A few days ago I was having lunch with a friend, and the topic of travel surfaced in our conversation. She shared some stories from Mexico, and I spoke of my love for cities. I’ve had the good fortune to travel both east and west, exploring locations like Seattle and San Francisco, New York and Naples (Florida). Yet of all the places I’ve visited in the U.S., Washington D.C. holds a special spot in my heart. When my friend asked why I have such a fondness for D.C., I paused. Whenever I think about the city I feel my body lean in, my mind relax, and my heart expand – yet I hadn’t ever really thought about what specifically draws me to that town. I contemplated for a moment, then began, “Well….I love that D.C. is a walking city. I love that the great metro system there will take me literally anywhere I want to go, but that I can still largely rely on my own two feet if I really want to. I love the organization of the city. I love that the streets are aligned on a grid, that the blocks are all the same size, and that knowing which direction is north really can help a person navigate around. I love that even though it’s a major city, it has ample green spaces – trees and flowers and grass. But I guess what I love ‘the most’ about D.C. is that amazingly important things have happened there – and that these things are still nearly completely accessible to anyone who wants to experience them. Anyone can visit The Mall, numerous monuments, and a plethora of museums for cheap or for free. I love that despite the genuine power and big money that exists within and around the city, any random person can arrive and be a part of it all. I love the notion that the city really does represent democracy. Naive, I know – and not 100% true, I know. I know. And still, I love it. I love my country – and D.C. is where a lot of the things that I value about this country started, gained momentum, or were decided. And people today can learn about those things, those events, those decisions, those processes – and in many ways still experience them. I guess the blend of past and present, of prestige and poverty, of history and humanity, of citizen and countryman, of race and religion and dialogue and discourse, of all of it coming together in those few precious miles, just makes D.C. feel like a wonderful place to me.”
Okay, so I didn’t say all of that to my friend. Truthfully, when she and I spoke, I didn’t exactly know why I liked the city so much – so in the midst of our conversation I simply offered enough “ordinary” reasons to keep the dialogue flowing. (Cool things to see, easy to get around, not overly expensive – the usual reasons why a city is deemed a ‘good place to visit’.) Yet when I took some time on my own to dig in to the question, I realized that my love of the city went beyond tourist attractions. I deeply value what the city represents – even if the people who live and work there don’t always do a great job of rising to those standards.
Similarly, when I put item #42 on my 101 list, I wasn’t exactly sure why I wanted to include it; it just felt like ‘a good thing to do’. Yet when I arrived at the capitol building yesterday, I felt some of that same sense of respect and pride that I feel when I think about D.C.
After parking my car in front of the building (which people are allowed to do on the weekends), I walked up many marble steps and entered. Looking to my right, I saw a big information desk. I approached, and explained that I heard there was a self-guided tour I could take – and that I would like to do that, please.
The man behind the desk smiled and handed me a brochure. He explained that the numbers on the map correspond with various things to see both inside and outside the building. He then said, “There is also a guided tour taking place right now. It actually just started five minutes ago; if you want to take it, I can walk you to where they are…” After a few seconds of thinking about the offer, my mind ultimately said, “Oh, what the heck. Take the tour. It’s only 45 minutes long. You’ll still be done before 11 am.” So I looked at the man and responded, “Sure, a tour would be great. Thanks!”
The man led me to the opposite side of the building. As we walked, he asked me, “Where are you from?” I was a little surprised by his question, until I realized that I was engaging in an activity that is usually completed by tourists. I responded, “Oh, just Minneapolis. You know, the other side of the world.” (There is a running joke in these cities that people who live in Minneapolis aren’t allowed to cross the Mississippi River and visit St. Paul – and vice versa.) The man smiled, and said, “Naw, it’s not that far.” He then shifted to a more serious tone and said, “I think it’s great that you are exploring things right here in our own town. I think more people should do it. But of course, that requires people getting their butts up off the couch…” He sighed.
I offered him an empathetic smile. I politely thanked him for walking me to the tour-in-progress, then turned to join the small group.
The guide was sharing his last few sentences at this stop with a mostly-engaged audience: a trio of young college kids, a trio of Japanese tourists, and a retired husband/wife pair visiting from Missouri. Upon seeing me, the guide nodded for me to come closer and join the group. I silently took a few steps towards him, and all 10 of us made our way to the next tour site.
Over the course of the next 40 minutes, our group got to visit all of the key locations in the capitol building: the House of Representatives chamber, Senate chamber, State Supreme Court chamber, the Governor’s office… We also got to go on the roof and get within touching-distance of the massive gold statues that sit on top of the building, as well as receive an education on the art and architecture that abounds within and throughout the physical structure.
As we walked around the building, I was struck by three big things:
- The majestic beauty of the physical space. Marble, tile, stone, and dark wood abounded, and multiple forms of art were strategically placed throughout the building. Classic painted murals met mosaic skylights, and dark granite stood next to gold. As I walked through the halls, up and down the stairs, and in and out of rooms, I continued to find more and more stately items to observe.
- The energy the space exuded. Something about the confluence of marble and stone playing with open archways and streaming sunlight made the space feel both airy and important, refined yet accessible. The place felt welcoming, yet at the same time calmly demanded a sense of decorum and respect. I felt like I definitely had a place here – but that if I should loose my manners for some reason, I would be dismissed until I could resume control of myself.
- The importance of the actions that take place in this building. As I read various quotations printed high on several different walls, I realized that it is in these very halls and rooms that decisions are made, and actions are taken, that impact the lives of millions of people. I wonder if politicians think about that as they cavalierly debate topics that land on the floors of their chambers….
After the tour I spent another 30 minutes walking around the building, taking my time to read, process, ponder, and reflect. Here are some of the pictures I captured during that time (with a brief caption providing additional information where appropriate):
Satisfied with my experience, I returned to the front entrance of the capitol and prepared to exit. As I opened the door and took the first step down, I was surprised (and a tiny bit startled) to see a silent protest taking place – as well as two government officials keeping an eye on the protestors:
Real government in action.