Outdoors North

Visit to nation’s capital awe-inspiring

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“He looks around, around; he sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity.” — Paul Simon

The Pennsylvania countryside blurred by in shades of green and blue. I was in Somerset County, not far from the open field where doomed Flight 93 — turned almost upside down — plowed into the ground at nearly 600 miles per hour.

Here, amid the quiet of this coal-mining countryside, 40 airline passengers paid heroically with their lives to stop a terrorist attack. The crash sent a fireball of exploded jet fuel rolling into the sky, higher than the trees.

The next morning I’d be standing on the hallowed, bloody ground of Gettysburg — the place where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous address. In less than 300 words, the president sent a message blasting down the corridors of history, as relevant today as the day Lincoln’s voice rang out over these rolling, green, battle-scarred hills.

“That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

A few hours later, I ate my evening meal in an outdoor cafe where American flags adorned wrought-iron railings and a woman dressed in a blue-and-white Civil War-era dress and hat serenaded diners with her fiddle and bow.

The air was also filled with the chattering noises made by dozens of chimney swifts, which banked and flew in their rattling-wing formations over the restaurant.

I had first seen a number of these grayish-black birds in the clouded skies above Lansing the previous day. I had now hoped they were following me east — one of my favorite birds, they were a warm reminder of happy summer days.

My contented moments in the cafe, with a passing thunderstorm, would be the last I would have to catch my breath for several days.

This was a trip to our nation’s capital, to help some young travelers get a leg up along the winding road ahead.

The sights and the sounds, all crammed into the space of a week, would make the blur of the Pennsylvania countryside I’d seen from my window on the bus seem as though I were standing still.

On any trip — whether to the grocery store, across the living room or the depths of a dark, green forest — I try to remember to keep my ears and eyes, heart, soul and mind open for minutes of inspiration, things to learn, observations that strike me sideways or messages often found in places unlikely.

This trip would be no different. I would return with a basket full of riches, but it would take some time for the signs to appear.

On a walk down busy avenues to the White House, I stopped along a corner to hear a young black man playing stupendous blues licks on a Stratocaster guitar, that was plugged into an amplifier a few feet away.

He wore a black headband, a short black beard, a gold cross on a chain and a blue T-shirt which had a picture of Muhammad Ali on it.

People passed by without saying a word or look.

I wondered if they heard anything.

At an intersection nearby, I looked down as I crossed the street.

Someone had used an index finger to write when the cement was wet.

The gently looping writing read: “Does the fun ever start?”

At the White House itself, armed guards and concrete barriers stood hard and blank, while red flowers bloomed around a bubbling fountain, beyond the black gates.

You don’t have to be a fan of the movie “National Treasure” to know this city is full of signs, signals and messages — secret, obscured and otherwise.

Beginning with the city’s namesake, George Washington — from the wooden teeth he didn’t have to the cherry tree he didn’t chop down to the family crypt beneath the capitol he isn’t buried in — what you hear is often not the truth.

And yet, the city is breathtaking, exhilarating and inspiring.

Outside the Smithsonian museums, people sat eating lunch on a wall along the sidewalk. Food vendors and T-shirt sellers were here, along with city birds — English sparrows and pigeons — scavenging crumbs.

I figured it must be a tough city, even for birds. I saw a robin competing for bread crumbs and feeding them to her recently-fledged baby — I’ve never seen that before.

Colorful Thai monks worked the sidewalks, offering simple, handmade bracelets — good luck and peace — for a $5 donation. A bird’s nest made from grass was stuck in the red light of a traffic signal.

Inside the National Museum of Natural History, I saw something at once beautiful and disgusting. An aquarium had been set up, with the colorful plants, a big sea turtle and a jellyfish within all fashioned solely from trash retrieved from beaches.

I saw a giant piece of copper from Ontonagon County, the skeleton of a tapir, the Hope Diamond, the Woolworth stools of the Greensboro Four and the jackals of Anubis.

The national monuments — especially at night — were dazzling, humbling and magnificent.

I took pictures at President Lincoln’s monument for some folks gathered on the steps where the “I Have a Dream Speech” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was delivered.

So many languages being spoken here all at once.

Closing my eyes, it was like listening to all the birds, insects and animals singing their different songs, all saying similar things to each other.

There are so many statues, marble stairways and Greek columns here.

It’s stunning.

Outside the horrors of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, there’s an inscription carved into the wall — another message from the past, echoing to today.

“We must harness the outrage of our own memories to stamp out oppression wherever it exists, we must understand that human rights and human dignity are indivisible.”

The National Cathedral was stunning. I could have spent an entire week just looking at the beautifully-colored stained glass. Outside, from the northwest tower, Darth Vader stared down toward my clicking camera lens — no kidding.

Too much to see, consider, learn and remember — maybe even in a lifetime.

In the beautiful surroundings of the National Archives, I saw something I didn’t expect — something that seemed to jump out of the stone and wood workings, striking down through me like a bolt of lightning.

Inside a grand room on the second floor of this storied repository, with its marbled columns, ornate decoration and portrait paintings, I had glanced up high toward the vaulted ceiling.

Underneath one of the round windows, with marble sills and leaf and fruit garland, I noticed an inscription. It was one of many quotes here that were etched beneath the windows and portraits.

Between two marble genie-style lamps, the red lettering was posted over a gold background: “Nature is the art of God.”

I learned later, the full quote by Sir Thomas Browne is “All things are artificial, for nature is the art of God.”

I have since become interested in the works of Mr. Browne, who lived during the 17th century, demonstrating his learning on a wide range of subjects, with a bent toward the natural world.

Browne also said, “Be able to be alone. Lose not the advantage of solitude, and the society of thyself.”

He said, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.”

From the little I’ve seen so far, I look forward to reading more.

With the sun setting on my last night in the capital city, I again heard the voices of the chimney swifts and the mockingbirds, cutting through everything, straight to my ears, melting into my consciousness.

Before I knew it, I was driving north toward the Mackinac Straits, heading home.

With the radio on, I’m thinking that for everything I received on this trip, there must be volumes I missed — kind of like life.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.