U.S. History Lessons: Virginia and Washington D.C.
From the beginning our trip had been full of historical information, but in Virginia and Washington D.C. we felt most as if we’d been sightseeing out of a history textbook. Not unexpectedly, the most intensive lessons about the roots of the U.S. and its formal government were contained in the cities and towns we drove through. We saw firsthand not only where our country came from, but where it stands presently and how some things currently happening might affect its future.
Central Virginia contains a section of road called the Colonial Highway. It begins in Jamestown, where the first English Colonists first set foot on North America and winds through Colonial Williamsburg where colonists moved for better ground after enduring several hard winters. The road ends in Yorktown, site of the final battle of the American Revolution and the place where English rule in North America formally ends. Visitors who follow the entire route can steep themselves in what it was like to live in this country throughout the colonial period of British rule.
Of the three stops we enjoyed Jamestown the most. We found it inspiring to stand on some of the same places Captain James Smith may have stood and to view the same horizon the first colonists might have seen. We were enlightened by lessons about their daily life, imagining how modern day U.S. residents could have endured the elements, sickness, base food, separation from friends and general lack of civilized homes. Stopping by present-day archeological dig sites where scientists were working to unearth early colonist homes, churches, barns and smokehouses further enhanced the gritty view of their life. Archeologists were eager to stop their work and answer questions, with a refreshing enthusiasm for sharing their knowledge with the public.
We had also hoped to go to Williamsburg, a colonial city restored by Andrew Carnegie and famed for entertainingly bringing the Colonial era into the modern world. Unfortunately, we arrived mid-day and were surprised at their $35 per person admission fee. We planned to come back when we were ready to make the most out of our visit, not just stay for a few hours.
Yorktown, our next stop, had a full museum with Revolutionary War artifacts and an outdoor trail marking important sites from the battle. While we were there, a student military contingent from one of the neighboring bases walked through in fatigues, following the markers and studying tactics for a military history class. Outside of this trail, we most enjoyed a reconstructed Colonial town adjacent to the battlefield. The restored town had much of the charm we expected from Williamsburg, giving us a feel for what 17th century village life might have been like.
After exploring the Colonial Parkway, we got back onto I-95 and passed through Newport News, Virginia where we saw naval ships that were installed there. The ships were larger than expected, and the equipment had an overwhelming presence. Many of the ships from this area are eventually sailing to active duty and driving by them made us feel momentarily more connected to what is happening in the Middle East.
The next few days were set aside for tours Washington, D.C. where we explored the National Mall. In two days we saw a lot of area as many important buildings are located in a tightly-packed district. We walked by The White House and The Washington Monument and visited the Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Library of Congress, Air and Space Museum, The Smithsonian, The Supreme Court, The Capitol and the suburban yuppie district of Georgetown. The Vietnam memorial touched us most and we teared as we silently walked past the long black stone with names inscribed on it. We wondered if we felt more for it because we were too young to truly understand what was happening in Vietnam. With the war on terrorism we were experiencing the effects of military conflict for the first time.
During our visit, Washington D.C. was active in its normal course of business for a typical government day. A visiting African coalition was in town and we saw part of the traditionally-dressed entourage relaxing at a Georgetown hotel. As we walked past the Department of the Treasury, we saw a large motorcade complete with Secret Service Agents in sunglasses turning their heads spasmodically to focus on everywhere at once. Later, as we left the White House we saw the President’s official helicopter with Marine escort traveling overhead. It was thrilling to see these sights in person rather than in part of a segment on C-Span or on the nightly news.
One of the most imposing aspects of the city is the overwhelming sense of security that has infiltrated the area since 9/11. There are large barricades in front of almost all the major buildings and airport-like security personnel screen visitors. Security has also cancelled visitor access to the White House except for school groups and completely blocked access to the side of the White House where tourists used to be able to get a partial view of a garden and side reception room. At the same time, barricades block the back steps and upper balconies of the Capitol building where citizens can’t enter without a previous invitation from their congressman or senator. As a final blow, visitors are almost completely denied access to books at the Library of Congress. Without special permits given only to researchers, citizens can’t see many of the treasures there. We understood all of these precautions, but felt as if we were denied access to national treasures and had lost our national right to participate as spectators in how the branches of our government work. We were angry and became more doubtful about the direction our country was headed. It seemed the terrorists were, in some small measure, temporarily successful.
Even as we were beginning to feel discouraged, we had an experience that turned our visit around. Just before lunchtime on the second day of our tours, we climbed the steps to the Supreme Court to see what we could find inside. Within the first five minutes we were directed down a long hallway with busts of every Chief Justice since the court’s inception. We were surprised to see a bust of former President Taft, as we hadn’t realized that he sat on the highest seat in the court in addition to his presidency. We were soon escorted to the main courtroom where cases have been heard and decisions have been read since the building was opened in the early 20th century. Behind the velvet rope we saw the Supreme Court bench with nine polished wood chairs, all of varying heights to suit each judge. We were later told that as each judge retires they are permitted to leave with the chair they sat in while on the bench. We were also told that as it was June the justices were in the process of handing down their annual decisions. If we had come a day earlier we would have seen all nine of them in front of us, delivering decisions that made the front page of the national newspapers.
Later on, we toured the Supreme Court building and saw a rare video with commentary from the judges. They talked candidly about feelings of pride and inadequacy they felt when sitting as part of the court for the first time. It was also comically reassuring to see that even as they tried to calmly talk with each other about their jobs they often disagreed. We guessed that judges who weigh and decide things every day were unable to stop arguing even in a relatively relaxed moment. We finished the day by having lunch in the same cafeteria the justices and their clerks eat at every afternoon, glad that our visit to the Supreme Court was refreshingly unhindered by security measures. As we left we felt a palpable connection with at least one branch of our government and had a better understanding of how our judicial system fulfills the intentions of our founders. This connection gave us a pride in our country that we hadn’t felt since entering the nation’s capitol.
As much as we enjoyed seeing sights in Washington D.C., we also enjoyed spending time with our friends Michael and Megan Petkeweck who lived in the area. As Michael was out of town for the first few days, we spent more time with Megan. We went to dinner, talked late into the nights and barbequed one evening until well after dark. Megan, who manages the costume department for the Washington Opera, told entertaining stories about the performers she worked with and one night took us backstage to the costume department. We saw rack of tunics, rows of red dresses from a recent production of Carmen and a shocking number of pointy-toed Arabian slippers that stood out from all the other racks of boots and shoes.
Visiting with Megan and Michael was our first stop with friends in a long time. It was nice to be in an area near people we knew and fun to catch up and relax in more familiar territory. This was just a taste of what was in store for us over the next couple of weeks as we planned to continue on I-95 up the northeast where we had a lot of other old friends to stay with. We were looking forward to it.