Tourist Town, U.S.A. 

It's awesome, it's overwhelming, and most of it is free: It's our nation's capital.

In the middle of a family get-together, some of us adults suddenly realized we had an afternoon to ourselves. It's how things go in a household with three children and several visitors: With almost no warning, the chaos breaks -- the sons are at hockey, the daughter is at a sleepover -- and the grownups say to each other, "My goodness, we can actually go do something!"

So I grabbed the paper, and my mother got on the Internet, and we quickly developed a problem. We had just this one, precious afternoon, you see, and this particular family get-together was taking place in the District of Columbia. Having one afternoon in D.C. is like having one meal in New Orleans or one night in New York. You're likely to be haunted by whatever you don't choose.

Think of D.C. as having three levels of tourist attractions: the monuments, which everybody stands around and gawks at; the museums and galleries, where visitors tend to focus; and the local spots, the ones you need an actual resident to tell you about. On all three levels it is awesome -- truly Tourist Town, U.S.A.

Having had family in D.C. for most of my life, I've seen every monument, some twice, and I recommend them all; when we Americans set our mind to it, we can do remembrance and propaganda with the best of them. But we wanted to cover new ground, and with nobody immediately available to help us with local stuff, we decided we would be looking for a gallery or a museum.

Such narrowing-down didn't help a whole lot. The Smithsonian alone has 16 options. But we had both seen The Spirit of St. Louis and the original Star-Spangled Banner and the Hope Diamond. Looking elsewhere, my inner goofball was intrigued by the postal museum, featuring, among countless stamps, the first piece of mail to be flown over the Atlantic. There's a textile museum, too, but we were looking for things we would actually want to do, not sit and wonder about.

It was too cold for the National Zoo, although they do have two giant pandas, and Mom wasn't into the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. "But Mom! An eight-foot stack of sheets, each sheet with 32 $100 bills? We've got to see that!" Money is always weird between parents and sons. (One note I had to get in: According to the Bureau's Web site, as of July 31, 2000, there were $539,890,223,079 in total U.S. currency in worldwide circulation.)

Mom also wasn't into the FBI tour, which includes crime laboratories and a live firearms demonstration, and sadly the International Spy Museum wasn't open yet (it's set for June).

While I was looking into guns and money, Mom was going garden. But it wasn't the right time of year for, say, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, which was described as "thousands of water plants, waterlilies, lotuses, water hyacinths and bamboo growing in ponds along the Anacostia River." Nor was it time for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which this March and April will feature various displays of Japanese art, a sushi bar with 20 chefs, a parade with the enticingly titled Smithsonian Kite Festival -- oh, and about a billion cherry trees in bloom.

This is what happens to the tourist in D.C. It's insane, really. It's our Mecca. Absolutely every American, preferably as a child, should be required to visit Washington. I don't care what kind of sights and attractions you're into, D.C. has it -- and virtually all of it is free.

We had put in 45 minutes of research, and all we had to show for it was an ever-expanding list of choices. We finally thought, To hell with it, let's just find a type of art we can both get into. I put in a vote for the German Expressionists at the National Gallery. Mom lobbied for the modern stuff at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. We settled on Asian at the Freer.

Maybe you're not into six-foot-tall Japanese screens or Islamic art from a thousand years ago or six thousand years of Chinese art or Japanese porcelain or the Buddhist cave drawings from the old Silk Road. Mom and I can hardly get enough of them, although we managed to do so at the Freer. Then there's the Peacock Room, every inch of which was painted and decorated by James McNeill Whistler with blue and white porcelain and golden peacocks.

All this, and we just missed the Tibetan healing mandala. For two weeks in January, 20 monks working in shifts created, entirely from memory, a seven-foot-square pattern of mind-boggling detail -- using sand. Sometimes they use flowers, herbs, grains, colored stones, and semiprecious and precious stones. All this because His Holiness the Dalai Lama called for it to help the world heal after September 11th. You really should check out the images of it and the time-lapse shots of its construction on the Freer's Web site, www.asia.si.edu.

Ho hum, just another afternoon in D.C.

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