What to do when you’re riding America’s longest escalator

Phillip Swarts Contributor
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The White House has more than 132 rooms, but it isn’t the world’s largest home for a head of state. The Jefferson Memorial’s dome is majestic, but it’s average-sized. The escalator at the Wheaton Metro stop in suburban Washington may not be famous, but unlike the White House or the Jefferson Memorial, it does boast a superlative — it’s the longest escalator in the Western Hemisphere.

This week I went to the Red Line stop in Wheaton, Md., just to ride the Wheaton escalator. At a length of 230 feet, it takes almost three minutes to ride from one end to the other. (I clocked it at two minutes, 45 seconds.) It’s one of the longest escalator systems in the world, just behind ones in Russia, the Czech Republic, and Hong Kong.

For anyone commuting to and from Wheaton on a regular basis, or for visitors going to see the escalator, here are some things you can do instead of twiddling your thumbs for three minutes:

1) Read the Gettysburg Address — President Abraham Lincoln’s speech is famously brief. After the initial speaker at the battlefield dedication ceremony spoke for hours, photographers thought they would have plenty of time to take pictures of Lincoln. Instead Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes, and no known pictures exist of the president giving the speech. The speech is so famous that it’s inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial. I read it aloud in one minute, 35 seconds. Just try not to annoy the people around you.

2) Read an interview — If you want to read something a little more current, and have a smart phone with access to the Internet, you can check out The Washington Examiner’s series of “3-Minute-Interviews.” Each one is a — you guessed it — three-minute interview with an important power-player or noteworthy individual in Washington, touching on important topics and issues of the day.

3) Learn how to make ganache — Pull out that smart phone again. The sisters who own Georgetown Cupcake — featured on the TLC program “DC Cupcakes” — insist you can learn how to make ganache, a chocolaty substance often used in professional baking, in only a minute. And making the ganache itself takes just three minutes. Check out the video to learn how.

4) Burn 20 to 50 calories — That’s the burn rate if you decide to walk up the escalator. Although the number of calories you’ll burn depends on things like weight, the Mayo Clinic estimates that walking up the moving stairs will burn between 20 and 50 calories. It’s not much, but at least you’re almost to a tall nonfat Cappuccino (60 calories) at Starbucks.

5) Listen to a new song — With the proliferation of smart phones and iPads, it’s easier than ever to (legally) download free music, such as iTunes’ “Song of the Week.” Many songs clock in at less than three minutes, giving you just enough time to listen to one as you ride the escalator. Among some popular songs that are less than three minutes long are “American Idiot” by Green Day, “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and “Help!” by The Beatles.

6) Practice solving your Rubik’s Cube — The World Cube Association, a collection of Rubik’s Cube enthusiasts, holds competitions all over the world to see who can solve the puzzle the fastest. Small and portable, the Rubik’s Cube — invented in 1974 — should be an ideal puzzle to do on the escalator, and the three-minute trip will give you plenty of time to practice. The world record for solving the puzzle is a hair over six seconds according to the WCA. That record is held by 15-year-old Feliks Zemdegs of Australia (See one of his runs). If that’s too fast for you, you can always try practicing one-handed (11.2 seconds) or blindfolded (30.9 seconds). Just remember to take the blindfold off before you step off the escalator.

7) Read this article — Various studies estimate that the average human can read between 200 and 300 words a minute. You’ve just finished 685.

Wheaton has such a long escalator because its station is far underground, but it is not the deepest. The station to the immediate south, Forest Glen, is 196 feet underground (about 21 stories), so far that it’s only accessible by a group of high-speed elevators — no escalators involved.

Below is a photo taken from the base of the Wheaton escalator.

Phillip Swarts is a National Security Reporter for Medill News Service. He is currently a graduate student in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.