Hometown Tourist, Ch 11: The Washington Monument

For people outside of Washington, DC, our city is synonymous with many things. Among these, political gridlock, superiority complexes, paranoia, and an increasing inability to get along are ones I hear about most often these days.

Something I am more proud to boast about is that we are home to a vast number of impressive national monuments and memorials. Even if you aren’t on the National Mall, it’s hard not to pass a plaque, or stumble across a statue of historical relevance in this city. Seriously. It takes a lot of effort.

While I was lucky enough to visit most of DC’s monuments as a kid, I was curious to see if I would now leave with a different impression (both as a “local” and as an adult). I decided to test my theory on the recently re-opened Washington Monument.

The National Monument
The National Monument

It boasts the best views of any monument in the city, and so I made a sunset reservation. The Monument is a heavily trafficked area so I strongly recommend tickets. It’s really unlikely you will get there in time for the small batch of free tickets.

As everyone knows, the Washington Monument was built to honor our first President, George Washington. Most people also remember that in 2011, there was a  5.8 earthquake on the East Coast that spun out a series of humorous Internet gifs.  Still, the relatively short-lived quake did in fact cause significant damage to both the Washington Monument and National Cathedral.

Who says Washingtonian's don't have a sense of humor? Post 2011 earthquake gifs.
Who says Washingtonian’s don’t have a sense of humor? Post 2011 earthquake gifs. Image courtesy of brothatech.com

Recently, the Monument reopened so it was the perfect time for a visit. A few interesting stats about the monument:

  • It stands 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches, making it the worlds largest free-standing stone structure
  • In 1884, when it was completed, it was the world’s tallest man-made structure, until the Eiffel Tower
  • It contains 36,000 stones and weights 81,000 tons (or, the equivalent of almost 6,500 school buses)
  • It’s not your eyes playing a trick on you, the stone changes color at 150 feet

After a 70-second elevator ride (the first steam-powered elevator ride took 12 minutes), you reach the triangular pyradmidion and are treated to sweeping views of Washington DC. While I thought I timed our visit to sunset, I was off by about 15 minutes. Nevertheless, we were still in awe of the Mall. And Washington, DC (as well as the northern VA skyline), I have to admit are quite beautiful.

A view of the National Mall from the top of the Washington Monument
A view of the National Mall from the top of the Washington Monument

Now, this next observation will make me sound like a travel snob but I guess, if the shoe fits… The Monument is beautiful, but after seeing Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and Casa Mila, it was just a bit underwhelming. I mean, it’s an obelisk.

It’s possible that part of my travel snob comment, is that we took an elevator to the top. You miss so much that I remember being impressed with by walking up the Monument. Unfortunately, the stairs are still closed to guests. But I do have a bit of scoop. I learned that the U.S. Park Service will open stairs for walk-up tours in early September! So, I’ll be going back. If you’re thinking of visiting, or a native who’s interested in walking the monument, check back for details. They’re only doing two walk-up tours (that amount to 896 steps) a day. So this will fill up fast!

Travel snob opinion aside, but if you are visiting Washington (or even if you live here), it’s well worth popping by. It’s an American experience. You can purchase tickets. It’s really unlikely you will get there in time for the small batch of free tickets. (note: the actual tickets are free but you do have to pay a small reservation fee. Ours was $3.00 plus a processing fee and shipping and handling). It was worth it. And as far as time, we were in and out in about a half hour. So if you time it well, it’s a great one to knock off your list, and then go on to the WWII Memorial and other sights on the National Mall.

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What is Cool?


It’s difficult. Keeping track of all the things people recommend checking out around town (especially when that “town” is Washington, DC), or wherever I may be traveling. But when a friend suggested visiting the American Cool exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, it was a no brainer. As a person who is fascinated with cool and pop culture, she had me at “it’s an exhibit of what’s cool.”

American Cool at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery through Sept. 7, 2014.
American Cool at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through Sept. 7, 2014.

Of course that’s a bit of an oversimplification. American Cool is a photography exhibit that answers the question, ‘what is cool?’ by identifying figures throughout America’s past that “fit” the curator’s definition. At first, I had my doubts. But in retrospect, the National Portrait Gallery nailed it from my point of view. That’s no small feat, because “cool” is somewhat subjective.

This spectacularly curated exhibit features photography of “cool” artists, musicians, actors and writers from the past 75 years. To be featured in the exhibit, curators considered the following rubric:

  1. The person had an original artistic vision that was carried off with signature style
  2. The person represented cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation
  3. The person had iconic power or instant visual recognition
  4. The person is recognized as a cultural legacy

Using this criteria, the exhibit is organized into four categories of cool: pre-1940; 1940-1959, the birth of cool which included a lot of jazz musicians and actors; 1960-1979, cool and the counter-culture where cool was a badge of opposition to the system; and 1980’s – Present, legacies of cool.


The Birth of Cool
The Birth of Cool


Photography is strictly forbidden in the exhibit, so I can’t share the some of the dramatic portraits. (Ok, I snuck one photo on my iPhone and I totally feel guilty about. The other two images were taken with permission.) But I will mention a few favorites and what intrigued me about them.

  • My personal favorite, Marvin Gaye. I was really drawn to the image and the emotion it conveyed, you could feel the years of heartache and turmoil. (okay, this was the one, wow, what a picture and yes, I still feel guilty)
  • Walt Frazer. Interestingly, I think that there were less than five color portraits and this was one of them. Frazer was selected in part for his ability to “connect cool back to slavery when a black person had to talk insults and opposition every day without anger.”
  • John Travolta. Also one of the few color images in the exhibit. I wasn’t surprised to see Travolta made the exhibit. What was interesting, to me, was the description next to his portrait: he “established cool through dance, he projects self-control through style, gyrating hips, twirling on the club floor, two stepping or vamping with subtle gestures.” This is like literary poetry. About Travolta!

My only minor criticism of the exhibit was that descriptions talk about the person, versus the photograph. And many of the photographs merited their own write-up. The only exception to this was Billie Holliday’s photo—which was so stunning that (kudos) it was addressed in the vignette.

If you’re lucky enough to catch the exhibit, be sure not to skip the wall about the “Alt-100.” It’s an additional 100 figures curators considered for the exhibit, but who didn’t quite make the list.

Personally, I thought Samuel L Jackson and Isaac Hayes should have made the cut. As a big Doors fan, I was happy to see Jim Morrison noted but have to agree, he did not meet all the criteria the curators set forth. Same for Dr Dre. Then there are a few ‘say wha…?” but I’ll let you decide who falls into that category.

American Cool will be on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery through September 7, 2014. Whether you are a local or visitor, I strongly recommend seeing the exhibit. It’s well worth the time. Exactly how good was it? Worth purchasing the coffee table book in the museum gift shop, which is what we did.

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Hometown Tourist, Ch 3: Torpedo Factory

It’s been a while since we’ve had time to play tourist in Washington DC. The weather was gross earlier this week, but we decided to venture out to the Torpedo Factory in Old Town, Virginia. (If you aren’t local, Old Town is a swanky part of Alexandria, VA, which is part of the greater metro-Washington DC area). The factory describes itself as “one of the largest and most celebrated visual arts centers in the United States.” Translated, i would describe it as an artists workshop with a variety of textiles, fabrics, paintings, sculptures and ceramics to enjoy.

If you like or appreciate art and have visited the majority of DC’s galleries, this the place for you. It’s full of unique pieces and i really liked how the factory has a little bit of every medium. It keeps even the most unfocused person tuned-in to what’s in front of them. It’s a casual place and many of the kiosks are working studios so you can chat with the artist.

A few favorites from my trip include Greg Knott who had some clever photography. I also really liked Alison Sigethy who uses environmental friendly materials to create nature-inspired art glass. She has some stunning pieces.

Paper mache Rhino at the Torpedo Factory
Also a personal favorite: this paper mache hippo.

We went on a Monday so this wasn’t an option but the Torpedo Factory offers a guided tour on Friday’s at 1:00 p.m. And, the 2nd Thursday of each month they have Art Night. It’s pretty much what it sounds: open galleries, conversation with artists and refreshments.

Interesting note, the Torpedo Factory at one point was once an actual torpedo factory, post World War 1.

Display at the Torpedo Factory featuring --wait for it-- old torpedo's made at the cite
Display at the Torpedo Factory featuring –wait for it– old torpedo’s made at the site

Torpedo Factory is best accessed by car. You can take the Blue Line to King Street and then hop on the trolley across town. This adds about 30 minutes to your trip. While they have a snack shop on the main floor, we found it understaffed and outrageously slow for a Monday afternoon. Skip it and try a pub in the area instead.

Torpedo Factory is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. However, specific artists hours do vary.


Training for the Trek

It’s been a little over a month since i officially signed up for the Trek Across Maine. The weather is still pretty cold, even by DC standards, so a lot of my training has been done at the gym, spinning. I’ve graduated to 2.5 hours of straight spinning on Saturday mornings. Talk about a workout. This morning i decided weather be damned, it was time get some outside training in.

After a warm up loop through DuPont Circle, i came back to the Logan Circle area with the goal of getting up the hill on 13th Street twice. It’s not much of hill in a car. I wasn’t sure what it would be like on a bike. Turns out it is hard in cold weather and riding against the wind. While my lungs burned, i made it twice. And on my second pass a construction worker gave me the high-five. I think i could have done it three times which makes me feel pretty good about my training thus far.

As for fundraising, i’ve raised a little over $300 dollars in the past month just asking friends to support my Trek. I feel like family is off-limits since my Dad always asks them to support his ride. A few people have committed to help but haven’t “pulled the trigger” just yet. I understand money is tough, i just hope they were sincere when they said they would contribute. I wouldn’t be offended if people can’t or don’t. I would be upset if someone said they would and then didn’t. Maybe that’s just me.

I’ve had two challenges to date. The first is trying to decide what type of gear i really need versus what people just want to sell you. Since i’m not 100% sure this will evolve to a lifetime hobby i have been pretty frugal to date with gear and equipment. I hate spending money on things that i won’t be used much. One thing that is a HUGE necessity, even if ugly beyond belief, are cycling shorts. What a difference those make. After this mornings ride, i think a pair of proper long-legged cycling pants are in order. Not sure yet so stay tuned.

The other is figuring out the best foods to power long training rides. I really, really wish i paid more attention in those high school nutrition classes. I am a picking eater with a lot of food texture issues. The foods i tend to eat –toast– don’t necessarily give me enough fuel for Saturday rides. So, i’m  having some adventures trying work more protein into my diet. Tofu smoothies with fruit have been a blessing. I’m also trying to cut out bread and go for more fruits or lean proteins. Mind you, i don’t eat dairy so this really is a work in progress with a lot of complete failures along the way.

I’m still interested in finding a riding buddy to expand my weekend training. My Dad gave me some suggestions so i’ll have to look into that.

And there you have it. My first stage of training. I’ll be sure to update everyone in a month.

Playing Tourist in Your Home Town. Chapter Two: DC Brau!?!

After our last hometown tourist adventure, we decided to do something significantly less “traditional.” At least by DC standards. When a rare weekend popped up with no plans, we knew it was time to visit DC Brau!

DC Brau is the Nation’s first beer/brewery. They opened about 12-18 months ago and have slowly built a following here. It’s easy to understand why. The owners are a tight-knit group of guys who are bringing something to the district that we don’t have: our own beer. They are start-up but haven’t gone overboard with the ‘no frills/hipster’ approach. They are who they are. But who they are is a personable group of people who will happily chat with anyone about beer.

If you’ve been on one brew tour, you’ve been on them all. Honestly, they don’t vary much. The key items (almost in order):

  • Introduction by brew master or quirky communications/marketing person
  • Quick walk around the brew area. Sometimes this includes wearing fashion forward safety glass.
  • “See and feel” time with the hops
  • A look at the bottles…. What’s unique about DC Brau is that they are anti-bottle and distribute their beer in cans like this:

  • Peak in the freezer and AT LAST
  • A tasting

The only variation i have seen on this tour format is at the Heineken plant in Amsterdam. And in fairness, it’s really one part brew tour, one part cool games and eight parts marketing. (We’ve made an art of brew tours so i can say this with some authority but that’s another post).

In going on the “tour” we just wanted to see the much buzzed about DC Brau and sample a few beers. If you go, tastings are free on Saturdays. It’s first come first serve so I recommend you get there an hour before your tour. Who cares if you are early, relax and have a beer. If the weather is decent, they usually have someone running a grill, cooking up sausages. We tried a lemon chicken variety; it was too spicy for me but everyone else loved it.

They do sell growlers; check the website for details. Don’t throw your bottles away, they can be brought back to the brewery for refills. We got the Embers and Saison which were happily consumed by friends and given two thumbs up.

As for the beer? I can’t tell you. I’m along for the adventure and not much of a beer drinker. (Yes, i drink just not much beer). I can say it’s worth the trip out if only to support a local business.