“Do you want me to take your picture?”
I’m standing at the top of the Washington Monument, near the line for the elevator down to the bottom. I’ve come around to the line from the wrong side and have accidentally cut ahead of the 20 or so people already waiting. By the time I realize my mistake, going to the back would mean a long wait. So I stay put.
Behind me are a dozen or so Chinese tourists, all men, taking pictures of one another in groups of two and three. Hoping to distract them from the fact that I’ve cut in, I ask: “Do you want me to take a picture of all of you?”
They seem excited by my offer, but rather than cluster together and hand me a camera, they line up one by one to take a picture with me. For each man who poses, three cameras go off. One man holds up his fingers in a peace sign.
“Xiéxié,” they say, one after the other. Thank you.
This goes on until the elevator arrives. I’ve always hated having my photo taken, and today I’m sweaty from a long bike ride. But they’re tourists on the Mall. Six years ago, it was my job to make sure they had a good story to take home with them.
Just out of graduate school, I’d spent a summer and fall as a Student Conservation Association intern in Utah at Arches National Park. When my six months were over, I got a “real” job in San Francisco. I was no longer earning $10 a day, but I also wasn’t living in a national park, hiking for a living, and meeting people from around the world. And while my time at Arches had been wonderful, I’d always felt a little robbed—interns don’t get to wear the park-ranger hat. So when the grant for my job in California ran out in the spring of 2005, I took an internship on the Mall with the hopes of landing a summer ranger position in a national park out west.
I’d been to DC before—on class trips to the Capitol, with my family, passing through on the way to camping in the Shenandoahs. But being a ranger on the Mall, even an intern, gave me a key to the inside of the theater when I had only ever seen the stage.
“Excuse me—where’s the visitors center?”
I was working the desk at Survey Lodge, the small hut between the Washington Monument and the Tidal Basin that looks more like a place where gnomes might live than the official visitors center of the Mall.
“You’re here,” I said. “How can I help you?”
The man was holding his daughter by the hand; she was six or seven.
“No, the real one,” he said. “With the films and the exhibits and the stamps.”
I looked around. Two single-stall restrooms in a space whose name, “lobby,” was generous. It could hold a family of four and one stroller, provided no one else was waiting in line for the water fountain and the family was fairly close-knit. There was a wall of brochures—the same brochure, row after row after row.
“This is it,” I told him.
Built of marble left over from the Washington Monument and meant to serve as the boiler room for the structure’s elevator, Survey Lodge has no film. Or exhibits. It does have the rubber stamps of each monument, which are a staple of National Park Service sites and a destination themselves for the visitors who collect them.
I took a map and drew the places where he could find films and bookstores and exhibits. He asked once again for the “main” visitors center, and when I told him, again, that this was it, he sighed and looked at his daughter. She looked at me, then back at her father.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
I wondered again why there wasn’t one large visitors center somewhere on the Mall with movies and history, a bookstore and maps, where tourists could spend an afternoon learning about the history of the area. It would be a place I’d like to visit.
I told her, “I don’t understand either.”
All national parks have a code name, usually the first two letters of the first two words. The Washington Monument is WAMO, and it’s one of my favorite places on the Mall. WAMO! It’s like something exciting is about to happen.
When WAMO reopened that spring of 2005 after a months-long renovation, lines wrapped around the monument. People waited hours. Online tickets were sold out far in advance, and by 7:15 am the first-come, first-served tickets were gone for the day.
I lost my voice from shouting a pop quiz to folks in line and took pictures of, and with, more tourists than I can remember. Some got in; some were turned away. The entire day felt like “WAMO!”
A few lucky tourists got a walk-down tour of the inside of the monument, led by a ranger who could tell the story of each of the commemorative stones—donated by the states, some cities, a few foreign countries, and the Vatican. Part of this talk is still given today during the elevator ride from the top back to the lobby, but it’s not the same.
Next: The time the cherry blossoms refused to cooperate