The WWII Memorial, Reflection Pool and Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Frank Hosek

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The soaring spire blocked the morning sun, casting an elongated shadow across the well-kept lawn. As the morning star eased itself above the peak of the spire, the 555-foot natural stone obelisk gleamed bright above our heads. Framed in brilliant light, The Washington Monument is an impressive and iconic towering ode to our first president.

The day had not started out quite as promising. Arising before sun-rise, by 7:30 we had joined the queue for the release of walk-up tickets to enter the Washington Monument. On-line tickets had been sold out for weeks. 

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While in line, we met Teri, a nurse from Michigan, and her son Matt. They are hosting a Korean exchange student and wanted to share the country’s history with him. They could think of no better place than the Capital city. By the time of the 8:45 ticket window opening, the line had exceeded a hundred strong. We had inched to within 5 feet when a sold-out sign was placed in the window. With groans, we wished each other better luck next time and went our separate ways.

The Martin Luther King Memorial stands amongst the Cherry Blossoms on the Tidal Basin Trail. Photo by Frank Hosek
The Martin Luther King Memorial stands amongst the Cherry Blossoms on the Tidal Basin Trail. Photo by Frank Hosek

So, on a path girdling the Tidal Basin which is part of the National Mall, covered in a gentle layer of petals like the first snowfall of the season, we strolled towards the Jefferson Memorial and embraced an unseasonably warm day in our nation’s Capital. We had purposely sought out a spring visit to the Capitol in order to see the famed blossoming Cherry trees. It was looking up for our first trip to DC.

The remarkable cherry blossoms around Washington’s Tidal Basin are nature’s fiery announcement that spring is here. The famous trees, a gift of Japan in 1912, signal the beginning of the season with a burst of color that surrounds the Tidal Basin in a sea of pale pink and white blossoms.

Situated on the Tidal Basin with its hundreds of Cherry trees in Washington, DC, The Jefferson Memorial, which was dedicated 80 years ago this past April, houses a 19’ tall bronze of Thomas Jefferson that dominates the white marble interior. The circular, open-air memorial based on the Pantheon in Rome is 165 feet in diameter, with an exterior made of marble. Under the dome, four quotations from Jefferson can be found carved on the walls. The one that continues to resonate and the one we seem to struggle the most with begins:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

Cherry Blossoms and the Jefferson Memorial. The famous trees were a gift of Japan in 1912. Photo by Frank Hosek
Cherry Blossoms and the Jefferson Memorial. The famous trees were a gift of Japan in 1912. Photo by Frank Hosek

The trail continued on, passing by the towering granite Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, inspired by his line, “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Also located on the path, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial which, in honor of FDR’s four terms, is divided into four outdoor displays that include one of his most memorable quotes “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

 Two men who spoke of seeking better lives for the downtrodden.

There are blister-free options for seeing DC, but Washington is a city best seen on foot. And the National Mall, without doubt, is the most walked stretch of the city. 

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The Mall is the very soul of Washington, D.C. It is an amazing strip of emerald landscape in the heart of the city that stretches over 2-miles from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. Filled with monuments, memorials, and museums it is a swath of land honoring the legacy and history of the United States and is often referred to as “America’s front yard.”

It is where the values of our nation and those who have championed them are enshrined. The west end of the National Mall is full of some of the most iconic monuments and memorials that many have only seen in books or on the back of their money.

Honoring Those Who Served

Franklin Roosevelt spoke out against Fascism in 1941. The FDR Memorial. Photo by Frank Hosek
Franklin Roosevelt spoke out against Fascism in 1941. The FDR Memorial. Photo by Frank Hosek

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s somberness is palpable. Finished in 1982, it does not have a grand façade, it does not have a palatial vaulted ceiling, nor is it a soaring tower. Instead, its sloping black marble walls are recessed into the ground. The intersecting walls list more than 58,000 names of those who died. While we were standing there, one woman used paper and pencil to etch a name, while another placed a small bouquet of flowers. 

Nearby, a poignant memorial honoring the contributions of the many women who risked their lives to serve their country. As one bronzed, upturned face looks skyward for an unseen helicopter, two other nurses tend to a wounded soldier. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial is a tribute to the 265,000 women who served during the conflict.

These are memorials that may have helped to heal, but it has not erased the scar.

Directly east, past the reflection pool, stands The Korean War Memorial. Nineteen larger-than-life soldiers clad in ponchos on perpetual patrol slogged across a “rice paddy”. Their weary, wary expressions, permanently etched in bronze, gazed upon us as though they wondered if we were friends or foes. It is devastatingly effective.

At the eastern end of the reflection pool is the World War II Memorial. 56 granite pillars encircle the Rain-bow pool that is enhanced by matching fountains. Entering the circle, we walked along walls that pictured scenes of the war. Our serene stroll around the 7 acre memorial seemed completely at odds with such a shattering conflict.

Return to the Washington Monument

The Washington Monument as seen from the Lincoln Memorial across the half empty reflection pool. Photo by Frank Hosek
The Washington Monument is seen from the Lincoln Memorial across the half-empty reflection pool. Photo by Frank Hosek

The Washington Monument dominates the skyline of the District of Columbia. Wherever you are in the city, you can fix your bearings by looking skyward for that venerable stone needle.

It had taken us two days of trying, a few hours of standing in line, and some anxious moments, but we were now ensconced 500’ above the green lawn below atop the world’s tallest stone obelisk. We had returned even earlier the following morning from our disappointing try the day before. We were rewarded with tickets for the first entry of the day. The views were truly amazing. 

Construction began in 1848 as a privately funded enterprise. However, it came to a halt due to a lack of funds. When work restarted in 1877, it was made with marble from a different source. When you are up close, you can see a clear line where the color of the stone changes partway up. 

The monument opened in 1885. From the viewing platform, you can see the White House, The Capitol Building, and virtually all of the most recognized memorials and sites.

The World’s Largest Museum

The historic 11-ton, 13-foot-tall elephant has been on display in the Museum of Natural history's rotunda since 1959. Photo by Frank Hosek
The historic 11-ton, 13-foot-tall elephant has been displayed in the Museum of Natural History’s rotunda since 1959. Photo by Frank Hosek

Known as “the nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institute tells the story of our country. Repository for all of the United States’ important historical artifacts, the sheer volume of that responsibility has forced it to expand to 21 museums, art galleries and the National Zoo, becoming the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex and all open free to the public.

If you have lots of time, I’m talking weeks in fact, the Smithsonian museums offer a window into the nation’s history, culture, and what it took to pursue its “experiment” with democracy. Eleven of the museums are located on the National Mall

Unfortunately, we did not have weeks or even days, so we settled on one.

One of the more celebrated Smithsonian Museums is the Museum of Natural History, which is literally packed to the roof with exhibits on the natural sciences. 

It was obvious that the Museum is a favorite with kids, from its exact replica of a North Atlantic right whale diving from the ceiling to the massive African elephant in the main hall, but especially the dinosaur gallery with its Triceratops and a 14-foot-tall T-rex. I confess the dinosaurs were also a favorite of mine. 

Our visit coincided with spring break for a greater part of the country, which was obvious by the throngs of students that had descended upon Washington. Under normal circumstances, the youthful crowds could have deterred us from some of the sites. However, watching them embrace the treasures, discover the history, and learn of the individuals who helped shape the nation they live in was gratifying. 

Their enthusiasm, brought on not by some over-stimulating theme park but by the riches of our country, added to my own gusto for the experience.

Grant and Lincoln

In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever. Photo by Frank Hosek
In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever. Photo by Frank Hosek

Standing on the western side of the U.S. Capitol, the General Ulysses S. Grant Memorial honors the commanding general of the Union Army — who later became the country’s 18th president. 

With the Capitol behind him, the imposing figure of Grant mounted on his horse faces the Lincoln Memorial almost two miles to the west, as though the two men who helped save the Union are sharing a silent acknowledgment.

A visit to Washington D.C. has to include what I believe is the most revered of the memorials.

When we climbed up the four score and seven steps towards the marbled chamber that holds the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, each footfall increased the tangible anticipation that enveloped us. Standing before the 19’ tall, century-old sculpture, conflicting feelings of both pride and sadness finally retreated into a wonderment.  

The 5-story, open air Greek-styled temple sits with its back towards the Potomac River facing the Capitol 2 miles away. Although the cavernous chamber was inundated with visitors, a reverent hush pervaded the hall. Even though you feel small compared to its massive proportions, Lincoln exudes an almost intimate feeling.

Immortalized in marble, the 16th President sits slightly forward from his commanding throne, feet flat underneath bent legs with the right forward of the left as though determined to rise to face the next challenge. Above his stern but benevolent countenance are etched these words: 

“In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

As we tilted our heads upwards towards that all too familiar face, I could not help but think that he was watching over the crowds with the protective gaze of a loving father.

If you go:

The National Mall Trust

The Smithsonian Institution

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Author Bio: Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy.  He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people that make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines and travel websites.

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