Trail Flora: Spring

We’ve just come through the Magic Season in Northern Virginia.  While my midwestern cousin complains about the persistent winter, and my new England cousin’s husband blogs about Easter morning snow (on a late Easter, too!), around here the magic is trees leafing out.

The Magic comes in a two-week bracket sometime about mid-April.  Almost all the trees get their first leaves at once, while the Dogwoods are in full white-cross glory and the Redbuds flash almost garish magenta.  But for the big trees, their almost simultaneous leaves come in different delicate pastel hues: pea green, lime green, grass green, hunter green, red, rust, maroon, even off-white!  You need to look quickly, because this display is evanescent and elusive.  A couple of warm weather-front days in the 80° range, a loud line of thunderstorms gutted of their tornadic energy but not their deluge of rain, and next day (today, as it happens) all the trees are an even, bright enamel green.  they’ll darken a bit with summer’s heat and drought, like paint.

Only the cyclist can prolong the magic, simply by taking the W&OD southeast and downhill into Arlington, then northwest to Ashburn, Leesburg, and beyond.  The seasonal difference between Arlington County and Sterling is a good week.  When I ride to Shirlington I discover what I can look for in Vienna in a few days, and when I go out to Route 28 I can look for the things that vanished in Vienna a few days ago.  It reminds me of the small but prominent hill visible from our third-story porch in Charlottesville.  The altitude alone allowed us to see Spring creeping up the hill at the rate of 10 or 15 feet a day until the trees at the very top were covered with leaves about a week after those at the bottom.  Talk about your microclimates!   Exactly the same principle allows us to extend the azalea season, just now starting in earnest.

Meanwhile other aspects of local flora are active.  Maple seeds whirl down in droves when spring winds blow.  Jane’s family always called them “helicopters.”  These are not the two-winged versions we knew in new England, but single-winged.  Oak fronds also cascade by the bucket-load.  There are dandelions along the trail just as there are in our yard, but they grow in great abundance in unmown trailside areas.  May Apple plants are up like umbrellas, and the Trail is dotted with folk picking wild greens and shoots, mostly dandelion greens and milkweed shoots, I suspect.

It’s been a rainy April, and the erratic and violent weather fronts have inhibited my riding.  I am certainly glad I’m not sensitive to tree pollen, though.  The pollen count (the number is grains of pollen per cubic meter of air) is hitting four figures on sunny, windy days–mostly oak pollen right now.  On my last two rides my tear ducts have been blocked, not by the usual grit. dust, and mucus, but by pure yellow oak pollen, in moist, finely grainy clumps.  If I were allergic, I’m sure that much would leave me prostrate.  So I’ll be out tomorrow, appreciating the azaleas and undoubtedly some other newly blooming addition to the spring landscape.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.


Motorized Vehicles Prohibited

The W &OD Trail website ( has on its main page the news that the trail will be repaved from Isaac Newton Square in Reston (we easily gravitate toward that spot) to Hunter Mill Road.  It’s old news now.  That work was done during March and early April.  Repaving was also done in other areas, including a stretch between Hunter Mill Road and Vienna, between Herndon and Reston, and from an overpass bridge west of Rte. 28 up to the Rte. 28 overpass bridge.  The website also warns us that between March 15 and April 25 the new trail bridge over the Capital Beltway will be completed and the trail redirected onto it.  I passed it this morning and it looks like that event will be at least two weeks away, More like May 10.

Such are the vagaries of work on the Trail.  What is universal is the erraticism of the notification of disruptions, ranging from overkill to premature to none.  Especially in the early spring, cycling on the W&OD is a crap shoot.  If it’s not major maintenance it’s Park Authority trucks doing the first mowing of the year or investigating some minor trailside issue.  Some of the time they are pulled off the trail; other times they are half-on and half-off the trail, sometimes blocking important sight lines on curves.  On occasion the truck is empty and the door left open (I wonder if anyone’s ever been “doored” by a park Authority vehicle).  I have seen Park Authority drivers napping in their trucks that are half on the trail surface.  Cripes!  One more group that fails to grasp the concept that the Trail is a place where people, some on mechanical vehicles, want to move.  If you, your girl friend, your dogs, your kids, or all of the above need to stop for a chat, a diaper change, a bite to eat, a cellphone call, a nap, or whatever, get off the trail.  It is a passageway, not a rest area!

You can’t expect much from the repavers.  Some of the crews are really good, while others seem to believe that the trail has been closed for as long as they’re working on it, and they  park their vehicles dead center on the trail, requiring a dismount and walk-around.  The crews hired by the power company are equally erratic in their degree of awareness and sensibility.  Dominion Electric (or one of their subcontractors) is always working on tree trimming, striving to keep the twenty-five foot high saplings in the right-of-way from crashing down on top of their fifty-foot high power lines.  They usually do a pretty good job; I don’t envy them the task of having to look out for passing trail users as they run their chippers.  But the occasional crew runs the whole operation right on the trail tarmac rather than off to the side.

The best vehicles on the trail are usually the Park Rangers.  They have to drive the trail once a day from one end to the other, as I learned from a Park Ranger who was a student of mine once.  They roll along slowly, slow down and pull aside to let you by, and keep the trail checked.  They always get a wave from me.

Other motorized trail users I have seen include Town of Herndon maintenance vehicles servicing the library grounds, the odd Segway, police vehicles on what I assume is official business, police motorcycles which are usually on business less easy to understand or justify, escorting groups of bicyclists on special fund-raising rides or civilian motorcyclists on god knows what kind of mission.

Signs at various Trail entrances say “motorized vehicles prohibited.”  This is true, I guess, except for whenever some authorized or semi-authorized user chooses to make an exception.  This late winter and early spring has been exceptional in the number and variety of motorized vehicles on the trail.  Today, for the first time in months, I encountered no vehicles of any kind on my ride.  I hope for more of the same; I hope that the special and routine maintenance and construction projects are coming to an end; I look forward to a summer of blissful rides with only the occasional Park Ranger to wave at.

And the first cyclist with an electric bike that I see out there is going to get an earful.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.


I figured my Saturday plans were perfect.  Jane had gotten a hydrangea for her birthday, and we needed to plant it.  This is also the time of year for spreading a thin layer of hardwood bark mulch over the shrubbery beds around the house and the borders of our yard.  We’d altered the backyard bed a little for the new plant, because it likes some sun, but morning sun rather than the withering rays of summer afternoons.  Furthermore, it was a crummy day for cycling, cool (low 40°s; is winter ever going to give it up?) and cloudy, with air so wet it could be described as “almost raining.”  I actually felt a drop now or then as the day went on.

So off I went to the grocery store to buy mulch; it’s nearer and cheaper than at the mega-hardware store.  I got nine 2 cubic foot bags for $30.  Not as cheap as it used to be, but still a decent price.  One of the hispanic stock guys loaded it for me; he was about half my size, but also about half my age and twice as strong.  We could have fit a couple more in the Audi’s trunk, and some in the back seat.  But I preferred the idea of buying as much as i could spread right then.  I got home and parked the car in the garage, from whence I could unload the trunk as I needed the mulch.  Then I got out the necessary tools: a garden rake, a spade, a shovel, a lawn rake, a narrow long-handled rake, a hand-tool rake, clippers, and scissors in case the bags gave me trouble opening them.

The hydrangea was easy to site and plant.  We had discussed a good location, and the earth was just moist enough to be easy to shovel and soft enough to pulverize if it was lumpy, as our red Virginia clay tends to be.  Following online directions, I took care not to plant it too deep, and gave it plenty of room to expand.

The mulch was pretty easy to spread, too.  I’d raked thoroughly into the late fall, so the beds had only a few patches of wind-blown winter leaves, and then the leaves that stick around and within the clustered stems of all our azaleas, barberries, and other bushes.  Some of that is picky work.  I took a little time to snip damaged or weak branches, and some cleanup was needed for the many twigs and small branches that fell in the late-winter wet snowstorms.  Once all that refuse was raked into a couple of trash barrels, I was ready to spread the mulch.  I carried it back one bag at a time, and dumped about half of each bag before spreading it out about 1″ thick.  I had to watch out for the Lily-of-the-Valley shoots, and work around the shrubs and plants, but the work went smoothly.  Nine bags later I had gotten from the back right corner of the yard all the way past the hydrangea to right about the edge of the first holly tree, where our small, exclusive cat pet cemetery is.  About 9 to 11 more bags should do the rest of the back.

As I was getting upward in the “bags spread” count, I noticed a certain fatigue.  But I didn’t think much of it, and had no reactive symptoms.  I knew I could count this as my daily exercise, though, even if it was not cycling.  A little cross-training.  When everything was picked up and put away, 3½ hours had passed.  My back was a little stiff, but I had no hint of what was in store.

On Sunday morning I got a surprise when I got out of bed and stood up.  I could scarcely walk.  My knees were inflamed, my lower legs were sore, my feet hurt to stand on, and my back was very stiff.  I’d never been in this much pain and distress because of strained or inflamed muscles.  My right knee really throbbed, even with no weight on it.  Ibuprofen is my drug of choice for such ailments, and I took a tablet right away.  No immediate effect.  In choir I could barely push myself to my feet when it was time to stand up.  My knee throbbed even more during the service.  I hobbled out at the end like an old man.  And I’m only 71.

The rest of the day was spent in static activities such as reading, writing, and watching the Nationals game, studying the players a bit.  (They rallied to beat the Mets; thank you, Mets bullpen!)  I couldn’t even imagine getting on my exercise bike for a very light spin.  By the end of the day, and 3 or 4 Ibuprofens later, things were improving slightly.  By this morning, they were much, much better.  One last anti-inflamatory and I was ready to roll.  I took off on a short 22-mile spin on the Trek and felt virtually no pain at all.  In fact, the ride cleared up the last of the lingering knee pain, as rides are wont to do.

As I say, I have never been so immobilized by overdoing physical exercise.  I figured my legs would be impervious to such activity.  I was wrong.  So from now on I will spread the mulch at a rate of more like five bags at a time, and let a few bags reside on my driveway overnight.  Pain and the consequent immobility is not fun, especially when it costs me a Sunday afternoon ride!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Top Ten Signs of Spring on the W&OD Trail

10. Exercising Reston office workers clog trail from noon to 1 p.m.
9.  No more leggings!
8.  Snakes in the sun.
7.  Pollen on tires: green, yellow, brown.
6.  Rydons sport Race Red, not Smoke, lenses.
5.  Dodging untold numbers of maintenance vehicles.
4.  Later daylight makes you late for dinner.
3.  March winds and April showers on the same day.
2.  Liquid changes from sinus drip to sweat.
1.  Public Displays of Affection.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Cherry Blossoms

Washington, DC, is most beautiful in the spring.  Just in general, the waves of flowering trees and shrubs keep things colorful from late March until well into June.  The weather starts to get nice; mid-April is like late May in New England.  But the one attraction that brings tourists to DC is the Tidal Basin and its rim of flowering cherry trees.  There are other cherry trees in the general area, but the Tidal Basin in the epicenter of the blossoms, as though a tsunami of cherries washed far out into the suburbs, leaving equally picturesque trees clustered in somewhat less picturesque spots all over.

The cherry trees were a gift of the Japanese people to the American people in 1912.  This has remained a precious heritage despite the fact that 29 years after the gift the Japanese government apparently determined that the American territorial islands of Hawai’i were a threat to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and bombed them, killing many of those people to whom the gift of the trees had been given.  In the ensuing almost four years the gift recipients fought against the gift givers; the bloodiness of that fight is

Mom, Dad, margaret, April 1970

My mother and father, with my daughter Margaret, by cherry trees, 1970

expressed in the Marine Corps War Memorial that ironically overlooks the Tidal Basin blossoms from its high ground on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and many of the white crosses in nearby Arlington National Cemetery memorialize Americans killed by Japanese.


But that one malignant aberration aside, the trees bring annual hope that good will, kind thoughts, and mutual love of beauty itself can prevail and link even peoples with disparate language, religion, and heritage.  In Washington there is an annual two-week festival for the blossoms, and I pay my own small respects by doing at least one ride along the Potomac River while the blossoms are out (see posting entitled “Potloop,” 4/16/10).  Yesterday I went.  The trees, it must be admitted, were past their peak of bloom.  The cold, windy, rainy late March/early April weather of which I have complained decimated them early, and April 3rd had been pre-calculated to be the end of the peak bloom period anyway.  But sitting on a bench on the Virginia shore right across from the Tidal Basin, with a panorama that included the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Old Post Office Building tower, the Capitol Dome, and the Jefferson Memorial, brought home the place of those delicate colors of white and pink still daintily visible across the way amid the brightening green of new tree leaves.

Today it was a new ride in a new direction.  I rode out on the W&OD to visit my granddaughter Emma, who was entertaining her Grandma Jane for the day in Herndon.  Emma was into tasting things–mulch, dead magnolia blossoms, and such.  We all sang a song about a diminutive arachnid who, having been washed down a drainpipe by a sudden shower, recommenced her upward climb.  Then we saw a real spider by the front door.  We played with the mulch.  Emma liked being outdoors.

I liked riding home via Wiehle Avenue and Reston Parkway back to the W&OD.  The cherry tree plantings along these routes are supposed to be among the most spectacular aside from those in DC.  And I would not disagree, given what I saw today.  These blossoms are still out in full force, either because the variety of flowing cherry tree is different or because the season is several days later out this way.  Probably both.  Anyway, in the good old federal employee tradition of double dipping, I double-dipped my cherry tree viewing this year.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Flat, Part 2

It was a tiny dark gray stone fragment, about 3/16″ long.  On close inspection it looked like a miniature paleolithic flint tool, a scraper to prepare hides.  One edge appeared to have been flaked away into a sharp knife-edge.  The tip was pin-prick sharp.  When I discovered it, that tip was pointing straight at the axle of my rear wheel on the Trek 2.1.  It was imbedded in the very outside perimeter of the Michelin Kromion tire on that wheel.  The flat rear end of the stone fragment, perhaps 1/8″ long, was parallel with the surface of the tire and the tip had penetrated all the way through the tire and the tube.

My discovery of this foreign object in my tire came about, of course, very shortly after that tip penetrated the tube.  I was 7.58 miles into a Sunday ride to Shirlington when that happened, and my wheel began making that noise that indicates that only two thicknesses of uninflated rubber tire and two more of uninflated tube separate the rim from the asphalt of the road.  I dismounted; luckily I was near a driveway entrance to Glencarlyn Park in Arlington, through which the W&OD runs.  So I walked the bike up te road to the top of the hill, to the park entrance at  S. Harrison and S. 3rd Street.  I called Jane with the coordinates and she came to get me.  I carry bike tools, but changing a flat can be very time-consuming and we were on the clock with a later afternoon function.

While I waited I inspected the tire, found the culprit stone, and wondered (a) how something so small could have gotten into the right alignment to penetrate the tire that way, (b) how many dozen equally  innocuous potentially dangerous things I ride over every time, (c) why the tire didn’t offer more resistance, and (d) when it had happened.  I suppose it could have been wedged in there for a while before it got pushed just hard enough to pop the vulnerable tube.  Had I checked my tires before each ride, I might have been able to prevent this, but maybe not.  Could have all happened on yesterday’s ride.

I also conversed with an artisan, James McCartney, originally from Rahway, NJ.  James was winding up a job at the house adjacent to the trail, and came over to chat about his boyhood cycling days, and the big bike race they had on Labor Day weekend for years in Rahway.  James does masonry and home repair; I was tempted to ask him if he was sure the whole neighborhood liked the classic rock on the radio station he was blaring.  But he was a nice guy; his business card says “Have trowel, will travel.”

When I got home there was a side of me that wanted to jump on a different bike and ride for another hour.  I only got 30 minutes of exercise.  But the day, which had been chilly and breezy anyhow, was now getting cloudier and less cheery.  So I did what I know was a better thing.  I took off the wheel, and then removed the old tire and tube and replaced them with a brand new tube (I always have spare tubes ready to go) and the old Bontrager Race Lite tire that I saved from my front wheel when the rear one wore out and I replaced them with the Michelins.  I inflated it and let it sit by itself overnight just to assure that it didn’t have a pinched tube or some other installation problem.   (Usually overnight is enough time for a badly installed tube to pop, and better in the garage than out on the road.)

Then this morning I popped the wheel back on the bike, got everything adjusted, and took off on an ultra-warm day to do a 36 mile ride and forget the frustration of yesterday.  it was all good–everything rolled right along.  Meanwhile I had scanned the web last night looking for a permanent solution.  I really wanted a blue sidewall tire to coordinate with the great Trek paint job, and after a lot of checking I decided that (a) I still wanted racing slicks, and (b) I wanted the tire to  have 120 threads per inch rather than the 60 that the Kromion and the Race Lites have.  I know that puncture resistance results from many factors, but I think I erred in thinking that even a lesser (and quite inexpensive) Michelin is likely to be better than another’s higher-end tire.  So I looked and Michelin, Vittoria, Continental, Trek, Bontrager (yes, both Trek and Bontrager seem to have their names on tires now), Vredstein, and Forté (the Performance Bikes house brand).  In a compromise mashup among potential durability, low rolling resistance, blue rimness, and of course cost, I chose the Forté Pro +.  I have liked most Forté products, and the customer reviews were very good.

The new tires will be here in about 10 days.  But for right now, my cycling plans can proceed as scheduled anyway.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.