Like most parents, my husband Jim and I anticipated mixed emotions during our son's last year of high school.
We sailed along smoothly until around December, when we were blindsided by another rite of passage: the Final Family Vacation. This morphed into the Blow-Out Spring Break Trip. Some local seniors had planned cruises together with their families and also headed to various beaches, typically taking friends along.
Under pressure, we brainstormed for a unique family trip that we, our senior, and our 6th-grade daughter would all enjoy. Wary of looming college tuition bills, we huddled together and tapped into something from a by-gone era: The Senior Trip to Washington, D.C. We modeled how high schools used to cap off the required economics and government classes with a class trek to the nation's capitol.
Our son brought a classmate, eliminating the need for conversations with parents unless he needed money. My mother and sister rounded out our party, to the delight of our youngest.
Our trip catered to high school seniors. Attendance at scheduled activities was optional, as was getting up early to cram in every tourist attraction. We figured that just being in a city like Washington D.C. is educational, with its historic buildings and diverse population and visitors.
We made the approximately 11-hour road trip in two cars, stopping off for the night mid-way so that we would arrive rested by early afternoon.
Lodging for four nights in the city was our greatest expense. I'm a member of an arts organization headquartered in D.C., The National League of American Pen Women, which rents rooms to members.
However, friends have found affordable hotels in Virginia or Maryland, and taken the Metro to the city each day. To save more, you could make this a two-night stay like schools used to do, and have a great trip that's easier on the wallet.
We arrived in the rain and our travel umbrellas came in handy as we walked several blocks, passed the White House, and headed for the monuments on the National Mall. The Tidal Basin was lined with breathtaking cherry trees in full bloom; The Cherry Blossom Festival celebrated its centennial year. We walked on a pink petal carpet along the shores.
The Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial were awe-inspiring. The same with the Franklin D. Roosevelt monument, which includes a statue of his dog Fala, as well as Eleanor.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial opened in August 2011 and spans 4 acres. Its life-like, 30-foot tall statue is a must-see. Letters on huge stone slabs around the mall showcase key quotations from King's speeches, and many other celebrated Americans, creating a fascinating history book.
The memorials to all the wars were sobering, including the World War II memorial, which features geographic locations. Strolling by thousands of names engraved on the Vietnam War Memorial was an emotional experience.
A few weeks before, a call to our congressman had snagged us an official guided tour of the capital at 8:20 a.m. on Day Two, the only time available. We canceled in deference to our night-owl seniors, but a later, intern-guided tour was more personal and became a highlight of the trip. Note: A tour of the White House takes a call six months or more in advance.
The Smithsonian Institute Museums are wonderful, and free, but this time we chose some lesser-known sights. I hustled up from sleep to wait in line at 6 a.m. for free tickets to the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Imprinting, an interesting tour to see how paper, (non-coin) U.S. money is made.
We toured Ford's Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was shot, and paid $10 each for advance tickets. Ford Theatre tour tickets are free if you go the same day, but we didn't want to take a chance the tickets would run out. The adults enjoyed the minute-by-minute audio account of events surrounding the Lincoln assassination, while the youth ignored the audio and simply looked around.
The line was mercifully short for a free walk through the National Archives, which has many of our nation's important documents, like the U.S. Constitution. Our kids recognized the building and some of the interior from the Nicolas Cage movie “National Treasure.”
Some evenings, the teens went walking for hours in the city, which is exceptionally clean and is well patrolled by police. Cell phones with GPS capability allowed us to give them more freedom on this Senior Trip. We made several jaunts on the Metro to save time, and also to experience public transportation at its finest.
Our adventure ended too soon, and we left uplifted by a relaxing visit to our nation's capitol. We hope to have inspired our senior as he goes out into the world.