08 January 2013

My Washington D.C. Adventure, in Six Parts

(This essay was a Christmas present to Mom and Dad. Now I’m passing it along to the world, but I realize it might take more than a true friend to read an essay this long.)

(The paragraphs set in Courier were posted to my social networks during the trip. They were fun poems, but, as poetry goes, they needed an essay to demystify them...)

DC, Day 1: Found the triforce at DCA, stole the declaration of independence, uncovered the lost symbol, watched Dr. No vote yes twice. 
I had come 2,489 miles for this. And I was expecting it to be the big moment. It was the end—my telos, my grail, my Land of Song.

But something was wrong.

I raised my Canon Rebel and shot the Washington Monument—along with the Asian tourists reflecting in the pool that stretched toward our nation’s capital. I turned and headed up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—which towered over me. A guy in a red beanie, with his back to the memorial, pointed toward his friends in what sounded like Japanese—they were taking his picture wrong. A small family to my left was taking a portrait too. They seemed eager, I guess you could say—excited to be there—excited to have proof of it. But what did it really matter?

To listen means to expect—to expect a sound, or a message, or a song so distant you can only hear it when you’re quiet. But to hear, that means to get the thing that you were expecting. To listen is to hold out your hands. To hear is to have the gift in your palms. I was listening on the steps of the Lincoln—I was expecting to find music there, expecting to witness the Land of Song, somehow. But I couldn’t hear a thing.

My backpack, too, was mostly empty—

I was doing “The No-Baggage Challenge,” which meant I brought one extra t-shirt, thermal, pair of socks, and undies. I would wash them in the shower while still wearing them—a trick I’d learned from author, blogger, and vagabond Rolf Potts—letting the first pair dry while wearing the second, and so on. I wore a black beanie and a matching lightweight ski jacket. I also had a hackie sack in my pocket, for entertainment and in case I got too cold. It was 11:00 am. My parents would pick me up at the capitol at 6:00 pm, so traveling light made my time on foot a whole lot easier. But I had purposely avoided mentioning the no-baggage challenge to my mom beforehand, because I knew she’d try to talk me out of it.

I felt down. Blue as can be. Like Holden Caulfield. Maybe because I was tired—having little sleep on the red eye (but I did take a cool photo of the sun coming up through glass at JFK that looked like a triforce—that’s your first clue to unlock the poem). Or maybe it was because I was alone in a crowd, with no one to take my picture wrong. But I think it was because I couldn’t hear the music. Whatever patriotic, momentous feeling I was expecting to get there—the thing I had traveled across the country to find—wasn’t there. The memorial was there, sure. But I hadn’t come for yule marble (shipped from Colorado, by the way, practically where I’d started from).

I took of photo of Abe sitting up in his giant stone chair, like a God ruling over mortals, with his right shoe pitched a little more forward than his left, and the noble epitaph behind him: IN THIS TEMPLE, AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION, THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN IS ENSHRINED FOREVER. There was music in that sentence, I knew. But I couldn’t really hear it. Maybe because of the commotion around me—laughing and smiling and posing and pointing. Whatever they were capturing, I didn’t want to take that from here.

I’d jogged from the airport—Reagan International was just over 3 miles from the National Mall. People had told me to take the metro. But hoofing it enticed me more. It’s true that I am a thrifty person, but in this case money wasn’t a consideration—striking out on foot seemed more adventurous; it would better my odds for stumbling across that thing I was questing for—the thing I hadn’t yet heard.

I had almost heard the music while crossing the interstate highway bridge (not on the pedestrian trail—so cars rushed past at my back, and I practically leaned on the railing as I ran, imagining more than just the near misses you see on YouTube). But the thing is more than just excitement.

I’d stopped at the Jefferson, where there was certainly music—again, the immortal giant standing over you like a God, his words etched in stone between the four compass points, and one great statement circling the room: I HAVE SWORN UPON THE ALTAR OF GOD ETERNAL HOSTILITY AGAINST EVERY FORM OF TYRANNY OVER THE MIND OF MAN. This had been my first stop, when my spirits were still high. In fact, I just chuckled when I noticed I was in the backdrop of another Asian photo shoot; the first time it seemed funny. But my lack of study emptied the experience—I knew so little about Jefferson I couldn’t fully appreciate his memory. I recognized there was music, but I didn’t understand the harmonies nor the intricacies.

Next was the FDR, who irritates me a little (but only because I believe charity comes from a person’s heart, rather than a bureaucracy’s teeth), and the MLK, whose monument gave me a newfound respect for him—another one I need to study more. But I’m an ignorant American, the natural counterpart to the photogenic Asians.

On the steps of the Lincoln I put in an earbud and pushed play on my The Lost Symbol audiobook. I was at the end of the story and was sure that either the demon Mal’Akh or Robert Langdon would know how to find what I was looking for. My feet were getting tired at this point, so I listened to the ending while sitting under the Washington Monument—that stop did strike me more deeply, thought I’m not sure why (I didn’t get to go inside because of the earthquake construction). Perhaps it was the majesty of both its height and simplicity, and the way it seemed to mark the precise location of the empyrean—Dante’s highest, fiery heaven.

I saw the original Star Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry. I walked into the National Archives, saw the Declaration handled by Nick Cage in National Treasure (there are no laser beams or heat sensors over the document), and walked out carrying a $9.99 copy (not $33.00 like Nick paid). In my defense, I planned to come back to each of these with my family in a week, but I couldn’t resist making some stops on my own—shallow as they might be. Perhaps my rushing had doomed the quest from the beginning. But the journey was almost entirely silent.

I tried to enter the capitol, but the last tour had already gone. They sent me across the street searching a government building for a senator’s secretary who would give me gallery passes to watch the Senate and House do their thing. California gave me the golden tickets without asking whether I was from Idaho. Once inside the capitol, I took a “photo op” tour, which led me to the capitol rotunda. Looking straight up you can see a circular mural called “The Apotheosis of Washington,” 180 feet over your head. I learned about this from The Lost Symbolapotheosis means the process in which a man becomes a god—it’s alchemy for the human soul. Maybe that’s what I was searching for. The painting shows Washington, robed in royal purple, on a cloud, surrounded by classical gods like Vulcan, Neptune, and Venus. Next we went down to the capitol crypt, which wasn’t nearly as mysterious as the book made it seem—another letdown. But that’s what I get for seeking virtue where it isn’t made.

I’m ignorant enough that I don’t know the difference between house and senate, so after the photo op, I followed two cute girls toward the house-side of the building. Only about six representatives were in attendance—till the moderator hammered his gavel and said they had 15 minutes to vote. Soon they all came piling into the room, talking and laughing loudly. I was surprised to suddenly be looking off the short balcony at Ron Paul—a modern day rebel, who sticks to his ideals even when they’re not mainstream—and they never are—the man known as Doctor No because he always votes against more government and regulation. I’m sorry this has to polarize this essay—and so soon. But here’s my defense:

Let me take you back to the 08 elections. I’d heard Barack speak in Boise before the elections and loved his ideals but didn’t like the idea of taking people’s money to fund them. I’d also heard my crazy cousins say how they loved Ron Paul, and, honestly, that turned me off. Too nutty for me. Then I had, to my everlasting shame, voted for John McCain, who lost. I came to realize there was a big difference between a voter and an informed voter. So in 2009, hoping to at least slightly curb my ignorance, I read Barack’s The Audacity of Hope. It was an entertaining, pleasant, and personal story. And soon afterward, my buddy talked me into reading Ron Paul’s The Revolution. And it blew my mind.

I can best explain with a metaphor: Let’s say that instead of politics, these guys are talking about food. Barack says, “Let’s be healthy, let’s be fit, let’s eat good food that we really enjoy, and let’s be in such good shape that we can hike to the top of Everest without a hitch.” He has great ideas. But, you know, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians—everyone wants these same things. It’s not like being fit is a revolutionary idea. Barack talks about positive goals—and it’s great. (You’re saying, “Wait, how come you only use Barack’s first name?—it’s not fair!” And I say, “I gave them each two syllables.”) Ron Paul, on the other hand, says, “There are three types of food you can put into your body: proteins, fats, and carbs—and you should be aware of the ratios you consume.” He goes on to lay out exercise plans that are easy and manageable, ones you can actually keep up with. And sometimes he says thing like, “Yes, donuts are good, but you cannot eat them for breakfast every day!” In short, he talks about the foundational principles that will lead to the goals that we all want. He teaches short-term pains for long-term happiness. Like I said—I thought he was a crazy man until I actually stopped to listen (and I’ll admit, he’s not a charismatic, smooth debater like most slick politicians, but isn’t that a good thing?). I guess I’m just a rebel who likes a rebel. After all, it was my buddy Mark Twain who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Anyways. That’s the long version that unlocks the cryptic poem: Ron Paul voted Yes on both resolutions they did while I was there.

When I came back outside, the sun had gone down. I ended the day by doing pushups on the back lawn of the capitol, trying to stay warm. When Mom and Dad picked me up, I was sitting on the curb of the roundabout on the northwest corner of the capitol.

They said I looked like a transient.

I guess I was.

DC, Days 2-3: Saved Private Ryan (now Lieutenant Washburn), took Iwo Jima, ambushed an entire battalion of donuts, learned how to live forever.

Tanner is jovial.

How else can I put it? He’s nearly constantly cracking jokes. And it’s good humor too. Nobody makes me laugh so much—meaning both often and hard.

In this moment, it was difficult to recognize him. Each of the four platoons was three rows deep and about nine bodies wide. They were all tall, feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind their backs, and their hair was shaved down to nothing on the sides and nearly nothing on top. I scanned through them, but to find him I’d have to look at every single face—more than 100 of them. They wore plain civilian clothes, plain enough that not a one stood out. My brother’s initiation into the cult of the Marines—Officer Candidate School—had camouflaged him among his peers. Dad whispered to me where Tanner was, and I saw him—in the second row. This was the first I’d seen him with his hair shaved. His head was tilted forward and down, and he looked angry, as if he’d just gotten in a fight but it was broken up before he could pay back the injury. It seems weird to describe him this way, but that’s how it looked. My guess is that he was so excited to see us—Mom in particular—that he was worried he would crack a smile while still in formation.

Luckily, the sergeant shouted “Fall out,” and the candidates broke up their tight formation and came toward the metal bleachers where the family members were. He smiled when he came over, and, after giving us hugs, talked politely and in a low tone, keeping his hands out of his pockets like he was trained. We took him from the Quantico base to The Cracker Barrel for a big meal and light conversation before dropping him back at the squad bay.

The next morning at 8:00, we were sitting on those metal bleachers again, in much colder weather. We shivered in the humid cold, even with our hats, gloves, and coats. They called it a parade—the same four platoons marched out in perfect order, wearing heavy boots and canvas camouflage—no hats, no gloves, and carrying cold, metal rifles in their hands.

Tanner had been rejected the first time he applied to OCS, but was accepted the second time. Once there, less than 70% of the candidates had made it through the ten weeks of hell to graduation. They were, and had become, the best of the best. Their feet stomped in perfect time. At the command of the drill sergeant, they moved from one position to the next, slapping their numb hands against the barrels, making a chorus of clacks for the audience. In perfect unity. No individuals, no uniqueness, not even any personalities who were worried about the elements. I missed this (unfortunately), but apparently a candidate in the far corner of the 4th platoon collapsed, was picked up by his comrades, and collapsed again a moment later. Maybe he was locking his knees, they said.

The parade finished, and the candidates marched away. We saw them next at the National Museum of the Marine Corps—a building shaped like a giant glass teepee with one metal tent pole sticking out the top—only imagine the teepee isn’t straight toward the sky, but leaning forward, as if ready for battle. Now you’ve got it. It’s a large teepee, and inside there are full-size planes hanging in the glass-covered sky, like giant mobiles in a 6-year-old’s room.

Around the room’s upper circle are quotes about the marines—uncommon valor and all. The one that caught my attention, though, was this (and I apologize for the profanity): COME ON, YOU SONS OF BITCHES! DO YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?—inscribed in the stone overhead—the coarseness in stark contrast to the formality and nobility the Marines also champion. Marine Dan Daly yelled this before charging a bastion of Germans in WWI’s battle of Belle Wood, France: If they died in a noble charge, their legacy would become immortal. When I looked up and saw that, I thought maybe everlasting life was the thing I was searching for on this trip—becoming a god, apotheosis. In my heart, I knew the words were from the Land of Song—there was indeed a way to become immortal, but it would take paying the last full measure of devotion. But then—maybe—it wasn’t the men he gave courage to who became immortal. It was his words. The words themselves. They were now immortalized in stone, looking down on every Marine officer graduating from OCS. Perhaps, then, words were the key.

After we toured the museum (and I took a photo of the actual flag from the famous Iwo Jima photo), we sat on the right side of the floor, beneath the planes and glass and the everlasting words, and the candidates sat on the left, dressed in formal green suits and ties with shoes polished so black you could see your reflection like a mirror. Someone important—a general perhaps, but I didn’t write it down—gave a speech. He spoke of squads, platoons, and companies who, when hearing the sounds of battle, would run toward the guns, instead of away—truly uncommon bravery. He said they teach a candidate by providing chaos—a lack of stability and order—so they can learn to decide, communicate, and act under the fog of war. Those three things specifically. His words kind of sunk in, almost as a reprimand. I tend to wait till the fog clears before I make a decision—particularly in dating. The truth is that, if you wait that long to decide, you have probably already lost—the fog only clears when the war is over, when victory and loss have been decided.

The general finished, and the marines sang their bold, heartful hymn, shouting the last line of the last stanza:

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea.
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean:
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Here’s health to you and to our corps
Which we are proud to serve.
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded

The candidates then raised their right arms to a perfect square and followed in reciting their oath of service in front of God, the nation, and their parents. My brother spoke these words:

“I, Tanner Washburn, having been appointed an officer in the United States Marines, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; so help me God.”

After the ceremony, the sound of the murmuring crowd filled the room. Mom, Dad, and I pinned the brass bars on Tanner’s collar and shoulders signifying his new rank of Second Lieutenant. Tanner’s comrades would nod their heads as they walked by or shake his hand and say, “Washburn, congratulations.” Colonel Stillings, essentially the CEO of Officer Candidate School, saw us chatting and came over to tell Lieutenant Washburn congratulations and to tell Mom that he was proud of Tanner. He asked me how old I was and told me I should sign up, followed by—“You look like you’re in good shape.” “Not that kind of shape,” I said, pointing at Tanner. Tanner had told me about Guido, a candidate that for some reason the sergeants had taken a disliking to. They’d singled him out for rough treatment, once making him march around the camped platoon even though his feet were already blistered and bleeding from the long marches. The enlisted (non-officer) sergeants don’t have the power to disqualify a candidate—the only ones with that power are Colonel Stillings and the candidates themselves. So if the sergeants think a candidate should be out of OCS, they have to try to make him quit, himself. It worked for Guido: Eventually he dropped out. I felt like I might have had the same sort of luck, so I responded to Colonel Stillings’ cordial invite with a smile and a nod, as if he were teasing.

When Tanner interacted with Stillings and the other veteran soldiers, it was “Yes, sir,” and, “No, sir,” and, “Thank you, sir,” spoken rapidly, eager to please, or maybe fearful to not please. Tanner seemed so humble, but maybe more than that—maybe: humiliated. I know that’s a strong word, but I couldn’t help but think of the dog Grandpa Pearce had kicked with his cowboy boots in the back of his truck. It seemed Tanner had almost that same attitude. The candidates had been trained to remove their very personalities, responding not with the first-person I, but with the third-person: “This candidate thinks so, sir.” They had discipline, but it seemed to have come at a high cost. Of course, this perspective has to be taken with a grain of salt—it being written by a passive, move-through-persuasion personality. My students would probably agree that discipline is generally low in my classroom. I encourage rebellion more than discipline (“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy...”).

Which is exactly why I am not made of the metal needed to be a United States Marine.

But maybe I can change.

Tanner found Gunnery Sergeant Warren, the one he liked most out of the several who’d drilled him over the last ten weeks. Now that the ceremony was over, Tanner outranked him—the man who’d taught him to be a soldier. Tanner invited Sergeant Warren to give him the traditional first salute. Sergeant Warren raised his palm to his eyebrow; Tanner mirrored the gesture, then dropped his hand sharply to his side, and Sergeant Warren did the same. They both smiled and shook hands. Following the tradition, Tanner had a silver dollar in his hand as they shook (worth about $40 because of the rising price of silver) which he gave to the sergeant. The tradition is that you pay for your first salute—a gesture of appreciation for the training—and the rest, from then on, are earned.

Tanner collected his gear from the squad bay, and we hit the road for Williamsburg—we had liberated him at last. He told us an OCS graduate only cared about two things: eating more and sleeping more. True to his word, as soon as we’d eaten Pizza Hut and stopped by Dunkin Donuts, he passed out in the back of the car. In fact, over the next few days we would come to realize the untapped human potential to sleep (we’re all living far below our abilities). Dad, navigating the treacherous east-coast freeways, slammed on his breaks a few times, and once it made the remains of our dozen donuts come flying out of the back window, over Tanner’s head, and into his lap, waking him back up.

“We’re taking heavy fire,” he shouted with a grin.

DC, Day 4: Charged the 9th redoubt at Yorktown with Washingburn and Lafayette, joined the fellowship of the sundial ring, boarded the Susan Constant in the bay at Jamestown (the first English colony in America), paid our respects to the local Indians.

If I include too many daily details, the essay will be far too long (as I’m sure you’ve already worried). But there’s one memory from the fourth day I don’t want to forget:

At Yorktown, the guide told us about Washington’s siege on Cornwallis there, a major victory in the Revolutionary War. Washington fired the first artillery shot, which had been calibrated deep—just to make sure. The shot went over the barricade and into the center of the base, through a roof, and onto the table of some dining officers, blasting one of them apart—a shot so lucky it would never fly in fiction.

As the cannon fire continued, the Americans and their French allies closed in their siege lines. But there were several British outposts—called redoubts—away from the main British line, that pointed artillery too close to the advancing lines. These redoubts were small forts made by throwing up large earthworks in a circle leaving a deep empty moat around the outside as further protection. A row of sharpened poles around 10 inches in diameter and 4-5 feet long pointed outward almost horizontally from the side of these hills, forcing advancing foes to let go of their weapons to climb out and over these using mostly only arm strength.

Small teams from the American and French forces took the 9th and 10th redoubts under cover of night, gaining victory mostly by surprise attack. Tanner and I took the 9th redoubt by day, charging 426 yards across the vibrant green field from the visitor center, grabbing the cement spikes that stood in place of the original wooden ones, tearing our hands on the concrete grit as we pulled ourselves up and over them, then climbing the rest of the hill and jabbing our bayonets into the chests of unsuspecting British soldiers, until they in unison raised their hands in defeat.

Our parents chuckled at their two young men acting like really young men. But we couldn’t have felt the spirit of the place in any other way. At least for me. It took us charging the hill for me to hear the music.

For Tanner, I suppose, he charged because he heard the music.

DC, Day 5: Stood in the shadow of Tom Jefferson at George Wythe’s home, chased the ghost of Blackbeard by torchlight, sneaked (dead serious) into the governor’s mansion under cover of night.

The governor’s mansion represents power, taxes, and the counterweight to rebellion. It also represents the start of adventure—thanks, in particular, to Guybrush Threepwood’s treasure hunting in the Monkey Island™ region (which shaped my childhood, to be sure). Williamsburg is a colonial American town that has been preserved in, and restored to, its 18th century state, including the governor’s mansion, with its high red-brick walls, white gates, and haunting wine cellar. In the daylight, it is filled with tour-guide actors who lead you through the place and pretend shock when you ask a 21st-century question. When they set us loose after the tour, we went into the cellar, explored the gardens, wandered through the giant hedge-maze, and looked for, but never found, the revolutionary-war cemetery. The view from the top of the hill over the maze was perhaps my favorite outlook on the whole trip, where you could see its dimensions and follow the complete path with your eyes. Something about a real-life, human-sized, backyard labyrinth really sang to me—if the setting was real, then so must be the lurking Minotaur and the helpful Ariadne.

We hit several more stops, from that morning till they all closed at 5:30; two stand out in particular: We walked through the home of George Wythe, who tutored Thomas Jefferson and also signed the Declaration of Independence (which I would discover the next day). In 2006, I had casually read A Thomas Jefferson Education, which taught that the best way to learn—in any subject or field—is to read classics (in other words, don’t read about Newton or Einstein in a textbook; read what they wrote). This was based on the way George Wythe instructed Jefferson—a simple concept that changed my life. In Chile in 2007, as an exchange student who spent most of his time with gringos, I learned Spanish by reading—Arabian Nights, Harry Potter, and The Chronicles of Narnia—en Español. In 2012, when teaching technical writing at BYU, I tossed out the textbook and replaced it with (the internet and) two classics: Eats, Shoots and Leaves and The Anatomy of Peace. I have also made reading (mostly audiobooks) a higher priority and have gotten through 30-55 books per year since then. All thanks to George Wythe. And I got to stand at the very fireplace where he would rest his hand and stare into the embers.

The blacksmith was also a favorite. Turns out that cast iron has more carbon, which lowers its melting point so it can be liquefied and poured it into molds; but the extra carbon also makes it more brittle, so cast-iron objects must be heavier and thicker to add strength. Wrought iron, on the other hand, has no carbon in it; its melting point is much, much higher, so it basically never melts. Instead it has to be beaten—or wrought—into shape in the short seconds while it’s glowing hot. Wrought-iron objects can be thin yet tough, tending to bend under stress rather than break. The smith also showed us a key that had to be meticulously filed till its shape would pass the wards as it rotated through its matching warded lock.

After dinner at Applebee’s, Mom and Dad dropped Tanner and me off at Williamsburg for an event called “Pirates Among Us.” At night, the town was lit by candles in windows, and torches on posts. But for the most part, darkness blanketed the place, which polished off any rough edges that might have hinted at the 21st century, fully transporting us into the days of Blackbeard.

As his final battle began, Blackbeard shouted these words to his would-be captors: “DAMNATION SEIZE MY SOUL IF I GIVE YOU QUARTERS OR TAKE ANY FROM YOU!” When it was over, his body had 5 gunshot wounds and nearly 20 blade slashes. They dumped his corpse into the sea but kept his severed head to put on a pike in the bay (the head mysteriously disappeared a short time later—after all, even voodoo can’t resurrect a corpse without the corpse). The sixteen surviving members of his crew were thrown into the Williamsburg jail to await their trial and hanging. Mary, our guide for the evening, led us into that very jailhouse, with a single lantern glowing in the window. A lady at the front of the group jumped when we heard a shrill gasp from down the darkened hallway. The voice began to relate the tale of a gentleman who, on being rejected by his lover, had turned to piracy, and a rivalry with Blackbeard. Increased policing led to this captain’s capture, trial, and hanging. We heard his slow footsteps as he talked, and soon he stepped into view in the dim light, his head tilted back and his neck stretched, as if it had happened that very night. He continued his tale looking into the window, his dark reflection looking back at us. Then he turned on us and screamed.

After the spectre had vanished from the room, Mary led us outside, where, 30 yards away, we saw a corpse swinging from a gallows, silhouetted by a large torch on a pole, his feet swinging the dance of death.

We followed Mary to two more buildings where we heard from one of Blackbeard’s several wives and from the betrayer Israel Hands—he and one other were the only sailors from the crew who were pardoned. When the dramatizations were over, Tanner and I were set loose on a dark, colonial town.

Mom and Dad were waiting next to the George Wythe home where they’d dropped us off. (We had a two-hour drive to DC still to do that night.) But when we made a pit stop at some bushes next to a picket fence, Tanner asked me, “So where should we go?” In truth, I spoke quickly because I thought of a location near the car—worried about making our parents wait—but it happened to work well for both: “We never found the revolutionary war cemetery at the governor’s mansion,” I said. He grinned, I flipped my beanie from the gray side to the black, and we raced off, avoiding the moonlight and torchlight as much as possible.

White gates, easily large enough to admit a carriage, where now closed and padlocked. The mansion rose behind the wall though, with two chimneys on either end of the roof and a white, round cupola on top, glowing with torchlight. We darted down an alleyway on the left, the darkest spot around. My phone’s vibrator buzzed. It was Mom. I didn’t answer. “We’ve got to hurry,” I whispered to Tanner. We waited, looking around, but no one seemed nearby. Dirt was piled up next to the wall, making it only a four- or five-foot climb. Tanner leaped first, nice and quiet. I followed, and was surprised by the drop on the far side, landing on my heels hard and loud—it was far enough down that it would be tough to getting out.

We faced a large garden that, from a high point on our right, sloped, terrace after terrace, toward a small river on our left. The moonlight lit the scene, including a small shed next to the wall and a hedge up ahead. While hunched, we jogged lightly forward, ducking through one gate into the next segment of the garden. “What’s the game plan if someone catches us?” I asked. “—we just run?” The Marine—I can call him that now, especially in instances like this—said, “Uh, I dunno. I guess so.” And he grinned. I thought I could probably outrun a security guard—especially one caught off guard. My disadvantage would be not knowing where to run, since we were gated in. Of course, with adrenaline kicking in, I could probably leap high enough to get out and over the wall. If I was lucky.

The paths around the garden were a bit like the maze itself—tall hedges and long pathways, particularly scary in the dark.

We made our way to an open courtyard, a large rectangle of mud surrounded by high hedges. We cut across, walking quietly. “Think this is it?” Tanner whispered. “I dunno,” I replied. We treaded lightly, and with each step the moonlight shone down and the spirits of the dead rose up. We soon looped around to a brick wall outside of that muddy rectangle, and Tanner, using his phone like a lighter, found this plaque on the wall:

Within this Enclosure
Lie Interred the Remains
of One Hundred and Fifty Six Men
and Two Women
These Remains were Discovered
in the Year 1930
during the Excavations incident to the
Reconstruction of the Palace and its Gardens
and were left Undisturbed
No Record of Interments in this Garden has been found
in spite of diligent and extended Search
It is known that the Palace was used
as a Military Hospital
During the Yorktown Campaign of 1781
Military Insignia were found in the Graves
It is concluded from this Evidence that
the Palace Garden was used as a Cemetery
for Soldiers of the Continental Army
under his Command
This Enclosure is Dedicated to the Memory
of those who lie buried here.

We had been searching for gravestones, but agreed that we must have been walking on their graves when we crossed that open courtyard—our feet stepping on mud that covered the skulls and bones of men who gave our country its life.

We crept closer to the house, and Tanner asked, “Should we see if the cellar is open?” I nodded, and we moved toward it. There was a bright light on, shining across the path in front of us from around a building we hadn’t explored. “Psst!” I hissed. Tanner turned, and I motioned for him to get down. I glanced back toward our getaway route, and then stared forward, but I didn’t hear it again—a voice just around that unidentified building. Finally Tanner cautiously walked up toward the doors of the cellar. We had been down in it before, where it was dully lit by lanterns as part of the tour, and I couldn’t help but think of the murder in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” He crept up near it and then back again. “I doubt it’s open,” he said. “You doubt?” I asked. “Okay, fine. You keep a watch here.” He tiptoed once more up to the cellar doors and gave them a tug. It was definitely locked.

“Okay, let’s get going. Mom’s going to be ticked.” We sprinted across the gardens, leaping hedges when we could and trying to stay off the loud gravel paths. We found an unlocked gate on the far side which Tanner said would make the perfect excuse if we were accused of breaking and entering. As we dashed through some trees toward a bus stop, Tanner whispered loudly:

“This is going to make a great story though, eh?”

Ha ha—I laughed.

“That’s why I can never tell you no.”

DC, Day 6: Read the Bill of Rights penned by Madison, landed virtually on the red planet, saw in infrared, contemplated Charlie Darwin, avoided prehistoric monsters, touched the moon.

I returned with my family to the National Mall.

We visited Arlington Cemetery, saw JFK’s eternal flame next to his grave, and watched the Marine guards change (in robotic fashion) at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the Museum of Natural History, we looked at the skulls of our ancestors. Or “ancestors.” But that’s another essay. At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, we touched a black moon rock, polished smooth by a million other index fingers. An exhibit on the electromagnetic spectrum had a camera set up as a mirror, and looking into it we saw ourselves in infrared (and we shone more brightly as we shed a layer or two).

We also returned to the National Archives. Having already been there, I was ready to leave after a couple minutes. But Tanner put his hand on the glass and leaned down, pouring over the documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. Then he’d stand in the center of the room and gaze at the giant murals depicting the signers. Then he’d move back to the original documents and peer down at them again. Eventually Mom and Dad said they were going outside the exhibit to sit down. I stayed, looking casually and eventually talking to an old caretaker for a bit, asking him about a symbol depicting medusa I had found on the large brass doorway.

Finally, I went to Tanner to see what he saw. He told me he couldn’t find the second amendment (and he’d actually looked for it—unlike me). The shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, had happened a few days before, and it was the only thing the news channels aired while we lay on our hotel beds each night—that had brought the topic closer to my mind. But Tanner would have held this interest either way. He asked the old caretaker, and learned that the first two amendments had been stricken off before the final, so on the one he was looking at it was labeled as the fourth. Sure enough, he found it and showed me.

Script is more difficult than type, and the document was old and faded, the brown ink so light in some places you had to guess the word by its shape. Sometimes an S would be written like a flowing f. And the crease down the center hadn’t helped either. I read slowly, one word at a time, having to skip ahead and come back in order to figure it out. But I read them with my own eyes: Article the Fourth.....A WELL REGULATED MILITIA BEING NECESSARY TO THE SECURITY OF A FREE STATE, THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED.

DC, Day 7: Paid respects at Washington’s tomb and Pizza Hut, got lost in a Masonic Temple, found myself at a Mormon one. 

People look pretty dang dreary on the DC subway at five o’clock. And I’m not talking about just some of them.

It can get you down too. Way down. Some of them just kind of stare—like passionless zombies—at the chrome bars that run as handles over the seat backs, or at that guy’s puffy orange coat. I have to take that back. One guy, a black 15 year old with a beanie over his dreads that gave him an alien-shaped skull, was talking to himself in the reflection of the glass doors, like he was giving himself a pep talk on how to be a badass. (Sorry—his words, not mine.) He was pretty good at it too.

I sat next to a beautiful black woman–with huge white sunglasses and braided locks covering her ears. I thought she might be listening to music, but I couldn’t take the lonely much longer. I needed to dare in one way or another or I thought I might explode. She stayed for several stops, which must have been a sign. “How was your day?” I finally asked, almost gasping it. “Fine,” was her curt reply. “What did you do?” “Just worked.” I expected her tone to lighten. “Where?” “Chick-fil-A.” But it didn’t. And I quit after that.

We’d gone to Mount Vernon that morning. For lunch, we’d eaten, for the second time, at Pizza Hut (Tanner’s choice), prepared by a kind man with an Indian accent. Then we drove to the George Washington Masonic Memorial, where my parents dropped me off before heading with Tanner to the airport. I would meet up with my friend Leah that evening, spend the night at a kind stranger’s house (named Diamina), then fly out of Dulles at 10:40am the next morning.

The Washington Masonic Memorial has a wide base with elegant steps leading up to Greek pillars. Above that a long tower rises, making the building look like an upside-down T. But it isn’t nearly as wide as it is tall, making it feel top heavy, with nine floors in total reaching toward the sky. George Washington was a mason, and the masons had donated funds to build the monument in his name. You first walk into the main hall, which is 51 feet tall—a vast room lined by eight pillars, each 4-feet wide at the base. The room points toward a giant alcove on the western end, where, standing on a pedestal taller than most visitors, rests a 17-foot bronze George Washington in full masonic regalia, weighing an impressive 6.4 tons. I’d wanted to make this stop the whole week too—another one of those high expectations.

I toured the memorial for an hour and a half, and considered joining them as I did. One room was designed as a replica of the masonic hall Washington had presided over. It featured an altar at the center of the room, on which rested the word of God—words written by prophets of the Great Architect of the Universe; a masonic compass and square also sat on it. Another room featured a painting of Washington holding a scroll that said: THE GRAND OBJECT OF MASONRY IS TO PROMOTE THE HAPPINESS OF THE HUMAN RACE. It struck me that we could use a little masonry on the metro.

Wikipedia claimed the fifth floor had a full-size replica of the Ark of the Covenant. That was a big letdown—no Ark. And no Grail. The tour ended at the lookout balcony of the ninth floor—a view that looked over the entire region, and had wind nearly strong enough to push you over.

But when I left, I was tired and lonely. And a little empty.

I boarded the metro at King’s Street, northbound on the yellow line. I planned to meet Leah for Paul Cardall’s Christmas piano concert at the D.C. Mormon Temple visitors’ center at 7:00. I had a decision: There was one stop I hadn’t yet made—the Library of Congress. If I was lucky, I would make it there before they closed at 5:00—L’Enfant Plaza would be my stop. But the sun was setting rapidly too, and I wanted to do a photoshoot of the LDS Temple during the golden hour—I could stay on till Fort Totten, and take the red line to Forest Glen. But I’d stayed too long with the masons, and time wouldn’t let me do both.

The metro clattered on, tugging its passengers back as it accelerated and pushing them forward as it slowed, back and forth, stop after stop. I looked at the map on the wall—and at all the lonely people—and at that orange coat—and at the punk giving the pep talk—and I made my decision more out of surrender than conviction: I was worried I’d rush to the library for nothing, and miss both opportunities. So I ran away from the guns. Surrender lowers morale like nothing else. I passively awaited my fate after that, getting my spirits just high enough to get rejected as a worthwhile conversationalist.

I felt quiet in my head though—so sometimes low is good. Helps you get to a tabula rasa. But I felt disconnected from all the people around me and from every human on the planet. I felt like my quest had somehow failed, that I had never found that thing I started out to find. I wasn’t sure what the point was. I had lost my purpose.

I switched lines at Fort Totten, then exited the metro at Forest Glen. I put my metro ticket into the exit gate, and it flashed a green message in digital letters: My five bucks hadn’t been enough to get me across town. Somehow this wasn’t a disappointment—it was expected. And I couldn’t muster the passion to care. I removed the ticket and walked to what looked like a vending machine for adding funds. I put the ticket in the machine and scanned the interface, trying to decipher its instructions, standing there for some time, not eager in the least to move forward. Then I heard a voice shout behind me: “Hey!” I turned to see a tall black man in a uniform standing in the toll booth. He waved his hand, motioning me over. “Hit cancel,” he said. I did, grabbed my ticket, and walked over to him. He stood in the doorway of the booth, which was at the top of a couple steps, allowing the guards to have a lookout position over the crowds. He looked down at me but didn’t say a word. I was low enough to not rush a response either—low enough to not feel my usual social anxiousness. “I don’t know what to do,” I told him, throwing my hands up in resignation. “I’ll show you,” he replied, moving his fingers, as if pulling my ticket toward him. I put it in his hand. He pointed to the far side of the booth. “Walk through that gate right there,” he said. I walked around to it: It was an emergency exit, for security purposes only. As I rounded the booth, the security guard came into view again. And I somehow regained the emotional wherewithal to realize the proper response: I smiled at him. “Thanks,” I said, waving. “And merry Christmas!” He smiled and nodded at me—I think delighted by my reaction, and my surprise.

I exited upward to the street and expected to see the tall spires of the temple nearby. I walked a ways down one road and then a little down another, but the tall trees blocked it from view. Or perhaps it was further than I had assumed. The first pedestrian I asked looked around, as if he might see it: “I’m not sure, but it is somewhere nearby.” The next one just said, “No.” The third looked around too, then said, “You just go down this road here, a couple miles and take a left.” Then she looked down at my shoes. “Are you on foot?” I nodded yes. “My ride will be here soon; we can take you over.” I didn’t want to be any trouble, but she said she was going that way anyway. She was a few years older than me, very cordial, and it helped invite me back toward a heart of peace. Her parents were kind too, and asked me if I was a Mormon. I said I was. I told them about the Christmas lights and the free concert. When they dropped me off, I said goodbye and thank you, in a rush. It was the second time someone reached out to me with kindness when none was expected or deserved.

Christmas lights lined the temple parking lot, a small display compared to the one in Salt Lake City. Large floodlights illuminated the building, and the sky was mostly black—just a small amount of light lingered in the west, about to vanish. I rushed toward the temple, clicking the shutter steadily and then running to another position. Trees surrounded the temple on the east side, and I shot through them, tree-trunk silhouettes cutting the foreground. I took several shots, looping around the front, till I finally admitted to myself that the light of the sun was completely gone. My shots through the trees were all the same—I’d exhausted all worthwhile angles.

I zipped up my coat, tugged my beanie down tighter, and sat on the ground, pulling two pieces of stuffed-crust pizza from my backpack. The view from my last shot lay before me. On camera, it had come through as a flat picture—light glowing around dark streaks of trees. But with my own eyes, it was more glorious. The building stood like a shining mountain, pressing toward the trees with its greatness, and looking down at me. The colorful chunks of stained glass running up the towers glittered vibrantly. The spires stretched toward the darkened sky, pointing and reaching. The grove drowned the sound of the city around me and replaced it with stillness. A stillness that surrounded. And penetrated. An emptiness that filled.

My telos. My grail. My Land of Song.

“Oh yeah,” I thought. “That’s where it is.”

The song around me was silence.

I was alone, but not lonely.

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  1. I only knew Tanner for a short time, but this surprised me. When you kept mentioning a brother entering the military I couldn't figure out who you meant. I knew Tanner was the right age, but it didn't connect properly in my mind. Good for him, though.

    Fun fact: when you were at Quantico you were about 3 miles from my school and 10 miles from my house.

    One last thing, I wanted to thank you for this post. First because the writing is lovely, second because it gave me a new perspective on DC (which I generally hate), and third because it offered me something I was missing.

    P.S. Don't talk to people on the metro. They probably figure you're trying to steal from them.

  2. Travis, you are an exceptional writer. I always knew you were creative since our days in the MTC and your stick figure pictures to help you memorize the discussions. Not many writers can capture my attention and you just made the short list. Anything that incorporates American history is my favorite. I love Stephen Ambrose and I am right in the middle of a book titled "Seven Miracles that Saved America" by Stewart and Stewart. Anyways my favorite part was when you visited Yorktown. I to had a similar experience when I visited Gettysburg. Envisioning myself manning a cannon, fighting off the confederates who charged wave after wave. I also enjoyed your Williamsburg visit...one of the places I could not convince my alarm selling buddies to visit when I lived in Virginia for the summer. Overall this was a fantastic read and it made me want to go back a visit all of those places again.


What was your favorite part of this post?

— J