By Ben |

[posted to the Wheeled Migration Yahoo Group on April 8, 2005]

Hello again! I'm still in Washington, getting ready to move back into the Gallaudet dorms for a second weekend after spending the week in a hostel. I apologize for the length of this message, but I've been busy!

I last wrote you on Saturday morning. The weather was just miserable all day: cold and rainy and windy. I stayed indoors as long as I could stand to -- Marisa let me use her computer while she was in a study group all afternoon, so I filed my taxes and caught up on stuff -- but then I insisted on going outside. Marisa thought I was crazy, not only because of the weather, but because the neighborhood is considered to be very unsafe. I figured I had seen worse weather and worse neighborhoods, but even so I didn't make it off campus. By the time I got back to the dorm, my pants and shoes were soaked with shockingly cold water.

We went to see a movie on campus instead. Marisa warned me to bring earplugs because the volume is usually turned way up for the hard-of-hearing folks, but I didn't think it was louder than a typical theater. The dance party we passed on the way back to the dorm, however, was louder than any music I've ever heard!

Sunday morning I packed up and left Gallaudet for All Souls Church, riding through the neighborhood Marisa had warned me against the night before, and I have to admit it looked pretty questionable in the daytime, too. I had no trouble finding the "Congregation X" group of young adults from Arlington, Virginia, who were visiting All Souls, and we talked over lunch, which the church provides free to first-time visitors. But no one invited me home, so off I went to Hilltop Hostel, just inside the District boundary from Takoma Park, Maryland, and just half a block from a metro station. It made a nice base of operations for sightseeing, and a nice ever-changing group of fellow travelers to chat with.

Late Monday morning I rode the Metro to the National Mall. I checked on the cherry blossoms, but most of the trees were still a day or two from full bloom. After a visit to the Smithsonian Castle, I settled in at the new Museum of the American Indian. As long overdue as this tribute is, I have to say it was worth the wait. It sidesteps any pretense of "objective" anthropology or sociology by exclusively using the first person... that is to say, *all* of the narration on the walls is attributed to whomever said it, rather than belonging to the faceless Smithsonian institution. Since I'm a bit of a stickler for citations, I was impressed.

And each nation that's represented got to design its own part of the museum, from the carpet to the rafters. A dozen or so nations present their "Universes" -- their mythological understanding of how the world works, and when you step into their alcoves, you enter their worlds. Between the alcoves are little storytelling niches where creation myths are illustrated with tasteful (I thought) animation. I was disappointed to learn that these animations are not available on video; you have to travel to the museum if you want to see them. Maybe in a few years they'll change their minds about that.

The section of the museum that deals with the centuries of "Contact" between Native Americans and Europeans doesn't pull any punches -- in fact, I recognized a number of presentation strategies that were borrowed from the Holocaust Museum. But then the final section shows how tribes are picking themselves up and moving beyond survival to what they call "survivance." Some of my fellow hostelers who were expecting a history museum were put off by this emphasis on the present and future, but I felt it was very appropriate.

I had read about the well-used Bombardier ice-fishing vehicle that was lifted into the museum's second floor for the Métis nation's exhibit. I not only agree that it was an appropriate expense, I think more of the nations should have contributed modern artifacts like that. In the context of the exhibit, the big beloved workhorse really says more about their lifestyle than any number of words or pictures could have done.

The museum's cafeteria is another tour de force. McDonald's and Pizza Hut reportedly tried to sneak in, as they did in all the other museum cafes, but in this case they were kept out. Each counter has relatively healthy, often organic or fair-traded food inspired by the native cuisine of a different region of North or South America. (Not all the foods are indigenous; fry bread for example was invented during the forced migrations in the 1800s, but it's part of the Indian experience.) I expected it to be overpriced like all other museum food, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity I got for my money.

Before heading back to the hostel, I stopped in at the Air and Space Museum and caught the 3-D IMAX film about the International Space Station. Like most of the Air and Space Museum, it's a few years out of date and more than a little jingoistic, but I like 3-D movies and I like the ISS, so I was happy! And in a few days the Shuttles will be flying again, so it won't be a grievous misstatement to say that the US is doing most of the work of maintaining the station.

Tuesday was forecast to be the only truly glorious day of the week, so I took my bike out for a spin. I followed about 3/4 of the Rock Creek Park bike trail, all of the Capitol Crescent trail, and the very end of the C&O Towpath. I was eager to see the towpath because it supplied the climax of Granny D's walk across the country -- the nonogenarian skied the last 100+ miles into town because she was running late for a press conference and an unexpected snow fell. Early in the ride, I stopped to study the bicycle map -- which was both imprecise and inaccurate -- and another cyclist stopped to help me. He was going much the same way, so I followed him. His name is Leroy Badger, and he lives in Utah but has ridden more than 15,000 miles since 2000, in both organized rides and informal jaunts all over the country. He had a fancy road bike and a spandex suit, but without my trailer I had no trouble keeping up with him.

Wednesday morning I biked to Shaw Ecovillage [2015 update: now defunct]. As an urban nonprofit organization, it has more in common with the Rhizome Collective I visited in Austin than the ecovillages I've visited in rural areas. The basic idea is that the adults in the organization raise money and the youth -- teenagers -- decide how to spend it to improve the neighborhood. They've created community gardens, painted murals, and started a community bike shop. Because I visited during the school day, there were no teenagers at the shop, but the college-grad day managers, Max & Wakeel, were eager to talk with me. We had a little mutual admiration society going for a while, and then they gave me a great deal on some bike parts.

I dropped off my stuff at the hostel, scarfed down some lunch, and then took the metro up to REI in College Park, Maryland. There I finally found the most recent edition of the Maryland-Delaware Atlas and Gazetteer, which none of the local libraries -- including the Library of Congress! -- have purchased. I didn't want to purchase it either, of course, since I'll only be in Maryland a couple of days, but I took some notes that should get me as far as Baltimore, where every library has the most current atlas on the shelf. I also bought a bright yellow poncho to replace the one that blew away while I was in church on Sunday. The sales associate turned up her nose at the $4.99 vinyl poncho, saying it was "not exactly performance," but I don't spend enough time in the rain to justify a $60 high-tech rain jacket! And I don't want to, thanks!

From Maryland I rode the Metro all the way through town to Arlington, Virginia, and met my friend Elisa's mother, Susan, for dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Susan is in her final year as a fourth-grade teacher; she could have retired earlier but decided she wasn't ready yet!

Thursday morning I rode the Metro to the Air and Space Museum and caught a shuttle bus from there to the museum's new annex near Dulles Airport, called the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, or as the bus drivers say, "the Hazy" (pronounced hah-zee). It's basically a big hangar full of planes and spaceships that didn't fit in the main museum. More informative exhibits are being built, but for now most of the vehicles have only a small panel to describe them. Even with the enormous new space, the planes are so close together -- and lit from so many directions -- that it's difficult to get a camera angle without a spotlight or another plane in the way. But the planes are still mighty impressive -- like the last SR-71 Blackbird and Concorde to fly, or the Space Shuttle Enterprise, or a Spacelab module that flew 9 missions.

My high-school friend Joe came and picked me up from the museum for lunch. He lives and works near Dulles, so it made more sense for us to meet at the museum than in DC. He's working for America Online. As much as he says he dislikes Oklahoma, having emigrated after his divorce, he's now dating a Tulsan and is flying there as I write this.