Photo: Runner on Lincoln Memorial

Mall of America: A jogger faces the sunrise from the Lincoln Memorial.

Photograph by Dan Westergren

By Boyd Matson

From the July/August 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Most people can’t walk to a national park ten blocks from the office, but I’m doing it now. Surprisingly, when I cross the final avenue, busy with six lanes of traffic, and stand beneath the American elms at the edge of over 700 acres of parkland, I’m still inside a major city: Washington, D.C. I’ve come to the National Mall and Memorial Parks for the usual walk-in-the-park reasons: to exercise, savor nature, escape the stress of deadlines, and find a place of solitude for reflection and meditation.

I suspect the average American doesn’t think of the heart of the U.S. capital as a national park and certainly not one with such soothing attributes. Given the contentious political debates that happen in D.C., the city itself seems the antithesis of what a park should be.

As a resident, I regularly drive by the Mall, but I often regard it as a tourist attraction to be visited only with out-of-town guests. Today, however, needing a quick nature fix, I’ve grabbed my camera and headed to the verdant expanse that rightly should be seen as the face of America. 

I expect my walk to take two hours; it takes five. I begin at Constitution Gardens, which honors the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Continuing east, paralleling Constitution Avenue, I pass between the White House to the north and the Washington Monument to the south. Then I turn right toward the National Mall itself in the center of the park. Heading east, straight for the U.S. Capitol building, I look across the grass at our national museums on either side: American History, Natural History, Air and Space, the National Gallery of Art, and Smithsonian Castle (among others), each of which could keep a visitor happily engaged for hours. The museums are part of the park, but today’s hike is about fresh air and the big picture, so I stay outdoors.

By now I’m almost in hearing distance of the partisan insults echoing off the walls of the Capitol. I decide the Capitol Reflecting Pool, where Ulysses S. Grant sits astride his horse, is close enough for my tastes to the political rancor going on inside the famous domed building. Flanking Grant are statues of Civil War soldiers, a reminder of another period in history when Americans lost sight of the big picture and tried to go their separate ways.

Turning around, I walk back west past the Washington Monument to tour the National World War II Memorial and then on to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Next I cut across to the black granite slash in the earth that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I can’t help but ask myself: Don’t we enter all these wars saying, “This will be the last?” If a walk in a park is supposed to make you reflective, then this one more than qualifies. 

At the National Mall, we’ve taken our finest specimens of marble, limestone, and granite and cut, shaped, polished, and stacked them into impressive geometric formations. The Washington Monument, an obelisk, is the tallest masonry structure in the world. Mother Nature has also lent her hand. Almost 90 years of rain dripping through the marble of the Lincoln Memorial, finished in 1922, has formed dozens of small stalactites in the basement. During a special tour, I find a huge room with dirt floor, stone walls, and all those stalactites dangling from the ceiling. I feel as if I’m in a stalactite nursery, where limestone formations are grown until big enough to be shipped off to a real cave.

Back above ground, I climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Inside, I read words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address carved into a wall: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

One of those fathers was Thomas Jefferson. His neoclassic memorial sits on the Tidal Basin southeast of Lincoln. My route there will take me past the Mall’s famous Japanese cherry trees.

But first I check out the site of the new Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial scheduled to open on the anniversary of his “Dream” speech this August 28. The path along the Tidal Basin leads me through the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, dedicated in 1997. More than any other memorial, it looks to me so American, incorporating wide-open spaces, giant granite blocks, waterfalls, and statues of ordinary people. Chiseled into the stonework are the words of a president who carried the country through a depression and a world war, reminding us yet again that we are all in it together: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” 

By the time I reach the Jefferson Memorial, I also reach some conclusions about the park. First, if you want solitude, it’s not happening here. This national park is America’s favorite, drawing some 25 million visitors a year—more than Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone combined. Secondly, if this park is the face of the nation, we need a facelift. The memorials are still magnificent, but the park grounds are looking shabby.

Susan Spain, project executive for the National Mall Plan, agrees to rewalk the Mall with me to point out some of its needs. “Eight, nine, ten, eleven buses parked near the Washington Monument,” she counts. “Imagine kids getting off all of them at the same time and racing to get to a restroom. It’s a disaster.” Why? “There are only 12 permanent toilets or urinals around the monument, then not another restroom facility [besides those inside the museums] on the Mall between the monument and the Capitol.” She talks about widening walkways, planting grass, and installing irrigation systems.

The cost? Spain says current estimates range from $606 million to $648 million, including taking care of deferred maintenance and making needed improvements.

The National Mall reflects our most cherished values with monuments honoring those who fought to preserve them. The memorials mesh with the fabric of activity here, as folks play ball, ride bikes, jog, picnic, gather for national celebrations, and attend rallies. Can we afford to maintain the Mall, this symbol of quintessential America? Perhaps the question should be: Can we afford not to?

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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