My Top Ten of 2015

The year began with a paper lantern rising in the post-midnight sky over Old Town Alexandria. I hoped it was a sign of good things to come. Here in no particular order are the highlights of what followed:

Around the World in 19 Days: When your kids move to the other side of the world, you have a perfectly good excuse to go visit them. We flew via LAX to Sydney to meet up with our daughter who was studying abroad at Macquarie University. We explored Sydney, Uluru, and Melbourne in Australia and Rotorua in New Zealand. Then we flew to Thailand where our son now lives, teaching English at a school in Phuket. We flew back via Abu Dhabi and JFK, completing our trip around the world. Speaking of travel….

Six Days without a Plan: I did my first bike tour in ten years, riding 370 miles from Pittsburgh to home, nearly entirely off road in six days. Kevin and Ryan made for good company. The Meth Man not so much. Earl and Anne, two friends from my years in Boston,  met up with us for Mothers Day brunch. And we saw the Pirates execute a triple play at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Speaking of baseball….

Where’s My Ring?: I pretty much went all in as a Washington Nationals fan this year. I attended 8 or 9 games (one was a rainout) and watched dozens more on the tube. In the process I discovered the wonderful bike valet service at the ballpark, bottles of ice water (mostly ice) sold outside the stadium, and SeatGeek, a web service for cheap seats. Sadly, the Nats completely fell apart in August and September ending with the sad display of a bad apple reliever choking the eventual league Most Valuable Player. Speaking of things surly…

Getting Surly: My bikes were getting old. And so was I. So I decided to buy a new one, just for riding events and such. I bought a Surly Cross Check on the enthusiastic recommendation of a half dozen friends who own one or wish they did. I’m still working on giving it a name. My fleet of now four bikes carried me over 7,000 miles this year. Speaking of mileage….

Turning the Odometer: I hit 60 in August. My brain still can’t believe it but my body does. Denial only gets you so far in life. I celebrated by hiking Old Rag. My advice is to do this hike long before your 60th birthday. Mrs RC made me with a quilt  from my old running t-shirts. This totally surprised me with it even though she made the thing right in front of me. Still, turning 60 was inescapably depressing.  Speaking of depressing…

Goodbye Blue Mondays: I started the year dealing with rather severe depression, not the “I’m sad” kind but the clinical kind. It’s a drag just thinking about it. I forced myself to socialize (see below), ate vitamin D supplements (I had a severe deficiency), and began daily meditation at the repeated suggestion of a friend. You could say that when it was over I had become comfortably numb. Speaking of numbness…

My Right Foot: I also started the year with a mysteriously numb right foot. I saw a neurologist who was incredibly enthusiastic, competent, and beautiful about my case. She sent me to a physical therapist who gave me a set of exercises including bird dogs, side planks, and nerve flossing that I still do every other day. On a whim, I went for a Thai massage. It didn’t do a thing for my foot but it was just about the most relaxing 90 minutes I can recall. “Use your third eye, John.”  I also went to an acupuncturist who didn’t do a thing for my foot either. He did fix a pain in my upper arm and recommended some orthotics for my shoes. Speaking of shoes….

Ramping Up My Hiking:  After each of my hikes last year, my back and knees were killing me.  The second I put the orthotics in my shoes, my back felt better. I did ten hikes this year, most of them in Shenandoah National Park and a little further north on the Appalachian Trail. All but one were solo hikes. The exception came when Ultrarunnergirl kicked my ass all the way to the top of SNP and back. My knees and back hardly protested. Speaking of protests…

What’s a Park It?:  Bike riders in DC had been getting hit by cars turning illegally through the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. I attended a protest that was designed to bring awareness to the fact that new barriers called Park Its had not been installed on two blocks of the avenue. The protest was successful (the Park Its were installed a few months later) and was a great opportunity to get together with friends old and new. Speaking of new friends…

Do I Even Have a Fusiform Gyrus?: Three months after apparently meeting me at a December 2014 holiday party, a woman walked up at a post-ride reception and said “Hi John.” I had no idea who she was. She later said I needed to have my fusiform gyrus checked out. So began my improbable friendship with Katie Lee. A few days later we spent four hours in a booth in a downtown tavern. Two peas in a pod, pod people you might say, engaged in an incredibly intense conversation. I felt as if I had caught lightning in a bottle of Shiner Bock. On my way home for the first time in months the fog of my depression had lifted. Like a paper lantern. I know a sign when I see one. Thanks for showing me the score, KL. 

Encore, you say?….

Sitting in the Lap of the North Wind: A year or so ago, Mrs RC bought me a CD of celtic sounding music by a Quebec folk group called Le Vent du Nord. As luck would have it, they played very small venues near DC twice this year. We were in the second row for both performances, practically in the lap of the foot drumming, song singing, fiddle player. Even though I studied French in high school and college I can’t really follow their lyrics but I have no trouble enjoying their hurdy gurdy fueled music. Tres bon.

 

Alexandria – A Bicycle Ambivalent City

I am not one to get involved in bicycle advocacy. I am not good at it and feel uncomfortable doing it. Every once in a while I go to a meeting and speak my mind. Tonight on the way home from work I met two bike advocates from the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. They were handing out materials along the Mount Vernon Trail just north of Old Town.

Randy and Erin of ABPAC
Randy and Erin of ABPAC

They gave me a couple of handouts. One was a plea to cyclists not to blow through stop signs in Old Town. I whole hearted agree with this, although I do think that Old Town overuses stops signs which invites cyclists and drivers to disregard them much as drivers once tuned out the national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. A few yield signs would not harm pedestrian safety.

Speaking of yield, the handouts would have been more credible if they had not spelled yield as YEILD (in caps). Ugh.

The handouts also suggest using Royal Street as a north/south route through Old Town to avoid congestion. When I head north to work in the morning, I avoid Royal Street for a number of reasons:

  1. To get to South Royal, I have to make a sharp left turn after some bollards at the base of a hill to go under the Wilson Bridge. Also, I have to avoid curbs that are excessively large and perform no apparent useful purpose. In the dark or shade, they are hard to see.
  2. Once I cross under the Wilson Bridge I have to ride up on the sidewalk to follow the trail around a security gate. The sidewalk has a bollard in it, because “In Bollards We Trust” is the official motto of the Wilson Bridge design team.
  3. After the bollard the trail goes back to the street via a curb cut. In the morning this is the end of the drop off line for St. Mary of the Holy SUV School. Kids are getting out of cars, carline helpers are directing them and the SUVs> It’s just a recipe for somebody getting nailed.
  4. Once I clear that mess and get on South Royal I have to deal with a back up of SUVs (and a few mnivans and BMWs). The drivers are in a hurry to get to work and are spread all over the street making biking unsafe. (Not to put too fine a point on it but whoever thought this was a good idea is an idiot.)
  5. The alternative on Union Street involves no sharp turn after the bollards allowing me to maintain speed from the downhill.
  6. The ride under the bridge and over to Union Street is pretty and one of the nicest stretches of the Mount Vernon Trail.
  7. Unlike Royal Street, Union has no traffic, no traffic lights, and only a handful of stop signs. (It does have the occassional speeding car but Alexandria police can’t be bothered with cars in Old Town for some reason.)
  8. You get to see the river and sunrises and the occassional famous person.

In the evening Union vs. Royal is a toss up. On the weekends I prefer Royal because King and Union can be a mess of humanity.

I tried to use the interactive map the city provides for comments but it was not very useful. A good try but no cigar. I tried to send ABPAC an email but alas gmail says the email address they provided me is no good. (Update Sept. 18: my email finally did go through. I have no idea what the problem was. If you have a comment, pet peeve or praise, send it to ABPAC or the city government. They hear from grabby Old Town residents all the time. I am sure they’d love to hear from you.)

Alexandrians who don’t ride bicycles don’t get the concept of riding for basic transportation. They just don’t. And the city officials still don’t. Here are two simple examples. In the 400 block of North Union, homeowners often park their cars perpendicular to the curb so that other parkers do not block their driveways. Sometimes these perpendicular cars block the sidewalk. More often they obstruct the bike lane cause cyclists to merge with car traffic that is not expected them. I have never (and I am talking about over 20 years) seen a ticket on one of these cars. This tells the homeowners that the city condones obstructing the bike lane; that bicycles are second-class.

Approaching 406 South Union Street
Approaching 406 North Union Street

In the 200 block of North Union Street is one of the first sharrows in the city. It is placed on the right of the road, directing cyclists into parked cars. You’d think that after ten years the city would get rid of it.  I like to think of it as a monument to Alexandria’s official ambivalence to cycling.

For these reasons and more I think the League of American Cyclist should take away Alexandria’s Bicycle Friendly City award and replace it with its first Bicycle Ambivalent City Award.

I think progress in Alexandria will continue to be slow and sometimes frustrating but I applaud Randy and Erin for their efforts today. I really do. If you want to help, you can check out the city’s bike ped plan at http://www.alexandriava.gov/pedbikeplan or atttend the public meeting at the Minnie Howard School Library ay 3801 West Braddock Road on September 30 at 7 pm. Ironically, the school is located in one of the least bike friendly parts of town.

The Introverted Advocate

Myers-Briggs tests consistently show that I am an introvert with a capital I. My idea of hell on earth is being in a big reception and not knowing anybody. Another manifestation of hell on earth is US Route 1 in Fairfax County. To put two hells together I attended a long range planning meeting tonight on the future of Route 1. The meeting was billed as “Route 1 Multimodal Alternatives Analysis”. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?

It’s actually a pretty interesting project. Route 1 has no rail rapid transit, is overwhelmed by car traffic, is a nightmare to ride a bike on or walk across, and is butt ugly. And the 15 miles of Route 1 between Alexandria and Route 123, just over the Prince William County line, is expected to see plenty of growth in the next 25 years.

The project is being done by a bunch of state and local agencies that recognize that planning for more car traffic which currently rules the road is a non-starter. Many years ago the people who planned Metro decided not to run the yellow line down Route 1. Everyone now sees what a mistake this was. The future will almost certainly include a rail (light or heavy) or bus rapid transit. It will also include something like six lanes for cars. Eek!

The meeting was held at the South County government center on Route 1 about 1 1/2 miles from my house. Normally, I had already ridden this stretch of Route 1 earlier in the day to fetch my car from a body shop. That was in daylight with no rain. The meeting was after dusk and rain was falling. I drove. Shoot me.

The perimeter of the meeting room was lined with posters explaining various aspects of the project. I saw the word “bicycle” twice. Once was on a board about the desire to build a healthy alternative to the current car-centric mess. The other was on a poster that showed the new bike lanes already being built along Route 1 through Fort Belvoir. I was not optimistic about the bicycle aspects of the project.

Project leaders gave a 30 minute presentation. For the first 20 minutes, the word bicycle was not mentioned once. In the last ten minutes, it was mentioned six times. The development team realizes that making the corridor bike and pedestrian friendly is a high priority. (There is nowhere to go but up.) One slide was dedicated to the fact that the bike routes near Route 1 are, to cut to the chase, an inadequate mess. When the presenter said that the bike routes in the area lacked “connectivity” I actually laughed out loud, because that’s the word I used on my comment form.

Fortunately the project planners are aware of successful retrofits to old infrastructure in Arlington, DC, Charlotte, and Richmond. They seem to intend to steal liberally from the best of these kinds of projects.

After the presentation I went up to the “connectivity” speaker to offer more bike comments. It turns out he’s a bike commuter (from DC to Arlington). He obviously gets it. Then I got interviewed by a reporter for the Patch online newspapers. I don’t know why she picked me out of the crowd. Maybe it’s the new “Interview Me” tattoo on my forehead.

After the presentation, the project staffers were aligned around the room next to their posters to listen to feedback. I went to one poster to make a comment about biking and the first thing I saw on the adjacent white board was “Make it more bike and ped friendly”! Somebody beat me to the punch. I hung around and chatted with some folks, explaining how much nicer a place it would be to live if you could access all that retail activity without driving.

So, with some irony, I left the meeting and drove home.

Part of me envies the planners because it’s a cool project with so much upside for making the area a better place to live. From 1970 to 1990, Fairfax County bought in to the idea that sprawl and haphazard development was good. Now that county residents have had 20+ years to experience the fruits of these policies, the county and state realize that they have a ton of work to do to make.