Tuesday, August 24, 2010
August 20, 2010: Washington - Mount Vernon, The Kids, Midnight At Union Station
Today I took a bus tour to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. It wasn't going to be excessively hot, so it seemed like a reasonable day to visit his estate, which is mostly gardens and farms, along with the family's home, so it would be a day with a lot of walking around in the sun.
The bus picked us up at Arlington Cemetery and drove through downtown historic Alexandria along the way, where our tour guide pointed out various landmarks (childhood home of Robert E. Lee, Masonic Washington memorial tower). When we got to Mount Vernon, we were on our own for three hours before having to meet the bus again to return back to Arlington.
First stop was the visitor's center, which had a movie about George Washington's life. There was a young girl, maybe about 8 years old, sitting behind me who had not yet learned to appreciate dramatic pacing. The movie started with a scene of a battle camp, with men riding up on horseback and conferring. It really wasn't possible yet to tell who George Washington (you could tell they were setting us up for some sort of dramatic reveal). But every few minutes she would ask her parents "Is that George Washington?" "Is that George Washington?" "Which one is George Washington?" I'm sure they would have been happy to tell her, but they didn't know the answer any more than she did. After it was established who George Washington was, the scene switched to a dinner party. That's when she started asking " Is that Martha?" "Is that Martha?" "Which one is Martha?"
After the movie, which was suitably patriotic while emphasizing that George Washington preferred being a farmer to being a war leader or president of the country, I walked up to the mansion. Photographs weren't allowed inside, which was too bad, because there was one room with the most astoundingly electric color of green paint - apparently the copper pigment used at the time was very expensive, so the greener the better. At one point the tour led us past the bedroom where George died; a woman on the tour asked why the bedroom had been remodelled so much and the blood bedclothes removed. The tour guide looked utterly perplexed - Washington died after catching a cold, and it's hard to imagine that bloody bedclothes would have been involved. I think she had it mixed up with Lincoln's deathbed, but she was insistent that it wasn't how the room looked when she'd been at Mount Vernon years earlier.
From the house I went on to tour the gardens where there were fantastic old espaliered fruit trees and I saw artichokes growing for the first time (huge spiny plants!). Then down to the river's edge to read about Washington's fishing business (fish were very plentiful at the time) and to visit recreations of his farming techniques (he was an innovator in crop rotation and designed a custom barn for threshing wheat with horses. There was a limited amount of tobacco growing - Washington had been one of the first to replace this cash crop with wheat, which wasn't as hard on the soil. There were sheep, cows, mules, horses and chickens, many of them the same heritage varieties that Washington kept.
On the way out was a new theatre and exhibition area with a series of life-size models of Washington at various stages of life (created with the current forensic techniques). Also on display were his dentures. For some reason this seemed to be the penultimate artifact that the entire Mount Vernon complex was leading up to, perhaps because one of his actual teeth was part of it - it all felt a little like visiting a Catholic shrine to a saint.
In the evening Mark and I went downtown to the Landmark E Street Theatre to see "The Kids Are Alright". To a certain extent our choice was determined by which movie would end in time for us to get to Union Station before midnight, when my friend Jenn would be getting in on her bus from New York City (the movie I really wanted to see was "The Girl Who Played with Fire" but since Mark hadn't seen the first movie that seemed a bit unfair). Not a bad movie, although strangely packed with possible dramatic arcs (alcoholism! teenage misbehaviour!) that went nowhere - I appreciate a little non-Hollywood ambiguity, but this one didn't really tie up any loose ends at all.
Afterward we headed off to Union Station. It's a great building - really stunning architecture with lots of shops and restaurants, but unfortunately that's all closed up by midnight. However, the station wasn't creepy even though it was late and largely deserted and the bus came in on time. I was feeling like quite the Washington native, fitting in a quick movie before meeting a friend at the station, then shepherding everyone home on the Metro.
Photos: George Washington's mansion (note that what appears to be stone walls is actually wood, 'rusticated' to appear to be stone); the view from the back porch to the Potomac; the lower garden (only half!); a butterfly alights on an artichoke flower; one of the tulip poplars planted by George Washington; sheep of many colours; one of the few sheep interested in making friends with me; tiny tobacco field (having grown up in Ontario's tobacco-growing region, I taken a certain amount of pleasure in being able to recognize it); the octagonal wheat-threshing barn