There is a thing about returning to a place I have once lived some decades ago. It is not just the memories that food back of places I once roamed. But, rather, the continuous shock of the new.
I keep on forgetting how Washington, DC and the surrounding suburbs are in constant evolution. New Administrations bring in new people to set the tone for the region in the course of a Presidential term.
Some 39 miles away, Baltimore looms away from the power structures of the Pennsylvania Avenue NW. A historic city that evokes the inspiration of Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem, of Edgar Allen Poe and his dark poetry and prose, of Charles S. Dutton and his civic duty to bring a different image of the city to television, and of John Waters who can flip his beloved city on its side through a crazed form of camp.
Beyond these two historic cities are fields of tangible legacies. Some still evoke scenes of bloodshed as a nation divided fought for the cause of humanity. One felt that people who seen as inferior should remain as such. Others believe that it is wrong to enslave humans in a nation that promoted freedom through democracy.
All of this provided the backstory for the work that I came to do. Primarily, I came to fulfill my new membership in the Washington Automotive Press Association. During the run of the Washington Auto Show, WAPA hosted their EV Day to engage local media members on the present and future of electrified mobility.
As I have covered the auto show on this site, I am waiting for other related articles to be published on related topics, as we speak. For the purpose of this article, let me take you on a travelogue of my adventures in another place I once called home.
Adventures, such as this, always start at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Given the distance and purpose, this adventure provided its own pre-arrival storyline, setting the tone for the next few hours.
My Southwest flight from MSP to Baltimore was packed. It would have put me in a mood, but there was a kernel inside of me that was looking forward to the landing of the Boeing 737 into BWI and the shuttle to where the vehicle I will be working with is parked.
Once I landed, things got much, much better. The new larger piece of luggage that I will be using for trips more than three days arrived in good shape, the shuttle arrived to take me to my vehicle, and, after a few moments, the vehicle was located and I arrived to load it up.
The vehicle was a 2019 Honda Pilot Elite with all-wheel-drive. This model year marked a mid-cycle refresh of this popular and preferred three-row midsized SUV. The big blue Pilot was waiting for me inside of an off-airport parking lot, and I was waiting to get on the road.
Once on the road, the route to where I was to stay for the first two nights started to come back into my psyche. Interstate 95 had a smooth surface that has to be one of the best pieces of tarmac in the country. Onto the Beltway, I was happy to see that traffic was navigational all the way to my exit at Connecticut Avenue. Then, it all became all too familiar. This part of Connecticut Avenue was a short strip through Chevy Chase – the community where old money meets with those who finally made it in life. The doctors, lawyers, and media personalities who reside in Chevy Chase help make it the most desirable place in the Capital Region – in my opinion, of course.
The first two nights in the area would be spent at my colleague William Hopper's house on the District side of Chevy Chase. This part of DC is absolutely lovely. You are just above Rock Creek Park, an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of global power. The topography is lovely, the streets could use more work. But, one has to remember that this part of DC was established before the turn of the 20th Century with most of its homes built before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Another vehicle was waiting for us – a 2018 Audi Q5. This vehicle was arranged by Audi for the purpose of testing a set of new technologies enabling Traffic Light Information and a further enhancement regarding speed optimization.
We soon conducted our testing in Northern Virginia, starting in Great Falls. Getting there, we went through an even lovelier part of DC along the Potomac River. It was one of those places that I may have remembered traversing through but could not recall as if it was yesterday. Nineteen years is a long time for memories to be evoked.
I will not get into the snafu that occurred while conducting our test in the Audi. It did lead us to the steps of the headquarters of the Volkswagen Group in the USA in Herndon. If you’re expecting something along the lines of its global headquarters in Wolfsburg, you will be very disappointed. It was just several floors with discreet signs all over, and two "showrooms" representing Volkswagen and Audi. No Bentleys. No Lamborghinis. No fanboy fantasies!
Traffic is and always will be a stressor for me. Luckily, I wasn’t driving. Otherwise, I would be finding alternative routes so hard that I will fail to get us back into DC. Along the way, I received my first major shock of the new. As we were driving through Tyson's Corners and McLean, I saw an explosion of new-to-me construction that obscured what I once knew of the area. Apartment blocks, new office towers, and Metro's Silver Line rail service made a simpler, kinder part of Fairfax County into one induced by an overdose of steroids. My mouth dropped at the insane amount of growth since I left the area in 2000.
Thursday morning provided another round of the shock of the new. From what I recall, I have never attended the Washington Auto Show. The nearest I have been to Mt. Vernon Square was the occasional visit to the DC Eagle – a bar that I used to go to for a few years during my time in the area.
It is safe to say that the entire neighborhood has completely changed over nineteen years. A series of newer office buildings and a mixed retail-residential development called CityCenterDC would take over the area near Chinatown and what is now called CapitalOne Arena. CityCenterDC comprised of about four buildings with expensive condominiums on top of very high-end retail, with names such as Hermes, Dior, and Louis Vuitton adorning the walls of the lower levels of these buildings. All of the sudden, I felt very poor – again.
Before we were to begin WAPA EV Day, our breakfast consisted of part-WAPA board meeting, part-"meet Randy Stern and welcome him into WAPA." The food at Farmers & Distillers was absolutely amazing. Meeting new people in my business was the icing on the cake. Working alongside them through WAPA EV Day was that extra bit of contrast-colored icing that made the cake dazzle after it was all consumed.
Having spent the day inside the new(er) Walter E. Washington Convention Center between WAPA EV Day and walking through the Washington Auto Show, I will say that my missions were fulfilled. I love meeting new people in and around my business. They fueled new energy into my soul. It’s been too damn long since I had people really genuinely interested in what do I and so forth. That definitely warmed my heart.
At this point, I must state that I never had a bad food experience while I was in the District. Bill was definitely a great guide, especially when it came to restaurants he frequents. The lunch at The Avenue was followed eventually by dinner at Blue 44, and a lovely breakfast at the Olympia Cafe on the Maryland side of Chevy Chase were all absolute winners in my book.
Departing from Bill and his husband David’s home in the District, I was heading northbound on Interstate 270 towards Frederick. Part of this trip out East was to do some travel writing for another outlet focusing on several places beyond DC and Baltimore. I settled on doing a travel piece up in Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War. My plan was to stop in Frederick and get on my weekly conference call for my consulting gig and head up US Highway 15 to the famous battlefield and town.
That was when the whole story went sideways.
The entire plan for Gettysburg was thwarted thanks to the first several miles of US Highway 15. It was a literal parking lot. Having no patience with non-moving vehicular traffic, I reset the course for another chapter of the Civil War – the bloody battles at Antietam.
Did I mention that it started to rain? It was quite wet from 1:00PM onward…
I meandered my way towards the town of Sharpsburg where over 22,000 soldiers died on its soil. General Robert E. Lee's Confederate forces met Major General Robert McClellan's Union army in all-out, no f—s given warfare. In the end, McClellan repelled Lee back across to Virginia, but not without suffering severe losses on both sides.
I have never been to Antietam. I read about in history books from elementary school to university. This was not the battle to end the conflict, but one of who had the most resilient army to hold their ground over the cause of humanity. That was what the battlefield felt like some 150-plus years later. The rolling topography of West Central Maryland can tell many stories of regiments wiped out thanks to an argument over slavery.
From there, I crossed into West Virginia. This is actually one of the best parts of the state – that tea spout that meets Maryland and Virginia on the eastern end. Shepherdstown is the most welcoming community you will find in West Virginia with LGBT-friendly spaces and a cool vibe within its historic structures. From there, the countryside yielded the spot where the Shenandoah River splits from the Potomac – Harper's Ferry. If time was on my side, I would have stopped into the historic area where I once visited some 20 years ago. I also passed up the spot where John Brown planned his raid on the nearby armory for a slave revolt that almost happened.
After driving through Antietam, Harper's Ferry, and back out through Frederick, I checked into my hotel in Gaithersburg for my final night in the DC Area. It was an alright hotel. Just wished it had better sound deadening from the loud conversation coming from the next room over. Took some time to do some work and napped before dinner with friends I have not seen since their departure from the Twin Cities.
If there is an emotional highlight, it was seeing Erich and Steve again. We met a superb restaurant in Gaithersburg called Ted's Bulletin. What ensued was catching up on each other. I felt that I dominated the conversation, and I felt guilty of doing so. They assured me that I was OK. This dinner reunion was all about the company and reconnecting with my friends. I still miss those guys. It was a wonderful moment. And, the food was superb.
The next morning, I returned to Ted's Bulletin for my final meal in the DC Area. It was again very delicious, and the service was on point. It was sad to leave an area I once called home, but Baltimore was calling. I had to answer.
After some meandering across Howard and Baltimore Counties, I made it into the Inner Harbor. My first stop was Oriole Park at Camden Yards – of course, it would be. The ballpark opened in 1992 as the first wave of neo-retro ballparks bridging baseball's part with its present and future. The ballpark beautifully incorporates an old warehouse, turning it into offices, retail, and dining. Having been at a game there, the place still gives off a wonderful vibe that welcomes many to this old port city. It still looks great today.
Some post-lunch meandering took me into the heart of Fells Point. Broadway Market was under construction, but that did not deter anyone from enjoying the neighborhood's hip and cool vibe. When I first visited Fells Point in the late 1990s, I began to notice that it would become the center of Baltimore’s urban cool renaissance. It has since exploded a major and unassuming gathering place for locals and tourists some twenty years later. I actually like this part of Baltimore.
After checking into my final hotel out by BWI, I went back into the city for a late dinner call. With time to kill, I wound up in the Federal Hill neighborhood south of Inner Harbor. While this is an example of classic Baltimore with its rowhouses and narrow streets, it has also transformed into another hip and cool neighborhood for younger residents. I noticed a few rainbow flags flying in the neighborhood – and some eye candy – anyway…
Eventually, I would drive back into the Fells Point neighborhood for an exercise in parallel parking where there is nominal room to do so in a Honda Pilot. Once I accomplished a tight and neat parking job, I walked a few blocks to meet Brian, his husband Mike, and two other couples for dinner in a tavern – OK, restaurant with a bar – called Ale Mary's. The place combines great steaks, seafood, and tater tots. The latter turned out to be their signature set of dishes and proven quite popular with our table.
And, just like that, my time back in the DC and Baltimore areas was over. A decent night’s sleep at the hotel, a short drive across the street to drop the Honda Pilot off, and I was boarding onto another packed Southwest flight back to MSP.
There was a theme that pervaded my time back East – the idea of human connection and, in several cases, reconnection. My overarching goal of this trip was to reconnect with the place I once called home. I also wanted to connect with new colleagues in my business through this membership with another media association. Lastly, I wanted to reconnect with friends I met who live in this area – as well as connecting with new ones in the same timespan.
Considering all of the above, this trip was a success. It was not perfect, by any means. But, I did walk away with connections to old and new friends, new colleagues in automotive media, and a regained sense of place – closing the gap of two decades.
You know, I may be back sometime soon…
DISCLAIMER: Vehicles in this story were provided by American Honda Motor, Inc. and Audi of America. All travel expenses were the responsibility of the author.
All Photos by Randy Stern