August 30, 2012
Today was our best day so far. Back roads devoid of traffic through impressive neighborhoods. Many bicyclists were out riding and as I was thinking about how they are like race horses, passing us by without effort as we plod along like heavily laden donkeys, a cyclist dressed to the tees nodded to me and cruised up to ride next to Christof, curious to hear where we were going.
He coasted along, often braking to stay abreast of Christof, who was pedaling as quickly as he could. A few minutes after he left, another man cycling on the other side of the road did a U turn when he saw us, also passed me nodding, in order to catch up with Christof. Touring bicycles are unusual here and awaken the curiosity of other cyclists. Thomas is Russian and after accompanying us for some time and discovering that we were on our way to Rockville MD, he invited us to his house which, he said, was only 15 km. away. Christof got out his smart phone (GPS) and saw that going there would mean a different, slightly longer route than the one we had planned.
– We are slow travelers and don’t want to hold you up, I said politely.
– I’m 75 years old and have all the time in the world, Thomas answered, I ride here a few times a week and can take you the scenic way.
Christof and I conferred for a moment and decided, mainly because I love following spontaneous invitations, to ‘go for it’.
– Do you like wild persimmons? Thomas asked and when we said we’d never had them he suggested a detour to a tree covered with tiny ripe fruit. The persimmons taste like a tiny tart version of a plum. Many trees along the way were covered in cocoons which Thomas said were hatching butterflies.
He led us on scenic back roads that were so hilly I felt like we were on a ski tour. He led the way, Christof followed and I brought up the rear. Being last in line I repeatedly saw their heads disappear over the crest of a hill before I got to the top, and could coast down after them, the wind drying our skin and hair from the exertions of the climb. After an hour of climbing up and coasting down, we were so exhausted we needed a rest, which we took by the banks of a lake that Thomas led us to. Despite all the hills we had climbed, we were discouraged to hear that we were still eight miles away from his house. More hills, some so steep they were only manageable by standing. Thomas herded us along like a sheep dog, racing back and forth all morning. On hills he would ride ahead of us, as we plodded behind him. At the top he would turn around and coast back to where we were, repeating this again and again until we reached the top of the hill. We pushed our limits, riding quicker that we would have had we been alone, not dismounting to push our bikes up hills that were outside our range. How can you let a 75 year old man ride you into the ground?
We entered his row house through a messy basement where a torn sail lay on the floor taking up most of the space. He bought a used sail boat, and the first time he went out on the water got caught in a storm that badly ripped the sail. Now he has it on the basement floor and is hoping his wife will take pity on him and repair it. He called up the stairs to her to say they had visitors.
She didn’t seem surprised, and welcomed us with a cold drink. In no time at all we had a wonderful home cooked meal, chicken with rice, stuffed cabbage and avocado cream with fresh farm tomatoes. I ate and ate. It was the first good meal we have had since we left my parents’ home in Cape Cod.
Thomas and his wife spoke of their emigration from Moravia 20 years earlier. They came here with their son and his wife with only $300 to their name! They were sponsored by an organization for three months, after which they luckily were able to find jobs. Thomas was an engineer before he retired, and his son is a theoretical Physicist. When we asked if they felt homesick Thomas’ wife explained that before they came here, they had all lived together in a one room apartment. She gestured around her town house and said proudly:
– What’s to miss? Thomas offered us the shower and said he would gladly drive us to to the post office in Rockville. Christof declined.
When we first planned our tour through the United States I had a dream, my own personal Vision of Arcadia. I saw us in my mind’s eye, riding along pastoral sun-speckled roads without any need to consult a map and coming to crossroads, we would follow our whim, enjoying the freedom to turn down the one that looked most inviting. I pictured the tour across the Unites States similar to the poem:
The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Unhappy with traffic and the danger of the routes we have been on, unable to find budget accommodation, we finally broke down and ordered maps for the Atlantic Coast Route, the route from Maine to Florida, from the Adventure Cycling Association in Montana.
The hope is to increase our safety by following the maps which get us on back roads, and offer suggestions about simple accommodation, and food and drink. If we like the maps, we will order some for The Southern Tier, the route that goes from St. Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California. After thanking Thomas and his wife for their hospitality, he led the way out of the neighborhood by riding ahead of us on his bicycle.
Later we had the creepy experience of a car driver shadowing us for miles, matching our tempo exactly. When I looked to see what was going on, we recognized Thomas. He offered to take our bags into the city, but we declined when we learned that the worst hills were already behind us. We thanked him again and waved as he drove off. In Rockville I regretted not having taken him up on his offer. We got caught in rush hour traffic on the way to the post office.
After picking up our maps we proceeded to the metro, hoping to avoid the ‘ugly belt’ around Washington D.C. Bikes are not allowed in the metro during rush hour. It was already 4:30 and we would have had to wait two and a half hours before we could continue the journey. As we were considering our options, a cyclist approached saying that he commutes daily from Washington to Rockville. We could coast downhill all the way to Georgetown on bike trails. He suggested we do this rather than wait in Rockville, and ran back to his office to print out a map showing us the best way to get to the trail. We had an pleasant easy ride into Washington on two busy bike trails: the Bethesda Trolly Trail and The Capital Crescent Trail. The trails were swarmed with people doing evening exercise.
The city was bathed in evening light colored by the setting sun. Boaters were rowing on the Potomac River, people sauntering about in parks and on sidewalks, cars thronged the roads and bridges and airplanes came in over the river for landing. During the evening we walked to Georgetown by the light of the full moon in the exotically warm thick air, and ate our very first portion of sweet potato fries. We thought we had died and gone to heaven.