Ishmael, and the March of Civilization (2/17/2013)

Have any of you read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn?  Christina had come upon the book in Guinee, and had suggested that we also read it so that we could talk about it.  It is a fascinating book, with a neat premise, but it does take some discipline to get through.  Anyway, why did I bring this up?  It was because my mind wandered into the realm of the absurdness of what our civilization is all about while I was on the trail this morning.  I am not going to get into the book any more, except to say that it explores the concept of takers and leavers. If you have not read the book and the subject intrigues you, please do give it a read and give me your impression..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut why have I opened up this subject?  Fortunately or unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that happens to me on the trail.  After my body adjusted itself to the the freezing cold of the morning, the mind essentially wandered into this topic.  The initial phase of mental activity is usually a cleansing of all the bad things that happened during the week, during which I allow myself to literally scream at the emptiness around me, where nobody can hear me.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting past this phase can take varying amounts of time depending on what actually happened during the week, and then this is replaced by an emptiness of the mind that allows it to wander wherever else it chooses to do so.  So here I am, a mad mind let loose.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnto the subject of this random monologue…    To start with, I think there is no counter-argument to the fact that over the centuries human beings have made significant advancements in many different areas and facets of life.   We have a gained immense knowledge about things around us and even within us.  We are capable of exploration everywhere, from the smallest scale of things, right down to subatomic particles, all the way to the largeness of the universe and the cosmos around us, with limitations placed only by the current technology and the costs of indulging in such explorations.  As humans, we are also capable today doing a lot of things, some of which would have been considered unthinkable even a few years ago.  We tend to take a lot of this for granted today.  For example, flying through the air at great speeds in extremely complicated machines would have been unimaginable even a century ago.  We have instant communications today literally in the palm of our hands, by transmitting invisible waveforms through the air and by even connecting everybody and everything through the Internet.  We explore space using powerful machines and clever technologies that allows devices to operate by themselves on far away planets. Interventions to extend human life that include fixing of all kinds of internal plumbing and even mechanical replacements are commonplace today. Improvements to our capabilities to provide food and nourish human growth have resulted in major extensions to human life.  It is all like magic!

So what happens as a result of all this wonderful capability.  While there is much more to learn and become more aware of of the world around us today, more of the people who have access to all kinds of resources have stopped thinking.  You have the mindlessness of the societies that are supposedly doing well, that are completely self-absorbed, that are immersed in entertainment based pastimes using the new “toys” that the technical advancements have brought, and I will say that people have become dumber and less capable of learning and understanding things, and thinking and surviving.  I was reading the news about the “suffering” of the folks who were on a cruise last week when the they lost power on the ship and the engines gave up, and they had to survive for a few days in this condition before they reached shore.  Oh, the horror!  And I was thinking about the living conditions in a country like Guinee and how those folks (including the Peace Corp Volunteers) would probably look at the complaints of the the well-to-do Americans and laugh.  Who is the better off, who is the happier, who is the person closer to reality?

We have made so many medical and nutritional advancements on earth that life expectancy has increased over time.  But are we going overboard by keeping people alive regardless of circumstances just because the technology allows us to do so?  At what cost do we do this?  Are the people affected really happy about this?  Under what conditions do they live their extended lives?  Populations are also increasing and we are using more and more of the resources around us to keep this up.  We have introduced genetics into the process of food consumption so that we can be more efficient, and pretty soon we will be using this kind of capability in various other ways to extend our lives even further.  We will even mess with our DNA.  At the same time there is immense waste of food on a massive scale, and there is so much inequality that while we are growing stupid super-humans in one part of the world, people are still starving in other parts of it and living by the seat of their pants.  And we are slowly destroying the world we live in while we are about it. Are we even stopping to think about where we are heading?  We talk about progress, but there are consequences for the kind of progress that we are making that are too inconvenient and perhaps even difficult to grasp.

And then when we do not understand things, or we need some sort of justification for what we do, we can look to the supernatural to try and answer our questions and give things “purpose”.  Yes, there has to be a meaning to everything that exists, and everything has been put into place for a reason, and we are the  focus for everything that goes on in the cosmos. Is this not some form of arrogance?

This is all too absurd!

Who are we – takers and leavers?  My hats off to those of you who are actually trying to make a difference in other people’s lives in very direct ways.  To me that is what life should be all about.

And enough of this nonsense for the time being.  Sorry folks to subject you to my madness….OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

kuria

Agkistrodon Contortrix Mokasen

It happened last week as I was biking back from Bethesda on the Capital Crescent Trail.  I had just crossed the trestle bridge over the C&O canal as I descended towards the level of the towpath.

I passed something colorful on the trail.  It was long and had some patterns on it.  I was pretty sure it was a snake.  I got off the bike and pulled out my camera, making sure I had the zoom lens on it.  I confirmed that it was indeed a snake, and it was one that I was seeing for the first time.  That was exciting! The snake was a few feet long, and somewhat “fat” in the middle. It had colorful patterns across its back.  It looked like it had started crossing the trail, but now it lay still as I got closer, clicking away on the camera.  There was nobody else around as I took my pictures.  The reptile did not move.

I managed to get all the pictures I wanted. As I was getting ready to leave, a bicyclist approached, charging down the path towards the location of the snake.  I called out that there was a snake in front of him.  He ignored me completely.  He barely acknowledged me the second time I called out – as he sped past, not even bothering to look at what I was pointing to.  He was focused on a rider who was biking in the opposite direction since my bike was partially blocking the trail further downhill.  He did not really care about the snake.  I think he avoided it just because he was trying to avoid me. The biker going the other way also went by without spotting the snake.  Something that had grabbed my interest was of no significance to them.  We were traveling along the trail with completely different mindsets!

This is what I had spotted.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(The picture above has been cropped.  I did not dare get too close to the snake!)

Soon after all this activity, and perhaps because of it, the snake turned around retreated back to where it had come from.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince this was a snake I was unfamiliar with,  I was eager to upload the pictures to my computer when I got home to take a look at them on a bigger screen.  Some research followed on the Internet. It was leading me to a conclusion (somewhat exciting to me!) that I had seen a somewhat unique reptile.  But I needed confirmation for my finding.  That confirmation came in the form of an e-mail a few days later, including the following information.Identification of snake(The links in the image above are this and this.)

I had indeed had a close encounter with a Northern Copperhead snake, one of only two venomous snakes present in Maryland. (The other one is called a Timber Rattlesnake.)

As with a lot of people, for some reason or another, I do have an inbuilt fear of snakes.  I would like to believe that over the years this fear has become somewhat more rational.  The fear still does exist, but my reaction is not of instant panic.  I try to keep a healthy distance from a snake.  In this case, my caution was justified!

In any case, after events like the one above, one becomes more alert in the woods than usual.  It does not help when there are signs that say that venomous snakes have been seen recently, which was the case when we hiked Sugarloaf Mountain last weekend.  We did not see any snakes during that hike.

 

The Morning of the Black Rat Snakes

I have been seeing black rat snakes more regularly on the C&O canal towpath ever since I started bicycling there – which is only more recently.  I think I see more snakes when biking just because I cover a lot more distance on the trail than when on foot.  The black rat snake is actually a very common denizen of the woods in these parts.  They are easily recognizable from the color and the white patch underneath.  They can grow quite long.  They are supposed to be quite harmless but I have not tried to find out if this is true!  They get their name because they eat rats and other small creatures.

I had seen only one black rat snake on the trail this year until yesterday, which is somewhat unusual for a biking season.  But that changed yesterday.  There was something about the morning that seemed to bring them out into the open in larger numbers.

I am usually on the lookout for anything black that lies across the trail when I ride.  Many are the times that I have been fooled into thinking that a fallen branch from a tree lying across the trail looked like a snake!  And when you are on a bicycle, the distance between you and the “snake” tends to vanish very quickly. You do not want to ride over the snake.

But I did see a real snake a few miles into the ride yesterday.  At first I could not make out which direction is was headed in.  A closer look revealed that it was beginning to cross the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I think I disturbed it enough that it might have changed its mind about crossing the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did not have time to take a picture the second time I ran across a snake.  There were two old ladies approaching from the other direction on their bikes, and the black snake was in the middle of the trail.  I stopped and noted that there was a snake in front of them.  They had not noticed it, and they did not understand me the first time I pointed out the snake.  Luckily, they grasped what I was saying in time to avoid riding over the reptile.  I think it was sufficiently disturbed by the traffic all around it.   “You scared the darned thing”, I said to the women as they rode off behind me.  Not very polite…  (In any case, I crossed paths with the women once again on my way back and we exchanged pleasantries.  No issues…)

As if these encounters were not enough, I saw yet another black rat snake by the side of the trail further along in the ride!  This time I stopped for pictures.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn all cases yesterday, the snakes actually stayed quite still while I approached them on the bike, and while I was scrambling around with my camera.  This was in contrast with what happened the one time I saw one of these snakes earlier this year, when it was making haste across the trail to slither away into the grass.

I did not not see any more snakes on the way back from Whites Ferry, which was my destination for the morning.

This is also the week that I am trying to jump start my running routine once again in order to get my regular exercise.  This is the first time after the Pittsburgh to Cumberland bike ride.  The once-a-week bike rides that I have been up to recently have not been doing too much for me.  I either need to bike more or add something different into the mix.

I am learning a few more things about the body in the quest to adapt my exercise routines.  The last time I shifted from biking to running (after my bike ride in 2016), I felt so much discomfort that I thought I was having an episode similar to the ones I had had in 2008 that led to the discovery of CAD.  This year, for the first time, I had a wristwatch that kept a track of the heartbeat while running.  It turned out that my heartbeat went up quite significantly the moment I started jogging, and it went up to a rate much higher than what it is when I am biking.  Pushing the muscles in any part of the body, even the heart, out of its usual comfort zone for the first time in a while is bound to create a reaction of some kind.  Best not to overdo it.  I expect that this discomfort will go away if I stick to the running routine.  In fact, I did not feel it once I had warmed up.  I also found myself quite rusty with regards to the running routine itself, tripping over the roots of trees that lie across the trail in the woods much more frequently than I am used to doing.  It is easy to lose touch with things.

 

Remember, Heal and Reconcile

I had just started making my way back after riding into Washington DC from Pennyfield Lock.  I was stopped in my tracks by this wreath of beautiful roses next to the Potomac river in the Georgetown Waterfront Park.P8290066.jpg The first line on the white ribbon that lay diagonally across the wreath read “Remember, Heal and Reconcile”.  The second line read “400th Year Commemoration 2019”.  I could not figure out what it was all about until today.  And I spent a lot of time this morning trying to get a better grip on this story and really get into it.  You can read an article about it here.   I found this audio clip related to this story also interesting.

Just to give you a high level background, 20 or so slaves arrived from Africa for the first time on an English ship at Jamestown in August 1619.  This notable event was a part of the beginnings of a complete moral disaster that has its impacts even today.  Unfortunately, there are people who still wish to rewrite this piece of history even today.

I also saw this.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn light of the shenanigans going on in government today, and especially at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it was somewhat ironic to see this on the plaque below the sculpture.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd this was posted in the same neighborhood next to the river.P8290048.jpgYuk!

Lest somebody thinks that I am a grouch, I really did enjoy the morning and did have a good ride.  Here are some other pictures from the park.

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View of Rosslyn (in Arlington), and the Key Bridge

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Georgetown Waterfront Park

And here is a picture of Swains Lock taken in the early morn.P8290047.jpgLife goes on!

A Closed Section of the Towpath

I saw this at the website of the National Park Service for the C&O Canal Park after I got home from my bike ride.Screenshot_2019-07-26 Current Park Conditions - Chesapeake Ohio Canal National Historical Park (U S National Park Service)I might have been the only person to ride the section after it was closed.

In fact I had to cross this barrier at Pennyfield Lock to exit the closed section after I was done with my ride.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarlier on, I had encountered a young girl working for the NPS who belonged to the Student Conservation Association who was taking a count of the number of fallen trees in the closed section.  She said that she had counted 20, and that she had stopped because she had come to an impassable section.  I was able to cross this section by carrying my bike off the trail and back on to it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe section of the trail in the picture below looked beaten up from water flowing over the trail.P7260040.jpgA park ranger had stopped me earlier.  He looked a little upset when he saw me.  He got up from the stump he had been sitting on.  “Did you not see the sign that the trail was closed?”, he asked.  I had been prepared for the encounter.  “I have to get back to my car which is parked at Pennyfield Lock,” I said.  He immediately relented.  He actually smiled.

I had actually encountered an NPS pickup truck with a couple of kids earlier on in the closed section of the trail.  They were backing away from the site of the destruction on the trail, all the way back to Swain’s Lock it seemed. Because of the width of the towpath, there was no place to turn the pickup truck around.  They had told me to be careful, but had made no attempt to stop me.  The kid mentioned that they were not responsible if I hurt myself.

Back at Swain’s lock, as I approached the sign for the blocked trail, I had a decision to make.  I could stay on the trail, or I could try to get to the main road and ride along the road.  Riding along the road would have added a couple of miles to the ride, and it would have also involved riding up and down decent slopes on the side roads to get to the main road.   It would have also been more dangerous because of the traffic on the road.   Besides, I was tired after having ridden more than 30 miles at that point.  It did not take too long for me to decide to stay on the trail and face the consequences of my action if I encountered somebody who objected.

At that point I was returning from a ride all the way out to Fletchers Cove.  The highlight of this ride was the stop to see the swallowtail butterflies feasting in the morning sun on the milkweed growing beside the waters of the canal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrossing the damaged section of the trail earlier in the morning on my way out had been an adventure in itself.  I could ride my bike for only short sections at a time.  I had to carry my bike over tree limbs laying across the trail, and walk under fallen branches balanced over me.  I even had to carry my bike off the trail through the woods to get past one section.  Fortunately folks had created a path off the trail in this section.  (The trail must have been blocked for at least a little while at this point in time for this to happen!)  I carried my bike past the park ranger who was sitting in his front-end loader on the trail.  He did not stop me.  Perhaps he remembered me later in the day when I encountered him again, which was why he let me get by that time.

The destruction was extensive.  Trees were fallen all over the place.  The trail had also been washed away in a few sections, as if the canal had overflowed.  I kept going.

When I started the ride earlier that morning, I had met a person who had just finished his bike ride.  He had warned me about the fallen trees, but had apparently gotten through to the other side, where the trail was completely clear.  He did not say anything to discourage me from my plan to ride towards the city.

The strange thing about what I saw on the trail was the localized nature of the damage.  I have a hunch that some kind of twister must have touched down during a storm that had taken place a few days earlier.  The funny thing is that I was not aware of the extent of the storm when it happened even though the trail is not too far from home.  I wondered how things might have looked on the trail when the storm was actually happening.  The power of nature is awesome.

And that is the end of this little tale told backwards!

Hah!

 

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!