Travel Journal No. 7: Washington D.C. — A Strange Wilderness

As a departure from my heading out into the backcountry to brave the elements in the past couple of months, last week I headed to our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

My former Ph.D. adviser had invited me to his wedding; however, given the state of our country, I had serious apprehensions about visiting a place that seemed at the heart of nearly all that I feel is wrong with our world today. But I had to go. This was my dear friend’s wedding, and I also wanted the scoop from a few insiders I knew.

When I arrived I half-expected to see smoldering tires in the streets and masked anarchists running wild with banners extolling the sorry state of politics today, or at least throngs of Democrats protesting against Trump policies or, at the very least, right-wing Republicans standing in unison with the president.

Instead I found that Washington appears to be functioning as normal, with clean streets, loads of happy tourists visiting the many free museums and monuments, and businesses seemingly proceeding as normal.

During my stay the weather, although humid, was pleasant, in the mid-80s with puffy white clouds that floated across the sky every afternoon. The evenings were quiet, with the streets often empty after 9 p.m. as families, staffers and the throngs of tourists slipped away into the darkness. But not all is as it appears. When I dug a little deeper the dysfunction of Washington became more apparent.

“Crazy is the new normal,” one staffer told me over dinner at an outdoor cafe. The woman didn’t want to speak on the record (By the Way, no one in Washington, not even the Uber drivers, wants to speak on the record). “I’m a Republican, but I voted for Hilary,” she confided. “Trump is nuts, all this bizarre tweeting and getting under people’s skin, including mine, is annoying. It might be a sort-of strategy, but if it is, it’s a stupid, destructive one.”

“But there are a few things he might get through that I think might be good for the country, so maybe things will turn out OK,” she added after a few more bites of food. “All I know is that we’ll be working through the summer recess to push as much through as possible, which is going to really screw up so many people’s vacation plans. My boss has a wedding that he might have to cancel. But the idea is that if we don’t get these things through fast then they will never happen.”

“Why are there no protests?” I asked.

“Oh, there are, but only when he is in town,” she said. “And that is pretty rare.”

She spoke as we waited for the others: a Bernie supporter, a Democrat and a military analyst.

I had been to Washington a few times before, but for this trip I didn’t have a packed schedule and could spend a little time going to monuments and museums, and I was able to just sit and people-watch during the day.

Probably because of my recent weeks in nature, I was struck by the noise of the place: Planes overhead competed with the sounds of traffic and the occasional police siren. In more quiet moments I was struck by the number and intensity of the numerous bird calls and tweets (no, not those kind of tweets — I mean the real ones) from the cascading call of the winter wren to the wood thrush’s loud, flute-clear ee-oh-lay song and the smudge-gray chimney swift that sounds insect-like with its rapid clicks. The birds compete with the cicadas that trill their love songs from nearly every tree. The flora in and around the city is lush, with trees and lawns slipping toward the bay and surrounding forests. In the evenings along these greenways fireflies lift into the air, their luminescence resulting in soft-yellow rising droplets of light that reminded me of an extended miniature version of Thailand’s Yee Peng floating lantern celebration.

Touring the monuments and buildings I was struck by the thoughtfulness and hope contained in the many quotes that adorn marbled ceilings, such as those in the Library of Congress that read, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance” (Socrates) or “The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” (Samuel Johnson, who also said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”) or, “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” (Diogenes). All of these words and ideas are embedded into the foundation of a country that has done both bad and good — but could do so much better.

Outside the clouds slipped overhead, and in the trees the animals sang their ancient songs. Meanwhile those tasked with running our country appeared to be figuring out how to manage within an ever-shifting state of affairs.

“Don’t blame me, I voted for Bernie,” said another staffer who had joined us but also didn’t want to be named. “We are seeing some things get passed that will have long-term negative consequences — like the reversal of the Affordable Healthcare Act, backing out of the Paris Accord and the attempt to scuttle departments like the EPA by just not filling positions. Maybe this is what the country needs — to see how bad things can get before we have some real change for the better.”

All the staffers with whom I spoke report that the clock is ticking.

“The first job of Congress people is to get re-elected,” said another staffer, this one a Democrat. “So this is why nothing really ever changes. The point is not to change things for the better, especially under the current administration; the point is to get through the next election cycle. But with Trump, no one seems to know what’s going on and what will happen next. This is a dangerous time for everyone, no matter what your politics.”

Said an analyst with the Pentagon: “The problem is that the Dems are drooling over the Russian scandal, thinking it is a way to bring Trump down, but that’s a pipe dream, and while they are wasting time on this issue Trump and his guys are tearing up things that will be tough to put back together. Also Russia and China are being almost encouraged to join forces, which will not be good for us in the end. The longer they don’t see that reality, the worse things will get.”

According to these sources, no matter what side you are on, the changes that are being proposed will have long-term impacts on the size of government, the health of our people and the environment, and the status of the United States as a world power.

I listened as these dedicated and hardworking people talked, each dressed nicely, looking healthy and well-fed. Down the block, vendors from all parts of the globe had begun to sell their wares in a makeshift sort of evening farmers market — baskets full of fresh vegetables, tables with various forms of art and trinkets now lined the sidewalk. A group of beautiful young people from all parts of the world stood on the corner and snapped selfies against the glow of the Capitol in the background. A black man who looked to be in his early 70s pulled up to the group, an Uber sticker visible in his car’s window, and they piled in.

As they drove away everyone in the car seemed to be laughing except the driver, who instead had an expression of resignation on his worn face. Or maybe he was just watching the fireflies as they lifted from the nearby park grass, their blinking lights conveying what must is an ancient, repeated, but oft-unheeded message.

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Originally published in the Napa Register July 2017