Neville Longbottom was not my favorite Harry Potter character. My thumbs are not green. I grew up in a desert. Still, I enjoy large swaths of vegetation for both their intrinsic aesthetic appeal as well as the positive instinctive message they send (Human being, there is water here). I also take a mild interest if I happen upon something interesting. And by interesting I usually mean carnivorous, gorgeous, poisonous, or delicious.
I was pleasantly surprised when Rachel and I visited the U.S. Botanic Gardens a little while back. That was a remarkably interesting excursion. Having that experience fresh in my mind, I didn’t protest when Rachel suggested we visit the National Arboretum.
Before I take you any further, let’s go through how to pronounce “arboretum.” I know you’re likely not reading this out loud (bully for you if you are!), but if Stephen King is correct that writing is a form of telepathy, as the resident voice in your head I want this pronounced properly. I don’t know why, but I really struggled with this one; I wanted to pronounce it “ar-BOR-i-tum.” That’s wrong. You pronounce it “AR-bor-ee-tum.” To get it right I had to imagine a bunch of hungry sailors waiting to dock before scarfing down the last morsels hardtack. As the ship pulls in, the captain calls, “We’re in the ‘arbor! Eat ’em!” ‘Arbor+eat ’em=arboreatem. Voila! Arboretum. Okay, let’s continue.
Our master plan for the trip was as follows:
- Bike to a recommended pizza joint, &pizza.
- Eat some pizza.
- Bike to the arboretum.
- Peruse the plants.
- Bike home.
The ride to &pizza went without incident. Just your typical ride into DC, really, except that there were a few more tourists (summer Saturday, after all) and the weather was significantly warmer than usual. By the time we reached &pizza every exposed portion of my skin was filmed in a fine layer of sweat. Our helmets were soaked. As we approached the entrance to &pizza I recalled commenting to Rachel earlier that day, “I don’t care much where we eat as long as it’s got air conditioning. Nice and cool.” &pizza had air conditioning all right, but the front entrance was completely open to the street, making it a touch warmer than I would’ve like. We sat deep enough inside that we mostly avoided the heat, but there was no escaping the humidity. As we left I donned my helmet and felt its cold and squishy lining press against my forehead. Ooooh, my sardonic inner-voice said, just how I like it…
Oh, I should probably mention the pizza. Apparently &pizza’s thing is to be a part of whatever community it’s in, so each franchise has the name of its location juxtaposed to “&pizza” on its signage. The one where we ate is located on H Street, so, unfortunately, from a distance this made the sign look a lot like “H8Pizza.” I’ve heard of people drinking haterade; does that pair well with H8pizza? As for the pizza itself, it was probably overpriced. It kind of tasted like really good frozen pizza, which is not all that bad…but it’s not all that good, either. I mean, I like frozen pizza as much as the next guy, but if I were dying of starvation in a desert and had to stagger toward either a mirage of &Pizza or a mirage of, say, We the Pizza, then I’d stumble in the general direction of the latter. You should, too, if you ever happen to be stranded in that same stretch of wasteland.
Anyway, after we finished our pizzas we began the second stretch of riding. It was still hot outside—believe it or not—and our bikes had been cooking all while we were eating, so it wasn’t long before we were glistening again.
We pulled into the National Arboretum and look at each other as if to say, “Now what?” We started biking through the park. We had biked a good mile or so through the arboretum, not really seeing anything, before we gave up and pulled over. We had no idea what to do. And it really seemed like the arboretum had no idea what we should do, either. We pulled up the park’s website (circa 2005) on my phone and, after consulting a map, decided to visit the National Grove of State Trees and the perennial collection.
The grove of state trees was pitiful. The signage and information plaques were in dreadful disrepair. The main exhibition featured a low wall with ceramic plates inset in concrete. Each plate displayed a state tree with a short description. The plates were generally set in alphabetical order by state, but there were frequent and unexplained departures from said order. As for the trees themselves, well, that was disappointing. Some trees in the grove were identified; most weren’t. We left the grove after stumbling across an overgrown shrub labeled “Dogwood, Virginia.” Hrm.
We headed over to the perennials. It was a small collection, and the peonies looked how we felt: wilted, blasted by an insouciant summer sun. I laid down in the shade of a begonia somethingorother tree while Rachel took some pictures. She soon joined me and together we reflected on how embarrassed we would be, as Americans, if some horticultourist (oh, clever me) from Europe or somewhere made it a point to visit the National Arboretum during his Washington excursion. I can just hear the cheeky Brit now, “Sink me! These Americans have let the place run wild, wot.” So much for American exceptionalism.
I will say, however, the National Arboretum has one of the cooler monuments I’ve seen in DC—the capitol columns. From across the field it looks like the Greeks were the first to make it to America, and left us a classical ruin of our own.
We strapped up and began the sweltering ride home. Heat lines rose from the baking asphalt, and after taking multiple water breaks we took cover in an air-conditioned Potbelly’s and cooled down with a strawberry smoothie.
With cooler heads and our fourth wind, we headed for home. It was still uncomfortably warm, but the last leg was made possible by some spotty—but blessed—cloud cover and a gentle breeze from Hushabye Mountain (or maybe just the Potomac).
In short, there are a lot of awesome things to do in DC. The National Arboretum is not one of them.