Local Travel Writing
How many missteps could I make in one day? The Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, was the place to answer that question. The red cobblestone streets, while picturesque, were treacherous. Add in a walk up the steps of Alexandria’s wannabe Washington Monument, The George Washington Masonic National Memorial — where the famous scene from “Rocky” could very well be imitated if it weren’t for the “no running” sign — and I had a bruised toe, a scraped foot and a chunk missing from my favorite pair of Birkenstock sandals by the end of the day.
Labor Day weekend was labor intensive for me mainly because to truly experience the city, miles of walking were involved. Already tired from the start of my last semester of college — and already having panic attacks whenever I thought about applying for jobs — I wanted Labor Day weekend to be filled with happy memories and a bit of relaxation before summer officially ended and the next four months flew by, leading me to a December graduation, a New Year’s Eve wedding and then a cross-country move in January. Sadly, the cobblestone streets got the better of my legs and spirits.
My missteps weren’t just literal, either. The first day’s events were also a series of missteps. My fiancé, Blake, and I had planned to wake before dawn on Sunday to get an early start on our trip. Instead, the alarm never rang, and we woke at the time we’d planned to leave, but we still had to walk our dog and pack.
Hours later, we finally made it to Alexandria only to discover that our first planned stop, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, was closed on Sundays. Already peeved about our late start, I brushed off the complication with the same level of patience a two-year-old crying for a dusty M&M under the grocery store vending machine would have. Somewhere during my tantrum, Blake drove us to the Visitor Center.
There, we bought keys to the city. No, not the keys given to a mayor on inauguration day. These were just pieces of cardboard with tickets to punch out for all the different sites that the pass included. Our first stop: The George Washington Masonic National Memorial located at the other end of the street, one full mile away.
Luckily, there was a free trolley that ran up and down King Street, the neighborhood’s main drag. We started out on it, but as I noticed we were missing the chance to step in the local shops, I had us jump out at the next stop. It turns out that stop was where the shops ended, so we had to endure a half-mile walk up the uneven street with zero shopping breaks.
We weren’t done walking, though my achy legs would’ve said otherwise, once we made it to the memorial. Tiny, never-ending rows of steps led to the top. Eager to see the amazing views that the Internet had promised, I mustered the energy to trek up the steps. Sadly, I just got a view of Alexandria’s shabby train station because the more charming area of the city, with historic row homes and a scenic waterfront, was all the way on the street’s other end.
Inside the memorial we were greeted at the welcome desk by a man and woman who looked like they were always picked last for dodgeball in elementary school. They informed us that our keys weren’t going to unlock the memorial tour, only $15 would. When Blake asked what exactly the memorial was, the male steward responded by giving us the name: The George Washington Masonic National Memorial. I held in my desire to shout, “DUH!”
“So what do the Masons actually do?” Blake followed up.
“Uh, that’s hard to say. They discuss esoteric things,” replied the steward.
Needless to say, we weren’t sold on a $15 tour, but at least I learned a new vocabulary word with a definition — “likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest” — almost as vague as the sentence in which it was used. Blake says we’re better off joining the Masons if we want to find out the truth. I’m adding it to the bucket list.
Our next stop was Gadsby’s Tavern, a prominent restaurant and hotel frequented by political icons, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Thankfully, our keys admitted us free of charge. We discovered that Sunday tours were conducted by volunteer children, so we listened as nervous guides stumbled through their lines, hesitantly leading us to the next rooms and to the next nervous victims. Despite their fears, the children were adorable; historic outfits completed with bonnets for the girls and breeches for the boys made them even cuter! I snagged some selfies with the less nervous of the bunch. To highlight the tavern’s famous ice well — which can hold 68 tons of ice or 14 African elephants — we were promised ice cream at the tour’s conclusion. The tavern’s ice well was the only one in Alexandria during the 1800s; ice was chipped directly from the Potomac River and then transported back through the city. Gadsby’s Tavern served chilled beverages and ice cream, a new and popular dessert during that time period, to its wealthiest guests. Despite the hype and history, the ice cream we were served was just a spoonful of the science class kind made with ice and salt in a Ziploc bag. Still, the adorableness of our guides compensated for the disappointment. When told that visitors had written bad reviews on Yelp because of the young tour guides, we were shocked. “It’s all the same anyways. It’s just a place that existed and is old,” Blake said. At least the children made it a little less the same.
Our history lesson ended with the Stabler Leadbeater Apothecary and the Carlyle House. Even compared to the children-led tours at Gadsby’s Tavern, the apothecary was by far my favorite stop. Unlike the other sites, the apothecary contained no replicas. Sharp bloodletting devices and cobalt blue poison bottles were still displayed in their glass cases; dark wooden drawers stacked to the ceiling contained herbal remedies still waiting to be purchased. Actually, I take back what I said earlier — one change had been made to the building. The green paint made with arsenic had been removed from the walls (otherwise, the city’s jagged streets would be the least of my worries).
While I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, our guide thought otherwise. Blake repeated a fact back to me that I’d missed, and she condescendingly responded, “Oh, she’s not interested.” I was interested! My yawns were the product of a long day of walking on achy feet, not her narratives!
At the Carlyle House, however, my yawns were most definitely a product of our guide’s narratives. Not only did she rush into stories assuming we knew the background knowledge of all seven children who had inhabited the house, she went into way too much detail about facts that were far from interesting (the history of every piece of furniture was too detailed for my taste). The house belonged to one of Alexandria’s founders, John Carlyle, who was married to Sarah Fairfax of Fairfax, Virginia. Despite the couple’s significance, their home and furniture’s history were uninspiring at best.
After that, I couldn’t decide which was worse: our first stop at The George Washington Masonic National Memorial or our last stop at the Carlyle House. I tripped going up to one and leaving the other, so it was a tossup.
* * *
The night brought terrors beyond the cobblestone streets. Just after sunset we embarked on a ghost tour during which I learned that the practice of digging graves wherever residents pleased was commonplace until about a century ago. Because of the practice, one church’s graveyard — next to a biking trail of all places — extended far beyond the designated plots. Archeologists and historians estimate that 1,200 to 2,000 unmarked graves are under the city’s streets and portions of the George Washington Parkway.
I also learned that the melt-in-my-mouth gelato I had before the tour came from a haunted building. A young bride was trying on her dress the night before her wedding when a kerosene lamp fell from the table, catching her dress on fire. Attempting to rush out of the house, she fell down the rickety steps from the top floor, dying from both burns and head trauma. I tasted bile in the back of my throat from the pistachio, white chocolate raspberry and salted caramel gelato I had earlier.
After the ghost tour, Blake and I ate at a tiny Mexican restaurant on King Street. The outdoor seating was so cramped that I could’ve held hands with the elderly couple seated next to us. After my first sip of sangria, which had me saying, “Whoa! This is strong,” I no longer cared about the proximity, and by the end of the glass, I was thoroughly enjoying my steaming vegetable fajitas. When Blake took a bite, though, he said they tasted too salty, almost like soy sauce. Our waitress confirmed that soy sauce was indeed part of the ingredients. I lifted my hand to my swelling lips, which I finally noticed were tingly and taut.
“Since when did they get soy sauce in Mexico?!” Blake asked me.
The night ended with me tipsy and stumbling over misplaced cobblestones to a drugstore so I could down some Benadryl, which, by the way, does not mix well with alcohol. I was a goner after that. Don’t ask me what happened next, because I was too loopy to remember, but I’m sure it involved more tripping.
My dreams were a blur of slurs, stumbles and soreness.
Alexandria had made quite an impression on me.
* * *
Benadryl and alcohol will do wonders for someone in desperate need of sleep, and I woke with renewed optimism, but that may have been because we planned to spend the day biking away from Alexandria and toward Washington D.C. on the Mount Vernon Trail.
Alexandria sits along the western portion of the Potomac River, just south of the nation’s capital. The Mount Vernon Trail spans 18 miles from George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to Washington D.C., placing Alexandria smack in the middle.
Being off of the unbalanced streets of Alexandria was just what I needed. As I smoothly glided along — actively ignoring the graveyard from last night’s tales to my left — I reconsidered my initial impression of the area, teeming with dead bodies and ghosts or not. There was no possible way not to smile as we rode along the river for 9 miles, enjoying views of the Capitol and Washington Monument for the entire ride.
Whenever I go out of town and tell people that I live near the Washington D.C. area, they often remark how lucky I am. After countless field trips to the monuments and museums, I’ve taken it for granted, but during our ride I paid attention to every landmark we passed. We’re planning to pack up and leave for Denver after our wedding, so I wanted to soak it all in one last time.
I completely forgot about how tired I’d been yesterday or how frustrated I was that despite my planning, the day didn’t go as expected. I just looked out on the water and at the other bikers zipping by, letting myself enjoy what’s part of my East Coast home.
Sure, Denver will have grand mountains to explore, but it won’t have our nation’s capital or jagged streets that were walked on by our country’s founding fathers.
We turned around once we hit Washington D.C., biking back to the car in Alexandria — there were no tearful, drawn-out goodbyes.
Back on the highway, we headed toward our apartment — our home — but I also felt like we were heading away from our home. All of this history has always sat here, ready for me when I needed a day or weekend to unwind and explore, but soon it will be a plane ride away.
I’ve left my footprints, tire marks and memories on the streets of Washington D.C., and now Alexandria, with classmates, family members, friends and loved ones. I’ve left a bit of history behind.
I wonder if any tour guide in Alexandria will ever point out the spot where I tripped and loudly cursed as a result, the table where I sat with swelling lips, or the bench where I kissed Blake as he slurped down his gelato because the sunlight hit his baby face just right.
Will anyone be told that my first grade class sat in a bus unable to tour the Capitol because one of the parents had a knife in her purse that she swore was for opening her kids’ fruit cups? Will anyone know that for my 10th birthday my mom took me to the National Gallery of Art because I was entranced with Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” and wanted to see more of his work? Will anyone know that I set my personal best for a half-marathon on Washington D.C.’s streets?
Will anyone remember that one of the first family outings I took with Blake and his parents was to the Newseum, where I got to touch a piece of the World Trade Center, and to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where a butterfly sat peacefully on my chest in the gardens? Will anyone ask about when we also went to the top of the Washington Monument, marveling at the beautifully mapped out city below? Will anyone ask about that couple who skated at the outdoor ice rink in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., laughing, embracing and smiling as though they’d never been happier?
Chances are no strangers will ever have knowledge of those memories, but I do. They’re mine. They’re a part of my history, and they root me to my home.
I may hate the traffic, the crowds and the impatient people in this part of the world, but I also hate when my mom tells me the same story for the fourth time, when my sister oversleeps and is late for our family’s plans and when Blake’s parents guilt us into helping them with yet another favor, but they’re still a part of my home. It all is, and there’s no denying that I’ll miss it once I’m gone.