The ground shimmered as I stepped out of the car, and a burst of oven-hot air smacked me in the face. No, I wasn't in the grip of a Middle Eastern summer. This was Washington D.C on its hottest July day on record. I took a rasping gulp of oxygen and willed myself back to the crisp Blue Ridge Mountains. I'd once wilted on a 43 degree Melbourne day, but it was nothing compared to this relentless swelter.
Perhaps we'd made a mistake visiting the US capital on Independence Day weekend? It seemed appropriate given the city is one big monument to the country's libertarian edict. But as we played duck and weave with fellow tourists for views of the White House, I thought to myself "this is crazy. Where else in the world would you battle crowds to view a leader's residence?"
I had a similar thought waiting in line (at least it was air conditioned) to look at the country's original founding documents at the National Archives. I felt compelled to, since today's Independence Day celebrations were just around the corner. The queues were reminiscent of those at the Louvre in Paris. People there stick out their elbows to gaze at the world's artistic masterpieces; here patriots shove one another to view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I felt out of place and underwhelmed. In fact, I was ashamed that I'd never expressed such an urge to see my own country's archival history.
Back in the sprawling National Mall we merged with the sluggish, heat-fuddled masses to check out the memorials. The George Washington monument is the mall's beacon, but the V-shaped Vietnam War memorial with the names of more than 58,000 men and women engraved in the order that they died, the World War II fountain, and the stalking, wide-eyed sculptures of soldiers at the Korean War memorial are just as grand.
As sweat stung my eyes, I consoled myself that in a moment I would become Jenny, and Ted Forrest Gump, as we re-enacted the pair's watery reunion on Forrest's return from Vietnam. Alas! The reflecting pool was drained and fenced off for renovation. I had been anticipating this moment since I first watched the movie in 1994. The disappointment was crushing. So was the temperature.
But at the bottom of the Abraham Lincoln memorial: salvation. We threw down our bags and joined squealing children in the race for the sprinkler. The brief reprieve from the heat perked me up enough to stand on the steps and imagine the view Dr Martin Luther King Jr would've looked upon as he delivered his "I have a dream" speech. The ugly fences disappeared, the pool filled up again and hope drove out the heat as thousands chanted their support.
However flawed it may be, the heart of democracy beats strong here. On the day we arrived, the Supreme Court had just delivered its ruling upholding Obamacare. A couple of days later death penalty protesters braved the sun outside the same Capitol Hill building and two doors down, a busload of Catholic nuns pulled up at the United Methodist Church to rock star applause. "Nuns on the Bus" had been driving around the country protesting against proposed budget cuts to food stamps, childcare and other programmes for the needy. "Let's make enough noise so they can hear us across the road in the Capitol" shouted one supporter.
Later, as I stood at Martin Luther King's monument, surrounded by families on reunion with T-shirts to prove it, I realised Independence Day weekend was indeed the best time to glimpse the spirit of a country through the vessel of its capital city. It's not a perfect place, but at least people are still free to speak, assemble, petition, print, broadcast and worship.
I'll be celebrating Independence Day in New York City tonight!
What do you reckon? Are capital cities an accurate portrayal of the ideals of a nation? Does Independence Day mean anything to you? Do you love running through sprinklers on hot days? Do share!
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