For most visitors to Washington, DC, the edifices of this country's history and workings as a democratic state are the regions must-see attractions. Monumental structures clad in white marble, steel, and glass, Classical or boldly modern in style, symbols of human progress, justice, and freedom. Memorials to men and women whose words and deeds have profoundly influenced the history and identity of the United States of America. Shrines to the dreams of an immigrant people. Many of them impressive, designed to convey a reverence for the ideals of a nation.
Yet marvelous as these sites are, they have only existed for a brief moment, the blink of an eye, compared to the land itself. To experience what is truly awe inspiring about America, a short excursion up the Potomac River to Great Falls sets things in perspective. This morning, shortly after daybreak, that's where I went.
The well groomed trails and boardwalks in the parks on both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the river offer access to a spectacular display of nature's power. Thundering cascades cut through a maze of jagged rocks laid bare by eons of constant erosion, the many falls enveloped in mist. Prehistoric looking turkey vultures glide in and out. Close to the roiling water, the roar is deafening, and the force of the current is deadly. It is an extraordinary place.
This terrible season of political discord has left many of us weary of the catchphrases of American populism, notions of what this country should be. I don't want to look at the Capitol or the Mall. But spending the morning in that small but relatively unspoiled spot just up river from the epicenter of our dysfunctional, squabbling bureaucracy, and now as I write watching a tremendous rainstorm fall from the sky, I am reassured that one way or another, we must ultimately and inevitably yield to the power of the natural world.