Day 13 – Philadelphia to Washington DC

Every day whilst we’ve been on this road trip has brought both good and bad – good in the things that we do, and bad in the fact that we’re coming ever closer to the end. But it’s the same on any holiday, and in fact with anything – it has to end at some point.

These thoughts always pop into my head at least once a day on holidays, and probably never more so than on this day as we leave Philadelphia towards Washington DC.

After navigating the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (we still didn’t know where we were supposed to be going, but we got there) and making our way towards DC, we get on the toll road and, at some point, stop off for some petrol. I do recall that we had a look around the shops at the service station. Yep, there’s a shop here that sells a whole assortment of stuff, including stuffed animal heads to mount on your wall, satellite dishes and large flatscreen TVs. Who exactly buys these things from a service station? I’m at a loss on that one.

Getting closer to DC, we start coming across traffic outside… wait for it…

The George Bush Centre Of Intelligence.

Now this is about the previous President Bush, not the most recent one, but it’s still rather amusing. To be honest, if it were about the recent President Bush then it’d explain a few things – his intelligence is located EXTERNALLY to his brain. He doesn’t have it with him at all times – it is, in fact, residing in that building there in Langley.

Nevertheless, onwards we push. We also notice signs that say cops who keep track of people speeding (in other words, the police here in the UK who sit by the road with their speedguns) use helicopters round these parts. Seriously. Cops using helicopters just to ensure people who are speeding are brought to justice.

In any case, onto DC. Now, we’ve had to plan where to stay in DC fairly carefully and we came to the following conclusion:

Staying in Washington DC is impractical, so don’t even try.

You see, Washington DC is, of course, the seat of the USA Government. Politicians don’t live here – they instead stay in the hotels. In fact, Washington DC actually has higher rates during the week rather than during the weekend (as opposed to the other way round in most places), as most politicians will come during the week and leave at the weekend.

As such, hotel rates are quite high in DC itself. Our best option was to book into a hotel just outside DC itself, in nearby Rosslyn, Arlington. DC itself is… well, not a State, but I don’t believe it is part of any State in America. Instead, I think it’s a district. But in any case, Rosslyn is literally a stone’s throw away from DC – there’s a river separating the two, which isn’t especially wide. DC and the general area (including Rosslyn) have a pretty good underground train system too – a lot more modern than what I’ve seen of New York or London (and Chicago, though Chicago’s doesn’t go underground much, if at all).

On approaching the hotel, Bessie is lost as usual. We’re going into a tunnel which has streets running above it. Unfortunately, Bessie is under the impression that the street we’re on, and the streets that are above us, are in fact junctions. She’s constantly telling us to turn left – which would result in us being killed by the oncoming traffic or, if that misses us, the tunnel wall itself. Thankfully we decide to ignore her, which sends her into a bit of a strop. Stupid thing tells us to turn around (still inside the tunnel here) so we can have another go at hurling ourselves to death. A bit of reprogramming our route later and she’s… well, still as useless as ever when it comes to finding exact locations, but find them we did! Good thing we printed maps off too.

So, car parked and hotel checked into, and we’re into the room. This one’s pretty strange – in most hotels you walk into the bedroom, with the bathroom at the back. There are some exceptions (recent business trips to Premier Inn included, and for some reason their towels smell of pickle) and this is one of them.

Here, you walk into the room and you’re immediately on a nice, smooth tiled reception area. To your left is a small coffee section, and on the right is the sink and a door to the bathroom. Walking onwards and you get to the room itself, which has a nice big window. Unfortunately the view is pants and looks out onto a lot of other buildings that are immediately close by, as well as building work. Plus the walls are paper thin – you can hear every single “bing” from the lift right outside. Thankfully I didn’t hear any amourous couples like back in Philadelphia – otherwise I would have been distinctly worried.

At this point we haven’t had anything to eat, or at least I don’t think we had. I can’t quite remember, but I think we go to the local Metro station to head towards the Pentagon Mall and the Pentagon itself.

Now, the Metro stations themselves. These things are BIG. Seriously BIG. Okay, on ground level it’s fine. Go through a gate, buy a ticket. But then you descend down a HUGE tunnel on the escalators. These tunnels are actually big enough for a few trains to go through at once. I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen much of London underground, but these things are HUGE! And then, once you’re down there, you’re in another HUGE tunnel which is the size, shape and scale that are like something from a science fiction film. Again, these things could easily have a fair number of trains running round them, and they’re split onto different levels as well when you change lines. It really is quite bizarre and staggering.

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Now, one quick train trip later and we’re at the Pentagon Mall.

I’m not a fan of American malls – generally, they tend to be entirely about clothes shops, with very little in the way of being able to buy actual entertaining things. This one is no exception. There is a huge food court (naturally), no book shops, no DVD or music shops, and a single GameStop. Have a quick go on a 3DS (still think about getting one) and grab a sandwich at the food court, and then on to the Pentagon, just a few train stops later (it may even have just been one!).

Now, the Pentagon. This is our first look, I guess, at a Washington DC landmark. And it’s big. You see these things on TV and think “oh, it’s just another building, it’s not that big”. Well they are. You just have the wrong scale in your head. You think a door is the size of a regular, everyday door and the same for a window. They’re not. Not at all.

Around here, and even in the Metro stop, there are people returning from tours of duty, going to the Pentagon on whatever business they have, wearing army gear. Which is refreshing to see. Even in the car park, which we go through. Because there is one particular place we want to visit: The Pentagon Memorial.

Now this brings us onto another subject. Where were you on September 11th, 2001? Everyone who was of an age to realise what was going on knows where they were when the World Trade Centre towers came down, when part of the Pentagon was destroyed and when passengers fought hijackers, sacrificing themselves in a field in Virginia.

Myself – I was at my wife’s house. Of course she was my girlfriend then – we had been dating about six months. I was just about to start my second year at university with her. I’d come back to university early so I could settle in to my new rented accomodation and generally have a nice, lazy start to the year for a week before lectures resumed. My housemate texted me, saying that someone had flown a rocket into one of the WTC towers. I was about to text back to ask him what sort of joke this was – it wasn’t that it was crass, this was before the attacks of course, and flying things into buildings wasn’t a taboo subject, it was that I simply didn’t “get it” as a joke. But then, before I finished the text, I had the smart idea of simply turning the TV on.

And so we saw channel after channel of The Coverage. We saw the first tower on fire. We saw the second plane hit. We saw both the towers come down.

Of course, this was just the start of events that would change the face of the world. In 2006 we went to New York and visited the site of the World Trade Centres – at that point a hole in the ground that was being rebuilt. There was a fence at one side of “ground zero” which told the events of what happened, and a man at the top of his voice shouting his story to the crowd. Nearby, another fence – this time just on a nearby building – is filled with tiles inscribed with names, photos of faces and notes. And from time to time, I’m ashamed to say, we would happen across people trying to sell obviously home-made 9/11 souvenirs. We were unsure how to react. We knew we would visit, but did we want to take photos? This shouldn’t be a place where people enjoy themselves, boast that they were there and whip out a picture of themselves grinning at a place that was home to such senseless loss of life.

But take photos we did, in order to preserve the memory. As I mentioned, this was not a place to enjoy oneself.

During 2005, I’d started a new job. I commuted by train (nowhere near London) and I distinctly remember July 7th. Where I worked had no TV, radio or internet access so it was only as I was heading home that I found out about the attacks in London. I went into the station and wondered what all the police with rather large guns were doing. I got onto the platforms and noticed someone’s newspaper which they were reading – saw the front page. Went on over and actually held the paper at the correct angle so I could read the front cover – the man must have thought I was some sort of idiot, but it was on his newspaper that I saw the news about the bombs in London. There were several nervous people on the train back.

But now we come back to September 11th, 2001. Of course, ask anyone about it and they’ll say that was when New York was attacked. Most people forget about the Pentagon, about the field in Virginia.

The Pentagon has been rebuilt, of course. You can see the new brickwork. A small, quite memorial garden stands as a tribute, listing everyone who lost their lives – aside from the hijackers – on their own individual plinth within the garden, as well as their age and nationality inscribed in stone and metal, whilst water gurgles and splashes, feeding the trees.

We do take photos. I don’t think we should have – not because of a feeling of “it’s not the done thing”, but instead due to signs advising us not to as the Pentagon itself could be seen, and this is something the American government don’t want getting into the wrong hands.

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We return to the hotel at late afternoon and plan on going out for a meal and to the cinema. The people at the front desk advise us of a cinema and chinese restaurant nearby, giving us a map. I’ve brought my PDA with me, so we find the cinema and use the hotel’s wifi to find out what’s playing. We decide to go see Cars 2.

Leaving the hotel, we try to find the chinese restaurant. Seems it’s not there any more. Maybe it never was – the map we were given isn’t really any help at all. Still, we head to the Metro again to travel to the cinema and get there quite early. We book tickets (the cinema actually seems to be underground, or partially underground) and come out to the ground level, finding ourselves in a neat little shopping centre that’s being built. It does have a few shops that are open, including apparently a game shop, which we couldn’t find. We do find a japanese restaurant, which is my first time really having japanese food. It’s quite nice – pretty good thick noodles. Then watch Cars 2, which is average. You can tell Disney love the merchandise and toy rights from that film.

Then we return to the hotel and try to get some sleep and avoid getting woken up by the constant “bing” of the lift and people walking around through the paper-thin walls, as the next day we’re off to our fourth park (and this time leaving the car) – Six Flags America.

Previous – Day 12 – July 4th in Philadelphia

Next – Day 14 – Six Flags America

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