Washington DC. It was hard to do a tour of the country – a country that often troubles as deeply as it is a part of us – without visiting the capital. It’s the stuff of legends. Now, after finally having been there, what does it all mean?
When we planned this trip initially there were only two reasons to come to DC. One was a desire to not have to endure questions like “you were so close but you never went there?” Much like why Steinbeck went to Yellowstone (or tried to) in Travels with Charley. The other one – the only ultimately significant reason – that pulled me to DC was the National Mall. All that big, important America stuff all in one place. I had to see it. This country may often make me nuts, but whatever was deep or significant within it should be reflected in DC one way or another.
And so we went. We braved the public transport from our stopover location in Chantilly, VA. There were many reasons to do so, not the least of which was I was loath to drive Charley in that tight, congested, urban traffic nightmare. Another was anyone who saw us in Charley would probably assume we were up to no good because we would be driving a giant, white, aged van with silly pin striping and an Idaho plate (the home of Oscar Ortega-Hernandez) where a black Mercedes was the benchmark. If we had parked Charley near the Capitol I’m sure we would have been arrested immediately on general suspicions of being generally suspicious.
Getting off the Metro, we made it to the National Mall and began our tour of American heritage. While there were many nice elements to our trek, the general impression I was struck with was the DC before my eyes was shockingly in-step with the DC of Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 3. The Metro stations had areas under construction cordoned off with lean-to shacks and barriers made out of shabby pallets and plywood. Emerging from the underground the grounds of the Mall were mostly mounds of dirt, dredged-up park and old construction equipment. The border of grass and trees remained but were hemmed in behind construction fences. Piles of rubble laid strewn about as if the bombs had already fallen, just like in the alternate universe of Fallout (in which global nuclear war occurred in the 50’s and the story takes place in that wasteland hundreds of years later). The Capitol dome was encased in scaffold – not unusual in itself, but added into this landscape it evoked further impressions of a post-apocalyptic existence in the nation’s capital. Additionally the Metro entrance/exit in the Mall was blocked off and several museum entrances were blocked off, too.
We definitely had some good times that day. We got to hang out with butterflies in the Natural History museum. I saw El Greco’s work in person for the first time in my life. We walked through the Skylab Orbital Workshop in the Air & Space Museum. We had a wonderful lunch and Plan B. The greatest pleasure though – without a doubt – was the Museum of Asian Art, which is a long story in and of itself.
The joys of exploration were comingled with the headaches of the same, unfortunately. Each point of enjoyment was offset by at least one counterpoint of reality. Apart for the ramshackle appearance of the area (which I didn’t mind, I’m a fan of Fallout. I’m just surprised those in authority thought it was “good enough”), there was the usual crush of tourists rife with obliviousness; the soul-crushing apathy from any person serving in an official capacity; the self-serving importance with which most of the mediocre attractions were presented… As we walked by the capitol building I remarked, as if talking to small children, “You see that? That’s where it all doesn’t happen. All that stuff that is a waste of time and doesn’t work? That’s where it all takes place.” Even the most ardent patriot must concede that Congress is the epitome of inaction. This is the natural consequence of legislation based on vilification and demagoguery rather than mutual respect of fellow citizens and a concern for the common good.
There was a special sense of underwhelmingness to it all in spite of the pomp and circumstance. Especially the Washington Monument; the best thing I can say about that is it serves as a very effective landmark. From there we thought we would walk down past the Reflecting Pool towards the Lincoln Memorial. But by the time we got to the obelisk it was getting late and we still had a lot of public transit to navigate before getting home. The large distance to cover to see more marble erections (take that however you like) didn’t seem worth it. Everything seemed to be there to indicate either how great the founding of this country was, how important the institution running the country is, or both. Additionally it’s all rooted in war, from the American Revolution to the space race. But to me war is a collective failure of all us to live up to our full potential as humans. Even when necessary, it is hardly a thing worth celebrating. In the long run either a majority of the human race will realize this or we will wipe ourselves out in conflict.
This country has done great things. It has done terrible things, too. It’s a country just like any other, but with more resources to do what it will, for good or ill. No doubt the US can make a big splash in the global pond; our capital is a fitting testament to that. But big is completely independent of good/evil. The former requires will and resources. The latter requires wisdom and either benevolence or greed.
All countries fashion their own palette. The artwork speaks for itself.