riding the rails 20

When I got back to the hostel, there were two or three guys in bed already.  A Chinese guy looked up very startled when I passed him, but went immediately back to his social media account.  In the lower bunk that someone had converted into a tent, I could hear the low, persistent rumble of snoring.  There was not enough energy left in me to even react.  I lay down on the bed and reached for the copy of the New York Times I still hadn’t finished.  A few hours later I awoke, still on top of the sheet, wearing my reading glasses.  It was a long, painful haul getting upstairs to the bathroom.

The next morning, I decided to hang out until checkout time.  There was a free breakfast in the dining area, pancakes and coffee.  Later, I sat in the common room with a woman who’d been staying in DC for a month, hopping from hostel to hostel.  There was even time to go lie down again, but by now a big, bearded guy in the top bunk was making the kind of noises usually only associated with exorcisms.  It was impossible to be in the same room.  I packed my things, put my bags in the storage room, and headed off in the direction of the National Mall again.

The first thing I came to was the Natural History Museum.  Walking through the front doors, I was immediately met by a Moai stone head from Easter Island, a half-ton pink quartz crystal, and a charging African elephant.  I headed straight towards the wing that houses the mammals, and encountered a tusked walrus, leaping tiger, and resting rhino.  In a glass case, two lionesses were attacking a water buffalo.  In another, a hippo was yawning for all the world to see.  There was not enough time to focus on any one thing, so I walked quickly through the oceans section, and ended up in a hall dedicated to the origins of man. 

Here all the early ancestors were on display.  Until you get to Homo Erectus, most of them just look like common apes.  There were a few sculptures of cavemen, squatting on the ground, scraping at the earth with stones for sustenance.  They could’ve been any of the homeless folks I’d seen on the trip so far, sleeping on the street and digging through trash cans.  The hard, cold brutality of life hasn’t changed at all.  Though we’ve developed our technology, we’ve failed to elevate our compassion.  If it’s all of us scratching out an existence, that’s one thing.  If we let a handful fall through the cracks, however, while others are flying into space for sport, that’s just cruel.

Fortunately, the National Gallery of Art was closed for renovations, as I was already pushing my time and attention span.  I headed straight to the Capitol and got in line for the tour.  You needed to have a reservation, but there weren’t many visitors and someone explained to me how to sign up online.  Fortunately, there were some immediate openings available. 

After a short film about the history of the Capitol, the tour got underway.  There were about thirty of us in the group, and we were each given headsets to follow what the guide was saying.  After passing through the Crypt, and shorts stops at the Vestibule and Old Supreme Court Chamber, we arrived at the Rotunda, perhaps the very center of American history, in the same way Times Square is the center of its reality.  Here all the figures from famous bygone ages are present; Jefferson, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower, Truman, even Reagan.  All the momentous dates are accounted for; the discovery by Columbus, the arrival of the Pilgrims, critical moments from the Revolution, the expansion into the West. The fresco at the center of the dome, The Apotheosis of Washington, shows George Washington ascending into the clouds like Christ.  He is surrounded by two virtuous ladies, Liberty and Victory, along with thirteen maidens representing the colonies, and a pantheon of lesser gods assembled beneath him.  What the painting represents, more than anything else, perhaps, is the moment the United States became a nation unto itself, the final word on everything under sun.

Although there were still four hours before my train left, I was exhausted and depressed by the hard choices in front of me.  The decisions I made in the next twenty-four hours would be shaping my future immeasurably, and I was in no condition to be making them.  Although I’d been all over the country in two weeks, and had seen enough to fill a few bucket lists, at the end of the day I was still basically running for my life.  The walls were falling down all around me.  I knew I had to get out of the country, but to where?  If I got on my last train, the Sunset Limited, I’d probably hop off at El Paso and cross into Mexico at Juarez.  If I found a bus to Miami, there were a few more options.  Maybe I’d look into Columbia.  I needed to get some place cheap enough to buy time to find my next job.  What that was, I didn’t care anymore.  Anyplace that wanted me could have me.

After leaving the Capitol, I was basically done, but still had a few hours to kill.  From a food truck. I got a questionable gyro and sat on a wall in the shade.  When I stood up, I discovered that I was right at the entrance to the Museum of the American Indian, the one museum I probably still would’ve walked to see.  There was an exhibit going on called Indians Everywhere, about the prevalence of Native Americans in advertising and the media.  The pictures and artifacts showed Indians being used to sell everything, from sports teams, to movies, to train rides, to tobacco, to suntan lotion, to Pepsi.  The list went on and on, and the suggestion was that we’d like to remember them, not so much as victims, but as former adversaries who’d become our teachers, a brand you could trust. 

It was still pretty early but it was going to take a lot of effort to get back to the hostel and then over to the station, so I commenced, walking as slowly as possible.  It felt like something really bad was about to happen, but maybe it wouldn’t.  I’d just been smack dab in the middle of six major cities and was on my way to another one tonight.  Maybe a miracle would suddenly occur.  Even if it didn’t, I was going to Miami.  That suddenly became clear to me.  Anything after that, I couldn’t guarantee.  Making it to Miami, I could.

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