Travel America – Homeward Bound

I almost didn’t want to write about the end of our trip because that means it’s over. Yeah, I know how dumb that sounds since it’s obviously over. I just don’t do well with endings. Summer ended (for us) a week ago and school activities have ramped up, so I figure I’ll hang on just a little longer while sharing the last two days of our trip…as we were homeward bound.

 

We woke up one final morning in Connecticut to that crazy early 5am sunrise (I won’t miss that part). Everyone was sad to say goodbye, as the adults enjoyed renewed time together and all the kids enjoyed getting to really know one another. Deejay and the kids mentioned what we could do “next time” we visited, while the Galloways all pondered the thought that we weren’t sure we’d ever make it that way again. If we do, there are more sites to see and more Just Dance to play.  🙂

We traveled through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. We payed lots more in tolls and listened to a wide variety of tunes (Prodigy, Phish, the Transformers soundtrack, Guster, Honors orchestra, Toad the Wet Sprocket, the Wreck-it Ralph soundtrack, Allstate high school chorus, and the Nightmare before Christmas soundtrack). Alexander spotted nuclear power plants, Brandon spotted soybeans, and I finally spotted corn. (The plants were tiny though—we were apparently north enough for late harvest seasons.) Elizabeth commented how funny it was that one “piece of land” was shared by Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia…made me think about the Michigan U.P.

We finally approached the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and the highest toll yet. However, this $15 toll was well worth the view (far better than the industrial views in Jersey for a lovely $12 toll). For 18 miles, we traveled along an isolated corridor of bridges and tunnels. There were two mile-long tunnels, going as deep as 75 feet below the water’s surface. The bridges were so long that they didn’t even seem like bridges as you skimmed above the water. Besides the road, there was nothing in site besides a few passing cars, a lone cargo ship, a picturesque sail boat, and the setting sun. We rode along in near total silence, just soaking up the amazing wonder of it all.

 

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It was hard to reenter reality after that, but soon found our hotel for the night and wandered out for one more delicious seafood meal. The last overnight stay was probably my favorite. This hotel room was a little more spacious, yet we were all still together. Long after crawling into bed, we were all talking about the day and giggling over shadow puppets on the wall.

The last day was celebrated with one last round of hotel waffles and one last effort at packing the car. I suddenly realized that while we had lots of pictures from the trip, we didn’t have a single picture all together. Lizzy came to our rescue and took a good group selfie!

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We drove through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia…of course with lots of music (the Connells, the Cure, more Metallica, Jack Johnson, Delirium, and more Phish). We drove past a giant beach chair in Virginia and wondered about an 1800s cemetery in the medium of I-85. Our final meal stop was at the Beacon in South Carolina. We made the mistake of ordering things “aplenty” (with onion rings and fries)…needless to say, leftovers aplenty went home with us!

 

It really was a wonderful trip. Of course there was tons we didn’t do and see, but that’s life. We all felt like we experienced a lot of our country without being overly scheduled. We made the most of technology (Waze, Gas Buddy, Trip Advisor, Roadside America, and Guess-It), and we made the most of time together. Thom blessed me with the gift of driving, as I got to just enjoy the view much of the trip. I don’t think we’ll ever forget the big things—monuments and our country’s history. I know we won’t forget the little things—silly jokes, crazy selfies, whispers in the night, and even the silence of awe. If you haven’t gotten out and experienced our world in some way, I urge you to do so. Take your spouse, your kids, your dog, or just yourself and experience this amazing world. Whether you experience something new in your community or something cool in a different country, it will change you (for the better) if you let it.

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Travel America – New York City

It was the beginning of the “lasts” on this road trip, as this was the last big city we would visit. While we didn’t prepare detailed plans for NYC like we did for DC or Philly, we were still very excited about the visit. We originally thought we’d take the train from Connecticut into the city, as that’s certainly an option. However, it was way more expensive then we planned, so Thom and Deejay worked on an alternate plan. They found a way to get on the Statue Cruise from New Jersey. They also discovered that we could get on in New Jersey and get off in New York (after the tour), but we’d have to find another way back to Jersey…but there were lots of affordable water taxis that would meet our needs. So, we got up early that morning and drove to the big city. We had a harrowing moment (again) when we drove straight towards Manhattan and Thom got panicky for a few minutes, but many fast lefts and rights in traffic put us on the George Washington bridge over to Jersey. I think this was the first double decker bridge we had gone over, and we ended up on the lower level (which was cool but not as scenic).

 

Parking was relatively easy at Liberty State Park, and the ticket line was short, but there was about an hour-long line to go through security and get on the ferry. (We later talked to people that boarded in New York and found out that their wait was twice as long.) The kids enjoyed the ferry ride to Ellis Island, and it was a fun moment to recall the crazy ferry ride we took at Patriot’s Point years ago when a hurricane was out at sea…this ferry ride was extremely calm in comparison!

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Our first stop on the cruise was Ellis Island, also known as the Island of Hope and Tears. I expected more history on the building, how the island was chosen, and the people who first ran operations at the island. However, the majority of information was centered around immigration—both the stories of places/situations that people were emigrating from as well as the stories of the people once they arrived. It really made us think about our history, as we read about the freedoms and opportunities that drew people in from around the world while also seeing the hard life and poor treatment that many received while getting here and once arriving. It was also striking to see how many of our freedoms weren’t applied to all people.


After our Ellis Island tour, it was time to line up for the ride to Liberty Island. The line wasn’t too long, but we did have to wait about 30 minutes for another ferry to arrive and unload. It was really cool to circle all around Lady Liberty in the boat before landing on Liberty Island. We enjoyed our stroll around the island, taking pictures in front of the statue, and watching all the people around us. It was interesting to see how many groups were there with flags from other countries in their pictures, celebrating their heritage and their American life simultaneously. We weren’t able to go up in the statue at all, a side effect of “going with the flow” and not having set plans in advance. We discovered that, for this time of year, you need to make reservations three months in advance to walk up to the pedestal; you need to make reservations nine months in advance to walk up to the crown. Ah well, it was still cool to see it up close and remarkable to see how very tall the statue is (since it seems dwarfed against the New York skyline and all the skyscrapers).

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We also saw the Liberty Bike, covered in copper, which was created to commemorate the 125th anniversary back in 2011. Before departing the island, the kids all bought a souvenir…they had all been waiting for something here and did a great job hanging onto (most of) their money during the prior week. Then we were back in line (for over an hour) to get on the ferry—this time to Battery Park in New York. On the plus side, we passed the time having a quick “lunch” of hot dogs and soft pretzels.

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Once we got to Battery Park, we walked towards the 9/11 Memorial. It was funny that the kids thought (and Thom hoped) that this area was right off the ferry. Seeing the city from the water, everything looked close, but this area was actually six or so blocks away. It was stunning to see how they had replaced the building footprints with amazing, huge reflecting pools. There were 30-foot waterfalls all around the square, cascading into the reflecting pool and pouring into deep voids. It was mesmerizing and saddening. The shining spot was the rebuilt towers and the lone surviving tree.

 
As we headed out of the city and towards the water taxis (ie, ferries), everyone discovered they were hungry. We didn’t believe a dinner in the financial district would be very affordable, and no one wanted another hot dog (mainly because the street vendors were cleaning their carts and the smell of cleaning products and hot grease from the day was less than appetizing). We decided to push dinner back until we got to the car, and instead stopped at a smoothie stand. I bought one to share, but the kids all decided to buy their own after tasting how amazing it was. Thom & I got to enjoy ours while watching the kids make decisions on how much to tip. We also got a culture lesson as one of the smoothie truck workers left, pulled out a mat, and went through the motion of prayer right there next to the road. Smoothies in hand, we hopped on a ferry and enjoyed the late day ride on the water.

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Dinner was later than planned because we dared not look for food until safely past any chance of driving into NYC. We all agreed on Mexican food and located a well-rated place in New Jersey–El Bandido. The food was great, the place was packed, and the service was shockingly fast. While the entrees were a little pricey (compared to normal restaurant Mexican combination platters), they slapped down free mini cheese quesadillas and a loaded nacho chip for each person, in addition to the chips and salsa. The party atmosphere filled with loud music precluded any conversation, but we just enjoyed the experience. It was especially funny when the mariachi musician (one guy with a guitar and an ipod playing the other parts) came to our table, stood across from Elizabeth, and sang La Cucaracha (btw, she hates all bugs, but especially roaches). As the meal finished up and we got the bill, we were about to get up from the table when they delivered a complimentary dessert…some sort of cross between bananas foster and sopapillas. It was a crazy (and delicious) way to end the night.

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Reflections: Brandon really liked the Statue of Liberty, and enjoyed the immigrant stories of how happy they were to see the statue. Alexander liked hanging out with Deejay and his kids; he also loved the ferry ride back in the evening. Elizabeth enjoyed looking through all the immigrant artifacts in the Ellis Island museum, and loved the Mexican place with all the freebies. Thom found the most meaning in the 9/11 memorial since it’s something that’s been part of our lifetime.

Travel America -Venture Northward

You can imagine our surprise when we woke up to howling wind and temps in the 40s. It was the last day of school for the CT kids, so we decided to drive around and venture northward a little more. Brandon was still angling for a trip to Maine (for authentic lobster), so we pondered driving through Massachusetts into southern Maine, and back through the southern sections of New Hampshire and Vermont. We thought about visiting Salem and/or investigating more American history in Boston with Paul Revere, the Boston Tea Party, etc. In the search, we noticed Plymouth MA and decided to go there first and wing the rest of the plans.
The drive through eastern CT and into MA was beautiful, hilly countryside. As you can imagine, we filled the time with music (REM, Indigo Girls, Imagine Dragons, Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, and Front Line Assembly). However, we kept the sunroof closed since it was too chilly outside.
Plymouth was a quaint, classic New England kind of town. The water was stunning and the anchored yachts were impressive. We strolled down the boardwalk to read about Plymouth Rock and then got to see it. I nearly laughed out loud as I was expecting something like this…

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…but instead I saw this…

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Yes, the information said it was probably at least three times larger (Zoolander anyone?) at the time of the Mayflower landing (if it really landed at the Rock, which seems debatable at best since the rock wasn’t mentioned in historical accounts until 100 years after the landing). Even three times larger would be nowhere near the picture I had in my mind. So, we moved on to see the Mayflower. I wasn’t surprised that it was a replica, but the kids somehow expected the original ship to still be sitting there in the water. I guess we all had our surprises that day, but enjoyed the experience nonetheless.

 
We ended up having an awesome lunch at the Lobster Shack, right there on the water (but inside because it was so windy and cool). On the way back to the car, we stopped at the Visitor’s Center (one of the best things you can do in any touristy town) and had a delightful time talking to the elderly couple running the center. They told us lots about the area and played a memory game with the kids. We had one final surprise before we got back to the car…one little shop was purportedly selling Harry Potter’s famous butterbeer. Of course the boys had to buy some (so the tourist trap worked).

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There were other things to do there, but we felt complete with the experience. We decided that the lunch lobster came out of the same water as our proposed Maine spot an hour north and collectively decided against the driving loop that would put us back at Deejay’s pretty late. Instead, we drove back along the coast and through Ocean Spray and past cranberry bogs. Then we kept going through Rhode Island…my new dream home state. (How could it not be? It’s known as the ocean state!) It really was beautiful, driving over more stunning bridges than I could count (but there were, of course, tolls).

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We got back to CT in time to celebrate the last day of school with a cookout and playtime in the yard with the kids. And since we didn’t make it to Vermont, we did the next best thing and went to Ben & Jerry’s for dessert.  🙂

 

Reflections: Thom had fun messing with some other Plymouth tourists, telling them “welcome to Georgia” after he took a picture for them; he also loved going over the scenic bridges. Elizabeth enjoyed the Visitor Center games (probably because she was better at it than her brothers), and appreciated the delicious cookout complete with grilled asparagus. Alexander had a foodie day, unable to decide whether the stuffed shrimp at lunch was better than the scrumptious scoop at Ben & Jerry’s. Brandon was, of course, excited to have real lobster (there’s no convincing him that other restaurant lobster is real)…but he was also tickled to imagine our forefathers (or relatives) passing down a lie about Plymouth Rock (and, as he said, that’s not something you learn in school).

Travel America -On the Road Again

Our time in DC was over, and it was time to hit the road to travel America a little more. We headed out of Virginia and through DC, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey before hitting our first stop in Philadelphia. We enjoyed traveling through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and went over quite a few beautiful, old bridges. We also discovered that the northeast is the land of toll roads. (I knew there would be tolls, but was spoiled by my days of the 50 cent toll on Georgia 400…the New Jersey tolls were in the $4 – $12 range.)

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Our first adventure in Philly was, of course, the Philly Cheesesteak experience. My friend Tricia had given us advance notice that we had to experience Pat’s King of Steaks AND Geno’s Steaks. (Pat’s claims to have created the cheesesteak, and Geno’s claims to have added cheese and therefore, perfected it.) So, we navigated what seemed like days of tightly packed one-way streets filled with housing, cars parked on both sides of the streets, and pedestrians haphazardly crossing the road. We found the locations and then circled a few blocks in search of a minivan-sized parallel spot (thank goodness Thom was driving). We were shocked by the chilly temps when we got out, but that’s what hoodies are for (except Thom, who laughed at the rest of us packing hoodies.) Although we were hungry, we certainly weren’t going to eat twice, so we decided on a divide-and-conquer style of trying the two places. The girls went to Geno’s and the guys went to Pat’s and we ended up with a variety of provolone, whiz, and wit (with onions). Thankfully it wasn’t crowded (midweek and school was still in), so we didn’t have a line and could figure out how to order correctly. (I understand these places are a lot like the Varsity when busy; if you aren’t ready to belt out your order, then you’re sent to the back of the line.) Geno’s had lots of indoor seating, but we didn’t want to bring a competitor’s food inside. Pat’s had lots of outside covered seating, so we sat on the backside of the restaurant to eat together.

 

Geno’s had one line for fries and drinks, with a separate line for steaks. While there were lots of specialty sandwiches (with lots of different toppings), we went with the classics. Elizabeth ordered “whiz wit” and I ordered “provolone wit” – plus we got fries (which came with a fork stuck in the fries), a coke, and a birch beer. Over at Pat’s, the guys could order everything at once; Thom ordered a provolone, Alexander ordered a provolone wit, and Brandon ordered a whiz wit – plus they got cokes and cheese fries.
At a glance, Pat’s sandwich looked more like a classic cheesesteak. The meat was thinner/chopped and the sandwich was served open. Geno’s steak was thicker and the sandwich came wrapped up. Both breads were delicious, but Geno’s bread had that extra soft, melt in your mouth feeling. The onions were virtually the same (soft and sweet), and the provolone and cheese whiz was pretty much the same at both places. I didn’t think I would like something “fake” like cheese whiz (and I normally make my cheesesteaks with provolone), but I was obviously wrong. The whiz mixed in with the onions and meat and bread to make something magical. While all the sandwiches were great, I have to say I would go for Geno’s whiz wit if I ever went back (so Elizabeth’s sandwich won). Of course, there were some differing opinions…Thom’s not an onion person (but he did say ours with onions were good) and I think he just can’t admit fake cheese was better than real cheese. The fries were all fine, with Pat’s being a little better. Also, everyone liked the birch beer (and it was a great compliment to the heavy sandwiches).

 

With full bellies, we navigated out of the inner city and headed into the touristy area of Philly. We went down to Independence Hall and walked off lunch a little before heading to the Liberty Bell. It was intriguing to see this piece of history and learn how it’s been a symbol of freedom for many groups of people throughout the years. It was a little difficult to take a good picture with the bell, because of the crowds and because of the lighting, (it was in front of a large glass window, so it was back-lit). Still, this was a worthy stop as we continued the journey of getting up close to American history.

 

 

From Philly, we headed towards our final destination, Glastonbury CT. We marveled at all the industry in New Jersey (when we weren’t counting out dollar bills for tolls), and laughed about the NJ logo “The Garden State” since our limited view featured nothing but smoke stacks, industrial buildings, and ship yards. Some of the industry was intriguing, like a huge complex with railroad cars stacked higher than you could count and for as far as the eye could see. (The quick pic I got doesn’t really do this justice.) The most exciting part of the drive came right after we passed the NYC skyline. Waze directed us off the interstate and right towards NYC, and Thom lost his mind temporarily (I believe his words were “I’ll jump out of this car if we end up on New York city streets” and I believe he was fairly serious about it in that moment.) After a few minutes of serious stress, we saw that the GPS was taking us along the New Jersey coastline (to avoid highway traffic). That stretch of road was absolutely beautiful, and was peppered with exciting views of the NYC skyline.

 

 

The day was filled with more fun in the car, including books, video games, and the phone version of Life. We enjoyed lots of tunes again, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, PTX, Slow Children at Play, the Singles soundtrack, Enya, and the Allstate orchestra disc. We rolled into Connecticut in time for dinner, and met Deejay for some “New England food”, which turned out to be an awesome pizza place. (I only think of Clam Chowder when I hear New England food, but it turns out that, in addition to seafood, there’s some awesome pizza and buffalo chicken up there…and the guys combined forces with a bacon scallop pizza.)  Lizzy’s favorite thing about the place was a car parked out front featuring a tag that said “Das Vhip”.

Reflections: Elizabeth loved having real cheesesteaks, but she was most impacted by the drive. She felt like she would always remember listening to her Allstate orchestra CD (and her favorite writer/conductor, Brian Balmages) while driving through the mountains at sunset. Thom couldn’t settle on a favorite moment as he enjoyed lunch, dinner, and the liberty bell, but he was most excited about seeing Deejay. Alexander loved the food experiences, as you might expect from a teenage boy. Brandon thought the Liberty Bell was amazing and really embraced it as a symbol of freedom.

 

 

 

Travel America – Washington DC (Day 3)

Even though we were 600 miles north of home, the weather was much the same–hot and muggy. Since driving and parking had been successful (and cheaper) the day before, we decided to just drive into the city for the day. We made use of my iPhone map and its walking option. It conveniently had the name of most buildings so that when we saw something cool, we could figure out what it was (like the Smithsonian Castle).

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We started the day with Elizabeth’s museum choice, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was a bit surprised that this was Elizabeth’s choice, so we didn’t really plan ahead for the visit. This meant that we couldn’t get passes to the permanent exhibit, which I understand has artifacts and personal stories. However, we still spent hours going through the special exhibits and feel like it was still a solid representation of the events and people. We first went through Daniel’s Story, which was a child’s perspective of the events (through his diary and some artifacts) from a time of normalcy up through the time his family was captured. It was sombering and educational, with near silence among everyone around us. After that, we walked through an extensive exhibit on Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust. This exhibit was rough, no doubt about it, as there was story after story of neighbors and friends who allowed (or brought about) attacks and capture in the face of fear. Thankfully, there were a few stories of brave people who stood up for their Jewish friends and neighbors, helping them in various ways. I spent individual time with each of the kids at various points in this exhibit and they all echoed thoughts that mirrored my own. How could these people have known how far it would go? What would I do in a similar situation? Would I really help someone else’s family if it meant risking my own? Would I have the strength to endure such hardships and capture? Why is there so much fear? This museum was not only educational, it was humbling.  As you can imagine, I couldn’t find it in me to take any pictures there, so all I have is the building and memories.

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Although it seemed odd at first to be out in the shiny, happy town bustling with people, we had a decent walk to lunch back at L’Enfant Plaza mall. Along the way, we had to keep reigning the kids in (especially Brandon) as they had a tendency to want to run ahead (with no fear of crowds, strangers, or getting lost). Everyone enjoyed choosing their own options for lunch, and we had a good laugh about how we’d dashed through that place two days ago looking for our tour.

 

For the afternoon, we went to Alexander’s museum choice, the National Air & Space Museum. It was fun reading about the Wright Flyer and marveling at how advanced flight is today in a relatively short amount of time. We enjoyed seeing all the WWI and WWII aircraft, especially the models of aircraft carriers. (Which caused the kids to remind me that we had been on an aircraft carrier a few years back, the USS Yorktown.  That’s probably the most memorable trip we took with Cub Scouts, and comes up surprisingly often, but I digress…) The guys were all intrigued by the exhibit featuring drones (or more appropriately, unmanned aerial vehicles), with the Predator being especially interesting. Of course, I couldn’t get enough of the space exhibits. We got to walk through a space capsule (Thom really should have taken a picture of Alex folding up into that thing), touch moon rocks, and read about the entire progression of the space program. I could’ve stayed in that area for days, but the natives finally got restless. So, I sent them off on their own adventures. Brandon and Elizabeth were dying to get in the flight simulator, and Thom and Alexander headed off to the Dark Universe planetarium show (aka spooky space bits narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson). We had one final thing to marvel at…the variety of world money in the museum donation boxes, then we were off to buy astronaut ice cream and pressed pennies.  🙂

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We actually got back at a decent time and had a little picnic dinner at the hotel, then finished with some pool time. The pool felt great but the temps had cooled down and some wind moved in, so it was a chilly exit from the pool. We did laundry (with lots of quarters) and got ready to leave the next morning.

 

Reflections: Thom liked the Dark Universe show and had fond memories of the whole museum as he recalled visiting a bunch with his dad as a kid (especially seeing the Skyhawk and all the Navy models). Alexander was shocked by how tight the space capsule was, and was intrigued by the planetarium show as well. Elizabeth really absorbed emotions from the Holocaust Museum, finding it so sad that so many people (including children) suffered in this way; but on the flip side, she also loved being the gunner in the simulator (how’s that for a dichotomy?). Brandon loved being a pilot in the simulator and giving orders to the gunner (Lizzy)…although Lizzy said no one gave her orders.

Travel America – Washington DC (Day 2)

Our second day in the DC area was a little slower pace than the first day. After some of those delicious hotel waffles, we headed out for Thom’s tour of Virginia and Maryland. He showed us his old homes in Burke, Lorton, and North Beach. We’ve been on similar “tour of homes” before here in Georgia, and it always makes an impact on the kids—giving them an appreciation for their life, with consistent schools, friends, and community. After the tour, we had lunch at Ledo Pizza, which was a pizza place Thom worked at as a teenager, where he learned to toss pizzas.  (He didn’t work at this location, but the location he worked at was closed.) Side note – if you ever make it to one of the many locations, you HAVE to check out the Buffalo Chicken & Cheese Waffle Fries! Of course the pizza is also fantastic. We thought we’d go walk on the beach after lunch, but the tourist-driven town of North Beach charged money to access the beach, so we took a picture and moved on.

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As we headed back towards DC, we decided to try parking in town instead of taking transit. We figured it would save time as well as cost less (since we spent about $35 for all five of us to head in and out of the city the day before). We ended up parking under the International Trade Center for $22 and had the added fun of going through car security (opening up the doors, running mirrors under the car, etc.). The actual parking deck was a little nerve-wrecking (yet somewhat comical) as the ceiling was only inches higher than the car. While looking for a spot, we were sure the car was going to scrape at any moment…but it didn’t! Alex was slightly annoyed as we walked out, since he couldn’t stand up straight, but the other two were oblivious and were just happy to follow pigeons around the parking deck.

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For the afternoon, we went to Brandon’s museum choice, the National Museum of Natural History. They had late hours that day, so we still had plenty of time to explore. When Brandon chose this museum, I was sure that it was because of the dinosaur exhibit. However, when we got in there and started walking around, he made it clear that he chose this museum because they had the Hope Diamond. I’m not sure how he knew about the diamond and was genuinely surprised that he would be interested in it. Sadly, the diamond was off exhibit (along with the fossil exhibit), so that to-do didn’t get checked off. However, the dinosaur exhibit and gem & mineral exhibit were also both on his list, and we all enjoyed both of them. We all enjoyed Alex’s favorite exhibit area, the Ocean Hall, and couldn’t believe the size of some of the replicas—especially the 45 foot long Right Whale. Lizzy’s favorite area was the Ancient Egypt exhibit, where she was intrigued by the mummies.

 

Reflections: For Thom, the first half of the day held the most impact. He recalled the difficulties he encountered as a teenager and remembered the moment when it changed in Maryland, as he decided that he wanted to spend his life with me. He said it showed him how he’s been victorious despite the circumstances of his youth. It was a lighter note for the kids, as Alex really enjoyed the luminous objects at the museum (both in the ocean exhibit and the mineral exhibit), Brandon was intrigued by the recreated T-Rex skull, and Lizzy found interest in skeletons—noting how many similarities there were between humans and animals.

Travel America – Washington DC (Day 1)

We spent three full days visiting Washington DC, which is really a drop in the bucket. It would’ve taken two weeks to visit everything that sounded interesting to us (and probably a whole summer to just touch on everything DC has to offer). I had scheduled an all-day bus tour for the first day (thanks to Groupon), so we could see the top monuments and get a feel for what we might want to do the following days. It turned out that our first adventure was with getting around DC. Thom & I have used MARTA and other public transportation here & there, so we felt reasonably comfortable with using DC’s rail, METRO. We’ve also gotten around plenty of big cities, so we were pretty confident about finding everything. (You see where this is going, right?) We got METRO information from the hotel desk and left “in plenty of time” to get to our 9:00am tour. Only, we had to wait a few minutes on the hotel shuttle to the train station, we had to purchase and load five cards ($2 per card plus a minimum $8 balance), and the trains were running slowly (several tracks were under maintenance). The increasing worry that we wouldn’t make the tour on time was pushed aside as we laughed about how much fun the kids were having on the novelty of mass transit.

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We did get off at the correct spot with 15 minutes to spare (well, we were supposed to be there 15 minutes early, but never mind that…), and then discovered that L’Enfant Plaza isn’t magically right in front of L’Enfant Plaza station. Let’s just say we walked to one end of the block and then another in search of the grassy plaza on the tour receipt picture before asking a city police officer for directions…and then hoofing it down a few blocks and through a mall to find the right place. Of course, it was 9:05 when we got to the right place and our bus was outta sight. Thankfully, the DC Trails company also runs an off & on tour and the driver was happy to take us to meet our bus. Luckily, we didn’t miss a stop on our tour because the bus had taken longer to get to the Capitol due to several festivals and construction. (It seemed like every building in DC was under renovations.)

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After visiting the out-of-session, under construction Capitol, we saw the White House. We had tried to get a tour of the White House, but were declined due to the number of requests; it was still cool to see the outside of the building. (It was interesting to see the masses of people, right along with us, trying to take a good picture past the crowds and guards and fences.)

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From there, we went to the World War II Memorial. This was the most stunning memorial in DC, both in scope and design. Giant columns representing each state surround a reflecting pool and fountains, and one giant side of the memorial has a reflecting pool under a wall of stars representing the 400,000+ men and women who died in the war. On top of all that, this memorial is within clear site of the Washington Monument on one side and the Lincoln Memorial on the other side. Our tour guide recommended coming back at night, as it’s even more magnificent under the nighttime lighting (but sadly, we never made it back).

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Then we visited one of the newest memorials, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. While the stone statue of MLK, Jr. was magnificent, the best part of the memorial was the abundance of quotes carved in stone throughout the area. The layout was more like a garden path, where you wandered from one discovery to the next. It’s hard to explain what it was like to soak up the words he spoke, that fit today’s world just as much as a time gone by. (As a note, this memorial might be a nightmare for families with little children, as they would easily wander out of sight and there were many ways in and out of the memorial.)

 

From there we followed a natural flow to the Lincoln Memorial, and paused to reflect at the 40th step where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. It was amazing to see the statue of Lincoln up close, as it was bigger than we even imagined. It was interesting to hear the kids pair these two memorials as well, noting that both leaders strived for equality.

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I didn’t think we’d linger long at the FDR memorial, since we’ve studied him quite a bit with visits to Warm Springs. We laughed about how we’d already driven by the memorial FDR wanted (about the size of a desk), and about how you have no control over things like that once you’ve passed from this world. However, this was another wandering discovery of a memorial (similar to the MLK, Jr Memorial), also filled with engraved quotes. We talked about his famous quote (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”) and his other quotes that interestingly stir around that same theme. The kids had their own deep discussion about how fear is a big problem in our society now—with terror attacks coming from a place of fear and our responses and laws coming from a fear of more attacks. Little did I know that days later we would be hearing about another attack on fellow Americans because of fear and hate.

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The Korean War Memorial really struck home with us. With so much of our history education focused on wars we were “actively” involved in, this is the first war that stood out. The kids marveled at the fact that we went to aid another country and got involved in a war that didn’t affect us directly. The steel statues of soldiers made you immediately feel the intensity of war, and the wall of faces and war scenes made it feel all too real. On the positive side, the lower walls listing the countries of our allies gave a sense of belonging to something bigger than our country.

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At the next stop, the Vietnam War Memorial, I discovered just how little the kids knew about this war. The major frame of reference they had was from Forrest Gump, and it seems they didn’t really understand the meanings behind the war scenes in that movie. We stood aside and talked about it briefly, but we didn’t stay at this memorial long…mainly because I think the sheer volume of names on that seemingly endless wall represented way too much strife and sadness to ponder for a long time.

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While we only drove past the Pentagon, it was amazing to see how large that structure is (and to hear how many people work there). It was our first moment of reflection on the 9/11 attacks, learning how fortunate it was that the area struck was under construction (so way less people were injured or killed than could have been). It was also surprising to hear that nearly a third of the building was damaged, and it was sombering to know that nearly 200 people died there that day. It was unbelievable to hear how that plane was going 529 miles per hour, made a gash 30 yards wide and 10 yards deep, and caused a fire that burned for 36 hours.

On the heels of that story, we pulled into Arlington Cemetery. Our guide took us off the bus on a four-mile walk to visit the gravesites of the most decorated soldier, the Kennedys (including the Eternal Flame), and the Challenger pilot (there was a Challenger memorial for the other astronauts, but they apparently never found any evidence of anyone but the pilot). We discovered why people leave coins on the gravestones—a penny means you were related or a friend, a nickel means you went through training together, a dime means you served together, and a quarter means you were with this person when they died. Then we went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was amazing to learn about the Old Guard and all they do…not just guarding the Tomb 24/7, but also performing a host of duties in and out of Arlington (an average of 16 ceremonies per day). We were lucky enough to watch the changing of the guard, see two wreath-laying ceremonies, and witness the weapon and uniform inspection.

 

Our final stop was at the Marine Corps War Memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial). We learned that the flag on this memorial is one of seven that have presidential proclamations requiring that the flag fly 24/7. This memorial really wrapped up the themes of the day: war, dedication, unity, and freedom.

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So, as you can tell, this day-long tour provided an unbelievable wealth of information. Although we cracked up over our tour guide’s accent (such as “infiny” for infantry and “libry” for liberty), he was a great and friendly guide. I can’t say enough good things about the DC Trails tour and highly recommend it for anyone visiting DC. (It would certainly be worth full price, but don’t forget to check Groupon or other discount sites.)

We got back to the hotel just ahead of a heavy rainstorm, and jaunted out for dinner. We not only enjoyed some amazing Indian food, but also had fun recounting the day. When we got back to the room and discovered Forrest Gump was on TV, we had to laugh—so many moments through the day we had referenced that movie…”remember when Jenny ran through the water at the Mall?”, “remember when Forrest spoke at the war rally?”, etc.

Reflections: Lizzy was most amazed by the Lincoln Memorial and how MLK, Jr. had spoken on the steps there. Brandon liked the tour bus as a whole—especially the trivia questions the guide would give along the way. Alex felt the most impact by Arlington and the Vietnam Memorial, as he said it was amazing to experience a little of what people have gone through for our country. Thom’s reflection was a little different, as he was taken aback when we went past the Evening Star building. It was like the past flooded in, reminding him of his times living in the DC area as a teenager when his dad got the head engineer job in that building but how it led to lots of moving around. All the moves led to Thom living with his grandpa in Griffin for a time, which led to him meeting my cousin, which led to him eventually meeting me. It brought things full circle and gave him the perspective to appreciate a trying time in life because it led to the amazing life we have.

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