After 33 years, I made it to the top of the obelisk


The National Park Service hosts a ceremony in July 2013 at the Washington Monument to light the monument, which had been under restoration since a 2011 earthquake. Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post

The drought had gone on long enough. After 33 years, I woke up one day and decided that would be the day I eschewed my disdain for large crowds and braved the one tourist attraction I’d actively avoided my whole life: the Washington Monument.  There’s no real explanation for the motivation, except that after climbing the Old Post Office Tower several times for a column earlier this month (and scaring myself silly, at the same time), it was time to face some fears.

After announcing my decision on Twitter, it became clear that I was not alone. For a good number of D.C. natives and residents, many sides of the tourist life are only seen through employment. I learned that quite a few people like me had never actually been to the monument. Mainly because if you only engage in tourist activities when visitors come to town, and they never ask to see an attraction or two, you probably won’t go on your own. The old Yogi Berra quote comes to mind: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s always too crowded.”

Upon entering the bookstore, I got the first piece of instruction that followed a theme that would become familiar. “Looking for tickets? Go around the back,” the young employee said, pointing lazily over his head without looking like any teenager does when you ask them where another family member is. “The back,” it turns out is nothing other than the desk behind him, that happens to have its own window. And since the bathrooms take up the most space in the building, the whole interior of the structure smells like an indoor pool.

At the monument itself, the process gets hairy. The outdoor seating, which also works as a de facto line system, is the opposite of ergonomic. The wide marble ovals create an unforgivingly hard seat, ranging from about a foot to two feet off the ground. This could not possibly work well for old folks. Good for sunbathing, though.

The first encounter with a National Park Service ranger was innocuous enough, but we quickly realized that this experience was going to be more like an airport visit than anything else. “If you’ve got chewing gum in your mouth right now, you need to get rid of it right now,” he instructed us. “There’s no place indoors for that. Do not smoke ANYTHING inside of the monument.”

After a brief episode of security theater in which the same guy who ripped our tickets ran back to the screening booth to ask us, if, in fact, we had ripped tickets, it was on to the elevator. By this point, I was pretty nervous. After all, part of the reason I’d been avoiding this thing for so long is because I was afraid of the ascent. I also couldn’t shake the memory of 2011′s earthquake. Lastly, the show stopper, elevator outages had been plaguing the monument ever since it reopened. I was trying to keep it cool.

Then, suddenly, it all went away. The ranger in the elevator used a long, drawn out sing-songy voice to describe everything, as if it were a room full of children. It was not. After explaining that the elevator takes just 70 seconds to reach the top, some guy asked “what’s the elevator’s top speed?” “70 seconds,” the ranger repeated. The guy’s wife on the other hand? “Do the math yourself, honey” she quipped.

That’s when it became laughable. “If you have heard or believe that Washington, D.C. is made with a lot of secret signs and symbols, up above, from the four different windows, you will possibly see some of those triangles and pyramids and things,” the ranger continued in her best spoooooky voice. “Others will see just beautiful, beautiful building on all four sides.”

Hold up? Did she just throw in a bunch of faux-Dan Brown history in an actual NPS tour? Is this really what’s happening? At that point, I was afraid of nothing.

Inside the actual top, yes, the views are lovely. And the windows are so small, that seeing down isn’t possible, thus eliminating the fear factor to some extent. A couple of maps show the main government buildings, but that’s it. Honestly, I’m not sure, beyond the breath taking views, what any tourist would get from it. If you live here it has far more meaning. You can look out and see familiar settings from a new perspective. Oddly enough, though everything is so small, the bodies of water seem gigantic. Looking East, RFK Stadium appears beautiful. But if you’ve ever landed at National Airport, you’ve seen this view.

Yeah, there’s a second floor a few hundred feet below with more information and a lovely model of the tentacle crown that is the obelisk’s lighting rod, but that’s about it. No grandly educational experience or anything particularly fun.

Yet.

Then comes the descent. If you are afraid of dark elevators, looking down terrifying building shafts, or just aren’t a fan of being in vehicles that constantly vary in speed, you’re screwed once you get to the top. The ride down is more than 2 minutes long, to allow you to see some of the 194 commemorative stones built into the inside of the monument. That’s where the true depth of the building is evident.

“One given by every state, along with other municipalities,” the ranger explained. “Utah gave 2!” Between stones, the lights in the elevator come up as it speeds down. At them, it slows to a crawl with lights out, allowing everyone to see out. But, the varying speeds of the ride make it feel like if something was wrong, you might not know. You just have to presume that if we were ACTUALLY in freefall, maybe the Ranger would panic. Needless to say, I stared intently at him during his spiel. We made it off safely.

The marvel of the Washington Monument is best recognized from the outside. To me, it’s at its best with lit-up scaffolding on it. The tour leaves a lot to be desired. Not quite fun enough for kids, not quite brainy enough for adults, and nowhere near cool enough for teens. Of course, it’s designed for a global audience, but just a modicum of local flavor might be nice. I went in not expecting much at all and was still underwhelmed.

When he died, Washington was eulogized as “first in war and first in peace.” At his monument, I was first out the door.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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