14 August, 2003
For the fourth time, we were at Birmingham Airport to catch a flight to Newark, NJ. Once again, our cases were gaily decorated with bright orange "HEAVY" tags as they disappeared on the conveyor and we headed straight for the "point of no return". Naturally, we expected them to be more thorough than on our previous trips, but Tom, Chris and I were all passed through. Jim, however, had more interesting goodies in his bag, in spite of his careful packing the night before! First, the security officer had to get permission for the two way radios. Then she suspiciously studied the antique spirit level Jim was taking for Lincoln Tucker, but, rolling his eyes, her colleague passed it through. But she was NOT under ANY circumstances, going to allow the two antique spanners (wrenchs) through, despite the longest of the two being only about 8". After much debate, Jim had to repack his carry-on bag and take it all the way back to check in, bemoaning his lost opportunity to dismantle a modern jet airliner with a Whitworth spanner. As preparation for this trip had been fraught with problems (mainly in the form of a cute little 7-week old Vizsla puppy by the name of Vizisello), this latest one was merely laughed off.
Ever since September 11, 2001, I had wondered about our first sight of New York on the next trip. Flying in and out of Liberty Airport, the dramatic skyline of the city was both welcome and farewell to America. But, just another legacy of those evil attacks means aircraft can no longer use that flightpath, and instead we flew in over non-descript industrial territory, not able to see the space in the skyline until we were travelling round the airport on the monorail to collect the hire car.
Having experienced problems on previous trips with the hire vehicle not being what I'd ordered, it was with some trepidation that we approached the desk with a sheaf of papers. I need not have worried, though. Apart from trying to persuade us to upgrade to a larger vehicle, which was easily brushed off, we were soon loading our cases into our transport for the next 19 days and heading off to the sunny skies and endless roadworks of Newark. A few wrong turns and unexpected trips down seedy side streets later and we were out on the Interstate, aiming in the general direction of Washington DC. Little did we realise that as we drove south, the lights were going out behind us. 15 minutes later, and we would have been unable to collect the car (I don't think for one moment that could have been achieved without computers), because of the Great Blackout of 2003! Talk about lucky, because we'd almost headed in the opposite direction, towards New York, to do some sightseeing.
We drove south until we were too tired to drive any more, and stopped in a motel on the outskirts of Washington.
American road signs are not terribly helpful to the visitor. In fact, they're probably not helpful to the natives either! First of all, you need to have a clear idea of which direction you're going in. Yes, I know that sounds obvious, but I mean from a north, south etc. point of view. Then you also need to know the where the start and finish points of the particular road you're using are, because it may APPEAR that the road is on a direct East-West line for 100 miles, but it is still signed as a North-South route!! And you need a current, detailed map for every city you intend to visit. I thought (naively, it turns out) that as Washington was a tourist centre, the signing might be more helpful. Yes, there was a sign on the Interstate, advising which were the exits for Central Washington, then ... nothing. You want Central Washington? Find it yourself!
As the French family are fearless, intrepid explorers, we did just that, and eventually arrived in the familiar but unknown centre of Washington DC. As with most cities, parking can be tricky, so it's best to save time and head for a proper car park; in our case, underneath the Ronald Regan building. Once again, intensive security checks with our suitcases swabbed for explosives and us passing through metal detectors.
Our first intended stop in Washington was the other FBI Headquarters. No, not the one we'd just left behind, French Brothers Insulation, but the other claimants to that title. Locating the building wasn't a problem, but disappointingly, the tours had recently (more recent than my early 2003 guidebook) been suspended, and all we were able to do was photograph the FBI at the FBI.
In order to see as much of Washington as possible in a short space of time, we took a guided bus tour around the city. The photo opportunities on these tours aren't great, even though the scenery often is, and we had the added difficulty of blazing sun, which actually doesn't make for the best photographs. Well, that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it. The National Cathedral was particularly impressive ... almost like an English cathedral ;-)
The day got hotter, although we found a cool shady canal bank in Georgetown to eat lunch, and by mid afternoon, with the temperature at 105ºF, another tour bus took us from the Lincoln Memorial across the river to Arlington Cemetery. I'm sure there is enough of interest at Arlington to warrant spending a whole day there, but as usual, we had to confine ourselves to the major points. I still can't get over the two girls who came out of the visitor centre, posed for a photograph under the direction sign for the Kennedy gravesite then went back inside again, rather than waste the energy required to walk for 10 minutes to see the real thing! It's a beautiful cemetery, calm and quiet, but lacking the formality of European military cememteries. Formality takes on a whole new meaning, however, with the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were fortune enough to both see this ceremony, and catch one of the twice daily talks by a member of the guard. (All the more interesting, therefore, to see the news story just over a month later, that the guards had refused to take shelter from Hurricane Isabel, although permission had been given for the first time in history for them to abandon their post).
The other memorial we wanted to see was the one commemorating the Challenger space shuttle, next to one honouring the servicemen who died during the failed mission to rescue hostages from the American Embassy in Tehran in 1981.
Having much enjoyed our brief visit to Arlington, we then returned to the other side of the river to see the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the fascinating Korean War Memorial. Finally we took the bus back past many well-known buildings, the Smithsonion museums and Union Station, then collected our vehicle and left Washington. We had been impressed with the open spaces around Washington's significant buildings, enabling people to have a clear, unrestricted view of each one. Although there was a good deal of construction going on, central Washington was clean and pleasant, proudly displaying its heritage.
It was a somewhat unexpected surprise (my map-reading skills will never take on legendary status) to pass another building as we left Washington which is so familiar from the news, yet new to us - The Pentagon. Then it was time to leave the city behind and head for the next part of our journey, Skyline Drive in Virginia.
©Dolly French 2003