(james benedict brown) on the road

On the road: Washington DC

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 27 August, 2006

On Saturday night I did the Amtrak shuffle, and re-scheduled my tickets to arrive in Washington DC on Sunday morning. I didn’t particularly fancy the thought of arriving in DC around one o’clock in the morning and trying to negotiate the metro and bus network to a suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. So I got an extra night in NYC, enjoyed a pint in a seedy Irish themed pub on 35th street (where a man had collapsed and wedged himself in the gents toilet) and then barely managed to sleep through the sounds of some kids having a screaming competition on the streeet in Harlem.

Turning down the repeated offers of pancakes and other tasty breakfast treats chéz Laura, I braved the now quiet streets, and headed back downtown to Penn Station, and caught the 08h05 train to Washington DC. The busy ‘north-east corridor’ between Boston, New York and Washington DC is about the only place Amtrak has any luck running fast, reliable and popular intercity trains, so I was able to fly along at almost European speeds. We flew along passing the rather grey and ugly sides of Newark, Trenton, Philadelphia and Wilmington. Overgrown back yards, litter strewn side streets, abandoned cars and industrial wastelands: in this strangely inhospitable landscape there is something beautiful, something that is best observed from a moving train.

I arrive at the grand Union Station in Washington at around 11h30. I leave my hefty backpack at the station (for an equally hefty $12… ooof) and walk out towards the Capitol. I remember the similarity between this building and it’s counterpart in Havana… unfortunately I can’t walk inside this one, so content myself with a peek from behind the security fences. Washington’s layout screams power and formality: broad boulevards that offer long vistas of distant monuments and government buildings. Perfect for military processions or peace marches, but rather bleak on a Sunday afternoon.

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The heat and humidity is stifling. Only occasionally do I feel the gentle relief of a light breeze: with so much space between the buildings, the wind never gets channeled or compressed. Descending from the grand hill on which the Capitol sits, I find a leafy clump of trees. Here, sunken into the hill, is a little oasis of cool air. A small, three-sided open air pavillion is hidden in a little knoll. Steps lead down to entrances on the three sides, and benches are set back into the shady alcoves. In the middle, a small fountain is bubbling, and water fountains release cool streams of water for hot visitors. I sit down in one of the alcoves, feeling the gentle breeze on my neck, listening to the water trickling in the fountain in front of me and to the water than is splashing in a rocky crevice behind me. For the first time I have found an example of truly sensible, considerate public architecture in this city. A few young visitors are on the side chatting, and from time to time other people discover the steps into our little knook. A jogger, inexplicably out in the hottest hours of the day, passes through briefly, stopping to rehydrate from the water fountains.

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With the weight of my feet for a few moments, I am rested and ready to continue on. Washington’s notable strength for budget travellers is it’s wondeful compliment of museums, most of which are free. I make a bee line for the National Gallery of Art, for an air conditioned float around the modern art collection.

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