“I,Too”: Celebrating Black History Month

I promised back in January to publish a link to a project I have poured much love and devotion into- an experiential learning guide I created that focuses on African American literature and local places of interest that students (or anyone!) can explore with their families. The goal of this project as it relates to my personal field (education) is to foster the school-family-community nexxus that supports learning outcomes for students. The goal as it relates to this blog- to guide you toward some excellent resources for Black History in the DC area in conjunction with a month in which we celebrate this important contribution to our national identity.

I’m an English teacher, and I have a theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love the most. Mine happens to be African American literature, a particularly vibrant yet often overlooked subset of American literature. African American literature provides valuable contribution to what it means to “be American,” and it’s often underutilized in school curriculums. My goal for this project, and in posting it here, is to introduce readers to some of my favorite African American writers and try to bring their voices to life. In the still-relevant words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, am America.”

If you’re interested in exploring this area of literature a bit more, here is the link to the Google slides version of my project: “”I,Too”: Bringing to Life the Voices of African American Writers.” I very much would have liked to include many, many more writers from many, many more eras, but at some point the project became unwieldy and needed to be capped. I have included some of my absolute favorites, including Frederick Douglass (who, contrary to our president’s comments, is NOT alive and has been getting attention for… over 100 years already), Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and my absolute favorite favorite favorite, Zora Neale Hurston. I hope you find something useful in this guide and that it in some small way serves its purpose of honoring these incredible voices.

 

Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

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From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.

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Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

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The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.

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The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.

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note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.

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In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

Dinosaur Land

Where: 3848 Stonewall Jackson Hwy, White Post, VA
When: Open daily 9:30 am- 6 pm until Labor Day, after Labor Day hours are 9:30 am-5 pm. Admission for kids 2-11 is $5, kids 11+ and adults are $6. (Credit cards are accepted)

When browsing the Internet, there are lists I am never, ever going to click on. “25 Things No Woman Over 30 Should Wear.” Nope, not clicking, don’t care. “15 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Convenience Products.” They’re convenient for a reason, I’m not making them myself. But “10 Wonderfully Weird Day Trips Around Washington”– I’m all over it. I saw this list yesterday, clicked on it, and within 2 minutes of reading had our daily activity planned: Dinosaur Land. I texted a friend to see if she and her kids wanted to join and we were off.

If your kids are in or ever went through a dinosaur stage, you need to come to Dinosaur Land. If you were born at any point in the 1980s and grew up with The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park, you need to come to Dinosaur Land. If you delight in the sort of kitschy Americana that old roadside attractions provide, you need to come to Dinosaur Land.

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Dinosaur Land was built in 1963 and I am 100% positive that the Dinosaur Land we see today is identical in every way to the Dinosaur Land visitors saw in 1963. There is no way anything has ever been changed or updated. It is literally as if you are stepping back in time (in more ways than one). There was probably a time when Dinosaur Land was considered a MAJOR attraction that visitors from far and wide (in Virginia anyway) would come and see. I can just imagine back in the 1960s some family in like, Staunton, making an entire summer vacation trip around Dinosaur Land.

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Although Dinosaur Land was originally constructed in an empty field, time and nature have worked together to fill in the space with trees, so that now our dinosaur friends exist in a wonderfully shady “primordial forest” (just go with it).

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The statues are rather crudely built and have probably not been painted since the 1960s which lends them a wonderful vintage feel, kind of like if a Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas movie came to life.

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Many of your standard well-known dinosaur favorites are here, like Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus, and the dinosaur that gave everyone nightmares in 1993, the raptor:

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Yeah. Never forget, that thing can open kitchen doors.

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Tucked away in the back corner of the park is a nook composed of various dinosaurs engaged in vicious battle.

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I believe the look on that pterodactyl’s face says it all. (My toddler is sitting on my lap as I write this and when this picture loaded she said, “That’s not good.” No, I would say getting snatched out of the air and torn to shreds is decidedly “not good.”)

Amongst the melee, Littlefoot’s mom is gracefully plucking tree stars:

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Unfortunately, just a few feet away, she is also getting nailed by Sharptooth:

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The creative use of fake blood really brings the scene to life, you have to admit.

If the cruel realities of the food chain are a bit too much for your young kids, don’t worry, there are plenty of friendlier dinosaurs in the park, some of which may or may not have even existed and might be totally made up by the creator of the park:

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Visitors are asked not to climb on the statues, but there are two exceptions: a giant prehistoric shark whose belly you are allowed to enter so that you pop out in his mouth:

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And a King Kong whose open hand you are allowed to climb upon and act out your best Fay Wray impersonation:

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When you’ve made a couple rounds of the park and had your fill, you exit through the gift shop which- I really can’t overstate this- is a gift shop of the finest magnitude. The sheer amount of unnecessary stuff inside this shop make it exactly what every gift shop should ever aspire to be. It actually existed first and Dinosaur Land was built to accompany it. Previously known as “Rebel Korn’r” it has since been stripped of this name for obvious reasons, but it still bears the most extensive collection of Confederate Civil War coffee mugs I have ever seen:

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It’s never too early to start Christmas shopping!

Dinosaur Land is a wonderful little excursion through a time when entertainment was simpler and more innocent. No CGI or animatronics or sound effects- just plain old dinosaur statues standing among trees. If you’re out in Berryville in the fall for Wayside Farm Fun, or on your way out to Winchester, a 15 minute detour to Dinosaur Land would be well worth the diversion.

Food is not allowed inside the park, so we stopped at Rose Hill Park in the town of Berryville on our way back out to Rt. 7 to eat lunch under the gazebo and play on the playground for a bit.

High Rock

Where: Pen Mar High Rock Rd., Cascade, MD (For GPS purposes, try plugging in 14600 Pen Mar High Rock Rd. This is Pen Mar Park and High Rock is NOT in Pen Mar Park, but this gets you on the right road and you simply continue up past Pen Mar Park until you come to High Rock)
When: Well, it’s rocks so it’s there whenever.

I need to begin this post by telling you that High Rock is incredible but I demand to know who was in charge of naming it. Could you really do no better? It is a rock outcropping, and it’s quite high, but surely there was some other quality, some spirit of imagination that could have been looped in to the name instead of just… High Rock?

Look at this high rock.
Yeah, wow. What should we call it? Devil’s Peak? Widow’s Nest? God’s Pillow? Stairway to Heaven?
Let’s call it High Rock.
Ok!

I have, strangely enough, the Vans Warped Tour to thank for introducing me to High Rock. In the strange way that Instagram algorithms work, a picture of some members of some band on the Vans Warped Tour doing community service on High Rock got propagated into my feed. What I noticed first was the great graffiti covering the rock they were standing on. Then I read the caption which said something like, “Vans Warped Tour doing community service cleaning graffiti off High Rock today” and I thought WHAT NO, YOU CAN’T CLEAN OFF THE GRAFFITI, THE GRAFFITI IS GREAT! It’s not often that graffiti enhances a natural landscape but from time to time, something just clicks and I have to say, in the case of High Rock, the graffiti somehow just makes the whole thing better. Don’t hate me, nature purists, I’m kind of a magpie and colorful things appeal to me.

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High Rock lies on South Mountain in Northern Maryland (hee!) right along the Mason Dixon Line. It’s situated on the Appalachian Trail and is a popular lookout spot and hang gliding platform. People also somewhat frequently fall off and tumble to their death. Not trying to scare you or anything, just think you ought to be warned! This really is a rock you want to be respectful of. There’s no fencing or railing surrounding the rock, and the dropoff isn’t one of those fake-out ones where it looks like a sharp drop with dirt 2 feet below. It’s, you know, A DROP. So if you take kids, just keep a close eye on them. Especially with the wet weather we had, the combined effect of rain on spray paint is a quite slippery walking surface. Be safe, my dudes.

Despite the hard work of the Vans Warped Tour, High Rock, I’m pleased to say, is still covered in all manner of graffiti. We got up early on a Saturday morning and headed out since it was a good 60 mile drive from our house, and when we got there I was happy to see that the Vans Warped Tour had not eradicated all the graffiti I had been hoping to see. Rainshowers were moving in and out of the area quickly, and shortly after we arrived, a cloud moved over us and obstructed the view of everything beyond High Rock, lending it a surreal quality wherein you could not quite tell where the end of the rock was and the dropoff began or just how high up you were (1800 feet up, FYI). We were all alone up there and it felt like we really just perched up in the clouds.

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The rain did begin driving a bit more steadily so we retreated to the car and waited a bit and eventually when the rain dissipated we made our way back up to the rock and were rewarded with a brief but stunning view of what lies beyond High Rock when it isn’t obscured by clouds:

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As the sun broke weakly through the clouds, a few more cars pulled up and several of us stood and watched the valley below us open up for just long enough to get a view before the clouds started rolling back in.

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Even this little friend enjoyed the rock (and is a good reminder to please leash any pets you bring along):

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High Rock is accessible via hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but it’s also ridiculously easy to access by car. As in, you just drive up Pen Mar High Rock Rd until you see the small pull-out lot on your right with the rocks right next to it. Definitely wear workout gear and good shoes so that everyone who sees pictures thinks you hiked up a really tall mountain to get there, but your secret is safe with me. I found a hiking log of the trek up to High Rock and it mentions lots of switchbacks and a steep climb so just say that and nobody will ever know.

The best part of the trip to High Rock for me was when I posted pictures of it to Facebook and my dad posted a picture of himself there… in 1982. The rock was pure and free of graffiti and my dad was in stonewashed jeans, a crop top, and had bangs and a mullet. Time moves on, my dad definitely does not wear crop tops now, and the youth have covered the rock in paint, but through a fun wormhole in time known as the Internet, my dad at 19 and I at 31 were in the same place.

 

High Rock made me happy. My kids loved it, my husband loved it, the view were stunning, and even in the rain it was well worth the trip. I can only imagine it’s even better in the fall with all the foliage down below, so we’ll be making a return trek back then. Add this one to your hiking list for sure, definitely at least before the next Vans Warped Tour comes through and tries to de-graffiti it.

Junior Ranger Program at Wolf Trap

Where: 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am-dusk, admission is free

As the parent of an early-elementary kid (she’s a rising first grader), somewhere in between pool trips and ice cream cones and hanging out with friends, it occasionally occurs to me that we should do something to prevent summer slide. During summer, she is required to keep a journal and for every 7 journal entries, she earns a small prize. This is great, but now that she’s nearly 7, I have been casting around for other ways to keep her reading and writing skills up during summer break. I decided we would dip a toe into the waters of the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, which is a wonderful program designed to help kids enjoy National Parks, dig a bit deeper into the history and background of parks they visit, and make education fun and rewarding. We already have a National Parks passport which we get stamped at each park visit, but the Junior Ranger program is another way to enjoy parks with kids.

For our first Junior Ranger outing we settled on Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna. Locally known and loved as a venue for amazing concerts and Children’s Theatre in the Woods program, Wolf Trap is also a National Park, the only one in the country devoted to the performing arts. Although most people probably associate Wolf Trap with the Filene Center, the park is full of walking trails – the Wolf Trap trail, which is a 2.5 mile hike around the perimeter of the park, and the kid-friendly Wolf Trap TRACK trail, which is a 1.5 mile loop paired with a variety of activity booklets created by the Kids in Parks initiative, which works to get kids and parents outdoors and enjoying state and national parks together. By creating an account for your kids at Kids in Parks, you can track various hikes and activities using an online “journal” and access different activity pamphlets for a variety of parks.

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Once you’ve parked and entered Wolf Trap, a short walk down to the Ranger Stand will get you all squared away. Simply find the park ranger, ask for an activity book, and get started! The Junior Ranger program is designed to appeal to kids roughly between the ages of 5 and 12, and the booklet we got was double-sided, with easier activities for the early-elementary set and harder ones for the late-elementary set. For my kids, the early-elementary side of the booklet was perfect, with short questions that could be answered by reading park information plaques (“Are there still wolves at Wolf Trap?”) and a scavenger hunt which encouraged a long walk through the woods in the hopes that they would find everything on the list (18 out out of 25, not too shabby).

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Once we’d finished our activity booklet we returned to the ranger station where the park ranger checked to make sure everything had been completed, then signed saying the girls were “honorary park rangers.” Each park has its own Junior Ranger badge, but at Wolf Trap, kids who complete the Junior Ranger booklet have the option of choosing between the standard badge and a patch. My oldest daughter, who is also a Girl Scout Daisy, chose the patch to go along with all the other patches she’s earned that are in a Ziploc baggie because I haven’t managed to attach them to her Daisy smock yet, whoops.

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Currently, over 200 National Parks around the country have a Junior Ranger program. For many of the parks, the booklets are available online and can be completed and mailed in for a badge or picked up and turned in at that park’s ranger station. The Kids in Parks program runs in both National Parks and several state parks, but the Junior Ranger program itself is only available in National Parks. Fueled by the satisfaction of success, my kids are now eager and excited to do more Junior Ranger booklets, so we’ll be squeezing in quite a few more during the last month of summer (we are lucky to be within driving distance of many Virginia, Maryland, DC, and even Pennsylvania parks). For kids around age 5, the booklet should be doable with some help from mom or dad, and older kids will be able to complete most or all of the activities on their own. I would say many kids who are rising kindergartners would be capable of doing the activities in the booklet with help, and the challenge is well worth the fun and reward that comes with completing a booklet and earning the badge.

Fresh Water Play in Northern VA

Somehow it’s July 12th and I haven’t written a post about anything we’ve done this summer yet. Whoopsie doops! My apologies.

My family recently spent a week at Carolina Beach, North Carolina for family vacation and the proximity to water only awakened in us some latent desire to be near water as much as possible. Given our landlocked position here in Northern Virginia, the beach isn’t a daily possibility but luckily, we’ve got plenty of opportunities for fresh water play nearby and for whatever reason, that is mostly what my kids and I have been most interesting in doing lately. I decided to compile a post about some of our favorite local stops to get back to the water.

Goose Creek/Kephart Bridge Landing
42942 Riverpoint Dr., Leesburg, VA

Goose Creek snakes lazily through many parts of Loudoun County and for all the times I’ve driven by it or over it, it only just this summer occurred to me that we could actually find a place to get down in it. Our favorite access point is Kepheart Bridge Landing in the Lansdowne neighborhood which has a nice parking lot and a walking path that leads right down to a small creek-beach. Kayakers and canoers frequently launch from that spot and on any given trip out to the creek you can watch them out in the water, sometimes navigating the (very small) rapids that lie just upstream from the landing.

Revealing how easy it is sometimes to entertain kids when you just let them entertain themselves, my kids’ favorite thing to do at the creek is throw rocks in the water. That’s it. For as long as I’ll let them, they just select rocks and throw them, then maybe remark to one another how big the splash was. It’s the essence of simple summertime fun.

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The water in this section of Goose Creek is shallow and placid and perfect for wading and swimming if you’re interested in getting in the water. Just for reference, I am 5’1 and would say the water in the middle of the creek at its deepest is about hip height on me. Just wear water shoes!

As a fun bonus, there’s a bunny tree near Kephart Bridge Landing:

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Watermelon Park, Berryville
3322 Lockes Mill Rd., Berryville, VA

A bit further west in Clarke County lies Watermelon Park, a former watermelon farm turned campground and tubing spot. It sits just along the bank of the Shenandoah River and is a perfect spot for packing a picnic lunch and spending a few hours playing and exploring. Admission to the grounds is $10 per adult but kids 6 and under are free. We picnicked, threw rocks in the water, played on the on-site playground, and enjoyed a summer afternoon in the Shenandoah.

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River Farm, Alexandria
7931 E. Boulevard Dr., Alexandria, VA

We spent a lovely morning at River Farm, the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society and formerly George Washington’s northernmost of his five farms. It lies along the banks of the Potomac and the manor house on the grounds provide stunning views of the river:

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Just up the road from River Farm is Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve which has trails that wind three-quarters of a mile through marsh and tidal wetland. We spent so much time at River Farm that we did not have time to do Dyke Marsh the same day so have saved it for another trip out to Alexandria.

Lake Anne, Reston, VA

We love Lake Anne, a planned community surrounding a lake in Reston. Walking paths around the lake provide different views and there’s several waterside restaurants and fountains and a used book shop. We love to come look around and find tadpoles in the canals:

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A stop on the Van Gogh Bridge is always a must:

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And finally, although it isn’t in Northern Virginia, it’s only a short distance away- Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont, Maryand. We went here one Sunday morning and hiked out to the waterfall and got IN the waterfall! This was very fun and confidence-building for my kids who had to trust their own sure-footedness on the slippery rocks. The novelty of standing in the pool of  waterfall was very fun for them and it was a trip we really enjoyed as a family. My oldest even crossed a fallen log across the water with my husband!

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Venture forth! Commune with the water! Also if you’re playing PokemonGo I have a feeling these areas are probably full of really great Pokemon (LOL).

 

The Ultimate Guide to Virginia Summer, 2016

How amazing was that Memorial Day weekend!? If that didn’t get you pumped for summer, nothing will. In fact, getting through the school routine for the next 15 days is going to be a battle royale because as far as my mind is concerned, it’s summer right now. It’s hot, the pools are open, fresh corn is back in the grocery store- this is happening. We have achieved summer.

I first started this blog last summer and really, summer is when this blog thrives, because it’s the time of year when we have the most time to devote to doing fun things. Like most of you, the school year has its way with us, and school, activities, and general life responsibilities get in the way of doing what we want all day long. Summer is when we take back our time! I refuse to sign my kids up for any scheduled activities and aside from a stray week of half-day camp or a planned vacation, we wake up in the mornings, check with friends or take a look at our summer to-do list, and make our plan for the day that way. I just think this is the way summer should be. There’s something so invigorating about this freedom- maybe it’s because I was born right after the summer solstice and am the most Cancerian of Cancers to ever live, but I come alive in summer. It can’t be true but sometimes I think every good and wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me happened in summer.

To get ready for Summer 2016, I’ve started a running list in my Notes app (it’s called SUMMER, because I’m such a writer) to keep track of things that I have seen or heard of and want to do. I did this last summer as well; some of the things on the Summer 2015 list didn’t get crossed off so I’ve just punted them to the Summer 2016 list. We’ve lived here five years this summer and there are still things right around us that we have yet to get to- how great is that? You can’t find a better place to do summer than Northern Virginia/DC/Maryland.

If you, too, are looking for some summer ideas, I am here to help. The following list is Your Ultimate Guide to Summer in Northern Virginia (and surrounding environs), and included are things we’ve done and enjoyed and planned to do again, and a bunch of new things we’ve yet to try but hope to get to this summer. Join us in ushering in the greatest 3 months of any calendar year: bright, happy, ephemeral SUMMER. We’re all beautiful here.


History

Visit Mount Vernon– we did this years ago when we first moved here, but now that my oldest is moving on to first grade and has learned about presidents, I think this bears a repeat visit. The home of George Washington is situated right on the banks of the Potomac and one of the finest examples of presidential homes here in Virginia.

Boundary Stones tour (FREE)– When Congress gave Washington permission to select a 100 square mile area to serve as the national capital, the spot he chose, what is now Washington, D.C., was marked off with stones at one-mile intervals. Many of these original boundary stones, placed in the 1700s, still exist around DC, and we plan to get out and scout a few of them.

Frederick Douglass house (FREE)– I’m taking a course in African-American literature this summer, the conclusion of which is going to dovetail nicely with the September opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In the spirit of this course of study, I’ll be seeking out local points of African-American history this summer- including the home of Frederick Douglass in Anacostia.

Harpers Ferry, WV– visit this historical town for stunning views of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers (Jefferson declared the view worth a voyage across the Atlantic to see) and to visit the site of John Brown’s Raid, one of the precipitating events leading to the Civil War.

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Morven Park, Leesburg (FREE unless you do a home tour)- The magnificent home of former Virginia governer Westmoreland Davis. The home is now open for tours- in addition to the home itself, there’s a Carriage Museum and two presidentially-pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys, named Mac and Cheese and Caramel.

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Oatlands Plantation, Leesburg- This plantation home once housed 133 slaves, the largest slave population in Loudoun County. Today the home still stands and is available for tours; the gardens are a visual treat worth exploring even if you aren’t interested in a house tour. Afternoon tea is offered on a monthly basis as well as various special events such as yoga and summer camps.

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Gunston Hall, home of George Mason. June 11th is George Mason day and admission will be free!

Woodlawn-Pope- Leighey– a double-hitter! Woodlawn is the home that Washington gave to his wife, Martha’s, grand-daughter Nelly and Pope-Leighey, located right next door, is a home designed by architectural legend Frank Lloyd-Wright.

Manassas National Battlefield (FREE)– the site where Stonewall Jackson got his enduring nickname. Bring your National Parks Passport and get four stamps in the gift shop.

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Colvin Run Mill Park, Fairfax (FREE)– A gristmill with working waterwheel is open to visitors- visit the Miller’s house and the General Store which served those who came to the mill as grocery store, post office, and general watercooler gossip trading post.

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Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, Sterling- This fun little hands-on museum tells the story of Loudoun County and showcases its rural beginnings. Hard to believe now that there’s eight thousand restaurants and a Top Golf, but Loudoun County once (and in some parts, still) was a land of farms and agriculture. Stop in on a rainy day to let the kids play in the general store and the pretend farm.

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U-Pick

Currently in season: STRAWBERRIES. Wegmeyer Farms operates two locations in Northern Virginia- their main farm in Hamilton and a patch at Oatlands Plantation. We went the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and picked a couple pounds of the most juicy, red, gloriously sweet strawberries you’ve ever tasted. No white-centered mutantly huge Driscoll’s berries here. We enjoyed ours with a whipped ricotta drizzled with honey and sprinkled with some sea salt- heaven on a plate.

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Blueberry picking at Eagletree Farm– The very brief blueberry season begins sometime in June and can end as early as the first week of July, so keep your eyes peeled for when blueberries are ripe for picking at the farm.

Peaches and more at Great Country Farms– my deep and abiding love for Great Country Farms is well-documented, and high up on the list of reasons why GCF is the best place ever is their U-pick setup. A wagon picks you up at the store and drives you across the street to the fields where you pick to your heart’s content. The peaches are especially wonderful in mid-late summer (you should plan to attend their Peach Fuzztival and enjoy peach pancakes at the Roosteraunt) and in June we’ll get a brief window of time to harvest black raspberries. Come to play and pick.

Flowers at Fields of Flowers, Purcellville, Burnside Farms, Haymarket, and Ridgefield Farms in Harpers Ferry, WV– is anything more satisfying than wandering a field of flowers and carefully selecting only the most beautiful specimens that catch your eye to bring home with you? There’s something so incredibly pleasing about roaming a field full of flowers and walking away with a beautiful bouquet.

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Lavender at Seven Oaks Lavender Farm, Catlett, VA- Starting June 3rd, Seven Oaks will be open to visitor who are welcome to come pick fresh lavender at this Virginia farm.

Paw-Paws at Mackintosh Farm, Berryville– technically this will not be a “summer” activity since paw-paws aren’t in season until late September or so, but you don’t want to miss this special fruit, which was beloved by George Washington for its sweet, custardy flavor. Reminiscent of banana, mango, and coconut, it’s a rare and delicious treat.

You won’t be doing the picking yourself since Rachel Roberts takes care of that, but if you stop by her house on Edwards Ferry Road in Leesburg this summer, you can purchase freshly picked and trimmed flowers from her garden. All money collected goes to the Loudoun Interfaith Relief food pantry, where Rachel has volunteered for years, and last summer she was able to donate a whopping $11,648 to LIR thanks all to the flowers in her garden. My children and I stop by “the flower lady’s house” several times each summer to purchase some of her beautiful arrangements.

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Water Fun

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Many neighborhoods have their own HOA pool(s), but if you’re looking for something new to try, there’s tons of places nearby.

NVRPA is one of the best things about where we live- so many parks and attractions and they just do everything so well. Their water parks are awesome- our favorite is Volcano Island inside Algonkian Park but this summer, now that my youngest is 2.5, we’ll be visiting others as well, like Atlantis inside of Bull Run park.

Franklin Park Pool in Purcellville- this mini-waterpark and pool combo was a big hit with our kids last summer and we’ll back again this year. Small waterslides, dump buckets, and ride-on toys make this pool perfect for breaking up the neighborhood pool trip and making swimming a little more special.

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A.V. Symington Aquatic Center, Leesburg- located in Ida Lee Park,the outdoor water park at Symington Aquatic Center is HUGELY popular on hot summer days. Get there early; we never made it there before it reached capacity last summer and will have to try again this year!

Splash Fountains at Village at Leesburg and One Loudoun and Our Special Harbor in Franconia

Explore Nature

Brookside Gardens, Wheaton, MD and Meadowlark Gardens, Vienna– two botanical gardens that are full of lush summer flora. Pick whichever is closest to you (or both!)- they’re both great. Brookside Gardens is currently hosting its Wings of Fancy butterfly exhibit which is well worth the visit. Meadlowark Gardens holds a Summer Solstice Picnic event on June 21- on this one day each year, families are allowed to bring picnics into the park and enjoy the longest day of the year by watching sunset in the Korean Bell garden.

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Cunningham Falls, Thurmont, MD-  We’ve seen the signs for Cunningham Falls countless times, and this summer, I’m making a point to go.

Bears Den Overlook, Bluemont, VA (FREE)– One of my favorite hikes to take with my kids and visiting friends. The views are stunning and there’s nothing quite so pleasant as sitting on the rocks, eating a snack, and looking down at the beautiful Shenandoah Valley below. Just down the road in the town of Bluemont you can grab snacks and sandwiches at Bluemont General Store, a glass of wine at Bluemont Vineyards, or a beer and soft pretzels at Dirt Farm Brewing.

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Theodore Roosevelt Island, DC (FREE)– Walk the trails of Roosevelt Island, the “living memorial” to president Teddy Roosevelt.

Potomac Overlook Regional Park, Arlington (FREE)– This little park is crammed full of fun stuff to do- a Planet Walk, playgrounds, a growing garden, a birds of prey exhibit, and an absorbing little nature center. This one was one of my kids’ favorite places to visit last year and we’ll back again this summer when we can walk the nature trails. Grab lunch at the famous Italian Store and make it a picnic.

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Rust Nature Sanctuary, Leesburg (FREE) – Visit Rust Manor House and walk over 68 miles of nature trails at this preserve in Leesburg.

Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria (FREE)– Nearly 200 species of animals can be viewed from the wetlands boardwalk and observation deck.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, DC (FREE)– Tucked into the Kenilworth neighborhood in NE DC is Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a living garden of blooming lotus, lily pads, water plates, and other water-dwelling plants. A boardwalk extends into the Anacostia river so that visitors can take a walk through wetlands and see the various animals that live in this environment.

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Great Falls Park, McLean, VA- Great Falls is a favorite destination for many families in the area. You can also see the falls on the Maryland side of the river (and walk the Billy Goat Trail) but as Virginians, we are partial to the Virginia side of things. Show up early to avoid long lines from Leesburg Pike up to the entrance!

Lake Anne, Reston, VA (FREE)– Lake Anne is a community surrounding a lake, and it so fun to visit and walk around. You can rent paddle boats and kayaks to piddle around the lake, stop into the Used Book Store, grab a drink at Lake Anne Brew House, and walk around the Lake Anne trail to see the Van Gogh Bridge, a bridge inspired by Van Gogh’s painting of the Langlois Bridge at Arles, France:

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On June 11th and 12th Lake Anne will be hosting their 3rd Annual Chalk on the Water festival where artists purchase plots of sidewalk space to decorate with chalk and paint.

Rock Creek Planetarium, Rock Creek Park, DC (FREE)– On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Rock Creek Planetarium puts on the night sky.

Walk the WOD! (FREE) The Washington & Old Dominion Trail is a 45 mile long walking and biking trail that follows the old W&OD railroad line. The trail stops in many towns in Northern Virginia, including Ashburn, where the trail runs right beside Carolina Brothers BBQ. We like to stop sometimes and grab an ice cream and a cold drink on our walk.

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Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens, Washington DC- Check to see what’s in bloom and plan a visit to this mansion to tours its manicured gardens.

My friend, Kate, let me know about River Farm in Alexandria (FREE), which is the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society and is open to visitors M-F, 9-5. The farm includes gardens, gates formerly used at the White House, an orchard, a children’s garden, and a small wildlife pond. This one is going right to the top of our Must Do list for the first week school is out!

Find public art in your area! Alexis at Capitol Momma has written a great guide to 7 murals scattered around DC, and Leesburg Public Arts commission is working hard to bring public art to Leesburg- the Thomas Balch library displays a mural that tells the story of Loudoun County, and off Rt. 15 in Purcellville is the Western Loudoun palm.

Visit the Barbie Pond on Avenue Q. In Logan Circle, Barbie and her pals are always up to something. Stop in and see what wacky adventures they get into all summer long.

At Workhouse Art Center in Lorton (FREE), exhibitions from local artists are on display in this former prison. One that I am particularly interested in is the Prison (Re)Form display, beginning June 11th, which will use sculpture to reflect on the history of the prison. Workhouse Prison was opened in the early 1900s as a prison that sought to reform suffragists and petty criminals through labor.

Complete a Junior Ranger booklet at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, VA. June is Get Outdoors month (!!) and this park that’s about an hour’s drive from DC and NoVa is a great place to hit the trails and explore.

Play!

Clemyjontri Park, McLean (FREE)– an all-inclusive playground that caters to children of all abilities, Clemyjontri is a wonderland of a playground. Come early because there’s no shade in the afternoon! Bring a lunch and money for a ride on the carousel.

Wizard of Oz Playground (Watkins Regional Park), Upper Marlboro, MD (FREE)– this whimsical Wizard of Oz themed playground was one of the things we never got to last summer and we won’t be making that mistake this year. Follow the yellow brick road and make your way to the Emerald City at this imaginative play area.

Grange Playground, Great Falls, VA (FREE)– my kids love this sweet little playground tucked into the woods at Great Falls. We love to stop and play for awhile and then grab ice cream across the street at Great Falls Creamery in the Village.

Tubing the Shenandoah at Watermelon Park, Berryville, VA- Rent a tube and a cooler for $10.50 and float down the Shenandoah for 2-3 hours. (Please note, this is an ADULT version of “play” as all tube riders must be 18 or older.)

Glen Echo Park, Glen Echo, MD (FREE)– A hands-on aquarium complete with outdoor sand pit and pirate ship, playground area, and a summer calendar chock-full of special events and activities make this the perfect place to visit this summer. We went in the winter and it was still charming and perfectly nostalgic. The Dentzel carousel will be open for rides as well- this is a must for old-fashioned summer fun. Don’t miss the Clara Barton House, right across the parking lot!

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Cabin John Park, Rockville, MD- Cabin John is well-known and loved for it miniature train that kids can take a ride around the park on.

Palisades Playground, Washington, DC (FREE)– We love Palisdes Playground, which is located in NW DC at Palisades Rec Center. An imaginative and interesting playground, it also has a small splash pad and right around the corner hidden in the woods is the Glass Forest– an ethereal, slightly-spooky but very cool art installation you must check out.

Leesburg Animal Park is a favorite of ours, a small, well-kept zoo with a wide variety of animals, play areas for the kids, and indoor activity spaces. I mean, there is an island full of lemurs. It’s called Lemur Island. And it’s awesome. Leesburg Animal Park frequently offers deals through Certifikid so keep your eyes peeled. As a bonus, there are two wineries within 3 or so miles of the park- Willowcroft Farm Vineyards and Stone Tower Winery. Just saying.

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Ride the Capital Wheel down at National Harbor, MD. My oldest daughter loves Ferris Wheels, so two summers ago we took her for a spin on the 180 foot Capital Wheel overlooking the harbor- she loved it! As a bonus, this summer marks the arrival of Savannah’s Candy Kitchen at National Harbor and as a native Georgia girl who feasts on their pralines whenever return home for a visit, I feel it’s my duty to inform you you need to go there and get a praline. I’m not saying it will for sure change your life, but if it’s warm and fresh, it might.

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Roam if You Want To:

My family loves a good day/weekend trip. We’ve got quite a few on our list this year:

Solomons, Maryland– We’re planning to make the 100 mile or so trip to Solomons one day this summer and visit Calvert Cliffs to hunt for shark teeth, AnnMarie Sculpture Gardens to play in the Fairy Lolly, and Calvert Marine Museum.

Richmond, Virginia– The wonderful Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is hosting Nature Connects: Art with Lego Bricks this summer, with life-sized Lego sculptures set up throughout the gardens. Richmond is FULL of family-friendly sites and activities, such as Science Museum of Virginia, Children’s Museum of Richmond, Maymont, Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Canal Walk, Flying Squirrels Baseball at the Diamond, and Belle Isle at James River.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania– One of our most favorite places we’ve visited, Pittsburgh was a highlight of our summer last year. We didn’t come close to seeing all that Pittsburgh has to offer so we’re planning a return trip this summer. The Paris of Appalachia makes the perfect weekend getaway from NoVa.

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Charlottesville, Virginia– just about two hours away from Northern Virginia, Charlottesville is a gorgeous little town you’ll love visiting. We’ve gone several times and always have it in our back pocket as a quick getaway option.

Lexington, Virginia– our most recent weekend trip was to Lexington, my current favorite Virginia small town. Visit the Natural Bridge, Foamhenge, Washington and Lee University, Lee Chapel, Stonewall Jackson’s house, and indulge in southern small town splendor.

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Good old small town USA: Virginia is full of small towns I want to pop into and explore this summer- Culpeper, Front Royal, Winchester, Clifton, Occoquan– sometimes wandering around a new little town is the perfect way to spend a day.

Annapolis makes for a great day trip- we’re planning to head over on a weekend day and visit the Annapolis Maritime Museum, the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, and Thomas Point Lighthouse. You can’t go to Annapolis without getting seafood and Cantler’s is an Annapolis landmark. Walking around the harbor in historic downtown Annapolis and up to the Maryland State House is a fun, cheap way to visit Annapolis. You can grab fudge at Kilwin’s and visit the Alex Haley Memorial Statue and tour the US Naval Academy all in that area.

Summer treats:

In summer, and only in summer, I love to eat ice cream. We’ve got quite the collection of places around here to grab a sweet treat when you’re out and about:

Clayboys Shave Ice in Bethesda, MD- famous Hawaiian shave-ice is sold at this Bethesda cart. Tigerblood has my name written all over it.

Gruto’s Soft Serve, Purcellville, VA- bring cash for this sweet little soft serve shop on Main Street in Purcellville. Try the Bellywrecker IF YOU DARE.

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Woody’s Ice Cream, Fairfax- Hand-dipped cones and old-fashioned sundaes are just some of Woody’s Goodies.

Rocky Point Creamery, Point of Rocks, MD- on Sundays, we love to take a drive up Highway 15 to Point of Rocks and grab ice cream at Rocky Point Creamery. Delicious flavors and a play area for kids makes this a favorite of ours. Pop into the C&O Canal Trail just down the road and hit Farmer Rick’s farm stand near Lucketts for fresh produce on your way home.

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Great Falls Creamery, Great Falls, VA- Take a hike at Great Falls Park and stop for ice cream afterward! This sweet little creamery in Great Falls Village has great flavors and can make you a cookie ice cream sandwich using cookies from famous Heidelberg Bakery.

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South Mountain Creamery, Middletown, MD- The main allure of South Mountain Creamery, aside from the fresh ice cream, is that if you’re there at 4 pm, you can feed the baby calves their milk bottle!

Korean Bingsoo (“Wicked Snow”) at Siroo Juk Story, Annandale, VA- This Korean version of shaved-ice is refreshing, delicious, and fun! Flaky shaved ice is topped with mochi and a variety of toppings from red bean paste to strawberries and mango and cornflakes. Kind of like a massive snow cone sundae.

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Pickle Bob’s Ice Cream, Haymarket, VA- We like to stop here after we’re done picking sunflowers at Burnside Farms. Walk-up window service and a small seating area and a pickle in an ice cream cone make up Pickle Bob’s.

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Everybody, say hi to Pickle Bob.

Hi Pickle Bob.

Try a new cuisine using the Washingtonian Cheap Eats list as your guide. With 100 restaurants in the metro area with entrees under $25, the cheap eats list is your map of the culinary world. I’ve marked off several of these restaurants as “must try”s and we’ll be making our way to the Bosnian Cosmopolitan Grill this Friday night to try cevpcici. Take the chance on introducing your kids to something new- Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean and  Pakistani cuisine are all represented on this list.

Wineries

Now y’all know I love to go to wineries, so this section should come as no surprise. But really, is there anything better than meeting up with friends at a winery and spending the afternoon? Don’t even answer, we know there isn’t. Here’s just a few of my favorites:

Quattro Goombas, Aldie, VA- Sicilian style pizza and RED WINE SLUSHIES. I’m confident I need say no more.

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Stone Tower Winery, Leesburg, VA- One of my all-time favorite wineries. The view is great, the grounds are beautiful, and this is the tasting room:

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Tarara Winery, Leesburg, VA- Tarara is known for their Summer Concert Series, a summer-long schedule of outdoor concerts on the winery grounds. Here’s the lineup for this year.

There are over 40 wineries and vineyards in the Loudoun County area, so pick one and go- it’s bound to be good.

Special Events

Two of our favorite summer events each year are the Loudoun County Fair and the Lucketts Fair. The Loudoun County Fair is your traditional summer fair with carnival rides, barnyard animals and 4H competitions, a rodeo, and fried Oreos. The Lucketts Fair is a bit more low-key with a focus on arts and crafts and local talent competitions, but it is just as fun in its own way. We make sure to do both every summer- my kids are already asking about the LoCo Fair. In May.

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DC Jazzfest at The Yards Park, June 18th- a three-day blowout featuring a ton of jazz musicians at DC’s wonderful Yards Park.

ICEBERGS at National Building Museum– Last summer’s hot National Building Museum display was BEACH and this year the main atrium of the museum will be taken over by icebergs. Tickets go on sale to the general public starting June 22 and the display will be open from July 2- September 5.

NGA Stories in Art is a (FREE) program designed for kids aged 4-7 to teach them to interact with art. This year the kids will be “traveling to the Netherlands” by studying pieces of Dutch art, reading a book, and making a souvenir. The program runs through the month of July; check calendar for dates and times. The rest of NGA is worth visiting while you’re there- don’t miss Leo Villareal’s Multiverse and the NGA sculpture garden. (My personal favorite display in NGA is The Veiled Nun.)

Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea at National Zoo (FREE)– An art installation of 17 life-sized sea creatures made from plastic found in the oceans is on display through September 5 to help raise awareness of ocean pollution and the danger it creates for sea creatures. These whimsical and intricate statues are a beautiful way to illustrate the devastation plastic pollution can cause to our oceans.

Also, there’s now a grilled cheese truck at the zoo. Um, yum.

Obviously I’ll be updating the blog plenty with things we get into and see and do this summer, but this should give us a nice start, yeah? This is it, people. Summer is happening!

Flower Mart at National Cathedral + Passport DC 2016

When: May 6th and 7th, 2016 (first week of May every year)
Where: 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC

Every May, Cultural Tourism DC launches its Passport DC program, which is a series of events designed to help you travel the world without ever leaving Washington DC. DC Passports are provided at various information spots throughout the city at key events and visiting the activities that are part of Passport DC will earn you a stamp at each spot, just like a real passport.

One of these events is Flower Mart, an annual spring festival held at the National Cathedral by All Hallows Guild every year since 1939. At Flower Mart, embassies from all over the world contribute a floral arrangement that represents their country, which is then displayed in the nave of the Cathedral for viewing. Outside, various vendors sell not only flowers and plants, but handmade crafts and goods (we saw soap, clothing, tote bags, and wind chimes) as well as food- we snacked on choreg from an Armenian pastry stand before grabbing a half smoke from the Ben’s Chili Bowl tent for lunch. There’s carnival rides and games for kids, puppet shows, and special tours that allow visitors to climb the Cathedral towers.

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Despite passing by National Cathedral many times (my sister used to live on Garfield St. and we’d cut through the Cathedral grounds on our way to Cactus Cantina, hey-o) our visit to Flower Mart was the first time we’d actually gone inside! Do I need to tell you it was incredible?

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Tucked in the nave were over 30 individual flower arrangements representing their home countries. These were all unique – some featured flowers indigenous to that country (such as an arrangement of Birds of Paradise from Indonesia) and some were arrangements that depicted something specific to that country, like this array of pink roses from Australia meant to represent Lake Hillier, a lake in Western Australia that is PINK due to the bacteria that thrive in its highly salinated waters:

 

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New Zealand’s contribution was a miniature Hobbit Shire!

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Many of the Asian countries’ displays featured tall, delicate orchids. The United States was represented with this lush arrangement of native flora:

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We made sure to get a stamp in our Passport DC passport before heading over to the famous Beauvoir playground on our way out:

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The Around the World Embassy tour was also going on that day, an event in which different embassies from around the world opened their doors to visitors for cultural displays and presentations. I SO BADLY wanted to do this but alas, my oldest was suffering pretty badly from allergies and just couldn’t hang, so in the name of being a decent mother, I had to admit defeat and skip it. But next weekend is the European embassies’ turn and we will be ready and waiting with our passport when those open at 10 am.

Flower Mart 2016 has come and gone, but I encourage you to make plans to visit next May- it was such an incredible event! We managed to find street parking along a neighborhood street and had a short walk over to the Cathedral grounds, but given the limited parking in NW DC, using public transportation is highly encouraged if you can swing it.

Be sure to check out the Passport DC 2016 calendar of events to plan your trip “around the world.”

Weekending: Lexington, VA + Natural Bridge Edition

All apologies to Purcellville, Charlottesville, and any other town my excitable brain previously declared to be my favorite small town in Virginia. There’s a new kid in town: Lexington. This one’s definitely my favorite small town in Virginia. I’m sure of it. Until I find the next one, but for right now, it’s the winner.

The timing for a weekend trip this past weekend initially did not seem so great- I had just wrapped up the last week of spring semester for my grad program and an auction I had chaired and spent 8 months working on took place Friday night, so my brain was essentially non-functioning and my zest for life was at nil. The forecast was also a weekend full of cool temps and rain. But we had months ago purchased a Certifikid voucher for a night at the Natural Bridge hotel with admission to the bridge and the caverns included, and the last day to use it was April 30, so the trip was on no matter what.

And wouldn’t you know it, I found it to be the perfect little two day getaway. Some friends of ours bought the same voucher and joined us down in Lexington and we had a blast. The drive couldn’t be easier- a relatively quick 3 hours down I-81 through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We decided to be leisurely about it since we weren’t in a huge rush and stopped in Staunton for some frozen custard from Kline’s Dairy Bar, which has been operating in Harrisonburg since 1943.

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Our voucher was good for a night at the Natural Bridge Hotel (right next to the Natural Bridge itself) with admission for four to the Natural Bridge AND the caverns right next door. We paid $109 for all that and so I was mentally prepared for a rundown, dark and dank hotel that had not been updated since the 1970s. NOT SO AT ALL, although I do think the road leading to the Natural Bridge hotel may be haunted. I base this completely on the fact that on one side suddenly loomed a giant baby head inside what was a graveyard of strange giant props. The sign indicated it was a place called Enchanted Castle Studios that offered “tours” though who gives them, I’m not sure, because it looked abandoned. Look, I’m not saying you’ll go into that place on a “tour” and never come out and that the Scooby Doo crew is going to have to come in and find you. I am not saying that. Just think about it is all.

The Natural Bridge Hotel was recently updated with nicely furnished rooms and a very pleasant staff. If you’re looking for proximity to the bridge, it’s great. If you would prefer to be closer to Lexington, you may want to stay elsewhere, but if this deal is ever offered by Certifikid again, snatch it up, because for two days of admission the attractions and a night in a perfectly pleasant hotel, it was a steal.

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After settling in and meeting up with our friends we grabbed dinner at Foothill Momma’s BBQ Juke Joint (recommend) and then headed back to the bridge for the nightly light show.

Now look.

I’m from Georgia, and down there, one thing that everyone does growing up is go to Stone Mountain to watch the laser show, which is extravaganza of the highest order. Lights and lasers shoots around the mountain and give the illusion the carved figures are riding their horses and Dixie is played as well as The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It is definitely one of those things that only when you grow up and move away from the Deep South do you go, “Huh, yeah, that is a bit weird.” BUT IT’S AWESOME. So you can perhaps see what I expected from the Natural Bridge light show. Maybe some Van Halen? Lots of zooming light rays and strobe lights.

That is decidedly not at all what the Natural Bridge light show is like.

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So here’s the story of the Natural Bridge, which is told to you by the recording at the Natural Bridge: it took 3-4 million years to evolve naturally through the gentle erosion process of the stream that flows beneath it. It was originally discovered by the Monocan Indians as they were evading an enemy and considered by them to be a sacred site, and later Thomas Jefferson “bought” it for his own pleasure because, well, aint that just the way history tends to go. (My husband and I quibbled all weekend over whether a person can truly own something like the Natural Bridge; call me Pocahontas, I just really don’t think so. I don’t even care if you’re Thomas Jefferson, you can’t own that stuff, dude, it’s for all mankind.)

Right after you are told that the Natural Bridge formed naturally, through the course of nature, over millions of years, the light show program begins, and it tells the story of Genesis and how God created the earth in 7 days. It was written and created by Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s and has been used ever since. There were several times sitting there, somewhere in the middle of the third day of creation, when I realized that this passed for high entertainment in the 1920s. In 2016, well, it seems a bit… antiquated. A musical version of the Lord’s Prayer that my friend aptly described as “a dirge” played in the fifth day of creation. Hey, I got no dog in the hunt when it comes to how the bridge was formed. Maybe you think the stream did it, maybe you think God plopped it there somewhere in the six days he was decorating the earth. It’s just funny how the Natural Bridge show simultaneously suggests it somehow could be both.

The bridge sure is beautiful, though!

Sunday morning we had breakfast down at The Pink Cadillac (insert Springsteen lyrics):

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I’ve mentioned before the “bubble” that extends about 50 miles in any direction from DC and how different life is once you break out of that bubble. At the Pink Cadillac, a plate of three pancakes was $2. TWO DOLLARS. No crushed velvet seats, though, and I really think they missed the mark there.

The rain began to pour after breakfast so we took the opportunity to visit the Natural Bridge Caverns and hide out 340 feet underground and give it a chance to pass. Hey, aren’t caverns cool? At one place in the caverns our guide told us to look up at what appeared to be an opening and said it was called a Murder Hole. Way back when, when people drove around in buggies and such, they would sometimes roll right over one of these Murder Holes and fall ass over teakettle into the caverns. Whoopsie doops! Not a great day.

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Emerging from the Murder Hole we re-entered a world filled with sunshine! The rain had passed so we headed into the town of Lexington to see the sights.

Some things you should know about Lexington:

It’s home to two colleges: Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (so-called West Point of the South). You can tell the student bodies apart as they mill around town because the Washington and Lee students are wearing clothes nicer than you, a grown adult, typically wear, and the VMI cadets are decked out in their finest military dress. Even to walk into a Sheetz gas station, yes I saw that.

It’s also pretty much Robert E Lee’s town. Everything there revolves around Lee in some way. There’s Lee Highway, the Robert E. Lee hotel, Lee Chapel, a different church named the Robert E Lee Memorial Episcopal church, which is about 200 yards in front of Lee Chapel. Lee died in Lexington after serving as president of (then) Washington University, renamed to include Lee after his time there. Stonewall Jackson also features prominently in Lexington, given the fact he lived there and taught at VMI in the 1850s. Some of his curriculum is still taught there today! He was not a very popular teacher though and students there called him “Tom Fool,” which luckily for him was later replaced by the everlasting nickname he earned on the battlefield at Manassas, and by which we still know him- Stonewall. (I am seriously just beyond tickled that one person, in the span of about fifteen years, can be the recipient of two such diametrically opposed nicknames, and also walk away forever bearing only the really good one.)

The house Stonewall Jackson owned and lived in during his time in Lexington still stands on Washington St., right down the road from Lee Chapel:

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The downtown Lexington area was funny like this- on one corner might be a new shop or popular restaurant, and then a few doors down, the home of a huge Civil War figure. Virginia is so cool.

We paid a visit to the  Robert E. Lee Hotel:

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Eventually we made our way down to the campus of Washington and Lee University to visit Lee Chapel. And WOW, what a campus! My own alma mater is beautifully landscaped and  frequently makes lists of Most Beautiful Campuses, but it must be said that a good chunk of the buildings are from the 1960s/70s and leave something to be desired, aesthetically speaking. Meanwhile, in Lexington, not only is the campus impeccably landscaped, look at this architecture!

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This is known as the Colonnade and faces Lee Chapel. When I mentioned at the beginning of this post I am in a grad program, it’s to receive my Master’s in Education. This means I’m spending chunks of time each semester student teaching in high school English classes. The last two semesters, my students have been seniors, and it’s been very exciting as they get accepted to colleges and decide where they’re going to go. Many of them are going to JMU, a couple to William and Mary, some to UVA, but I realized when I was on W&L campus that none of them had decided to go to Washington and Lee and I wondered why. It was such a nice looking school in such a pleasant little town not terribly far from Northern Virginia. I started thinking, I would encourage my own girls to consider this school when the time comes! When we were on the way home I looked up the university and discovered it is private and costs $47,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate, so that explained that. It also explained why all the students were dressed so nicely and the frat houses were giant antebellum homes on lush wide avenues.

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Tucked into this little glade right across from the Colonnade is Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried and where his beloved horse, Traveller, was buried in 1971 after his bones were disinterred and placed here to be with his master.

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Would you just! Have you ever seen a more perfect little chapel? I got married in what I consider to be a very beautiful and picturesque southern chapel but it really doesn’t compare at all to Lee Chapel. Inside on the pulpit is a statue of Lee known as “Recumbent Lee” which depicts him lying in repose, and the stained-glass windows tell his life story. He and his family are buried in a crypt below the chapel and Traveller is buried just outside:

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Students at the university leave pennies (and sometimes apples) on Traveller’s marker in hopes it will bring them good luck in their studies. Awwww! Traveller is maybe one of the best-known horses of all time, certainly the best known Civil War horse, and the following is written about him in the poem Army of Northern Virginia by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Such horses are
The jewels of the horseman’s hands and thighs,
They go by the word and hardly need the rein.
They bred such horses in Virginia then,
Horses that were remembered after death
And buried not so far from Christian ground
That if their sleeping riders should arise
They could not witch them from the earth again
And ride a printless course along the grass
With the old manage and light ease of hand.

I can’t tell you what a good choice it was that we invited the friends we did, because the husband in that family is a high school history teacher and he and I were nerding out together the whole time.

Other small scenes around Lexington:

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I loved everything about Lexington and really can’t suggest strongly enough that you take a trip down for a night or a weekend and pay it a visit. They bred such horses in Virginia then- and they made such towns in Virginia then.

Next Level Craft at House of Sweden

Where: 2900 K St. NW, Washington DC
When: Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 pm, through April 24th, 2016. Admission is free!

Two things I like: Scandinavia and pop-up art installations. WORLDS COLLIDING! There’s something about the remoteness and austerity of Scandinavia that I find compelling. I went through a stage where I read a lot of books set in Scandinavia (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Let the Right One In, etc.) and then I tried my hand at making real Swedish meatballs using Marcus Samuelsson’s recipe. We have very dear friends who from Sweden who lived here temporarily for work, and I’m constantly asking them what life is like in Sweden and eating the various treats they bring back when they come to visit (micro-thin chocolate wafers with tiny crispies inside, a more refined Nestle Crunch, if you will). I just think everything about that part of the world is fascinating.

The Next Level Craft exhibition currently on display at House of Sweden (the Swedish Embassy) is one of just a long line of really fantastic, whimsical installations DC has put on lately. Breezing into town after the now- legendary Wonder exhibit and the glowing bunnies at Light Yards, Next Level Craft holds its own and is charming and fun and that special kind of freaky-deaky that only Scandinavian things can manage to be (I mean this in the best way possible). Like- there’s fish on skateboards. Somehow it makes sense? Just go with it.

Next Level Craft is a collection curated by Swedish artist Aia Judes containing examples of traditional Swedish handicraft created by 40 artists. You’ve got your birch weaving, your jewelry making, your glass blowing, something to do with burls, a music video, lighting and sound that change the room from day to night and back again, a teeny tiny herd of wood-carved reindeer.

The Swedish embassy itself is located right on the Georgetown riverfront and is the perfect embodiment of Scandinavian minimalism- clean lines, open and airy, no fuss and muss. I deeply appreciate this aesthetic even though I do not personally share it. Our Swedish friends’ home was fascinating to me- even with a preschool-aged boy in the house it was always clean in that sparse, crisp way Swedes tend to have and things that were intended to be white actually stayed white. I still don’t know how that was possible. The building itself is a work of art, with elements incorporated into its design that are art pieces on their own. You enter the embassy through a glass paneled wall with water running down the insides- this is March 6 a.m. and was designed to evoke the feel of melting ice, a key feature of the Swedish landscape. There’s also a really well-done and thoughtful exhibit on the main level about gender equality which is absolutely worth taking a look at before heading into Next Level Craft.

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The Next Level Craft exhibit is located on the lower level of the House of Sweden and takes up just one room. But that one room is crammed with whimsy and delight:

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We showed up right around noon on Saturday and surprisingly, it was totally empty and we had the place to ourselves. I can’t lie, this always enhances the experience for me. I get very selfish around art; I’ll hear the clickwhirr of a DSLR camera nearby and get very possessive. “You can’t take a picture of that, I thought it was pretty first.”

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The exhibit has two modes: daytime and nighttime. We entered in daytime, with bright sunshiny light and sweet little bird chirping sounds. As we walked around, the lighting dimmed and shifted to nighttime and the corresponding music video Aia Judes created for the exhibit began playing on all the walls in the exhibition room. It features pulsing music and Swedish artists displaying a variety of Swedish handicraft, plus a pair of dancers vogueing. It is intense. I loved it!

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The kind people at the embassy had taken the time to set up a room with various craft stations for kids so that they could get some hands-on instruction in the art of crafting, which I appreciated because look, crafting is just not my thing. It makes a mess, it takes so much patience- it’s not for me one bit. Of course, somehow, crafting at the Swedish embassy was not at all messy and was a tidy little endeavor thanks to that very unique ability Swedes have to not be a disastrous mess like Americans.

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Don’t you agree kids who are growing up in this area are just the luckiest? They surely don’t appreciate this yet but they are so fortunate to just wake up on a Saturday morning and then go spend some time painting at the Swedish embassy. This is a blog about loving where you live and appreciating what makes this area so special, and I’m counting this experience as an example of that premise.

If you have little ones who get antsy or bored in the craft exhibit, the embassy has thoughtfully provided a small quiet room just for kids with books, games, and quiet little reading nooks where they are free to play and explore.

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Mine stayed awhile in here with dad to play while I explored the exhibit without distraction, but they did enjoy the exhibit a great deal and came back in for a second tour through when they were done in the rumpus room. While not kid-friendly in the sense that it is absolutely not interactive and visitors are prohibited from touching the crafts, Next Level Craft does appeal to kids and feel accessible to them because it’s so fantastical and creative- so ultimately, I’m calling it kid-friendly with the caveat that you watch them like hawks to make sure they don’t climb up on platforms or touch anything.

This exhibit is temporary, so today and then next weekend will be your last opportunities to visit, and I encourage you to do so!

Other sources: 

Follow House of Sweden on Instagram at @swedeninusa for updates and announcements on what they’ve got going on.

Make a day of it:

You’re already down on the Georgetown waterfront! Take a stroll and enjoy watching boats trundle up the Potomac. There were a ton of people out and about enjoying the sunshine when we were down there- it was a perfect spring day in DC.