After the multi-national diversity of the Westerner 2 Trek America Tour my second Trek America Tour – the Best of the East or the BEAST – was comprised mainly of British people who had just finished Camp America for the summer. There was a guy from Japan though and our tour guide was American too. He was born in Florida. He was a great guy from the outset being more approachable and energetic than the tour leader of the Westerner 2 and he was more personable too. He introduced himself and said he had bought loads of disposable cameras that we could use so we could plaster the Trek America Tour Bus in photographs of our tour. This is pretty much what we did, and the tour felt more personal and I felt a little more relaxed and myself. When we arrived at Cherry Hill Park which was our campground for the night, he made us a fantastic meal and we introduced ourselves to the group.
After dinner we were treated to an illuminated tour of Washington D.C with the highlights of the tour for me being the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building, Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the city was influenced by urban planning from Europe and neoclassical landscape design exemplified by Versailles. He adapted these ideas to Washington’s terrain and placed the Capitol on Jenkins Hill and the ‘Presidents House’ on a lower terrace overlooking the Potomac River. Between them ran Pennsylvania Avenue to symbolise the separate but connected branches of government. The Washington night tour was great as all the major attractions were all lit up and as Washington is a beautiful city it was great to see everything in a different way. The tour started at the White House which of course is home to the president! It is the place where the President receives foreign dignitaries and is the centre of the executive branch of government. James Hoban designed the White House in the style of an 18th-Century manor house. The British burnt it down during the war of 1812 but under Hoban’s direction it was rebuilt by 1817. As we prowled around, we were all speculating as to whether the President was actually presiding inside the White House and of course there was someone who claimed he was standing at the window!
We headed down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the U.S. Capitol which I thought was pretty spectacular. The Capitol is home to the U.S. Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate and is the centre of American democracy. The competition for its design was won by Dr. William Thornton who was a gifted amateur architect. On September 18th, 1793, George Washington laid the U.S. Capitol cornerstone at the southeast corner of its foundation to mark the building of America’s most symbolically important building amongst much pomp and celebration.
From the U.S Capitol building we made our way to the Washington Monument. The Washington Monument towers above the city in celebration of George Washington’s greatness. The Washington Monument was designed by Robert Mills and eventually completed by Thomas Casey. It is built in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk evoking the timelessness of ancient civilisations. The Washington Monument is a symbol of respect and gratitude that America felt for its most essential Founding Father and when it was completed in 1884 it was the tallest building in the world standing at nearly 556 feet tall.
I was in awe of the Lincoln Memorial as I had not realised how huge it was going to be! It stands as a grand neoclassical monument to the 16th President at the west end of the National Mall and was designed by Henry Bacon and is based on Greek temples. It stands 190-feet-long, 119-feet-wide, and almost 100-feet-high and is surrounded by 36 fluted Doric columns one for each of the thirty-six states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. The figure of Lincoln is sitting in contemplation between the north and south chambers of the central hall. The statue was carved by the Piccirilli brothers under the supervision of the sculptor Daniel Chester French and it is 19-feet-high and weighs 175 tons! Congress approved the bill to construct the memorial in 1910, construction began in 1914 and was opened to the public in 1922. The monument is visited by millions of people every year and it is inspirational. In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous “I Have a Dream’ speech to a crowd outside the Lincoln Memorial.
We only had limited time in Washington, but we visited Arlington Cemetery the next day. Arlington National Cemetery is America’s largest military cemetery and is the final resting place for over 400,000 military veterans from the fronts of Iraq, Afghanistan and World War I and World War II. It is also home to several historic sites including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is a tribute to unidentified fallen soldiers who fought in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The Tomb of the Unknown Solider is a large white sarcophagus that is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by Tomb Guard sentinels from the elite 3rd U.S Infantry Regiment. We gathered to watch the rather sombre Changing of the Guard ritual where a sentinel takes over guard duty from the previous sentinel. This happens every hour from October to March and every half an hour from April to September. We watched this in full in respectful silence.
After the Changing of the Guard we continued to respectfully view some of the graves and tombs of famous individuals including the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated. At his funeral on November 25th, 1963 Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy lit an eternal flame that remains alight today. President William Howard Taft and the seven Space Shuttle Challenger astronauts are also buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington House sits on a hill overlooking the cemetery and originally this was built as a living memorial to George Washington. We managed to cram quite a lot in to a 48-hour period but there really was so much to see in Washington including the Smithsonian Museums and so more time was needed to fully appreciate all of the sights and history of America’s capital city.