Four years ago, one of my colleagues at the Santa Barbara Independent took the train from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Chicago, and on to Washington, D.C. to watch Barack Obama's first inauguration. It sounded fun. There were lots of people on the train and everyone was excited.
This time around, I'm living in Reston, Virginia, a suburb about 25 miles west of D.C. Since it's a lot closer to the nation's capital than is California, I thought riding my bicycle there would be great. It was at first, but once I got to Arlington, the easy stretch of Northern Virginia bike trail I grew up riding fizzled into a confusing jumble of difficult to read trails and bicycle lanes. Oh, and it was dark.
The ride was partly for recreation, and partly as an experiment: Could I be one of those hardcore bike commuter guys who travels unreasonable distances from a more-or-less far flung suburb into an urban center?
I figured (wrong) that I'd see other cyclists on their way toward D.C. and other places, and that if I got confused, I could just ask for directions. My notion of how traffic in Northern Virginia functions was sorely misguided by having spent the better part of the past decade living in places — Santa Barbara, New York City, Boulder, Colo. — where enough people ride bikes on a regular basis that you're never at a loss for someone to ask where the best bike routes are (or drivers who will actually notice that you're on the road).
The bici-trails are there in ol' NoVa, but they're hidden. And sane people seem to drive cars, not ride bikes, at night. I was almost nailed by an absent-minded motorist as I sailed down a long hill at 20 mph. So yeah, I didn't run into any cyclists. I'm sure they were there, but I didn't meet a single person who had been stupid/crazy enough to ride their bicycle across the river just to see the inaugural hullabaloo.
Anyway, in theory, I was supposed to have followed a rails-to-trails corridor for most of the way, then take another trail and a few local roads onto a footpath leading across one of the bridges across the Potomac River. That's what Google Maps said, anyway.
But, overly confident of my ability to navigate a bicycle in the dark (after all, I had managed New York City in all weather and light conditions for an entire year without getting lost ... much), I struck out across Arlington, Virginia in a circuitous loop that would lead me through a warren of murderous traffic-packed roads to a spot on the river far to the south of the Pentagon, through the Pentagon parking lot and right past a darkened pedestrian foot crossing, across a stretch of freeway (don't ask me how that happened) and through more frenetic urban traffic, and finally deeper into Virginia, halfway back toward where I had come from.
In short, I had traveled far enough to have made it from my original destination to Capitol Hill and on into Maryland, but I was still in Arlington. So I did what any sane person would do, and grabbed my bicycle and hopped on a Metro train.
"You ain' spo'dah have that bike down heah durin' the 'nauguration," a soft voice drawled after me as I pulled my bicycle through the turnstile at a station near the U.S. Capitol. The station attendant, a black watch cap piled high atop his head and a yellow reflector vest pulled tight over his puffy winter jacket, explained that the system was closed to bikes until the day after the madness had passed. No problem, I told him. I was riding from here on out.
Inauguration didn't attract nearly as many people as it did in 2008, when spectators were lined up at the security gates in the wee hours of the morning. Because it fell on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Washington was a ghost town, and riding a bicycle on its deserted streets was easy, fast, and fun. And I found out something else: it's a small city. Its 19th century street pattern, which is utter misery in a car during rush hour, makes for a navigable city on foot and under pedal power.
I arrived at the inauguration parade the next day to find free bicycle parking and bike share deposits all set up. Good views of the parade route, apparently, were for ticket holders. The only things I could see clearly — other than the blur of the Presidential motorcade going by between other peoples' heads — were the rooftop snipers who were posted on every building along Pennsylvania Avenue.
But at the end of it, I learned that if a huge event and a federal holiday coincide in Washington, driving is probably way easier that schlepping all over creation on a bicycle. Large swaths were practically empty of cars, so I could have parked anywhere after a 25 minute drive into the city. Oh well, now my legs are a little stronger and I earned all that fast food I stuffed ravenously into my gullet as soon as I had a chance. Next time I'm looking for a little bicycle recreation, though, I'm going during the day.
Photo credit: Associated Press; Google Maps; Benjamin Preston