Catherine McGrew Jaime

Author, Historian, Lifelong Learner, Teacher, World Traveler

Tag: Washington DC

Enjoying the Journey – In spite of the D.C. Metro Management

I have traveled alone, with friends, with family, and with students. Traveling to D.C. is something I have enjoyed often with one or more of those groups, even though I live almost 700 miles away. And on almost every of my sixteen or more trips (spread over the last fourteen years) I have taken the D.C. metro in and around the city.

Until this last trip (April 2017), our metro experience had been pretty flawless. Park at the end of the Orange line (since our friends live closest to that), buy our tickets or our passes at the machines at the station, and take the subway into the city. (I’ll use the terms “metro,” “subway,” and “train” interchangeably here, since, at least in these contexts, they are fairly synonymous!)

The Library of Congress

But the metro took on a whole new meaning of difficulty on the second day of our recent trip. On Day 1 (a Friday), things were about like I expected them to be. The friends we were staying with are now about 15 minutes closer to the end of the Silver line than the Orange, so we parked at the parking garage at Wiehle-Reston East and took the Silver train straight to the Capitol South station. Easy, direct, relatively fast – pretty much what I expect when I take the subway in D.C. The ride in took us about an hour, but it was an easy hour.

The girls walking through the tunnel on the way between Library of Congress buildings.

Fortunately, when we were exiting the subway, we noticed the signs in the Capitol South Station that spoke of a closure on Saturday and Sunday. At first, we thought it was only that station that would be closed. And since we weren’t planning to be in that portion of the city on our next two days we originally thought the closure wouldn’t affect us. Boy, were we wrong.

Fortunately, Friday evening/Saturday morning we studied the “Disruptions” portion of the “DC Metro transit” app (an app that no one should be traveling the DC subway without!). So, with the forewarning of the signs on Friday and the app on Saturday morning, we were at least prepared for some of the craziness that Saturday’s metro mess brought us. (Though there was no way we could have been prepared for all that awaited us on that crazy day!)

On Saturday, we drove back to the end of the Silver line. As we boarded we realized that the announcements about the various closures for the day were catching lots of the other riders off guard and we were glad that we had at least known some things were going to be amiss.

When we boarded the Silver train we already knew that we could only go as far at the Ballston-MU stop. Why there, you might ask? Because the Metro powers-to-be had decided to close the Silver line past there for the weekend. (Reportedly for repairs, though for the life of me I don’t know how or why they could be repairing as many different places as were closed that weekend.) And, the next section we were on was the same one we would have been on had we been able to stay on a Silver train – so I’m still not quite sure what they were repairing that entailed that first change. (The trains themselves?)

So off we went at the Ballston MU stop to transfer to the Orange line. No problem, the Orange line could take us to where we wanted to go. Well, normally, yes. But that day the Blue and Orange lines were only going as far as Foggy Bottom. More repairs? Apparently.

Inside a Metro Station

Inside another Metro Station

But have no fear, the Metro folks had it well in hand – they were providing free shuttle buses from Foggy Bottom to Federal Triangle. (Too bad for those who just wanted to go to one of the several stops in between!). So, after standing in the sun for 15 minutes or so, we were crowded onto a shuttle bus to stand for the majority of the 45-minute drive to the Federal Triangle stop. (Later we determined there were less than two miles of roads between those two locations. But between traffic and road closures for that day’s protest march, those two miles took a full 45 minutes to drive.  (Had I been up to the walk, we could have hiked between the two spots quicker than that; but alas, not on this trip.)

The shuttle bus driver didn’t seem particularly keen on getting us the entire way to the Federal Triangle stop (more construction issues?) but seemed to just drop us off when we were in the vicinity. In our case, it was fine, because we had decided not to get back on the subway, but rather to just walk the few blocks to the Reagan building where we had decided to lunch in the Food Court. But for any who were planning to get back on the subway at Federal Triangle, they were left to figure out where they were and which direction the subway station was from where they had been dropped off. (So much for a station to station shuttle!)

Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci – the main reason I take students to the Art Museum!

After enjoying our overpriced meals in the Reagan building (we miss the food court in the Old Post Office building), we went off to enjoy the afternoon plans. (Well, there was a delay in going to see the White House that involved a run in with the weekend’s protest group, but that’s a story for another day.) Suffice it to say that we enjoyed the remainder of our afternoon – at the National Archives and the National Museum of Art. We had originally considered going back up the block to the Natural History Museum, but our travels into the city had eaten up so much of the day, that when we exited the art museum at closing time, we were ready to start our journey back out of the city – though not particularly anxious for what the experience would hold for us.

We walked up 7th Street to the Archives Station. From there it was a short hop down to the L’Enfant Plaza Station where we would normally have been able to hop on a Silver train for the ride back out of the city. But, of course, it wasn’t so easy on Saturday. We took an Orange train to the Federal Triangle stop, where we had to go back up to the mass of Shuttle Buses that were waiting to take us back to Foggy Bottom. The wait for a bus wasn’t particularly long this time, there were actually a large number of them lining up by the street. The problem was that they were once again crowded and we were looking at another long ride of standing up. When we realized that, we stepped off enough from the line to let others on who could handle the standing go ahead of us. Once that bus was full, a gentleman graciously let us back in line, thus ensuring our ability to sit this time around.

We were thankful for the seats for that portion of the trip, because when we got back to Foggy Bottom we were forced to stand again, this time while we waited for an Orange train that was in no hurry to get there. And of course, we could only take the Orange line back to Ballston-MU, where we got to stand yet again for another lengthy wait. (I am fairly certain that wait was almost 45 minutes.) When the Silver train came at last there was actually cheering in the station, something I’ve never heard during any of my countless trips on the subway.

I do like the ceilings in some of the underground metro stations.

By the time we finally reached the end of the Silver line, we had been traveling back for almost three hours (yes, that would be almost three times as long as the longer trips in and out had taken us the day before). And since most of the subway stations have a deplorable lack of benches, way too much of the time traveling to and from downtown D.C. had involved way too much standing. (A bigger problem for my injured knee than the walking we had known we would be doing.)

Late that night we started working out details for how Sunday was going to look. Thanks to my daughter Maria, we made a couple of key changes to our transportation plans. (Because, yes, the subway issues from Saturday were all still prepared to plague us on Sunday.)

The first change we made was the decision to make the drive to the end of the Orange line – Vienna/Fairfax instead of going to the closer Silver line. The extra drive added about 15 minutes to our drive time and another $5.00 to our toll fees, but it saved us from having to make what had been the longest of our transfers the day before (from the Silver to the Orange).

Union Station

Union Station

The next change we made was to our route, so that we could skip the bus transfer portion. (The least favorite part of the previous day for most of our group.) It made for significantly more subway changes, but overall it still seemed easier! We took the Orange Line to Rosslyn, where we picked up the Blue line. Two stops later we were changing to the Yellow Line at Pentagon. We took the Yellow line three stops to Gallery Place where we picked up the Red line for our last leg – two stops to Union Station. (Had we made the same trip on Friday, we could have taken the Silver line to the Red line, and done all that with one transfer!) But we still managed all that in an hour and a half instead of almost three hours!

Hard to get lost on the Mall – which way to the Washington Monument?

After lunch at the Union Station Food Court (much cheaper than the previous day’s) we made our way to the Mall and spent a few hours touring the monuments and memorials there. By 4:30 we were ready to face the Metro yet again. We were only about half a mile from the Smithsonian Station, so we made our way there. Had the subway system been fully operational we could have gotten on the Orange or Silver line there and traveled straight to the end of either – in 45 minutes or so.

But again, not this weekend, that was not the case. Instead we had to get on the Orange line heading away from our destination. Then we were reversing our earlier route: Yellow line from L’Enfant Plaza to Pentagon, Blue line to Rosslyn, and then the Orange line back to Vienna. And, at an hour and a half, while the the trip was probably twice as long as it should have been, it was still barely half of what a similar route had taken us the day before.

So, all in all, we can certainly say that we survived the madness of the Metro. But I’m not sure how many of the city’s first time visitors will be in any hurry to return. While I fully understand the powers-that-be not wanting to cause this much disruption on work days,  do they risk driving away significant numbers of tourists (and tourist dollars) in the process?

Visiting Washington, D.C. (Again!)

D.C. – One of My Favorite Cities to Visit

Washington, D.C. has to be one of my favorite cities to visit.  Even though it is almost exactly 700 miles from my home, and I haven’t had any “work reasons” I needed to go there, I have managed to visit D.C. an average of once per year for the past twenty years.

My excuses to go started with the first teachers’ conference I attended in the area and extended to a political event, just to play tourist, or to take students. Besides traveling there at least four times with my students, I’ve traveled alone, with family, and friends. I’ve gone for only a day or two, and I’ve gone for as long as a week or more.

I love to go to D.C. for a number of reasons – there is never a shortage of things to see and do – and most of them are inexpensive or free. And it helps that the vast majority of them are worth going to again and again.

Sites Frequently Visited

The above are important points considering how often I’ve gone with other folks who have never been before – which means I’ve been to numerous places countless times, including, but not limited to:

Taking Students

As I plan my next student trip to D.C. for later this spring, I have to take into consideration how many of us are going, which of the students have been before, and what they have and haven’t seen already.

Two years ago I brought some of the same students and we did things that weren’t typical for us: Mount Vernon, The Arlington Cemetery, and the Holocaust Museum. So this year we may very well go back to some of my old standbys.

Promises to Myself

Since there is so much to do, and never enough time to even make a small dent in the list – I have made myself three promises that I work hard to keep:

  1. Always visit at least one new site.
  2. Enjoy however much time I have in the city on each visit – whether it’s hours or days.
  3. Remember I’m “keeping something for the next time”! That was a piece of advice my Uncle Dick gave me and my good friend Dee on one of our many trips to Williamsburg, and it has served me very well on my many trips to D.C.

The Lock Keeper's House

Of course, all of the above promises work well for any place that we have the privilege of visiting multiple times. Venice is becoming another such place for me. I’ve been there twice, and if all goes well, I’ll get there two more times this year.  But, more on that in a future post.

So, if you’re going to have the privilege of visiting D.C. for the first time, I can offer you several suggestions based on my experiences (and of course, like with any other suggestions, you should choose and use just the ones that sound good for you).

Things to Consider:

The D.C. Subway system from underground.1. Public Transportation is very easy to use in D.C. and fairly inexpensive. I like to park at the end of one of the color lines, since they generally have bigger parking lots, and take the subway in from there. (Vienna for the orange line generally works well for us.) It’s a good idea to compare prices for daily tickets versus passes. If you check out the website before you go, you can get a better idea of what works best for your particular visit. Once you’re in the city – walking is generally the best way to get around!

2. My next recommendation for planning a trip like this is to make a plan based on how long you’ll be in D. C. – but then be flexible. Plans are a great starting point – but things happen. (We’ve adjusted D.C. plans because of a late start one morning that resulted in NO parking spots left in the Vienna parking lot; when there was a suspected shooter in the D.C. area; and when we walked by the National Museum of Art on our way from one place to another, and students asked to go in for a little while. Of course, now, I almost always stop at the Art Museum to make sure my students see one of my favorite da Vinci paintings!

3. In order to make a plan, take into consideration how much time you have, what the highest priorities are for you, and where they are in comparison to each other. A city map like this one, is helpful if you’re focusing on the sites/museums on and near the National Mall. Map of the main tourist sites near the National Mall

4. Be sure to look at the days and hours of the places you want to visit before you even come close to finalizing your plans! Some of these places are only open 5 days a week, and some are 6 days a week (and a few are 7 days).

If I have a group that hasn’t been before and two days to tour, this is often how I schedule our trip:

Day One – Seeing the monuments along the mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, and one or more of the museums along the Mall (the American History Museum, the National Archives, and the National Museum of Art being high on my list of priorities). Needless to say that can be a day with LOTS of walking. (If you’re really feeling energetic, add the side trip around the Basin!) On the mall day we used to eat at the food court at the Old Post Office, but since that’s no longer a possibility (see the photo below), we’ve eaten recently at the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

Day Two – On the other side of the Capitol we can focus more on sites like the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court building, and Folger Shakespeare Library. On that day we often eat at the food court at Union Station.

If you haven’t been to D.C. before, I hope you are able to make a trip. And if you have been, I hope you are able to go again!

Did I leave anything important off my lists? Any place in particular I should add to my “someday soon” list?

 

Happy Traveling!

Cathy

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