Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to visit DC. I couldn’t really tell you why — as a bright-eyed eight-year-old, I didn’t really care for politics. Once I wrote a letter to President Bush when he was in office. I received an automated reply in the mail and immediately became jaded. The president had not seen my message, I knew, and for some reason this bothered me more than it should have. It didn’t seem worth it to put in effort reaching out to people who I figured would never hear me anyway.
But I still liked the idea of DC. I wanted to see all of the museums, the monuments, the cherry blossoms in the spring. I don’t know what drew me to it so ardently, but I knew I needed to go. For years, I pleaded my parents to take me there, but it never quite worked out. We continued our shorts trips to Michigan and Illinois instead.
So when I realized my time on the East Coast was coming to an end, I knew it was a chance I had to take. I purchased a ticket online, and within a few days I was on a bus to DC alone, unsure of exactly what I was going to do there but filled to the brim with nearly a lifetime of pent up excitement. It had taken more than a decade, but I was finally on my way to my dream destination. I couldn’t concentrate on anything fully for the entire three-hour trip.
DC is somehow both what I expected and nothing like what I expected at all. As I sauntered out of Union Station, my backpack and heavy winter coat weighing me down, I was surprised to see the top of the Capitol building peeking out over the trees. It was the coldest day of the year, but I braved the wind chill and hiked toward the building. I stared up at it with wide eyes, stunned by its immensity. I didn’t expect to see the Washington Monument peeking out from behind it, so close I knew I could walk to it without any trouble. I was even more surprised when I realized the Lincoln Memorial was only a bit farther from that. By the time it turned dark and I got on the metro, I realized I no longer felt the cold because my entire body had grown numb. I hadn’t noticed at all.
That’s my favorite part about going somewhere new — you lose yourself in your surroundings and by the time you’re aware of what’s going on again, you realize you skipped nearly every meal of the day and that your feet are blistered and you’ve lost all feeling in your fingers. You almost don’t mind. You’re too busy discreetly wiping the tears from the corners of your eyes as you browse the Pulitzer Prize photographs gallery at the Newseum and savoring the West African spinach stew you stumbled upon in a hidden underground venue. You get caught up in the sights and sounds, in the people you meet on the street, and it’s a reminder that sometimes traveling alone really is the best option. It’s the only way to lose yourself completely.
But what made DC so different from my other travels is how unapologetically patriotic it was. Philadelphia isn’t afraid to boast its role in American history, but it never made me feel the appreciation for my country that DC did. After a brutal election season, there was nothing more uplifting than staring up at the gargantuan Martin Luther King Jr. carved into stone. I felt my heart well with pride as I read the quotes engraved inside the Jefferson Memorial, bold and certain. For a moment, I felt at peace. I hadn’t felt that way for a while.
Our country has been through so much in its short lifespan, and I know there’s a lot more to come. We are in a constant battle between right and wrong, between justice and inequality. We are writing history as we live and breathe, something we often forget during the ebb and flow of our lives. But I’m certain of that now. As an eight-year-old sending discarded letters that would never find their recipients, I may have felt ignored, but after walking past years of history and hardship and the unmistakeable traces of the unrelenting human spirit, I know now that we can no longer afford to go overlooked. To make a difference, we must be heard.
So thank you, DC, for the warm welcome, for the street musicians and the smells wafting out of nearby restaurants and the Christmas lights adorning the White House. And thank you again for reminding the jaded child in my heart that her voice is still in there somewhere, waiting to be heard.