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I am a Denver-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Visiting the Arlington National Cemetery

Gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery

Gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery

There are Arlington National Cemetery tours, but I as I walked toward the main entrance I knew I didn’t want one. I preferred the idea of walking the grounds of the vast cemetery on my own. The highlights, which surely would be all I’d see on a tour, are easy enough to find. Anything else, those other points of historic interest, I wanted to discover on my own. Or at least with the help of a printed out and highlighted map from the cemetery’s website.

The Women in Military Service for America Memorial

The Women in Military Service for America Memorial

I emerged from the Arlington Cemetery Metro stop, looking the length of Memorial Avenue from the Lincoln Memorial behind me on the National Mall to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial ahead. The memorial was dedicated in 1997 as a tribute to women who have defended American in the past, do so in the present, and will in the future.

A map of Arlington National Cemetery

A map of Arlington National Cemetery

At the memorial I turned left and the immediately right, climbing the hill on Roosevelt Drive as I followed the signs to the gravesite for President John F. Kennedy. When I was a child my parents took us kids on a long road trip up the east coast. One of several stops we made was in Washington, D.C., and at Arlington National Cemetery. To this day my dad is still attracted like a moth to a flame when it comes to cemeteries, so it surprises me that I have no further memories of Arlington than when I stood at Kennedy’s grave.

The graves of Jackie and John F. Kennedy

The graves of Jackie and John F. Kennedy

For instance, I had zero recollection of the house on an even greater hill above the Kennedy’s graves. I asked an attendant what it was, and he smiled at me as though I were some sort of uneducated lunatic. The Arlington House, as well as the basis for the national cemetery, was unknown to me, at least until I started researching my trip to Washington, D.C. But somehow I hadn’t put it together, that this was the one-time home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the reason why the cemetery was in this spot – to remind Lee, if he ever returned, of the costs of Civil War.

The Arlington House

The Arlington House

Lee never returned, though, and the U.S. government later was ordered by the courts to compensate his son for unlawful confiscation of his inheritance. From that settlement, the national cemetery, which was already in place with a mass grave of Civil War soldiers only steps away from the Arlington House, was established. Now the home, surrounded by gravestones for soldiers of wars spanning several generations, is symbolic on several different levels.

A parlor room inside the Arlington House

A parlor room inside the Arlington House

I wandered the grounds, unbelieving I was in the home of Robert E. Lee, a distant relative of President George Washington on his wife Martha’s side. Nor could I comprehend the view from its doorstep, a panoramic of Washington, D.C. across the Potomac River. It was a beautiful place, albeit one of sadness because of its history and the eternal resting places of those who surround it.

A mass Civil War grave outside the Arlington House

A mass Civil War grave outside the Arlington House

I paused momentarily at the mass grave for Civil War soldiers, took a moment to attempt to comprehend it all – the death that is the basis for one of the most spectacular monuments in the Washington, D.C. area – and then continued out from amongst the hedges surrounding the site. Still deep in thought, I continued down a hill, across Sheridan Drive, and up another hill on the Crook Walk. I checked the time, knowing it was tight, and moved on because I didn’t want to miss an immediate opportunity to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The Crook Walk

The Crook Walk

No matter how hard I try, I cannot recall watching the changing of the guard. I’m certain my father took us to watch the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns. There’s no way we’d travel all that way and not see it. Not with his military background and interest in such historic ceremonies. But the image just wouldn’t come to mind. I gave it no more thought, though, as I saw the Memorial Amphitheater for the first time that afternoon, and an army soldier marching back and forth in front of the graves.

The Old Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns

The Old Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns

The history behind the selection of the unknowns and the Sentinels – The Old Guard – who keep watch, changing on each hours, is fascinating and well worth reading about. Unfortunately, I cannot truly do it justice in just a little space here, so I recommend reading about it on their website. It is worth the time.

Inspection at the Tomb of the Unknowns

Inspection at the Tomb of the Unknowns

I watched the ceremony, which affected me in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It was heartrending to think of these men who are forever entombed here, no one ever knowing who they are but God. But forever we as American citizens are in their debt for the sacrifice they made to protect this country, as well as others, in World Wars I and II and the Korean War. An empty tomb remains from the Vietnam War after the remains buried there – those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie – were later identified and reinterred in Missouri.

Memorials for those who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia, and in the rescue of hostages in Iran

Memorials for those who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia, and in the rescue of hostages in Iran

Several other sites were highlighted on my map, all on the backside of the amphitheater, so after watching the changing of the guard ceremony – which I’ll talk more about later – I continued on behind to see other spots of interest. The memorials for the Space Shuttles Columbia and the Challenger, the Mast of the Maine, the Nurses Memorial, and more were all there. I wanted to spend more time learning about them than just a few minutes, but when I looked at the time again I saw it was nearly the top of the hour.

I rushed back along the south side of the amphitheater and back to the Tomb of the Unknowns. If I was going to do anything twice during my stay in Washington, D.C., then it was going to be seeing that ceremony another time. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity, since I didn’t know when I’d return. And as I walked back out past the Women In Military Service For America Memorial and down Memorial Avenue toward the National Mall, I’m glad I took the time. I skipped out on seeing other things – the Pentagon Monument, the Confederate Memorial, the graves of President Taft and several other recognizable names – but those could wait for another time.

The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns

The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns

When I’ll return to Arlington National Cemetery I cannot say. But I know I’ll be back, now having a better appreciation for my father’s interest in such places. I can’t say that means I want to make it a hobby – visiting cemeteries while on vacation – but with the occasional exception, especially for a place such as Arlington National Cemetery.

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5 Comments on “Visiting the Arlington National Cemetery”

  1. agnesstramp March 26, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    Nice place I must admit. Would one afternoon be enough to explore it all?

    • Jason's Travels March 26, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

      You could probably see most of it in an afternoon, yeah, but a few more hours would probably be best since there is so much to see.

  2. rayh526@msn.com March 27, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    What???? It is now called the Arlington House? It was known by its orginal owners names – The Curtis-Lee Mansion
    Great story and summary of a fascinating place to visit.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Washington DC 2012: Arlington National Cemetery – JFK Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier | MASCrapping - April 30, 2013

    […] Visiting the Arlington National Cemetery (jasonstravels.com) […]

  2. The Eternal Flame at Kennedy’s Grave | Jason's Travels - November 22, 2013

    […] assassination in Dallas, I’m reminded of my trip to his grave site this year in Arlington National Cemetery. It was a return visit of one I did a great many years ago as a child, while on our family road […]

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