This is the eleventh installment of our summer road trip travelogue, featuring Artificially Sweetened (AS), her daughter, Cupcake, and me, the Nittany Turkey.
My pre-season prognostication having been written and put to bed, I now have no excuses to delay this installment of the travelogue any longer. So, awayyyyyyyyyy we go!
This would be our Washington, D.C. day. At the appointed early morning hour and against the feeble protests of AS, I gathered my stuff together for departure. When I exited the guest facility to go to the bathroom, I was surprised to see Cupcake in the final stages of doing the same. Occasionally, she can be surprisingly sweet and self-reliant; I was happy to see that this was one of those times. So was AS.
I left AS upstairs to gather her stuff as I brought mine downstairs. Toejam and Judy were, of course, already up. Even in retirement, they maintain a first shift coal miner’s schedule.
Toejam and I were discussing my route. He prefaced his comments with, “I know you won’t listen to me, but…” Actually, I wound up listening to him. His idea of taking US 15 down to the Baltimore Beltway turned out to be perfect. I was surprised that my GPS software chose that same routing. But I’m getting ahead of unfolding events.
The plan was to hustle down to suburban Virginia and take the Metro into our nation’s capital, where we could do some sightseeing for a few hours. My hope was that we could avoid rush hours and after the sightseeing, hit the road reasonably early. Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where we would spend the night, would still be a long drive from the capital area.
On Our Way
We said our goodbyes to the Tams after loading the Siena. We will be seeing them again when they pay us a winter visit in January or February. Who knows? We might even see them sooner, if we decided to go to the homecoming game at Penn State this fall.
Over the hill and past Robert Shewokis’ fuel oil tanks we went and we were on our way out of the Skook. Most of the morning proceeded uneventfully, until it was time for lunch. By that time, we were approaching the Baltimore Beltway.
“What do you girls feel like for lunch?” I asked.
“Cracker Barrel is a chain, but it’s good enough,” responded AS.
“Ew!” I croaked.
“Cracker Barrel is good!” asserted Cupcake.
“Cracker Barrel is an old lady restaurant!” I protested.
Yes, I am.
But my protests were too feeble. Somehow, we managed to decide on Cracker Barrel. It was 2-1. It just so happened that there was a Cracker Barrel about 15 minutes away, right off a beltway exit in Frederick, Maryland. So, that’s where we went.
Cupcake ordered bacon and eggs, as she wanted breakfast. AS and I had lunch, a reuben for AS and a hamburger for me.
Well, the food turned out to be acceptable, while the service was diner quality without the friendliness. The waitress dumped a steak fry in my lap when she delivered my burger, and didn’t even notice. Nevertheless, I was amused by the fireplug shaped midget hostess apprentice, who looked like she didn’t quite know why she was there. Her function seemed to be to shadow the “real” hostess, whom I nicknamed “mama.” The little one looked like Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson proceeding to her next event when she tailed a party being seated; when “mama” finally gave her a party of her own to seat, presumably because two parties showed up at the door simultaneously, she perked up and returned from her initial mission all smiles, hands on hips, and generally proud of her consummate achievement. It was way cool. Of course, Cupcake was on my case about my obsession with waitresses and hostesses; that made it even more fun. But I digress.
Having finished what turned out to be a redeeming lunch that will actually bring me back to Cracker Barrel someday when I’m desperate enough on the road, we exited via the Cracker Barrel country store. Well, we took a while to exit. Being the consummate shoppers, we had to look at everything in the store. Finally, I advised the ladies that we had work to do, for there was a Geocache search awaiting us outside.
A nationwide series of Geocaches called “Off Your Rocker” sprang up at Cracker Barrel stores. In case you’ve never seen a Cracker Barrel store, they all have a porch with a couple dozen rocking chairs and antique stuff. You can just sit there as long as you wish, or buy a rocking chair if you want. Or you can hunt for the ubiquitous “Off Your Rocker” cache in front of all the rockers, which requires stealth and cunning to avoid detection, scorn, or ridicule.
We found the cache after a brief search. I say “we”, but AS actually made the grab. Nothing new about that. As for “muggles” (a term borrowed from Harry Potter by Geocachers meaning uninitiated onlookers), there was only one group of four bikers on the porch. AS was sorta right about lunch and she was right about the cache location.
After signing the log, we re-entered the Cracker Barrel and used the respective gender specific rest rooms for their intended purpose. Shortly, we were back on our way to D.C.
Our D.C. Tour
Actually, that was to be the Vienna, Virginia Metro parking lot. I chose it because according to the Metro web site, it was the largest of the lots in suburbia, holding over 5,000 cars.
We arrived there after lunch. By that time, there was a barricade across the entrance to the immense parking lot. The sign read “Lot Full.”
Hmmm. What do we do now?
Aha! Across the street, there were parking meters and there were available spaces. I turned around and parked in one so we could examine the meter to see whether it would allow enough time for us to get three hours or so of sightseeing in. It looked good. However, between AS and I, I think we had three quarters. We calculated that it would require about $5 worth of quarters to get enough time.
Hmmmm. What do we do now?
I had noticed that there was a bank at the nearby shopping center, so I parked there. AS went in to get some quarters. A few minutes later, she came back.
“That teller knew exactly why I was there!” she exclaimed. “When I asked her for the quarters, she said, ‘So, you got there too late, did you?'”
“Did she give you the quarters?” I asked.
“Yep!” said AS. “I got $5 worth of them.”
We went back and parked, spending several minutes inserting quarters. By that time it was around 2:00 PM. There would be no getting around rush hour, especially because AS told me I was walking too fast toward the train station. I bought everyone a Metro card and we went down to the tracks.
The Sweltering Metro
It was bad luck that we got a Metro car with no air conditioning. It would be 45 minutes of steam bathing on the way to downtown. We could have run outside and into the next car, but there were no guarantees that either the doors wouldn’t close before we got there or the next car would actually have a working air conditioner. So, muttering about maintenance issues in this poor economy, we persevered in the (fortunately) lightly loaded car. Actually, the side benefit of the air conditioning malady was that the air would feel downright cool when we exited into the city!
We reached our stop and got out. My plan was to get out at the Smithsonian and walk over to the National Mall. There was no time to enjoy the Smithsonian, which can take two days and then you still haven’t seen everything. It is pretty easy to find the mall from where we were, or, for that matter, from just about anywhere within a few miles. You just point yourself at the Washington Monument and remember to look both ways as you’re crossing the busy streets.
The first stop on our microtour of the capital was, indeed, the Washington Monument—or is it the Worshington Monument? Whichever it was, we got to the base of the grounds and took a few pictures. Then, a couple of middle-aged blondes who would turn out to be from Orange County, California showed up and offered to take a picture of the three of us together if we would do the same for them. These babes were a bit rambunctious, and one of them made a suggestive comment to me. After they left, AS expressed her displeasure.
“That one was getting really close to my limit,” she said.
“Too bad I didn’t get a picture of those two,” I replied.
We trudged up the ramp to the monument. On the way, I asked whether the ladies wanted to take the elevator to the top or walk up the stairs. “There are 128,373 steps,” I said, pulling that number straight out of my ass. They said they wanted the elevator. However, this discussion proved to be moot, as it was 3:00 PM and all the tickets for the day had already been issued. We would have had to wait a couple of hours, anyhow, so no great loss.
While standing around the monument, I explained how the buildings at the east and west ends of the mall are the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Then, from the Washington monument, toward the north and south are the White House and the Jefferson Memorial, respectively. The White House is across the Ellipse, and the Jefferson Memorial is across the Tidal Basin. All but the Jefferson Memorial are visible from the Washington Monument.
I took pictures of Cupcake and AS with the U.S. Capitol and the White House for their respective souvenir shots. Then I plunked my ass down on one of the granite benches and watched AS, our designated foreign relations officer, as she took pictures for an aggregation of Indians—the South Asian kind, not the Kowabunga ones. While this was happening, I heard the sound of approaching helicopters.
Hail to the Chief?
The choppers were heading directly for the restricted airspace over the mall and the White House. As there was no presence of F-18s to intercept them, I assumed that this was OK, and I shouldn’t call 911 to tell them that the terrorists were coming. We, along with a thousand or so others, watched as two of the three helicopters broke off their formation while the third began lowering itself onto the south lawn of the White House. We had just witnessed the landing of Marine One, which had been accompanied by two escort decoys.
There was a reception committee, but the helicopter itself shielded us from viewing the arrival party to see whether it was President Obama or who. Nevertheless, it provided some unexpected excitement.
I explained to the Cupcake about restricted airspace and not allowing commercial and private air traffic in the skies when the president is flying somewhere.
She was like, “That’s like a big waste, just for one guy!”
I’m like, “Yeah, but he like used to be the leader of the free world!”
I felt the need to speak her language and employ similar sarcasm. It almost came naturally at this stage of the trip.
So, that was the big excitement of the day. It would, of course, lead to some inconvenience later in the day, but we didn’t know that yet.
I proposed that we walk to the Lincoln Memorial. The ladies agreed. I didn’t want to go east toward the Capitol past all the museums, because we didn’t have time for browsing museums. I love the Air & Space Museum, though, and its new annex out by Dulles Airport. So, we’ll have to go back sometime.
Since I had last walked the Mall, President George W. Bush had commissioned and built the World War II Memorial, which is smack dab in the middle of the mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It is a circular thing with large hunks of granite each bearing the name of one of the united states. It is actually more impressive than I make it sound.
I could see AS perceptibly slowing down as we circled the monument. I reached the Florida stone about three minutes before AS and Cupcake got there so we could take pictures. Part of the problem was that none of us had brought any drinking water, and the sun was beating down on us. However, we were able to quickly solve that problem thanks to our founding fathers, who provided drinking water fountains at intervals along the mall.
We walked along the reflecting pool toward the Lincoln Memorial, with Cupcake taking pictures of the reflections of her feet, then having her mom pose for some walking photos. This further tired AS out, with the sun continually beating down, so we made for the shady, tree lined walk to the south, where I could see that AS was still somewhat uncomfortable. She announced that she had to go to the bathroom—she needed the worshroom in Worshington. As we closed in on the memorial, she asked a street vendor for the location of the rest rooms; he pointed her toward the memorial.
And so it was that AS and Cupcake each made their donation to the Lincoln Memorial. Cupcake returned first. Then AS emerged and motioned for us to come up the stairs so she wouldn’t have to walk down the ramp and back up the stairs.
Then, we paid our respects to Honest Abe for a while. Being in that room is a spiritual experience, although it would be nice if people actually observed the sign that calls for quiet. We took pictures and exited.
Of course, going down the stairs is like running an obstacle course, with people thinking they can plunk their asses down anywhere they damn well please. Cupcake was somewhat perturbed at me for telling people to move their asses as we made our way down, but really, it’s the only way to do it.
The next stop on our tour was the Vietnam Memorial. I noted that there were lots of Vietnamese looking people there. Of course, I had used a colloquial term for them and was shushed by AS. We took pictures of the lifelike soldier statues and walked by the wall with as much reverence as could be mustered with people wheeling stroller with screaming kids past it.
From here, we started walking back up the other side of the mall. When AS grew tired, we sat for a while, and I formulated a plan to visit the White House, after which we would duck into a Metro station and get outta there. The plan was accepted.
The White House and the Smartass Cop
We walked for a few blocks to the edge of the White House grounds on 17th Street, and then walked up toward E Street. Along the way, there was a Pakistani ice cream vendor, so we stopped to cool off AS. She wanted to pay for the refreshments. When it came time for me to ask for what I wanted, I stated it by name, but the vendor motioned toward the placard with the pictures of all his frozen treats, wanting me to point to the one I wanted. This was pretty funny: right outside the White House, I would have had to speak Urdu to be understood.
After AS regained her strength through a liberal dose of ice cream, we walked toward the south side of the White House. When we got there, we found our way blocked by police. What the hell? Oh, yeah. The helicopter landed so they were making a, like, “perimeter.” E Street and the Ellipse were all off-limits. Actually, there were armed secret service people on the roof of the White House, too. There weren’t no way we were gettin’ past any of them. I told the ladies that we would have to turn around to go around the other side.
“What makes you think the other side isn’t blocked, too?” asked AS.
“I dunno,” said I, “but I’ll go up there and call your cell phone when I find out.”
I didn’t want to make AS go on a wild goose chase, as worn out as she seemed to be. So, I cranked my butt around the corner onto 17th Street and quickly walked the few blocks up to Pennsylvania Avenue. I found a cop there and asked him whether this side of the White House was blocked at all, as I had some ladies waiting to find out. He said that it wasn’t. So, I called Cupcake.
“Come on up. It’s all clear. Just walk up 17th to G Street and I’ll be there,” I instructed.
“Pennsylvania Avenue, not G Street,” said the cop, listening to my side of the conversation, “G street doesn’t go through.”
“All right, come up to Pennsylvania Avenue,” I told the Cupcake. I had originally said G street because I knew they would pass E and F Streets, and therefore know they were going the right way. But the cop had to stick his big nose into the matter.
“OK,” said the Cupcake. I hung up.
“Now, I’m going to stand by G Street just to make sure,” I told the cop.
I waited by G Street for several minutes, until finally the weary AS and the mighty Cupcake arrived. I was a little worried about AS, as she seemed very uncomfortable. I told her that we’d stop by the White House and then go immediately to the Metro.
We passed the cop. I waved, so as to thank him for his help. But he couldn’t resist getting a dig in.
“Must be the Penn State hat that does it to you,” he said.
“Yeah, it must be,” I replied, not quite tired enough to get in the cop’s face and land myself in jail. Besides, I wasn’t sure whether AS would be able to come up with the bail money.
We walked along the wrought iron fence on the north side of the White House. AS observed that both sides of the White House look the same. I guess that’s pretty true. The thing is, the helicopter was on the other side. That meant that we could get some unobstructed pictures of AS and the Cupcake in front of the Cupcake’s future home. She’d be there now, based on her assessment of her own capabilities, if she could somehow get past the minimum age requirement.
After the picture taking AS declared that we were done there and we could go to the next place.
The Next Place
“The next place?” I asked.
“Yeah. The Metro.” replied AS.
“OK! I’ll get you there. Do you want a taxi? It’s only a few blocks.”
“No, I can make it as long as I know we’ll be on the train soon,” she said.
It was rush hour, so traffic on the streets was jammed and impatience was the emotion of the hour. Leading the way, as I crossed 15th Street legally, a left turning SUV blared its horn at me in the crosswalk. That pissed me off. After all, I was walking at Washington rush hour speed, not sauntering like some damn starstruck tourist.
“Shut the f–k up!” I screamed through the SUV’s open driver side window. I was finally tired enough to not take any crap from these clowns.
I got across and looked back to see that the Cupcake and AS had arrived back there and were waiting for the light. The Cupcake was muttering something to AS, which I presume was something disdainful about my yelling at docile motorists. I waited for them.
“I had to yell at some schmuck who blew his horn at me,” I said when they crossed.
“Yeah, we heard you,” said Cupcake.
Tough shit if she was embarrassed. The putz deserved it.
We got to the Metro station. Down we went into the bowels of our nation’s capital. AS was too tired to read signs, so I led the way down. She was also too tired to walk down the escalator, so I stationed myself on the right side of the moving stairs as did she. Meanwhile, Cupcake stood on the left, blocking about 3,000 rush hour commuters clamoring to hurry home to their wives or mistresses. I told her to move over.
“They’ll have to wait. I’m standing here,” she said.
I told her to let them get around her.
“This is where I got on,” she said, “and I’m not moving over.”
I was getting tired of the attitude, but I figured what the hell, they can push her out of the way if they want to get down. I’d just disavow any connection with her, as she sure as hell doesn’t look like my issue. I was tired and pissed off, but I was able to contain my ire. Fortunately, no one trampled her, probably because it wouldn’t be politically correct to trample an Indian girl.
As it turned out, she would not be the only one of my favorite people who would give me a hard time in this Metro station. Read on.
We snaked our way through the dense crowds to the proper platform for the blue and the orange lines.
Looking at the coming train sign, our train would be second. However, AS was standing by the edge of the platform along with a couple hundred people, as if she was waiting for the first train.
“Come over here!” I yelled at AS, wanting to get her out of the horde, lest she be pushed into the wrong train when it came.
“No! I want to get a seat, so I’m standing right here!” she declared, obstinately.
“Yeah,” I said, “but you’re waiting for the wrong damn train! Ours is the orange to Vienna, not the blue to Franconia!”
She came back over with me. Knowing that she was tired and cranky, I smiled. Otherwise, I would have chided her about her near-screwup.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll get you a seat. I’m good at that.”
I was indeed good at that. It was one of the things on which I had prided myself when commuting on the New York subways years ago. I could usually get a seat, even during the heart of rush hours.
The train arrived, and I blew past several people to grab a seat. I plunked my fat, sweaty ass down in a seat next to a woman who gave me a dirty look.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ve got a nice lady coming to sit here.”
AS and Cupcake eventually worked their way into the car, and I got up so AS could sit. I stood all the way to Vienna, which was fine because in this car the air conditioning was actually working. AS was complaining that this was the fullest she had ever seen a commuter train car. Most of her experience was with the “El” in Chicago. I told her that I had been in a car twice that full in London—and it was a regular commuter train, not the “tube”. I had also been in similarly crowded cars on the Long Island Rail Road. They were like sardines and you could cop a feel really easily, if there was anything worth feeling. But I digress. So, quit yer complaining, already. You got a seat.
AS and Cupcake made themselves busy taking pictures of some guy with Pink socks as the crowd thinned out in suburban Virginia. Cupcake was able to grab a seat at that point. We finally reached our station, the end of the orange line, Vienna, Virginia, at around 7 PM.
A Cache for the Road
We started walking back to where we had parked the car, speculating that we had put just enough money in the meter, so would it still be there when we got there? I thought the worst that could happen is that we would get a ticket. As we were walking down the side of the road opposite the station, I commented about the plethora of poison ivy in the woods beyond the guard rail next to the sidewalk. Suddenly, I got an inspiration.
“This would be a perfect place for a guard rail Geocache! It gets a lot of traffic, has a lot of ‘muggles’ and there are great hiding places,” I declared. I whipped out my BlackBerry and fired up the Geocaching software as we kept walking. I clicked the “nearest cache” menu item.
A cache popped up .02 miles away! That’s about 100 feet or 30 meters. Hilarious!
We began our systematic search, stopping for muggles and resuming a couple of times. Within a few minutes, I snagged the magnetic hide-a-key container from behind the guard rail. We signed the log. AS said to me, “This would have been a great place to Jetskier a cache!”
Let me explain what “Jetskiering” a cache means. “Jetskier” is a Central Florida cacher who prides himself on finding puzzle caches without solving the puzzle. He’s done quite a few like that. However, finding a cache about which we had no presupposition to even exist would be a significant ESP step beyond Jetskiering. It would elevate two charter members of ISAG (the Facebook group I founded—the acronym stands for I Suck At Geocaching) from the miasma of ISAG into the upper stratum of Geocaching excellence. Alas, we didn’t think of looking for the cache before we knew it existed.
This was a great capstone to our afternoon in DC. AS seemed to forget that she was even tired and Cupcake was relieved to find that the Siena was still there, even though the meter had expired. There was no ticket on the windshield.
It had been a productive day, with a pocket-sized tour of Washington, my introduction to Cracker Barrel, and a couple of Geocaches searched for and found. My only wish was that AS had felt better through all the fun. Nevertheless, I think she had fun in spite of her weariness.
I asked the girls whether they wanted me to stop at the nearby supermarket for any provisions for the long drive through Virginia to Rocky Mount. They demurred. However, when I stopped for fuel, they fueled up at a nearby 7-11.
We got to Rocky Mount right around midnight, and I screwed up a turn right in view of the hotel, so we had to loop around a few miles and approach it for a second time. We finally got settled in. One more hotel, and they were all just starting to look alike. We were going to get up very early and wouldn’t get much sleep.
Nevertheless, the Cupcake wanted to make an extremely personal phone call and wanted privacy. She wanted to stay in the car in the parking lot, but AS vetoed that idea, telling her to sit in the lobby if she didn’t want us to hear what she had to say. I guess she didn’t have much to say, because in a few minutes, she was in the room.
On our final night on the road, we three weary travelers hit the sack for the last time before returning to the comfort of our own beds. We had a great, albeit tiring, afternoon in Washington, D.C., so sleep came easily.
Tomorrow would be the ride home, which had to be accomplished by 5:00 PM, because AS and Cupcake would be picking up the other two kids, BCH and Shark Bite, at the Orlando airport shortly thereafter. We would have to leave around 7:00 AM to allow for lunch and contingencies.
In our next and final installment, you’ll read about our ride home. I’ll also give you a synopsis of the whole durned trip.