It was late in the vacation, and the three of us decided to split up, see stuff on our own and rendezvous at the hotel.

I headed straight back to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. That’s the one with the big elephant. Impressive as he is, that’s not why I was going there.

I had to see the old dude one more time. He’s like 5,000 years old, and someone found his corpse in the Alps about 15 years ago. Based on what they found, scientists have come up with a life-sized model. He’s got weapons, he’s got a more or less waterproof cape woven from grass, and he’s even wearing a bracelet holding some fungus that they think he might have used as a crude antibiotic. He’s looking around, either trying to find dinner or avoid an unfriendly arrow.

Hey, you do what you have to do.

I have to say visiting the nation’s capital was one of the highlights of the year.

When our son was 5, we said, golly, we haven’t been to Washington in a while, but he’s too young to really appreciate the Smithsonians. When he was 10, well, we’d better hold on for a while longer.

Suddenly he’s 16, life is getting away from us, and we’d better do this. He grumbled the whole way. Did I mention he’s good at being 16?

Undeterred, we pressed on. There are things every American should see, and a good number of them are in Washington. There is no place quite like the Jefferson Memorial, not just because you have to respect a person who said, “I cannot live without books,” but because he was such a thinker and a doer and his monument is so simple, standing next to the Tidal Basin off the National Mall.

We did the others too. We scaled the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On one side is inscribed the Gettysburg Address, which Mrs. Glover made us all memorize in the sixth grade. On the other is his second inaugural address – “with malice toward none, with charity for all” – so I sat and read every word.

We went to church at the National Cathedral. We toured Congress and sat in the House of Representatives. I made note of Truman’s words – “Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid – engraved at the relatively new World War II monument on the Mall.

The Air and Space Museum. The Holocaust Museum. The Library of Congress. The Vietnam and Korea memorials. All impressive, instructional and moving.

I looked up “The Jolly Flatboatmen” and “Mississippi Boatman” by George Caleb Bingham at the National Gallery of Art. However, a guide told me the Edward Hoppers were in an exhibit on the road – in Chicago. I did track down his “Ryder’s House” at a different museum. I don’t know a darn thing about art, but I know a couple of people whose work I like, so I doggedly pursued them, despite the great works surrounding me, silently speaking great truths to which I was oblivious.

But I was still drawn back to the old guy at Natural History. I think I ended up in that building three different times, the last time just to see him one more time. What was his life like? How did he make bows and arrows? What were his dreams and fears? What would we learn if could talk with him today?

I noticed the other day, when the subject came up, that the 16-year-old didn’t grumble so much. He seemed to have an appreciation for why we hiked all over the Mall and beyond in August.

Maybe Mom and Dad got one right.