Show Us a Sign...Please!

Sunday, April 08, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Days 24-25:  Washington, DC
In yet another big-hearted gesture, cousin Pam put aside her life and frolicked with us around DC for two days this weekend.  We must have added 400 miles to her car's odometer as we drove around most of Washington's streets, seeing some multiple times as we tried to locate a particular signpost to guide us to an elusive letterbox.
Saturday morning we started at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and explored the grounds of his Cedar Hill estate (pictured above).  Situated on a hill opposite the Anacostia River from the Washington Navy Yard, the estate provides a panoramic view of the city. 
Behind the main house is a reconstruction of Douglass's quiet retreat where he went to think, read and write undisturbed by his houseful of children and grandchildren.  Douglass furnished his rustic hideaway simply— a high desk, stool and a comfortable chair— and called it his Growlery since his courage and that great mane of hair had earned the nickname of the 'Lion of Anacostia.'
Frederick Douglass's Growlery
After exploring the grounds and the exhibits with inspirational excerpts from Douglass's brilliant orations, we located a letterbox nearby and headed over to Georgetown's Montrose Park.  A massive piece of sylvan landscape in the middle of the city, Montrose offers plenty of opportunities to escape the urban hubbub— running, hiking, picnicking, strolling, playing, rock-climbing, or, like us, letterboxing.
From the park, we made our way to Washington National Cathedral.  Like the Washington Monument, the cathedral sustained significant damage in last year's earthquake.  Most of the damage was centered on the highest points of the building's exterior, including immense pinnacle stones that fell to the roof or twisted out of place.
Washington National Cathedral interior
Fortunately the building is structurally sound and most of the interior problems involved dislodged mortar.  Netting hangs above the main sanctuary to capture any debris that may be knocked loose as repairs continue on the outside.
Designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the grounds of the cathedral invite exploration as well.  Inside the stone walls of the Bishop's Garden, herbs, roses, and perennials create a serene landscape among medieval sculptures that occupy the winding paths.  Nearby Olmstead Woods protects five acres of rare old-growth forest in the middle of the city.
An hour and two letterboxes later with 3:00 approaching, we were all ready for some lunch.  Yelp pointed us to a Lebanese restaurant nearby but when we eased into a parking spot at the doorstep of Fresh Med, a Greek & Mediterranean place on Connecticut Avenue, we took it as portent and stepped inside.
Waiting for food at Fresh Med   
The vegetarian and falafel platters did not disappoint, and we left charged up with energy to search for a few more letterboxes.  Finding the "precipitous path" described in one clue to be nothing more than a sheer perpendicular drop, we decided to seek an alternate approach to that box at another time and moved on to one which started with a photo clue.  
The object of our search was a sign for a local park.  Only this urban park happens to be 187 acres and its irregular shape spans dozens of blocks from north to south along a stream valley.  With innumerable entrances from the street into the park, locating the particular signpost was an interesting challenge.  In more than two hours of driving around searching and postulating, we shared the photo with more than 25 locals, none of whom could identify its location, though many were willing to speculate wildly after we told them we were on a scavenger hunt.
Finally as the sun began to sink, we decided to call it a day and resume our search on Sunday.  As we approached the apartment building where we're staying near the Pentagon, we asked Pam about the 9/11 attack and where the mammoth building was impacted.  Never one to miss an opportunity to be tour guide, she drove us to the location and insisted that we visit the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial adjacent to the spot where the plane crashed into the building.
Pentagon's 9/11 Memorial at dusk
Artistically simple, the memorial features 184 cantilevered stainless steel benches, each balanced over a lighted pool and engraved with the name of one of the victims.  With light an integral part of the design, we were grateful to have visited this somber tribute at dusk.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and so did we all.  Again, Pam picked us up at the apartment and chauffeured us around.  Using the building in the background of the photo as clues, Ken and his co-conspirator, the Google Maps street level avatar, had discovered in about 20 minutes Saturday night what all our driving around and interrogation of the local citizenry could not decipher— the location of the sign that marked the start of the trail where the clues promised we would finally meet up with this elusive letterbox.
With the specific address in hand, we zipped directly to the park entrance, which we had driven past a couple of times yesterday but rejected because, as we realized this morning, the sign was missing.  Armed with the knowledge that we were indeed in the correct spot, the empty signposts were as conspicuous today as they had been invisible yesterday.  Delighted that we'd finally nab that slippery letterbox, we followed the clue to a large tree beside the trail where we were to find the box inside the hollow.
As it turned out, we were not destined to encounter this letterbox, after all.  We poked and prodded, photographed and examined the interior of this five-foot diameter behemoth through an arm-sized keyhole, but no container was secreted inside.  At least, none that we could unearth without a chain saw.
One of 40 DC boundary stones
On the other hand, like so much of life, the fun was in the journey.  And a new phase was about to begin as we sought out some of the boundary stones that surveyor Andrew Ellicott placed in 1792 as he marked the ten-mile square territory that was to become the District of Columbia.  Of course, these markers are interesting in their own right, but the fact that a local letterboxer had placed boxes near some only piqued our interest.
In the process of seeking out three of these stones and their accompanying letterboxes, we tested and rejected a number of theories regarding a DC mystery letterbox that has become a bit of an obsession.  We also met a couple of very precocious children in a tiny urban park and helped them search for a missing cat as well as an imaginary one that their new friend Miss Pam introduced into the conundrum.
After we made a brief appearance at the National Arboretum to check out the stunning dogwoods in bloom (and find a letterbox), the clock was striking three, so we deduced it was time for lunch.  Since our travels today had taken us through several Ethiopian neighborhoods, our appetites conspired with the subconscious to seek out an Ethiopian restaurant.  Nearest to the gardens,Yelp reviewers recommended Ethiopic Restaurant on H Street near Capitol Hill.
None of us had tried Ethiopian food before, so we decided to share a vegetarian sampler platter of savory stews and sautes.  The platter was lined with a round of injera, the tortilla-like spongy bread that is used as a substitute for silverware.  Fortunately, we had read this detail on one of the Yelp reviews so when our server presented the basket of coiled bread with our food, we knew just what to do with it and did not ask for forks.  The seasoning ranged from mild to spicy, and the platter was clear before we left, all vowing we'd eat Ethiopian again.

Heading toward our last stop of the day, Theodore Roosevelt Island, to plant a letterbox, we drove past Union Station.  "The bell!" Ken exclaimed, eying the oversized Liberty Bell replica sitting at the intersection of Massachusetts and 1st Street.  Always game for another adventure, even though it was time for her to head back home, Pam veered off in search of a parking space so Ken could pursue his theory about another mystery letterbox.

Once we determined that this was not the bell referenced in the clue, we had to drag Pam into the Postal Museum across the street so she could log into the letterbox there before getting back to our planting venture on the island.  A bit of hiking and we spied the perfect spot on the Uplands Trail.

By then, we were well past Pam's target departure time.  After all, she does have to go to work tomorrow.  But that didn't stop her from saying, "Now, what about that Pentagon Memorial letterbox?"  It was the just the parallel ending for the day.  Located in a public park well away from the Pentagon compound, the letterbox was a treasure, rewarding our search with an exquisite stamp by a local boxer whose cherished father was working in the Pentagon on 9/11.  He survived the attack and helped her plant the letterbox ten years later.
Although we missed Pam's other half, Joe, who was off at work, it was a perfect weekend.  The weather cooperated, the camaraderie was sweet, and the adventure with our witty cousin left us eager for a return visit.

"Are you sure this is a letterbox and not a rat trap?"   Pam, after we found a very large letterbox hidden under a building

  • Miles walked:  5.69
  • Letterboxes found:  13
  • Park benches:  932
  • Trails:  23
  • Missing park signs:  1!
  • Centipedes photographed:  1
  • Cherry trees in bloom:  0
  • Greasy fingers (after Ethiopian meal):  30
  • Security officers eluded:  14
  • Dogs being walked:  4,281
  • Citizens who are savvy about missing park signs:  0


But who really found it?