“Where are you headed next?” the docent asked as we walked back to the rotunda in the National Museum of Art.
“I wanted to walk down to the Lincoln Memorial.” I answered.
Her eyes grew wide. “That’s a long walk. I know it doesn’t look that far, because of all the open space, but it’s about two miles.”
I smiled at her. Two miles was not too far.
The docent was right about distances being deceiving on the Mall in Washington D.C. Much of this is because the architecture is so over sized. The first designers made everything huge and impressive, sized for the cultural giants they hoped that Americans would aspire to become. The buildings can be seen and admired from afar, then as one draws closer awe grows. They go up and up and up.
The walk was long, past museums and sculpture gardens. The sidewalks were full of tour groups and school groups, each rushing about to make sure they saw everything on their lists. For most Americans trips to D.C. are rare, every moment there is precious. I too came with a list of things I hoped to see, but more important to me was to be there, to experience the place. I decided from moment to moment whether to walk, sit, or photograph. It was a unique freedom not to have to consult the wishes of others about these things, my visit was my own.
I was impressed by the towers and fountains. I saw the from afar that each tower was labelled with the name of a state and that the matched structures on each end declared Atlantic and Pacific. The logic and planning was evident in the design. Then my feet stepped from sidewalk concrete and onto the flagstones.
Awe and reverence rolled over me in a wave, as if the stones themselves were steeped in them. My eyes began to water and I looked about with my mouth open. I was standing on sanctified ground. A hundred photos of the place will never capture that feeling, because the feeling does not exist in the shapes of the stones or the water. It does not even exist in the words etched into the walls at intervals.
All of these things contribute, are part of it, but there is something else there. I think that the builders gave it something and every one who visits adds their own piece. The collected awe and gratitude of a hundred thousand visitors are accumulated in that cirque and focused on the memory of those who sacrificed. One can not stand there without wanting to be a better person to live up to those sacrifices.
To be truthful, it was a bit over powering. I walked up the ramp to exit, curious to see if the feeling would leave as abruptly as it came. Stepping off the flagstones was rather like stepping through the down blast of air in an open-front grocery store. Despite the lack of barrier, the feel of things was different. I turned back for one more look, knowing I needed to come again someday.
The reflecting pools were all under construction, and had been for years according to a local. Someday they will reflect again, but years of wear needed to be fixed first. I followed a winding detour which led me to the Vietnam memorial. I was very curious to see if the Vietnam memorial would affect me as strongly as the World War II memorial. It was one I saw twenty years ago when I visited D.C. as a teenager. At that time it affected me profoundly, teaching me name by name the costs of war.
The Vietnam memorial is a quiet place and the feel of it was quiet. It invites reflection by showing us ourselves in the surface of the wall covered in the names of the dead. I ran my fingers along the names, feeling their roughness against the glass-smooth marble. The Vietnam memorial is a cautionary monument, telling me to be careful what battles I pick.
One thing saddened me. When I came as a teenager the most impressive moments were looking at the flowers and notes left for loved ones whose names were etched there.
This recent trip had an even more abundant litter of notes.
But none of the notes were personal. They were all from “The Students of Lincoln Middle School” or “Mrs. Jeffrey’s Fifth Grade.” That seemed sad to me. Our national memory is fading and the meaning of the monument is changing into something new. On the other hand, there is power in asking a child to pick a name on the wall, picture that name as a loved one, and then leave a note.
Once I knew I was coming to D.C. again, I was filled with a need to sit on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. It seemed powerful to my teenaged self, but she was distracted. By the time we reached Lincoln, I’d met a boy on the trip and things were edging into complicated territory. I wanted nothing more to sit there and absorb the feel of the place, but awareness of the boy was like pebbles thrown into a calm pond, changing the shapes of the reflections. Twenty years later, I wondered what my adult self would feel there.
The creators of this monument wanted visitors to feel small and humble. This effect was somewhat mitigated by the crowds of visitors. It was hard to take a picture that didn’t have other people in it.
Yet I didn’t mind the other people. We stood together, pondering equality and freedom, all of us equal visitors no matter what our origins, skin color, or ethnicity. I don’t know what Lincoln the man would think of his giant statue and throng of visitors, but Lincoln stopped being a man long ago and is instead an icon. I think the icon would be pleased to see many who came to visit him.
After paying my respects to Mr. Lincoln I sat on the front steps with my back tucked into the curve of a pillar. Much of the walk had been hot, I was tired, but I closed my eyes in the cool breeze and felt peace. This was why I’d come two thousand miles on an airplane and two miles on foot. I came to feel peace, to tuck a small portion of it into my heart so that I could carry it home with me. I sat there for a long time at the end of my pilgrimage.
I watched the other visitors, including the child who managed to sneak a forbidden slide down the slanted marble next to the stairs. Mostly I thought of nothing in particular. Eventually I had to climb down and leave. I had a long walk back to the metro station. I passed the Korean War Memorial, but was too tired to enter. My path led right by the World War II Memorial. I went inside again to see if the feeling would roll over me again. Instead it sneaked in and filled me. I sat for a time near the Pacific fountain.
When I left to trek back to the metro station, I did so knowing that someday I would love to return. Washington D.C. is a place worth knowing.