Spring Break 2022 – Monuments at night

It seems to have become a family tradition for us to visit Washington DC’s monuments and memorials at night. While we have taken the kids to see the sites three times, the most recent two trips have been at night.

We started with the Washington Monument and then moved on to see the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, which is one of my absolute favourites. I think the sculpture of King is wonderful in and of itself but I also love the symbolism of passing through the “mountain of despair” to see the “stone of hope” from which the figure of MLK is emerging. I would love to see it in cherry blossom season some time.

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From there, we circled back to see Mr Pict’s favourite memorial: the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It proved a little tricky to locate and access in the dark because much of that area is hoarded of for construction of horse stables and an expansion of the memorial itself. It is a very evocative memorial, with the expressive faces on the slightly larger than life figures and the way they are placed within the juniper bushes.

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Of course, no trip to the National Mall is complete without a pop in to see Abraham Lincoln. I cannot help but think of that scene from ‘The Simpsons’ where the statue of Thomas Jefferson complains to Lisa that nobody ever thinks to visit him as they all head to see Lincoln instead. We actually had planned to trek out to the Jefferson Memorial on this trip but it was too dark by the time we arrived in the city centre to walk all the way out to the other end of the tidal basin so, yes, we neglected Jefferson yet again. It is definitely better to visit the Lincoln Memorial at night because it can feel a bit too like being a herring in a barrel during the day.

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Incidentally, this Spring break trip was the first time the boys and I had used mass transit since before the pandemic. It, therefore, felt like part of the vacation to them to be travelling on the metro. They especially loved how steep the escalators were and enjoyed challenging themselves to run up the steps as fast as possible.

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Memorials at Night

After so many hours spent in Arlington National Cemetery, we decided to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal.  Mr Pict and I had fond memories of eating in a Southern food restaurant in Alexandria, called Southside 851, so we headed there.  When we ate there in 2002, it was the first time I had had fried green tomatoes and I absolutely loved them.  We, therefore, ordered those as a shared starter.  They were just as delicious as I remembered them.  The other courses we ate were flavoursome and good quality but far too greasy for our palates.  Still, the calories had been well-earned and our full bellies set us up for an evening exploring some of the monuments and memorials of Washington DC at night.

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We started at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial because I remembered being impressed by how it looked at night and because my kids had never visited it at any time of day at all.  I have to confess, however, that I was disappointed this time.  The lighting appeared weaker than I recalled, with some of the statues so poorly lit that they were almost obscured by the darkness, and definitely much less dramatic.  Between the dim lighting and the hordes of school groups clambering all over everything, my kids were distinctly unimpressed by what is actually a very striking memorial full of historical references and symbolism.  What was most aggravating, however, was that none of the water features were in action.  These obviously have aesthetic and sensory appeal but they also symbolise various aspects of FDR’s presidency so there absence undermined the impact of the whole memorial.  I actually felt annoyed that this was my kids’ first introduction to this memorial.

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A statue that was definitely as striking by night as it was by day was the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr.  This was my first time viewing it in the dark and the lighting was just spot on.  It’s an incredible melding of portraiture, symbolism, and messaging, and really very moving.

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Our group split up after that with Mr Pict taking some of the boys to the Lincoln Memorial (our 13 year old’s favourite) while I took our youngest son and the grandparents back to the car.  Once we were all back together again, we decided to visit one last memorial.  It has been over a quarter of a century since I last visited the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial and I had never seen it at night so I thought this was a good opportunity to show it to the kids, given they are familiar with the iconic photograph from which it takes its inspiration.  I think it is a memorial that really needs to be seen by daylight as too much of the detail is lost when it is not as well lit.

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Road Trip #20 – Monuments at Night

After a restful and cooling break in the hotel, we headed back out for the evening.  Our plan was to show the boys some of Washington DC’s monuments by night because they look quite different when artificially lit compared to how they appear in daylight and also because it is less busy at night and you can sometimes get a better view as a result.

After a bit of a kerfuffle that caused a delayed departure, we emerged from the metro station late enough in the evening that rats were scuttling all over the place.  From journeying on the London Underground late at night, I am familiar with seeing manky rodents on the tracks but these rats were confidently barging past travellers.  While everyone else was recoiling, my kids thought it was so cool to see such big rats.  They wanted to stay near to the metro station to study them and befriend them.  Nope.  Move on.

First stop was the Washington Monument.  It was positively glowing against the night sky. The kids had seen it during the day two years before but agreed it was quite different to see it at night.  Mr Pict and the kids lay down on the ground with their legs leaning against the Monument’s sides in order to achieve a worm’s eye view.

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Then we tramped across the grass of the Mall, which was not the best idea actually since it was very boggy and uneven underfoot and I managed to fall into a hole.  We popped out at the National World War II Memorial, one we had also visited two years before.  It really did look different at night.  The granite pillars were somehow more assertive when lit against the night sky and the fountains seemed to sparkle and dance.  I noted on my previous visit and it was the case again on this visit that people were permitting their children to wade in the water of the Memorial and even some adults were sitting on the side with their feet dangling in the water.  While I can appreciate the temptation on a sultry, sticky evening, a Memorial to those who fought and died in the Second World War is truly not the place to cool off.

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We emerged from the World War II Memorial and headed off to visit Abe Lincoln.  We were being eaten alive by mosquitoes hovering over the reflecting pool so were disgruntled as well as tired by the time we reached the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The littlest Pict’s energy levels were flagging so I stayed with him while the older boys trekked up the steps to see the statue, my 10 year old taking my DSLR so that he could take some photos of his favourite President looking thoughtful and wise.

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Next up and just a short stroll away was the Korean War Veterans Memorial.  This was particularly haunting to view at night.  The main feature of the Memorial is a triangle of juniper bushes containing steel statues of 19 military personnel on patrol.  Something about them being surrounded by pitch darkness, their feet being consumed by a dense carpet of foliage, their expressions alert and pensive, made the Memorial even more arresting.

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The plan had been to take the boys to see the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which I have actually only ever visited at night, and then out to the Jefferson Memorial.  The latter was always ambitious and had been pretty much written off by the delay in embarking on our evening foray into the city centre but sadly we also had to jettison a visit to FDR because the kids were sapped of energy, the little one was half asleep and was shambling like a zombie, and we wanted to call a halt to things before they all started snarling and grumping.  We were, therefore, about to set off back to the metro station when Mr Pict suggested we get an Uber back to the hotel.  My thriftiness made me argue for a return journey on the metro but the prospect of an air conditioned car journey meant I was outvoted by all the male Picts.  I, therefore, got to experience my first ever Uber journey and experience my kids falling asleep in the car of a random stranger.

Gettysburg – Again

On the second day of our trip to the Harrisburg area, we took a jaunt to Gettysburg.  It seemed apt given the previous day’s visit to the National Civil War Museum but in all honesty we largely went because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd and because the boys love galloping around the landscape of the battlefield.  This was our third family visit to Gettysburg since we arrived in America almost two years ago – Mr Pict’s fourth.  I would like each trip to be a little different so in addition to returning to some favourite areas we try to visit at least one new area each time.

On this particular trip the new area we added was the location where the battle actually began, around McPherson Ridge, not far from the Lutheran Seminary.  Mr Pict explained the lay of the land, the rationale behind the defensive positions and how the battle began.  He pointed out Chambersburg Pike was the place where the first shots of the battle were fired by a Union soldier named Marcellus Jones.  The boys were not much captivated by this chatter about strategy and topography and instead were far more interested in studying some ants who were covering a dried up earthworm.  Meanwhile, I went to look at the statuary in the area.  One was a statue of General Buford who had been the chap to recognise the importance of holding the high ground on that spot until reinforcements arrived; the other statue was of General Reynolds on horseback in the spot where he was shot and killed on the first day of the battle.

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I like memorial statuary so, back in the car, I kept having my husband stop the car so that I could leap out and take a photo of one I had not seen before and wanted to go and study.  One such statue was of a man named John Burns, not a soldier but a citizen from the town of Gettysburg.  This 69 year old man decided to fight alongside a Pennsylvanian regiment, functioning as a sharpshooter.  When he was wounded for a third time, the retreating Union troops had to leave him behind on the field.  He cleverly got rid of his weapon and ammunition so that when he was discovered by Confederate soldiers he could convince them he was a noncombatant, a lie that saved his life.

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Among my other new statues for the day were the North Carolina monument and the Longstreet statue.  The North Carolina monument was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum who was also responsible for the presidential heads of Mount Rushmore.  As might be expected, therefore, the faces were particularly skilfully rendered, expressive and evocative.  The figures are shown advancing as part of Pickett’s Charge.  According to an inscription nearby, a quarter of all of the casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg hailed from North Carolina.  The statue of James Longstreet is set among a grove of trees and depicts him on his horse Hero.  I love the movement of the horse.  It’s a really dynamic sculpture.  It is notable also for being a statue of a General placed at ground level rather than on a plinth.

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I had driven past the State of Virginia Monument before but had never stopped to look at it.  This time I hopped out and had a good look.  It is a very tall and imposing monument at 41 feet.  It is topped by an equestrian statue of Robert E Lee.  Apparently the sculptor, Frederick Sievers, was so intent on getting Traveler the horse right that he studied horses who were the same height and build as Lee’s horse and even Traveler’s skeleton.  Virginia contributed more soldiers to the Confederate army at Gettysburg than any other state and these soldiers are represented at the base of the statue, different types of men and boys who constituted the army.

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We happened upon a reenactment group as we were flitting around between monumental statues.  While one chap explained about the equipment the soldiers used and the things they had to carry, a troop – complete with drummers – marched around the field and then demonstrated firing their weapons.  Our 6 year old really enjoyed watching the reenactors but we did not stay for their entire performance because we were slowly melting in the midday sun.

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Then it was time to go and visit the boys’ favourite spots: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  The great thing about both locations is that it is possible to visually comprehend how that stage of the battle unfolded, the strategies and logistics involved.  The best thing about both locations is that we can permit the boys to become free range.  They enjoyed roaming around, scurrying over the rocky terrain, leaping from boulder to boulder.  They gave three older men dressed in Union uniforms palpitations with their antics.  They particularly enjoyed Devil’s Den because of all of its little nooks and crannies, little caves they could hide in.  They also developed a kind of parkour, bounding and jumping and leaping between rocks, getting higher and higher.  It made me anxious to watch them.

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After a visit to the spot where Alexander Gardner had staged his famous and controversial photograph of the Rebel Sharpshooter, we completed our tour of Gettysburg for the day.  I think next time we return – because a return is inevitable – we should spend some time in the actual town of Gettysburg.

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*Note* You can see my previous blog posts about Gettysburg here and here.