Day 18 – From Swamp to Swamp (to Swamp)

Discovery

So, the final day and some 12 or so hours to kill before the late flight. Ethan has found some places to visit which may be of interest but may also conceivably just be box-ticking exercises aimed at getting another State in (Maryland). He was keen to go to Baltimore, but I have seen the Wire and was having no part of that. This must have done for Baltimore what Deliverance did for Tallulah Falls!

Instead we headed out of the Washington swamp into the Maryland wetlands and Battle Creek Cypress Swamp. Interesting sort of place, containing lots of “trees with knees” – apparently these help the trees to breathe:

Trees with knees

Ethan spotted this one which looked as though the trees had gone beyond just breathing and were giving a rock horns salute to the world

Rock Horns

From here we had a trip to the coast penciled in, to catch a glimpse of Chesapeake Bay. Now, generally speaking, I am happy to have a good walk and experience tells me that Ethan will usually find a car park within a few hundred yards of what he wants to see, so imagine my surprise when the beach (such as it was) turned out to be a 4 mile round trip, through another swamp in 85 degree heat, wearing the clothes that we intended to fly in. I suspect my usual bonhomie may have become a little frayed. Still, the 20mx5m strip of beach seemed to have attracted 30 or 40 other intrepid fools. But at least we saw Chesapeake Bay (tick!).

Swamp 3 of the day
Chesapeake
Yes, that’s it – but the interesting part is close!

Having sweated our way back to the car, we headed off towards Dulles airport and another geek treat inside a real life version of Top Trumps. I have no idea why the Dulles branch of the Smithsonian isn’t better advertised, but it has some great exhibits.

The undisputed Top trump of aircraft from my spotty, nerdy youth – the Blackbird (fastest, highest flying, most expensive…). Possibly the coolest plane ever made:

Blackbird
The coolest plane ever made?

But wait, there is the space shuttle discovery too!

Discovery
… Unless you count this

There was a Concorde, but let’s move on to the Enola Gay. Looked nice and shiny. Can’t help but wonder if it’s been polished up ready to be recommissioned and sent over to North Korea…

Enola Gay
Sombre purpose but catchy tune.

… and does anyone remember a lunatic skydiving from a balloon at the edge of space? Yep, that’s here too…

Hard to express just how much geeking out was going on here!

Sadly, all geek things must come to an end and we eventually had to draw a line under the trip and head to the airport proper. Ethan received the parting gift of having his bag rummaged through by Homeland Security.

Parting Gift
Parting Gift

Not quite as welcoming as mints on a pillow. We were trying to think what might have triggered the search and all we can think of is that maybe the foam Atlanta Braves tomahawk turned up on the x-ray. Of course, rummaging through they will have found his fine collection of souvenir tat and will no doubt have been in awe at the level of dedication that he brings to tourism.

US. Done.

(For now…)

 

Day 17 – The Lincoln Link

Last full day in DC today, although we have some time tomorrow before the evening flight and a car to get around (it was cheaper to hire a car for the day than to get a cab to the airport!). It turns out that there is a Smithsonian outpost at Dulles with some cool (I use “cool” in the aerospace nerd sense here) stuff – Concorde, a Space shuttle, Blackbird and, possibly, Enola Gay. How did we not know about this before? Time has duly been set aside.

First outing of the day to the Newseum, Washington’s tribute to the first amendment and the rights of the free press. It’s an excellent museum documenting the history of the press and exhibits from major events…

Twin Tower Spire
World Trade Centre Tower Spire

…and some sections of the Berlin wall. Can you figure out which side is east and which west?

There are endless old newspapers, including one documenting the gunpowder plot, ancient copies of the Observer and the Spectator etc. and some interesting stuff from the FBI.

From here we went in search of lunch and ended up in Lincoln’s Waffles. A Vietnamese greasy spoon that made the Victoria Centre cafe look like World Service. There was actually a slick on my coffee. Tasty, but I felt like I needed a shower afterwards and was exuding grease for several hours. We were befriended by the resident nutter (Hi Steve!) who had considerably more knowledge of the dealings of Prince Charles than I do. At least I thought he was a nutter (albeit a very friendly and pleasant one) before he revealed himself to be a man of incisiveness and discernment by asking if Ethan and myself were brothers. I think I found it more amusing than Ethan.

A quick hike out to the Thomas Jefferson memorial before heading back to the scene of our earlier greasy crime and Ford’s Theatre, the location of Lincoln’s assassination.

Ford Theatre Balcony
Wait a minute, that’s not Lincoln!

Lincoln was shot on this balcony and someone felt it was a good idea to put a picture of Washington there. That’s just adding insult to (extreme) injury!

As it turns out, the Newseum is on the site of the old National Hotel where John Wilkes Booth stayed the night before he shot Lincoln. Almost as though we planned that link. What with the greasy spoon as well, synchronicity was playing silly buggers with us. Spooky.

Day 16 – Washington Wash Out

$850,000

Looks like Washington is getting some of the rain from the tail end of hurricane Harvey on it today. We seem to have been just ahead of the worst of this for the whole trip with Tennessee getting a considerable soaking after we left.

It be damp

Of course, being the intrepid breakfasters that we are, Ethan and myself got thoroughly soaked in search of a hearty morning repast. The research had led us to believe that Duke’s Grocery in the DuPont Circle area of Washington would provide a decent veggie brunch option). This indeed proved to be the case (they apparent fry their potato concoction in truffle oil and it certainly works!) but required quite the expedition. According to Google we have walked nearly 50 miles since we have been in DC…

Washington is heaving this weekend (it is apparently Labour Day weekend), so I’m glad we managed to get through some of the museums during the week. We will manfully fight through some more today.

I wanted to go to the Hirshorn to check out some modern art, but opinion was split within our party as to the sense of this endeavour. I forged on solo and was rewarded with some classics.  One of the guides on the tour bus had waxed less than lyrical about this…

$850,000
$850,000? Bargain!

Apparently, it had cost the American tax payer $850,000 and opinion is somewhat divided.

Anyway, much inspired I set off to create my own street art. The White House lawn presented a juxtaposition of geese and rising steam which I like to call “Geeser”…

Geeser
Geeser

…and this which I entitle “Ratus Deflatus”.

Ratus Deflatus
Ratus Deflatus

Sorry, but it’s a slow news day!

Anyway, we both thoroughly enjoyed the Museum of the American Indian and our second visit to HipCityVeg for the most outrageously good vegan fast food I have tasted in a long time. Damp, but well fed.

Day 15 – Where now Captain Howdy?

We’re casting our net a bit wider today. Heading out of the centre to the zoo and to explore the historic areas of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom. We’re probably not going to spend much time in Foggy Bottom, but I just like typing it. Shady Grove is another good one – probably perfectly innocent, but seems quite apt for Washington. How do these names get picked?

Anyway, first stop the zoo, primarily to see the pandas. Luckily for us, they were out and performing today.

Panda Curious
What’s this then?
Panda Boxed
Aww, my head’s stuck.
Panda Vexed
I hope noone saw that.

Hard to believe that they are dying out.

Great to see them, but we were quite disappointed not to see the sloth bear. Couldn’t be bothered to put in an appearance. Lazy bastard.

I am genuinely shocked by the size of the anaconda. There is no excuse for a snake this size.

I mean really?

Onwards to Georgetown under the pretense of viewing some historic buildings. Of course what we were really interested in was seeing the Exorcist steps…

Exorcist steps
Anyone hear the sound of tubular bells?

Somone had thoughtfully left this to help us battle any demons that might show up,

or possibly out of concern for the sort of people who would be interested in such things. I was actually tempted to try an exorcism of the joggers who kept getting in our way running up and down the steps. Any lingering evil was overwhelmed by the whiff of sweaty smugness.

Back into the core of Washington and an audience with the main man. I’m not entirely convinced of his credentials…

Run, run far, run fast
Time to head to Cuba, I wouldn’t trust this guy to run the country.

Day 14 – Into the Belly of the Beast

Capitol

This is a day to tick off some of Ethan’s list after he tolerated my unseemly space geekery yesterday. First up, a tour around the rather impressive Capitol Building.

Capitol
It all happens here

I found it all quite fascinating (although obviously, I would not admit this to Ethan) and got an interesting slant on the revolutionary and independence aspects from our Scottish tour guide. The building is quite spectacular but has on several occasions turned out to be sadly inadequate as the US expanded beyond the initial 13 states. Still, can’t fault the decor or the statement of intent.

In fact, all of the buildings in DC could comfortably be in Rome or Vienna. I guess if you build a capital city from scratch, you can design it however you want. Apparently, the obelisks etc. are a consequence of the founders being masons and obsessed with Egyptian stuff.

Washington Manument
Which way is up?

It seems that DC was supposed to take land from Maryland and Virginia and was designed to be a perfect diamond. At some point, Virgina balked at giving land over to the federal government and asked for it back. Congress apparently voted to allow it, but I can’t help thinking that some of the congressmen would have been gently rocking in their seats, thinking of what this would do to the symmetry…

Diamondish
It’s supposed to be a diamond. it’s supposed to be a diamond…

Anyway, from the Capitol, on to the botanical gardens to see the stinking corpse flower (well why wouldn’t you?). Apparently, this plant flowers once every 7-10 years and just happens to be this week. Right place and right time for once. Didn’t seem all that stinky though so maybe the cold hasn’t entirely cleared up. I wasn’t too disappointed!

Corpse Flower
Stinking corpse you say?
Trademark whopper
What?

Onwards to Arlington and the Pentagon (strictly drive by) and then back to the history museum. We were greeted by this guy…

The Mighty Washington
I’m not sure he would approve

Now Washington as a national hero: yes, father of the nation: sure, but Greek god? I think not. The guy had hippopotamus teeth for goodness sakeYou can see why he had to work so hard not to be anointed God-Emporer.

Still some interesting stuff inside.

Last tourist trip of the day to the National Archives to view the original copies of the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. I maintained that I didn’t think that the Declaration of Independence looked valid, but I didn’t sense a lot of support for the notion.

 

Day 13 – “Go Ebony, for the love of God just go!”

First full day in DC – time to explore the swamp. Having been disappointed by our one brief glimpse of a swamp in Alabama, we are keen to explore Washington which is (or was ) both physically a swamp and, we are led to believe, a metaphorical one.

Washington seems like a pretty walking-friendly city (heat notwithstanding) and so we hit the tourist trail. First stop: the Smithsonian Aerospace museum. This is total space nerd nostalgic heaven. Walking through the door, I caught a glimpse of the Viking lander and I was instantly back in 1976…

There are lots of famous planes  – The Spirit of St. Louis, something that the Wright brothers threw together, but who cares with so much space geekery to be indulged…

Apollo Soyuz
Remember Apollo-Soyuz?
Skylab Module

Although, having seen a test version of a lunar module, I am starting to think that all the conspiracy theories about Kubrick filming the moon landing in a studio might be true. I’m not sure that this thing ever landed anywhere – it’s made of tin foil!

Lunar Module
It’s made of tin foil!

I thoroughly approve of the fact that I can get free Wifi in all of the Smithsonian buildings via eduroam. I also approve of the fact that they are all free – originally courtesy of a Brit, but now courtesy of the American tax-payer. Thanks America!

Anyway, with so much to cram in, we had to make use of a tour bus to get around some of the sites…

It’s only painted white apparently

We also joined the night bus tour as we thought that this would give a different perspective. All went fairly well, although I think we may have annoyed someone by accidentally photo-bombing their Lincoln photo

Photo Bomb
Chill, there’s space for all

and I feel guilty about my inappropriate thoughts as we viewed the war memorial. I can’t be the only one who has been reminded of Tropic Thunder by this…

As if karma were as instant as John  Lennon would have us believe, our return bus journey was fraught with peril (or at least bizarre delay). The bus ground to a halt in the middle of the road for no readily apparent reason and just stayed there. The increasingly distracted and strained commentary was an indication that all was not well.

We never found out what the exact issue was. It seems that the driver had taken a wrong turn and then wigged out – whether this was from not knowing the route back or some concern about whether the bus could get under a bridge is unclear. Eventually, the encouragement and support from passengers and tour guide crescendoed into a “Now, it’s, clear now, just go, go now, for God’s sake just go!” This led to a crawl forward, numerous more wrong turns and some barely legal manoeuvres to try and get back on track. Livened up the whole journey and engendered a certain comradery amongst the passengers.

As a bonus, it annoyed the hell out of the old couple who had been rude and irritating throughout the tour. I tipped accordingly.

Day 12 – I Call Shenanigans on Shenandoah

Roanoke to Washington DC

So, time for the last leg of the road trip phase of this trip, the final drive back to Washington DC. Of course we cannot take the direct route, we are determined to go via the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, which is reckoned to be the most spectacular section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Oh, the anticipation!

Oh, the reality!

Not really the best weather today and so this is the magnificent view from one of the scenic overlooks…

Viewless
It’s there, no really, it is.

I can’t imagine why Ethan didn’t want to get out of the car to see this.

So the views were pretty limited, although it was quite an interesting drive through the thick fog and there were some good spooky forest scenes.

We spotted a few critters but unfortunately still no bears

Where are the bears at?
Have you seen any bears?

The gift shop was superb though so all was well. From this to rush hour DC was something of a culture shock and we spent a horrifying hour circulating around Union Station looking for the secret, un-signposted entrance to the hidden car park above the train station that concealed the location of the Budget drop off point.

So that was that. Something like 2700 miles and, by my reckoning, 11 states and one non-state (District of Columbia is not a State according to Ethan – he is a veritable gold mine of American facts and quite the guide to DC). Checked in at the hotel and straight out to explore via the capitol, Washington monument, and a brief hello to Mr. Lincoln.

Evening Abe
Evening Abe!

Ethan is like a kid in a political sweet shop. Should be an interesting last week!

Day 11 – On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine

Blue Ridge Mountains

Pigeon Forge to Roanoke

Time for the return leg back to DC. Goodbye to the South and thanks y’all!

An epic drive today. Could have been more epic as we had intended to do the entire route via the Blue Ridge Parkway but, once it became apparent that this would cause us to miss our homeward flight in a week’s time, we diverted onto interstates for part of the route.

The Blue Ridge Parkway itself is as scenic as you might expect, but dangerously so. Not only is it distracting, but there is an urge to stop at every overlook, which would extend the journey time beyond the end of the universe. To be honest, it all looks very similar and, although it is quite spectacular with layers of mountains gradually fading into the distance, I don’t think that the camera will do it justice. Still, this country has far too much space and too much scenery!

Blue Ridge Mountains
Mighty fine view!

I couldn’t help thinking about the Waltons and Laurel & Hardy as we drove through. Just looked it up and we are not far from the Walton’s museum – I think they have the original farmhouse used in the TV series. Little too close to Charlottesville for comfort though and Ethan has no idea what the Walton’s was all about.

We have probably seen more of rural America today than on any of our other trips. Lots of it looks very pleasant and patriotic (I can’t imagine seeing that sort of concentration of flags outside houses in the UK). Other parts look a little more sinister with menacing looking shacks and imagined sheds full of meat hooks. We were both a little concerned when the sat nav threw a wobbly in Arse End, Virginia.

There are of course some great place names. I was somewhat disappointed, given that I know there is a theme park containing a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark, that is wasn’t on Mount Ararat Hill as we drove through.

We resisted (well mostly) the urge for juvenile humour at Rocky Knob and by the time we passed through Back Creek after almost 10 hours of driving, it sounded oddly prophetic.

A lightweight 7 hour scenic drive tomorrow…

Day 10 – From the Top of the World to the Bottom of the Barrel

Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg / Smoky Mountains

A day of contrasts today. We are perched in the hills high above Pigeon Forge, living in the lap of luxury…

Down in Pigeon Forge, life does not seem to run at the same slow pace. Imagine Skegness and Blackpool combined, throw in a little Vegas showmanship and overdo it in the way that only Americans can, and you will have some idea of what Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are like. As far as I can make out, Pigeon Forge is where the larger attractions are and the all-you-can-eat sing-along-ho-down-diner-barns (Americans love their barns!) and Gatlinburg is more arcades, souvenir shops and catering for the hard-core drinkers with the moonshine tasting experiences. My cold had reached the level where I couldn’t smell anything, but the moonshine bars managed to break through that – although I sensed it first with my eyes!

The joys of Pigeon Forge

Sunday breakfast in Pigeon Forge was quite an experience. I suspect that on top of the tourists, it may be an occasion for folk to come down from the hills. Nuff said.

From Pigeon Forge we drifted into the Smokies proper and up to Clingmans Dome – the highest point in the east Smokies I am reliably informed. The majestic views were somewhat veiled. I can’t help but think that sometimes things can be a little too smoky!

Ethan, of course, is still looking forward to meeting the creators of these that we keep seeing everywhere…

Be afraid, be very afraid…

The trees are full of them and we can’t figure out whether each is the work of one spider or a colony. Not sure which is worse.

And just when I was feeling bad about once again stereotyping folk, this turned up at the cabin below us…

 

Day 9 – The Sound of Humanist Banjo

Georgia Guidestones

Atlanta to Pigeon Forge via the Twilight Zone

I seem to be coming down with Ethan’s cold now and could probably do without a long drive, but needs must.

First stop of the day – further into the back of beyond than we would generally like – is the Georgia Guidestones. This is a sort of mini Stonehenge commissioned by an anonymous donor, wanting to spread his message to humanity in multiple different languages. Much beloved of all the mystery and conspiracy shows, I felt it had to be worth a visit. Most of the message makes perfect sense, although the first few have been interpreted in some quarters as some iffy eugenics scheme.

Georgia Guidestones

From here we drifted on to Tallulah Falls. This is where Deliverance was filmed – although you would never know it from the information in the visitor centre. Apparently, they don’t like to draw attention to it. Not a single mention of purty mouths – very disappointing! Anyway, as I didn’t have my crossbow with me, we decided to skip the long hike up the trail in the heat and settled for an ice cream instead. How intrepid are we?

From here, a long, slow, tortuous drive up into the Smoky Mountains and our cabin above Pigeon Forge. This genuinely is purty and I’m typing this sat in a rocking chair on the balcony overlooking this view…