Washington By Wheelchair: Part 2

The second week of our jam-packed trip began with a guided tour of our of the Trudeaus’ Quantum Pilates studio right on Dupont Circle in the middle of DC. From there it was an easy walk to the National Geographic Museum which was housing a Peruvian Gold exhibit. This was the only museum we visited that had an entrance fee but with a member rate of $9.00 it was well worth it. It appears to be small but the exhibit was extremely comprehensive and we spent more time in there than we expected to. The artifact cases were well spaced and possibly due to the fewer numbers of visitors, I felt much more comfortable here than I had at the Natural History Museum. After a quick lunch we walked for about 20 minutes past parks and beautiful government buildings until we reached the White House. It was hard to believe we were standing outside something that is so recognizable. We viewed it from the Lafayette Park side on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is closed to traffic at that point. Although the view of the building from E Street is more recognized, the Pennsylvania Avenue side is actually the front door and we felt we were able to get a much closer view from that side than if we were on E Street.

A short drive from there is the National Zoo. Another Smithsonian organization, entrance to the zoo is free although parking is pricey. All proceeds from parking, gift stores and food vendors in the zoo go towards upkeep and research, so it didn’t bother us to pay for that. I’m not a huge fan of zoos, I often find it distressing to see animals in captivity, but I will try to visit ones I research fully in order to support their work. National Zoo was great, though. The highlight for me was definitely the baby panda but the whole place was well set up and interesting. While it was accessible in as much as the pavements were wide and ramps were plentiful, it is a very hilly area and we were thankful that Mieke’s husband, Mark had joined us by this time so the pushing duties could be shared; definitely something to bear in mind for people with mobility issues.

Next day we headed back into DC and started with a visit to the Air and Space Museum. Split into various rooms representing different eras of flight from the Wright brothers to space exploration, it was very well laid out. Again, the exhibits were nicely spaced out so while it was busy I felt much more at ease, possibly also because I had been in the chair for over a week by this time. There were plenty of ramps and the elevators were well sign-posted. Downstairs in the gift store the museum houses the original model of the USS Enterprise used in the 1966 television series, Star Trek. It was pretty exciting for a sci-fi geek such as myself to see! The museum overall was fascinating and I actually enjoyed it much more than I thought I would; we spent a lot more time in there than we anticipated. Upstairs they show a great variety of reasonably priced IMAX movies but we decided to skip those and that is as good a reason as any to make a return visit.

The interior of the Library of Congress

The interior of the Library of Congress

A walk in the opposite direction to when we’d visited the Lincoln Memorial brought us to the beautiful Capitol Building. The road up to the building itself is incredibly steep and was very daunting for my wheelchair attendants. At the base of the road, however, was a small booth with a disabled sign on it and on inquiring it turned out they provided free golf cart shuttles to the top. They had a lift to get my chair onto the cart and the staff were incredibly helpful. When we reached the top we were dropped off at the visitor’s centre but were warned that it was about to close. Senate was still in session though and we would have been able to view that. Instead we were recommended to cross the street to the Library of Congress which was also about to close but which would allow you to stay 30 minutes beyond closing as long as you were inside before they shut the doors. We hurried over, rushed through security (another wheelchair advantage – line-skipping!) and headed in, honestly not knowing what to expect. What we were greeted with was possibly one of the most spectacular building interiors I have ever seen, and I’ve visited many of the stunning European palaces. Completely covered in murals, mosaics and quotes representing historical literary figures over 3 floors, our necks ached from craning to try to take everything in. We were able to see the reading room from the viewing gallery but it just closed for public access when we got there as they had a visiting dignitary coming in. We were unable to see the many exhibits because of our late arrival but the ones we glanced at looked amazing. It’s definitely something for which I will build extra time into an itinerary next time I’m in the city. A quick stop at the building of the Supreme Court which is next to the Library was well worth it, an impressive structure, and our exhausting day was complete.

No visit to DC is complete without seeing Arlington National Cemetery. Entrance is free but they also offer a tram tour of the estate for $9 per person, which is highly recommended. It makes 3 stops and you can hop-on and hop-off throughout the day. I’m not sure what I really expected of the cemetery but I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of the area. The iconic white headstones are seemingly endless, stretching over the rolling hills as far as the eye can see.

Rows upon rows...

Rows upon rows…

The trams have lifts for the wheelchair and while this was exceptionally useful and the drivers and tour guides were very helpful the tram stops themselves were not very handy for the disabled. Most of the stops were alongside narrow walkways backed by walls so it was impossible to roll off the lift and meant I had to step out of my chair. It was odd for a place which is obviously visited by many disabled guests but it struck us as the least accessible of all the sights we visited. Having said that, our visit was amazing. The first stop is at JFK’s grave site, a sombre and silent area with an eternal flame. The hill up to the site was a challenge for my friends pushing the chair but we all felt it was worth seeing. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was the second stop and we arrived there just as a changing of the guard was finishing. The change is done every 30 minutes in the summer (every hour in the winter) and the tomb is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Because we had missed most of it we waited for the next change. Just as it was about to start a tour of 30+ WW2 and Korea veterans arrived to watch and it was quite moving to be watching the 3 young soldiers involved in the ceremony under the watchful eye of these men who had served so many years ago; there weren’t many dry eyes. It’s a beautiful ceremony, a fascinating display and very impactful. We reluctantly left and hopped back on the tram to the third and final stop, the Arlington House, originally the estate of the family of Mary Anna Custis, Robert E Lee’s wife. When Lee left the Union army to fight with the Confederates to avoid fighting against fellow Virginians and moved to Richmond, the estate was seized by the US government as he was unable to pay the taxes on it in person. Twenty six Union soldiers were buried along the edge of Mrs Lee’s rose garden to discourage their return and a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been placed on the site. With views across the whole of the downtown core of DC it’s a spectacular area. Overlooking the magnificent view is the grave of Pierre L’Enfant, the French architect and army captain who, under the direction of George Washington, planned the Federal city of Washington DC. He passed away in 1825 and was buried in Digges Farm, Maryland but was re-interred at the present site in 1909. Arlington National Cemetery was a thought-provoking and emotional experience and I cannot recommend it enough.

The last museum experience of our trip was the Air and Space Museum annex at the Udvar-Hazy Center, close to Washington Dulles airport. Here are housed the large items that won’t fit in the main museum in DC and it was quite fascinating. The 3 story hangar is open from ceiling to floor and wide catwalks allow you to view the exhibited items from all angles. A very accessible site for the wheelchair, we spent a relaxing few hours wandering through the displayed aircraft, marveling at the historic machines they have there. I had not been aware that the Enola Gay (the bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima) was here and I felt quite emotional in its presence. Among the items on display were the Concorde, Boeing’s first commercial aircraft, a Blackbird stealth bomber, a kamikaze pod, multitudes of bi-planes, tri-planes, helicopters as well as artifacts from air forces throughout history. A highlight for me was the Discovery shuttle and the NASA artifacts that surrounded it which included a Mercury capsule and a Gemini capsule as well as the quarantine module used for returning astronauts for the Apollo missions. Overall it was a fascinating visit and while it’s not an easy place to get to without transportation as it is a distance from the city, it’s definitely worth the effort. On the way back from the hangar we took a slight detour and drove through some of the beautiful Virginia farmland to a cute little town called The Plains. Mieke had raved about a great restaurant called the Rail Stop (formerly owned by local actor Robert Duvall) so we made sure to visit and were definitely not disappointed with the hospitality or the food.

Relaxing at the Winery at Bull Run

Relaxing at the Winery at Bull Run

Our last day in Virginia was spent mostly in Old Town Manassas and with a return visit to the Winery at Bull Run. We wanted to be able to soak up some more of the Virginia atmosphere and relaxed on the winery’s porch absorbing everything we had seen and done over the previous two weeks. It will definitely not be our last visit to this stunning part of the world and after many years of an intense desire to see the area I was not in any way disappointed. I would love to go back when I’m not incapacitated; DC has a fantastic bike share program which would be an amazing way to see the city but was not exactly feasible this time around! While I recognize that my injury was temporary and it was easy for me to hop in and out of the chair, it was a really interesting study in just how the city catered to the disabled. Other than the couple of issues we had it was an extremely accessible area and we found people to be very helpful. I wouldn’t recommend a broken leg to anyone but it was definitely not as limiting as I anticipated and did not stop me falling in love with Washington DC and Virginia in any way; not surprising – after all, Virginia is for lovers!



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