7/27/20 – Sunride Goes to Washington D.C.
The highlight of the trip to D.C. was my meeting with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley at the Capitol. (The audio in the clip above is muffled – here’s what I said: This is a wonderful discovery I made. If I have this full throttled on level ground using 700 watts not peddling and going 20 miles per hour, but if I just peddle gently, I’m just lopeing along, I’m not even working up a sweat, it drops to 350, so there’s an amazing synergy with just a little effort.) Jeff is a consummate Senator, he listened with genuine interest. He introduced me to Minnesota Senator Tina Smith who also came out to check out Sunride. We made tentative plans for her state in a few weeks when I’d end my ride to the last of the lower 48 in Rochester, Minnesota.
I talked at length to Maria Cantwell’s office about electric vehicle policy. Understandably Maria was not taking face to face appointments because of Covid.
From our campsite just outside the Beltway, I found a set of bike trails going into D.C. The Anacosta Tributary Trail System would take me along a clear, shallow creek lined with smooth brown stones. The pristine water attracts a great many deer and other animals. We even saw a red fox.
One day I went past the University of Maryland where a soccer game was underway but the campus itself was devoid of students. I keep forgetting it’s summer but more than that it’s Covid. Here in the East people seem more pandemic-aware. On the trail most walkers and riders were wearing masks. Some, but not all, of the soccer players were. All that huffing and puffing running around bumping into each other seems like a fertile environment for an airborne virus. I decided to put on my mask even while riding on the trail. Can’t be too careful.
I was able to make it about halfway to the Capitol on beautiful wooded trails, then I took surface streets from Hyattsville, Maryland the rest of the way in. It was gratifying to see a sign that read “Welcome to Washington, D.C.” That simple little sign made me, an outsider, feel welcomed. Small things mean a lot to a 3,000 mile-away out-of-towner.
I’ve been to D.C. a half dozen times. The first time was when I was in college. I hitchhiked here from Tennessee. I had ten dollars in my pocket, which turned out to be enough to stay three days. I walked everywhere, and even my young legs tired by the end of the day. I stayed for free at the Sig Ep house at Georgetown, University, having been invited by brothers I met at our National Conclave in Memphis earlier that year. Twice I went up to the Capitol and sat glued in my seat in the gallery watching Senators debate the issues. I would have stayed all day but they ran me off after a few hours. I saw Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Frank Church, Mark Hatfield, Al Gore, Sr., and Henry Jackson – great men of their era. I was a political science major and It seemed strange that only a few Senators were in the chamber for the debate; but then a bell would sound and they’d all come in and cast their vote. If they didn’t decide how to vote based on the merits of the debate, how did they decide? Lots and lots of meetings, lots of research. I think the life of a Senator is a hard life. In the evening back at the Sig Ep house, we’d watch the news that happened that day in the city. I got to say, “I was there on that vote.”
The White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials all are the same today as they were 50 years ago. The buildings are so big and impressive, even mundane buildings like the National Archives are grand. The Mall lays out beautifully, with the Capitol at one end, the Washington Monument in the middle, and the Lincoln Memorial at the other. It is a priceless architectural masterpiece, something magnificent to behold, blending water, fountains, metal, and stone into a thing of beauty. It’s a piece of art on a lush green canvass, no less perfect than the Mona Lisa.
I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a dream” speech to a quarter million people lining all sides of the reflecting pool. I never noticed before but the tall thin Washington Monument completely eclipses the immense Capitol building from where Lincoln is sitting and where Dr. King stood.
Today there’s a World War II monument in that majestic line. Vietnam and Korean War Memorials flank each side of the pool. I asked an older gentleman in a wheelchair if he was part of any of these wars. “Yes,” he said, “all three! I was 17 years old in 1944 on active duty in Japan.” Over 400,000 soldiers like him lost their lives in World War II, 37,000 died in Korea, and 58,220 died in the Vietnam War. All of their names are on the wall. I passed by the wall twice, touching it in various places remembering some from my high school whose names are there.
The Mall is a treasure. It’s all so well done, the grounds are lavish and gracious. It’s beautifully well kept, and it’s a dream place to ride a solar powered electric bike. Walking from place to place is a killer, but gliding effortlessly around is pure joy. I saw places today I hadn’t seen before, like the Martin Luther King Memorial. A giant slab from the center of a granite mountain is cleanly cut out and moved forward, commemorating King’s words, “From a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” His figure and many of his famous quotes are inscribed in stone. This man was all about peace. His vision was well beyond anything yet to come, even beyond equality and justice. He could see a better world for everyone once these intermediate pieces were in place. We need to press forward to the greater vision. We’ll keep working on it, Dr. King! We still have a long way to go to see the promised land you saw.
The Korean War monument features soldiers in winter capes on patrol looking about. It gives a real sense of the danger and conditions of that conflict. On the black granite wall are etched photographic negatives from the war that mysteriously appear at passers-by view from different angles.
I really feel proud of my country when I’m here, maybe more so this time than any other, all the great people who lived here, gave speeches here, signed into law here, declared war and emancipated slaves right here. I rode down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol smack dab in the middle of the street, because now there’s a bike lane there. I felt totally and absolutely free. Police officers graciously nodded at me while they were sealing off the side streets in preparation for Representative John Lewis’ ride to the Capitol where he would lie in rest the next few days. I had the whole street to myself. I felt as though I could ride forever. It was like a lone eagle floating on air taking in everything in sight.
Then at 15thStreet, a block from the White House, Pennsylvania Avenue itself was sealed off. I don’t know why. I had planned to ride around the White House but I couldn’t get anywhere near the place. Streets were barricaded on all four sides. Maybe the President ordered it. Back in 1967 when Lyndon Johnson lived there, I remember demonstrators chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” The heat was high then but all the streets were open. There’s something different now. Something not good. Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “I live in a House owned by the people of the United States.” I remember hitchhiking back to Tennessee standing directly in front of our home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Leaving Washington D.C. today I am reminded this is a place where a great many people provide service to our country. I thanked the three-war veteran for his service. I thanked Senator Merkley for his. I nodded thank you to dozens of police officers as I rode around the city. In my heart I thanked Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the 58,220 on the wall. Each day I rode on the streets of Washington I felt safe. I felt welcomed. I felt thankful to all the people who work in all these magnificent buildings. I felt anew very proud, humbly and happily, to be a citizen of this great country.
I stood in the place where John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That’s why I came here, with Sunride.