Sunday, May 02, 2010

[Travel] Madness on the Mall

Madness on the Mall: [[photos on Smugmug]] I was scheduled to fly from San Juan to Atlanta and then on to Reagan-National. I made it to Atlanta, but the ongoing flight was cancelled due to mechanical issues. Wonderful. So Delta rebooks me from Atlanta to NYC, then back down to DC. Wonderful. Except the flight to NYC was delayed (mechanical again) and I missed the connection back down to DC. Too late to reschedule the flight that day -- I would be spending the night in an airport hotel outside LaGuardia with no change of clothes, no razor or toothbrush. Wonderful. Meanwhile, it took the gate agent a full hour to schedule me on a flight the flowing day because the flight I missed was on US Airways not Delta and Delta needed to "take the reservation back". After an hour she finally told me she had accomplished this and handed me a stack of papers, but once I got to the hotel I realized the papers did not have a ticket or boarding pass. She had outright lied to me, but by then all I wanted to do was get to bed. The next morning, despite the fact that I needed sleep badly, I am up early and at the Delta Shuttle terminal with plenty of time to spare, which was wise because as expected, when I got to the ticket counter they had no idea what I was talking about. Wonderful. So for the umpteenth time I had to go through the whole story and had to push through the reflexive "There's nothing I can do" responses. It took the poor woman another hour and untold phone calls to get me on a flight back to DC.

This experience was even more maddening than getting bumped on my way down, because there was no reason I had to hang around in limbo while they went through whatever bizarre machinations they went through to change the reservation for US Airways back to Delta. There is no reason they couldn't have just punched up ticket for me on the next shuttle and dealt with the paperwork and hassle off-line, once I was safely on my way.

Delta really really hamfisted my itinerary this time out. They should be ashamed of themselves for having such moronic policies in place. Yet, Delta is my home hub, so if I want a direct flight, I have little choice. Actually, I do have a choice. Years ago, when they were Northwest, they got so terrible that I began to take indirect flights just to avoid them. I may have to do that again.

Finally in DC, I checked into the Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington, VA. At 10AM, not only did they not charge me for the night I missed at the last minute, they held the room open for me for early check-in the next day. Complete opposite end of the service spectrum from Delta. It is because of this that I have been a Hilton loyalist for years. They are like the Toyota of hotels -- nothing flashy, but dead reliable (and without the unintended acceleration).

After taking some time to clean up after my arduous journey, I hopped the metro to the Mall. The Mall, for those not up on their DC parlance, is the generic name for the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, where the major Smithsonian museums reside. Here's a long-ish guide to The Mall that I wrote up some years ago:
Technically, The Mall is the roughly 1 1/4 x 1/4 mile stretch between the Capitol in the east and Washington Monument in the west. Within that span are a number of museums, which I will get to in a moment. For the larger picture, if you consider the Washington Monument as the center of a cross, to the east as I said, is The Mall. To the north, there is a large lawn in the shape of an ellipse, called The Ellipse, immediately past which is a stately white house called, The White House. Clever, eh?

To the South is the Tidal Basin. Think of it as an oversized pond about a mile in circumference surrounded by a serene pathway that leads through the heart of cherry blossom country. The blooming of the cherry blossoms in the spring is a cause for a nice big festival. At the far end of the Tidal Basin stands the Jefferson Memorial.

To the west, at the opposite end of a large reflecting pool, called The Reflecting Pool, is the Lincoln Memorial. Surrounding The Reflecting Pool are The Vietnam Memorial, The Korean War Memorial, and the new World War II Memorial.

The area in its entirely is called The National Mall and Memorial Park and you do not want to try to cover all of this in a single day; maybe not even in a single weekend, depending on your stamina and the cushioning in your shoes; although for a price you can ride a sightseeing bus that trolls the area. If you wanted to cover everything in detail -- Capitol and White House tours, hit all the museums including IMAX movies, go to the top of the Washington Monument, guided tours of the National Gallery, and so forth, you may be looking at full work week. You would also have to reserve post-trip time to have your head examined.

The Reflecting Pool area and the Tidal Basin are really only for wandering. The memorials and the monuments in those areas are just that -- structures you see, contemplate briefly, take a snapshot to bore your friends with, then walk on. It is a lovely area to stroll around in; although you should best to avoid high summer heat and low winter freeze. Spring is ideal, if crowded, during Cherry Blossom time. Fall is very nice too. You can get food from one of the vendors and have yourself a little picnic.

If you have rugrats in tow, your options are probably more limited. You could try to drag them through the White House and the Capitol in the interest of civic education because, dammit, they'll thank you later. Bad idea. See above re: head examination. There will be plenty of time for them to reflect on the nature and majesty of their government after they start filing tax returns.

For the sake of the children, it's best to stick to the big three on The Mall -- the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum.

Air and Space is the one kids seem to get most excited about seeing. In truth, it's not all that. If your kids (or you) are aerospace geeks, you'll do fine. Actually, they'll do fine even if they're not. What they'll do is barrel through every exhibit at a breakneck pace, then beg to see IMAX, then beg for some overpriced, Apollo 13 branded crap from the gift shop, then beg for some double-priced junk food from McDonalds, then get bored and tired and start whining. Keep in mind: you're making memories.

You see, these museums aren't remotely what you would call "hands-on". In the case of Air and Space, that means you are left looking at planes, spaceships, mock-ups and such. Nothing really all that fascinating unless you have an abiding interest in that stuff.

The Natural History museum comes off a bit better. Lots of reconstructed imitation dinosaur bones -- actual size and so rather impressive. There is the Hope diamond and some interesting animated displays in the geology section. There is a live insect zoo. More IMAX. A good, if unsurprisingly overpriced cafe, making it a good place to be around lunch time.

Contrary to what may be popular impression, the American History Museum is probably the most vibrant of the three. They do a great job of not simply rehashing dry tales of the Founding Fathers, the Civil War. They have a good grip on pop culture -- now that pop culture is old enough to have a history -- Dorothy's ruby slippers, Indiana Jones' jacket and hat, and so forth. It will probably be the most relatable one for your kids.

There is no admission cost for any Smithsonian museum. IMAX cost extra. Get maps, locate the displays of importance, and don't try to see any museum in its entirety. Target your points of interest, get to them, and then move on. Don't underestimate the wear and tear on your soles. If you are driving in, don't try to save a few dollars by parking far away.

Since the key activity on The Mall is wandering through stately buildings and looking at things, if you have no scaled-down humanoids with you, you may as well look at stuff that is pleasing to see. My interest in politics is approximately zero, but if you are all about Hardball and How A Bill Becomes A Law, tours of the White House or the Capitol and a visit to the nearby National Archives might be right for you. For my money (which is nothing since all this is free, at least to the extent that any partially taxpayer financed enterprise is), the very best place on The Mall is the National Gallery of Art.

Even if you have only a passing familiarity with great art, you will see pieces you recognize in the National Gallery. You will probably come across a Monet or Renoir or Van Gogh that you have a print of on your wall at home or in the office. You will almost certainly discover something new and interesting to you. There are works from the Italian Renaissance that seem almost photorealistic in their use of perspective. There is a terrific set of early twentieth century American painting by George Bellows that portray a noir-ish New York City that show how little some things have changed. Also, there is a good cafe, making it another good place to be at lunch time.

Across from the National Gallery is the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art. With any "modern" art museum, you can count on running into a good bit of rubbish -- conceptual stuff about which the best that can be said is that it is inaccessible. Fortunately, the Hirshhorn is light on that kind of stuff. There is a solid collection of excellent sculptures; in fact, the most interesting one is on a small lawn outside the building near the entrance. A set of life sized people, seemingly involved in some sort of gossip, whose lower halves are shaped like those bean bag toys you had when you were a kid -- you know, knock'em over and they come right back up. It's really a very fascinating thing to see, very comical. You can wander in between them and see it from different angles. For the first time; I wished I had my camera. In contrast to the other stuff, trolling the art museums can actually be relaxing.

That description holds up pretty well. I should note that a) the American History museum has been completely renovated since then, not, I think, to its benefit, b) I did, in fact, have my camera this time, and, c) I didn't come close to portraying how busy it is during Cherry Blossom Festival.

My plan for this day was to stick primarily to the art museums. There were two things I wanted to see in the non-art monsters. There was an IMAX about the Hubble telescope at Air and Space that everyone was raving about, and there was an exhibit on the deepest ocean at Natural History which looked interesting. (I've been interested in that ever since the Deep Sea episode of the Planet Earth series a couple of years ago.)

I made for Air and Space, but the line to buy IMAX tickets doubled back on itself two or three times. I decided it was unlikely I would be able to get a ticket for that day. Air and Space is one of, if not the, most popular museums in the world with respect to number of visitors, but I never seen it so packed as it was that day. So I hoofed it out of there and across the Mall to Natural History which was even more packed -- I mean literally Bourbon-Street-during-Mardi-Gras packed. I was not going to get near any exhibit. Since it was lunch time, I made my way to the cafeteria to get something to eat and contemplate my next move, but lines for the food stations were almost as long as the lines for the IMAX, and there was not a table to be had. Again, I bolted.

This was getting ugly. I looked around The Mall -- there were tour busses parked end to end as far as the eye could see. It was Spring Break across much of the country. It was the prime blooming weekend for the cherry blossoms. I'm generally OK with reasonable crowds, but there is a tipping point where they become unmanageable. It's the same phenomena as going to an amusement park and having to wait 45 minutes in line for a 3 minute ride. Or maybe sitting on the tarmac for three hours for a one hour flight. The payoff eventually comes, but the waste of one's short life to achieve it is too high a price.

Luckily, you can always count on the tastes of the masses: The National Gallery was pretty much empty. I rewarded them by purchasing an overpriced lunch from their caf‚ then wandered about, engaging in my petit habit of taking close up pictures of interesting details of paintings. Especially notable were a couple of special exhibits. One was the art of Hendrick Avercamp who painted almost cartoonishly happy scenes from the early 17th century, a time that was known in Europe as the "Little Ice Age" (they had to play golf on ice -- yes, really), and a fairly intense exhibit called The Sacred Made Real, also from the 17th century, concerning a movement of Spanish artists to bring realism -- even if a bit gory -- to Catholic themed art.

From there a quick visit over to what has to be the least visited but most underrated art museum, the Freer-Sackler, which specializes in Asian art (although there is much more) and had a stunning exhibit on Tibetan Buddhist works of various species.

Once I was done art trolling, it was about 3 pm and it would still be over an hour before the light would turn oblique and soften for optimal cherry blossom photos, so I strolled over to the WWII memorial, attempted to get a panoramic shot, then lay down in grass and fell asleep. When the sun dropped low enough to make for interesting images I headed over to do a circle hike of the Tidal Basin, the shores of which are blanketed with blossoming cherry trees. All the other tourists had the same idea and the path was filled with photographer foot traffic. Everyone was angling for that perfect shot of swaths of pink petals with either the Washington or Jefferson monuments in the background. Painters had set up easels at a number of points. Peddle-boaters swarmed over the water. The weather was absolutely perfect. You couldn't have asked for a better day.

I finished my circle over by the Mandarin Orient where hangs a curious painting called the Mandarin Princess, featuring an Oriental princess of old sitting in a swing high above Washington DC with monkeys flying all around her. I posted a low res picture of this some years ago and it generated quite a bit of email interest. I took the time to snap a better one this time.

The next day, my last day of vacation, I spent the morning at Arlington National Cemetery, a mere mile and a half from my hotel but the Hilton shuttle driver was happy to make a special trip to drop me there. From a childhood visit here, I remembered the verdant pastoral beauty juxtaposed with haunting reverence of the endless white crosses; the same feelings returned. Even loud, obnoxious teenagers unloaded from tour busses tone it down here. The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains impressive. There is a ghostliness to the slow soft-footed steps of the guards and the unerring precision of the manual of arms that is entirely fitting to the place and proceedings. The audience maintains the requested silence, which I find remarkable in such an uncouth age.

A walk through the city of Arlington (nothing all that special) back to the hotel and then into Old Town Alexandria for dinner. Old Town Alex is a good general location, that is to say, you can go there without a specific destination in mind and find activities, shopping and restaurants. The waterfront is cleaner and more well developed that I remember it from years past. We had a substandard dinner at a place called Bilbo Baggins, but it was a fine evening for a brief walkabout.

Up the next day and off to the airport. In a shocking turn of events, Delta got me home without any drama whatsoever. I even snagged an exit row. The airlines giveth and the airlines taketh away.