For the last couple of summers, Owen has spent a few weeks attending a biking camp based here on Capitol Hill. Kids learn about cycling safety and the rules of the road, then they get to apply them as they take bike trips to fun and interesting places all around the area. As far as I know, there’s nothing else like it in the city, and as a biking enthusiast and city explorer myself, I think the entire concept is pretty fantastic.
Havner Summer Camp is run by Nathan Havner, a teacher at my kids’ school. He’s super friendly and extends an open invitation to parents to ride along with the group on their excursions. He reminded me of this after I ran (well, biked) into them in the neighborhood, so I decided to take him up on the invite and go to camp for a day. I was curious to see exactly how the whole biking-in-the-city-with-a-bunch-of-6-to-11-year-olds operation goes down. Plus, I could get a good blog post out of it. (2015 UPDATE: The camp has changed over to Capital Cycle Camp.)
After checking the schedule, I opted to join them on a trip to Arlington National Cemetery. Mr. Havner’s brother, Deven, who also works at the camp, is a licensed tour guide and would be leading the group on a walk through the grounds. While I’d been to the Cemetery a few times before, I’d never done much more than stroll around (and am almost embarrassed to admit I hadn’t even witnessed the Changing of the Guard in person!), so I was looking forward to a proper tour of an iconic DC site.
First, I have to give huge props to Havner Summer Camp. The organization, safety, and fun of the whole experience is incredibly impressive. Half of the campers (the older, experienced riders) biked the entire way, while the others (the younger newbies) rode to Eastern Market Metro, then took the subway and met at the Cemetery. I joined the former, biking in lanes down East Capitol Street to the Capitol, then down the Mall, past the Monument and Lincoln Memorial, before crossing Memorial Bridge for the final stretch to the Cemetery.
The entire ride was just over five miles and, aside from one odd bike malfunction, it all went quite smoothly. Actually, it was kind of a blast — the big group of kids on bikes gets a lot of attention from Mall-goers (especially when they wave and yell out greetings to other big groups, like Boy Scouts and Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters who were in town to celebrate their 100th anniversary).
Biking is prohibited in most parts of Arlington National Cemetery, so we locked up bikes by the Welcome Center when we arrived and set out for our tour on foot. It started with a brief history lesson about the Custis-Lee Mansion (the house on the hill), General Robert E. Lee, and the establishment of the Cemetery (for specifics, you’ll have to take a tour yourself…or read about it here). From there we walked up a main road and heard more background about ANC — who can be buried there, how they are buried, that over 400,000 servicemen and notable Americans are laid to rest there, that funerals take place every single day, some of the ways visitors pay tribute, and more interesting tidbits.
We made our way to the Eternal Flame and President Kennedy’s Gravesite, where he rests along with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and two of their children, a prematurely born baby who died at two days old and a stillborn daughter (JFK, Jr. is buried at sea). Along one wall on a terrace overlooking the Cemetery, his inaugural address is etched in the stone, and the graves and flame are in an area just behind it. Small metal signs are posted nearby requesting silence and respect. It’s all a profound and peaceful tribute to a fallen president.
We continued on to the Memorial Amphitheater and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to observe the Changing of the Guard. En route, we learned more about the Cemetery and the ceremony we were about to see — why some headstones are more elaborate than others, that the guards live in quarters beneath the amphitheater, the extensive and intense duties of being a Guard of Honor.
Again, there were silence and respect signs, and Mr. H (Deven) talked to the campers about how important it was to observe that; the Changing of the Guards is serious business, and they will actually stop the ceremony to call out disrespectful onlookers.
Once the exhibition begins, it’s easy to understand why. The meticulous intricacies of the ritual are amazing, from the sentinel’s sharp head movements as he checks the new guard’s ensemble to the precise number of steps they take to the impeccable synchronicity of their actions. For the entire 12 or so minutes, the campers (myself, included) were captivated by the dignified and poignant homage to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
As we made our way back to the Welcome Center after the ceremony, we stopped at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial and explained the significance to the kids. (I experienced a “Dang, time flies!” moment upon the realization that I was the same age as many of them when the tragedy occurred.) We also saw the grave of Joe Louis and found out that he did not technically meet the requirements for burial at Arlington, but President Reagan waived them to allow for his interment there.
That about concluded our tour, which lasted at least a couple of hours. And I have to note that all of these interesting nuggets of information and the sights described above are just a few of many to be gleaned and to behold on a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Whether you go on a formal tour or just walk the grounds on your own, it truly is a must among DC experiences.
Arlington National Cemetery is located in Arlington just over the Memorial Bridge. It’s open daily 8am -7pm from April to September, and 8am – 5pm October to March. The Changing of the Guard occurs every half-hour from April to September and every hour from October to March. Admission to the Cemetery is free.
If you go:
– Garage parking is available if you drive. Get directions here.
– You can take Metro to the Arlington Cemetery stop on the Blue line.
– There are restrooms in the Welcome Center and the Memorial Amphitheater. I recommend taking the kids before you begin your tour, as you’ll be walking awhile before you reach the amphitheater.
– Be sure to prepare the kiddos for the parts that require silence and respect.
– If you opt for a guided tour, check out DC by Foot — they offer free tours; you can tip as much as you want when it’s done.