Then, as graduation neared, we panicked: what if we have to move this summer and don't have time to go? So we went during the seminarian's spring break. Which is everyone's spring break. Not the ideal time for a homeschooling family to go to a major tourist attraction. But, we took our chance.
We planned on a one-night stay. Since it's a 3-hour drive from our home, that would give us two full days to explore, if we got up early enough the first morning. I cracked the whip, had everyone packed the night before, planned breakfast on the road, and set several alarms. We set a family record for getting up and out by 7 am. I had found a reasonably-priced room outside of town and near a metro train station. It also included our most important feature: "free" breakfast, or as we say around here, breakfast included in the price. This is a key time- and money-saver for us. Nothing like getting up in the morning, ready to rock and roll, and having to think about where to find breakfast.
Most people we mentioned the trip to suggested their must-see places. Some were dubious that we would have a good time in only two days. A few imagined us frantically running from place to place, barely having time to snap a photo of some important building, monument, or exhibit before moving on.
But they don't know how we work.
Ever since we started taking our kids places, we have cautioned them that they won't see everything. Zoo, amusement park, museum - they have been warned that in one visit they won't see it all. Of course sometimes it has worked out that we can see it all; if we have the time and the place is the right size. But because of the way we visit such places, we usually can't. We just aren't fast. We like to look closely at exhibits. We like to ponder the art. We like to sit down sometimes and just enjoy the surroundings. We like to take photos.
She must not have liked the photo she was taking here; I couldn't find it.
The week before the trip I sat the kids down at the website for the Smithsonian museums and the Google map of the National Mall area, and told them to figure out what they wanted to see most. I limited them to the Mall and told them to be specific about exhibits within the museums so we would be sure to see what was important. James wanted to see all the monuments and memorials, and the Natural History and Air & Space Museums. Eleanor wanted to see the Natural History museum, specifically the crocheted coral reef exhibit, the First Ladies dresses at the American History Museum, and the US Botanical Garden. Further down the list were the White House and Capitol.
They would have been happy to see more, but these were their most important places.
We arrived at our suburban metro station at 10:30, and within about half an hour were stepping out of the Smithsonian station. We'd planned to spend the first day checking out the monuments, and that's just what we did. We saw them all. Because I'd neglected to obtain a map ahead of time, we didn't do it the most efficient way, but we got to see everything.
The World War II Memorial, which is just stunning.
When we were satisfied that we'd seen them all, it was time for museums. We started out together at the American History Museum, and that's where we split up. Eleanor and I went to see the First Ladies' dresses, and James and Dad took off to see some old ship or something. This is another key to enjoying trips like this: split up when necessary! Naturally, it works better for some family configurations than others, and ours is pretty easy. But I was surprised at the number of families traveling in packs with one or more kids complaining about the things they were seeing. I suppose some boys and men would like to view ballgowns, but... I saw many who were just in agony. It was crowded, hot, and, let's face it - for most boys, excruciatingly boring.
Here is one way to make a museum visit not fun:
Dad: "Now we're going to the Air & Space Museum."
7-ish-year-old girl: "I don't want to go there."
Dad: (angrily): "Well, you can just wait outside, then!"
Mom stood there looking embarrassed. The siblings rolled their eyes. Everyone stomped out; no one looked happy. Why couldn't the mom take the little girl somewhere else? Everyone, even most teens, have cell phones, so it's easy to reconnect when it's time. Why force togetherness? Our exception to that was the memorials. Eleanor wasn't too keen on seeing all of them, but the rest of us were. And, I think they are important. More on that another day.
Our next stop was the Natural History museum, and we split up again. Eleanor and I spent a lot of time at a special display of orchids and at the gemstone area.
Detail from a huge sheet of copper.
At that point we ran out of energy, made our way to the train and then to our hotel.
Next day, after our included-in-the-price breakfast, we got back on the train and went straight back to the Natural History museum to finish up. The, it was time for [cue dramatic music] the Air & Space.
Eleanor and I ditched the men right then and went to the Botanical Garden down the street. We strolled through the conservatory and outdoor gardens. She took a lot of photos.
A passion flower.
She and I eventually made our way over to Air & Space and let James show us a few exhibits that were important to him. Then we left again for the National Gallery of Art, across the street. One treat there was seeing a Rembrandt self-portrait, and an artist working on a copy of it. Fun!
We didn't take a Capitol tour. We walked by the White House and wondered what the horde of people lingering at the fence thought they'd see there. We didn't make it to the Library of Congress (bummer for the parents) but, maybe next time.
Oh look, we did see the Capitol!
We saw a lot, and no one went home disappointed because he missed something important, or mad because she'd had to endure something that was (in her opinion) dull.
But no, we didn't see it all. We never do. We never try. And we're happier that way.