Monday, May 21, 2018

Washington DC on foot, part 2

It had been a long day of walking on Day 1: The National Mall from the Capitol to the Potomac River, however the boys were still excited about our second day in Washington DC, which would feature a little less walking and a little more exploring...

Day 2: Ford's Theater, the Old Post Office Tower and the International Spy Museum

With the Washington Monument closed until 2019, there are few options to get a bird’s-eye view of the National Mall, so a visit to the Old Post Office Clock Tower was an easy decision. While the Old Post Office is currently used as the Trump International Hotel, the tower is still operated by National Park Service. However, to enter visitors must circle around to the back and enter through the doors next to the Starbucks. 

Admission is free, and the tower observation deck is open Thursday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm (closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas). Dating back to 1899, it was used as the city’s main post office until 1914. Nearly torn down once in the 1920s and a second time in the 1970s, Trump redeveloped the property into a luxury hotel in 2016. The Old Post Office Clock Tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places in April 1973.

In September of 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told (his friend) Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter "If any memorial is erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I would like it to consist of a block about the size of this (referring to his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I don't care what it is made of... but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving, 'In Memory of _____.'" I would say they fulfilled his wishes exactly, if not for the enormous Memorial on the Tidal Basin... 

We admired the simple stone and the facade of the National Archives, and then crossed Pennsylvania Avenue. A main artery of DC, Pennsylvania Avenue is a National Historic Site and a unit of National Mall & Memorial Parks. This unique site preserves locations related to the creation of the Federal City, Presidential Inaugurations and other historically significant events.

Across the street from the FDR Stone and the National Archives is the US Navy Memorial and Plaza. Daily interpretive programs at 10am and 2pm meet at the Navy Memorial, an opportunity to learn more about Pennsylvania Avenue and its many impressive memorials. If you can't catch a program, explore on your own. Stanly Bleifield's famous statue, The Lone Sailor overlooks the Granite Sea, a map depicting the world's oceans, using an azimuthal projection centered on Washington, DC. Surrounding the Granite Sea are two fountain pools honoring the personnel of the American Navy and the other navies of the world, and 26 bronze high reliefs commemorating events, personnel, and communities of the various sea services.

Continuing north. On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln at the box seat at Ford’s Theater. Timed-entry tickets let you see the site, although the theater still holds performances so call ahead/arrive early to guarantee you can get in. The basement museum has Booth’s pistol on display, but we crossed the street to the visitor center that also has displays and interactive exhibits. Adjacent is the Peterson House, where President Lincoln spent his final hours before passing away at 7:22am the following morning; the house was closed to tours on our visit, but the visitor center provided insight into the timeline of events, the aftermath, and the fateful event itself.

Ford’s Theater was the second opportunity for the boys to complete a Jr. Ranger booklet in DC, and I recommend a stop even if not able to secure tickets for the theater tour. After the previous day's mileage the boys were happy to find that our next destination was just around the corner... 

All books about President Lincoln!

If you are a James Bond movie fan you’ll be interested in visiting the International Spy Museum. All sorts of undercover tools of the trade are on display. Although advertised as being a ‘kid favorite,’ my sources suggested it might be a bit heavy on signs with dense text and lighter on the fun displays my kids were looking for. As a happy middle ground we skipped the $23/adult entrance fee and hit the gift shop instead, allowing the boys to browse all the coolest gear and gadgets without the lengthy reading required in the museum. Whether our visit inspired Lauris to choose a spy theme for his eight birthday is a mystery, but I know that reverse-mirrored glasses and secret codes have been the norm around our house since.

On our way east we stopped in at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. That morning we had heard a portion of a ceremony in passing, as fallen LE officers from the previous year were being honored - we didn't want to intrude and watched from a distance. This time in passing we had the Memorial to ourselves, and after a reflective stroll through the shaded walks we turned once more towards our hotel.

One final memorial I would like to mention is the Victims of Communism Memorial. The Memorial is in honor of the more than 100 million men, women and children that were struck down by 20th century totalitarian regimes, and features a 10ft bronze replica of the Goddess of Democracy erected by students during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.The design and statue are the work of sculptor Thomas Marsh, and the inscription reads "To the more than 100 million victims of communism and to those who love liberty" and "To the freedom and independence of all captive nations and peoples." Located at the intersection of Massachusetts and New Jersey Avenues and G St. NW within view of the US Capitol, the memorial was dedicated by President George W. Bush on the 20th anniversary of President Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech in front of the Berlin Wall with these words:

     ...(Victims) include innocent Ukrainians starved to death in Stalin's Great Famine; or Russians killed in Stalin's purges; Lithuanians and Latvians and Estonians loaded onto cattle cars and deported to Arctic death camps of Soviet Communism. They include Chinese killed in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution; Cambodians slain in Pol Pot's Killing Fields; East Germans shot attempting to scale the Berlin Wall in order to make it to freedom; Poles massacred in the Katyn Forest; and Ethiopians slaughtered in the "Red Terror"; Miskito Indians murdered by Nicaragua's Sandinista dictatorship; and Cuban balseros who drowned escaping tyranny... We'll never know the names of all who perished, but at this sacred place, communism's unknown victims will be consecrated to history and remembered forever. We dedicate this memorial because we have an obligation to those who died, to acknowledge their lives and honor their memory."


There were three resources that I found invaluable for planning such a condensed trip, as well as getting the kids enthused about viewing ‘a bunch of monuments.’ The first is “Washington: The Nation’s Capital” brochure by the National park Service, featuring a large map of all the Park Service and public sites in addition to the location of information kiosks and restrooms. To get a copy contact the Park Service, or download a copy online.

Everyone knows it isn’t pleasant to carry around a heavy, cumbersome guidebook, and so I was relieved to find the Lonely Planet Make My Day: Washington, DC guidebook. A flip-and-match format allows you to get the meat of each attraction in a quick look, the fold-out map in the back is a complete city map with bikeshare & public transportation as well as street index, and a pocket in the back can store stamps, receipts or other important papers as you hike your way across the city.

Finally, the kids got into another Lonely Planet book, Washington, DC City Trails: Secrets, Stories and Other Cool Stuff. Reading about the National Mall beforehand allowed them to identify the monuments and memorials on our wanderings; did you know that the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial originally misspelled the word ‘future’ euture, and although it was fixed the mistake is still visible?

The last time we were in DC the boys were too small for much of a tour - see my previous Washington DC post here. Therefore, our goal was to pack as much as possible into our short time in the city, to get an overall perspective on DC and prepare for more in-depth exploration of museums and other sites on a future visit. A walking tour of the National Mall is an ideal way to see the city, and if you plan your route ahead you can see it all on foot, even with children; just be prepared with comfortable walking shoes, plenty of fluids, sunscreen, and patience to stop and rest as needed. We made it home from DC tired, but satisfied we had made good use of our time there, and we’ve already gotten the start of a list for our next visit: Theodore Roosevelt Island, Arlington National Cemetery, the Pentagon, the National Zoo…

Friday, May 18, 2018

Washington DC on foot, part 1

Washington DC. One of the rare big cities that you can explore for days, with kids in tow, without a car… Which is good, because the cost/headaches of parking are certainly discouraging, and public transportation isn’t an option in some cases. We found ourselves trailing Roberts recently to a conference in the Capital, and set out to see what we could see during our long weekend there.

Day 1: National Mall from the Capitol to the Potomac

It is only about 2.5 miles from one end to the other, but add on getting there, the various meanders, and a couple of side trips, and I estimate we walked at least 6 miles. From the hotel we headed to the US Capitol building, admired the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and Capitol Reflecting Pool then headed west.

While we weren’t exploring any of the museums on this particular visit, we did have our National Parks passports with, and the boys wanted to work on a Junior Ranger program. The easiest way to jump right into it is to contact the National Mall and Memorial Parks ahead of time to request a booklet; that way you won’t be walking from visitor center to bookstore to info station searching for the brochure. If this isn’t an option, your best bet is heading to one of the 5 ranger stations (see map mentioned in resources listed at the end of part 2 for locations). Stamping your passport can also be a challenge; while some monuments/memorials have info stations & bookstores that have the stamp, others do not. Some kiosks were closed, others didn’t have certain stamps. Tip: keep a list of which monuments etc. you visited and then make a stop at the Washington Monument Lodge – they have ALL the stamps.

The Mall is lined with national attractions: the Smithsonian Museums of American History, Natural History and National Air & Space Museum, among others. We haven’t visited any of them as of yet (although we did make it to the much larger Udvar-Hazy Center, which I definitely recommend as the more expansive sister museum of the National Air & Space Museum), with the idea that the boys will be better able to appreciate them when they are a little older. However we admired each grand building as we passed, discussing what was housed there and generating ideas for future trips.

From the 555 ft. tall Washington Monument (which remains closed for repairs) we turned north towards the White House. To request a WH tour, visitors must contact their state reps at least 3 months before travel. Even then it isn’t guaranteed you’ll get a ticket; we’ve tried three times, unsuccessfully. However depending on who is accompanying you, it might be worth walking up to Pennsylvania Avenue to get your photograph of the iconic building, before going over to the White House Visitor Center on the east side.

The visitor center is open from 7:30am until 4pm daily (except January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25), and admission is free. Visitors can explore an interactive touchscreen tour of the White House, view over 90 artifacts from the White House collection and a 15 minute film, and shop at the White House Historical Association retail store. Tip: Leave the pocket knives, food and water bottles at home to make it through security, or split your party in two – one group takes all the backpacks and walks over to take in the view of the White House from the north lawn while the other explores the Visitor Center. We made sure to stop at the Boy Scout Memorial just across the street from the visitor center, near the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion. You'll also encounter the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail which traces the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake.

Disappointed to see the Boy Scout Memorial in disrepair

After the obligatory selfies with the White House we circled the Ellipse and headed to the World War II Memorial. The day had heated up some (90°+ already!) and we stuck to the shaded trails while exploring the Constitution Gardens, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the DC War Memorial to completely circle the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Tip: this portion of the Mall is open 24 hours/day, so if you want to beat the heat schedule your visit for late in the evening and enjoy the atmosphere without the crowds.

The boys were starting to slow their gait, so we crossed the street and lingered in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial bookstore, enjoying the AC and browsing the titles acquiring ideas for books we would like to read. Once they had perked up we entered the MLK Jr. Memorial, studying the quotes engraved in the memorial and enjoying the view over the Tidal Basin. This is the National Mall’s first memorial dedicated to an African American, and to a nonpresident. Behind the Stone of Hope (MLK’s image) are two blocks that represent the Mountain of Despair; the piece was carved by sculptor Lei Yixin.

Continuing around the edge of the water (which just a month ago had been awash in cherry blossoms) we soon arrived at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Up until now we were more familiar with FDR’s cousin Teddy: from our visit to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in NYC, his work in the field of conservation, and from reading books such as A Splendid Savage. This made it more interesting to tour the five outdoor “rooms” with their statues, quotes, water features and plantings, and I feel as if I learned a great deal. Overall the feel of the Memorial was more of a secluded corner of some extravagant botanical gardens, unusual for one of the more expansive memorials in the area.

At this point we called it quits, however we returned to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on Day 3 of our Washington DC stay. Only another ½ mile further, the circular, open-air domed structure is my favorite architecturally of the National Mall Memorials. Located opposite from the MLK Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin, it is a popular spot while the cherry blossoms are blooming, but not as crowded on a warm Sunday morning. While touring the cool interior my thoughts drifted to our visit to Jefferson’s Monticello a few years ago, parallels drawn between the domes and columns of the two structures…

To be continued...

(Part 2 of Washington DC on foot: Ford's Theater, the Old Post Office Tower and the International Spy Museum)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Nine years

Robert, tik daudzas krāšņas, saulainas dienas mums kopā!

Tā arī ir bijuši liela tiesa mūsu deviņi gadi; siltas pavasara dienas pastaigas puķu pilnos laukos. Tomēr arī ieķerās kāda ērce vai makšķerēšanas tārpa āķis kāzu kleitas plīvurā, bet laimīgā kārtā varu lūgt tavu palīdzību draudus atšķetināt – un varam kopā makšķerēt ar mazām nelaimītēm ķerot lielos basus.

Laimīgu devīto kāzu jubilēju!

Monday, May 14, 2018

A fascination with aviation in Florida's panhandle

If you’ve ever driven along the coast of the Florida panhandle then you know that there is more than one military installation in the western portion of the state. Tyndall, Eglin, Choctaw, Pensacola… on a visit to any one of the big towns you’ll probably see signs directing you to the bases, and you’ll hear a variety of military aircraft flying over on maneuvers and training. However, if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of an airplane you don’t have to wait with a view to the sky; you can just head to one of two aviation museums in the panhandle for an adventure in flight and history!

Air Force Armament Museum, Eglin Air Force Base

On our way from Panama City and St. Andrews State Park to Pensacola we stopped at the Air Force Armament Museum (AFAM) near Destin. Located on Eglin Air Force Base, the AFAM is dedicated solely to the collection, preservation and exhibition of artifacts and memorabilia associated with Air Force Armament and its delivery platforms. From World War I to today's high tech planes and bombs, aviation and history buffs alike can enjoy an extensive collection of aircraft as well as the history and science behind the weaponry and airplanes.

Inside the enormous hall you’ll find four aircraft, cockpit simulators and the museum. Exhibits include the “Early Years” as well as sections on the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars. It was intimidating seeing the missiles and bombs up close, and interesting to see the progression of guns, special ops and other equipment over time.

Outside on the surrounding complex are 30 displays of vintage military aircrafts and other equipment, including the fastest plane ever built - the SR-71 Blackbird. We recognized multiple airplanes from the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom and the Commemorative Air Force Fighters & Bombers tours in Greenville, however there were many airplanes, helicopters, armored vehicles and drones that the kids and I had never seen up close.

The B-17 bomber

The museum is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm, Monday - Saturday (except on federal holidays), and admission to the museum is free. I would suggest exploring the outdoor exhibits in the morning when it is cooler, or on an overcast day, while the museum can offer a reprieve from the Florida sun or something to do on a rainy day.

Air Force Armament Museum website here.

The Sikorsky MH-53

National Naval Aviation Museum, Naval Air Station Pensacola

During our time in Pensacola we spent one day on the Naval Air Station side with stops at the Pensacola Lighthouse, Fort Barrancas, and the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM). The NNAM is enormous, housing more than 150 historic aircraft and an array of exhibits, artwork and memorabilia documenting historic figures and events in Naval Aviation. 350,000 square feet of exhibit space makes it one of the largest aviation museums in the world.

Located just a few miles from the beach where the Navy’s first air station was established in 1914, the Museum is adjacent to Forrest Sherman Field, home to Training Air Wing Six and the Navy’s Blue Angels who can often be seen training overhead.

From the record-setters that explored the South Pole and first crossed oceans, to battle-scarred veterans from Midway to Iraq – NNAM has it all. A 4D Blue Angels Experience, flight simulators and a Naval Aviation Memorial Giant Screen Theater offer additional adventures (for tickets prices see the NNAM website). The boys particularly enjoyed the “Kiddie Hawk” area, modeled to look like the island of an aircraft carrier and featuring items that are found on a real ship.

Admission to NNAM is also free (although this does not include the simulators and theater experiences I mentioned above), and the Museum is open 9am to 5pm daily. It is important to note that visitors 16 years and older must have valid photo identification, and if you don’t possess a Department of Defense ID you must enter and exit the Naval Air Station Pensacola through the West Gate off Blue Angel Parkway. On some days there are special events including Blue Angels visits (there was a naval wedding on the day we visited), so you might want to check out the schedule of events.


While neither museum compared to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in size, they were both among the boys’ favorite destinations on our Florida panhandle trip. From close-up looks at some of coolest airplanes ever made, to the chance to clamber into cockpits – the kids just ate it up. I found the insight into aviation history interesting, although standing next to the first airplane to cross the Atlantic by air (NC-4) or the SBD Dauntless Bureau Number 2106 that survived the Battle of Midway offered its own thrill. There is nothing to make you feel quite as tiny as being in the shade of a B-52!

The historic NC-4

Whatever your reason for heading to Florida’s panhandle, I suggest a visit to one of these two museums. Admission to both sites is free, but the experience – priceless.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A rainy day on the Gulf Shore at St. Andrews State Park

The Florida State Parks system is pretty incredible… 175 parks, trails and historic sites are scattered around the state, providing public access to some of the most beautiful beaches, scenic natural areas, and historic landmarks in the Southeast. The next stop on our Florida panhandle exploration was St. Andrews State Park, part of the barrier island chain that protects Panama City.

The park was originally opened in 1951 with 302 acres along the Gulf Shore. Now more than 1,200 acres, the area has a long history of human presence, from the Native Americans who collected shellfish from the surrounding waters, to the WWII military reservation. We awoke to a steady drizzle, but decided to head to St. Andrews regardless in hopes the rain would taper off and allow us the opportunity to explore.

As often is our habit, we started off in the Visitor Center. Because of the weather we had it pretty much to ourselves, and after watching a movie and admiring the dozens of species of shells found in the park, a ranger introduced us to the resident corn snake.

Our original plan was to take the ferry out to Shell Island, originally Lands End Peninsula but separated when Gulf-Bay Pass was dredged in the 1930s. Shell Island is reputed to be a stretch of beach as peaceful and unspoiled as can be found in Florida, with a plethora of shells to be found and seabird & sea turtle nests in the dunes. However it was not meant to be; the ferry wasn’t running due to the weather, and we wouldn’t be able to stick around for another day in hopes of a sunnier day.


Our perseverance was rewarded though, as the near-empty park was our playground for the morning. We donned our raincoats and headed to Gator Lake trail for a short hike, and had barely left the car when we saw our first alligator. For the less adventurous, a pier provides a safe vantage point over the lake, while those looking to stretch their legs will find scenic lakeside views on a short loop trail. Heron Pond Trail is the second option, located near the ferry boat pier. It traverses a flatwood pine forest, leading past the replica turpentine still; the Cracker Turpentine Still was donated in 1963 by the Lewis Family and relocated from Bristol. Both Gator Lake and Heron Pond trails provide visitors with multiple wildlife viewing opportunities, from the resident alligators to a variety of waterfowl & wading birds. Opposite the parking area for the Gator Lake trail (which is home to a great blue heron rookery) is Buttonbush Marsh, which can be easily accessed by an overlook on the north portion of the loop road, and here you’ll see dozens of species of birds feeding and nesting.

After a snack we headed out to the beach, the rain slowly clearing as we crossed over the boardwalk out to the grey waters of the Gulf. At the very tip of the peninsula is the Gun Mount Pavilion, home to one of the original gun mounts that overlooked the pass back in the 1940s. A jetty protects a beach area facing Shell Island, while a long stretch of white sands connect to the Gulf Fishing Pier. We walked, searched for shells, marveled at the beauty of the dunes rising over the beach and tried to stay warm in the Gulf winds.

The recreational options seem endless: hiking, biking, boating, swimming, camping, fishing, picnicking, snorkeling and surfing… Despite (or maybe in spite?) of the rain we had gotten a taste of St. Andrews State Park and the white sand beaches of the Gulf barrier islands, and luckily there would be more opportunities to enjoy the waters in the days to come…

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