When Is a Trip Not a Vacation?

We are standing on a street corner in our nation's capital, hoping the on-coming cab doesn't spray us with the gathering rainwater, which is not draining under the mall but rather collecting on Constitution Avenue. We are cold. We are wet. We are on vacation.

Sort of. Rather than head south to Florida, where virtually everyone else from Michigan will become reacquainted with that big, hot, yellow thing perched in the sky, our family of six will explore our nation's history through a week of sightseeing in Washington, D.C.

In the planning phase, I become the poster girl for control freaks everywhere. I make a chart of our itinerary, complete with morning attractions, lunch plans, afternoon sites, restaurant selections, and designated evenings for monument hopping or crashing in our hotel room.

Only I forget to pack the chart, which is just as well. My kids are too old to let something like a color-coded daily itinerary go unnoticed. And anyway, the plans already are seared in my brain. Monday, Air and Space and a walk past the White House. Tuesday, the National Gallery. Wednesday, Union Station. Thursday, Arlington. Friday, the Capitol.

I have tickets where necessary. Reservations where required. And a keen understanding of the Metro rail system. But what I do not have is control over God and His skies, which are about to open once again.

No matter. We pay too much for a couple of cheap umbrellas and head into the mist, which the forecast says will later be showers.

The coolest thing about going to Washington D.C. is the constant, socially acceptable, completely natural conversation about liberty. At the National Archives, we hear a tour guide say, “This is the most important building in the world. This building houses the documents that guarantee our freedom.” A monster of a thought.

Over breakfast, a grandma at the next table explains the three branches of government to her grandson.

On the subway, we talk with a man who works at the Supreme Court about what would happen if they remove the words “under God” from the pledge.

During lunch, we chat with another Michigan family about how our Congressman's office really belongs to us all. Our kids join in with questions and often with answers that prove they are listening, even when we think they aren't.

While the conversations are rejuvenating, the rain is relentless. But surrounded as we are by granite and marble and limestone, the rain is more than just wet. It's part of the experience, lending an eerie reality to the solemnity at Arlington, reflecting our response to the grueling scenes within the Holocaust Memorial, but also creating a magical walk from the Lincoln Memorial to Dupont Circle on a dark night.

Washington in the rain is a trip, not a vacation. Yet even in the rain, its beauty and majesty remind us we are blessed to be citizens of the grand experiment. We think and talk about government. We recall that republic and democratic are words not defined by political parties but by our way of life. Explaining this in terms understood by each of our children at their own capacity challenges us to weave the simple image with the sophisticated idea.

To be honest, we whined about the weather. But we were free to whine, as loud and as long as we liked, and next year, we'll be free to take a vacation somewhere else in America &#0151 somewhere warm and sunny. Teaching that lesson was the whole point of the trip.

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from first grade to freshman year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She also has worked in marketing and public relations positions in corporate and agency settings. Mostly, she spends a lot of time in her mini-van, where the real work of parenting actually happens. Learn more about Marybeth and her column at www.marybethhicks.com.)

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