The thing about Washington D.C. is that nothing is within walking distance.
I mean, it is, but in a roundabout sort of way. If you’re looking to do monuments and see where Barack Obama lives and maybe catch some bits of well-curated American history, you can walk it.
I know this because I have done it. But the problem I discovered — and perhaps others have also discovered this — is that there just isn’t enough time in a single day to spend the kind of time you want to spend once you first gaze on the face of Abe Lincoln, sitting there all wise and better than you on his large throne in the castle constructed specifically for him.
Because that was a moment for me. Boy, was it. I’d wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial (and all the other memorials to the dead and gone) since I was a child. But standing there and gazing up into the face of a man who pretty much made this country what it is today, well, I could not help but be a little verklempt.
Abe sat there and looked over my head and I — and I know this probably didn’t happen — could have sworn I heard him telling me what a baby I was, and that I needed to stop contemplating the past and figure out how to fix the future, starting mostly with myself.
I should backtrack a bit.
The first thing I saw in the National Mall, besides the toilet — the friend who accompanied me has the smallest bladder in the history of bladders, as though they received a child’s bladder that never grew into a normal adult-sized bladder — was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. It was far larger and longer than I’d pictured in my head, and that was a difficult realization because it was right there, in that moment, that I grasped the terrible nature of that war fought in jungles in a part of the world we had no business being in.
The signs around the wall clearly tell you to stay on the sidewalk. But one man I noticed was very much not on the sidewalk. Instead, he leaned forward on his one leg (the other had been replaced by a metal contraption), his finger in one spot, the top of his head resting against the middle of the wall. His body shook and heaved, and I could see tears falling off his face and splashing on the ground below. On his arm were unit patches from his time in Vietnam. He wore a veteran’s hat, the black kind that you see everywhere.
His finger traced one name, and slowly. I don’t know who the name was. All I know is that the man running his fingers along those letters was clearly wrenched with a grief so deep that it abides multiple decades later. It followed him from those wet jungles through the years and all the way to today, where he either stands for the first time or for the hundredth, remembering.
I walked slowly to meet my companion, trying to compose myself. I have come to know I have a face that easily betrays emotions I would much rather hide. My heart is not worn on my sleeve, but rather plastered across my face, and hiding such things is nearly impossible, as it was this time.
We walked to the place where Lincoln sat, slowly absorbing the sun and avoiding thousands of tourists. They all spoke something other than English and yet they were making the pilgrimage to this place, this place where I’d waited until my late 30's to see. The origins of America have always been here for me, and yet I waited because I either didn’t care or was too lazy or I figured they would always be here when I got around to it.
We walked to the Washington Monument, and then went by the White House. A lone woman sat across the street from the North Lawn. She was flanked by signs urging us that, if we did not turn from our ways, we would soon be enveloped by a nuclear holocaust. Closer inspection revealed that her cause was of an anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian nature.
This was the first anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian thing I’d never experienced in person. It was jarring. I am from Texas, where opinions on politics can create great divides; I suppose that is true of everywhere, but it feels more pronounced there than in my current home of Las Vegas, because in Las Vegas, people just don’t care about politics.
I am always appreciative of a place where people don’t think you’re going to hell because you voted for Obama. Twice.
After the White House, we went to the Smithsonian’s American History museum. And that was cool and all, except I think the highlight of that was probably the Food display and the kitchen of one Julia Childs, fully reconstructed and encased in glass.
That, and perfectly-preserved pieces of packaging from McDonalds that were in use in my youth. Remember those hamburger containers that were actually two containers in one? One for the bread and stuff, and the other for the patties? I do. They were amazing. And they had the coffee cups that were styrofoam and actually looked like coffee cups?
Back then, even McDonalds gave a shit about the way they presented their food.
After the Smithsonian, we nearly ran to the National Archives, because the tour hours to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was about to close and we had to make it in. We did. And we went into that atrium and shuffled through the line, and then we bent over and peered and looked at what mostly appeared to be blank paper with heavily faded writing. We made out the signature of John Hancock and John Adams, but the rest of the Declaration is mostly lost to time.
It will eventually be completely lost, of course, no matter how carefully it is preserved. Which I suppose is okay, since it often feels like we’ve already forgotten what is written on those papers, anyway.
Once we saw the founding documents and took a look at one of the only surviving four copies of the Magna Carta, we drove back to Gettysburg. Stupid Dumb Siri (as we not-so-lovingly took to calling it) took us the long way, so the drive was over three hours, which was infuriating. But it was also through the wilds and winding roads of Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland and finally Pennsylvania, so I suppose I cannot complain.
Over the course of seven days, I’d seen Gettysburg and Washington D.C. Both were lifelong dreams of mine, and now they are things that I did.
But they were also life changing, because history is sometimes that way, even if it is something you observe after the fact rather than experience in person. I can’t take credit for that line; my friend Brian said it to me earlier, and it stuck with me because it’s true. I don’t think I’ll ever forget about the way Lincoln looked out over the reflection pool or the way the White House was just right there in front of me or the way the Declaration of Independence existed because I was able to see it with my own eyes.
But mostly I don’t think I’ll ever forget that we all came from a place, and we all have suffered. We grieve and we remember and we trace a name etched in a wall, and then we move on with our lives.
And the trick, I think, is to forget about burying those things away where nobody can see them because we are afraid of being seen as anything but brave.
The trick is to keep those things where they can affect you and guide your steps. Because I don’t know about you, but I feel like a better person when I do.
Jeremy Botter is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter, if you want.