Friday, August 26, 2005

Denny's Restaurant, Manassas, Virginia 5:30 a.m.

Lincoln Memorial at 1:00 a.m.

During the night, I spent over three hours looking for a motel, riding around the DC suburbs, a bizarre night. Hotel rates from $89 to $229, many fully-booked, others not allowing early check-in. Reached the limit of my tolerance, my mind numb and body chilled. At one point I just pulled over in Rockville and sat on my bike. I could have slept right there.

Finally tried the Hampton Inn. In order to avoid an extra day charge for the time between now and their official check-in time, the gentleman said I could check in at 7:00 a.m., no earlier. I tried to get him to bend the rules.

“The computer won’t allow me.” A common excuse that supplants our humanity.

I’m ready to leave the East in search of the wide-open spaces out West. It can't be healthy to live and work under such inescapably crowded conditions as are found on the Eastern Seaboard. I debated whether I should even stay at a motel. Why not just keep riding? The hurricane threatening to come ashore in the south is providing motivation to move west sooner rather than later.


The last twenty-four hours has been one of those surreal odysseys. From Philadelphia, out to Gettysburg, then down to Washington, it has been such a rush of impressions!

I awoke at 7:00 Thursday morning. Aunt Clare had breakfast waiting. Bob joined us, but had to leave for work (at the Philadelphia Eagles' stadium, where he reports on the team for

I told them I wanted to visit Walt Whitman's house, across the river in Camden. Bob cautioned me, "it's a war zone."

Before leaving, I wanted to take a photo of Aunt Clare for the blog. It felt like I was imposing, but another part of me said "she must be included!"

Following Bob's directions, I had no trouble finding it, but the Walt Whitman House was not much. In a small row of old houses bordered by vacant lots, it was obviously not open to the public. Several people sat on the steps of the sealed-up houses. There was no sign of any memorial or visitors center.

The weather was changing. It was cooler, but also more humid.

Went down to the Naval Yard (passing the "Eagles" and "Phillies" stadiums along the way) to see if I could get a closer look at the "ghost fleet". At a secondary entrance out at the west end, I asked a security officer if it's possible to get any closer. He told me "you can drive by the ships, but no photography." Once inside, I wandered the base for half an hour or more, heedlessly going well into areas clearly marked "restricted" or "authorized personnel only". I guess no one regarded an overloaded motorcycle as an unusual sight on base.

I felt just like I did many years ago, "sneaking" onto Naval bases to photograph and map the ships in port. As a high school student, I was even picked up on the San Diego Naval Station on suspicion of espionage. The Shore Patrol confiscated my maps and film, then called my "U.S. Naval Sea Cadet" commanding officer to confirm my identity. Fortunately, he vouched for me. (Okay, so it's weird, but I've changed. Really.)

It was very strange, and a bit sad to see ships that were brand new to the fleet when I was in the Navy, now rusting before me. Even ships that were commissioned much later are here. The heavy cruiser "Des Moines" (commissioned just after the end of WWII) is the most interesting relic here (apart from the U.S.S. New Jersey, now a memorial over in Camden.) But there were other familiar ships: the Forrest Sherman and Edson, both destroyers similar to the Turner Joy that I was on; the frigates John Hancock and Stark, a submarine, a gunboat, and numerous auxiliary ships.

After this brief drive down memory lane (and reminder of the smelly, junky "Super Fund" clean-up sites that Naval shipyards represent,) I moved on toward Gettysburg, wondering if the theme of this ride has become "war"?

Crossing the Pennsylvania countryside, I was surprised at the things I just ran into: an Amish village and surrounding Amish farms (with the large embossed gold stars on the barns), the Harley Davidson plant in York (where I was nearly nailed by a Harley employee coming out of the parking lot, into my lane), President James Buchanan's "Wheatland" home. This land is so rich in history and American culture.

About eight miles east of Lancaster, I spotted "Java Joe’s" along the highway and stopped to have a look. Decided to stay for a burger. I was the only "sit-down" customer. It was very good.

In Lancaster's downtown district, I had missed a turn and was looking at my map, when a passing motorist asked if I needed help. I told him I was looking for the interstate, and he just said "follow me."

Reached Gettysburg late in the afternoon. It's a town overrun with tourists. I was too late for the battlefield museum, but found a kiosk with maps for self-guided auto tours. From the many historical markers throughout the battlefield, one slowly pieces together the events of those three days in July of 1863.

A statue of General Warren surveys the Gettysburg Battlefield from "Little Round Top". The fields in the background were the site of "Pickett's Charge".

Wandering from the "Devil's Den" to "Little Round Top" to the scene of "Pickett's Charge", the battlefield was not having the profound impact I expected. Maybe it was the crowds, or fatigue. Or perhaps the commercialization, the "McDonald’s" and the "Pickett’s Buffet" right outside the cemetery gates?

Gettysburg National Battlefield. A Union cannon is trained on the treeline where the famous "Pickett's Charge" began. Pickett Pettigrew led 12,000 Confederate soldiers in a desperate assault on the Union lines. The cannon is at the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy." The battle's (and the war's) tide turned when the Union soldiers repulsed this attack.

Monument to the 2nd Brigade of the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry, which helped repulse "Pickett's Charge."

I felt emotionally numbed. I had overheard many conversations; Civil War buffs arguing the strategies of various leaders, tour guides walking visitors through the events of the day, people explaining, each in their way what transpired here, others listening to recorded tours. Too much talk. Too much chatter. There was no peace and tranquility, which is somehow a prerequisite for absorbing such a profound event.

As dark approached and fireflies appeared, and the extraordinary fragrance of grass and forest wafted by, I wondered, were the evenings like this in the midst of that nightmare?

I figured staying near Gettysburg would be costly, so I drove south toward Washington, intending to stop at a state park somewhere along the way. But I kept driving. All the way into Washington.

Found my way down to the Mall; one of my primary goals in coming here was to see the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, near the Lincoln Memorial. For several hours, I walked among the monuments and took long exposure photographs, occasionally chatting with other visitors. A photographer, using the same camera as mine, provided some useful tips on shooting pictures at night. It was wonderfully quiet, and even walking in wooded areas of the Mall, I felt completely comfortable.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial ("The Wall") reflecting Washington Monument. Inscribed with the names of over 58,000 soldiers who perished, The Wall powerfully conveys this war's tragic waste; each name a life senselessly stolen (and this doesn't even begin to consider the millions of Vietnamese casualties.)

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Emerging from the trees at 1:00 a.m., I began to notice there were no cars parked along the street. None. I began to worry about my bike. I felt comfortable with it “concealed” among a long row of cars. When it came into view, it was the only vehicle along the curb. No ticket, no one slowing down to check it out.

I find it fascinating to drive through large cities at night. It’s such a contrast to the daytime chaos. There is a sense you can go wherever you want, a sense of freedom. But Washington is not like any other city. At night, I saw police cars parked throughout downtown, at intersections, outside buildings, beside the barriers restricting access to the Capitol and White House. Officers sitting in the dark; parking lights on. It is like a city under martial law, and it’s sad that it must be that way. I couldn’t even see the White House from the surrounding streets; it’s so cordoned-off. If this is how it will be from now on, the terrorists have won.

From 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 a.m., I drove about 400 miles "today", 300 yesterday and 150 the day before. I see a pattern developing!

The bike's brakes are starting to get "jerky" again. In a crisis, your first thought should not be “oh, no! I don’t want to use the brakes!” I'll have them checked out soon.

"Denny’s" today is pricier than I recall: $9.64 + tip for a waffle, some sausage and coffee. Manassas is a fascinating town. In just the short time I've been here, I've seen whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Indians (or Pakistanis), Chinese. A colorful community!

1 comment:

Mike Pion said...


The Lincoln Memorial at night is an awesome sight to see. I got the link from Steve K. and spent the last three nights catching up with you. I've enjoyed the trip so far and am eagerly waiting for more details. Wish I was with you (except for the cold weather, rain and humidity). Keep us posted.