July 31, 2010

Philadelphia to Washington DC

July 5, 2010 -- On Day 3 of the Pennsylvania Triangle, I woke up early, packed up my belongings, and checked out of the Sheraton. As my car emerged from the underground parking lot I felt a pang of bittersweet emotions. Departing a hotel usually comes at the end of a vacation, though this triangle still had two more points on the horizon. Besides, I had the morning to see the historic sights of the City of Brotherly Love. :)

I found a parking spot on the street and made my way to the Independence Visitor Center. It proved to be a great place to get information and map out the highlights that I wanted to see. I was able to plot out a walking tour that would take me on a circle through the city and bring me right back to my car. I knew that no trip to Philadelphia would be complete without a visit to Independence Hall so I made that my first destination.

Independence Hall is a red brick building constructed between the years of 1732 and 1753. The Hall is adjoined on both sides by two smaller buildings: Old City Hall to the east and Congress Hall to the west. These three buildings make up a city block known as Independence Square.

As I stepped into Independence Hall, I was led by a park ranger first to the court room. I could feel history pervading the air and dripping off of the pumpkin-hued walls.

Then, I was taken across the hall to the Assembly Room. This was it! The room where the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. I was standing in the very place where some of the biggest names in history signed there names to a document making America a country: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Samuel Adams... I became filled with awe and veneration. This was amazing.

Some of the other stops on my walking tour of historic Philadelphia included:

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier--sitting in Washington Square Park, it is a beautiful monument that features a perpetual flame.

The Liberty Bell Pavilion
--this symbol of freedom originally made its home in the Bell Tower Steeple of Independence Hall, though that space is now occupied by the Centennial Bell.

Franklin's Court
--a white silhouette has been erected on this site to show the place where Benjamin Franklin's house once stood. The courtyard also boasts the printing press, as well as a museum that features Franklin's armonica and 4-sided music stand.

Benjamin Franklin's Grave--it is said to be good luck to toss a coin on his stone.

Betsy Ross' House--a winding tour through the narrow corridors of the home of America's most famous flag-maker.

It was early afternoon as I finished up my walking tour. The heat was reaching 103 degrees so I decided to step into a shopping mall called "The Bourse" to cool off and have lunch before I set off on the road again.

I had the music of Stevie Ray Vaughn to keep me company as I made the two-hour drive from Philly to Washington DC. I was very excited to be heading toward this part of the triangle...

At about 3:30, I pulled my car into the underground parking lot of the Hilton Washington. A beautiful hotel set in the middle of Dupont Circle, a trendy area full of hip cafes, restaurants, and shops. I checked in and unpacked and heading back out on foot to the subway. Let me say that the Washington DC subway system is incredible. At the Dupont Circle station, I descended into the tunnels on a long escalator. My eyes followed the words of Walt Whitman etched on the walls around me as the escalator carried me down. The tunnels were cavernous and beautiful, the trains immaculate. I rode the RED line to Metro Center and transferred to the BLUE line to the Smithsonian.

I emerged from the tunnel at Smithsonian station to find Capital Hill looming before me, its great white dome gleaming in the sun. I turned around to discover the Washington Monument towering over the horizon line like a marble arrow nearly scraping the stratosphere. My first impressions of the National Mall were humbling to be sure. What grandeur! Wow!

Let me say that Washington DC is a place of optical illusions. In photographs, the highlights of DC always look closer and smaller than they are. I have seen the famous picture of the Washington Monument shimmering in the reflective pool hundreds of times and it always seemed that the pool and the monument were right next to each other. Not so. They are actually separated by a field the length of three football fields, a major highway, and the World War II Memorial. Needless to say, it was a long walk from the subway tunnel to the Washington Monument. The temperature was skyrocketing and, for the first time, I was feeling the pressure of the weather. My feet became leaden with each step as the obelisk began to dominate my field of vision.

Truly amazing! I was spellbound to be standing at the base of this familiar sight. Surrounded by flags, it is about as awesome a spectacle as one could ever see. I took the elevator up 500 feet to the observation deck and, through the hazy afternoon air, got an aerial view of the National Mall and all of Washington beyond it.

As I left the Washington Monument, I could see the Lincoln Memorial standing at the opposite end of the reflective pool. It was another very long walk, though the path is dotted with sights: The World War II Memorial--ornate columns surrounding an oval pool, its cool fountains filling the midday air with watery motion and sound. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial--the names etched on the long wall read like an encyclopedia of heroism, the sidewalk in front of the wall face littered with flowers, candles, dog-tags, photographs, and handwritten notes of love and gratitude. The Korean War Memorial--its silver/gray soldiers patrolling a pristine garden and a fountain inscribed with the words "Freedom is not free." I felt veneration and patriotism growing within my heart as I passed these places.

Then the Lincoln Memorial stood before me. An impressive sight! I climbed the steps, passing by crowds of onlookers, to stand beneath the great statue of a seated Abe Lincoln. He is an amazing presence, even in stone. His profound words adorned the walls around me and I was quickly swept up in the magic of the moment. This place is history. It is... America...

"Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life; you stretch out
your hand
against the anger of my foes,
with your right hand
you save me."

~Psalm 138:7


July 21, 2010

Independence Day!

Philadelphia, July 4, 2010 - This was it. The impetus for my trip to Pennsylvania. To spend Independence Day in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The place where America was born.

Anxious to start the day, I emerged from the comfort of the Sheraton at 9:00AM to find that the heatwave had arrived. The sun blazed on high as temperatures flirted with 100 degrees. My first destination was to be the Academy of Natural Sciences and I walked across town with excitement in my step, though I was definitely feeling the pressure of the elements. I grabbed a breakfast-on-the-go and arrived at the museum a half hour too early. I decided to wait in Logan Circle. I sprawled out in the grass beneath a tree and listened to the soothing sounds of the fountain. I watched from the comfort of the shade as a big line formed in front of the museum. Then the doors opened...

Founded in 1812, the Academy of Natural Science is America's oldest natural science research institution. It consists of four floors of interactive exhibits and adventures of discovery. I stood beneath the bones of T-Rex in Dinosaur Hall, strolled among live butterflies in the muggy greenhouse, encountered mysterious and strange leviathans like the colossal squid in the Creatures of the Abyss exhibit, browsed the intricate dioramas that showcased many animals in their native habitats, even got to meet an ancient Egyptian.

With my thirst for natural history quenched, I turned my attention to the Philadelphia attraction that most held my interest: Eastern State Penitentiary! Standing in ruins, this prison from the outside appears like a castle, its wall foreboding, its turrets sinister. The seven crumbling cellblocks spread out like spokes of a concrete umbrella. It was a place designed to inspire penitence and regret in the hearts of criminals.

I stepped through the gates into an eerie world. As I gazed into the many cells, I could only imagine what life must have been like as a prisoner here. The atmosphere was dungeon-like in every respect. Displays of old photographs added to the uneasy feeling that the surroundings conveyed. It is said that Eastern State Penitentiary is haunted and, while I didn't experience any paranormal activity, it is the definitely the right setting for ghostly legends.

Eastern State was also home to some notorious characters, such as Al Capone. His cell still stands as it was at the time of his incarceration and, with the exception of the peeling asbestos, it was nicer than my room at the Sheraton! LOL!

With a wry grin affixed to my face as I considered the irony of my enjoyment of a ruined penitentiary on Independence Day, I decided to make my next location more joyful. I hopped in my car and crossed Benjamin Franklin Bridge to visit Adventure Aquarium.

I ambled slowly around the complex, mesmerized by the beautiful vivid tanks that surrounded me. There were pools for touching stingrays, sharks, starfish, anemones, and even jellyfish. The sharks' skin was very coarse. Anemones are slimy. Jellyfish, quite surprisingly, don't feel like anything at all.

One of my favorite features of the place was the glass tunnel in the shark tank. Surrounded on all sides by water, it gave an up-close-and-personal encounter with these denizens of the deep from their perspective. Amazing! The aquarium was beautiful and a great place to spend an afternoon. :)

As dinner time rolled around, I decided to conduct a taste test and answer for myself a controversial question: whose Philly cheesesteak is the best--Pat's or Geno's? I headed down to the street in south Philadelphia where the two most famous cheesesteak shops in the world stand on opposite corners. The question of which is better is one that has Philadelphia divided, but I can tell you that both places have a line around the block at all times of day. It amazes me that two shops in one location can thrive so well selling one thing. I guess it's a testament to quality.

While there, I learned the proper way to order a cheesesteak. There is a choice of three kinds of cheese (American, Provolone, or Cheese Whiz) and the sandwich can come either with onions or without. For what I wanted, the proper order terminology is "Wiz Wit" meaning that I want a Philly cheesesteak sandwich with Cheese Whiz and onions. I ordered a Wiz Wit from each place and moseyed back to my car to sample both in private. I must say that I preferred Pat's over Geno's, but that did not stop me from eating both sandwiches until I was overstuffed. If you're ever in the area, I suggest you try both for yourself. You won't be disappointed. Mmmm mmm! :)

Twilight soon fell and it was time to get ready for the main event! I changed my clothes and began to walk to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The length of Benjamin Franklin Parkway was roped off and from the Art Museum to City Hall was one huge block party. There were vendors selling food and drinks, impromptu performances everywhere.

Somewhere close to the Art Museum, a main stage was set up and the Goo Goo Dolls were performing a free concert though I was no where near the action. The street was packed with people. Giant screens were set up so people could enjoy the concert from miles away. It was such a lively, celebratory atmosphere. What a blast!

As the Goo Goo Dolls were finishing up their show, I decided to make a dash for the rooftop of the Sheraton to get a bird's eye view of the fireworks. It proved to be the right move as there were about 40 other people up there who had the same idea and the vibe was friendly and fun. Everyone waited with anticipation as silence fell over the city for a brief moment. Then Philadelphia lit up the night! What a great way to spend the 4th of July!!!! :D

"By his light
I walked through darkness."

~Job 29:3