Sunday, October 30, 2011

Biking Philadelphia

When Bill said that October's Educause Annual Conference would be in Philadelphia, it took me about five seconds to decide to join him.  I have been to Philadelphia a couple of times and knew how I would entertain myself while Bill was in meetings. Biking in Fairmount Park, the largest landscaped park in the world at 9200 acres, topped the list. I emailed Breakaway Bikes, a shop that I had seen online as being closest to the park, to be sure I could still rent a bike this late in the season. 

Bill and I began the day fortified by a Belgian waffle from the Bonte Cafe along with a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.  Full of rich butter, with European sugar caramelized on the outside, authentic waffles have to be cooked in an imported-only, super hot waffle maker. Crispy on the outside, and creamy on the inside, they tasted to us like the most delicious waffles west of Belgium.

From there, Bill headed to the convention center and I walked over to Breakaway Bikes. In minutes a nice young man set me up with a hybrid Fuji bike for the day, with helmet and kryptonite lock, and told me how to get to the bike path, about a half-mile away, and the park a mile beyond that.  

The Schuylkill River (pronounced "skoogle") cuts the park into East and West. The Waterworks, built in 1815, dominates the entrance to the East side.  Disease had already made people aware of the need for a reservoir of clean water and a system to send it to the city.  The complex became a Sunday afternoon destination for picnicking, skating, and walking. It is now open for tours.
Above the Waterworks, The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses a huge art collection, and was built as part of the 1876 centennial celebration.  The museums's 72 stone steps were made famous by Sylvester Stallone in the 1980 Rocky III movie.

I could have spent hours in the museum, but today I intended to explore the 40-plus miles of trails in this park.  I thought I would ride along the 20-mile loop on both sides of the river, and methodically take in the Colonial houses on the adjacent bluffs.  The first house I cruised by, Lemon Hill, made me realize that to ride the river trail and see the houses, I would be doing a lot of up and down.  The houses were built to take full advantage of river views below.  Up, down, and all around, became the motto of my day. 

My Fuji felt comfortable and smooth as I cruised along the riverside. At times, I shared the road with runners, but, in some areas, they had their lane to the left, I had the center, and cars were off to the right.  This is a biker's dream. 

Pedestrian and bike traffic were light on this Thursday morning, although my travels were occasionally impeded by Canadian geese. I could stop often to take pictures without becoming a road hazard. A cool autumn breeze kept me company as I rolled along.

I had printed off a park map while still at home.  Although it had limited detail, it gave me some idea of where the trails went and how I could get to different houses and high points.  I was pretty impressed when I crossed the river on this bridge!  Wouldn't bikers and pedestrians like this kind of accomodation in Albany? 

When I thought about life in the mid-1700s, it seemed almost unbelievable that the city had become so populated and foul that wealthy residents were already seeking country homes here, a fair distance in those days of about four miles from the center city. Eight colonial homes are scattered throughout Fairmount Park, all originally having significant acreage for farming, and overlooking the Schuylkill River.  Some are open to the public.  I knew I wouldn't be able to take time from my bike ride to tour the homes today because I was determined to cruise by every one of them.  If I get the chance to go back again, I now know which of the eight I would want to go inside.

Mt. Pleasant, above, built in 1762, with its unusual architecture for that period, and additional buildings for the servants and smokehouse, was originally the home of a Scottish sea captain.  I would choose to tour this house because so many of our founding fathers visited it.  I liked picturing George and Martha Washington getting out of a carriage here for a dinner visit. John Adams proclaimed Mt. Pleasant the finest house in Pennsylvania.  And, before becoming a traitor, Benedict Arnold bought the property for his wife.

Cedar Grove, above, was built way back in 1748 by a wealthy widow.  What was it like out here for a woman alone (with her staff, of course!) at that time?  Wilderness surely must have been within sight of these rural escapes. This stone house boasts a "must-see" kitchen.  I liked the look of Cedar Grove with its stone construction, numerous chimneys, and beautiful windows.

Fairmount Park has a huge amount of land for recreational use with tennis courts, a riding stable, and ball fields.  I came across a track meet here at the Belmont Plateau.  I had to put my bike in the lowest gear to get to the plateau's summit, but was rewarded by benches under large oak trees that made a restful spot to enjoy this spectacular view of Philadelphia.  I sat down and ate the apple I had bought from an Amish vendor the day before at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market.

The bike path supposedly continues as far as Valley Forge.  I exited the park for a short distance, but came across construction and detours almost immediately. I circled back, seeing no reason to leave the park's beautiful designated bike trails, and returned to the city along the river. 

After leaving my bike at Breakaway Bikes, I managed to beat Bill back to the hotel with some time remaining to freshen up.  He had an hour and a half dinner break which he intended to spend at the famous Monk's Belgian Cafe and Beer Emporium, not far from the hotel. A pub dinner with Bill and the evening vegging out at the hotel alone seemed like the perfect end to my biking and sightseeing day.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Blueberry Hill

As soon as I open the car door, I smell dry autumn leaves, goldenrod and grasses--the aromas of a meadow. This is my backyard, a 5 1/2 mile distance from my urban home, merely a stone's throw, a short drive, or even at times a bike ride. It isn't my first choice of escape. I prefer woods and mountains, but I can still feel alone in nature here not far from home.

For four years, I was a docent at the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center. This past summer, I made the change to "preserve steward." Now it is my responsibility to walk my trails in the Blueberry Hill section of the Pine Bush once every two weeks. I hope to become intimate with this piece of land just inches away from urban development and the city land fill.

Today I came fresh from re-reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. The three ideas that Anne gleaned from her time at the beach were the need for simplicity, solitude, and an understanding of the intermittency of nature and relationships.

I had the solitude and simplicity--just me and my hiking boots. At times I could see office buildings beyond the tree line, and the outlines of houses on neighboring streets, but I did not see any other person.

I began my walk along the lane surrounded by typical pine bush scrub oak and pitch pines on my way into the meadow. Besides a low hum of distant traffic sounds, I heard birds in constant conversation. I was pleased to see a pair of bluebirds, lots of sparrow varieties, tree swallows, chickadees, and turkey vultures circling overhead. It was a treat to be out early on this Indian Summer day.

Albany's Pine Bush Preserve encompasses 3100 acres of inland pine barrens. While coastal pine barrens are common, our Pine Bush is one of only 20 inland areas remaining in the world. It gets considerable notoriety as a home of the endangered Karner Blue butterfly, but, in fact, over 50 species "of special concern" live here also. It is an ecosystem worth protecting.

I walk at a relaxed pace soaking up the autumn sun, the bird sounds, and aromas of this morning.

Still, I am a woodland person, and I am glad when my path enters the trees, even though the trail runs under power lines and I can now hear children's voices from nearby neighborhoods.

My task for today is to pick up sticks and small branches on the new trails that are being built on the periphery of this part of the Pine Bush. By having fewer trails criss-crossing the acreage, the ecosystem will be more whole and will foster a more secure place for the animal and plant life that is native to this area. Old trails will be cordoned off.

I start picking up sticks. There are lots of them. I can tell right away that I'm not going to get the trail cleaned up in one morning. Now I begin to think about the time and plan how much of my morning I can spend here.

And then I hit the first bog. Okay, it's been an incredibly wet past few months, but this wet area is huge. I have to go way around it into the trees and off the trail. I don't like to go off-trail at the Pine Bush because there are lots of deer ticks.

Deer ticks carrying lyme disease are everywhere in the Northeast nowadays and I have found them on my clothes here and on other hikes, which is why I wear the fashionable Pine Bush style of tucking my pants into my socks. While it's fun to see deer and fawns, today I just see their tracks.

I finally get around the bog, pick up more sticks, and find a few beer cans and pieces of broken plastic. I regret that I didn't bring a trash bag with me.

Besides the bog, the ticks, and the trash, I'm getting hot and mosquitos are attacking me like crazy. As usual, I forgot the great new bug lotion I bought last summer for camping.... I check my watch. There are other things I need to do today than to be here whacking at mosquitos.

My serene mood has vanished. Sure, I'm still solitary out here with my hiking boots, but any spiritual aspects of the morning are long gone. I just want to get out of the woods. But there are two more bogs. I go around them, pushing twigs and branches out of my way.

Finally, I'm back in the meadow. What was that intermittency idea that Anne Lindbergh talked about? Oh yeah, moments of perfection come and go in nature, in relationships and in mood; it is best to recognize the fluidity of the ebb and flow.

The landscape reminds me of coastal pine barrens that I have walked on Cape Cod. Perhaps the drone of continous sound is not traffic, but the distant rolling of waves on the shore. I'm good at these kinds of imaginings and let my mind recreate this scene in another place.

I'm definitely overdressed, and I could use a little of that ocean breeze. It's supposed to go up to 80 degrees on this October day and the sun is rising. I take the shady side of the meadow and find a few lingering raspberries.

Birds still sing and flit from branch to branch. Even though I forgot the bug dope, I have my binoculars and try to get some good bird sightings. A couple of flickers cross my path, bees taste the last remaining pollen of goldenrod in the sun, and a chipmunk scrambles through dry leaves as it dashes into the wooded edge of the trail. Hey, there's even a seagull. Maybe I really am near the ocean! (I can't see the landfill that attracts them and pretend it's not there.)

While bright colors are rare in a pine barrens environment, this token maple stands out between the oaks. My mood is improving so I keep walking. I don't remember what else it is that I have to do this morning but I'm sure I have a list somewhere.

But what do I smell now? Something that is not dry leaves and meadow. Grilled cheese?? I look around. I'm at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest building and even farther now from the houses. And there are no fast food restaurants in this area. It smells really good. I even wonder if there might be a controlled burn happening in the Pine Bush that I was unaware of. No, this is definitely the gooey aroma of toasty cheese in a fry pan.

I realize that I'm kind of hungry. Morning is on the wane. A grilled cheese sandwich would taste really good, but I know I don't have any Swiss, my favorite, in my refrigerator. Still, a cold glass of fresh apple cider, something I do have, would taste pretty refreshing. I'll put Swiss cheese on my next grocery list.

As I turn into the tree lined path where I began and head to my car, I am reminded of naturalist John Burroughs who admonished his readers a century ago to "make the most of the near at hand." I will be back in a couple of weeks to scout out any changes and to pick up more sticks on "my" trails in the Blueberry Hill section of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.