#18: Journey to the top of the Washington Monument
Have you ever played tourist in your own city? Today I finally got up the nerve to take the minute plus elevator ride to the top of the Washington Monument. This is after staring at the thing every day for the five or so years I’ve been working on the National Mall. There’s usually a line wrapped around the obelisk, which looks miserable in the droopy Washingtonian summer heat and even more excruciating (for me, at least) in the colder months. I thought I’d thwarted the queue completely by reserving tickets online or the small transaction fee of $1.50 (they’re totally free if you go pick them up in person on the morning of your visit). But, alas, to stand in line at all you need a ticket and so, in essence, the ticket simply gives you the right to stand in the 11:30 am line for a tour.
The wind whipped around my husband and I as we waited along with several multi-generational families, some German tourists, and a man arguing with a park ranger about what a dumb rule it is that he couldn’t take his child’s stroller up to the top of the 555 ft. structure.
Who made up that ridiculous rule?”
Um, someone higher up than me.”
Ah, passing the buck, I thought. A telltale habit of employees in highly bureaucratic organizations. But the ranger was pleasant enough when our time came to cross over from the waiting-in-line-for-a-tour line to the waiting-in-line-to-get-inside-the-building-and-go-through-security line. After that line, we waited in the elevator line. And once we were up at the top? We waited in “I want to look out at this view but I’m only 3 feet tall so someone has to hold me up to see out the window” lines.
Without being too much of a Debbie Downer, I have to admit that the experience at the top was a bit anticlimactic. It’s true that the views from the top of the monument can’t be beat. But the sense of scale is a totally skewed by the fact that you can only peer out of small, horizontal portals out on to the Potomac River, the Tidal Basin, the National Mall, the White House, and the vastness of Northern Virginia. My photos are a bit murky because the windows were hazy, but you can zoom in really closely. We thought we might have seen snipers on some of the roofs (on the White House? nope. On the National Gallery of Art? nah.) but when we analyzed the photos back at home we couldn’t find any. Can you?
The highlight of the trip was the elevator ride down. I’m not being glib—during the recent renovation of the Monument a new fancy-pants elevator was installed. The National Park Service explains:
With a flip of a switch, the elevator will now slow and windows in the cab will change from opaque to clear on downward trips to allow viewing of the commemorative stones.”
Why this is not publicized on every piece of marketing material promoting a visit to the Monument is beyond me. Imagine whizzing down the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world when the elevator gently slows and the panes of glass that you thought were frosted suddenly turn clear and you’re staring at the inside of the monument! And it isn’t like the inside of a chimney, no—you’re looking at some of the 193 restored commemorative stones on the interior walls of the Monument. Some are simple inscriptions while others boast elaborate bas reliefs of people on horses or of exotic buildings in foreign lands. You feel as if you’re peeking in on an eerie, secret world—the warm heart inside the flat and cold exterior. The stories behind the stones—part of a scheme to raise money during construction—is full of intrigue as well, including a tale about the rambunctious “Know-Nothings” stealing a stone donated by the Pope and tossing it into the Potomac in protest.
What is that you say? You didn’t know about this fascinating feature of the Monument? It’s no wonder given how difficult it was for me to find information about the stones or the high-tech elevator after my visit. I’m trying to find out what technology is used to make the elevator windows go from opaque to clear on cue. I’ve seen theories about reflected light, or argon, but I can’t seem to find an official explanation. If you know where to find out, let me know!
Of course, I don’t have any photos of this special surprise on the elevator ride down. Who has their camera armed and ready at such a time?
Lesson learned: They say that it isn’t the destination that matters but the journey. In some cases, this even applies to journies on elevators.