My favorite way to sightsee is to go running. You see a different side of wherever you are when you go by foot. When I was in Chicago two years ago, I did a run that went behind the big Shedd Aquarium. As I passed by, I saw all the aquarium keepers climb out of the big main tank in their wet suits and scuba gear. They had been cleaning the tank and feeding the fish. They were all waddling around in their flippers like multi-colored penguins. When I went to New York City I did a run around the perimeter of Central Park, but I dodged in at various spots to look at interesting things. I also detoured at Columbus Circle and ran up Broadway, which meant I passed by Lincoln Center - something I wouldn't have gotten to see otherwise since none of our planned activities involved that area of the city.
Thursday morning I went for a run in DC. I headed south from the hotel to the Mall and then turned west toward the Lincoln Memorial. Along the way, I walked through the Vietnam Memorial, which is far more moving and overwhelming than any photograph could ever convey. The sheer number of names is incomprehensible.
During my run I was listening to a This American Life on my iPod (I took my headphones off at the Vietnam Memorial out of respect), and the story was about an American soldier who had fought in Iraq and the problems he'd had when he came home and how he solved them - including joining the Muslim Student Association at his college to get to know Muslims as individuals, not just as people who tried to kill him. But as I was walking through the Memorial and thinking about this soldier, I started wondering what type of memorial will be built for our current war. I think one reason the Vietnam Memorial is so powerful is that its design echoes the futility of the war, the divide it caused in our country, one that still exists to this day. I don't think there's anyone who thinks the Vietnam War was a great victory for our country.
Yet we have a president who thinks we're winning in Iraq, who says there's nothing he would have done differently, who just doesn't seem to get why so many people are opposed to this war. Iraq is also showing no sign of ending anytime soon. How would an architect design something that recognized all the issues - the president who led us into war for his own purpose, the futility of the endeavor, and the divergent public sentiments. I can't even think what it might look like.
Back to the tour - after leaving the Vietnam Wall I ran to the Lincoln Memorial and ran up the steps. I was awestruck looking up at Lincoln. The statue is just beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity. The expression on Lincoln's face clearly shows the sadness he must have carried through his life and the sincerity of his belief that he had taken the right actions. It's so different from the carefree face of our buffoon of a president telling the enemy to "bring it on."
From the Lincoln Memorial, I head back to the hotel, passing in front of the White House along the way. There were lots of guards around and lots of well-scrubbed young staffers heading into the gates, so I didn't make any rude gestures.
One thing that caught me off guard about DC was the number of homeless on the streets and in the parks and how invisible they seem to be to the residents. The park in front of our hotel was filled with homeless people sleeping on benches or in tents they'd constructed out of goodness knows what. But folks cutting through the park on their way to work or sitting on the benches drinking coffee and waiting for the bus didn't even seem to notice their presence. It was also stunning to see how thoroughly the homeless had set up their encampments. I ran past one church that had a marker telling how Lincoln had worshipped there during his presidency and that his pew was still in the church. The current building, however, was built in 1951, so I'm not sure how it counts as a historical site. Anyway, the church had what should have been a lovely little garden out front, fenced in by wrought-iron rails. But instead of a garden, it was packed dirt filled with tents and boxes belonging to a group of homeless who have obviously made it their encampment.
Not being from DC, I obviously know nothing about what sort of services are available for the homeless there, and I can't offer any solutions, but the sheer numbers really surprised me.
Today I'll be running along the C & O canal path next to the Potomac River. Instead of seeing famous buildings and monuments, I'll be on the watch for birds and deer and rabbits - a whole different kind of sightseeing.