A Brief Trip to Our Nation’s Capital

We have rarely visited major cities during our years of RV travel; driving a 46-foot rig through crowded city streets is nobody’s idea of fun. We firmly believe that the best way to visit cities is to fly in and get around using public transportation. So I was delighted when I learned that the volunteer university board on which I serve decided to hold its spring meeting in Washington, DC this year. It was my first time on an airplane since 2019, and I was determined to make the most of my brief time in the city. DC did not disappoint.

The university has a presence in DC through a “domestic study abroad” program – how’s that for an oxymoron? – and our board was treated to a program that approached Congressional junket levels of opulence. Our board is associated with the university’s library system, so we were all very excited to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Archives and meet with David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States. We had a lovely reception and dinner at Decatur House, a historic property that is home to the White House Historical Association, where we heard an entertaining presentation about the White House Collection (art, furnishings, and other decorative arts) from one of the staff historians. We attended the ACCelerate Creativity and Innovation Festival, which is held at the National Museum of American History and describes itself as:

a celebration of creative exploration and innovative research happening at the intersection of science, engineering, arts, and design from across the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Smithsonian Institution.

The Ivy League isn’t the only athletic conference making interesting connections among the member schools outside of the sports world. Schools had booths showcasing current research and I loved chatting with students working on projects such as:

  • 3D printing models of viruses, proteins, and other molecules
  • studying the habitat and life cycle of endangered mussels in Virginia creeks
  • gathering historical data to create an animated 3D model showing the movements of civil rights protestors in several phases of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965
  • copying the biomechanics of penguins to build bipedal robots that can handle difficult terrain
  • researching how human cognitive biases and software algorithms both contribute to the spread of misinformation online

Kids these days….. are doing some pretty cool stuff!

In addition to all the fun activities, we also had productive discussions in our regular business meeting. This, dear readers, is why so many elected officials go on “fact-finding trips.” Because they are fabulous! And when I wasn’t attending my scheduled events, I was…

On the Loose in DC

The fact that we take daily walks averaging about 5 miles came in quite handy during this visit, since seeing the sights in DC involves a LOT of walking. One day I explored the east end of the National Mall, where the Capitol is located, to the Washington Monument, while on a different day I visited the western half of the Mall and trekked around the tidal basin. My aching feet testify that it takes a lot of energy to walk long distances even if the terrain is basically flat. In my travels I wandered by countless memorials and historic sites, including memorials honoring the veterans of several 20th century conflicts.

I also saw a variety of memorials honoring important American leaders, ranging from signers of the Declaration of Independence to presidents to military leaders to MLK.

Nearly all of these memorials and monuments are under the purview of the National Park Service, and I realized how much I’ve missed seeing those brown signs the last few years. But one thing that I found strange is the absence of interpretive material. Most NPS sites have great visitor centers explaining the history or ecology or geology of the site, but the famous sites on the National Mall are almost completely free of interpretive information. Most important, why are there no introductory films? We love those films. We watch them at every NPS site. I eagerly anticipate finding out whether I can identify the narrator (sadly they are not all narrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). And the films always set us up to appreciate the site we are about the explore. How am I supposed to understand the point of a monument without a 20-minute introductory film? To be honest, I do already know a fair amount about the people and events that these particular monuments commemorate — which of course would not stop me from watching the introductory film if it existed. So perhaps more to the point, how are all the visitors who are less nerdy supposed to appreciate the meaning of the monuments? Based on the number of people I saw taking goofy and lighthearted photos at war memorials, I think a little interpretive information could be helpful.

In any case, when not engaged in a fruitless search for interpretive signage, I had plenty of opportunity to enjoy interesting architecture, decorative details, and public art around the city.

But the main attraction of our nation’s capital, as least for nerds like me, is the…

Museums

DC is a city densely packed with museums. The 21 Smithsonian museums are complemented by scores of independent museums like the National Geographic Museum, the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Spy Museum. Add to that the displays and tours at various federal agencies, like the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the National Archives, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. There is truly a museum for everyone. I picked a few that I thought would line up with my interests.

United States Botanic Garden

We have visited botanical gardens all across the country, so naturally my curiosity was sparked when I spotted the United States Botanic Garden on a map of the National Mall. Situated close to the Capitol, the garden has a large conservatory divided into different sections for different climates (desert, tropical, Mediterranean, etc.). The plants are meticulously maintained and labeled, and if I lived in DC I would stroll through regularly. But there’s only so much that can be shown with only a few acres to work with. It turned out to be a pretty quick visit.

National Museum of Natural History

This Smithsonian museum is the world’s most popular natural history museum and visited by millions each year. And it certainly felt like it when I visited. The extraordinary main floor display halls featuring fossils, oceans, and mammals were completely mobbed. The fossil specimens were all perfect and complete, and presented in a really helpful context showing the evolution of the environments in which the animals lived. I was particularly tickled to see that many of the display specimens were from (or cast from specimens at) places we’ve visited, like the Fort Peck dam project in Montana, the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, and the Florissant Fossil Beds in Colorado. It felt a bit like listening to a greatest hits album when you already own the artist’s entire catalog.

So I spent most of my time in the only-slightly-less-mobbed galleries on the second floor, including the extensive mineral gallery. Imagine, if you will, room after room of display cases filled with minerals of every possible shape and color. There was so much to see that it was hard to absorb it all.

Postal Museum

I chose to visit the National Postal Museum for the very random reason that it was close to my hotel, and it turned out to be my favorite museum of the trip. Isn’t it nice when things work out like that? The museum is located in the stunning, fully restored historic DC post office building and covers all the angles of the postal service.

Part of the museum traces the social and cultural importance of having a communication network at various points in American history. The postal service helped knit 13 very distinct colonies together before the Revolutionary War, and later helped people keep in touch with relatives back east after moving to take advantage of the nation’s relentless westward expansion. The museum also covers the many different modes of transportation that have been used to deliver the mail. I learned that postal air mail contracts single-handedly supported the US aviation industry before the advent of commercial passenger air service. Postal technology displays covered everything from how zip codes work to the sorting equipment that uses OCR to read handwritten addresses. There is a section highlighting the work of the Postal Inspectors, the most fearsome federal prosecutors of all (with a 98% conviction rate!). An entire wing is devoted to stamps, with everything from displays of stamp printing equipment to historic and unusual stamps. I totally geeked out over the discussions of stamp designs, fonts, and printing methods. It turns out that I love a museum that delves deep into a fairly narrow subject. For me, the Postal Museum was a delight.

And that, my friends, is how you write 1,600 words about a three-day visit. DC has so much to offer that I could probably spend a month there and not run out of new things to see.

6 thoughts on “A Brief Trip to Our Nation’s Capital”

  1. Man, you are impressive! You saw a LOT in 3 days. In fact, you saw some stuff I never saw and I lived there for 20+ years. I’ve never been to the National Postal Museum and I’ve never seen (or noticed, anyway) that monument to the signers of the Declaration. I think my favorite part of this post is your enthusiasm and appreciation for this wonderful city. I never ever ever get tired of walking among those monuments on the mall – though, you are right, some interpretive material would be nice. Unfortunately, you had to deal with hordes of tourists, but that comes with the territory in Spring. And Summer. And sometimes Fall… 🙂

    It was also nice to get confirmation that the kids are, indeed, alright, and the next generation is full of thoughtful, capable, and motivated people. I’m sure it’s rewarding for you to be part of all of that.

    Anyway, I’m so glad you enjoyed your visit and I’m looking forward to a return of your regular travel posts. Summer will be here before you know it!

    Reply
    • There’s no way I could have kept up the same pace of sightseeing for more than three days! It was amazing but also exhausting. And as a person who likes to read ALL the exhibits and signs, the main Smithsonian Museums were just too extensive to take in fully. I lucked out finding the Postal Museum because it was small and focused enough that I wasn’t overwhelmed. I also really enjoyed the displays in the Castle talking about the history of the Smithsonian. You should definitely check out the Signers Monument – it’s on the artificial island in the artificial pond on the north side of the mall, northwest of the WW II memorial. Look for extremely friendly ducks that very clearly expect to be fed anytime pedestrians come near.

      The large number of tourists was a bit of a hassle, especially since it seemed like every school in a 300-mile radius was taking a field trip to DC while I was visiting. But things like security checkpoints were well staffed so I was never stuck in long lines. It was just a matter of pushing through the crowds to see popular exhibits. Another thing I liked about the Postal Museum is that it is lightly visited. 🙂

      I am also very excited to get back on the road and resume our regular travel posts. This trip definitely rekindled my desire to see interesting new places!

      Reply
  2. Wow, you did SO much in three days! This is the kind of pace we like when we’re traveling, LOL!!! It’s fun for me to see DC in the spring with the cherry blossoms. You got some great photos. It’s such a beautiful city, and although I’ve been several times, it just thrills me to walk along the mall and to have ALL of those extraordinary museums available, for free! (Although I agree that the Botanic Garden seemed a bit meager after all of the amazing botanical gardens we’ve visited in our travels.)

    I’m bummed we didn’t go to the Postal Museum, because I would have loved the stamp exhibit. And your experience at the Creativity and Innovation Festival was so cool! Gives me some hope for the future that there are thoughtful, intelligent young people doing interesting work. You, my friend, are a natural docent. You’ve woven a lot of interesting information into this post and you do it in a very entertaining way.

    Oh, and by the way…I know you know this, but we’ve visited many cities in our RV travels (New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco). The trick is to stay outside of the city in a peaceful campground and visit by ferry or train. 🙂

    Reply
    • I had not visited DC as a tourist since I was in middle school, and it was even better than I remembered. Having visited so many historic sites around the country was perfect preparation for appreciating the museums and monuments in the capital. The huge crowds detracted a bit from the experience at the most popular sites, but at the same time it’s nice to see that so many people are enjoying the nation’s treasures.

      Every time I interact with university students — which happens quite a bit with my volunteer board work — I am impressed. As part of our meeting we spoke with students doing the “domestic study abroad” program in DC, and their poise, confidence, awareness, and skills were remarkable. As Laura said, the kids are definitely alright.

      I know that you guys have made plenty of city visits by RV, but we just hate the traffic. Towing our trailer across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, through the heart of Denver on I25, and through Portland, OR are some of our less beloved memories from the road. Talk about white knuckle rides!

      Reply
  3. As a lover of this country — a veteran, no less — I have never been to DC, and I’ve never had a hankering to go. I *should* though!! Clearly, something is wrong with me. The botanical garden looks beautiful, the cherry blossoms are just so iconic and lovely, and for crying out loud, the memorials and museums are insane in both number and variety! We, like you, have an extreme aversion RV-driving anywhere near a big city, but now that we’re about to embark on different forms of travel in the next few years, your post clearly illustrates why *anyone* would love to visit!

    Reply
    • As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I had not been a tourist in DC since I was a teenager, and I am wondering what took me so long. For people interested in history and museums, it’s a perfect destination. It’s a pedestrian-friendly city and if you fly to Reagan there’s a metro stop right at the airport. Most of the main sites are concentrated around the mall or easily accessible via metro. Also, the strict height limitations in the district make for a pleasantly human-scale city. I am a fan, obviously!

      Reply

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