August 08, 2010
We hit DC in the afternoon.
It was hot, and we were tired; as we drove through the streets of Washington the blue sky above was light and deep at the same time. The main streets of DC are wide and flat; it’s like the only other political city I’ve ever been to, Canberra, in that sense.
It was quieter than I thought it would be; trying to get in to Washington DC on a Saturday afternoon is nothing like trying to get out of New York on a Saturday morning.
Seriously, I can’t even begin to stress just how much easier it is, and just how much people prefer getting out of New York than getting into Washington.
Maybe it’s a perceptual thing, but it’s almost as if so much energy goes into the movements on the political stage, and behind closed doors, that the streets are left pleasant, but lifeless.
We parked and followed the bright t-shirts of the tourists as they grew denser in concentration opposite 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House has more gravitas in movies; probably because in real life, it isn’t accompanied by a swelling score, or the possibility that Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver are sneaking out of it, or Alan Cumming is sneaking into it, or the sense that anything interesting or important is going on.
It’s just real life. It’s not the movies or anything.
Flagging, we started to eye off people holding cups of coffee. I sidled up to one of them while we waited for the lights to change.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Hey. Wheredja get that coffee? And, if it’s further than two blocks, how much do you want for it?’
The consensus was that Starbucks was blocks behind us, so we figured the next most energising thing around was the Washington Monument. We walked again, under the warm sun, past the water we’d seen in Forrest Gump, and up the walkway to that green, grassy hill, where people walked and talked and lay on the grass and flew kites that soared so high they were just dots against the bowl of the sky.
The Washington Monument? Now that’s a lot of rock.
I don’t know if you’re supposed to, but I decided that it was an appropriate time to make a wish. So while Zara took photos and wandered the circumference of the Monument, I put my hand on the cool stone and made my case to George Washington, wherever he might be.
We made our way back past the well-kept parks, and Zara, as usual, was delighted by the squirrels we saw. One scampered up to us for a piece of pretzel and sat on the other side of the picket fence, taking tiny munches of the bread and watching us with a sort of complacent curiosity in its eyes.
‘I want it!’ Zara said. The squirrel, knowing it was safe behind the fence, munched on.
Once we’d found Starbucks (and found that Starbucks was closed), we decided to try Barnes and Noble, an oasis of cool in the Washington sun.
A block before we got there, we saw another squirrel. It sat by a planter bay in the middle of the street, and Zara’s eyes lit up with avarice.
And the squirrel knew, man. It knew. It saw Zara’s hands flex to grab and catch and it bolted to the middle of the tree trunk, about eye level, and then it made the worst and dumbest move possible: it froze. Flight and fight instincts balanced perfectly, and, caught between the two bulwarks of pyschological possibility, it was paralysed. Zara took another step forward and the spell broke; the squirrel darted downwards, then upwards, and then finally committed to escape and bolted up the tree.
B&N was blessedly air-conditioned. I love bookstores – the smell of books, the feel of the place. Say what you will about large chain bookstores, walking into one, and the cool, perfect air washing over you, the sight of shelves upon shelves stretching out so pleasingly… perfection.
And while Zara was distracted, I drank some of her frappucino.
It was delicious.
Caffeinated, we bid Washington adieu, and moved on and out to Lynchburg, Virginia.
There’s a different feel to driving through the South – the highways are lined with different forests, and, again, while it may just have been our perception, there was different feel to it.
We stopped for a break on the way, and stepped out of the car to find that the air was thicker; muskier.
‘What’s the smell?’ I asked.
Zara breathed it in.
‘Is that… cinnamon?’ she asked.
We were in the middle of nowhere in particular, up on a small hill in the parking lot of a post office closed for the weekend, and the air smelled lightly like cinnamon; I’ve never experienced it before, maybe I never will again.
And then, as evening drew in, things took a Supernatural turn.
Not the concept, the show.
Which, yes, is based around the concept.
Driving the lonely highways through Virginia, we sped over wooded roads and past looming, ramshackle houses that wore shadows like cloaks, like strangers wrapped up so tight in that dark cloth that all we could make out were their eyes. Clouds poured in from the horizon, and while it didn’t rain, lightnings flashed in their deepness of their hearts, lighting up the night. With the night around us, and an electric storm silently flaring before us, we drove on.
We pulled into Lynchburg about nine at night.
That town is so fucking haunted.
We drove through the back streets; they were quiet as the grave. I wouldn’t have been surprised to know that spirits were skulking around street corners, or drifting silent through the branches above us. Even the main streets, closed down for the night, were free of pedestrians or life. One car drove quietly behind us as we turned onto the main street – it was as if this was the annual weekend when the locals barricaded themselves inside and hid under blankets as the unquiet dead moaned through the city.
So thank God for the Holiday Inn, you know?
By the time we’d checked in, stashed our bags, and gone back down to the lobby, the skies had opened up; rain cascaded onto the streets of Lynchburg.
Inside the hotel, at the bar, a collection of young white men and women, dressed in their best, celebrated the aftermath of some event; based on absolutely no evidence, I’m going to assume that it was a debutante ball. Out the front of a lobby, a grim-looking man sat and chain-smoked cigarettes – an hour later, when I came out again, he was there, still, lighting one after the other. Occasionally, a group of black men and women, dressed to kill, made their way through the rain to the nightclub in the heart of town.
I stood, and watched the rain, and thought about ghosts and hotels and hauntings, and movements in the midnight hour.