vacation : all I ever wanted

Last week we took a vacation, our first in four years. It got off to a bit of a rocky start, as we went directly from a family funeral to a full day of driving. Nonetheless, we were glad to be out of town and glad to be seeing someplace new; I’d been only once, about twenty years ago. We spent the week in a house in Kingston Cove, a development in the Shipyard section of Hilton Head Island, which we rented from a neighbor who was unable to use their timeshare week for the first time in twenty-odd years. The house was nice, the block was quiet, and the noisy frogs on the lagoon behind us were excellent; I only wish I had been able to see them in addition to hearing them, but the alligators were quite the disincentive to approaching the bank and peering into the water at dusk. When we weren’t on the screen porch drinking coffee or on the couch watching cable TV, we were on our rented one-speed cruisers riding around. We rode back and forth to the beach and around to various strip malls for lunch, breakfast, and more bottled water from the Piggly Wiggly. I will admit that when I first saw the cruisers I regretted not bringing Pearl, but once I realized that (a) you’re not legally allowed to ride in the road there and (b) cars have the right of way if they hit you and (c) the sand and salt water are uber-bad for a bike, I was glad I left her at home.

Although we weren’t following any set schedule, the week was a full one. We went birding in Pinckney NWR, adding several exciting new birds to my lifelist, which was a trip deserving of its own post. We sat through a timeshare-hawking presentation, and endured various (and seemingly endless) frustrations when attempting to use the Exciting Prizes we received for our trouble, an experience also worthy of its own writeup. At the end of the week, we returned with sunburns, several small keyhole urchin skeletons, and a variety of arts, crafts, and preserves. While we were gone, the yard turned into a blooming green jungle, thank you April showers, and the house is bursting out at the seams with papers to be recycled and belongings to be put away. Everything in its own time: we’re glad we went, and we’re glad to be home.

vacation : all I ever wanted

biking the Northwest Branch Trail

The last ride I took on Pearl, back in July before our trip, was up the Northwest Branch Trail along the—wait for it—northwest branch of the Anacostia. I’d never been up beyond University Boulevard, and likely won’t go again. Not because the trail wasn’t nice; it was, even with the stretch of gang-tagged trees making me only too aware of the spate of sexual assaults taking place in our area.

The non-fear-based downside is that the trail ends in rocks only a few miles from my house, at the Beltway overpass, so it’s not really made for a nice long ride. I ended up at the rocks right around high noon, so it wasn’t the best light for photos either, with the stark contrast of canopy and glare. Nonetheless, I parked Pearl—taking the probably unnecessary step of hiding her behind a huge rock—and walked up the trail just far enough to see the small waterfall. I have to admit, I was hoping for something a bit more dramatic when the kid coming out of the woods carrying his bike told me there was a ‘waterfall’ up a bit, but it was nice for what it was.

Pearl and the rock.

Waterfall below.

Beltway above.

As for wildlife, I saw loads of larger birds—flickers, grackles, robins, a thrasher, red-bellied woodpecker, hairy woodpecker—but nary a small one. I’m guessing they were quite a bit higher than the trail, up at the tops of the trees that were growing up the rather steep banks.

biking the Northwest Branch Trail

cycling expeditions

Over the past few weeks I’ve been out on Pearl for three longer rides, in the range of 15-18 miles. I’m not my friend Frances, who’s been racking up hundreds of kilometers per week on her bike, Lucky. Nonetheless, after those two years when Pearl languished in the back room looking sad as her tires slowly deflated, I’m feeling pretty good about my efforts.

A few weeks ago I accompanied my friend all the way to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, instead of branching off at Lake Artemesia as I’d been doing. The ride was good, along a clear route, with plenty of space on the streets to ride out of the stream of traffic. Except for Pearl’s chain coming off when I downshifted too suddenly—my own fault as it desperately needed to be cleaned—everything went smoothly. There are a few decent hills, and I got a workout, as this was the first ride longer than an hour that I’d been on this year. We paused briefly at Lake Artemesia, and were able to see a mother Wood Duck and her brood of ducklings paddling along through the lilies. On the way back I saw some Baltimore Orioles, as well as several Goldfinches, darting around just at the exit of the research park.

The weekend after that ride, I joined a neighbor and her friend for another two hour ride on a Sunday morning. We first went up to, and around, Lake Artemesia, where we were again lucky to catch sight of two Wood Duck mamas with ducklings. From there we did the loop I’d done last month, down the Northeast Branch to the Northwest Branch and back up to the University Hills pond. Along the Northeast Branch Trail, south of Riverdale Park, we spotted a Belted Kingfisher, a life bird for me! My neighbor has seen it (or one of its relatives) there quite regularly, so I hope to catch another look on a future ride. As we went north again on the Northwest Branch Trail, I learned that my neighbor’s friend is undertaking a river bank study that involves reestablishing native plants in the hope of aiding with flood control. I hadn’t realized that aster, which we’ve planted in our front bed, is a wildflower native to this area, so that was a nice piece of information. Later on in the ride, in the stretch near East-West Highway, we heard what my neighbor’s friend identified by ear as a Yellow-Breasted Chat. I really should take my binoculars and field guide back to that stretch of woods one morning, as we saw a Baltimore Oriole not far from where we heard the Chat.

Most recently, I played hookey from ditch digging weed pulling last Friday and enjoyed the gorgeous afternoon from atop my bike. The day before, I had (finally!) cleaned Pearl’s chain and derailleur, so I was spared the guilt-inducing grinding and scraping I’d been hearing more and more. I rode the Sligo Creek Trail from the Northwest Branch (this is the trailhead that I’ve passed a few times, so I knew how to get on it from this point) to Wayne Avenue, and then back from there. The trail itself is fine, if a little winding with all of the switchbacks over the creek which make it difficult to build up speed. Or rather, make it difficult to build up speed without fearing that I’ll steamroll a dog or small child when I come around a blind turn.

I didn’t go quite early enough in the day to avoid all the dogs and small children, nor to miss the beginning of rush hour traffic. At most street crossings I had a light, but the first two (Riggs Road and East-West Highway) were a little hairy. The path itself was relatively deserted when I headed out, but all of the after-work crowd was out two deep on the way back. I did get a cup of pink lemonade from an enterprising child and her dad in Takoma Park. I hope I didn’t scare her too much with my talk about weathering spills early in life. I meant only to extol the virtues of my trusty helmet, forgetting that words like ‘smash’ and ‘crash’ can loom large in the minds of small children.

Despite not really looking for birds, I saw a Baltimore Oriole on the Northwest Branch, in the same stretch just south of East-West Highway where we’d heard a Yellow-Breasted Chat on my previous ride. I haven’t yet seen so many orioles in my life that it’s not a thrill to catch sight of one, so that was nice. The other high point of the ride was my skill at unwrapping and eating a semi-melted Luna Bar without either getting off my bike or littering. A feat which, sadly, no one was around to appreciate.

cycling expeditions

back in the (bike) saddle along the Anacostia

This past week I got back on my bike—Pearl—for the first time in over a year. I didn’t ride her at all in 2006, only 4 times in 2005, and not at all in 2004. In 2003, I did the Tour de Friends AIDS ride from North Carolina to DC, and rode Pearl all the freaking time. And, I only got her when we moved out here, in May of 2002. Which means that on average I’ve ridden her over 100 miles a year, but really I haven’t ridden her regularly in 4 years. Pearl is a Raleigh c500, a hybrid that I selected because it was light enough for me to carry up and down two flights of stairs in the apartment we were occupying that year. I’ve replaced the seat (with an old school Liberator that I’ve had for a decade now) and added handlebar extenders, but otherwise she’s just as I bought her.

Well, except for being covered with stickers. Pearl goes undercover as a beater bike, something that made me feel better about locking her to signposts in the District when I first bought her. At the time I started training for the AIDS ride, I had stickers from surf camp (the Surf Diva and Yoga for Surfers logos) and a ‘No Plot? No Problem!‘ one that I was dying to put to good use. Onto Pearl they went. Since then, she’s become a bit more political (NOW, Rails to Trails, a ‘Debbie Dick’ sticker from the Haring shop on Lafayette Street, bought just 2 months before it closed) and advertises the places she’s been (Canada, Chincoteague Island).

At any rate, I pumped up her tires, oiled her chain (I really should clean it before I ride her again) and took her out three times this past week. We are much closer to the trail system up here than we were in the District, which is nice; I used to have to ride several miles one way to get to any trail. University Park is located right at the base of the ‘Y’ made by the Northwest and Northeast branches of the Anacostia River, which means easy access to the path system that follows the tributaries. This week, all three of my rides were along these trails.

My first ride, last Wednesday, was up to Lake Artemesia and back, which took me about 45 minutes (it bears saying: I ride slowly). From my house, I was able to stay on neighborhood side streets until the College Park metro, and then ride down Paint Branch Road to the trail access point at Linson Pool. I’d heard from neighbors that the lake itself is a beautiful place to bike or jog, and I wasn’t disappointed. I spotted all kinds of familiar birds, including Tree Swallows using the nesting boxes, but no new ones (I was handicapped by not having my glasses, let alone binoculars or the bird book, so the likelihood of conclusively identifying something new was slim to nil). Nonetheless, I’m sure there are some relatively common ones around that I personally haven’t seen yet (the Wood Duck springs to mind), and I’m looking forward to going back up there for bird-watching purposes. As a ride, it was on the short end, but there are trails that continue past the lake that I can explore in the future. All in all, it was a lovely way to get back on my bike.

On Saturday, I took Pearl over to the new community garden to water my wee pepper plants (more on that later), and then made a loop back to my house on the Northeast and Northwest Branch trails. Riding along the river was lovely, and very different in a wide-open way from what I’m used to when riding the creek trails through woods. I saw barn swallows galore, but not too many other humans. I also violated one of the cardinal rules of biking and hiking when I made the transition onto the Northwest Branch, which is: ‘When greeted by a used condom at the trailhead, turn back!’ All’s well that ends well, I figure. The ride did end well; I ended up at my pond, and then had to face the climb back to higher ground. The steep hills right at the end of the ride are my least favorite thing about riding along rivers, but I can’t complain; cycling on the flats was getting a little boring, not to mention making my legs beg for a nice downhill break. Which I got as I cruised through my neighborhood back to my house (with the exception of the very last block, which is also uphill from the creek at the end of our street).

On yesterday’s ride I went exploring in a different direction, taking the Paint Branch Trail north from Lake Artemesia through College Park. I wasn’t super thrilled with the route and probably won’t ride it again. The trail itself was perfectly well maintained, it just wasn’t that interesting and the surrounds were quite suburban. The winding around to avoid the roads also made it hard to build up speed, so it felt more like a meander than a decent ride. But, I learned a bit more about my local geography, so that’s always good. And, I saw some fresh-out-of-the-egg (still brown and yellow like ducklings) goslings at the Paint Branch Golf Course, so that was a nice surprise. On the way back home, I stopped in at my new local bike shop and discovered that a guy who used to work at my old local bike shop—and fixed up my derailleur after Pearl tumbled off the top of a car—now works there. He recognized me, and once he made the connection I remembered him as well. So that was a pleasant surprise. While there I confirmed that, despite my fixation to the contrary, my front left brake pad does not in fact rub against the wheel (this was the purpose of my stop).

This coming week, I think I’ll ride over to Silver Spring on the Sligo Creek trail, and/or continue further north on the Northwest Branch trail. I’m planning to stick with hour long rides for a while, and build up to making a loop of DC on the trails (something I’ve wanted to do for years). I’ll keep you posted on how that works out.

back in the (bike) saddle along the Anacostia