When we went to Washington DC, Arlington National Cemetery was more of an after thought. It was one of those “if we have time, we’ll make it over there” type of things. I’m not sure what convinced us to actually make our way over there, but I am so grateful that we did.
When we arrived, and walked what felt like a few miles from the subway station, we had two options: walk the cemetery on our own or hop on a little trolley and get a guided tour for a relatively small fee (I think $7/8.) Being the cheapskates that we were, we decided to walk it on our own and headed out to the cemetery. A whopping two minutes later, we were back inside at the kiosk buying our tickets to hop on the trolley because it was hot, we were tired, and we didn’t realize how big this place was until we were literally a few feet away from it.
The trolley was by far our best decision we made in DC. It gave us a ton of history of the cemetery, dropped you off at the key locations, and let us know that if we stuck with that trolley for at least the first two stops – we’d get to see the changing of the guard. And before I get too far into why that was truly a life changing moment for me, I want to give you a little background on us. Nathan is the biggest history nerd I know. And I barely know my geography, much less my United States history. Art and creative thinking was much more of my focus in school so our East Coast Trip was pretty much split for the both of us – DC and the history for Nathan and NY and the architecture for me. We both were interested in everything we were doing, but had obvious parts of the trip that were more for one than the other.
Back to the trolley. We stopped at various gravestones, viewed the eternal flame, learned about who was buried there (unknown and known) and so much through this trolley ride. Then we headed over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and I was pretty much done at this point. It was hot, I was tired of walking, and we got put on the far right end of the guard/tomb area which I presumed was the worst view possible. My feet ached from the long journeys to the other monuments we had visited earlier in the day and as far as I was concerned, the changing of the guard had little significance to anything. (Remember – not a history buff here!)
We watched the guard walk back and forth on the platform, shifting his gun and moving in a way that seemed so elegant and effortless for close to fifteen minutes. Only whispers could be heard throughout the crowd and suddenly, the ache of my feet began to feel more and more dull as I realized his dedication to his job. His perfectly timed movements, the relaxed and determined look that never left his face, and the ability – no, the drive – to do this for a half hour time span.
Not long after I realized that I actually had a front row spot to the guards entering the roped off section as we were being asked to step aside for them to come through. The same look, the same movements, and the same sense of dedication surrounded each and every guard that passed by us. Everyone (other than a little old lady that apparently thought she had the right to be in the path of the guards because she had a walker) was so quiet. So respectful.
We learned that during the 9/11 attacks, there were in fact guards up there doing the very thing we were watching. Guards with a perfect view of the Pentagon from where they stood. Guards that watched the plane hit the Pentagon and didn’t leave their station, much less their position, and kept doing what they were there to do without missing a beat. I remember that day like it was yesterday and how hard the news hit me, even as a teenager. And I thought back to that day, not being able to figure out how I could have possibly done what they did.
And I realized that that moment – and this ritual – was much bigger than I was. The ache in my feet retreated completely and goosebumps replaced my perspiration. The troubles of the trip, the stress of the day, and the worries the followed me from Wisconsin ceased to exist. Gratitude and a humble sense of happiness overcame me, reminding me just how great my life was. And how much freedom I have thanks to people like the ones I was photographing and their sacrifices. And how much I have to be thankful for, each and every single second.
I can’t tell you what the rest of the tour was like (although it wasn’t much) because I was still lost in thought from what we had witnessed, but for that alone – I would recommend it. I would HIGHLY recommend it. As much as I’d like to say I carried those sentiments with me for the rest of the trip and beyond, but I didn’t. But I can say that as I write this out again, remembering just how special that moment was, I feel thankful. Grateful. At peace. And a little disappointed that not more than a few minutes before I started writing this post, I was acting as if I had nothing to appreciate.
Maybe it was the fact that I didn’t fully understand their purpose there or what exactly they were guarding, but I walked away from the cemetery with a renewed sense of purpose. A purpose filled with gratitude, happiness, and the ability to realize that life usually isn’t that bad if you look at it in the right light. So if you visit DC and need a little reminder that the crowds really aren’t that bad, and the heat really isn’t that terrible, and that the walk to get around the National Mall area and beyond isn’t that long – go here. Go here and forget about whatever was troubling you minutes, hours, or days ago – even if it’s just for the moment.