There are two basic ways to visit Washington, the mundane, boring, tourist way like millions of lemmings mindlessly following the herd or my way, far more exciting thanks to Dan Brown. Brown wrote
The Lost Symbol set in Washington's most frequented buildings. Read his book (or not), but follow my strategy below.
At the eastern end of Washington's National Mall, after pushing through a mob of protesters outside, I try to rush through the Capitol Visitors Center like Brown's hero, Robert Langdon and race towards the Rotunda. Unfortunately, I'm stuck behind lemmings and must pass through an x-ray machine. Security is tight after recent shootings in June at the Holocaust Memorial Museum (a guard was killed) and in July outside the Capitol. (an assailant was killed by police) Langdon whisked through in time to make a speech. Not me. Four guards huddle around the x-ray machine. One gingerly pushes a gloved hand inside my coat and slowly pulls out the explosive red, round object. "It's an apple," he announces. They breathe a sigh of relief. "You can't bring food in here; you have to eat it outside," he scowls in authoritative mode. Quick-thinking like Langdon, "I'm diabetic," I lie. It works. "Go ahead," says the sympathetic guard.
At the Rotunda, Langdon finds a severed hand with tattoos on the finger tips pointing towards the ceiling above where Brumidi's 1865 fresco depicts the
Apotheosis of Washington, America's most famous Mason, ascending to heaven as a God.
An attractive forty-ish woman carrying Brown's book spots me with my Dictionary of Masonic Symbols and suggests, "Let's team up. I'll play the heroine, Katherine Solomon; you're the Harvard prof. Let's solve the ancient Masonic puzzle together." I like the idea of sharing taxi fares. No time for small talk; I nod. We hurry outside, hail a cab and arrive at the House of the Temple, regional headquarters of Scottish Rite Masonry, 1733 Sixteenth Street NW.
Outside the main entrance, two seventeen-ton sphinxes guard the bronze doors. This is where the villain with an intricately- tattooed body, drinks from a human skull. We find no clues other than 33 columns and 33 ceremonial chairs. An attendant suggests a free public tour Mon.-Thurs. from 10 am to 4 pm.
Undaunted, we dash back to the Mall to The Library of Congress. There are over five hundred miles of shelves here, enough to stretch from Washington, DC to Boston. Forget the books; we are making a daring escape, eluding the CIA by cleverly riding the book conveyor belt between the Library's three buildings. Annoyed staffers advise us that we can take no pictures inside the reading room and that the conveyor belts long ago were defunct. Brown writes fiction, I remind myself.
Undeterred, we race off in another cab to Kalorama Heights, slightly northwest of Du Pont Circle. Here, Peter Solomon, my fabulously wealthy mentor, and I will be held captive in a mansion owned by the villain, Mal'akh, a 33rd-degree Mason who wears heavy makeup and a blond wig. Someone should call both 911 and the fashion cops.
"Let's go to The National Gallery," I suggest artfully, but my sidekick frowns, pulling out a laptop from her purse. "In the book, Robert and Katherine access the website www.nga.gov to solve the puzzle contained in Albrecht Durer's Melencolia 1." The image contains a magic square that helps us break a key code.
Meanwhile, in the "Jungle," centerpiece of the U.S. Botanic Gardens, CIA Director Sato tries to figure out our whereabouts. Katherine and I are now at Freedom Plaza at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Thirteenth Street. The plaza's vast surface of inlaid stone depicts the Pierre L'Enfant's layout of Washington's streets.
"Did you know," my partner asks "that Martin Luther King Jr., for whom Freedom Plaza is named, wrote much of his 'I have a dream' speech in nearby Willard Hotel?" She is amazing, but the plaza is Brown's red herring; no Masonic symbols here.
The CIA stake out the George Washington Masonic National Memorial across the Potomac. It towers over Alexandria, Virginia. They think we are headed there to examine the large Masonic library and artifacts including Washington's family bible, locks of his hair and myriad items used during his funeral. As usual, they are wrong.
We arrive at the National Cathedral, sixth-largest cathedral in the world. It must be higher than a thirty-story skyscraper, and I've never seen so many stained glass windows. "200," says my know-it-all partner "and there's a fifty-three bell carillon and a 10,647-pipe organ." Katherine begins to annoy me. We seek sanctuary here inside the Gothic masterpiece. We encounter more puzzles, but there is light at the end of our cathedral. Meanwhile, an attendant listens to the Redskins playing in the Super Bowl. Yes, Brown certainly writes fiction.
Finally, we make our way to The Washington Monument and convince the park ranger to allow us to ascend to the top where we enjoy a panoramic view. We observe the shining dome of the U.S. Capitol. We see "the illuminated facades of the Smithsonian museums...beacons of art, history, science, culture." Suddenly, we realize why Brown has chosen the symbolic obelisk for the denouement of his novel.
"We forgot the Statue of Albert Pike in Judiciary Square," says my encyclopedic partner, still clutching Browns' book. "It's decorated with Masonic symbols such as the double-headed eagle, accompanied by a weeping virgin holding a Masonic banner with the number 33 inside a triangle." Frankly, I'm tired of Masonic symbols for one day, and I can't reveal the entire plot.
The Da Vinci Code sold 80 million copies in 51 countries and inspired a wave of niche tourism. The Lost Symbol threatens to accomplish the same. It has topped every bestseller list, will doubtless feature Tom Hanks in another movie and make Dan Brown a far richer man.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
If you go
Washington DC Tourism: Website: http://beta.washington.org/
Visit Alexandria: http://visitalexandriava.com/
George Washington Masonic National Memorial: The memorial and museum is a bonafide tourist attraction, research center and library, community center, performing arts center and concert hall, and meeting site for local and visiting Masonic lodges. An outdoor walkway at the top is accessed by an elevator that slopes inward to conform to the temple structure. Access is free and there are knowledgeable guides.
The Metro: The subway system is the best way to get around D.C. - efficient and reasonably priced. Subdued lighting helps get you in The Lost Symbol mood.
Where to stay: You might find Arlington cheaper than Washington. The metro system provides easy access. In Arlington, try: Crystal Gateway Marriott: 1700 Jefferson Davis Hwy. (703-920-3230); Marriott Key Bridge Hotel: 1401 Lee Hwy. (703-524-6400); Hotel Palomar: 1121 N. 19th St., (703-351-9170)
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