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To the North

Fourth leg : Lebanon, TN - Manasses, VA, 610 miles, 10.5 hours

A tough day today. Reaching the eastern part of Tennessee required to climb over some high hills. Fortunately the traffic was not intense, although the weather was gloomy all day. Leaving Interstate 40 which we followed since its beginning back in California I turned north on I-81. Unfortunately the weather, which had stayed cloudy but dry until now, turned to light rain and after a while on I-81, an intense traffic of cars and trucks required all my concentration, especially after dark. Pretty soon I cross the Virginia border.

Virginia Border

Amazingly, all the way from California to here and beyond, I have not seen a single traffic accident. This is an incredible realization: driving 3000 miles, passing hundreds of semis carring tons of freights, and not a single accident is testimony to the generally very good conditions of the roads and the competence of the drivers. Turning on I-66 towards Washington, DC, the traffic eased up. This doesn't seem to be a heavy traffic road, and almost no trucks. I arrive about 20 miles west of DC and I decide to stop for the night. Unfortunately all motels seem to be quite expensive (could it be because of George Mason University is nearby?) I see an advertisement for a Red Roof Inn at $59.99, but I decide to ask at a Super 8 (they give $85 price) and at a Quality Inn. After I say that the Red Roof gives the room for $60 the manager agrees to give me the room for $63+taxes. I'm tired and I take it. I read e-mails, plan my visit to the National Mall, and go to sleep.

Final leg : Manasses, VA - Washington, DC - Edison, NJ, 320 miles, 6.2 hours

The next day is a Monday. Getting on the freeway at 8:00 AM means driving in the middle of rush hour. I probably should've departed earlier, because I spend almost an hour of stop-and-go until I reach the "Beltway", that is I-495 which circles around the capital and connects various towns where most government agencies are: the CIA, the Pentagon, Bethesda CDC, NASA Goddard's space center etc. The traffic is just incredible, but it eases up eastward of the I66-I495 intersection. I cross the Potomac river and turn right on Ohio Ave. We are now in the National Mall, an area managed by the National Park Service, where several historical monuments and memorials are located. Parking, where available, is mostly free with a 3 hour limit. I park, get my camera and tripod, and walk to visit the Mall. I am fortunate that I'm wearing a heavy jacket, a cap and a muffler. The weather is rather bad. Thick clouds, with drizzles, which become almost icy when the wind blows. It is a challenge to keep the lens of the camera clean of the rain drops. At each of the monuments you can pick up a Park Service brochure explaining about the individual monument. I first walk to the World War 2 Memorial, an amphitheater dedicated to the victims of the Second World War, with markers of all the major battles on the Atlantic front and on the Pacific front. Next I walk to the Washington Memorial, the tall obelisk that stands between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.

Washington Memorial

One can go all the way to the top of the obelisk, but you have to get a ticket in advance and pick an available time. It's 10 AM, so I get a ticket for the 1:00 PM tour, since I have to move my car, which was parked nearby by 12:30. The ticket is free, as is access to most other locations managed by the Park Service. After I got my ticket I walk eastward towards the Capitol, which is where Congress convenes. Along the way, at the two sides of the park you can see the buildings of the Smithsonian institution, a number of museums dedicated to various aspect of the American and human experience. I take several pictures of the Capitol,

US Capitol

and then decide to enter the Botanical Garden, which is right next to the Capitol Building, mostly because it was so cold that I needed to get to a warm place. Admission to all the Smithsonian museums is free. The Garden was very nice. As soon as you enter you are engulfed in a range of different scents from all the plants that are featured in the Garden. Immediately after entering various varieties of orchids are spread between more typical flowers. The first room runs from left to right of the entrance, and at various replicas of the different buildings surrounding the National Mall are placed: the Capitol, the Castle, Washington and Licoln Memorials, and of course the White House. A placard explains that each building is constructed using pieces of dead wood. The other rooms are dedicated to vegetation from different world climates, such as rain forest, deserts, etc. I find particular familiarity with the desert vegetation that I had seen just 2 days before. I don't realize that time has passed and I head back to move my car by the 12:30 limit. I pass by the Indian Heritage building, the Air and Space Museum, the Castle and rush towards the parking. I get to the car just in time, and the search starts for a new parking. Fortunately I find another spot a little closer to the Washington Memorial. I lock the car and rush to the join the last bunch of people waiting to enter the monument. Before entering however we go through an airport-style security check. You have to go through a metal detector and pass all electronic and metallic items through X-rays. Inside, a friendly ranger explains the story of the monument while the elevator takes you to the top. Once on the top you can look outside in 4 directions: north to see the White House, east to see the Capitol, south to see the Jefferson Memorial and east to see the Lincoln Memorial. Inside you can actually see the top of the obelisk, and how it is slanted. Taking the elevator down the ranger talks about various blocks of stone that were contributed by various states; the blocks are visible through the windows of the elevator. Once out, I walk to the Lincoln Memorial: a Greek temple-style building inside which a huge statue of President Lincoln looks eastward to the obelisk and the Capitol.

Lincoln Memorial

The statue is impressive, and there is a sense of awe and reverence in the crowd. Between the Lincoln Memorial and the White House is the Vietnam Memorial, a very long slab of black marble where the names of many soldiers who died in the Vietnam War are engraved. While walking back to my car I witness the departure of the motorcade of the Indian Prime Minister who was visiting President Obama on that day. The road is blocked for a few minutes, waiting for all the police and the officials cars to pass. I get into the car and try to find a spot closer to the Air and Space Museum, which is the next spot I want to visit. In getting there I try to drive by the White House, but all the roads are understandably blocked, and so I can only film the White House from the car from afar. Luckily I find a spot almost in front of the Museum. It's already 4:00 PM, and it's getting dark, so it wouldn't make sense to stay outside while you cannot take pictures. I enter the museum and I'm amazed at the number of exhibits you can find. For someone who grew up in the golden age of space exploration, actually seeing the Control Capsule of the Apollo missions and the Lunar Lander is a very strong emotion,

Lunar Lander

especially when you look inside and realize how small the space is and how thin is the separation between the inside of the capsule, with its life-sustaining environment, and what was on the outside, "touching" the void of space. Even smaller is the Mercury capsule, used for the first human flights in space. Immediately I remember the "Ground Control to Major Tom" line that says "flying in a tin can". It was indeed a tin can with a human inside. Those astronauts were very brave men indeed. The west wing is dedicated to air flight. You can look inside the cockpit of various airplanes, including a flight simulation of take off and landing of an Airbus 320. At the far end a flight simulators attraction features 2 types of flight simulator: a ride which costs $7 and flight simulator proper which costs more. I pick the ride, fearing that the other one would be too extreme looking at how the capsules jerk around. Unfortunately the ride is a disappointment. The physical movements are very gentle and the video is not high quality. You can see the individual pixels of the virtual landscape. It's not worth the price. The east wing is dedicated to space exploration. Various rockets are on display, both from NASA and from other space agencies like ESA. The Skylab is also on display, as well as models of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble Space Telescope

I had never realized how huge those things are, especially if you compare them to how tiny the Apollo capsule was. A section of the wing is reserved to telescopes, from reproductions of Galileo's and Herschel's telescopes to the more modern COBE space radio telescope. Unfortunately the light in those areas is very low, and you cannot appreciate the details of each instrument. Quite suddenly I realized that I spent more than an hour in the museum, and that it's almost closing time. I stay until the last minute exploring the various rooms, and getting ready for the last section of the trip. Final destination, Edison, New Jersey. Driving 2 blocks away from the museum I'm hit by the harsh reality of trying to get out of the National Capital at rush hour. The peace and tranquility that I've experienced all day visiting the Park gives way to the hectic traffic of all the government agencies and departments trying to get to the suburbs. I follow the directions of the navigator heading for Baltimore on Rt 295 and then on I95, but it still takes me 2 full hours to get out of Washington, a mere 10 miles trip. While the speed improves getting close to Baltimore, it's never close to the speed limit. The idea of driving at this pace all the way to New Jersey, on one of the busiest highway of the Nation makes me decide to head north towards Harrisburg, on I-76. On the way there there are sections with a 65 mph speed limit, and other sections at 55 mph. Thinking that I was on a 65 mph section, I passed a truck and a police car, thinking I was totally within the speed limit. After a while the police car stopped me, at which point I thought it was because I had inadvertently driven above the speed limit. Instead the officer told me that I had my left headlight off. I had not noticed until that moment, since I could clearly see the road. He also asked what I was doing in Pennsylvania driving a California car, at which I explained that I was delivering the car to my friend in New Jersey. He didn't seem too surprised when I told him that I drove all the way from California :) I also tried to explain other oddities, such as the fact that the registration of the car was still in California, but the insurance was under a different name in New Jersey. Thinking about it now I still can't believe that he didn't give me a ticket or didn't do more research, like calling the owner of the car on the phone, even though I was saying the complete truth. This proves that police patrols are not out there to trick you (except maybe in Oklahoma :), but are there to provide a service to the motorists. After another 2 road construction delays east of Harrisburg, and close to Newark, I finally reached my destination after 4 and a half days of driving and 3360 miles.