Riding Herd on Capital Visitors
Urban ranger sees the world in Washington. REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK
WASHINGTON — WHEN you can nearly spoon up the humidity like Jell-O, the powerful evacuate Washington and the not-so-powerful who are left behind ... well, they try to be cool. Congress has gone home, and even the President chooses to deal with the Middle East from outside the Beltway.
But in Monumental Washington, what one local chronicler calls ``democracy's Disneyland,'' everyone is happy to be here. If they can find (and afford) a parking space, their troubles are over. The rest of the day is free and there are few lines to wait in.
Here, in the cool shadows of history's symbols, National Park Service Ranger Wayne Braxton witnesses an amazing and constant parade of humanity.
``The world comes to Washington,'' he says, describing the diversity of the crowds that visit the capital of the free world.
The Mall, the velvet green that stretches from Capitol Hill to the white, temple-like Lincoln Memorial, teems with tourists in full regalia - fluorescent clothes, hats that beg the question ``why?,'' and Bart Simpson T-shirts.
Summer swelter deters few, according to National Park Service figures: A third of the 5 million people who visit the capital Mall annually do so in the summer.
It is an oasis of tasteful architecture and careful landscaping girded by city traffic, federal bureaucracy, and the gaudy trappings of tourism (this season's specials are T-shirts commemorating Mayor Marion Barry's summer of scandal and life-size models of George and Barbara Bush to pose with for photos).
The Mall remains the strip of inner-city peace envisioned 200 years ago by designer Pierre L'Enfant, says Park Ranger Braxton, who helps to oversee it.
This is not your usual National Park, acknowledges Mr. Braxton. ``If I see a bear, I'm the first one out of here,'' he says.
But the man-made setting of monuments to heroes of democracy can be as awe-inspiring as nature, he adds. ``Sometimes people have that look on their face, or it's in their voice ... they feel very strongly,'' he says of the wave of emotion tourists often feel when history becomes tangible to them.
ASSIGNED last week to the Washington Monument during a day of miserable, nonstop summer drizzle, Braxton explains that this is where Mall visitors tend to coagulate because it is the only ``controlled access'' site among the free museums and monuments along the mall.
Tourists must queue for the elevator ride to the top of the 550-foot obelisk. Even on this drizzly day, Braxton estimates there's a 45-minute wait. Indeed, he says, unless the monument is closed there is always a line.
It is in this constant line of tourists that the ranger has a captive audience for his beloved catalog of facts. Braxton is legally blind, able only to read large lettering, but he commands a huge store of historic detail with which he lays in wait for the daily arrival of smart-alecs-in-training hoping to stump the ranger.
``I like to ask kids to guess how many stones it took to build ... or how much it weighs,'' he says. (The answers: 36,491 stones, 90,854 tons.)
And if anyone feels that the line is unreasonable, Braxton reminds them that the wait for the one-minute ride to the top could be worse. Between 1888 and 1901, steam hoists took from 12 to 20 minutes to reach the top.
The Washington Monument line, where the tourist blur comes into focus, is a great vantage point from which to see the diversity of people taking in history.
``You do get a variety of people,'' Braxton says as around a bend in the line appears an Amish family from Lancaster County, Pa. Dressed in black from bonnets and hats to boots, they are a startling contrast to the florid garb around them.
On line at the same time are Israelis, French, Pakistanis, Indians, South Koreans, Britons, West Germans, and a Gaithersburg, Md., woman who has lived nearby for 29 years but never visited the Washington Monument.
An Austrian man wants to know from Braxton the height in meters of the obelisk (169 meters), and then proceeds to offer his own unflattering and unsolicited analysis of the American people based on this kind of ``ruling people's architecture.'' Mr. Braxton endures politely.
By Braxton's count, tourists now carry videocameras as often as they do still cameras. Not one to make tourist jokes, he says there is one behavior that never fails to crack him up: the tourist who videotapes statues and even park rangers he doesn't know.
Fond of the different atmosphere of each attraction, Braxton says the ranger's job changes with each monument.
The serenity of the Jefferson Memorial is his favorite in all seasons, but particularly when the cherry trees bloom, creating a surrealistic cloud effect. The calm there probably is due partly to the fact that many tourists get lost on their way around the tidal basin and never find it, he says. Just 924,000 visitors came there last year, compared with 2.6 million who went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Braxton is used to long days on his feet, but the emotion ``can wear you down'' at the Vietnam Veteran Memorial, the most-visited of all the monuments. Its understated geometry starkly portrays the magnitude of the human toll of that war, and the ranger says he often finds himself having to comfort distraught visitors.