect age for a vacation this rigorous and educational—they took in a lot, barely complained, and, most importantly, I didn't have to worry about them falling under a subway. They've also studied enough American history to understand the significance of what they were looking at.
We stayed pretty much ignorant of current events during our trip, preferring to look at our country as if it were frozen in amber, and yet news of two mass shootings worked its way into our bubble. I wonder how long before we have a memorial, a museum, devoted to the victims of the mass shootings that have become woven into the fabric of this troubled nation. What year will be on the exhibit that depicts the day our "leaders" take action to end to gun violence?
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