WASHINGTON - Take a "freedom ride" - it's the best way to see the monuments and memorials in our nation's capital.
Last spring, my sons and I rented bikes and zoomed off to say hello to Mr. Lincoln, pay tribute at three war memorials, crane our necks at the Washington Monument, make a quick stop at the White House, visit with Mr. Jefferson, and take in a demonstration at the Capitol - all in four hours.
Bikes are a breeze for covering the long stretch between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial - one big national park with lots of wide walkways and side paths to ride on.
We started our tour at the Old Post Office, tanking up on calories before taking off. There's a food court inside, and the bicycle rental place - Bike the Sites - is on the back side of the building. We were outfitted with Trek mountain bikes with baskets, plus bicycle locks, helmets and maps. Then we were off - my sons, Evan, 27, and Ethan, 24, leading the way to the Washington Monument.
From the beginning, the boys were exuberant - bikes make them that way. And that was the spirit I hoped they would feel in their capital - home to stunningly evocative monuments to war heroes and presidents, set on a vast expanse of green parkway. I was exuberant, too - in no small part because I found the Trek bicycle so easy to ride and keep up with my sons.
We zoomed around the Washington Monument, appreciating its gallant height but skipping the climb up inside - we'd already done that.
Next stop, the World War II Memorial, which opened in April 2004. It is a suitably lovely commemorative honoring the 16 million who served and the 400,000 who died. The lively fountain is surrounded by stone monuments for each state.
We parked and locked the bikes before entering through the archway. That's what you do at the memorials - it's not right to ride bikes in and disturb other people's reflections. As we walked around, we noticed that some state markers had memorial wreaths propped against them, a poignant reminder that this is not just a pretty site, but a place to remember the lives of real people.
Then it was on to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The last time I visited here was at night, when I was deeply moved by the simplicity of this glossy black granite wall, stretching 493 feet with its simple, dignified listing of names of those who died. By day it also has a silencing effect.
I watched as a park ranger helped visitors trace the name of a loved one from the wall. It was clearly a poignant moment for this couple; I did not disturb them to ask their names for my photo.
Off we pedaled to see our beloved Mr. Lincoln sitting so peacefully in his marble edifice. Visiting here as a child, I always whispered some secret to this gentle white marble president who looks so approachable. This time, though, I read the Gettysburg Address inscribed on one wall. My eyes welled with tears.
Back where the bikes were parked, in front of the Reflecting Pool, a high school band from Oklahoma struck up a rousing rendition of "God Bless America."
It was a short ride to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. As we wheeled up, I caught the fearful face of a soldier staring straight at me - eerily realistic as a shaft of sunlight highlighted him. The 7-foot statue is stepping warily with his 18 brother soldiers - a keenly crafted portrait of soldiers on patrol. Walking around this group, my sons were silent.
At this point I was amazed at the ground we had covered. The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial are about a mile apart. Though many visitors can cover that ground in a visit, catching a memorial or two along the way, it's a hearty trek. But on the bikes, we were ready for lots more.
We took off around the Tidal Basin to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson stands an impressive 19 feet tall in his domed shrine.
"It's modeled after the Pantheon," said Ethan, my architect son, pointing to the circular, holed dome above. He reminded me that Jefferson so admired the Roman temple's dome with its oculus that he designed his home, Monticello, with a similar, though smaller, dome.
I must say, I do love it when my kids assist with my education.
After this, we rode down the National Mall toward the Capitol, where a large demonstration was being held to urge cessation of the genocide taking place in Darfur, Sudan. It was gratifying to have my sons experience our national right to stand up and speak out.
We listened to some speeches, then headed on. It was easy enough to weave around the crowds on the bikes.
In fact, the ease of avoiding people throughout our ride was surprising. There are so many paths and wide walkways that we could either ring our bicycle bells or ride onto the grass.
"You can ride on the grass - it's national parkland," the bike-rental worker had assured us.
On our entire route, we had to cross only a few streets, and we simply dismounted and walked across with the lights.
The bikes were a freeing experience compared with the traffic and parking hassles we would otherwise have faced. Without question, this "freedom ride" was the most fun we've had visiting D.C.
Seeing D.C. on Two Wheels
Bike the Sites
Old Post Office Pavilion
12th Street N.W., between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues
The kiosk is open seven days a week, March through November, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. fall and spring; 9 a.m. to
9 p.m. summer. Sunday opening is 9:30 a.m. You can ride independently, or take one of the company's guided tours of the capital's sites by day or night. Tours cost $40 for adults, $30 for children 12 and younger (includes the bike, helmet, water and snack).
Independent bike rental costs $7 per hour or $35 per day for a mountain bike.
Child trailers, tandem bikes, wheelchairs and mobility scooters are also available.
Lay of the land
Many of the monuments and memorials are on the National Mall - which is the expanse of green in front of the Capitol. But National Mall is also used to describe the open space between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.
It's easy to follow a map and ride to the monuments, but here are some addresses:
15th Street and Constitution Avenue
23rd Street and Constitution Avenue
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
South end of 15th Street S.W. on the Tidal Basin
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Constitution Avenue and Henry Bacon Drive N.W.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
West Potomac Park, Independence Avenue beside the Lincoln Memorial
National World War II Memorial
East end of the Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument
There are many other monuments and memorials. For information, visit the National Park Service's Web site at www.nps.gov, then enter the name of the monument. Most of the sites are lit at night, illuminating their beauty. Park rangers are on duty until 11:45 p.m. and D.C. police are on patrol, so night visits are safe and uncrowded.
Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp.
- Anne Chalfant