We made our way through Raleigh, North Carolina, to the coast of Virginia and Maryland. You can’t see much from the highway because they line the road with trees, but my impressions were of vibrant greens and stately brick houses. The glorious thing about this drive for me as an English person was seeing the English place names on the map. It was as though someone had picked up Portsmouth, Chester, Norfolk, Suffolk, Windsor and Richmond, shaken them like dice, and then scattered them at random. One result is a town called Isle of Wight which is inland. A side note for my English family – we also went past a place called Olney.
Horse-obsessed Daughter #2 had told us about the wild horses on the barrier islands off the coast of Virginia years ago. This was our chance to see them, the wild ponies of Sable Island in the North Atlantic being much more remote and inaccessible. We were not disappointed by the horses or other wildlife on windswept, sandy Assateague Island, which is a state park. The only human intervention is contraception for the mares, which keeps the gene pool healthy and ensures the horses do not eat all the dune grass, a habitat for other birds and animals. Each mare foals once.
Getting to the islands was exciting. We used the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. This is 23 miles long and is one of the greatest engineering feats of all time, built in the 1960s. The tunnel starts half way over, thus preserving the shipping lanes for the naval and commercial ports. Imagine driving into a tunnel under the Northumberland Strait half way over the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island in Canada. We stayed a couple of nights in Ocean City, a holiday town North of Assateague, which couldn’t be more different from the wild and quiet park. There is nothing sadder than a seaside town out of season. The Atlantic waves were pounding on the beach, and the remaining retirees were gamely leaning into the wind as they did their morning constitutional along the broad walk, their Shih Tzus finding their little legs swept away from under them at each step. However, out of season means cheap, so we had a comfortable stay. The hotels which remain open fill their rooms with ‘boomer’ conferences. The Corvette Convention was in full swing when we were there, and four or five Corvette sports cars revving their engines in a parking garage is not peaceful. ‘Welcome Kite flyers!’ said the sign on the next hotel. We got out of town before the Harley Davidson convention arrived.
Next stop was Washington. We stayed in a quiet suburb, where pumpkins and Halloween decorations were appearing on the front porches. The parents and nannies gathered to meet the school buses were multi-cultural. In town, I was surprised at how laid back everything was. Yes, you must go through a metal detector to visit a museum/ go to an event, and our car boot was searched going into a parkade near the Capitol, but on the large Washington Mall, lined with multiple memorials and monuments, there was no police or military presence because it is run by the National Parks Service. We went to an excellent sound and light show called Illuminasia on the Washington Mall and saw very little in the way of security in a crowd of thousands.
The memorials to the Second World War, Vietnam, Korean wars etc. on the Washington Mall are funded and initiated by groups of private citizens for the most part, not the state. This can mean years of controversy and debate and fundraising before anything gets done – but who said government of the people, by the people, for the people, was neat and tidy? The Martin Luther King Jr memorial fund ran out of money and had the whole thing designed and manufactured in China. It looks like an out-dated Disney theme park, and the statue of Dr. King is in Soviet style, with exaggerated facial features and a badly fitting suit.
You are spoiled for choice in Washington when it comes to museums. The Smithsonian museums are all free and vast. We chose a couple and went on (free) guided tours. The Portrait Gallery is in the former Patent Office, a lovely building. They have original or copied portraits of all the US presidents there. My favourite was the Andy Warhol-ish portrait of Bill Clinton. Then we drove out to the Aviation and Space Museum by Dulles Airport and revelled in seeing Wright Brothers machines, early gliders and sailplanes, right up to the thrill of being a few feet away from the space shuttle Discovery and the Apollo 11 return-to-Earth-capsule. At the very good Newsmuseum, right next to the Canadian Embassy, I got to touch a piece of the Berlin Wall.
It wasn’t all museums and memorials. We explored The Wharf, a recently gentrified area on the river. Here we enjoyed an open pit fire tended to full-time by a fire-keeper who told us his greatest challenge was dissuading nearby bar patrons from throwing the remains of their vodka on the fire. We were also impressed by floating vegetable gardens on the river. A very knowledgeable guide took us through the Capitol Botanical Garden Conservatory, a calm contrast to the uncomfortable experience of hurtling through The Capitol with hundreds of other tourists while listening to a guide through an earpiece tell us how George Washington was depicted ascending as a Roman Emperor on the cupola. It was like visiting the Sistine Chapel in The Vatican, except without guards shouting ‘SILENCIO!’ every 2 minutes. We were proud to find that our former company-manufactured Braille and tactile maps are still in pristine condition and being used to navigate The Capitol Grounds about ten years after installation.
Everything follows the Potomac River in Washington. From the Kennedy Arts Centre we watched commercial aircraft follow it South, flying low, then turn West to land at Dulles Airport. Three government helicopters in formation made their way sedately up river to the bend, then turned as one towards the White House (which one was carrying the President?). Georgetown, the original tobacco-trading port on the river, is the oldest and smartest area. It is home to many politicians, the wealthy, and students attending Georgetown University. We did a very good walking tour of the area, and wandering down the main street at dusk afterwards, I expected the upscale shoppers to be talking about Trump’s latest news conference, North Korea, or some such. My expectations were raised after eavesdropping in a café near The Capitol as a European lobbyist for a Zambian separatist group tried to get the support of a Voice of America executive – exciting! In the heart of the action! Instead, these Washingtonians were only interested in their stomachs:
“That’s the difference between you and me: I will eat anything, and you are picky.”
“I’m only picky at certain times of the day.”
“You call that a small ice cream? A small cone has one scoop of one flavour. You’re kidding yourself if you think that’s small.”
Well, food is important, even if you live in the custom-built centre of one of the most significant political experiments in history.
On to lots of food in New York, our last stop on the Nestless and Restless tour.