On The Road
D.C. Bound
By Carin P. Webb
My husband's notion of the ideal vacation is to take the time off of work, stay at home and putter around in the garage, buy some light bulbs on eBay, and drink beer all day long. (Well, you have to admit, it is more economical than hopping a plane to some tropical Caribbean locale.) As a result, the last time I boarded a flight to go someplace good was in 1996.  Starting in early 2001, my dad and I talked about going to Washington DC as a bonding father-daughter endeavor. We talked about going in late September when the weather would still be holding out, but most of the kids would be in school.

Then you-know-what happened which spoiled a lot of people's travel plans, ourselves included. So then we talked about going the following late spring when the weather would be starting to shape up, and the kids would still be in school.

At which point, construction on our house (also known as, "The Project that WOULDN'T END") started. That spring came and went, as well as the following fall. Which brings us to this year's spring season. Even though the construction on our home has not been completely finished, I basically got tired of putting my life on hold and continuously postponing our trip. After all, none of us is getting any younger, and you gotta make hay while the sun is shining.

So going to DC with my dad has been my first bona fide vacation in many a moon, and the first time I've had to deal with the post-9-11 inconveniences now thrust upon the flying public. (And, yes.I'm abundantly aware how incredibly pathetic that is. Let's just say that the travel industry is not getting rich on account of me.)

The instructions on the airline ticket voucher advised getting to the airport two hours before the flight. Making a 9:30 a.m. flight an early 7:30 a.m. appointment. A week before our flight, the homeland security folks raised the threat level, and I saw stories on the local news showing lines at the airport that looked about a quarter of a mile long of people trying to get through the airport security (the fact that it was also the week before the Memorial Day weekend probably didn't facilitate things). Out of basic fear, I budgeted an extra half an hour to get into the airport, figuring on gridlock traffic in and about the airport. So now we're talking setting the alarm clock for 5 a.m. This is way too early for people to be expected to rise from slumber, seeing as how the sun isn't even ready to face the day yet.

But as an adult, you just suck it up, and plan on catching a few unrestful nods on the plane ride. Well, it turned out the extra half hour to get to the airport was unnecessary, and not only were the lines for security essentially non-existent, but the concourse was virtually deserted of cars, and the terminals were relatively empty of people. (Well, it was still pretty early in the morning on a Wednesday.)

Before you're allowed to enter the gate area at LAX, you are asked to wait while your checked baggage is x-rayed, and if there's anything questionable, you are requested to open up your luggage for further inspection. Fortunately, our bags raised no red flags. On our return flight from Baltimore this wasn't done, and instead they send your bags off on the conveyor belt, but at the same time suggest that you not lock your luggage, as they'll have to break the locks if they feel they need to have a look-see. I think I like the LAX system better. For one thing, you can see with your own eyes that all of the checked luggage is inspected. Another new thing (to me) about going through security, is that they ask you to send your shoes through the x-ray machine (thanks to that idiot, Richard Reid). So be advised that it's a good idea to wear slip-ons when flying. (Hell, why don't we all just wear fuzzy slippers at the airport, and let it go at that?) Also, I had my laptop inside of my carry-on, and I needed to send my computer through again separately. I didn't make the same mistake on return.

The presence of local authorities at LAX was quite noticeable, but I observed no random checking of carry-ons, nor did I see any bomb-sniffing dogs roaming about the terminal. Gendarmes at the other two airports we visited (both coming and going) were not as noticeable, and I again observed no random checking occurring.

In light of the fact that I'm a bit of a cheapskate, in the past I have always brought along miniatures of rum in order to make my own cocktails on the flight. I decided to forgo this tactic on this trip, opting to just accept the offered complimentary juice, coffee or soda. I'd say this was a good call, because they do ask that you not bring beverage containers through the security screening (presumably because it just slows things down). I do imagine however, that if any bottles are still sealed, an enormous hassle would not be made of it.

I was a little shocked to find out that the going rate for an alcoholic beverage on an airplane nowadays is a hefty five bucks. (Well, they do sort of have you by the short hairs, if you get my drift.)

Online I had booked one night's accommodations at a Motel 6 in west Baltimore. If I had it to do all over again, I would instead have chosen the one much closer to the airport in Linthicum, even though it was slightly more expensive. I'm usually fairly pleased with the franchise, and generally find it a good value, but this one in Baltimore was one nasty Motel 6, I must say.

For starters, some of the staff was downright unfriendly and appeared to be put out by our patronage. We were given but one towel in the room and no bathmat. The light switch on the wall didn't light up any lights, and the towel rack in the bathroom was missing the rack part of the rack.  Then at around midnight, our next-door neighbors decided to have a loud shouting match outside of our window. I admit being curious as to what the fuss was all about, but at the same time not about to stick my head out the door to find out what was going on, in fear of having it blown off. Fortunately I had packed earplugs and managed to go back to sleep. Our first full day of tourism was planned so that we'd drive to the outskirts of DC, and then rely on public transportation to take us the rest of the way, and then we'd take in the Smithsonian or something until the afternoon when we'd concentrate on finding digs for the night. Since I was the driver, I naturally relied on my dad to be my navigator. Turns out he's not very good at this, and we ended up missing the Metro station, and drove all the way into downtown Washington. It was an interesting little tour, but we couldn't find a place to park the car. Any parking we did find required a permit.

We tried to backtrack in order to find the Metro, but try as we might, we couldn't stumble upon an entrance to the freeway which was headed in the direction that we wanted to go, and since we had a week an a half left to our trip, we instead just went with the flow and soon enough found ourselves at Mt. Vernon (George Washington's Virginia estate).

We very much appreciated our educational visit which we experienced under a slight drizzle, but failed to dampen our enjoyment of it. What did slightly dampen our pleasure was the busload after busload after busload of boisterous teenaged school children who were also visiting that day. (So much for our strategy of traveling when school was still in session.)

That night we found ourselves in Fredericksburg, where we stayed at a nice Best Western motel. The following day we visited a few of the nearby Civil War battle sites. It has always struck me that there is nothing in the least bit "civil" about killing each other (and most especially your own countrymen). "Civil" to me implies that both sides break at four in the afternoon in order to host a high tea for the opposing foe. Either that, or one is required to ask, "May I please kill you?" before shooting someone. While I was upon these hallowed grounds, the enormity of the loss and sheer waste of it all, I found rather unsettling. And that goes for war.any war, period. Not just the obvious shameful loss of the lives of thousands upon countless thousands of men who, for the most part are no more than mere children, but also the general enormous waste of resources it takes in waging war. Resources that could be so much better and wisely used on other, more productive things. And it is truly my belief that until the word "war" becomes an archaic entry in the dictionary (other than in euphemistic terms), then we cannot honestly consider ourselves civilized. While in Fredericksburg, we also visited the building (now a museum) where James Monroe (our fifth president) practiced law. Later that day, we also took in nearby Montpelier, James and Dolley Madison's Virginia estate. Unfortunately we got there a little late in the day for a proper tour, as many of the docents had already called it a day.

Then it was on to Charlottesville where we stayed at a Red Roof Inn. Not as nice as the Best Western in Fredericksburg, but infinitely better than the Motel 6 in Baltimore. The next day we visited Monticello (Thomas Jefferson's plantation). It was an interesting tour, and I appreciated how the ownership of slaves by Jefferson (and his likely fathership of some) was not glossed over. Washington freed his slaves in his will (which seems almost a hollow gesture), however Jefferson only freed a handful, possibly because he died over a hundred grand in debt.

That night we found ourselves in Manassas, Virginia, about twelve miles away from the start of the DC metro, and where we would make our base of operations for the rest of our stay. We stumbled upon the Olde Towne Inn on Main Street which was priced right (at $60 a night). I have to admit that the street noise was at times distracting, but my earplugs took care of that (as well as dad's snoring).

While in Manassas, we did find a couple of restaurants we liked well enough to go to more than once. One was the City Tavern Grille, which was attached to our motel. Good food at very reasonable prices with decent beer on tap (Sierra Nevada).

|I have to admit that as a Californian I'm not used to being asked, "Do you want the smoking or non-smoking section?" at a restaurant. Personally, I like the California anti-smoking laws, because even though I do smoke an occasional cigar, at the same time I believe that smoking tobacco should be done strictly out-of-doors and away from non-smokers. The last thing I want to smell when I'm sitting down to dine is stale cigarette smoke.

Which is why we favored the Yorkshire restaurant out on Highway 28 for breakfast. Really good coffee and prices that were downright thrifty, AND a non-smoking section that was an actual separate room. Seeing as how we were smack dab in the middle of tobacco country (Virginia), on most mornings we were the vast minority, and the only customers in the non-smoking room. (Sweet.)

The following day was a Sunday and we drove our rental car to the Park & Ride at the Vienna station, where we relied on the Metro to take us to the mall where the Smithsonian Institution complex is located. We started off by taking in a few art galleries which were not particularly crowded. Our belongings were examined upon entry, however there were no metal detectors or x-rays employed at these art museums.

We got a bit of a late start the following day (the start of the work week for most), and by the time we made it to the Metro station at about eleven o'clock, it took us over an hour of scouring three Park & Ride stations to finally luck upon a place to park our car. We were later told that in order to find parking on a weekday, we'd need to get there before 8 a.m. Which was just not going to happen since I'm supposed to be on my freaking vacation.

By the time we got to the Smithsonian it was about 1 p.m. and we made our way down to the Air and Space Museum. Here we did go through detectors and had our stuff x-rayed. This venue was much more crowded than the art galleries, as were the Natural History and American History museums, which had similar security (a regular cottage industry in our nation's capitol). We watched an IMAX 3D film on the International Space Station, and another presentation in the Albert Einstein Planetarium. I enjoyed them, however dad fell asleep in both. Then we managed to examine about a fourth of the rest of the exhibits until closing time at 5:30 p.m.

During the summer, the Natural History museum across the way from the space museum, is open until 7:30 p.m, and we used the bonus time to drool over the gems and minerals wing, where the famous (or infamous) Hope diamond is housed (which I thought could have used a dusting off).

Here we also saw an IMAX movie on the T-Rex. The movie was not at all what I had expected, as it was completely contrived and had a rather lame story (but it was in 3-D.) In retrospect, I think I'd have been much happier seeing their "Bugs!" 3-D movie about insects instead.

Next day it was raining steadily all day long. We needed to do our laundry, and a soggy day was a good excuse to get this chore done. We still had most of the rest of the afternoon left once this was accomplished, and thought we'd travel west to visit the Skyline Caverns. Because of the inclement weather and also being a school day, we practically got a private tour. (Very sweet.)

On Wednesday, the following day, and for the rest of the work week, we didn't want to make the same mistake that we had on Monday by trying to find a non-existent parking space for the Metro station, and instead took the commuter train which we could walk to from our motel in Manassas. Much more comfortable and quiet (because it was sans noisy and rambunctious young children), and it took about 50 minutes each way.

It was a gloomy day, and even though we still had not seen any of the memorials yet, we figured it to be a day for the National Gallery of Art. Here we saw what seemed an endless maze of some amazing and some not so amazing paintings and sculptures by names familiar and unfamiliar, my favorite exhibition being the sculptures by Houdon, a Frenchman. We ended up finally at the east building which housed a modest collection of awe-inspiring paintings by Frederick Remington depicting the Old West. The rest of the east building featured modern and contemporary art, much of which generally reminds me of work done by untalented school children, and so instead of exploring (or deploring) what was offered, we decided to use the last hour or so of the day to take in a little bit more of the Air and Space Museum before catching the train back to Manassas.

It wasn't until a couple of days later that we realized that we hadn't seen any Rembrandts at the National Gallery of Art. Later we found out that the "Dutch masters" wing was closed and being refurbished (giving me a perfect excuse to one day return).

The next day was Thursday, and the first day in about a week that we had the sun shining for the lion's share of daylight hours. This was our day to take in the memorials, and we took the Tourmobile bus for $20 each, which makes regular stops at most of the major attractions all over downtown. Our guided tour left us off within a short walk to the Jefferson, FDR, Lincoln, Vietnam war and Korean war memorials. We would have taken in the Washington monument, but found out that we'd have to line up before 8 a.m. in order to obtain a place and time in line to do so. Another option would be to buy tickets through Ticketmaster. We felt that we had more than plenty on our plate with everything else there was to take in, and since we had already been to Mt. Vernon, we didn't feel like it was any big whoop to miss it.

We continued on our Tourmobile loop which took us on a short swing through Arlington cemetery, then past the White House (which was closed to the public), before leaving us off again at the Smithsonian complex. Then we had about an hour before closing to not even scratch the surface at the Museum of American History. Here we enjoyed an exhibit on our first ladies and also a very moving presentation on 9-11, in addition to several other displays, including Dorothy's ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz." On Friday, we explored the Supreme Court building where I was given proper appreciation for just how much work it is to be a Supreme Court Justice. Then we headed next door to the Library of Congress which has amazing architecture and ceiling murals. I've never seen the Sistine chapel, but I'm certain that this building could rival it.

We had wanted to take in the Capitol building, but the visitor center is now under construction, and won't be ready until 2005. It would have been possible to go into the Capitol, but we would have had to (as with the Washington monument), line up before 8 o'clock. (Yeah, right.) We again ended the day at the Air and Space Museum, vainly trying our best to see the displays we didn't have time for on our previous visits.

Over the Saturday and Sunday weekend days (our last chance for unfinished tourist business), we went back to taking the Metro rather than the commuter train, if for no other reason than we were paying for a rental car, and felt kind of silly leaving it all day long at our motel. We were still pretty surprised at how full the Park & Ride lot was for the weekend. Our final day in Washington started at the Navy memorial that dad wanted to see because he had served (and in fact met his future wife and mother of his children) in the navy. The memorial consisted of about two dozen portrait-sized bas relief bronze sculptures depicting different aspects of navy life from the reserves to submariners to Seabees.

From there, we noticed rows of white tents where they had blocked off a street, and decided to wander over to see what it was all about. It took me only a handful of booths to realize that the function was emphasizing the gay lifestyle.

I suggested to dad that we might want to come back here when we were ready for some lunch, which we later did. In the meantime, we proceeded on to try and catch anything we had missed at the Smithsonian. In the end, I'd say in the four separate days we were there, we still only managed to see maybe 90 percent.

We could have possibly forced ourselves to go to just one more exhibit, but we decided to call it an early day because we'd been walking our butts off the entire time of the trip, and the both of us came to the definite conclusion that this tourist business is downright hard work and bone-wearying. Suffice it to say that I missed my hot tub more than anything else while I was away.

Our last day we had to bid adieu to our digs in Manassas and relocate to quite a bit closer to the Baltimore airport, which we did at a nice (albeit pricey) Hampton Inn. No refrigerator like our Manassas motel, but the cost did include a fairly decent cold breakfast, and they also had a modest happy hour (which was exactly one hour) in the late afternoon.

Once our accommodations were secured, we decided to go into Baltimore and see the aquarium. Again, I had dad doing the navigating (mistake), and when you couple that with the fact that the city of Baltimore appears to not want visitors to find the aquarium by posting signs to direct the average tourist to it, we got hopelessly lost and essentially drove in circles for two hours before finally giving up and going back to our motel, where we just watched TV for the rest of the day.

Our flight from Baltimore to Phoenix on America West airlines was completely uneventful, but I and many around me complained how sore our butts were from sitting, and we conjectured that either there wasn't enough padding in the seats for a five hour flight, or the padding had simply become worn out. I'm thinking that the next time I take a long flight, I might want to bring an inflatable stadium cushion. Is that lame, or what? Upon returning home, I found that I did not come back to a complete disaster, but rather everything was pretty much exactly as I had left it, except that the house was a little more cluttered, and a little dustier. I believe that my dearly beloved got a new appreciation while I was gone of just how much I do to around the house to keep all the plates spinning. It took me a full two weeks to get everything back to normal and caught up once I got home, which means that I could have been done tiling my shower by now, had I not interrupted my life with my frivolous wanderings. And the fact of the matter is, I honestly couldn't care less.

The good news is that I think I may have talked my hubby into going with us the next time, so that he can drive while I navigate, and dad just sits in the back and enjoys.

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