Mad Thoughts on July 4th

I had decided to take the week off from training since it was so close to the start of the longer bike ride that is starting on Sunday.  I did not want to overdo it.  But restlessness took over early in the week.  A couple of days of staying at home when I could have been outside biking in nice weather was more than I could handle mentally.  Although it is easy to become lazy, I also had a sense that there had been opportunities that had been missed.  I finally broke down and went for a long bike ride on Thursday, July 4th – Independence day.

I left early in the morning having decided that I wanted to be back home at a reasonable time after the ride.  The streets were quiet on account the holiday.  It was somewhat jarring on this particular day to come across a pan-handler at a road intersection holding a sign that indicated that he was a veteran.  My first thought that it was quite ironic that my first experience on Independence day was something that made a mockery of the sentiment of independence.  The veterans were the guys who were willing to face danger in the preservation of independence, but we were failing them and not taking care of them.  Yet, we were having a celebration.

Our eyes locked for just an instant.  The moment did not last long. I was just driving past.  I suppose I could have pulled over somewhere to engage with the person.  That may have been the right thing to do, but it seems that the easiest thing to do is to try to put encounters with the less fortunate out of our minds.

There were many cars already parked in the lot at Great Falls by the time I arrived.  That was not normally the case on a regular weekday.  I found a spot for my car further away from where I was used to parking, got my equipment out, and started to ride towards the trail.  I could see that a yoga class was underway next to the river.P7040078.jpgPeople were also already on the trail, many walking towards Olmsted Island to see the actual waterfalls.  I headed south on the towpath towards Washington, DC, on my bicycle.

My goal was to get to Fletcher’s Cove, and then take the Capital Crescent trail to Bethesda.  I estimated that this would give me a moderate distance of about 30 miles for the ride.

As I got closer to Fletcher’s Cove, the urge hit me to head right into Washington, DC, to investigate what was going on with regards to the July 4th celebration there.  The primary concern with following up on this urge was the fear of possible crowds of people on foot on the path on which I was trying to ride my bike.  My strategy was going to be to immediately turn back and retrace my path the moment I hit trouble.

I was able to ride along the C&O canal all the way through Georgetown without interference. I then got on the trail that went past Rock Creek, to get to mile 0 of the towpath.  The city was still very quiet at that time of the morning.  There were fewer people about than I had expected.  So far so good!  I decided to keep on biking further along the river, in the direction of Lincoln Memorial, and to cross over to Virginia on one of the bridges across the Potomac at some point.  I would then head back north through Virginia, and finally cross over back to the other side of the river at the Key bridge.

I did not have to bike far before I encountered a roadblock. It was just before the Kennedy Center.  Both the trail and the road beside it were closed, and a police car and a dump truck were blocking the way.   I could either go back the way I had come, or try to find another way around the blockage.  Remembering that this blockage was in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, and that a big event was being planned at that location in the evening, I saw no point in continuing.  There was no way the authorities were going to let people, even an innocent bicyclist, get closer.

Seeing a sign for Interstate 66 and Virginia at this point, I decided to take the bridge over the Potomac to Virginia instead.  I biked up to the front of Kennedy CenterP7040084.jpgand looked around. There were no people around. The few scattered guards around the building appeared to be in a very relaxed frame of mind.  There was no concern about my standing there all by myself taking pictures.

I found the bicycle trail leading to the bridge.

The bike lane on the Interstate 66 bridge across the Potomac was clearly not part of the original design of the bridge.  It was narrow enough to be dangerous.  I saw a person coming towards me lose his balance while trying to pass some people, and hit the railing on the river side of the bridge in the process.  The railing was not very high – once again not designed with bicyclists in mind.  Luckily, the person did not fall off the bridge.  I proceeded with additional caution.

There were cars at the parking lot for Roosevelt Island on the Virginia side of the bridge. By this time people were beginning to come out to the park in significant numbers.

I made my way over the Key Bridge back into DC,  and then biked back to Fletcher’s Cove on the towpath.

The ride on the Capital Crescent trail was my last opportunity for some uphill biking as part of my training.  It felt good.  I felt strong.  Things seem to be in good shape for the ride.  There were plenty of people on the trail by the time I got there.  The laid-back spirit of the July 4th holiday was in the air.

The towpath was completely crowded with holiday-goers by the time I got back to Great Falls at the end of the ride.  I had to slow down to a crawl and call out to people on the trail regularly to warn them about my approach.  Folks were in good spirits.

I got in about 40 miles of riding.  It was more that I had wanted to do in the beginning. I was a bit tired.

It was a news article that I saw online that I wanted to talk a little more about in this blog. The article indicated that Mad Magazine was soon going to cease publication. Coincidentally, I had been thinking about Mad Magazine during the last few days.  I had been an avid follower of the magazine in the 70s. One of the regular features that I used to enjoy was a comic series (I have not been able to find the author’s name) that attempted to showcase regular Americans going about their everyday lives.  It was a caricature, and it pointed out the ridiculous nature of some of the habits of the regular folks, and the mindless and asinine things people do as a matter of habit without even thinking about it.   Although I did not know it at that time, the drawings were quite accurate and cutting in their depictions.  I found this out only later when I came to the US myself.  The drawn pictures of the people were themselves quite priceless, and also ridiculously accurate in their representation. You could see what a typical American looked like in his or her living environment, and it was sometimes quite ridiculous.

My thoughts then wandered towards how America has changed since the seventies.  Specifically, I was thinking about people like me, Indians who have settled down in the US, people who have grown in our numbers. I was thinking about how we now represent a significant chunk of the local population that is easily recognizable.  We have our own recognizable  place in the American experience in the cities and in suburbia. (This is perhaps less true in the rural areas.)  We have our own quirks.  The interesting thing is how Indians have adopted to the existing American way of life, and also how Indians have impacted the social experience and the culture in places where they exist in large numbers.  We can be as American as they come, but in our own way.

It was in this context that I was thinking about my American experience, and consequently about Mad Magazine.  I was thinking about the opportunity to make fun of people like me, the Indian American, and my manners and looks. I am sure we have our own foibles that would be worthy of laughing about if we became more self-aware.  It could perhaps take an “outsider” to point these out to us.  Yes, we could perhaps be downright ridiculous in our ways if we really thought about it.  And this would also be a unique part of the American experience.  And it would be great to capture this in comic form, just the way Mad Magazine could.  Indeed, they might have done so already without my knowing it.  How would Mad Magazine try to caricature a person like me?  That would be interesting to know.  Would they consider people like me to be full of crap?

I will end with a thought about the July 4th celebration. It is about the fact that for the first time in many years they had a show of military power at the celebrations in Washington, DC.  The show included Air Force One flying overhead as the president spoke.  It is easy to forget that all of this material stuff is temporary.  The picture below symbolic of what eventually happens to all of this over time.   The aircraft below once used to carry the President of the United States.  It has now become a museum piece, somewhat sad looking in its current location and appearance.P6170040.jpg(This picture was taken from the Mt. Vernon trail, from under the Wilson Bridge.)

It is the spirit that really matters in the end.

PS.  If you do not know anything about Mad Magazine, and are interested in getting a better context, you should watch the video in the link that I provided in this blog.

Three Herons

I saw all of the three different kinds of herons that reside on the C&O canal during my bike ride on Friday.  This may have been the first time this has happened during the many years I have frequented the towpath.

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The Great Blue Heron
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The Green Heron
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The Black Crowned Night Heron

My training for the bike ride taking place in July is still lacking, but I have gotten at least a few long rides under my belt by now.  The problem is with the distractions that seem to come up with maddening regularity, distractions which prevent me from getting an early enough start in the morning on the towpath.  Once delayed, it is easy to find excuses for not going out later in the morning.

But if I manage to get out on time, I am easily drawn to the wonder and the simplicity of the experience.  The mind relaxes and wanders, and the worries tend to drift away – at least for the short while.

I am going to try to get out tomorrow morning.  The weekend has been a lazy one!

Aggressive Goose

Exploring the towpath beside the C&O canal does have its seasonal challenges.  Most of it is directly due to the nature of the changing weather.  And then there are the things that can catch a first time visitor by surprise.

This is the time of year for the young Canada geese that were born in the Spring to starting exploring the space around them. They go about this activity under the watchful eye of the parent geese.  This happens to be a dangerous time for both the family of geese and for passersby on the trail.

I really do not have a good strategy for dealing with a protective parent goose that stands its ground on the trail, blocking your way, staring at you, while its little ones wander around.  You hope that the parent will gather the little ones and move off to one side as you approach.  The adult goose will most likely stand its ground instead.  Very frequently, the goose will hiss at you out of its open beak and take a step towards you.  You have to be patient and pass by carefully.

But when you are on a bicycle and moving at the decent speed, things can happen much too quickly.

I encountered families of geese several times during my first bike ride of the season.  The first time it happened, the parent goose refused to move as I biked by.  The encounter seemed to take place too quickly for it to react.  The second time, I started creating a racket as I approached the adult goose.  I was hoping that it would move away because of the noise before I got to it.  But, once again,  the goose stayed put while its little ones wandered around.

My third encounter with a family of Canada geese that day was the most dramatic.  I did not see any young geese around, but I knew what was in store when I saw the adult standing in the middle of the trail.  As I kept biking in its direction. the goose actually leapt into the air and took flight towards my face, catching me completely by surprise.  There was not much of a distance between us, and I did not have much time to respond. Fortunately, a collision was avoided.  It happened so quickly that I was not sure what actually happened to prevent the collision.  The goose went sailing past the right side of my face.  I did not lose my balance on the bicycle.   I kept going.  I Immediately encountered two goslings that suddenly jumped out of the bushes in front of me and crossed from one side of the trail to the other.  I am not sure what instinct caused them to do this.  Then, one of them suddenly turned and returned to the place it had come from, crossing once again in front of me.  Luckily, nobody got hit.  I think the parent goose that had flown past me landed in the water. I did slow down, but I did not stop to check out what was happening behind me.

The encounter shook me up a little bit, but I did recover my wits quickly.

I have encountered aggressive geese on the trail many times in years past, but never experienced anything like this.  I am not sure what strategy to take the next time I have such an encounter.

Here and There and Everywhere

Who are my people, who are my brothers and sisters?

I am back home after more than a month of travel through Peru and India.  I now have a break in the travels. I am finally in a position to start preparing for my bike ride in July.  The training has started in earnest.  Here are some pictures from the last three days of bike rides.  It is great to be back in a familiar place!

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Pennyfield Lock
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Four Mile Run in Virginia
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The turtle on the towpath

Visiting a lot of places in different parts of the world in a short period of time can be a jarring experience.  People and their circumstances are different everywhere. Life in relative isolation in suburbia in the USA is very different from life in a big city in India with the constant human interaction, which is again different from the life of a farmer or miner living on the Altiplano (high plains) of Peru.

Most “common” people in the world are busy every day dealing with their own life circumstances, basically dealing with their day-to-day needs.  I think that people try find some kind of comfort, and maybe happiness, in their own life circumstances, without necessarily trying to compare themselves to their better-off counterparts in some other part of the world.  The only kind of world they really know and understand is the one that they have experienced during their lifetime.

Many of us are products of our circumstances in life that were beyond our control – where we were born, who our parents were, our family background, our friends, the culture around us, our religion, where we ended up in due to various circumstances not entirely in our control, etc..  We have developed a sense of values and morals that came out of our upbringing and experiences.  We developed our own philosophy for living our lives based on our experiences.  Perhaps we even find ourselves comfortable in life without too much struggle.  It takes guts and determination to break out of a place that we find ourselves in “naturally”.

People in different parts of the world are going through similar adventures in their lives, but they do so in different environments primarily because of life circumstances outside their control.  I do not think there can be one formula that works for all of us when it comes to determining how we should all live our lives.  The question I have for myself is if I have the ability to be comfortable outside our own comfort zone in life? Am I able to understand what somebody else living in another part of the world is going through when I interact with that person?  Can I find a way to empathize with people whom I am unfamiliar with – people from a different land?  I think we can all learn, but perhaps it is easier to not take the trouble, and perhaps even find a way to condemn.

We may be ready to condemn people who are different from us, even when it is very likely that we would act the way they do if we happened to have been born in their shoes.  It may be best not to judge other people blindly without getting to better understand where they come from and what drives them.

The Turning of the Seasons and The Return of Spring

When you think about it, the existence of the seasons on our planet is a pretty amazing phenomenon.  I say this even though we know why it happens.  As most of us are aware, there is a solid scientific explanation for the seasons.

But, even with your knowledge of how things work, you can also look at things from a somewhat different perspective.  Our planet is very, very, far away from its source of energy, the sun, averaging a distance of about 93 million miles in its elliptical orbit. In spite of the distance, just because of the nature of the earth’s axis of rotation with respect to its plane of revolution around the sun, we experience the phenomenon of the seasons.  The variations in the amount of energy from the sunlight falling on the earth at different latitudes at different times of the year leads to localized changes in climate on a tiny speck of dust in the Universe, the earth, even though it is million of miles from the source of the energy, and furthermore the impacts are still quite predictable.  One should stop and think about that. Also consider that in the grand scheme of things, this energy could be considered minuscule, indeed it is an almost insignificant fraction of the total energy being spewed out from the sun.  And this energy is continuously changing because the sun is not static. But even the second-order differences in this small amount of energy at different times of the year at different latitudes are so well defined as to give us the seasons.  All because of the tilt of the earth’s axis!

And this little bit of the energy that the earth receives from the sun is just the right amount to create our lifeforms, and also impact them in different ways in different parts of the world in a manner that we can understand.  Too much or too little of this little tiny bit of the continuously changing energy of the sun and things would be very different.  It is crazy amazing!

As Spring arrives in our parts, the energy from the sun has warmed the ground and revived the latent life that has remained hidden in our vegetation through the winter.  Brown is turning to green.   It may seem to be happening suddenly, but there is actually a process that carries on through the year.  Things happen at a certain pace in keeping with the change in the energy received from the sun.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe energy of the sun brings flowers to life at this time of  year.  Redbuds and dandelions, and a multitude of other flowers of many different kinds, bloom along the towpath.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this time of year the Spring Beauty can even take over some areas of the woods.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Other lifeforms also seem to be celebrating the return of Spring.  For some reason the turtles in the picture below have shells of different colors even though they are all of the same kind. It looks as if one is wet, one is dry, and the third one is in some state in-between!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe snapping turtle below raises its head from the water, and proceeds to spit out a stream of the water.  I wonder what it was doing under water. I also saw a second snapping turtle with its head underwater for a long time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd the woods echo with the endless songs of the birds.   The colorful cardinal stands out in the foliage.  Its music follows a repetitive pattern that is not that simple.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The restless tapping of the woodpecker on the dry branch of the tree resounds loudly through the woods.  It is a drummer in a marching band tapping out a rhythm of nature on its instrument, its beak.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd as I walk through the woods, I also receive the gift of the energy in a different way.  I can also feel the change that seems to be being celebrated all around me.  The feeling is palpable.  If I choose to, I can also become one with the remarkable transformation that is taking place around me. And I can immerse myself in the feeling.  I can try to feel our oneness with the other life.  I can try to understand how we are all a part of this Nature.  And I can act accordingly, in a harmonious manner. In a sense, this could be a sacred place of unity.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe are all a part of the same experience of life on earth, an earth that is but a speck of dust in the vastness of the Universe.  Our behaviors on this earth ought to reflect this truth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Chair

Walking along the Potomac river, between Taylor’s Landing and Dam 4 on the C&O Canal towpath, we came across this somewhat strange sight on the West Virginia side of the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWas this chair placed there so that somebody could spend the day fishing, or simply watching the flow of the river?

Was this chair placed there by a kind soul for the benefit of other people – so that they too could enjoy their day and time sitting by the riverside?

Considering that the chair was in a location that seemed to be hard to get to, at a place that you had to drive down a steep dirt road to reach,  at a spot beside the river where the surface seems to be unsuitable for a comfortable walk, is it even possible that the chair was simply swept down the river to land upright in this location and position?P3310030.jpg

You can let your imagination wander, see whatever you wish to see, and make up your own stories, as you walk down the towpath on a Sunday morning.

Wind and Water

During our walk along the canal last weekend, my attention was drawn to the pattern of reflections that I was seeing on the surface of the water in the canal.

I was first drawn to the lines in the water, and also the wavy patterns formed by the reflection of the tree trunks.  It would be interesting to understand how these regular patterns form.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe intensity of the lines began to diminish with time, which indicated to me that the phenomenon that was causing them was diminishing with time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe following pattern that I saw soon after that caught me by surprise.  It looked like I was seeing blocks in the water, with clear demarkations between blocks.  It was hard to comprehend the physical forces that were causing this to occur.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe reflections in the following picture are more conventional, and what I expect to see this time of the year when the water is almost calm.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is much to see while taking a walk on a Sunday morning if you keep you eyes and ears open to the beauty of nature.