Saturday, April 25, 2009

high tech low tech

One more day in DC. I spent the morning being wishy-washy about what I wanted to do. A couple of people had recommended the Udvar Hazy Air and Space Museum, a sister museum to Air and Space on the Mall, but out past Dulles Airport in Virginia, so it's a bit of a commitment to get to, plus I'm not really all that interested in planes and flight. I wasted time drinking coffee and changing my mind every few minutes. I finally committed. There was only one other thing I wanted to do before the day was out, so I may as well spend a few hours in transit. Plus, it meant not having to walk anywhere.

Udvar Hazy doesn't do a good job of letting people know how to get out there. I knew because I asked someone at the Mall museum, but that had been the day after I arrived, and I did some online snooping to find more info, and found some Virginia transportation timetables posted in 2007, so who knew if they were current, and further, the buses weren't running as frequently as I had expected. To cut a long story short, my pain is your gain, and here's how to get to Udvar Hazy from downtown DC:

1. Catch the 5A bus from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles. It costs $3.10 one-way, and is a one-hour drive. I took a nap.
2. Once disembarked at the airport, wait on exactly the same platform (2E) for a short, white shuttle that has a LED destination sign of either Dulles to Dulles or Air and Space Museum. And when it does show up, double check with the driver which direction they are going. This shuttle costs 50 cents, and takes you directly to the museum in 15 minutes.
3. If you're smarter than me, you'll do more timetable research to time the transfer, and be more travel-efficient.

When I got out at Dulles there was nothing telling me where to wait for the shuttle, so I went inside to ask the info desk, who knew exactly where it stopped, and had a printed schedule to give me. Unfortunately, I was talking to them at exactly the same moment the shuttle was stopping outside. The guy told me to hustle, so I turned and hustled, but missed it by a couple of minutes, which meant waiting on a bench for 45 minutes.

When I left the museum I stopped at the info desk to tell them about the problems I had getting there, and suggested that they list some more descriptive info on their website, rather than just the link to the Virginia transit site. All four guys behind the desk were all ears. I think their museum suffers from low attendance; probably from a combo of factors - their far-removed location, because people may think they have seen it all after going Air and Space on the Mall, and because most visitors probably don't stay in DC for more than a few days, and a several hour trek out to the boonies to visit a museum doesn't fit on the agenda. I'm quite used to spending several hours in a museum, but I suppose a lot of others maybe only visit for an hour or less.

And after all that - bus transfer misses and an inkling that I didn't really want to look at more flying machines - Udvar Hazy is totally worth going to. It's in a massive hangar, all white on the inside, with smaller craft suspended from the ceiling and swooping around the larger craft on the floor. Even though I don't love airplanes, it's a really cool space to be in.

My ill-timed transportation adventure may have worked in my favor, since a free, 90-minute, docent-led tour was starting right after I arrived, and I figured it would be the best way to spend my time. Our docent was a Vietnam chopper pilot who had been a professor at GWU (or GU?), with a healthy sense of humor and gift of gab and storytelling. He led us through the exhibits, detailing the development of flight, airplanes, and science, beginning with the first balloon flight and its passenger list of a duck, a chicken and a goat, up through the space race - "In 1957, the Russians did something naughty. What was it? Sputnik! They sent up a dog, we sent up a monkey. They sent up a man, we sent up a man. They sent up a woman, we sent up another man because we didn't have any women." He was a hoot. Since he is a veteran, he also included some thoughtful comments and questions about war, right and wrong, and love and hate. The museum displays quite a few war planes from all nations, including the classic kamikaze plane, looking all the world like a bomb with a tiny cockpit, little short wings, and no wheels, since they weren't intended to land. The Enola Gay is at this museum, and draws a protest each August 6th. There's also a Concord, and a Blackbird recon plane, which increases in length by five inches when it reaches high speed. Since the fluid systems need to move enough to compensate for this expansion, it leaks more than than a British automobile when parked. It's enormous, has a skunk painted on the tail (it was developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works), and flies only with one pilot and one operator. If the pilot goes out of commission for any reason, the operator is in big trouble. The Space Shuttle Enterprise is here, but my fave is a little acrobatic plane nicknamed The Little Stinker.

Thinking it would take me two hours to get back to DC, I left after only two hours, back on the shuttle to Dulles. I took the opportunity to go get my boarding pass for the flight home the next day, and finally did something right with my time. I got off the shuttle, found the Southwest desk, got my pass, and made it back to the bus platform in less than ten minutes, and just in time to catch the 5A back to town.

The last thing to do was to go to the annual Smithsonian Craft Fair, being held in the National Building Museum. In two weeks in DC, it's the only entry fee I had to pay. According to the experts and the word on the street, the exhibitors and their wares are supposed to be the few molecules of cream floating on top of the rest of the cream that's floating on top of the bucket of milk. For sure there was some quality goodies, but I really expected more and better. I don't know what process decides who gets in - evidently competition is stiff and fierce - but if there's any lesson from the museum glut on this trip, it's that art, beauty, and worth are all subjective and in the eye of the beholder, and that I have a constitutional right to speak my mind. You have a constitutional right to tell me I'm looney tunes and full of it, so go right ahead if you want. To me, some of the craft on display wasn't of a better quality or more innovative design than other craft I've seen, by both pros and recreational players. I mean to say a lot of it was Good, but I couldn't divine what made it Better Than The Rest. Still, I bought a ceramic bowl, because I thought it was pretty.

No evening stroll that night. I just went back home. As if to underscore my previous comment about the number of fire calls in this town, there were six fire engines at the intersection of U and 14th. It was almost an exact replay of the 18th Street fire - a ladder was extended to the roof of a restaurant, this time the Seafood and Crab joint, and a fireman, maybe the same one, was scampering down. There didn't appear to be any actual fire, and by the time I got there most of them were taking off, no doubt to other fire calls, questionable or real, in this fine city.

The last bit of random amusement arrived in the unlikely form of Jim, who cycled up to me while I was waiting for the bus to the airport.

"Is this your blue bag? Hi, I'm Jim."
"Hi Jim." I was clearly looking as confused as I felt.
"Are you the person I'm buying diapers from?"

Turns out Jim was meeting someone near the HUD Building with a blue bag and a red shirt to buy some reuseable diapers for his newborn. What were the chances there were two of us? We had a laugh and he cycled off to meet his supplier.

Goodbye Washington DC! I'm writing this on the plane from Chicago to my transfer in Las Vegas. Libations are flowing, and everyone is getting plastered and noisy. People keep walking to the back galley and returning to their seats with multiple cans of beer and those mini bottles of liquor. I think they should just save their time and effort and give me all the money they are no doubt going to lose. I need to start funding my next trip to who knows where.

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