Jake Cain is an entrepreneur and writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. He spends his free time driving around the country in his late 90’s conversion van, affectionately known as the “Monster Van” with his wife and 3 boys.
For our final stop on our Fall 2020 Road School Tour, we headed to the nation’s capital.
Of course, nothing was normal due to the Corona. So while we didn’t get to see some of the museums and federal buildings that one would typically get to enjoy on a trip to DC, we still packed in plenty of simultaneous fun and learning.
Also known as “Flearning.”
Here are 7 of my favorite memories from the week that was in DC.
1. Our Logan Circle House
Airbnb is probably my favorite thing ever.
Sure, I love staying at a hotel with crisp linens and a mint on my pillow, but there’s nothing quite like being able to get a house in a cool neighborhood like Logan Circle in DC and Back Bay in Boston.
It gives you a short, small glimpse to feel what it’s like to live in that community and it’s really fantastic.
One first-world plus from the Coronavirus travel restrictions was that I found plenty of cool places available for rent.
Plus, it came with an off-street parking spot which is always a big bonus in a busy city that doesn’t have much parking.
I will say that navigating my Monster Van down the narrow alley way to get to that spot was a bit of an adventure.
The alley was so narrow that at first when I pulled in I was pretty sure I turned into the wrong place.
Certainly, this was a cart path for some kind of an urban golf course…
I proceeded slowly and with caution, and I remember seeing people in their houses while creeping past their kitchen and bedroom windows along the alley and feeling a little awkward about the whole thing.
Who’s the weirdo in the van 6 inches from our window driving 1 mile per hour?
Eventually, I did navigate the alley and magically made the turn to get into my parking spot behind the house. Once we were set, we tried to Uber and walk as much as possible so I could limit my trips in and out of the alley.
The house was small but had plenty of space for daily classes: An even bigger bonus I discovered the first day was that we were about a block away from one of the coolest green space areas we’d had on our trip.
It was an artificial turf field that was perfect for afternoon football:
In addition to that, we had a Whole Foods right around the corner where I walked for morning coffees. Plus, we were about a 10 minute walk down to the White House – so we were pretty much in the center of the action.
2. Monumental History Hike
I believe this was the first time I’d ever booked an Airbnb experience and it was probably our favorite thing in DC.
I didn’t plan this out in advance, and with Covid restrictions, Rob had just started giving tours again. So I thought it was a long shot when I sent him a message to see if we could join his limited capacity tour that started in about an hour…
Fortunately, he said we could join his nighttime tour and so as soon as we checked into our house, we changed clothes and took an Uber down to the Washington Monument.
Rob was really an excellent guide who did a great job at involving the kids and keeping things interesting for the variety of ages in the group.
Our stops included the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, WW2 Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean War Memorial, and MLK.
Everything looks spectacular lit up at night and Rob was full of interesting history, factoid, anecdotes, and jokes that made it way better than exploring these places on our own.
I’d highly recommend a tour like this to start your week in DC.
3. The Rental Scooter
One thing we noticed on our night tour of the monuments was that DC has those electric rental scooters EVERYWHERE.
Honestly, I kind of had scooter envy when people would zip by us on the National Mall effortlessly flying from site to site while we walked on foot like some kind of Neanderthal.
Of course, with 3 kids it wasn’t really a practical mode of transportation for us.
However, that all changed on Sunday when we’d walked to the White House and then Sarah wanted to explore the TJ Maxx and other shopping opportunities nearby and I wanted to go home and watch football.
She was a little nervous to walk back and isn’t too keen on Ubers either, so I suggested she rent a scooter.
She scoffed at the idea, using her “I don’t like technology” crutch to explain why she could never figure it out.
So we agreed that she’d just text me when she was done with retail therapy and I’d drive down and pick her up.
I ended up walking back to our house with Jackson and Gray and Hudson decided to stay behind and shop with Sarah for some unknown reason.
A couple of hours passed and I got a text from Sarah that said “come outside.”
I was confused but thought she’d decided to walk back and needed help unlocking the door.
But when I walked outside I heard a sound that reminded me of Maxwell the pig from the Geico commercial:
That was the sound of Hudson flying down the street on a scooter with Sarah, toting TJ Maxx bags:
To say I was stunned and proud that Sarah had just navigated the streets of an unfamiliar city on an electric scooter with a kid and shopping bags in tow would be a gross understatement.
Of course, you rent these things by the minute so we spent a few extra bucks and let the rest of the boys (and me) do a little joyriding down our quiet residential street.
I totally get the appeal of these things, but also can see how tourists regularly get hit by cars on them.
4. Dulles Air and Space Museum
The Smithsonian actually has 2 air and space museums.
One of them was closed on account of the Covid.
The other one is located out near Dulles Airport and came highly recommended by my neighbor, who lived in DC for a long time.
Sure enough, he was right.
This place was incredibly impressive and was like taking a walking tour of the history of flight. From very rudimentary planes from the Orville and Wilbur days, to modern military planes and space shuttles including one of the most notable, Discovery.
This thing was massive.
We explored both levels for quite a bit, and even found the vessel that the Apollo 11 crew (including my good friend, Neil Armstrong) plummeted back to earth in:
That was probably my favorite find in the museum, but if you’ve got any inkling of an interest in flight – you’ve got to check this place out.
5. National Zoo
I’m personally not a zoo guy.
I don’t hate them, it’s just not a place I really seek out and try to visit often.
Our kids, on the other hand, LOVE zoos.
I think every kid likes the zoo, but they get all jazzed up and run around the place like this is the first time they’ve seen a living animal.
I’m not complaining – when the kids are into an experience it makes it a thousand times more enjoyable for the adults.
That said, my take on the Smithsonian National Zoo is as follows:
- It’s a mediocre zoo.
- It’s free.
- The kids loved it.
The only other zoos I have to compare to are our own Cincinnati Zoo and the (also free) St. Louis Zoo – both of which are better zoos.
In fairness, perhaps my expectations were too high when I heard this place called the “national zoo.”
Names like that make me expect greatness.
Like the 1992 Dream Team was our national basketball team.
It also has the “Smithsonian” brand, which is synonymous with some of the best museums in the world.
All of that said, it was a fun visit – just lower your expectations and know that if your kids like zoos, they’ll like this one too.
6. Smithsonian Museum of American History
Many of the Smithsonian Museums were closed during our trip, but one that I was most excited about had recently reopened.
It was loaded with cool artifacts from every aspect of society. You could definitely spend a full day there.
The first section we walked through had advertisements and household items from various generations, including more modern days. It was kind of weird to go from saying things like “This is what Granny and Papa’s radio was like before they had TV.”
Then a couple of rows later, I was saying things like “This is what daddy’s first cell phone looked like in high school.”
Seeing stuff you used to own in a museum definitely makes you feel old.
Here were a few of our favorite things we saw:
Star Spangled Banner
Yes, they have THE flag that Francis Scott Key saw by the dawn’s early light. It’s massive (30 x 34 ft.), about 200 years old, and in a light-protected room where photos are strictly prohibited. So here’s a stock photo of it:
Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers
From the cinema classic The Wizard Of Oz, they had a pair of shoes worn by Judy Garland herself while filming the movie. They were rather faded, and according to the backstory they were just a cheap pair of shoes the crew bought and then fixed them up with a little DIY sequence job.
Abe Lincoln’s Hat
The wing of the museum with all the First Lady clothing and presidential artifacts was probably my favorite part. There was just so much to see that we ran out of time. However, right as they were ushering us out of the building I saw one of the most amazing things at the museum: Abe Lincoln’s hat.
As you can see in the write-up next to the hat, this was actually the one he wore on the night he was shot at Ford’s Theatre.
Which, by the way, after we left the museum I Googled it and we took a little walk over to Ford’s Theatre. It was closed, but I was surprised to see that it’s actually still a functioning theatre that hosts shows.
There were still plenty of DC museums we wanted to see but didn’t get a chance to – but the American History Museum should definitely be on your must-do list.
Gettysburg, PA – site of the epic Civil War battle is about an hour and a half from DC.
On our final day there, we decided to venture over and check it out because the kids had taken an interest in President Lincoln and I’d heard it was a really interesting place to visit.
The 22-minute film narrated by Morgan Freeman at the museum was the first thing we did when we arrived, and it really set the stage for what we were about to see. From there, we went into a 360-degree painting called the Cyclorama which gives you an interesting perspective on who was attacking from where, etc.
After those 2 experiences, we were ready for battle.
After the museum, I made the decision to download this app which uses your phone’s GPS to give you a guided driving tour of the battlefield.
It worked well, but I realized later that the bus tour was the way to go.
I was at one particular overlook and saw a bus guide out talking to his group about what had transpired at this spot. His story was so captivating that I immediately regretted not getting on one of the official bus tours.
So if you’re going to Gettysburg, don’t do self-guided like I did. Splurge for a bus tour.
There are countless monuments and memorials all around the town that it’s pretty overwhelming. We ended our self-guided driving tour at the cemetery, which is where Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address.
After we left the battlefield, we headed over to Eisenhower’s house which is in town. The inside was closed, but we were able to go walk around the outside and read about some of the time he spent there as president.
He also had a beautiful putting green in his backyard, which is something I really respect.
We slapped an “I Like Ike” bumper sticker on the van and called it a day.
DC is definitely on our list of places to go back to because there’s so much left that we didn’t get to see.
A Capitol Building tour, other Smithsonian museums, The National Archives, and so much more will be on our part 2 trip.
On our last night in the house, we tested our kids on a list of about 30 questions about things we’d learned on our 5-week trip. They actually soaked in quite a bit of information, which made us feel like our effort was a success.
Spending a week in DC was a pretty special ending to our road schooling on the East Coast.