Washington By Wheelchair: Part 1

These posts about my travels will differ slightly from things I have written in the past. A couple of months before a long-planned trip with my sister, Kerry to visit magazine co-collaborator and close friend, Mieke, and her family in Virginia, I broke my leg. Nothing was going to stop me going on holiday for many reasons, not least of which I had booked tickets to the Supernatural DC Convention, but I knew hobbling around a city on crutches for 2 weeks was going to get very exhausting. Luckily Mieke stepped up and rented me a wheelchair; and so began a very new and fascinating travel experience.

Let me start by saying that I had a very positive experience with Delta Airlines. Despite a couple of glitches when receiving wheelchair “assistance” at the airports (I got left at security without crutches at one point!) the ground staff at Seattle, Detroit, Washington National, Dulles and Minneapolis could not have been more accommodating and the flight attendants took great care of me, making sure a chair met me at the door and even storing my crutches in their closet when they wouldn’t fit in the overhead compartment. Most airlines receive a lot of negative press and I wanted to make sure to show my gratitude.

The weekend of our arrival was a whirlwind of Creation Entertainment’s Supernatural DC Convention. Always a crazy and busy time, Creation once again put on a great show, despite some glitches with the venue, and the guests and staff were very helpful when it came to me getting in and out of my chair. Mieke and her family live about a 45 minute drive from downtown DC so on our way out of the city leaving the convention we drove along The Mall, getting a glimpse of the city we would spend the next two weeks exploring. I already knew from that 5 minute detour that I would love Washington.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park

After a day of con recovery we headed out into the Blue Ridge Mountains and drove along Skyline Drive, a scenic road through Shenandoah National Park. It’s easy to see why the Blue Ridge Mountains are so named, the way the light reflects off them through the haze giving them a multi-faceted azure tinge. Bordered by the bright green of the valley below they really are a spectacular sight and being a part of the world I’ve wanted to see since I was a child I was not disappointed.

The next day we headed back into DC and started checking off items on our very long “what we want to do in Washington” list. First up was the Natural History Museum. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, most of the museums that line either side of the Mall are part of the Smithsonian Institution and are actually free of charge to enter. While this is an amazing service to be offered it does mean that they get very busy and we happened to choose a day when there were a multitude of school parties in attendance! This was my first full day out and about with the wheelchair and it soon became apparent that my perspective was greatly changed. At 5’4″ I wouldn’t be described in many circles as tall, but being at hip-level to people instead of chest/eye level is a strangely claustrophobic experience. With the crowds around us, a certain degree of jetlag and trying to adapt to my wheelchair I found the Museum to be oddly disappointing. Compounded by the fact that the dinosaur exhibit was closed (which, let’s be honest, is what most people go there for!) we quickly took in some of the more interesting displays including a fascinating collection of Neanderthal remains as well as the Hope Diamond and then headed out into the hot sun.

We took a stroll along the length of the mall, really hoping to walk along the middle of it to get the full effect, but with a spattering of rain the previous night and a gravel path, it was not condusive to wheelchair travel! The sidewalks were very accessible though and we still got to see the magnificence of this huge green space. Walking past the Washington Monument and through the recently built and spectacular fountains of the World War 2 memorial we followed the edges of the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial. An elevator at the side of the main building afforded me easy access and I will admit to shedding a tear or two as I walked into the main hall to see the huge marble statue that is so iconic. The stairs at the front of the memorial are split halfway down by a small mezzanine from where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. Lack of a ramp and a broken leg were not going to stop me, so supported by a Mieke on one side and Kerry on the other (and with a stranger kindly offering to keep an eye on my wheelchair while we went down) I walked down 18 steps to stand on the spot. It really was worth it. We were all speechless.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial

As the sun started to set we hurried to the National Archives before they closed. One advantage we found of free entrance was that we didn’t feel as if we had to maximize our time in each place. We could dash in, see what we wanted to and dash back out again without feeling like we had wasted money. With only 30 minutes before they closed we managed to see the Magna Carta before we made our way to the vault that houses the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. People were being turned away as we arrived but as the vault entrance was a small staircase we were directed to the side entrance which was accessible and made it in with the last group. It was quite surreal to see these documents in real life and something I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Walking back to the car we passed along the Vietnam Memorial and took a moment to admire the sombre beauty of this stunning sculpture.

After a day checking many things off our list we opted for a more relaxed excursion the next day. Close to where we were staying is Manassas Battlefield Park, an important Civil War site. The visitor’s centre there had lots of information but this was my first and only experience on the whole trip of someone being reluctant to help when it came to information about accessibility. Maybe the staff member was having a bad day, lets give her the benefit of the doubt! With the waters of Bull Run winding through the fields, the park is beautiful and haunting. The battle here was the very first battle of the Civil War and all parties assumed it would be a quick fight and all would be solved. Families from Washington even made the short trip with picnics and settled in to watch. It soon became apparent that the war was going to last and the casualties at Bull Run were mind-blowing. In the middle of the battlefield is the Henry House where the Widow Henry perished because she was unable to leave. She was the only civilian casualty of the battle. There were no pathways to the house so I wasn’t able to visit it, but I was glad for that because the battlefield should be preserved as is. We did however manage to make our way out to the statue commemorating General “Stone Wall” Jackson who fought there. Close to the Battlefield Park is the Winery At Bull Run, a family run winery that makes some delicious Virginia wine. As well as tastings they offer wine by the glass and have a wide porch, complete with rocking chairs, overlooking their vineyards, paddocks and part of the battlefield. With a refreshing beverage in hand it was the perfect spot to sit and discuss our fascinating day.

Manassas Battlefield Park and the Henry House

Manassas Battlefield Park and the Henry House

The next few days were spent exploring some of the older parts of Virginia. Old Town Manassas has some very quaint stores and is easy to walk around, although some of the older buildings had steps into so I had to resort to crutches a couple of times. On a very hot Sunday we headed about 2 hours north to Winchester, Virginia. This beautiful town, established in 1752, was where a young George Washington began his political career and his offices have been preserved as a museum. During the Civil War, given its strategic position in the Shenandoah Valley, it is said to have changed hands 72 times and 13 times in just one day. The visitor’s centre on the outskirts of town was a great source of information and was definitely more enthusiastically staffed than the one at Manassas Battlefield Park! While some of the sidewalks were narrow, due to the well-preserved nature of the Old Town, Winchester was an easy town to traverse in the wheelchair. It was the perfect way to end what had been a fascinating first week.


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