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.

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SIMON SMITHSON is an Australian writer and editor. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but frequently finds himself in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His work has appeared on both sides of the globe in print and online in publications such as BLIP, Every Day Fiction, Beat, The Loop, My Sinking Boat, and more. He has a tumblr at www.simonsmithson.com and he runs a lifestyle experiment at www.selfhelpless.net.

22 responses to “TPAC 2010 – Day 20: Mr. Smithson goes to Washington”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Nice write, Brew. You captured it brilliantly.

    That may have been my very best decision on the whole trip -that frappucino. It was genius to order a hot coffee and a coffee frap. I feel bad that you didn’t get one too, so I’m glad you snuck mine when I wasn’t looking.

    And that damn squirrel!!! It knew! It totally knew. I was so close to just reaching out and grabbing it but the the terror and confusion in its little tiny eyes stopped me! Oh! if only that little squirrel knew how close it came to having been squished in my luggage and sent back across the Pacific for a nice new life in New Zealand. Silly monkey.

    And I notice that you left out all the bits where you tried to scare me. All through the drive when the lightning was flashing, Simon was telling me ghost stories and using words I didn’t know. Like cornhole. Then when we got to the hotel, everytime I would get in the elevator, Simon would put on a spooky voice and try and scare me again. Brew, you were so much trouble in South. I jest don’t know what got into yew.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Thanks brew!

      That frappucino was so good. I can’t believe I didn’t get one. If only I’d known how good they were. I went through so many in San Francisco, you have no idea.


      That squirrel tuned into your psychic wavelength and freaked out. It foresaw.

      Cornhole is one of the scariest words in the English language. And I really liked the hauntedness of Lynchburg. I hope to go back in a season when it rains. That would be a lot of fun, I think.


      “Going down…?”

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    Now wait a minute. Are you two going to be the commenters here, all by yourselves? Or did I just get up earlier than anyone else? Or is this some kind of postmodern stuff?

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    And here’s my own post-buster (I met him last week):


    • Simon Smithson says:

      That’s so cool.

      I can’t get over how cool that is.

      In what capacity did you meet him?

      • Don Mitchell says:

        This organization:


        hosts a reading series. Ruth and I read in their series in April. Last week they ran what they called “one and one,” where you read a poem you like, followed by one that may have been influenced by it. I read a Wendell Berry one, “Earth and Fire,” followed by my own “Shifting Agriculture.”

        When I introduced the Berry one I asked if anybody knew his work, and this guy (Nickell) sitting off along the wall said, “I know him well.”

        So afterwards we talked. Nickell’s from Kentucky, as is Berry, and that’s how they know each other, and that’s how I met Nickell.

        This all does rather wrap around to TNB because in the early nineties I was trying to find Ed McClanahan (self-interview etc. here recently) and saw that Berry had dedicated a poem to him. So I managed to get Berry’s address, wrote him asking to be put in touch with Ed, and it all worked out well. This was all before Google and I was not succeeding in locating Ed.

  4. Becky says:

    It’s just real life. It’s not the movies or anything.

    Well, you know, except for the special ops sniper guys on the roof. I’m kind of surprised there are only two of them.

    Well, only two of them we can see.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I think the rest were wearing chameleon suits…

    • Becky says:

      The ones who are visible are decoys. They’re actually White House interns.

      The real ones were watching you.

      “Look at that one. The dark-haired one. He looks like the kind of guy who would grope a national monument. Keep an eye on him.”

  5. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    Lynchburg isn’t haunted, it’s just that boring. Ha. I still can’t believe you guys stopped there. Wish I would have known in time. I was only an hour from you guys. Like I told Zara, if you all wanted to see some crazy zombies, you should have stopped in at Thomas Roads Baptist Church, the very heart of Southern Baptist country. Live evangelicast every Sunday.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      Jeffrey! Yeah, sorry – we ended up making a last second re-route and got into town late.

      God, SO many Baptists!

      I’d love to hang out in Lynchburg again sometime. Next time, you’re the first person I’m calling.

  6. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    What will I do when you run out of road trip posts? I so enjoy these.

  7. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Ooh, man, the idea of haunted Maryland and Virginia has always given me the chills. I’m not very supernatch attuned (haven’t been for ages), but the idea of persistence of old old struggles in those old old quarters is a powerful one.

    I do have to pick a bone, though.

    “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.”

    Aw hell no, man! I hate the antiseptic feel of big box book stores. For me books are meant to be stacked and scattered improbably, vassals to serendipity. They should be leaning in creaking shelves about to fall over, that you have to shuffle around to avoid bringing the whole row down. They shouldn’t smell like the Random House exec’s scent of books, but rather like the university librarian’s scent. Musty and almost hostile, knowing very well your lust for the pages is too powerful for any distaste for dilapidation. Give me the beaten down, too hot, poorly dusted corner bookshop with the glowering proprietor tho looks as if the final cash transaction is a waste of his ever loving time.

    • Simon Smithson says:

      I love how haunted-seeming those places are. It would have been nice to able to go for a wander around Lynchburg at night, but rain stopped play.


      “the glowering proprietor tho looks as if the final cash transaction is a waste of his ever loving time.”

      I know that guy. I’ll have to introduce you to my local second-hand store, the Merchant of Fairness (oh, so clever).

      To me there’s beauty to be found on either end of the spectrum, but not in the middle. I love second-hand and indie stores that are put together with little to no regard to sales technique; it’s like coming home to walk into one of those places. There used to be a place near me, McLaren’s, with three stories of books, and tiny wooden staircases with barely room for two people to get past each other on linking each floor. I could lose hours in there.

      On the other hand, places like Borders and B&N do the nouveau book scene so very well – it’s all so classy and streamlined. It’s like what I assume Steve Jobs’s home library must be like. There’s an Australian version, Readings, which, every time I walk into one of their stores, I feel should have a fountain.

      What kills me are the places with horrible generic names like ‘Bookworld’ that are all a thousand remainder bin titles set out on white plastic shelves, with clearly no interest on the proprietor’s part in the merchandise except as a mercantile unit. I mean, I will happily look down on the hipsters who work in chain stores (as they’re looking down on me for the fact that I’m actually shopping. Ugh!), but at least they read.

      I guess.

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