Jutting into the slate gray waters of the Potomac, a few hundred yards north of Reagan National Airport and about four miles south of downtown D.C., Gravelly Point looks out over a sweeping view of the city skyline. Across the river, the Capitol and the Jefferson Memorial are just rooftops half-hidden in a low sprawl of trees, the Washington Monument a mere pencil tip poking into cloud-streaked blue.
Yet nobody is looking at the view. Necks crane skyward. A low rumble gathers in the distance, before building into a crashing roar directly overhead. With a flash of lights and a blast of wind and metal, a passenger jet swoops in for landing — hurtling overhead so close you can make out the dents in the belly of the plane.
A stone’s throw from National’s main runway, Gravelly Point is the perfect place for plane spotting. It’s also a popular place for picnics and pick-up soccer games, a launching point for boats and, for me, a place to get away from it all and unwind. In my more athletic days, I used to plan my running routes so I could make pit stops at Gravelly Point, dawdling longer than I should to gawk at the planes. Sitting about three miles into the Mount Vernon Trail, which starts at Theodore Roosevelt Island to the north and snakes southward along the Potomac for 18 and a half miles to George Washington’s estate, the park is something of a thoroughfare for joggers.
These days, Gravelly Point is a site for more sedentary pleasures — Saturday morning excursions, lazy picnics in the sun, casual people watching and the occasional Frisbee toss. Now when I come down here it’s with my husband and two-year-old in tow, toting a diaper bag and sippy cup instead of running shoes and a sports bottle. Yet the little park — an unpretentious patch of grass bounded by the mud-splashed banks of the Potomac on one side and a parking lot on the other side — is still one of my favorite local escapes, a low-key getaway in a type-A town.
Families flock here when the weather is nice. As planes thunder overhead, kids press plump fists to their ears and squeal with the thrill of it all. Bicyclists and joggers slow their pace as they pass through, eyes trained to the sky. Meanwhile, the serious flight aficionados camp out for hours to track aircraft and landing patterns, clutching transistor radios tuned to pick up airport broadcasts, ready to whip out their binoculars at the first rumble of engines.
Wind patterns determine whether planes will take off or land over Gravelly Point. When winds blow from the north, aircraft take off over the park, pitching steeply overhead and arcing to the west to avoid restricted airspace. Winds from the south bring landings over Gravelly Point — more dramatic than take-offs because the planes come in lower and sweep over the river before beginning a swift plunge to the ground right over the heads of gawking picnickers. At busy times, planes can come at you every few minutes, as close as 100 feet overhead and at roaring speeds of 150 miles an hour.
Yet for all the din of engines, it’s a curiously relaxing place.
I’m not especially interested in airplanes. I’m even a little afraid of flying. As I scan the horizon for approaching lights, though, it’s hard not to get caught up in the simple pleasure of anticipation, every take-off and landing an excuse to forget myself for a spell.
Here by the banks of the Potomac, the bustle and bluster of downtown D.C. feel far away. The grand monuments across the river — those oversized symbols of power and ambition — look miniature against the skyline. As I linger by the water’s edge, watching for that dizzying swoop of planes overhead, I can feel my own fussings and frettings recede into the distance, overblown gripes and fixations shrinking down to size.
There’s nothing like witnessing the fierce, brute power of flight from up close — that seemingly impossible trajectory of metal through air — to restore your sense of proportion and to remind you just how small, in the end, you really are.