Day 23: Tuesday 4th April
Driving up from Charleston, our plan was to make our slow way to Washington DC, staying at a random motel along the way. This was the only day so far where we hadn’t confirmed a specific location to stay in, so we were very excited by the spontaneity that lay ahead.
We crossed into North Carolina and stopped along the way in Charlotte. We didn’t do much there, to be honest – we found a random cafe called Mugs, which was in a retail park, and sat there for a while updating the blog and Skyping friends and family. I realised that I knew somebody in Charlotte – a girl from my old Japan Facebook groups who I’d never met. I messaged her and she actually came over to chat for a bit.
After that, we headed on northwards until we started to feel tired. A quick look at the maps showed us that we were near an America’s Best Value Inn – one of the cheapest motels – and we were in Jonesville. My surname is Jones, so obviously we had to go there. The sat-nav directed us off the highway, and down a tiny, gravel path, to a dead end from where we could see the motel, but had no idea how we were actually supposed to get the car there. After a 20-point turn, we got out of the weird, dark dead-end and realised you had to drive through a garage to get to it.
I was a little scared about staying at a motel in the middle of nowhere, but the room was actually really nice. The bed was huge and it seemed pretty clean – for a total of $56 it wasn’t too bad, although an ant did crawl over my ankle at one point. Breakfast wasn’t included, but we had bought some ingredients for avocado salad wraps, so I sat there and made 11 of them (the pack of 10 tortilla wraps had an extra surprise in there!) to get us through the next couple of days.
Day 24: Wednesday 5th April
Having proudly survived our random motel experience, we decided to add several hours onto our journey by driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, because Bill Bryson had mentioned that it was beautiful. To do this, we set a course for one of the points of entry – the beautifully named town of Fancy Gap, which I like to think is what Kate Middleton calls her nether regions.
We stayed on the Parkway for a while, and indeed – it was pretty. However, it was also very windy (that’s wind that rhymes with kind, not sinned), meaning we had to exert a lot of concentration just to avoid plummeting off the edge of a mountain. This slows you down to around 40mph, which is pretty much the speed limit they have set for the parkway. After ten minutes or so, we pulled over at a viewpoint called Groundhog Hill. It was very peaceful and lovely, and made me pretty homesick for Wales.
We drove for a little longer, and after an hour or two I looked at the map and realised we had barely moved. By this point, we felt that we had the general idea of the Parkway. I imagine it looks a lot better in the autumn, anyway. We got off at Roanoke and continued onwards towards Washington DC.
Somehow, we had managed to get hooked up with a friend of Anna’s friend who lived right on Capitol Hill. When we looked at the address on Google maps, we didn’t really believe that people actually lived there – it was pretty much a 10 minute walk from the Capitol building.
Driving in was a little stressful (well, Anna did it – but I think she would agree with my assessment) – some of the road signs had been graffitied over, and like a lot of cities you have to change lanes at lightning speed to avoid being thrown down some random road that you don’t want to be on. Anna handled it like a champ, though, and we were thrilled to find that we were staying in a really nice house.
We spent the day wandering over towards the sights – the Capitol building, the Jefferson Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian (and its many museums), and the White House. Here are some pictures.
Anna also wants me to write about how she approached a police officer outside the Supreme Court to ask whether we had to arrange a tour to go inside. (Anna: This makes me sound really weird. I just wanted to see if police officers in America are really as mean as they’re cracked up to be.) The police officer was very polite and nice, and wished us a pleasant day, and called Anna ‘ma’am’. (Anna: Am I old enough to be a ‘ma’am’?)
It takes perhaps 30-60 minutes to walk from the Capitol building to the White House, depending on how much you stop to look at things. We were pretty exhausted after that, but Anna’s friend had told us that we should try a place called Ben’s Chilli Bowl, all the way up on U street – another 30-minute walk. We ended up walking all the way up there. Standing in line, I was behind an angry man who started complaining loudly that he had been standing there for 20 minutes and nobody had taken his order. The waitresses ignored him; it was a pretty busy place, and to be honest nothing looked that good to me. However, Anna was determined to get some chilli, so she stayed there while I wandered off and found some nice tacos around the corner at Taqueria Nacional, where you can get some pretty good tacos for around $3 each. Anna claims she got served pretty soon after I left the chilli place, and that it was good!
We made our way back on one of DC’s buses – like most cities in the US, you can now use Google maps to figure out how to get around on public transport. DC’s buses are $1.75 a ride, which you have to pay in exact change if you don’t have one of the city passes. This one was fine, although the following day we found that these buses could be up to 40 minutes late.
Day 25: Thursday 6th April
It rained all day. Not that fine, British drizzle, but full-on, my-shoes-are-soaking-after-three-seconds rain. I’m not very smart when it comes to dressing for the weather, although I had my awesome trousers with zips at the knees so I could turn them into shorts after the bottoms got soaked. I also failed to bring my umbrella, despite having packed it in my suitcase.
Because of the rain, we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to check out some museums. Washington DC’s Smithsonian is not just a museum, but an entire complex of museums – there’s a huge avenue stretching from the Capitol building to the Washington Monument full of museums, and they’re all free. You can even tour the White House but you need to book months in advance.
We wanted to check out the Natural History Museum or the Air and Space Museum, but there were massive lines stretching out into the street and we didn’t fancy waiting in the rain, so we opted instead for the Museum of the American Indian (as Native Americans are known in the US). (Anna: I have had a lifelong fascination with Native American cultures and languages ever since I watched a documentary when I was nine that said most Native American languages are now extinct, which made me cry a lot. Cue my later interest in endangered languages!)
It’s a really nice museum, actually – the introductory video and the Our Universe exhibition on the top floor gives you some idea of the different native American tribes, their beliefs about the universe and nature, some of their rituals, and it really tries to give you a sense of who they are and were before launching you into all the history surrounding land agreements, colonialism and genocide. For the first half hour I was worried that the Trail of Tears was being skirted around, but then we came upon a video about it and a whole room dedicated to explaining what had been done to the various tribes after all the agreements had been broken and they were forced off their land. Upon reflection, this was a good choice of museum to go to, as we are touring around a country that was built upon the lands of these people, and to waltz around in our car without understanding or even thinking about all those who were wiped out, displaced or made to assimilate would be pretty ignorant.
One of the things I really liked was that throughout the historical timeline, they included both the Native and the “American” (meaning present day American) points of view. There were also exhibitions, Native American art, ever-changing exhibitions, and a hands-on area for children to try out things like weaving baskets; we managed to spend a fair few hours there, anyway.
Then, we decided to go to the Supreme Court. In case you don’t know, this is the highest tribunal in the United States, where final decisions are made on the constitutionality of cases. Fun fact: the Supreme Court was not provided with its own building until 1935, when it was 146 years old – until then, they had used various locations like the Capitol building.
It’s free to enter, and every half hour you can listen to a lecture about the history of the court, what happens there, etc. It’s a pretty impressive building, physically, and it was awe-inspiring to think of all the massive decisions that have been made in that very building (e.g. legalizing gay marriage, legalizing abortion and banning prayer in public schools, and, just very recently, that those found innocent should be refunded their legal fees and restitution paid).
In the evening, we grabbed some really good Japanese food at a place called Momiji (they had fantastic katsudon and sushi, plus happy hour cocktails and food) then went to Ford’s Theatre – the theatre where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The basement has been turned into a museum, where you can learn about Lincoln, the theatre, John Wilkes Booth and the background to the assassination. The main reason we went there, though, was to watch a production of Ragtime the musical. I’ll just have a little nerd-out, here: I was introduced to Ragtime in 2005 when I attended NODA Summer School, a week-long amateur theatre summer course in the UK where you can gain a variety of skills. I chose the musical theatre workshop and we put on a 30-minute production of Ragtime.
Based in New Rochelle in 1906, Ragtime (based on the book by E. L. Doctorow) portrays life at the turn of the century for a variety of characters; a middle-class, white family whose lives are turned upside down when a black baby is found in the garden; Coalhouse Walker, a black pianist who snaps after suffering too many injustices; Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant trying to create a better life for himself and his daughter; and a host of characters based on famous people at the time such as Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbitt (there’s a fascinating murder trial if you want to look that one up), Booker T Washington and Henry Ford. It’s a powerful, amazing musical about racism, the American Dream, self-discovery, justice, and oh, I just love it. I have loved it ever since 2005, then I played the CD so many times that I knew it all by heart, but had never, until now, seen it on stage. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t live up to the version in my head but it was just perfect. The actors nailed it; everyone sounded almost exactly like they do on my Original Broadway Cast recording (not necessarily a strength, I suppose, but I liked it!) and there were little bits in there that you just won’t realise from listening to the CD, which made it all the richer. OK, I think you get the picture now. Ragtime is definitely one of my favourite musicals and I am completely psyched that I got to see it.
Day 26: Friday 7th April
It was a pretty quiet day for me; we helped our hostess sort out her garage in the morning, then I did some work while Anna went to the Natural History Museum to see the butterfly exhibition. It was $6 or so to get into the butterfly area, and she was very happy to be covered in butterflies. I wasn’t so bothered because we have the Pili-Pala centre on Anglesey (near where I’m from) and I also had lived in Stratford-on-Avon, where the only non-Shakespeare thing to do is get covered in butterflies. (Anna: Here are the very stunning photos I took that are making me consider a new career in butterfly photography):
We met up later to check out Georgetown, as we had been told that it was a pretty nice part of DC and that there were some amazing cupcakes there. We strolled around for a bit and found Georgetown Cupcakes. There was a huge line out of the door, meaning it must be good… right? At least, that’s what Japan taught me! We were queuing for a long time; long enough to be overwhelmed with cupcake selection. Apparently their speciality was a red velvet cupcake, so we went for one of those, plus a chocolate ganache. They were good – especially the icing on the red velvet one.
The evening was pretty low-key; we stayed in and had dinner with our lovely hosts, who cooked us some pasta and plied us with wine.
Day 27: Saturday 8th April
This was the day of DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival. Although we had apparently missed peak bloom, there were plenty of cherry blossom trees around the city. Having lived in Japan, I do love a bit of sakura. As well as the parade, Washington has a Sakura Matsuri, which is Japanese for Cherry Blossom Festival. It sounded great – Japanese food, music, drums etc, but it was $10 to get in and I was feeling very stingy. Instead, we walked down to the Capitol and to Constitution Avenue to get a look at the parade.
Sadly, it turned out you needed a ticket to get a good vantage spot for the parade, and we were only able to catch glimpses of it. There were some marching bands, inflatable characters (including the Very Hungry Caterpillar) and some massive, inflatable cherry blossoms, but really there wasn’t much to do with cherry blossoms and we got a bit bored, so we decided to head off to our next destination – Baltimore!