David Whitley uses pedal power to explore Washington DC’s monuments and memorials.
At night, the hollow eyes take on an extra dimension of fear and shell-shocked horror. Lit up from below, the sculpted soldiers of Washington DC’s Korean War Memorial have an extra weight to them as they wade through a faux paddy-field in the dark.
That the memorial to ‘The Forgotten War’ sticks in the memory so prominently is a vindication of two sightseeing decisions that, on the surface, seem a little curious.
The first is to go at night. Given that many of Washington’s highlights are the museums – most of which close at 5.30pm – this would appear to be an exercise in pointlessness. On the flip side, however, the other highlights of the city are the numerous monuments and memorials. And you don’t need to work around opening hours to go and look at them.
Given that most people tackle the memorial trail during the day, you also have far fewer people to fight through in order to have proper poke around and get that requisite happy snap.
The second odd decision that pays back in spades is to go by bike. Despite the recent introduction of a cycle hire scheme, where you can pay by credit card to pick up bikes outside prominent Metro stations, Washington isn’t a glaringly obvious poster-child for cycle-friendliness. There are few designated cycling lanes within the central areas and the phrase “gridlock” could have been invented for the city’s street plan.
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The key sights, however, are all congregated along the National Mall. From the Capitol Building at one end to the Lincoln Memorial at the other, it’s approximately 1.9 miles (3km). This is easily walkable, but there are bits such as the tidal basin that jut off the Mall. To take in everything by circumnavigating it rather than just marching from one end to the other would result in rather tired feet. Frankly, the temptation to skip some of the more inconveniently-located draw cards would be high.
On a bike, this is not an issue. Six or seven kilometres seems about right, one memorial seems to pop up shortly after the other and it feels like a glide past rather than a hard slog.
The terrain is just about perfect too. As our guide, Tujon, says: “It’s as flat as a pancake, with just a couple of blueberries on top.” There are a couple of dashes across main roads at the lights, but for the most part you’re pedalling along the Mall’s paths, endangered only by the odd kamikaze pedestrian or fellow rider with a penchant for cutting across the front of the peloton.
The biggest stretch of cycling is dealt with first, as we cross the Mall and head around the edge of the tidal basin to the Jefferson Memorial. On the way, we get a glimpse of what nature’s illumination can do for man’s creations. As the sun begins to set behind the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial to the west, the Capitol Building attains that fiery pink glow that only impending dusk can bring.
The Jefferson Memorial is curiously underrated. The third president’s giant statue stands inside what may as well be a Roman temple. Jefferson stares across the water with a perfect view of the White House. Apparently, there was much consternation about this when it was built – thousands of cherry trees had to be cut down so that the then president – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – could get fine views of the edifice he’d fought so hard to get built in the first place.
It appears as though controversy is a common theme with these memorials. The one dedicated to Roosevelt himself caused uproar when statue within it was unveiled, and the polio-afflicted president’s disabilities and wheelchair were hidden with a cape. A compromise was later reached, and a second statue portraying him clearly in his specially-modified chair was added to the front.
The Roosevelt Memorial is a classic example of one you’d probably skip if you didn’t fancy the full walk, but it’s a hugely impressive departure from the usual Greco-Roman shrine theme. It comes as a four section sprawl, each part designed to symbolise one of Roosevelt’s four terms in office. Billowing waterfalls, in turn, tell the story of America’s raw potential being harnessed and the bombing of the ships at Pearl Harbor.
By the time darkness falls completely, each memorial is lit up in a way that highlights its own singular glory. At night, they become individual masterworks rather than subsumed in the majestic whole of the Mall. And cycling between them, with the flashing red lights at the top of the ghostly white Washington Monument warning passing aircraft away, feels like a foray into a secret world known to but a few. There’s a sense of exhilarating freedom; a concept that most of those honoured on the Mall would no doubt heartily approve of.
The writer was a guest of Viator and Washington.org. This article was originally written for the Sun-Herald in .