Running parallel to the east coast of North America are the Appalachians, a chain of ancient mountains once the size of the Rockies. Today the mountains, after eons of weathering, form a spine of hills running from Georgia to Washington.
At the southern end sit the Great Smokey Mountains, so-called due to the haze that often gently envelops them. After the heat and humidity of the South it was refreshing to be up in the cool green hills. We climbed up to the highest point right on the North Carolina / Tennessee border – and from each viewpoint the forested Smokies were laid out in front of us like ruffled velvet.
After a brief stop in the delightfully under rated town of Asheville we picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Like the Natchez Trace in Mississippi this is a tourist road, with a 30mph speed limit, no commercial vehicles, and points of interest dotted along the way. It winds its way through undulating country – thick forests and spectacular panoramas from high ridges, and gently winding country lanes picking their way through perfect meadows.
At the northern end comes Shenandoah National Park, where the scenery is even more spectacular. The road follows the ridgeline with scenic views stretching for miles on both sides. All you can see far into the distance is the deep blue sky meeting the deep greens of the tree covered hills. After a week on the Parkway we were ready for urban civilisation, and the northern exit of Shenandoah spills out the unsuspecting visitor a mere 45 mins from Washington DC.
The nation’s capital was a real treat. At its centre is the National Mall, not an extremely large shopping centre, but wide open parkland. At one end sits Capitol Hill, where Congress, er, congresses. A mile away at the other end, in front of a reflecting pool, sits the famous Lincoln Memorial – a huge throned statue of the assassinated President, housed in a kind of wannabe Roman temple – a ‘shrine to democracy’ perhaps. (Don’t get me started on Lincoln and the slavery thing…). It was here that MLK made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
Between the two are various civic sites. There is the fairly grand World War Two memorial – all towering columns and white marble, but with some truly remarkable sculpted images of various WWII scenes, both Atlantic, Pacific and Home Fronts; the hauntingly touching Vietnam War memorial, a sunken black wall with the name of every single soldier killed or missing in that conflict in date order of casualty; and the Washington Monument, a massive stone needle dominating the Washington skyline.
Along side the Mall are the indescribably wonderful Smithsonian buildings. James Smithson never actually set foot in the States (though his body was brought over after is death in 1829), but he endowed an institution to provide education and museums in the New World. Today the Smithsonian houses world class galleries – the Air and Space Museum, Museum of Natural History, Museum of American History, National Gallery of Art (blessed with a soothing indoor garden between the maze of masterpieces) and so on and so on… All are completely fantastic and, even better, completely free – meaning you can pop in and out as often as you like without overloading on artefacts, dioramas and interpretive texts. We could have spent weeks enjoying them. Within a square mile you can see bits of Apollo 11, priceless diamonds, dinosaur skeletons, a draft of FDR’s Pearl Harbour ‘day of infamy’ speech, Neanderthal bones and paintings by Degas.
There were other cultural highlights too – the National Archives display the original Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and Constitution, while the amazing Library of Congress houses endless collections in perhaps the most ornately decorated building in DC.
Of course Washington is all about politics. We paid our respects at the White House, and visited Congress on Capitol Hill. While the official tour left us a little underwhelmed, time spent in the galleries watching the Senate and House of Reps was fascinating and intriguing.
It really felt like we were at the heart of global political action. While we were in Washington the world was waiting with baited breath for President Obama’s televised address to the Nation on his new war against ISIS. We listened to an impassioned speech in the Senate by a Republican critic of Obama a few hours before, then, sitting just a mile or so from the White House, we watched the TV address with the rest of the world.
While in the Senate we also heard a fiery tirade from a rare Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. His left-wing brand of politics is unusual in the fairly middle-of-the-road US two-party system, and may not have been particularly note-worthy except that it has been muted that he might well run for President (as a Democrat nominee against Hilary Clinton) in 2016. You heard it here first….
The sense of political connection was enhanced by the couple who hosted us in their apartment in Washington. Both were not insignificant cogs in the DC political machine, working in or around Congress – one had worked for Bush and Obama on the White House staff. Conversations at home were extremely illuminating (though I would have to kill you if I repeated some of the things we heard…).
In between all the politics and culture, we also had to make time to pay a couple of visits (and the best part of a grand) to the Australian embassy to sort out new passports to replace our stolen ones.
Our final day in Washington fell on September 11th. The third plane on that fateful day in 2001 was flown into the Pentagon, the five-storey five-sided fortress of the Government defence establishment just outside the city. It was a poignant day to visit the beautifully simple yet moving memorial to the victims at the wall into which the plane crashed.
A sombre and thoughtful note on which to leave Washington, as we headed south to the old Confederate Capital of Richmond, and a few days travelling around Chesapeake Bay.