25 January 2010

A Bit of DC

The drive from Charlottesville VA, to Arlington was a breeze; that is until we took exit 71 off of I-66 on the way to the Best Western Pentagon. After such a delightful experience at their Springfield branch, I figured stick with what you know. Big mistake.

The AAA book had directions to the hotel from a different highway so I called the hotel and asked if it were possible to get there from I-66. No problem, just take exit 71 onto Glebe Road and you will see the hotel. Long story short; after 40 minutes of driving back and forth on Glebe, along with four phone calls to the less than accurate front desk, we arrived.

Just looking at the antiquated, old-style, two-story, exterior entrance hotel made me want to keep looking for another place. But it was dark, we were tired and this would have to do. The room was icky and stunk and my brother got huge welts all over his back when he lay down on the blanket. (which disappeared shortly after he extracted himself from said blanket.) It seemed all the other guests were young military types so I assumed this hotel had a deal with the government and didn’t really care about the quality of the rooms.

Our plan had been to get up early, take the Metro into DC for a few hours before returning and driving back to Baltimore. We both thought it might not be all that safe to leave our things at the hotel, but after checking the possibility of parking in DC we stuck with the original plan.

The next morning turned out to be another gorgeous, sunny day as we got on the shuttle that dropped us at the Metro station. Fortunately, we only had three stops to go, neither of us caring much for underground trains.

Originally, we had planned to go to a few Smithsonian Museums but time wasn’t going to permit that this trip. All I really needed to see was that iconic view from the Lincoln Memorial looking up over the pool and onto the Washington Monument. After seeing images of our nation’s capitol my entire life, it was hard to believe I was actually going to see it live.

We got to Mr. Lincoln’s dwelling at around 10am and it seemed no one else was there. We climbed the massive stairs and stopped at the landing to look out over the expanse in front of us. It was Jan 19th, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On the engraved stone that marked where he had given his speech, someone had laid a bouquet of flowers. We continued up the stairs and did a quick walk around Abe in his chair before going back out and sitting in the sun on the right side of the monument.

I would have been quite happy to walk all the way to the end of the mall, but we only had time to get as far as the WWII Memorial. It was a bit gaudy for my taste, but in deference to my father, a WWII vet, I walked around it and took pictures.

Looking back towards Lincoln, I realized we must have passed the Vietnam Memorial and couldn’t figure out how we had missed it. That whole area is much wider than I had envisioned, and if one walks straight up along the water pool, it’s not visible.

The Vietnam Memorial was much more meaningful to us; it was our generation. The war had started when I was very young and was in full swing during my adolescence and into college. I had grown up participating in stop-the-war rallies. I had seen what it had done to those who had gone there either willingly or otherwise. It was the reason that it was so important for me to go to Vietnam, nearly 30 years later, as a teacher.

As we walked along the wall my brother and I remembered the day that his third grade teacher received the news that her son had died in Vietnam. We reminisced about the time his junior high school was tear-gassed because it was a few blocks from UC Berkeley where protests were taking place. We talked about when I was in 10th grade at a peace rally with my school buddies. Someone took a picture of me singing and holding up the peace sign which made it into several newspapers and later a book or two. I wondered what type of memorial would eventually be erected for those who have been lost in our current wars.

We hadn’t seen what we had hoped to, but enough to make me want to come back. It wasn’t until we were back at the hotel, looking at a map, that we realized we could have walked by the White House on our way to the Metro station. Maybe next time.


24 January 2010

...and on to Monticello

“We have to go to Monticello”, was the first thing my brother said after we’d decided to make the trip to Baltimore for our cousin’s wedding. I know I studied Thomas Jefferson and the family estate way back in elementary school, but I didn’t remember that much about him. Until a friend mentioned it, I had even forgotten that Monticello was on the nickel. I was up for a road trip especially since the bro would be driving.

First though, we had to make our way from Baltimore to Virginia. With maps in hand, we set out in the rain in what we thought would be an easy cruise down to Springfield, VA. My brother is very good at all that map stuff and north/east/south/west. I, on the other hand, have difficulty differentiating between left and right. Nevertheless, I was the designated navigator. And since it looked fairly straight forward, I wasn’t concerned.

We’d been traveling quite a while through steadily increasing foul weather when we realized we still had quite a ways to go. It turns out we had looped around the right side of DC instead of going to the left, neither of us too sure how we managed that, but there was no going back.

Trying to read the road signs and then find things on the map, I became aware of how different everything was laid out and/or marked back in this part of the US. In California, it is pretty straight forward when it comes to numbering freeways and interstates; that didn’t seem to be the case in MD and VA. Sure, there was the well marked 95, and 495, but then there were all these other thoroughfares on the map that had either a small oval or a large oval around them. And then there were the ones with the federal shield. I figure it’s because back here roads are old, older, and prehistoric, and they’ve just kept adding bigger and better highways and adding more numbers to keep up.

Just when we thought we’d made it to Springfield, (we had actually exited the freeway), and could glimpse the Best Western through the fog on the other side, we got skunked yet again. We tried to drive under the freeway but were rudely forced back onto it, going in some other direction. No problem, I told my brother, we’ll get off at the next exit and circle back.

Can’t do that here. It was miles before we could even find an exit and even when we thought we were going into a town so that we could maybe take the city streets back, we’d get pushed onto yet another freeway. It was like a bad nightmare from which you can’t wake up.

Eventually we got there, not at all impressed with the surrounding neighborhood. But it was time to get off the road and get some food and rest. It turned out that the Best Western in Springfield was more than we could ever have hoped for. They had round-the-clock free food down in the non-functioning restaurant. Granted, it was yogurt and cereal and juice and coffee, but what more does one need? The following morning our free continental breakfast, (which I had assumed meant coffee and toast), included eggs and potatoes and waffles and all the other stuff from the night before. And unlike the high-dollar Marriott in Baltimore, they had free Wi-Fi.

That morning, the sun was shining and we were well equipped to handle the insane roadways on our way to Charlottesville and Monticello. I’d carefully plotted it out on the internet while my brother stuck to the AAA maps. We were to take VA-617 S, to VA-644 E, to I-95 S, to VA-3 W via Exit 130B, to VA-20/Constitution Hwy, to US-15 S, to VA-231, to VA-22, to US-250 W, to I-64, to VA-20 exit 121, to VA-20 S, to VA-52, to Thomas Jefferson Parkway. We made it with not one missed exit or merge.

We parked in the visitor’s lot and kept looking around for Monticello which was not in sight. Were we in the right place? Once in the sprawling visitor’s center to buy tickets we found out that you must take the shuttle up the hill to the house, but that you could walk back. Tickets were carefully timed and I was surprised to note that there were quite a few tourists even though it was mid-January. During the summer it must be packed.

Several people who had been to Monticello mentioned that they were surprised at how small it was. It’s not exactly small, but certainly not the grand, sprawling estate that somehow has been inscribed in the collective minds of forth graders studying the presidents.

The docent gave us a wonderful tour which, as always on these things, was too rushed. I’m sure everyone else would also like to spend hours inside asking questions and taking pictures. Questions were answered, but no pictures allowed. That is something I have never understood; why can’t you take pictures in museums? I understand it when you are in a place where camera flashes can cause damage to an ancient cave painting, but not in any other situation.

As intriguing as the house was, my brother’s main reason for being there was the gardens, in particular the fruit and vegetables. He knew that Jefferson was an accomplished agronomist who had developed a strategy to grow plants by creating a micro-climate on the side of the hill below the house. My brother was there to study it first-hand so that he might be able to apply the methodology to his own land.

I walked around the property in utter amazement as I read the placards and leaflets telling how in Jefferson’s “garden laboratory” he grew over 150 varieties of fruit; 250 varieties of vegetables; and an immense number of flowers and ornamental plants from around the world. Everything was planted in a certain spot for a specific reason.

For Jefferson, the vegetable garden was a kind of laboratory where he could experiment with imported squashes and broccoli from Italy, beans and salsify collected by the Lewis and Clark expedition, figs from France, and peppers from Mexico. Although he would grow as many as twenty varieties of bean and fifteen types of English pea, his use of the scientific method selectively eliminated inferior types: "I am curious to select one or two of the best species or variety of every garden vegetable, and to reject all others from the garden to avoid the dangers of mixing or degeneracy." http://www.monticello.org/

I keep going back to the Monticello website. It has to be one of the best sites I have ever seen and the information, which goes on and on is utterly fascinating. I am now totally intrigued by the man and all that he accomplished.

I’m sure my brother would have been happy to walk the entire 5000 acres, were that permitted, but we had a long drive ahead of us. A quick tour through the gift shop, a book and several seed packets later, and we were on our way to Arlington.

We again passed through one Civil war battlefield after the next with my brother, the history man, filling me in on the details. I have never been very interested in such matters; possibly because it was so long ago and California is a world away. But now I found myself hanging onto his every word and feeling a part of what had transpired on all those years ago.

I could definitely see returning to Monticello and also visiting the University of Virginia, (another of Jefferson’s endeavors), and driving through the lanes of our nation’s history.


23 January 2010


Traveling to Baltimore in the dead of winter is not a trip I would ever willingly choose; but my first cousin was getting married. We had essentially been separated at birth from that side of the family and the notion of meeting my lost cousins sealed the deal.

For me, anything below 70F is cold. My closet is filled with lovely, tropical-heat clothing that I can rarely wear in the San Francisco Bay Area. My usual routine would be to come back here for short visits, hit the Salvation Army for cheap sweaters and coats, and then pack the foul weather gear away for the next trip back to the frigid Bay. And even though I have, regretfully, been rather stuck here for the past year and a half, I have yet to own proper arctic wear. And what I do own is fairly bag-lady attire.

I fretted away hours about how I was ever going to survive the East Coast in mid-January without having to spend hundreds of dollars on proper clothing. I ended up buying a few pairs of leggings and arranging what I did have in somewhat acceptable layers. If push came to shove, I would simply refuse to leave the hotel for fear of hypothermia.

My brother and I arrived in Baltimore at 1am. I braced myself as we stepped out of the airport in search of a taxi. I couldn’t believe it; I wasn’t cold! This was weird. I even took off my gloves and unbuttoned my coat. I commented that it was warmer than California. My brother told me I was wrong and that it was in the low 40’s. And that feeling of complete comfort continued for our entire
week long trip.

Granted, we hit perfect weather with sunny days and clear nights for almost the entire week, but I could never get over that fact that even though it was in the mid 30’s at times, it did not hurt. Cold, damp, 50 degree weather in San Francisco hurts. It seeps into your joints and causes undue discomfort. I just can’t ever get warm in SF.

We booked into the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. For someone who rarely travels within the US, and who generally stays in budget hotels in developing countries, it was a new experience. I couldn’t get over all the towels and pillows and free shampoo and conditioner. There were enough channels on the big flat screen to keep you awake all night. The hair dryer was actually in a little bag instead of being bolted to the wall. (Not that I have ever been in a hotel overseas that had a hairdryer). They even had an ironing board and iron. But what they didn’t have was free Wi-Fi. I had to pay $13 a day to access the internet. Even in my modest little hotels in Mexico, Vietnam, etc, there was free internet in most rooms.

The Inner Harbor area and environs, which is all we really saw of Baltimore, was wonderful: pedestrian friendly, clean, and historically fascinating. It dates back to the late 1600’s which, for someone from California, is like being in ancient Rome. Everywhere you walk there are historical markers with copious amounts of information making it a most fascinating history class. Within walking distance is the National Aquarium, historical museums, art museums, and the two places I really wanted to go but didn’t have time: The Babe Ruth Museum and Edgar Allen Poe’s gravesite.

January 19th is Poe’s birthday, which I didn’t know until I heard a news broadcast the following day announcing that the “Poe Toaster” had not made his yearly appearance.
Since 1949, an unknown fan has left a birthday gift of three roses and a bottle of cognac on his original gravesite. (I’m assuming that means his body is no longer there.) This year, nothing was left. Even more odd to me is that no one knows who this person is/was, even though there seem to be people who wait to see “the shadowy figure” every year. Had he been buried in CA, no doubt the paparazzi would have de-cloaked the secretive individual years ago.

We fell into Fells Point Historical area without knowing it; cobblestone streets and cute little restaurants, shops and bars. It has been renovated but has kept all its old-time charm. Someone told us there was a pub on every corner and after an unscientific survey, it seems they were correct. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of all the beautiful brick buildings and basement stair entrances that front all the buildings.

The reason we were there, The Wedding, turned out to be the best part. It was held at PAZO, this way-cool, massive restaurant, just up the street from the Inner Harbor. In its original incarnation, it was a ship repair warehouse. The cavernous building is tall enough to house some very lofty ships. (how they got them inside is something I didn’t find out.) They have kept the openness and height, placing seating areas of tables and couches around the edges, and on a mezzanine.

The ceremony was upstairs overlooking the restaurant, followed by cocktails downstairs in the lounge area, and then on to dinner in an upstairs, private room. Now I am not one to get over-excited about food. It’s one of those things that is least important in the big picture. However, I must say that this was one spectacular dining experience. We were served eight different mini-courses, family-style. Platters of each dish were brought to the tables and then passed around. Sea scallops in butternut squash puree; wood grilled lamb chops in red wine pomegranate molasses; whole wheat bread with rosemary and sea salt, to name a few. Each dish was completely different and delicious. Amazingly, I never felt stuffed which is what usually happens after a big meal. I just felt gastronomically elated.

When we walked outside to go back to the hotel, I again noted that the weather was lovely and that I certainly could live in this kind of cold provided it never snowed or got below freezing. Which, of course, is not the reality. Tomorrow we would head off to Virginia and hope that the good weather and good travel would continue.