Washington D.C. has always been high on my list of places to visit, but for whatever reason, I had yet to make it. Maybe it’s because I always wanted to make the first time “special” and attend during the cherry blossom festival, or maybe it was just destined to be one of those places I never visited. But that all changed with this road trip.
After New York City, we drove Penny Lane south into the Beltway of Washington D.C. and parked it in the National Beltway campground at $16/night. Jocelyn scored big time with this find because it’s only 12 miles from D.C. and it’s really cheap!! It was a nice reprieve after paying over $90/night in NYC.
It also made a great base to explore D.C. and the surrounding area. We arrived on Sunday and rested for the day before a very busy week ahead. Actually, we hiked with Lucy first because we knew she would have a lot of “camper time” in the upcoming week as we explored the city. That’s the tough part of city exploring – leaving her in the camper.
Monday morning started and we were off to D.C as we took the train to the National Mall. I was excited to see all of the federal buildings surrounding the epicenter of our country’s rich history. You look down one side and see the Capitol, as your eyes circle to the other side, you see the massive Smithsonian museums which enshrine some of America’s and the world’s most important possessions, and then you see the Washington Memorial on the other side.
Jocelyn let me have the first pick of museums as it was my first time, so we headed through the National Mall to the Museum of the American Indian. As you’ll see as we head west, I have a healthy obsession with the Native American culture and love to read about it, so it was an easy first pick. The museum is the closet museum to the Capitol… one of the few times Native Americans have received the prime land.
There were three floors that portrayed various stories of American Indians – from the Incas in South America to the Intuits in Alaska. We started at a photo exhibit on the second floor from a Kiowa in Oklahoma named Horace Poolaw. Poolaw started taking pictures in the late 1920’s and wanted them to have the same quality as the Time Life photos, although he had very little money. His goal was to show the way Native Americans really lived, somewhat sandwiched between their traditional way of life and the encroaching modern way of life, unlike the other photographers of the time who only wanted them to dress up in their traditional wears because that’s what people romanticized. Like many artists, Poolaw died relatively unknown and poor, only later to have his incredible work become known.
We went on to tour the third floor which had 6-8 different exhibits of different tribes in the Americas. It explained some of their traditions and way of life along with a few artifacts or pieces of clothes. The other exhibit got a little more into how their way of life changed after the arrival of the Europeans and touched some specific examples of broken treaties and stolen lands.
While I was excited to visit the museum, I left feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it was because I had it built up in my own mind, or because I’ve read quite a bit on Native Americans, but I feel like they’ve missed out on a lot with the museum. It was a little too vanilla as they attempted to cover too many tribes without really bringing any to life. I didn’t feel there was much pride to be felt if you were a Native American touring the exhibit… nothing on the great war leaders Crazy Horse or Geronimo and their honorable way of living, no major historic pieces, and no major effort to catalog the genocide that occurred.
As the sun was setting, we walked down the mall towards the Washington Memorial to enjoy a beautiful sunset. It was a good time to reflect on the true history of the United States and the land we occupied, but also to be very amazed and proud of the Republic that was built. This day was a perfect lead in to what was coming next – a tour of Mt. Vernon.
I’ve mentioned that you should be careful on what you offer because someone might just take you up on it… and our Mt. Vernon experience was made because of one of these kind offers. A former co-worker previously mentioned that her mom was the Curator of the Mt. Vernon estate and that she could give us a private tour. So as we approached D.C., you better believe I took her up on that!
We arrived and toured the grounds before our 1pm private tour. The museum does a great job of being honest with the fact that while Washington’s Mt. Vernon Estate was magnificent, it wouldn’t have been possible without the 300+ slaves who were forced to work there. As we walked up to the house there were numerous guides directing us to the line where the tours started, until we politely told them we were touring with Susan (my friend’s mom). Once they heard that, they treated us like royalty so we knew we scored! Susan arrived shortly after and toured us through the house, including the basement and the upstairs. They strive for historical accuracy and it was amazing to see the lengths they go to make it happen. In one room they found a small scrap of wallpaper behind the mantle that they traced through the original order to the French manufacturer who originally made it. The company found it in their archives and made some more just for the house! We felt very fortunate to receive our private tour and we were amazed with Susan’s knowledge.
As for General Washington, in my mind, he doesn’t get as much credit for the founding of our country as he deserves. Not only because he won us the war of Independence with his bravery and strategy, but also because he knew when to step down and let the Democratic Republic take shape. One story said his troops offered to march into Philadelphia which housed the Continental Congress and overthrow them to make Washington the King. He objected and saved the Republic.
Our remaining three days were spent touring D.C., and it turns out that wasn’t nearly enough time! By the end, we were quickly rushing into museums to make sure we saw the “biggest pieces” before heading out. While I enjoyed all of the museums, I thought the National Archives were quite special because they house the original Constitution and Bill of Rights. Jocelyn really enjoyed the “Newseum” which is just that – the news museum. We spent our final night dining out with friends and hearing about their experiences with the city. While being a tourist is fun, I feel the experience is never complete until you see the city through the eyes of a local.