March 29, 2009

Inauguration Week, Day 3

It’s been so hard for me to find the time to sit and write another post. I’ve already started into the spring student tour season and between that and getting ready to compete with my quartet and chorus in the Sweet Adelines annual regional competition, the days are just flying by! I really want to get a handle on this blog thing, so I’m going to do my best to finish up the parts about the Inauguration before the end of the week. The information already seems so dated, now that President Obama has been in office for more than two months! Wow! Talk about time flying by!

Okay, so I’m up to Day 3 of Inauguration week. It was Monday, the day before the Inauguration, and this was when things started to get interesting and challenging. I have to start by saying that I’ve never really liked big crowds and don’t enjoy being a part of them, but I’ve learned to adapt. You really don’t have a choice if you’re going to be a Tour Guide because the crowds are big around here in the heart of the tour season. So I was a bit apprehensive as we got closer to the actual Inauguration, but knew that I would just have to handle it.

My groups spent the night at their hotel in Baltimore and were picking me up in Virginia on the way to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. It made perfect sense to go there – visit the home of our very first President before the swearing in of our newest one! Besides, most groups that come to Washington include a visit to Mount Vernon because of its historical significant and sheer beauty.

Most trips to MV start with the bus unloading in front of the Visitor’s Center. The groups line up while I go and pick up the tickets that have been reserved for them at the box office. Then we enter the Center, where we give them a few minutes to use the rest rooms and take their pictures with the life-size brass sculptures of General and Mrs. Washington and their grandchildren, Nell and “Washy”. Then we spend some time looking at the model of the MV Mansion while we wait to go into the introductory movie, if time permits. I usually check with the staff at the information desk to find out how long the wait is to get into the mansion and plan our course of action based on that. It’s not unusual to wait 20-30 minutes, or even a little longer for the mansion tour, especially at the height of the season. Afterwards, we walk around the grounds and then head back to the beautiful educational center and museum. The whole thing takes around 2-3 hours, although we’ve done an abbreviated version of the tour when we’re short on time.

That’s what we do on a normal day, when there are only 2,000 or so visitors that day…when we arrive and there are maybe 10-12 busses there already. However, January 19 was not a “normal” day. Before we even arrived at Mount Vernon I had heard that there were reservations for 17,000 people to visit that day, and that was just the organized tour groups that made arrangements ahead of time! That’s almost five times the normal number of visitors for a day. I have to give the staff at MV a lot of credit, though – they were well prepared for the onslaught! Instead of having the busses park along the parkway west of the entrance after dropping their groups, they were sent off to park about five miles away and we were told to call our drivers when we were ready to leave. The movie in the visitors center was running almost constantly in two theaters so they could keep groups going in and out. Our group stopped and watched it, then headed for the mansion. Oh my gosh! The line was the longest I had ever seen it and the estimate was that it would be at least a 90 minute wait to get into the house. Since we only had about two hours left at that point, I suggested to the two group leaders that we bypass the mansion, go see some of the other buildings, go to the back lawn of the mansion and look out over the Potomac River (a great photo opportunity), then head down to the tomb where General and Mrs. Washington are laid to rest. They agreed and we spent about an hour covering those areas. Then we went back for a quick visit of the museum and educational center. There are some great videos in the center, including a theater where it “snows” inside. Of course, the students all wanted to see that, but it was another 30-45 minute wait just for that movie and we didn’t have the time. In fact, the center was so crowded that they were only letting groups into the building as other groups left. It was a mad house!

The plan to call our driver and have him come pick us up almost worked. I called and he came over and got in the line of busses at the pick-up point. Unfortunately, my groups ended up heading for the bus in dribs and drabs as students finished in the gift shop, just so we could relieve some of the crowds. The MV “police” made our driver move after five minutes – no waiting for the whole group. He had to circle around three times before we were all out there, and each time he ended up in a different spot in line.

I guess you kind of had to be there to appreciate the situation. Imagine that you’re walking down a LONG sidewalk that has dozens of huge motor coaches lined up and you’re looking for that ONE coach that belongs to you. Just when you spot it and know it’s only 3-4 busses away, the driver pulls out and drives away because he’s been told to move! Then you don’t know where he’s going, how long he’ll be, if we should go to the spot he just vacated or expect him to show up somewhere else, etc. Thank goodness for cell phones! I don’t know how guides did their jobs before the darn things were invented!

Whew! We got through Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, I would find out later, when one of the groups sent in an evaluation, that they were totally unhappy with our visit to the plantation because they didn’t get to see the mansion. Forget the fact that I explained the circumstances and that they knew the crowds were outrageous and some plans would have to be changed to make it all work. If they had been honest and told me up front that they didn’t care how long they had to wait in line – they wanted to go in to the mansion no matter what – we would have split the groups and left them to wait in line while I took the others around the plantation. No, it doesn’t necessarily work that way. They just acted like everything was honky-dory, and then complained about it in their evaluation a week after the tour! Oh, joy!

Well, I thought the worst was over, at least for that day, but it wasn’t. We had to figure out where to take them for lunch because they were “on their own” for lunch instead of having a reserved meal somewhere. We were heading for the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which had just reopened in December, so I suggested that we let the students get something to eat while they were there. The museum has a lovely (albeit expensive) café, so that’s what we did.

We got to the museum only to discover that all of the rest of the millions of people who were in DC for the inauguration – minus the 17,000 that were at Mount Vernon – had come to the same museum! We had to wait in line outside for about 20 minutes before enough people left that we could enter the museum. It was right about then that I started to feel like I was at Disney World – same kind of crowd control, but with security sweeps, magnetometers and bag checks added in! We spent about 2 hours in the museum although I’m not sure the students got to see a whole lot. I headed for the café for some lunch and relaxation while I had the chance. I saw several of the students doing the same thing. Whatever – they needed some down time after Mount Vernon.

Around 4:00 we gathered and walked down past the Washington Monument. It turns out that one group had reservations to go up in the Monument that afternoon…except that the Washington Monument was closed for three days because of the Inauguration! This was another thing they complained about in their evaluation (yes, it was the same group). So we saw it from the outside, took some photos, and then continued on to the World War II memorial. That is the newest memorial in Washington (dedicated in 2004) and one of my favorites! It’s beautiful and moving and full of symbolism. It was also full of tourists that day! The other sad thing was that since it was January, all of the water in the pools and fountains was removed and turned off so it wouldn’t freeze. It was a shame because the memorial just doesn’t look the same without it!

After WWII, we walked down towards the Lincoln Memorial, part of what we guides refer to as “The Big 3” – the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We usually visit all three at one time because of their close proximity. Under normal touring conditions, the busses drop us by the Korean Memorial (south end, near Independence Avenue) and pick us up an hour later on Constitution Avenue near the Vietnam Wall. It didn’t quite work that way this time. There were still structures up around the Lincoln Memorial from the concert on Sunday, as well as Obama’s salute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that day (it was King’s Holiday on Monday), so we really couldn’t get up to the memorial. In fact, we couldn’t get very close at all because of the security equipment, bleachers, jumbotrons, etc. We didn’t even try to get over to the Korean Memorial because it was almost impossible between the crowds and the obstacles. So I talked to the groups about all of the memorials and then we headed for the Vietnam Memorial. That went pretty well until we got ready to leave. There were a number of busses from the same company as ours lined up along Constitution Avenue and it was hard to tell which one was ours. Needless to say, the students kept telling me ours was to the west and we headed that way….to the wrong bus! We had to back-track and go about two more blocks east until we finally found our wonderful driver, Tom, waiting for us!

At this point, you’d think that things were okay and we had made it through the day without too many problems. Well, that’s only partially true. The groups had coupons for the food court at Union Station, at the other end of the National Mall. The plan was to drive down there (usually about a 10-minute drive), show them how to get in and out of the food court and then I would leave them for the evening. They were heading back to Baltimore after dinner. It didn’t happen as planned, to say the least. We got stuck in the worst case of gridlock that I’ve ever experienced! Traffic was everywhere! Roads were closed! Preparations were already being made for the Inauguration and parade the next day. We absolutely couldn’t move! After we traveled about 3 blocks in almost an hour, Tom got off of Constitution Avenue and tried a more circuitous route to get to Union Station. We got caught in more traffic, but it was a bit easier than where we had been…..until we got to a spot two blocks from Union Station and were blocked off by police. They told us that the station and all of the surrounding streets were now closed until after the Inauguration!

So here it was, almost 8:00 pm, with a group of students who were hungry, tired and grumpy, and a tour guide (ME!) who was about the same. The only difference was that I wasn’t able to show my emotions – I had to remain positive. I also had to figure out how to get them some dinner since they couldn’t use the coupons they had. I called the tour company for suggestions. They explained that the group leaders had cash on them for a meal at the airport on Wednesday, so to find a fast food restaurant and have them use that cash for dinner and the company would replace it.

Tom started heading out of town towards Baltimore – it was the only way we could go at that point because of the traffic and road closures. He turned east onto New York Avenue and our luck finally changed – there was a McDonald’s one block ahead of us! Hallelujah! He pulled the bus up and we unloaded the groups and let them go in to get dinner and bring it back on the bus. While they did that, I had to figure out where we were and if there was a Metro station nearby where Tom could drop me off and I could head home. Otherwise, I’d end up in Baltimore with the groups, which certainly wasn’t part of the plan! I pulled out my trusty fold-up DC map, only to find that we were just past the edge of the area it covered! Rats! (Well, that’s not really what I said!) After a little bit of thought I decided to call my “research assistant” – my son, who was at home on his computer. I gave him the name of the closest intersection; he punched it into Google Maps and told me we were exactly two blocks from the Metro station at Gallaudet University! Thank goodness for his expertise and for the Internet! After everyone was back on the bus, we drove over to the Metro and I waved goodbye as they headed off to Baltimore.

It was 10:00 pm by the time I finally got home. I was exhausted, hungry, beat and still had to prepare for the big day – Inauguration was tomorrow! I took a long, hot shower, heated up a can of soup, packed up all my things for Tuesday and laid out my clothes. I had to be downtown at 5:30 am, and with the predictions of the crowds, that meant leaving my home at 3:30! So I snuggled up on the sofa in the living room with my alarm clock nearby and slept for about three hours. Then it was up and out to be a part of one of the most exciting days in our country’s modern history.

Well, you’ll just have to wait until I write again to hear about our adventures on Inauguration Day. I promise you won’t have to wait too long!

1 comment:

  1. heart...excellent post! I am amazed that you found the time, but so thankful you did!
    I'm looking forward to your next post!