Road tripping in America, part three

The Crime Traveller visits the U.S. capital
The Crime Traveller visits the U.S. capital

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Quagmire in Iraq. A plummeting U.S. dollar. Presidential approval ratings in the toilet. America has faced a host of challenges in recent months but as a traveller, a strange dichotomy emerges. The closer I got to the epicentre of American political power, the easier it became to forget all that ails our southern cousins. The final stop on my short American road trip, Washington, D.C., exudes a grandeur, enormity and importance that is difficult to encapsulate.

We approached our foray into the U.S. capital from the city’s outskirts near Dulles airport, where the Smithsonian houses its satellite Air & Space Museum, the Udvar Hazy Center. Like all Smithsonian institutions (and nearly every attraction in Washington), admission to Udvar Hazy is absolutely free. In a land where highways are tolled and a trip to the hospital with a broken leg could bankrupt a middle class lawyer, it was pleasantly jarring to not have to reach for my wallet at every admission gate over the course of our visit. The centre essentially consists of a single massive aircraft hanger housing many of the enormous jewels in the Air and Space Museum’s collection, including an Air France Concorde, an SR71 Blackbird stealth jet and the awe-inspiring space shuttle, Enterprise.

The next morning, after settling into our comfortable room at the Eldon Suites Hotel in Chinatown, we made the 20-minute walk to the downtown National Museum of Air & Space where the kids took in a host of interactive displays traversing the history of flight from the Wright brothers to the International Space Station’s Skylab. We lunched next door at the National Museum of the American Indian , which houses a truly unique gastronomic experience. We didn’t have to settle for the usual burger-and-fries fare — the cafeteria is divided into four large food stations each serving fresh dishes based upon the dietary menus of four distinct American Indian tribes. While I enjoyed a Pacific coast maple glazed cedar plank salmon with greens, the kids ate a native Indian variation of ‘mac and cheese,’ with the pasta baked into a doughy shell – an enjoyable and educational meal. We toured the museum itself before making a late afternoon trip across the street to the U.S. Botanical Gardens. The kids armed themselves with watering cans at the Children’s Garden and spent nearly an hour beating the stifling Washington heat by watering an assortment of plant life — and themselves. We dried off posing for pictures in front of the nearby Capitol Building before packing it in for the evening.

We rose early the next morning for a brisk walk to the White House where I snapped more obligatory pictures before proceeding to the United States Holocaust Museum. While I was advised against taking our young children (aged 8 and 6) through the graphic and disturbing main exhibition, they benefited tremendously from the child-friendly Daniel’s Story exhibit where we followed the timeline of a young German Jewish boy from his life before the rise of the Nazis through to the end of the war. The building itself is architecturally extraordinary. Its base makes extensive use of exposed brickwork while ashen-grey steel beams zig zag up the walls to a glass ceiling that transmits bright light into the main hall below. This intermingling of materials simultaneously expresses a harsh sense of stark enclosure on the ground while transmitting a sense of hope, and openness at its heights. We ended the visit by lighting candles around the periphery of the museum’s eternal memorial flame.

Shaking off the lingering emotions of the Holocaust Museum, we took a quick tour of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where all U.S. paper bills are produced. A sign at the end of the tour mocked us, proclaiming “Tomorrow only, free samples!” From there we walked the marathon of memorials making stops at Lincoln, Korean War, World War II and others.

Our next day was spent rambling from one spectacular museum to the next. At the National Museum of Natural History the girls marvelled in the butterfly house and were eager to take turns holding a giant Florida locust and a Madagascar hissing cockroach in their hands while The Crime Traveller’s Wife silently puked in a corner. Things brightened for my wife at the gemology exhibit, where she compared the diamond grain on her engagement finger to the monstrosity of the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond. My eight year old skipped past the myriad sparkling stones, entertaining dreams of becoming a miner when she grew up — until we reached a special exhibition on the disaster at the Chilean mine, at which point she readopted her previously held goal of becoming a veterinarian. This created the perfect segue to the museum’s epic Hall of Dinosaurs and Hall of Mammals.

After we had had our fill of giant squids and T-Rexes, we had a quick lunch — beside a fountain set in the centre of National Art Gallery’s outdoor sculpture garden— before moving on to the National Museum of American History . The museum’s eclectic mix of artifacts and exhibits is a true testament to the diversity and scope of America’s contribution to world culture and history. We walked from Julia Child’s kitchen to the original bar stools of the Greensboro lunch counter (famous for its civil rights sit-in). C3P0 butts shoulders with Kermit the Frog, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers make way for a massive display laying out the enormous flag that flew at the Battle of Baltimore, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write his famous Star Spangled Banner.

We closed out our time in Washington with an aerial retrospective of all that we had seen by riding the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument, allowing us to survey the city in every direction. Washington, D.C., is not only the seat of power for the world’s sole surviving hegemon. In true American fashion, it is a living breathing larger-than-life all-you-can-eat buffet where travellers sample American’s vast contributions to history, science, politics and culture.

A road trip stop not to be missed.

When not jetting around the world as his alter ego, The Crime Traveller, Edward Prutschi is a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer. Follow Ed’s criminal law commentary (@prutschi) and The Crime Traveller’s adventures (@crimetraveller) on Twitter, read his Crime Traveller blog, or email ed@thecrimetraveller.com.