Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Ambivalent Paean to Northern Virginia

(Note: I wouldn't ask you to read this much without giving you some TV to watch too. Here is a video of Things You Don't See if You Don't Bike to Work)

Is it possible to pen an equivocal ode, to be confident giving only a qualified endorsement? After five years in Northern Virginia, I fear ambivalence may remain the best I can do, but I will say that the heart grows fonder of a place when the eyes can take it in at a human pace.

15 miles per hour is a speed at which you can take in the world; a pace at which your cerebral cortex can start to make some sense of the place where you are. Biking (and before that, running) through my world makes this sprawling strip-mall centered landscape at least a little more comprehensible. At a human pace, you get to know the regulars and you take notice of the little signs and signals of how this place came to be like it is. At 15 miles per hour, you’re sticking around long enough to become part of the story.

Like all of Northern Virginia, all this was once the enormous landholding of just one man, given by a King who had never laid eyes upon it. Later—and around here, by “later” we mean the 17th century—Col. William Fitzhugh purchased a cozy 24,000 acres of the land, christened it “Ravensworth,” and turned it into one of the largest tobacco plantations in the region. Not that he actually lived here, of course, even then, this place was not particularly centrally located. Instead slaves worked land that even Huguenot refugees found “primitive” and wouldn’t settle on. When the old colonel died, he divided the land between sons (always a recipe for happy family relations) and part of it eventually came into the hands of Mary Randolph Custis Lee, wife of everyone’s favorite traitor, Robert E. Lee. Happily, we live in the other half--despite being born in the South, I have a tough time reconciling myself to its history. (As an aside, the first house we saw as prospective homebuyers was located in a development called “Mosby Woods” after a famous Confederate raider. The house itself was located on “Sherman” street, but can you imagine giving directions to friends like, “Turn onto Plantation Parkway, then go left onto Confederate Lane. If you hit Reb Drive, you’ve gone too far.”)

Instead we bought a little brick ranch house in the admirably—if somewhat pompously—named “Broyhill Crest.” As is the case in so many mid-century eponymous developments, one can guess the names of the developer’s wife and children relatively easily: Donna Circle, Brenda Lane, Wayne Drive and Marvin Street remain as monuments to the Broyhill clan. Happily, Broyhill pere saw the value of the mature trees on his new land and determined to preserve many of them, including our very own 200 acre woods running along either side of the creek at the bottom of the hill. I bike through the woods every morning, seeing as how it’s the quickest way to get from one cul-de-sac-filled subdivision to another. (Another aside: “Cul de sac” means “bottom of the bag” in French, which sort of seems appropriate, doesn’t it?) I call out “Good Morning!” to the little old couple from over on Terrace Street. She waves and sings “Good morning!” back at me. He’s quieter, though we once had a very long conversation about the new recycling bins. I nod at the brood of older Korean women on their morning walk, and they barely break stride or their enthusiastic conversation as they nod back.

The neighborhood is filled with the older cars and trucks of the working middle-class, if such a thing can still be said to exist. A construction worker, an electrician (a proud member of the IBEW, according to his license plate), a postman and a landscaper number among our neighbors. Around here, 5 a.m. is a miniature rush hour as they stumble out their identical doors to go to work. There are probably few “Brendas” or “Donnas” here anymore; our neighbors’ names include Nguyen, Yapur, Fernandez, Kcaho, Santos, Aguirre, Tan and the occasional Smith. We still get mail for the guy here before us, Viengxay Prasonexay, whose name is like music if you say it out loud.

Once out of the neighborhood and on the bike trails, you get to know the regulars. Bicyclists are a quirky species, and as such individuals start to stand out even on the crowded multi-use trails we use to commute to and from work. There’s the tall skinny guy on the racing bike whose long articulated arms and legs make him look like nothing so much as a Daddy Longlegs balanced on a little bike. One young man keeps his pace slow, so as to stay within sight of his two children each pedaling behind laden with a heavy backpack. I find myself wondering what all the parents who drive their children to day care think of this father who shares fresh air and exercise with his children each morning. There's the older man on an ancient Schwinn who sports green sweatbands on his wrists, athletic socks pulled up to his knees and his helmet at a jaunty angle. He is not to be confused with the other senior citizen who rides his recumbent bicycle at an impressive pace, falling behind only on the very steep hills.

It’s not just the bikers you get to know. Other people and creatures also serve as landmarks when you’re moving at a slow enough pace to notice them: a woman, well into middle age, jogging in a scanty outfit and thrusting forward breasts at least twenty-five years younger than she is; a young woman running in a hijab, even in the sticky Washington, DC, heat; a heron is fishing in the bright green algae-covered pond and a family of bunnies munching companionably on grass just after the turn onto the path in Falls Church. There are the kamikaze squirrels and bunnies that dash in front of the bike, runners with headphones who can’t—or won’t—hear the chimes of the bikers’ warning bells, and walkers texting and walking in a pattern that puts you in mind of a soldier evading a highly skilled sniper.

You get to know the monotonous squeal of the overworked air conditioner above the “Touch of Class” salon and “Joseph’s Coat” resale shop, and you quickly learn to respect the spots where the tree roots aggressively reassert their primacy through the blacktop to bone-jarring effect. In Georgetown’s streets an unwary bicyclist might hit broken glass or puddles of vomit waiting to be cleaned up by staff so that the streets will be clean again when the madras-clad sons and daughters of privilege emerge furry-tongued and bleary-eyed to start their carousing again.

At stop lights, the bikers take the opportunity to chat: comparing the merits of different pannier bags and lights, commenting on the traffic, or pondering the mystery of why there is always an inexplicably long line outside of Georgetown Cupcakes. (Tourists: the cupcakes cost over five dollars and they aren’t really all that good, the lesson being that you don’t have to be a particularly good bakery to have a television show.)

If one of our tribe is pulled off to the side, we all call out “Are you okay?” before we zip past. When I had my second flat tire in as many weeks in the final 50 feet of a steep ascent, another biker was all too happy to stop to catch his breath and help me wrestle the tire off the rims. Afterwards, noting that he wasn’t as fast as I was, he promised he’d keep an eye out on the trail ahead in case I ran into trouble again. When I spelled a guy tired from using a hand pump to re-inflate his tire, we spent the time joking that what we really needed was a bike delivery guy with some cold beer. There’s no written rule that you have to play it forward like this; it’s just how you do for those others who are taking on a world of six-lane roads, right turns on red and other automotive hazards while balanced on two wheels.

Do I consider myself a Virginian yet? No. Will I ever? I’m not sure. But somehow, without quite noticing how or when it happened, I became a part of the landscape of Northern Virginia. And maybe that’s good enough.

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