Thoughts While Cycling

  • This year we never got that March day described in William Wordsworth’s “To My Sister”:

It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door.

Even today, oohed and ahhed about by the TV weather people, it was sunny and 55˚, six degrees under the average for the date.  Granted it was pleasant enough, largely because the wind was not sharp and cold out of the northwest, as it has been most of the month.  But it was hardly a “mild day,” and there has not been one yet.

  • Easter weekend has brought out a new, annoying walking style on the W&OD.  Apparently a number of local families have friends visiting, because yesterday and today I encountered groups of six to fifteen walkers, strolling along in echelons of 2×3 to 5×3, all talking and gesturing.  Three abreast is more than the trail can handle on one side, especially if one of them is a wide load.  So the group overhangs, making it hard to see around them to verify that it’s safe to pass.
  • I’ve had a couple of brief conversations on the trail the last couple of days.  Usually I like to push it enough so that talk doesn’t come easy very much, and so I don’t like to converse because it entails riding too slowly.  But these guys each needed some directions, and I was glad to oblige.  One was from Bethesda, doing a long loop from Rosslyn out to the Custis and then back in to Rosslyn, to catch the Capital Crescent Trail home.
  • Of course this time of year another reason I don’t like trail companions is that my face is a mess of sorts, with my hyperactive sinus.  Not a pretty sight, I’m guessing.
  • To give another idea of how cold it’s been, much to my surprise there were Spring Peepers singing today!  There must have been a whole contingent that thought it was just too cold and raw to mate back in early March.  They were the smart ones.  If Darwinian theory holds, this population should be more numerous and prosperous over the next couple of hundred years.  We’ll have to hang around to find out.
  • On my way back home today I had a tailwind. I can’t say how much more rewarding that makes a long ride like my trek out to Ashburn.  All the effort of riding into the wind for 18 miles pays off.
  • As I pulled up to the light at Maple Avenue coming back, I noticed the rider ahead of me was a blonde woman.  She was riding an old red Giant bike whose aluminum frame was a really clumsy no-nonsense design, with big lumpy welds.  Looked like a 50/39 crank.  Custom saddle.  She was wearing a sort of rose-pink jacket, and her calf-length tights had a Pearl Izumi logo strategically placed on the left rear.  “Well,” I thought, “the landscape has improved.  I’m going to regret it when we get to the hill and I have to pass her.”  Got to the bottom of the hill.   She rode me right off her wheel.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Birds

I am struck this morning by six grackles, who have arranged themselves in a kind of free-form still life pattern in one of our holly trees, sheltering against the persistent northwest wind, sustained at 11 mph and gusting to 32. The weak sun glinting through the branches makes their deep indigo heads and their bronzy wings vibrant.  Their yellow eyes stare, sharp and clear.  One moves occasionally, but the others have been sitting in the same spot for ten or fifteen minutes.  This is rare stasis for birds, who seem always on the move for some reason or other, and often leave at the same instant, spooked by some unapparent twitch or sudden movement in their surroundings or in one of them.  And as I write it happens—they vanish simultaneously in a heartbeat and without a trace.

About three weeks ago, I caught a vivid glimpse of two courting birds in the late afternoon sun.  They were chasing one another through the branches and up and down the trunk of one of our Pin Oaks, and their calls were melodious and distinctive.  I could see they were small woodpeckers, but couldn’t tell in the light and with their movement if they were Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers.  Whatever they were, they only had eyes for each other.  I checked with the excellent online bird identification websites and determined that they were definitely the Hairy species.  Their call, one of several sounds they make, all elegantly recorded and identified at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, made the ID positive.  By now I am sure there’s a little clutch of Hairy Woodpecker eggs around here somewhere.

I have spoken of the neighborhood gang of several Blue Jays that bounces and jostles through the lower and mid-height branches of our backyard trees.  This is evidently part of their regular territory.  If they had spray paint and opposable thumbs (just about the sum total of assets possessed by human taggers) our Hollies, Lilacs, and other shrubbery would be ablaze in cryptic emblems.  Despite their bumptious, raucous manners and bad habits (they occasionally eat the eggs and nestlings of other songbirds) their energy, social complexity and vivid, pretty coloring makes them favorites for us.  Jane and I both loved them when we were kids in New England.  In Virginia we virtually never saw them in suburban neighborhoods until a few years ago.  Whether they are expanding their territory southward or the overall species has had a resurgence, they are now present where they were notably rare.  When they’re about they are always seen and heard.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Play-by-Play

When I was a kid playing baseball, I’d fantasize that I was in the big moment, with a roaring crowd looking on, even if the reality was my back yard, with the short right field “fence” of forsythia bushes.  In my mind it was Fenway Park, ninth inning, two out, a runner on second (perhaps Ted Williams, who had just hit a double), and two strikes.  “Bradford at the plate.  The crowd roars.  One on, two strikes, two out.  Sox down by one.  Here’s the pitch . . . it’s a long drive to deep right field!  That ball won’t be caught!  It’s gone!  The Boston Red Sox win another one against the Yankees!”  Unlike Ted, I always tipped my cap to the crowd.

On today’s bike ride I was heading west on a chilly, breezy Saturday.  On the long uphill stretch of the W&OD between Hunter Mill Road and Michael Faraday Drive (just east of Wiehle Ave.) I found myself overtaking rider after rider, mostly weekenders who hadn’t touched their bikes since last October from the look of it, and the following dialogue started running through my head, off and on for the rest of the ride.  It sounded a lot like Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen as they narrated past Tours de France:

Phil:  Now Bradford’s picking off the remnants of the early break one by one.
Paul:  Just maintaining that steady pace, tapping out that high cadence.
Phil:  He’s on a mission today, Paul, and the remaining leaders of the breakaway group are just ahead.
Paul:  One of his chief rivals has just had a mechanical problem.  It looks like a ringing cell phone.   Yes, she’s had to pull off to the side of the road to answer it.
Phil:  Well, that is bad luck.  You can tell she’s a dangerous rider, fit and doesn’t look a day over fifty.
Paul:  Bradford can’t wait for her; he’s riding on with power and determination.
Phil:  And now he’s past the lead group, and he isn’t even attacking!  He just upped the pace a little, and he’s riding the best climbers in the world off his wheel here on L’Alpe d’Reston!
Paul: Bradford’s secret, Phil, is his recovery from that severe bout of the flu he had last week.  For a day and a half he emptied his body of every bit of solid and liquid waste.  And now he has just the same power as before, but he weighs less.
Phil:  Yes, and he’s been taking those multi-colored energy pills too.
Paul:  I understand they’re Easter Jelly Beans, Phil.
Phil:  Indeed!  He utilizes seasonally available nutrients in his special training program?  Well, if he takes this climb, does a good job on the intermediate sprint, and finishes strong on Academy Street, what can he do but win the day?
. . . .
Paul:  The Intermediate Sprint at Eldon Street is just ahead.
Phil:  And there’s not a second to spare!  It’s going to be desperately close!  The time is counting down . . . nine . . . eight . . . seven . . . six . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . ze—and he made it!  He crossed the line just as the Red Hand came up.
Paul:  He’s just unbeatable!
. . . .
Paul:  Bradford’s hammering down Jackson Parkway.  He drops a couple of gears and take the sharp right-hander onto Academy!  He’s out of the saddle!
Phil:  And Bradford’s roaring up the finishing straight like a Jaguar XK-120 Roadster, or at least like Thomas the Tank Engine.
Paul:  He’s a Very Useful Cyclist, Phil.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Spring Inventory

Yesterday, March 21st, was the first full day of spring.  It was sunny and bright, and there was a brisk March wind, a harbinger, I presume, of April showers.  Our crocuses and

crocuses

Crocuses in full glory on the first day of spring

daffodils, at least the ones on the east side of the house and in the back yard, flashed their brilliant colors.   The only problem was that the high temperature for the day was 37˚, and that insistent breeze out of the northwest, gusting to almost 30 mph, assured that the wind chills never rose out of the 20s.   The date’s average high temperature here is 58˚, as March begins at a 51˚ average high and closes at 61˚.  This year few days have approached those norms, and when they have the accompanying precipitation and wind has generally taken the edge off.

And yet . . . , and yet as I returned from a shopping run I noticed that overnight the maple trees all along Rockbridge Street had taken on that unmistakable orange-tinged red color of their tiny blossoms.  Cold wind and all, they know spring when they see it.  The oaks, of course, look entirely barren still, but spring comes inexorably, willy-nilly.

I walked a couple of circuits around our yard yesterday, inspired by Jane, who had done the same after her morning walk.  I sat on the cement bench at the back corner of the lot and took it all in.  There’s lots of work to do to make the yard a really nice place.  Much of that has to do with the patio bricks that were removed to allow the grinding of a huge old stump, and the need to re-set the clumps of periwinkle we set aside so it can once again grow into the nice, thick cover it has been for the past couple of seasons since the willow oak was cut down.

It is what Robert Frost called “mud time,” though we really don’t get the full New England

daffodil

As yellow as the sun

effect down here because the ground does not freeze deeply enough.  I can see in the soggy clumps of turf the hope for a grassy lawn, if we can keep the False Strawberry and other broadleaf weeds down.  But lawn care in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is the topic of a whole separate blog.  For now I’ll just enjoy the brave daffodils and crocuses, and trust that their brightness promises a warming trend before the end of the month.  March should by rights go out like a lamb.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Spring Peepers Peeping

Saturday, March 8, 2013, is the date on which I first heard Spring Peepers on the W&OD this year.  Of course the temperature has been somewhat below normal, and their coming accordingly delayed.  So when they finally began singing after our abortive non blizzard on Thursday, they were immediately joined by what I am terming “Spring Cluckers,” because their lower-pitched calls sound just like a bunch of hens.  They’re some other kind of frog, surely.  If anybody knows what kind, let me know.  Usually the “Cluckers” begin about a week later than the Peepers.  The polyphony of a new season begins!

Snow Day

March 6
7:24  When I awoke at 5:00 I decided to check the progress of our ominously forecast late winter storm.  Looked like no precipitation in the air.  An inch or two of heavy, wet snow

Daffodils on the verge wait out the last gasp of winter.

Daffodils on the verge wait out the last gasp of winter.

had fallen.  Meteorologists said that the moisture content of this storm would be 8:1, eight inches of snow equaling one inch of rain.  The typical snowstorm is 12:1, half again drier.  Nothing had stuck on the sidewalks; the street was slush on the edges, bare in the middle where a plow had already come through.  That in itself is remarkable, as our street rarely gets plowed at all until the day after the storm.  Now that we’re out of bed for good we’ve checked, and the precipitation is rain.  That’s the reverse of the predicted progression from initial rain to all-day heavy snow.  Every secondary school and university in the area has closed, as has the Federal Government.  As I write I see a few snowflakes creeping back into the mixed precipitation.

8:40  About an hour ago the mixed precipitation was about half snow, half rain, and the wind was picking up.  Half an hour ago it was all snow, but light to moderate.  Now it’s moderate to heavy, and the wind is more persistently

The blog (on screen) and its subject, seen out my office window,

The blog (on screen) and its subject, seen out my office window,

from the northeast.  The flakes are small to medium in size (larger ones are obviously clusters of small flakes).  Our indoor-outdoor thermometer is reading 34.0˚, after a low of 27.0˚ (yesterday a.m.?) and a high yesterday of 54.5˚.  Even as I am writing this, the intensity of the snowfall and the wind have increased visibly.  Must be one of the “snow bands” that forecasters talk about.  This seems to have the makings of a real “nawth-eastah,” as they say where I come from.

9:58  Still snowing hard, with small to medium flakes.  The wind is out of the NE at 10, gusting to 28.  It is just beginning to make the road, driveway, and sidewalks white, apparently doing a lot of melting as it hits the ground.  The predicted accumulations for our area varied greatly, though all forecasters agreed that the depths would increase from east to west, with mostly rain on the Eastern Shore and the heaviest snow back in the mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.  Winchester, VA, home of the scions of the Byrd family, which first settled here in the 16th century, was supposed to be the epicenter of depth, with a foot or more foreseen.  Our area was pegged for anywhere from 3” to 10”.

1:21 p.m.  The last three hours have seen some vacillation between snow and a snow-rain mix.  Much of the time it’s been snowing moderately and blowing pretty hard.  But I know it’s not coming down that hard, having long ago developed my own visual standards to evaluate intensity.  I can see the trees in the nearby wooded neighborhood very clearly through the flakes.  I can see as far away as I could without any snow, with the farthest reaches of the tree line being only somewhat whited out.  In a good snowstorm I couldn’t see clearly across the street, and the house three back yards down would be practically invisible.  We noticed that the snowplows are our neighbors’ heavy-duty SUVs fitted with blades.  Guess they got so tired of not getting plowed they decided to do it themselves.  Outside the wind is nasty and cold, and I feel miserable out there.  Still, the impression is of cold water, not of ice and perilous wind chill factors.  The snow is melting only slightly more slowly than it is falling.  Sidewalks, driveway, and street are slushy.  Near the house and garage everything is melted.  On the grass the snow depth is about 2.5”; on hard surfaces like the tops of our trash barrels it’s almost but not quite 3”.  Currently the temperature is 32˚, the wind 15 gusting to 32 from the NNE.

5:02 p.m.  The storm has changed completely to a rainy and windy day.  There is probably about an inch of snow left on the ground, and it is dissipating further with the cold rain and pesky gusts, even though the highest velocity remains 32, unchanged from mid-day.  The

Storm winds down on Academy Street.  Was it for this that all public institutions and governments shut down?

Storm winds down on Academy Street. Was it for this that all public institutions and governments shut down?

snow began disappearing from the mix around 2:00, and shortly thereafter was gone.  Weather Doppler revealed only a couple of pockets of frozen precipitation in eastern Virginia; as the storm rumbles up the coast, losing intensity—the barometric pressure here is rising again—it is spreading pure rain and lacks the intense precipitation bands it had earlier.  We will be getting some backlash showers and winds until probably 8:00 or 9:00 this evening.  I should be able to navigate the W&OD Trail by tomorrow, or Friday at the latest.  Once again, a storm has been completely overhyped by the weather-terrorist meteorologists, seeking to garner viewers for their TV stations and visitors to their newspaper website (yes, singular—there’s only one real newspaper left in DC).  They wanted to call it “Snowquester.”  I’m going with “Slush to Judgment.”

11:02 p.m.  Watching Channel 9’s Topper Shutt (the name’s got to be real, because who’d think to make up a name like that) explain why the storm didn’t pan out.   He’s the same meteorologist who 24 hours ago had “shifted” the heavier snow bands eastward toward DC because to him, even as the storm was starting, everything seemed in place for a heavy snowfall in the western suburbs, to the tune of 6” to 10”.  Meteorologists these days get computer-generated projection models from various sources that analyze all the parameters and update the analyses as the weather systems evolve.  All the models were “converging,” or starting to agree, on the snowfall patterns.  To his credit, there were some high totals to our west—17” in Linden and 12” in Front Royal.  And in some situations just a few miles of distance can make a huge difference in the weather.  Yet when Topper was shifting his heavier precipitation bands eastward the temperature was about 40˚ here.  The man on the street would have said, “it’s not going to be cold enough to snow.”  The man on the street would have been right.  I am reminded of the farm girl in Dickens who knew all about horses because she had grown up with them but was chastised in school when she moved to the city because she could not properly define a horse as an “equine quadruped.”  Sometimes the best forecasting comes from looking out the window.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.

Surly Weather

We are looking to get our most wintry weather of the season after midnight tonight and through tomorrow.  Won’t take much to exceed our heaviest snowfall, as we’ve totaled perhaps 5” cumulative all winter in the form of several dustings from clipper systems.

As usual, the weather pundits are all a-twitter, and they’ve even named the storm “Snowquester,” in honor of Washington’s latest political non-decision, coupled with our so-far-unsuccessful quest for snow this season.  Silly enough that forecasters do it, but worse that the US Weather Bureau has officially named the storm “Saturn.”  Can’t say if that’s an allusion to the planet or to the motor vehicle brand.  It’s enough to make me saturnine.

This winter has seemed eternal partly because of the non-weather.  We’ve not had storms, nor warmth, nor much sunshine.  On many days it’s overcast from sunup to sunset.  Or it will start out clear and cloud up before noon.  Or it will start out cloudy and clear up late in the afternoon.  High temperatures have been consistently below normal for the last few weeks, and wind velocities have seemed higher.  On rare sunny days the combination of air temperature and wind speed has often made cycling a difficult, unpleasant experience.  Technically the roads and trails have been open all winter, but when it’s in the upper 30s and there’s a persistent 15-20 mph breeze from the northwest I for one am not highly motivated to go out riding.  Winter wind has a firm, solid resistance, not enough to crush you but enough to make every crank stroke muscularly and thermally painful.

Hence I have watched the last seven games of the Boston Red Sox’ 2007 postseason play, pitch-by-pitch, while riding my exercise bike.  [The Sox won all seven, including chewing up and spitting out in four straight a Colorado Rockies team that came into the World Series having won 21 out of their last 22.  A 21 of 26 record looks good on paper, but when four of those losses are at the end it’s a different story.]  Anyway, that’s a topic for a separate blog posting.  Suffice it to say here that seven baseball games can fill up a lot of indoor cycling sessions, days I’d rather have been outdoors.

On today’s ride I thought I might hear the spring peepers, whose high-pitched, frantic song is not so much a harbinger of spring as an ode to the end of real winter.  They usually begin about now along Piney Branch (the New England term “brook” is unknown in these parts; they are “branches,” “creeks,” or “runs”) that meanders through marshes along the W&OD for a couple of miles between Vienna and Hunter Mill Road (it is remarkable how many of the old tracks around here that later became roads are named after specific mills, stores, or churches).  Today the air was still and silent; occasionally the perky and energetic calls of Cardinals (aren’t all those guys either in Rome or St. Louis?) lightened the mood, and on the way home the persistent and urgent cawing of crows, a flock of which lives in the woods around the horse farm on Hunter Mill Road.  I surmise that the peepers heard the forecast too, and figured they should just hunker down for a few more days.

The sky I watched on my ride today featured the approach of what is apparently a huge coastal storm in the making, getting its energy from the Midwestern storm that is blanketing my cousin in Chicago and my sister-in-law and nieces in northwestern Ohio.  As I left home it was clear and in the 40˚s, with a warming late-morning March sun and no wind.  As I neared my turn-around point, though, the leading edge of a veil of high, thin cloud made the sun a little less intense, and within 20 minutes after that lower and thicker clouds running in long thin lines from west to east dimmed the light further.  Underneath these floated small clumps of solid, dark-gray puffs.  I returned home in pale sun, beneath a sky cover ominous with the signs of a winter storm.

As always, this region is a weather border zone.  Will the coastal storm intensify as predicted?  Will it get cold enough quickly enough so that the changeover from rain and sleet to snow will occur as predicted?  Will the wind blow hard, as anticipated?  Will we lose power?  The storm is just a few hours away from beginning, and the forecasters have no sure answers to those questions.

Check back tomorrow and find out—assuming I have the electricity to post something.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.