Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Off the Beaten Track

This one's pure photo album, folks. Just me and my friend L. on a bike ride.

We start at Manhattan's northern tip, Inwood Hill Park—the only place in Manhattan that looks as it did when the Native Americans were the dominant people here, L. tells me.

She's the intrepid visitor; I'm the savvy native.

I surmise from the map that there's going to be a way to get to the George Washington Bridge and the West Side bike path by traveling right beside the Hudson River. It all goes fine until we arrive at the Inwood Canoe Club, which is where the pavement ends. I decide we should forge ahead on the trail that begins beside it.

The path runs between the river and the railroad tracks that feed in and out of Penn Station.

Here's L., leading the way. (She's a much faster rider than I am. Later in the day, she calls me "turtle." I have a crisis.)

It's pretty cool—not the kind of scenery you would imagine in Manhattan. We stop and take pictures with the George Washington Bridge in the background, just to prove where we are.

Of course, it's not as bucolic as it seems. There are numerous subtle signs of human habitation, including the makeshift firepit we find along the shores of the great river. (So this is how the Native Americans lived!)

Various solitary men appear suddenly along the trail. There are odd things like wheelchairs hidden away under bushes.

There path has started out as packed dirt, but eventually it turns into a jumble of rocks.

I've brought us here, but now a little voice inside me starts jumping up like a jack in the box. "We should turn back!" I stuff it back down. "This is a dumb idea, this isn't safe!" Stuff. "Is this how you're supposed to behave when you're 50?" Stuff. I'd much rather be be 12, thank you very much.

L., who seemed apprehensive when we first went offroad, now seems completely energized. After half a mile or more, the trail peters out entirely. Our choice is now turn back or walk the rails.

We walk the rails. "I love this," L. says.

Imagine the two of us pushing our bikes beside the tracks. I'm waiting for the rush and slap of a train speeding by. The unwanted voice inside my head alternates between "I hope this is going to work out, I hope this is going to work out" and "Homeland Security is going to get us!"

There will be a happy ending. Up ahead, I can see the bridge that people who are actually on the bike path can take across the tracks.

And guess what? There's a narrow, well-worn path to take us up the embankment.

Even better, there's a hole already cut in the fence (perhaps by the crew of teenagers that L.—perhaps not as impervious as she has seemed—turns back to tell me is clustered beneath the trees just out of sight).

This stretch of bike path, ugly as it is, seems like heaven.

A few seconds later, we've arrived at the Little Red Light House and the Great Gray Bridge. Soon we'll be eating pizza and drinking beer. Whew! Our expedition will go down not as a fiasco, but as an excellent adventure and wonderful day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

She Sees Sea Shells by the Shore Parkway

Took this photo on the bike path that runs along the Shore-Belt Parkway, somewhere between the Riis Park and Jamaica Bay exits.

Check it out: the roadway's gone white with broken clamshells.

I think the detritus tells me this: I'm in the vicinity of a tidal flat that still has clams in some abundance (wouldn't that be nice?) and the seagulls like to come drop them here.

Maybe the bike path is a perfect shell-breaking surface—and you can eat without getting run over!

Makes me think about the good old days of New York, when the streets were paved with oyster shells.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Big Ride

Finally, the trip I've been working toward all these weeks: Salisbury University's Seagull Century, 2009. I finish it in 8.5 hours, about 7 hours of riding, a pace of around 14 mph. A record for me, though I'm passed literally thousands of times ("on your left!").

It's flat, maybe even infinitesimally downhill; there's farmland in various lovely shades of yellow and brown and rust; there's a little rain and some wind, but it's warm; there are state troopers blocking the cars at every intersection, so the bikes stream through; my back hurts and I count my breaths to 100 over and over again; there are rest stops with music and pie; there's a high-quality shirt (with no sponsor advertising) and a surprising sense of peace and contentment at the end.

The beach, Ocean City, Maryland. The afternoon before.

The view from my hotel room.

Predawn traffic, Salisbury, Maryland. 8309 riders coming in.

64 miles in: the rest stop at Assateague, home of the wild ponies (I don't see any).

My trusty steed.

My souvenir shirt.

Back in my room at sunset, enjoying the glow.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Sheepshead Bay: Fabulous Fish Show

I. Never Too Late to Learn

Crossing the pedestrian bridge at Sheepshead Bay, I notice people leaning over the wooden railings, gesturing excitedly toward the water. What a wonder there is: massive numbers of small fish, swirling.

"What is the word for all these fish in English?" an older Russian man in a Yankees cap asks me.

"A school," I say. And, pointing to the flotilla of swans by the embankment, "a flock."

"A flock, yes," he says.

We watch a pair of cormorants diving, swimming, chasing the fish around. He tells me the word in Russian for this bird in Russian is something like "baklan."

"I think the Russians know much more about nature than Americans," he says. "It is part of the education."

We separate for a while, but eventually he comes back. "Excuse me, but what did you say the the fish were called?" he asks, in a puzzled, gentlemanly way.

He has a dictionary—a faded green hardback, well worn—and he shows me where it says that the English word for such a gathering is a "shoal" of fish.

"That's not correct," I say. "Maybe they made a mistake because they sound the same?"

"Maybe it's British English," he responds.

I insist that a shoal is a shallow place in the water, maybe with rocks—the kind of place a ship might run aground.

"Dangerous shoals," I say.

I was right, but also wrong. I've checked my own dictionaries, and guess what? Shoal and school are indeed synonymous when it comes to fish. It is I, and not the immigrant, who have been schooled.

II. Picture Show

This is a picture the camera took.

The next few have been doctored using the "enhance" button on iPhoto.

There were so many fish. At first, I felt heartened about their collective survival.

But then I began to worry. The shoal's dramatic shifts came in response to a variety of attacks.

The kids fishing off the walkway had several silvery specimens writhing on their lines, and more piled up in plastic bags.

Bigger fish and cormorants repeatedly charged the school, which over and over again was forced to part, as if the predators were Moses and the young fish were the Red Sea. If you look closely near the center of the picture below, you can see a marauding fish at the head of the channel.

The cormorants were feasting. Here's one swimming (underwater) in pursuit.

And then bursting back up to the surface, where the day seemed so peaceful in comparison.