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Memorials On Memorials On Memorials


When I lived in DC, I never tired of the National Mall. The eastern half is dominated by the world-famous (for a reason, they're damn good) Smithsonian museums. And on the western half are memorials to American presidents, wars, and people. These memorials are strewn about over a beautiful city park that provides large, shaded sidewalks for those strolling the monuments. It's not the largest park in the city, but it's always been my favorite.


It might seem a bit mainstream to write a blog about the National Mall, considering that it's almost too well documented to even warrant a post. However, that is partially my point for writing this. I have, on several occasions, lived in tourist-filled places. And you know what, things are filled with tourists for a reason. There is a lot of snobbery in travel circles, a lot of upturned noses at "tourist attractions." But what exactly is a tourist attraction? Someone who shall be remain nameless once rode quite the high horse about this concept once, but when we went on a European vacation together soon afterwards we spent the whole time in cathedrals. Which, sorry to say to the snobs, are tourist attractions. Tourist attractions are not merely brightly lit scams created to take your money. They are also things like the National Mall: stoic places that represent the history of wherever it is you are. And even as a local, I loved coming here.

The "entrance" of the monument half of the Mall is the Washington Monument, which is by law the tallest building in Washington (it's like Rome - nothing in that city is allowed to be taller than St Paul's, and in DC nothing can be taller than this monument) at 555 feet (169 meters). When I googled the exact height, I also learned that it's the tallest predominantly stone structure in the world, as well as the world's tallest obelisk! Obviously named for the father of the country, leader of the army that defeated the British, and our first president George Washington, it's an impressive structure. Construction on it began before the American Civil War, but that obviously forced a halt in it's development. You can clearly see when construction was halted, about 150 ft (46 m) up. When work began again in 1877, the marble was came from a different source, so the color is different.


Also as you can see, the base is surrounded by 50 flags, one for each state. The last time I was in the city and snapped this picture, it was only days after John McCain died so all 50 flags were at half-mast. There is also an elevator to the top, though this has magically been out of service basically every single time I have been here. It is set to re-open in 2019 but...well, let's just say that I find that highly unlikely.

The Washington Monument is a bit on its own, flanked by a large green that is a popular post-work spot amongst the Millennial workers of the city. But soon you find yourself at the World War Two Memorial, which is easily the best one in the middle of a hot, humid DC summer. From a memorial standpoint, I don't think it quite hits the mark. There are 56 pillars - one for the 48 states and eight territories at the time - with metal wreaths on them, circling a large fountain. Considering the magnitude of the fight it commemorates...I don't know. I don't reflect on one of the most important wars in human history when I visit. But I do like the fountain. Everyone likes the fountain. Washington is an especially hot city in America, so to have somewhere to soak your feet is not a bad thing! The night I took this photo was especially lovely - a friend was visiting, and we sat here with our feet in the water and chatted for an hour. If you're looking for a perfect evening in DC, that'll do it. But, again, neither of us reflected on World War Two once. This is my grievance with memorials, rarely do they actually seem to justify the resources used on them.

The case is not the same for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is one of the two most moving monuments I've visited. If you're not familiar with this memorial, it is nearly 500 ft (150 m) of names. Names of the 57,939 KIA or MIA men are listed in this long granite procession (32 of the names were accidents, but 32 out of nearly 60,000 ain't bad from a design standpoint).


The Vietnam War is incredibly important in American history, not so much for the impact it made in Asia (to any Asian followers, I'm so sorry), but for the impact it made at home. First off, the French asked us to help in their colony and then promptly fucked off. Then our politicians decided to take our boys there anyways. And then the media came along for the first time in any large capacity, which meant that, for the first time, American audiences saw the realities of war. When Vietnam veteran came home, they were met not with the admiration and respect they deserved, but rather with angry mobs who screamed "baby killers!" at them.

It's a shameful chapter in American, both in terms of the war itself and how our drafted soldiers were treated upon their return home. But what is good is the memorial itself. It was controversial when it was announced, but I cannot imagine a more perfect monument to the fallen men who should not have died when they did. In addition to the solemn, long, long, long list of names, it is also reflective, thus allowing you to see the trees, people, and, of course, flags in the background. I'm not the typical "wave a flag at every opportunity" American that many of us are, but in this particular moment it is stunning.

Past the Vietnam memorial lies the colossal Lincoln Memorial. Climb the 87 steps from the reflecting pool to the interior (the chamber, as the National Park Service calls it) and you'll find yourself in...well, a chamber. It's a fair word to use for the place. It's a gigantic room, with a huge statue of Lincoln in the center. He is flanked by the words of his two most famous speeches - his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address.

No matter how times I go, I am always floored at how large this place is. The outside is 99 ft (30 m) tall (my friend Zak is the model here, to give you an idea about how monstrously large these columns are). On the inside, the statue of Lincoln is nearly 20 feet tall (5.8 m). It's an imposing, impressive structure. As such, it has become a bit of a rallying point for American movements.

I love the view from the Lincoln Memorial. Of course, there is the famous side which faces the reflecting pool. You can see the Washington Monument (which may or may not be covered in scaffolding when you visit), and behind it the dome of the Capitol building. It's a pretty amazing view, especially if you're interested in photography. But what a lot of people don't do is continue around the memorial. You can walk along the entire exterior of the building, and enjoy views of the Potomac and Arlington from the western and southern facades. And because nobody does this, you usually get this all to yourself instead of battling the crowds at the front.

About halfway between the ground and the chamber is a "plaza" where Martin Luther King's Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. You can find the exact spot where he stood (do you like this picture from 2009, when bell-bottoms were still in fashion?) There have been other rallies at this spot as well (including Forrest Gump!) but King's is by far the most famous of them.

Descend the steps and turn south, towards the Korean War Veterans Memorial. In theory, this should be a powerful memorial. The statues of soldiers, the wall of photographs, and the calm pool of remembrance should come together to create a moving scene, but for me it never has. I wish I liked it more, because in theory it's perfect. I still stop by, because the Korean War gets forgotten in our history books, sandwiched in-between two much larger conflicts. I have no explanation as to why I don't find any power in this memorial. I really hope it is not because I don't know as much about the war as I do the others.

As you continue back east along the reflective pool, you'll see a small temple through the trees. This is one of my favorite memorials at the Mall. It's rather specific - the District of Columbia War Memorial - commemorating those from DC who fought in the first world war. I love this one for a few reasons - 1. because it is off the path, I never have to deal with crowds here. Even though it's perfectly visible, people don't go to it. 2. History is my jam and just look at how Greek that looks! 3. I am the opposite of a claustrophobe, the more compact the better. It's just such a cute little button of a memorial. Again, like the World War 2 Memorial, I don't get a sense of the war here, but it's a lovely spot to stop and enjoy.


You have to head across the street (south) to the Tidal Basin in order to see the lonely Jefferson Memorial. On the way, you'll see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. This is another one that I don't really care for, but I probably should. It just looks unfinished (I don't have any pictures, but Google it if you're curious). It's supposed to symbolize hope emerging from despair but...I don't know, it just looks like they didn't the funding to finish it so left the statue in the granite slab. It looks too much like the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota that is also a half-carved mountain. Now, that one actually is still a work in (very slow) progress. Maybe that's why I don't love it, it reminds me too much of one that actually isn't finished.

Anyways, past the MLK statue is the Tidal Basin itself. This is a lovely walk. But as you emerge onto it, you realize just how isolated the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is. For this reason, it is by far the memorial (of the main ones) that I have visited the least. In general, there are typically fewer people at it, always a bonus! It's worth a stop though, even with the commute. As the World War 1 Memorial indicates, I'm a sucker for round temples. Like the Lincoln Memorial, there is a statue of the memorial's namesake inside (though not nearly as large), and there are also excerpts of Jefferson's writings on the walls. There was and still is some controversy over the chosen quotes, as they depict Jefferson as being a little less slave-owny than he was. But ignoring that, it's a cool building that offers lovely views across the Tidal Basin back towards the Mall.

The one time of a year that the Jefferson Memorial does see crowds on par with the other memorials is during the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, which is held every spring (when the cherry blossoms, you know, bloom). Back in 1912, Japan gifted the US with their cherry blossoms and now they line the Tidal Basin. They're beautiful no matter the time of year, but during their bloom it's amazing. Or so I've heard, anyways. Hilariously, I lived there for one festival and yet basically missed it. Entirely my own fault too, it was one of those "ah, I'll do it tomorrow" things until suddenly the blossoms had fallen. I made it down to the Tidal Basin to see two sad little trees still half in bloom. Classic.


As I said above, the National Mall and Tidal Basin never got old. Most of my activities when I lived here were in the center of the city, and I would often arrive early or stay late in order to walk the park. Especially at sunset/dusk, this place is simply wonderful.

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