The National Security Agency’s DC-area headquarters is an open secret. Motorists pass its clearly delineated exit on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway every day, the exit ramp limply barricaded with orange traffic cones and a sign admonishing visitors. You get the sense you’re on camera for those few seconds as you speed past, your license plate scanned, tallied, analyzed.
In this area, you’re bound to run into the NSA eventually. I once went looking for an abandoned asylum, only to be rebuffed by a security guard who gleefully told me the NSA was buying up land around the area. “At night, they fly weird-looking aircraft overhead.” Then, an afterthought–“I probably shouldn’t talk about this.”
You hear whispers of the organization when out for a walk, at a party, meandering around town. We don’t tell ghost stories around the campfire, we gossip about the NSA. It’s our dreaded boogeyman, lurking in the shadows to tape our phone calls and read our email.
So it’s a bit odd to willingly go to the NSA on a snowy Saturday morning, but that’s just what I did this past weekend.
The National Cryptologic Museum is as close as most of us will get to the NSA. Open to the public since 1993, the museum is dedicated to the history of cryptology.
And there’s so much to see. Code-breaking machines from WWI and WWII, rare 16th-century cryptography books, a hallway dedicated to African Americans and women who contributed to American cryptology.
The exhibits are enthralling and full of interesting information. There are ingenious spy tactics, like invisible ink used during the US Revolutionary War. And there are occasions the US got burned, like how it took seven years to discover a gift given to the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union was fitted with a hidden microphone.
The museum is also great for families. Most of the exhibits are interactive, and free activity books teach kids about simple codes and ciphers.
I was expecting something a little unwelcoming, and I instead found an engaging museum loaded with fascinating tidbits. The docents were friendly and knowledgable, the exhibits modern and fun. And I didn’t once feel like I was being secretly recorded!
If You Go
The National Cryptologic Museum is -not- at the restricted entrance exit off of 295. Please don’t take that exit unless you work at the NSA. Everyone else should follow the directions here. The museum is about 20 miles from either Baltimore or DC and is not easily reached by public transportation. Hours are 9AM-4PM Monday-Friday and 10AM-2PM on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Admission is free.
There is also an adjacent Vigilance Park that houses real spy planes. I didn’t make it to the park as I had inadvertently stumbled into a blizzard. The planes looked pretty impressive as I drove past, but to be honest I was mostly just trying to keep my car on the road.
From the Underground Railroad to the battle that saved Washington, Maryland is awash with Civil War history.
On September 17, 1862, this peaceful-looking bridge was at the epicenter of the bloodiest day of fighting in American military history. The US Civil War had been raging for nearly 18 months, and the Confederate Army was moving north through Maryland. Union forces met the invaders at Sharpsburg. After 12 hours of fighting, more than 17,000 soldiers were dead, the above creek running red with their blood.
It is difficult to picture such horror when visiting Antietam today. Instead, it is a peaceful place that begs for quiet contemplation of the nature of war and solemn recognition of lives lost too soon.
If You Go
The Antietam National Battlefield Visitor Center is at 5831 Dunker Church Road in Sharpsburg, Maryland, and is open daily, 9AM-5PM. Antietam must be driven to and is about 70 miles from either Baltimore or Washington, DC. Single adult admission is $4; families are $6. The visitor center’s introductory film is fairly long but does a good job of explaining the battle. It is shown every 30 minutes.
Though few people have heard of it, Monocacy was the battle that saved Washington, DC. And it’s likely that even those few wouldn’t have heard of Monocacy at all, if not for the battle’s impression on a young boy who watched the fighting unfold from his basement.
When I first blogged about Monocacy, I was a bit dismissive, writing that it had been difficult to connect with a site about which I had previously known nothing. But, in the months since, I find myself thinking of that little boy from time to time. It’s far easier to comprehend the horrors seen by one child than it is to comprehend Antietam’s staggering casualties.
If You Go
The Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center is at 5201 Urbana Pike in Frederick, Maryland, and is open daily from 8:30AM-5PM. It is about 50 miles from either Baltimore or DC. Monocacy is a bit more public-transporation-friendly than is nearby Antietam, but the battlefield is very spread out and works best for tours by car. Admission is free.
I recommend reading up on Monocacy before you go and also swinging by Glory Doughnuts (storefront opening in April) on your way home.
3. Fell’s Point
The Baltimore neighborhood of Fell’s Point has seen numerous historical events since its establishment in 1763, from the death of Edgar Allan Poe to shipbuilding during the War of 1812. It also played a pivotal role in one of the Civil War’s most-famous institutions, the Underground Railroad.
For 12 years, Frederick Douglass worked as a slave on the Fell’s Point docks. Harriet Tubman, too, passed through this neighborhood, and she met her first passengers on the Fell’s Point waterfront. The neighborhood’s 18th-century buildings and cobblestone streets quickly transport visitors to the Civil War era, and it is impactful to just walk around the area imagining Douglass’ and Tubman’s daily life. But for a more robust approach, stop at Fell’s Point’s Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park.
If You Go
Fell’s Point is easy to reach either by car or by public transportation. The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park is located at 1417 Thames Street and is open from 10AM-4PM Monday-Friday and 12PM-4PM Saturday-Sunday. Adult admission is $5.
There are endless food and drink options around Fell’s Point; I recommend V-NO for a casual glass of wine.
With the vast number of wineries and breweries dotting the Eastern Seaboard, it is no wonder that purveyors of alcohol are looking to branch out into other markets. Enter hard cider (or just “cider,” if you live outside the US). This fermented drink–most commonly made from apples–is gaining popularity stateside, and one of the best places to sample it is a small cidery in Monkton, Maryland.
MillStone Cellars has been producing the drink since 2011. Using Old World techniques, heirloom apples are fermented in used barrels–repurposed from the wine and spirit industries–and then blended to create unique combinations of aromas and flavors.
Like wine, this cider changes as it ages and also varies from year to year. But, like craftbrewers, the folks at MillStone are constantly experimenting with their product. They make both cider and mead of all possible combinations–when I visit, they are attempting to blend kombucha with fermented honey.
Those unfamiliar with hard cider should note that this is not like the sweet stuff you can buy by the jug at the grocery store. This cider is acidic, tart, and decidedly adult. It is also surprisingly complex–Spicebush, a mead made with blueberry honey and the titular bush’s berry, tastes strongly of black pepper and finishes with a soft, nutty flavor.
Perhaps just as interesting as the cider and mead is the location itself, an 18th-century mill that is available for tours.
The mill’s character is enchanting, and staff seem just as passionate about the old building as they are about the drinks it helps produce.
MillStone is an inventive place that feels at once both Old Word and New Age. It’s perfect for those looking to expand their palate, soak up some local history, or simply waste away a Saturday in the most delicious manner possible.
But, a quick word of caution–the only bathroom is in the dilapidated-looking farmhouse next door.
If You Go
MillStone Cellars’ old farmhouse and tasting room is at 2029 Monkton Road in Monkton, Maryland. They are open on weekends, Saturdays from 12-6 and Sundays 12-5. Shockingly, both tastings and tours are free–visit early on a Sunday to beat the crowd.
Vegans should note that, while the majority of MillStone’s offerings contain honey, a few are completely free of all animal products. There is also some tasty raw vegan chocolate available for sale–I can personally vouch for the orange-infused raspberry and brazilnut flavor!
Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the “State of NASA” NASA Social event at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
NASA Socials are events during which NASA opens its doors to members of social media. That’s anyone with a blog, an active Twitter feed, Instagram account, Facebook profile, and so on. NASA Social events range from watching rockets launch to touring test facilities.
NASA has centers throughout the United States, and NASA Socials happen pretty regularly–follow @NASASocial to learn about events in your area.
My NASA Social event was built around NASA Administrator Charles Bolden’s State of NASA address.
NASA might not seem like a natural topic for this travel blog. It’s easy to forget that so much of what makes our lives easier as travelers–airplanes, GPS, weather forecasting, emergency transmitters–use components developed by NASA for space exploration.
And that word right there, “exploration”–isn’t that what travel is really all about?
Hopefully, one day people will be blogging about their trips to Europa and Mars rather than China and Egypt.
But the only way we get to those destinations is through the work being done at more-terrestrial places like Goddard Space Flight Center.