November 29, 2008

How to ride a bike forever

This has been a hard year for me and the bike. Sadly, I've fallen out of love with it and only occasionally glance at where it leans against the wall on one side of the "sunroom" in my apartment. The downtube and fork are crusted with dried mud from a few wet late-summer/early-fall rides, and the spokes are probably collecting cat hair from the kittehs rubbing against the wheels. A fellow blogger recently wrote about the development of his own bike love affair. Mine's unfortunately taken a different course. So what happened? What caused my nearly obsessive, addictive two-wheeled adoration to fade?

I've always had a bike, ever since the first tricycle Santa left under the Christmas tree four decades ago. As I outgrew one, my folks would make another one magically appear. Back then, there was no thought involved in riding, it was just something you did, either with the neighborhood kids or alone. As I hit adolescence, the bike took me farther. I somehow discovered that we lived near something called a "bike path" (the 45-mile long W&OD Trail, to be specific) and suddenly I was off, riding my bike to the comic book shop, to 7-11 for Slurpees, or just to explore. There was never any thought of how fast or far I was going, and having to get off and push the bike up that last incredibly steep hill on the way home was just something all the kids did and the idea of being humiliated by not being able to pedal up it never crossed my mind.

When I grew up enough to move out and live on my own, whatever bike I happened to own at the time went with me. It was casual riding, just around the neighborhood (and still to 7-11 for Slurpees) to learn my way around the new digs. Sidewalk, road, school ball-field, it was all fair game for my wheels. Then, as happened in my teen years, I discovered a nearby trail: the C&O Canal towpath. I had to drive to get to it, so I scrimped from a few paychecks and shelled out for a bike rack on the car, then began loading the bike up to explore the sections of the C&O closest to home. This was like discovering Nirvana. I quickly developed an appreciation for the car-free atmosphere and the gorgeous natural surroundings, the peace and the solitude (though there were more than a few bumpy rides that left my hooty-hoo wishing I'd take the bike back to the sidewalk).
I was blissfully happy on the C&O for years, zooming or cruising along on my cheap little Schwinn Frontier as the mood struck me.

But as time went on, I began to think about my riding. The milepost markers on the C&O made it possible to keep track of how far I was going. And, by keeping track of my miles and the time I was out, I was able to begin estimating how fast I rode. But I seemed to have a limit to both mileage and speed, and it didn't take long before the craving to increase one or the other, or both, grabbed hold of me. The first bit of advice I was given was to get a bike computer and watch my cadence in order to pace myself for longer rides. Done. Worked for a while, but then the insidious craving for a new bike began to creep up on me. I think I talked to salespeople at a total of three shops, and ended up buying the first bike I test rode (the guys in that shop were the only ones smart enough to actually get the bike down and tell me to go ride it, and I fell for it).

The difference was amazing. The computer showed that I was immediately riding faster, and the carbon fork on the bike smoothed out a significant amount of the towpath bumpiness that had left my hooty-hoo so frequently disgruntled. Within a few rides, I was clocking twice the mileage per ride. Is there a second level to Nirvana? If so, I'd found it.

Then I discovered the forums at Team The forums attact a tremendously wide variety of female cyclists, from comfort-beast cruisers to custom carbon racers and everything in between. I could relate to the women who rode at a more relaxed pace (though I'll admit I was a bit perturbed to discover that I qualified as a slow rider) and I could learn from the very experienced roadies and mtb'ers in the bunch. A handful of us in the DC area even began meeting to ride together, and these ladies soon tempted me off of my beloved towpath onto hilly country roads and gentle singletrack. They've challenged and inspired me, and we've had a lot of fun together.

So what happened this year?

There've been a couple of things, I think. First and most obvious to me is that I had a handful of bad rides this year. Some were just a case of unpleasant circumstances (crappy weather, etc), but others were more serious and indicated a possible medical condition that I need to have checked out. After so many years of riding the pancake-flat C&O and similar paved bike trails, beginning to ride hills has been a hellatious challenge for me. I had more than one ride this summer that left me gasping at the top of a comparatively small hill, light-headed and in a cold sweat, feeling that I would pass out if I stood upright and with my heart erratically pounding as if it would beat its way out of my ribcage. Heatstroke? Perhaps, but the symptoms made me paranoid that I've developed a heart condition. (And of course I'm procrastinating in getting to the doctor about this. Denial's become stronger than the urge to ride.)

There's also, though, been that issue of thinking about my rides. That desire to go farther and faster, and to try to conquer the hills, led to logging every ride at Once upon a time, a good ride was one on which I'd just plain had fun, and the endorphins from just pedaling were more than enough. Suddenly, a ride wasn't good unless I'd accomplished something. I had to either maintain a smooth pedal stroke at a high cadence, or I had to maintain a high (for me) speed for the entire ride, or I had to reach a farther distance than I had before, or I had to get up a certain hill without stopping three times on the way. I had to when I rode.

I think this has all been in the back of my mind for a while. I'd gotten to the point this summer that I was flipping the bike computer around the handlebar so I couldn't see it while I rode. And days would go by before I'd log rides at bikejournal. I started thinking more about just riding the bike to do nearby errands and such. Finally, in October, I leaned the bike against the wall and ignored it. Then, this morning, posted this:

Eureka. That makes me want to ride, though it's a damned shame that the folks at urbanvelo couldn't have posted it before temps in the DC area dove into the 40-ish degree range (that is one obstacle to riding I doubt I'll ever overcome). But I'm inspired to do things differently next year. Whether it means removing my bike computer or just not logging into bikejournal, whether I ride 40 miles on the C&O or just up the street to the 7-11, I want to get back to riding just for the sake of riding. Whatever it takes, just so that it's once more "joyous and simple".

November 27, 2008

Giving thanks for foxes

I took advantage of all the other folks sleeping in on this cold Thanksgiving morning to get out for a hike and had a few encounters along the way. Not with any of the hunters whose pickup trucks were parked along the road (I had a blaze-orange vest along just in case), but with a few of those critters that they might have liked to get in their sights This isn't the first time I've seen a fox along this particular trail, but it is the first time I've seen so many in one ramble.

I ran into the first one a ways down where the trail skirts close to the creek that it follows. The fox seemed to be looking in my direction when I spotted it, but then it turned its head away and stared off into the grass. After a moment, it began trotting away from me down the trail. I stayed back, only taking a few steps forward to keep it in sight as it passed an old tree stump. It stopped again near a curve in the trail, then did one of those hops that foxes do that seem to take it straight up in the air and forward at the same time. Whatever it was pouncing on must have gotten away, though, because it lifted its head and trotted off around the curve. I moved as quickly and quietly as I could until it was visible again, heading off of the trail and up a small hill. It passed through a patch of sunlight at one point and its fur blazed orange against the muted gold of the dried grass around it. I watched until it was gone, then put my hands in my pockets and ambled on.

This particular section of trail runs 2.5 miles from one road crossing to the next which, if you do the math, makes for five miles round-trip. Due to the time constraint of a Thanksgiving dinner commitment, I figured I'd just hike an estimated 2 miles down the creek then head back to get ready. Before I'd gotten quite that far, though, my turnaround point was decided abruptly for me when I spotted another fox lying along the trail about 20 feet ahead. I moved a few steps closer and could see that the fur running from its head down to its shoulder, where the rusty orange of its back turns into white under its neck and belly, was still fluffy and looked soft enough to touch, though its stillness implied an uninviting hardness. Strangely, the one thing I couldn't see was its tail. A fox's tail is generally almost as long as its body and often almost as big around, as well. The leaves on the ground weren't deep enough to hide something that full and furry. I tried not to dwell on ideas as to where it might have gone and instead spent few moments soberly contemplating the impermanence of
beautiful things. Then it was time again to amble on.

On the way back, I saw a third fox. This one had seen me first, and was already streaking away. It stopped and watched me as I continued along, then took off again as the trail curved and I headed towards it. I also saw a few deer scattered along the way, including one young buck splashing his way across the creek. At one point, I wondered whether I should have spent this time in the woods pondering those things for which I'm thankful, but decided that was b.s. There've been a whole lotta days recently that I've felt grateful for the people in my life and the things that I have, so what really makes this day more significant than any other? I'm a firm believer in being thankful every day, even those on which you feel like life sucks and the world is coming to an end. But as the hike concluded, my thoughts followed suit and settled on one thing for which I am exceedingly grateful: That there are still little pockets of nature tucked in amongst the sprawling suburbs that comprise this over-developed portion of the east coast. Yes, on this day, I am thankful for that.

November 26, 2008

November 17, 2008

Whatever you do...

Do not click on this link.

And if you do click, don't blame me for whatever hours of your life you lose. I warned you.

November 15, 2008

So sick, but oh, so funny

I love PostSecrets and I love lolcats. And now, I can have both (though only through archives, unless someone revives the concept)...

November 13, 2008

Terror Behind the Walls, 2008-- Updated 2008.11.13

It's taken a while to find time to blog coherently about the Terror Behind the Walls (henceforth referred to as TBtW) Halloween event at Eastern State Penitentiary. October into November is always such a busy time, so hopefully I can conjure up enough memory of that night to give a clear impression of it...

The crowd is so huge that it's best to park at the satellite lot and take the Ghost Bus. It's a short trip, during which one of the event ghouls lays out the ground rules (#1- The ghouls are not allowed to touch you, and you are not allowed to touch them!) and, if time permits, tells one of the many spooky tales about the Pen. Leo and I bought tickets for one of the earlier entries, around 8:00-8:30pm, and got there just in time to hand over our waivers and stroll in.

Click on any photo to see the entire series...

The first step inside those massive walls can give you shivers. The place has a palpable presence merely from the combination of the architecture and its state of decay. Knowing little of its history detracts nothing from the atmosphere, but does make you want to learn more of its secrets. Add to that the spookiness of Halloween and the uncertainty of what to expect from TBtW, and you've got yourself one nifty little case of excited jitters. My buddy Leo was certain that she'd be totally freaked over the whole thing. Partially because of that, and partially because I was just so fascinated by the place, I was determined to not be spooked by the actors, oops, I mean ghouls. From the moment we entered Intake, my attention was split between trying to see as much as I could of the prison itself through the dark and the fog machines, and whipping out snappy comebacks to the threats of the ghouls who repeatedly got in our faces. Leo and I ended up at the tail-end of our group, behind a girl who screamed at everything. The ghouls had a ball with her and mostly left us alone as a result. I still felt, though, that it was happening too quickly, that I wasn't able to see or, more importantly, feel enough of the building. It's a very disorienting experience, but that's really part of the fun.

My interior photos unfortunately don't capture any of the freaky chaos of the actual TBtW event. Those same elements that contributed to the atmosphere were too much for a little point'n'shoot camera, so I snapped a few shots of the prison museum and some closed-off cell blocks that we passed. The shots do give some impression of the creepiness of the place, but nowhere near as much as standing in the dark in front of a 5' tall metal door, peering through into a shadowy pile of fallen plaster and upended, broken furniture, wondering what you mi
ght see and hoping that you'll see nothing.

Beyond the fun and the admittedly morbid fascination, the most overriding feeling I came away with was an intense desire to go back for one of the daytime tours, in particular the audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi. The small, three room museum that we passed through on our way out hinted at an absolutely fascinating history.

Eastern State was the first prison in the world to house inmates in solitary confinement. No communal dining area or recreation area, just each to his own little white-washed cell with its tiny metal door, and each with a King James Bible. The Pen was a place of silence, intending to inspire the criminals it housed to a state of penitence, hence the term "penitentiary". Visiting in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed, "Can there be a combination more powerful than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude... through religion to hope?". A mere ten years later, Charles Dickens expressed a very different view: "I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers." It's the conflict between those opposing opinions that creates the poignancy that emanates from those decrepit walls.