Jackson, a Bernese mountain dog, pulled me into the alley, sniffing out something new. For four years, Jackson and I have walked the streets of Capitol Hill on a daily survey of this little corner of the city. Bounded by H Street to the north and I Street to the south and extending as far east as RFK Stadium, the Hill is a mix of green spaces and quiet residential streets.
My dad always said that the best way to get to know a place is to walk it; to discover its secrets and identify its landmarks. And who better to walk it with than curious, energetic canine companions. In groups of three or four, or sometimes even six or seven, we wander the streets, both witness to and participant in the life of a neighborhood.
At first I found the Hill a daunting place, a maze of diagonal avenues and one-way streets. When I started out on Independence Avenue, I wondered how I ended up on South Carolina. I mixed up the 300 block of Northeast with 300 Southeast. Brown's Court, I wondered, where is that?
But soon the grid system sinks in, the avenues fall into place and the one-block streets and triangle parks become familiar. At times, too familiar.
We take a new route, through the alleys that snake through the interior of the blocks. Ah, the lucky ones with the off-street parking and the large back yards, I think. Who would have suspected a row house with the entire back wall made of glass? Who expected a swimming pool behind the fence? Who knew there was a block of houses in the alley? Of course, there are the old mattresses and couches -- discarded but not yet hauled away.
One by one, the dogs stop to mark their territory. "Last one to go wins," I say to Jackson, smiling at their ritual. Invisible backyard dogs snarl and whine at us interlopers as we pass, and the occasional cat sets off a riot of barking.
With a dog's-eye view, the often overlooked details of the city become visible. The horse head sculptures atop the iron gate make us stop and take notice. Friend or foe, the dogs wonder. They didn't know what to make of the large, brightly decorated "Party Animal" donkey that appeared on the corner of East Capitol and Second Street last summer or the smiling stone cat in the yard on Massachusetts Avenue. We must approach cautiously and should be wary at the very least, the dogs decided.
We watch the signs go up. For sale, under contract, sold. In a few weeks, a new dog appears in the front yard. Sometimes it's a new cat, peering at us from the front window and noting our progress down the block. We watch baby carriages multiply and toddlers and their nannies congregate for playtime at Lincoln Park. Vacant lots are transformed into luxury townhouses and condos before our eyes. Dumpsters fill and empty and fill again as contractors descend upon this home or that one, excavating basements, restoring porches, painting, pointing and polishing.
The dogs and I are always on alert. One never knows what will happen.
A large branch from a decades-old tree barely misses us as it falls into the street. Two cars collide on Constitution Avenue just steps from where we are standing. Sometimes I think the 911 operator should know me by name. Tourists approach confidently, knowing that I am not lost like themselves. Where can I find the Air and Space Museum, they ask. This is Independence Avenue, right? Am I anywhere near Maryland?
The state or the avenue, I reply. I can get you to either.
Those with more dubious motives approach us, as well. "That dog bite?" they ask. "Yes," I answer, "I wouldn't come too close if I were you" -- even though I know the sweet dog at the other end of the leash is perfectly harmless.
On evening walks, my companions and I watch as Hill residents return home from the Metro, dry cleaning and briefcases in hand. During winter, we become connoisseurs of home decor as the brightly lit interiors allow us to peek into rooms invisible during the day. We note trends in dining room colors: yellows and blues and, of course, the ubiquitous red. The homes are like little jewel boxes; their timeworn facades belie their sparkling interiors.
Through it all, I keep walking, on Code Red days in summer and over piles of snow in winter, easily covering 15 miles a day. The dogs, the people, the houses and I -- living, changing and growing on Capitol Hill.
Grace Steckler, formerly a high school science teacher, established Saving Grace Dog Walking and Pet Sitting Service in 2000 and has enjoyed walking the Hill ever since.