I went hiking in a national park last week, and it was unlike any national park I’ve visited before. No towering peaks, geysers or grand glaciers. Still, my walk on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was a sublime hike through no less a national treasure.
I was in D.C. for a Rural Health Care Conference. It was a busy agenda, and I had only a short window of opportunity for sight-seeing. But as luck would have it, I took my hike on the nicest afternoon of the trip — hazy sunshine with a high temperature of 39 degrees and a light northeasterly breeze — just right for a brisk walk, though I’m glad I had my scarf along.
The National Mall is a reserve of green and open space bounded on one end by our Nation’s Capitol and on the other by the Lincoln Memorial. The open natural space also includes the Washington Monument, memorials to many of our nation’s wars, and off to the south, across the Tidal Basin, the Jefferson Memorial. The National Park Service administers all of these as part of its National Mall and Memorial Parks Unit.
I actually walked with a destination in mind, that being the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. This was my first trip to Washington and I long ago promised myself if I ever got there, I would absolutely visit this museum.
I began my hike at Lafayette Park across the street from the White House — which is stunningly white. From blocks away, the whiteness of the building stands out against its background. A left turn took me past the U.S. Treasury Building, and a statue of Albert Gallatin, who served as the Secretary of the Treasury for Presidents Jefferson and Madison. Meriwether Lewis named one of the three forks of the Missouri River in Gallatin’s honor.
How cool is that, I thought. Perhaps I could visit the namesakes of all three of the Missouri tributaries. Now I had a route to follow. I would let my favorite river become my muse and the theme of my hike (even though I was closer to the Potomac than the Big Muddy). Onward to find the Jefferson and the Madison.
I set off to the south then, crossing the National Mall, pausing in awe and respect as I looked west toward the World War II and Vietnam Veterans Memorials, and behind them, at the Mall’s far end, the Lincoln Memorial. I continued on to the magnificent spire of the Washington Monument and around the Tidal Basin and up the many steps to the Jefferson Memorial (and another tributary found).
More than just a river’s namesake, though, Jefferson is my favorite President, and the gifted, complex and contradictory Renaissance man who penned the words that inspired our wonderful democratic experiment — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”
Finding waterfowl on the Mall surprised me, but looking back it shouldn’t have. The city, built on the banks of the Potomac, was once the homeland of the Nacotchtank Indians. It was and still is a natural environment, and despite being highly urbanized now, there are still some precious natural spaces left. There were hundreds of Canada geese dotting the lawn of the Washington Monument. On the frozen surface of the Tidal Basin, a backwater of the Potomac, I took photographs of a Great Blue Heron and some Ring-billed gulls. Feeding on the lawn just south of Jefferson’s Memorial were at least a hundred robins. A Park Service ranger at the Memorial told me of recent reports of the sighting of an eagle down near Hains Point. Good news, I agreed.
Leaving the Jefferson Memorial, I walked back into the city looking for Madison Drive, my final tributary of the Missouri, and the path that would lead me to the Museum of Natural History. After a couple of wrong turns and some backtracking — this was a hike like any other, so my getting lost would be expected — I found my way, and crossed the Mall one last time at its midway point between the U.S. Capitol to the east and the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall’s western end — a very impressive sight.
And then I disappeared inside the Natural History Museum to wander for another two hours, thoroughly enjoying the indoor side of nature.
The outdoors are wherever we find it, sometimes in places you least expect it. So it was for me and my good fortune when I found the outdoors in the heart of our nation’s capital. I also feel that way when I walk here on the River’s Edge Trail in my own home town.
Kudos to all communities — big and small — that undertake the hard work to preserve these special outdoor places that their citizens all can share. It makes you proud to be an American.