Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Dog mischief

The other morning I looked out the window at a strange and unidentifiable object outside on the driveway. On closer inspection, it turned out to be one of my sneakers, which last I recalled, had been on the porch. When I mentioned this to Mary, she said that she had picked up the other sneaker earlier from the sidewalk a few yards from the porch and had thrown it back there, assuming I had flung it off in a fit of drunken exuberance.

Today on her way into town, Mary stopped in the pines (a hundred yards or so from the house) to retrieve one of my Red Wing boots. It's mate was apparently still on the porch, encrusted with sawdust from our stint in the woods recently.

So it seems like the new dog in the neighborhood has a mischievous habit, similar to a greyhound we knew, of sneaking off with stuff he covets. So the porches and anywhere outside is apparently off limits for shoes, et cetera, for the immediate future. Thanks, Dobby.

Add to the list: A wonderful, wonderful package of vacuum cleaner leavings! Mmmmm!! It must be important because look how securely it's tied up! NomNomNomNom!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Civic Engagement

I have voted in every election since I became eligible but one. I have both of my Senators and my Representative on speed dial. I regularly write letters to the editor to my various local papers. I have served on the jury in a criminal trial. I have worked going house to house as a census enumerator.

But I think the most profound and momentous civic milestone I have participated in was the naturalization ceremony for a dear friend. About five-hundred new American Citizens, representing eighty countries from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe sundered their ties to their homelands and swore allegiance to their new home. It was both humbling and ennobling, mundane and magnificent.

I defy any of the legion of small-minded bigots currently prancing across our national stage to look into the face of any one of those five hundred and say we are not better off bringing them into the fold than we are casting them into the cold. Wankers.

I highly recommend that if you ever have the opportunity to participate in a naturalization ceremony, you do so. It stirs and rouses the latent patriot within us all, no matter how discouraged and disheartened that patriot may be.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Germane Holiday Cards

Here's a couple of cards from back in the day. The Santa one is all mine; I used to have some talent. The B&W cards were my concepts, executed by one of our very talented riders.

Those characters correspond to actual people, but I'll never tell...
Probably not physically possible, but a great visual. The carrying the tree part; of course an  R69 could make haste in the snow.
My fave. Theoretically, that's my old house, the house my wife grew up in and where we raised our kids. Never did have a K100RS though. 

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Yeah, I do ride.

I recently had a break of nearly seven weeks between engagements, and among the various tasks and projects and undertakings, I managed to fit in three solo rides of respectable length and variety. Taken together, they encompassed a significant chunk of the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley west to the east front of the Alleghenies and into the Ridge and Valley province of eastern West Virginia. Total distance around eight or nine hundred miles, all on the 1150.

I. The first came early in September, the warm hazy summer Friday before Labor Day. The morning was consumed with chores and trivia, and it was nearly noon with the temperature in the mid-eighties, before I was underway with no particular route in mind beyond the next bend in the road. In a casual and unfocused manner, I made my way across the Blue Ridge at Chester Gap, then meandered through Front Royal and made my way west towards Strasburg and Middletown. But I haven’t ridden Fort Valley in some time, and rarely, if ever, have I ridden it from the north. So at Passage Creek, I decided to head south and follow the stream into the steep and narrow valley.

The early afternoon was warm and the woods were filled with the smells of late summer; cool shade alternated with soft yellow sunshine from second to second. I immediately fell into the rhythm of the road and found myself in a nearly meditative state; it was one of those rare occasions when I was aware of neither myself nor the bike.

My recollections of this path slowly returned, swelling with details at each new turn and vista. I took in the look of the harsh slaty banks and sandstone exposures by the roadside; the dramatic folds that make up Massanutten reveal stratas of rocks not otherwise seen nearby save in the mirrored exposures on the opposite limb of the synclinorum. They have more in common with the rocks much further south and west than the karsts close at hand, and mark this odd mountain as a bit of an outlier.

My next objective is Edinburg Gap Road, a narrow and twisting two lane path across the western spine of Massanutten. Of course, as I approach the turn, I encounter the first traffic since I left Rt. 55, and it is an elderly off-white Vega with cancerous rust spots and two very large passengers who seem to tax the very limits of its suspension and drive train. I am crestfallen to realize I will be following them all the way across the gap and into Edinburg.

But, whatever. I have written about this road before. The sun is warm on my back and the road winds upwards and the woods encroach as it climbs. Pastures spotted with great oaks give way to more humble and homely woods of twisted pines; then we are over the top and beginning that great surprise, the steep, tight and twisty descent of the western slope. Shortly, the grade levels out, the woods recede and houses reappear; the Alleghenies spread from horizon to horizon to the west with the valley before. And, the Vega has disappeared; I ride unimpeded into Edinburg—for the first time as I recall, at least on purpose.

I stopped at the Mill museum, a spectacular and imposing old white mill in the middle of town. It is a good stopping point, and I have been on the road for long enough that getting off the bike to stretch my legs is welcome. I do a perfunctory walk through of the mill museum, correlating its structure with what I know of other such mills in the valley and in particular those mills in the Staunton area which have some bearing on family history.

I roll back out onto Rt. 11 heading south. Edinburg dwindles behind and I am back in valley farmland. Ahead to the south and east, a growing thunderhead sprawls across the valley and up the west flank of the mountain above New Market. At the next opportunity, I turn sharply westward towards the east front of the Alleghenies. I recall that the weather forecast has called for the imminent passage of a strong cold front, and I was about to try and make my way through what I hoped was a weak spot in that front.

I meandered westward on local roads, rising and falling as I rolled towards the mountain. The road seemed to diminish and falter the closer I drew to the mountain, before finally petering out at the odd little village of Orkney Springs just above Bayse, hard against the wooded slopes. Though it is not widely known, Orkney Springs boasts the largest wooden structure in the Commonwealth of Virginia…one whose purpose was not entirely clear to me. And the village is now some sort of religious community, which contributes to the unusual atmosphere of this remote enclave.

But my unintended in-and-out, first to and from Orkney Springs, then from another two-laned road whose promise quickly disappeared, left me feeling conspicuous on the big bright yellow bike, and the glances turned to suspicious stares on my exit. Surely my details had been jotted down in passage for future correlation with the dark deeds I had undoubtedly committed in transit during those four to six minutes.

From this perch high on the flank of the hill, the weather was close at hand; without warning or preface, dazzling flashes of lightning came hand-in-hand with percussive blasts of thunder. I made haste back towards the valley floor with the storm hard at my heels. I managed to take only a glancing blow from the rain by the time I got back to a route whose number I recognized from a long time ago, though I had never traversed this particular section before.

The road meandered through modest woodlots and farm fields, connecting a handful of small settlements and hamlets before ascending above the limestone-scarred fields to hold tight to the spine of a long low ridge that ran parallel to the mountains which framed the valley. The road held kept to this ridge for many miles before gently descending to dump me in the disheartening outskirts of Harrisonburg.

I had a sudden realization around this time. This ride was special in that so far, at each decision point, I had opted to go farther. At this point, I had already gone more miles one way than my typical full-circle route. And I was still outbound.

My objective was to get decisively behind the cold front, which was moving strongly towards the southeast, tracking nearly perpendicular to the mountains. From here, the best (and only) choice was to pick up the thread of U.S.33 from the dreary detritus of strip malls, used car lots and convenience stores. I was not encouraged.

Yet the bleak and humble beginnings of U.S.33 heading west out of Harrisonburg can hardly prepare a rider for the wonders shortly to be encountered. Gradually leaving the warehouses and tract houses behind, 33 winds through broad farm fields then gradually enters the forests leading up to the George Washington National Forest. The road runs straight and true for many miles deep into the deepening forests as it gradually ascends, then abruptly narrows and whips into a frenzy of twists and turns near the West Virginia line.

Now, somewhere back around Orkney Springs, the weather managed to land more than a glancing blow or two on me. I had geared up for the conditions at home when I left—warm, sunny and humid—in mesh gear, cycling shorts and polypro tee shirt. As I ascended Rt. 33, the cool air, so recently dampened by the passage of the storm front, conspired with my damp gear to chill me to the bone. Getting chilled makes you stupid. It blunts your responses, distorts your perceptions, weakens your judgments and makes you reluctant to do simple yet vital tasks like shoulder checking before changing lanes. And I manage to get chilled every single goddamn time I go riding.

The passage of the front left a jumble of confused weather in its wake. A short stretch of road would bring foggy mist, bright sunshine, dry pavement, cold stinging rain and blue sky vistas. My attack on the summit was slow and clumsy, made more laughable by my unfamiliarity with the gnarled, convoluted road. I was relieved to make it to the top, only to begin a steep and dauntingly twisted descent on wet asphalt. And as a sidenote, when West Virginia posts a sign about the road conditions, you’d best take it at face value; they aren’t kidding.

By now, I had been riding for some four hours and I was ready for a break. In a few miles, the road calmed down, leveling out and straightening. And to my amazement, there just off the right shoulder of the road was a Barbecue wagon! Huzzah!

Pulled pork, sweet potato fries and a lemonade. Standing right on the side of Rt. 33. Couldn’t ask for anything better after hours on the road and a chilly, challenging traverse of a foggy mountain. The milder air lower down the mountain helped relax me a bit, though I could really go for a cup of coffee right about now. At this point it’s about 3:30, and I am still heading outbound to an apogee I am still undecided on.

Well, Franklin, West Virginia ended up being the apogee, pretty much. Franklin is where U.S. 33 and U.S. 220 intertwine briefly through the center of town before resuming their respective courses west and north. With a few more hours in my pocket, I would have opted for more of 33 west, through Judy Gap and then on to Seneca Rocks, then maybe on to Canaan Valley. With another day, maybe on to Rt. 50 through Mount Storm for the return trip. Or 220 south to Monterey and beyond. But not this time…

On the back side of the cold front, the air remains unsettled; along the flood plain of the Potomac’s south branch it is steamy and muggy with the strong late afternoon sun. Now I find myself chasing the remnants of the straggling storms, staying just out of reach of the frayed hems of rain but tracking through spray over wet pavement. A rainbow plays hide-and-seek with me, perpetually running ahead to just beyond the next hilltop.

I have been on the road for more than five hours, and have probably gone about 200 miles. I am still jonesing for that cup of coffee, and right about in the middle of Wardensville, pull an abrupt u-turn in order to stop at Star Mercantile. I park in front of the store, noting the gritty, sodden bicycle locked up nearby with a full load of camping gear from front panniers to rear panniers and everywhere in-between.

I walk in and sit down on one of the old stools bolted down at the counter. At my back, seated sprawled in a booth is the owner of the bicycle, a hirsute, spandex-clad young man in a state of dampness similar to mine. I nod and smile to him, and we share a brief moment of commiseration though I’m pretty sure he’s got the worse of it. I order a cup of coffee—heavy white ceramic mug, with saucer, natch—and a cake cone with salted caramel ice cream, which is wonderful. A follow-on cup of coffee helps to rejuvenate me and after twenty minutes or so, I am ready to go again. I nod to the bicyclist on my way out, and wring my gloves out thoroughly before firing the bike up.

I am determined to stick to “Old” Rt. 55 as much as possible or practical until I cross back into Virginia. “Corridor H” and new “U.S. 48” have made a hash of the old road, slicing and dicing it into little chunks then casting them aside into disrepair. I follow its track from town to town as best I can, at one point riding up one stretch of road I began to think was truly abandoned, given the amount of debris and rain-washed gravel and fallen branches across the roadway. The handful of deer grazing along the road seemed to share my impression. I picked my way judiciously through the litter and persisted until the faltering pavement rejoined its newer counterpart.

Along the old roadway, I find that places I remember from a decade ago have literally fallen by the wayside; I assume the diversion of traffic to the newer, faster, limited-access road slowly starved these old holdouts to death. I am somewhat saddened, recalling that at least one or two were pleasant stopping points on previous outings. Despite these minor distractions, old 55 is beautiful and more importantly, it is immediate. The world is right there at the side of the road, for better or for worse. Dogs and trash, laundry and wildflowers, broken bottles and babbling brooks, gardens and garbage, homesteads and hovels.

From the state line on, it is common knowledge, a road more-or-less well travelled. I close the loop below Signal Knob with the recrossing of Passage Creek; in another hour or so I am home, having ridden just under 300 miles in about under seven hours.

II. I like the idea of randomized riding. Mid-afternoon of one Tuesday early in October, I decided it was too nice to not be riding so I grabbed my gear and headed out. With the bulk of the day already behind me, I decided to stay relatively local and poke around the back roads of the county I’ve never seen. Again, with that little bit of guidance in mind, I thought only as far ahead as the next intersection, and soon found myself meandering down road I hadn’t ridden that went places I was entirely unsure of.

I encountered that neat sleight-of-hand back roads can pull, the trick of starting out broad and well-paved, then gradually and seamlessly devolving into narrower, rougher, less paved, losing any sense of what it means to be a road. The 1150 is better suited than Beast for roads such as these that suffer from identity crises, with its broad bars and pragmatic posture; the stretches of gravel, dirt and mud were easy to handle even at low speeds, and at each moment when I expected to have to turn back for the way petering out, it magically reappeared and began to improve.

I made my way back out to main roads somewhere deep in the F.T. Valley, staring at Old Rag. I didn’t want to head home yet, but really wasn’t sure of which way to turn from here. South towards Madison, Orange or Charlottesville didn’t particularly appeal to me. Nor did east in the general direction of Culpeper, though I was confident I could easily find lots of good roads that way. I would cross the mountain, then figure out a route. But the fuel light was on. There’s no gas in Sperryville, no gas on or over the mountain until Luray. I knew I couldn’t make it that far even if I coasted all the way down off Thornton Gap. So much to my consternation, I had to backtrack halfway to Little Washington just to get gas, an irritating waste of daylight that I couldn’t work around.

Nearly forty minutes later, I get back to the business of going nowhere in particular. I am crossing the Blue Ridge on U.S. 211 for the umpteenth time in my life, no idea how many times I’ve done it on a bike, but maybe the first time on this particular bike. It’s fun, and nimble, and I put great effort into planning my lines and executing them as fluidly as I can. I track from lane to lane as I follow the sinuous road upwards, meticulously avoiding the yellow line to my left or the white line to my right. I have both lanes to myself from the point where they split to the crest of the mountain, and it is a good run, with few missed lines and a soothing rhythm. It is always good to attack the hill, and the quality of the descending ride is never quite as satisfying. But I am happy with my efforts by the time I reach the valley floor, feeling neither fear nor frustration.

I do not want to cross the valley this afternoon. I have no interest in Luray either, so I divert onto the first side road I find, and it immediately carries me northward into flat pastures lined with cedar fencerows. The road snakes amid the low hills and stream cuts, with neat houses close by and rock gardens at the roadside. I admire the gardens and feel an immediate kinship with the occupants of the homesteads so adorned. The railroad also runs through here, which adds a certain indescribable character and timelessness to the neighborhood. I remember the sound of the trains that pass down the valley; I’ve heard them in the night from the solitude of a lonely tent high atop the mountains and I’ve heard them in the night from a house packed with family atop Windy Hill.

I leave the community of Kimball behind when I pause at U.S. Rt. 340. I have sour recollections of the last time I rode U.S. 340 from Luray to Front Royal. Mary rode with me, and the bike was not properly configured for two of us. It was uncomfortable and the road seemed to go on forever. We grew cranky and ill-tempered as we went, and by the time we returned home we were anxious to be off the bike and little disposed to do it again anytime soon. Yet this day, on a different bike and under different conditions, I find the road to be pleasing and engaging. I note that there are many intriguing side roads that break off both east, toward the western foothills of the Blue Ridge, and west, towards the flank of Massanutten. One could well spend a full day—or two—just backroading the northern half of Page County hereabouts. I make a mental note to do so, eventually.

One road in particular catches my eye, and I divert long enough to find out that it goes well up the Blue Ridge, near Matthew’s Arm, before petering out in a dusty single lane. But that vantage point offers a spectacular view of the valley both north and south, and as is so often the case, the return trip on a road offers a subtly different experience than the outbound does. A final thought for this trip: I need to find a different way to come home.

III. So my earlier foray to Harrisonburg and points beyond really piqued my curiosity. For some time I have wanted to get back out and pick up that thread, and I finally cleared my plate and decided that today would be the day. I tried to get out a little earlier than my previous ride, but one thing after another conspired to delay me, and as before, the morning was pretty much done before I geared up and rolled down the gravel road. While I still planned to not overthink this ride, I knew for certain I wanted to get at least a certain distance into unfamiliar territory before tossing any coins.

You thought I was kidding, right?
At least as far as Egypt Bend, this was well-travelled ground, a warm-up exercise. But the crossing over New Market Gap and into New Market proper felt fresh. At New Market I kept to U.S. 11 south, picking up another stretch to add to my collection of disjointed segments of the Valley Road ridden between Pennsylvania and Virginia. I stopped briefly at the Rockingham County line to take a picture of the slightly-larger-than-life bronze statue of a turkey on a large masonry pedestal placed conspicuously on the shoulder.
It commemorates the role of Big Poultry in the fortunes, folklore and history of this part of the Valley. Or something. But you don’t pass up turkey statues without paying some notice. And taking pictures.

I stuck with U.S. 11 as it traced the interstate first to its east side, then for many miles along it to the west, until I arrived once again in Harrisonburg, just a block or two removed from my most recent ride. My goal this time was to connect somewhere with Route 42, a route we used to travel fairly frequently in the decade or two when we escaped to the Dice Cabin in Buffalo Gap.

At some point, I had the great misfortune of getting stuck in traffic close by a manure tanker with a thick encrustation of foul-smelling sludge all about its mess of pipes and valves. Spatters of liquid manure trailed behind it in a nauseating miasma; I held my breath as best I could as I rode in its wake, and was greatly relieved when it finally turned off the highway, leaving a trail of filth behind it. It was several minutes before the stench cleared away, even riding at highway speeds.
Sometime in the spring of this year, I started to recognize “The Lark Ascending” when it was played on the radio. It’s another one of those mysteries to me, how I got to this advanced age without having taken notice of it before.
This stretch of two-lane road may be my ultimate expression of ‘The Valley.’ It traces its way through small towns and clusters of houses, through farms large and small. It rolls through a landscape that is beautiful and storied, maintaining a practical, pragmatic, functional edge and side-stepping the preciousness that so frequently flavors rural beauty. It is Mennonite country as well, and the limestone hills well suit their way of life.
It’s a fairly famous piece in the classical canon, was selected as Britain’s top “Desert Island Disc,” ranked second in WNYC’s listener poll of songs to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, and held the top spot in Radio New Zealand Concert’s New Year’s Day countdown so long that some listeners formed a Facebook group to promote alternatives.
Riding this road solo, after being away for—what, more than 25 years?—was fascinating. Some stretches were exactly as I remembered them from so long ago; others were as if I had never seen them before. And there was no rhyme or reason to my recollections. All I could note was the apparently languid pace of change here, in stark contrast to the eruptive, disruptive patterns of Northern Virginia.
Some see 'Lark' as the high water mark of romanticism in English classical composition, the last great work composed on the eve of the first world war. 
Dayton, Bridgewater, Moscow. They slide past under the clear blue sky. A short two hours after my departure, I roll downhill into Churchville. I recall it as the last vestige of civilization on the road to Buffalo Gap and to the cabin, with a Dairy Queen, a gas station and a small strip mall of weary stores. I stop for a quick lunch at the DQ, unchanged over the decades. Middling, generic barbecue and fries made for a functional if uninspired meal, and as I wolfed my food I pored over my dog-eared map book for inspirations what to do next.
‘Lark’ runs about sixteen minutes. It was composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams* in 1914, and premiered in 1920, scored for piano and violin. Vaugh Williams then rescored it for solo violin and orchestra; that version, the version most commonly heard, premiered in 1921 under conductor Adrian Boult. Vaughn Williams is credited with setting a new course for English music, embracing Tudor, Stuart and folk music themes and motifs and rejecting the Teutonic influences which had up until then had shaped English music. Vaughn Williams was tutored by Maurice Ravel and became good friends with Gustav Holst; the two were mutual critics, shaping each other’s works.
After gassing up, it was near half-past two. I was at a logical apogee, and there was no shame in heading back to Harrisonburg at this point, perhaps trying a different, more southerly route. But as I have recently discovered, choosing to go farther rather than turning back is liberating. And realistically, from Churchville in the middle of the afternoon in early fall, the only option is west to Monterey.
‘Lark’ was inspired by the poem of the same name, written by English poem George Meredith in 1881. It is written in rhyming tetrameter couplets in two sections. It is described as a paean to the song of the Skylark.
For the next hour or so I will be riding what I am fairly certain is terra incognito. Had I ever travelled this road before, it would have been when I was a very young child, so I will simply declare this is new to me. I am taking U.S. 250 west through the George Washington National Forest to Monterey.
Curiosity piqued, I was disappointed to find out that with one exception, larks are Old World birds. They are passerine—perching—birds, typically living in open country and nesting on or near the ground. They are renowned for their elaborate songs, and are relatively comfortable living in or near human environments. Larks typically lay clutches of two to six eggs, which hatch in eleven to sixteen days. Larks are the only known Passerines that lose all their feathers in their first molt.
Almost immediately after leaving Churchville, I encounter road construction, which brings our traffic to a halt for the single lane road. This present an unexpected and mildly annoying delay; it makes the otherwise sparse vehicles to bunch up, and casts a pall on the afternoon. As I sit, waiting, I observe that the foliage hereabouts seems to be about at peak color, putting it a week or two ahead of the trees at home; this thought makes me aware of the road being buried deep in the cold shadows of a mountain stream valley. A quick mental calculation makes me realize that if Monterey is my apogee, I will make the last leg or two of the ride home in twilight or darkness (with its concomitant chill, for which, as always, I am ill-prepared). And the days have already lost the better part of an hour since my Labor Day ride.
The only New World lark is the Horned Lark, whose habitat stretches from the Arctic Circle to southern Mexico. Unlike the less conspicuous Old World larks, the Horned Lark has a striking black-and yellow facemask. In 2013 they were listed as  Threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The construction logjam finally breaks after ten or fifteen minutes. Once the bolus of vehicles dissolves and we reach speed, I pull off at a gas station at a minor crossroads to take stock of my resources. I’d rather get warm at this point and stay warm the rest of the trip than have to try and make up a deficit and fail. I add a jacket liner, a bandanna around my neck, and warmer gloves. All that, plus heated grips for backup, should manage the chill.
The poem, and the piece of music inspired by it, reflects not only the song of the lark, but the flight during which the lark sings. Absent, to my knowledge, the example of the Horned Lark, I fill the void with what I have seen of two well-known and locally common birds: the Barn Swallow and the Hummingbird. The Barn Swallow, like the Lark, is a bird of open country which has made its peace with human habitation, hence the name. Barn Swallows build elaborate nests of mud and grass tucked into the crevices and spaces of human structures, and are best known for their dazzling acrobatics, typically seen morning and evening as they feed on flying insects. Swallows have a well-earned reputation as voracious predators of nuisance insects, and are typically welcome for that benefit alone.
U.S. 250 is two-lanes, beautiful, challenging and amazing. At roughly its midpoint in traversing the eastern section of the George Washington National Forest, the road seemingly crumples up in succession of hairpin turns and switchbacks. Without any prior knowledge of the road, I was reduced to taking the turns at single-digit speeds in first or second gear. The road continued to writhe and undulate as it crosses the Bullpasture River, rolls through the village of McDowell, then ascends one last set of ridges before the spectacular, vertiginous reveal of Monterey.
I started listening almost non-stop to ‘Lark’ around the beginning of October, somehow making up for lost time. It formed an indelible association with warm Indian Summer sunlight shining on yellow leaves beneath a crystal blue sky. I can feel the warmth on my face, smell the crispy leaves underfoot, hear the breeze rustling through the branches sweeping out the fluttering remains.
As Monterey spread before me, I was struck by how lucky my timing was. The oaks, maples, hickories and gum trees were all at the peak of their colors, with few trees showing full green crowns and even fewer showing bare grey crowns. What was not bright, saturated color—tree or sky—was deep graven shadow.
The hummingbirds we see are best known for their nasty dispositions and territorial display around nectar-bearing flowers and the sugar-water feeders we provide for them. But on occasion though, you may be fortunate to see a male perform a courtship dance which consists of a straight vertical ascent to about one hundred feet, then a dramatic plummet downward to buzz the female hummingbird of his fancy. This descent is the fastest descent of any animal, exceeding even the falcon, and subjects the male to something like 10 Gs. (Fun hummingbird fact: male hummingbirds are smaller than females exactly because of this courtship behavior; smaller bodies can accelerate and maneuver faster and more easily, obviously making them sexier).
I rolled into Monterey up Main Street towards its intersection with U.S. 220, and smiled as I looked over towards Trimble Knob, that odd little lump of a hill stuck on the south side of town. Supposedly Trimble Knob is the remnant of one of the few volcanoes found in Virginia, the weathered remains of a 35-million year old Eocene epoch eruption. That in itself is a pretty cool story…but an alternative origin story ties Trimble Knob to the Chesapeake Bay Bolide impact also of roughly 35 million years ago.
So when I read “The Lark Ascending,” and when I listen to it, I am picturing some hybrid of the acrobatics of the Barn Swallow and the courtship dance of the Hummingbird. I think that fits the bill pretty well as a visual.
The theory is that what is now the Chesapeake Bay (and the courses of all the rivers in Virginia east of the Blue Ridge) was shaped when a bolide somewhere between two and three miles in diameter, travelling at “many kilometers a second” smashed into the shallow waters of the ancient continental shelf, fracturing the basement rock five miles deep and leaving a crater twenty-five to fifty miles in diameter. That impact ejected vast quantities of shock-fractured rock, including, so the theory goes, at least one massive chunk which landed two-hundred miles west...the future Trimble Knob. Or so they say. Both stories are pretty cool for such a sleepy little village.
Vaughn Williams introduces the Lark motif at about 0:15, with a solo violin. The orchestra joins around 2:30, including flute, oboe, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horns and strings. Around the seven minute mark, another pastoral theme is introduced, woven around the ongoing ‘Lark’ motif. Then the ‘Lark’ theme is passed back and forth between the orchestra and the solo violin, with the solo violin closing out the last minute and a half.
Well, it took me far longer than I had bargained to cover the thirty-five miles from Churchville to Monterey, and my shadow already stretched long in front of me when I turned north on U.S 220. In a few miles I crossed into Pendleton County, West Virginia at the village of Harper, making the first of many crossings of the south branch of the Potomac River.
The violin cadenzas in ‘Lark’ are written ‘senza misura,’ or without written measures or beat. Instead, they are meant to fill a certain period of time, making the piece additionally challenging for both the violin soloist and the conductor.
The south branch, or south fork, of the Potomac begins just a couple of miles up the Alleghany slope from Monterey at Hightown, Virginia, on a 140-mile course to join the North Fork at Oldtown, Maryland near the Paw Paw Bends. This branch of the river and the road I ride share a common valley much of their routes from here to Franklin, diverging again until Petersburg where they reunite as far as Moorefield. At Moorefield, the road strikes off north-northwest while the river maintains a northerly course.
Iona Brown is widely quoted as saying her canonical performance of ‘Lark’ was informed by the songs of larks she heard on long walks at Marleycombe Down, near the village of Bowerchalke in Wiltshire, Salisbury. The area is a chalk grasslands area, renowned both for its rich and diverse plant and animal life as well as numerous sites of historical interest including a bronze-age bowl barrow. Brown was one of the few women performers who successfully transitioned from performing to conducting. She died in 2004 at the age of 63, having given her last performance as a violinist in 1998. Ironically, Vaughan William’s widow, Ursula, is quoted as saying that Ralph “…was good at growing green beans but rotten about anything else to do with the countryside…I don't think he could have spotted a lark if he saw one." .
At Franklin, I pick up the track from my ride in early September, where U.S. 33 crosses U.S. 220. The thermometer at the bank downtown tells me the temperature is in the upper eighties, the generous warmth of an Indian summer day when the leaves are peaking. I realize the thermometer is probably correct; the chill I had experienced just an hour or two earlier has been supplanted by a growing sticky steaminess. I pull over along Main Street and take the bandanna from my neck, and swap out my gloves for the lighter pair I wore on the first leg of the ride. Equilibrium restored.
Anyway. I added ‘Lark’ to my riding playlist. It’s not ideally suited for riding because of the large dynamic range; long passages are inaudible at anything above a crawl. But the parts you can hear are so…magnificent…that it’s worth the downtimes. This was the first ride that included it, and it didn’t come up until I was somewhere near Dayton.
This road is still fairly fresh in my mind from a few weeks ago, when I passed through here amid sultry, steamy air and road spray, dodging thunderstorm and rainbows. I know what to expect from here on out, and from Franklin to Petersburg to Moorefield to Baker, I am only interested in keeping up the pace. I know twilight will be awaiting me when I reach the Blue Ridge again. I willingly, nay, eagerly embrace the “Corridor H” route eastward, that odd amalgam of new superslab U.S. 48 and old decrepit two-laned S.R. 55. While previously I had eagerly sought out the disconnected snippets of old 55, this time I am deliberately using every mile of superslab and using every bit (plus some) of its generous speed limit to bump up my consistently feeble average speed.
And after hearing it, I didn’t want to listen to the rest of the stuff on my playlist that was so tired and I’d heard countless times before. At my lunch break, I took my earphones out and wore earplugs instead. For the rest of the afternoon, the ‘Lark’ motif played in my head.
Admittedly, U.S. 48 is a pretty nice stretch of road, and it’s a pleasure to ride on new pavement when so many roads, large and small, have been ignored into utter disrepair and collapse. High, wide, and open, the roadway seems in places to glide along the hilltops. The air here, high up from the darkening valleys in the clear sunshine is warm and smells of pine and dry leaves; riding this unfaired bike at highway speed with its upright posture is both a pleasure and a challenge. The wind is invigorating, and I naturally gravitate towards a pair of riders until we share a loosely staggered formation. We smile, nod and wave in mutual acknowledgement.
And in a moment somewhere on the Highland Turnpike high above Monterey, it all came together.
And ever winging up and up, our valley is his golden cup, and he the wine which overflows to lift us with him as he goes:
Here was the valley, his golden cup; the lark—or what we have here that passes for a lark—the wine which overflows, lifting us up with him as he goes.
For the last stretch, where the two-lane prevails, I tuck in behind a small group of baggers. I follow them at a respectful distance until somewhere just across the border into Virginia, where I make one last stop in preparation for the homeward leg of the trip. It’s a small, roadside convenience store, selling supplies for campers and hunters and locals who find themselves disinclined to drive all the way to Middletown for some Doritos or ice. The signage out front is a polyglot of misspelled English and Hangul, and the woman behind the cash register speaks to me with a heavy Korean accent. I purchase a diet Pepsi and an ice cream sandwich that from all appearances is either locally made or hand-made, two waffle wafers with a thick slice of Neapolitan ice cream, folded neatly in wax paper.

I sit outside on a picnic table beside a low cinderblock wall, feet on the bench, watching the traffic on the road and the people coming and going at the gas pumps. The lowering sun dazzles me from its perch squatting over Great North Mountain; it seems it will set locally in a couple more minutes. I stretch my legs and slowly wend my way around the stacked cars at the gas pumps to pitch out my trash. There’s always that funny look you get from car drivers…particularly when they’ve got their kids with them. Like you’re a carrier of some dangerous notion or something. It always makes me smile more.
I gotta get out here more often.

The Lark Ascending, George Meredith (1828–1909) 
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.

For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.

Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,
o touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

My analysis of “Lark” is based on the 1972 recording of Iona Brown and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields with Sir Neville Marriner, which can be heard here.

*Who knew that was pronounced 'Rafe?'

Thursday, October 22, 2015

June 30

I left the office at the usual time and immediately gassed up, the fuel light having been on for quite a bit of my inbound ride. With a full tank, I considered my options and decided it was a good day to take the long way home.

Tuesday is the day Mary works late. Were I to go home straightaway, I would have several hours to myself. If experience is any guide, I would squander that time by stuffing my gullet with fists-full of junk food, drink too much, and surf the Internet in my underwear with the pets staring at me with disgust, contempt and revulsion.

So yeah, rediscovering the back roads seems like a good idea. I found a newish route that evolves from the godforsaken generic office park into twisting, rolling two lane roads shaded by deep woods and chased by serpentine rivers.

The roads gradually lose their exurban harshness and yield to scrub and young forests lately farm but not yet townhouses and strip malls. At some indefinable point, more felt than seen, the character drops its last vestiges of development and transitions to simply rural. I set into the rhythm of rise and fall, lean left, lean right, throttle on, throttle off. But there is trouble in paradise.

I see brake lights ahead, and a long line of stopped vehicles. I see vehicles randomly pulling out from the line, executing awkward turns across the road, and heading back in my direction. The drivers are making undecipherable hand gestures and shouting things I cannot understand as they pass. Clearly we are bollixed up, but I am so close to where I must turn that I decide to tough it out for a few minutes. I am literally within a few tenths of a mile, and in a pinch I could probably go off road to make my turn.

But as solid information begins to make its way back down the line of stopped vehicles, it become clear I will not make my turn. An ancient tree has fallen across the lanes, and it is massive beyond the abilities of anyone on-scene to deal with. In an area where folks routinely travel with their chainsaws, we are all stumped.

So I pull from the line and make my way back upstream. I am not familiar with this area except in broadest terms, so I will probe and test to find my way forward. I assume that all roads go somewhere, a supposition which seems true about 90% of the time. Unfortunately, the roads that comprise the remaining 10% seem to undergo a steady diminution in size and quality before finally revealing their shameful failings, meaning the ride in is bad, turning around is worse, and the ride back is long and humbling.

Naturally, I find some of those. And I follow a few roads that end up depositing me in places pleasant enough but diametrically opposed from my destination, so since leaving work, I have actually made negative progress towards getting home. Shadows are lengthening, I am getting hungry and cranky. This is not working out to be one of my better after-work rides, all thanks to the vagaries of a dying oak.

Retracing my path, I duck down another sketchy yet somehow promising lane. The surface begins as pavement, and in a few tenths of a mile collapses into fragments of pavement then some pavement-gravel hybrid, then gravel then just washboards of dust and potholes. The banks are high on both sides and the rutted track is narrow; if I encounter another vehicle on the way, I have very few options except to pin myself against the bank and hope for the best.

The deep woods and sudden curves make the situation even sketchier. If someone is coming the other direction, neither of us will have warning. Dollars to donuts, they’ll know the road better than I, and so will be going full speed. But I’ve squandered many miles this evening to come to this pass, and have no alternative but to forge ahead as best I can. And Beast does not care for this kind of terrain, not one little bit.

The road diminishes with each turn and cresting of a hill. I anticipate it will end at some locked gate, dead fall or vast muddy pool. Yet mirabile dictu, suddenly I see pavement ahead once again, and not far beyond that, a small crossroads of two paved roads.

I pause for a moment at the crossroads to get my bearings. To my left, a small, humpbacked bridge and a road leading into deep dark forest; to my right, a road leaping steeply upward to crest a small hill through pastures and woods. In an instant, I know where I am; I need only choose from an embarrassment of riches the route to select.

I pick the road to the right, and it quickly connects me with a stretch of road I do not recall ever riding before. Perfect! Sinuous, it winds generally southward from where I am, which is good, because south is the direction towards home. The sun is now low in the sky, casting long and deep shadows across the roadway. The hilltops are warm, bright and sunny, but cooler air has already begun to pool in the valleys and low spots; in the shade the sweat I have accumulated over the last hour is chilling.

The low sun strobing through the trees is…distracting. It is oddly soothing and relaxing in a way, but the experience would be more enjoyable if I were perceiving it through both eyes. Because of my route and position of the sun, only my right eye is seeing this; my left eye remains in shade. I recall reading somewhere this effect is not uncommon, and has something to do with either emulating or stimulating alpha waves in the brain.

Shortly I pass out of the woods and the effect stops; when I am back in woods again, the sun has dropped behind the Blue Ridge, rendering a beautiful blue wash across the landscape entire. My route from here to home is known to me, and will follow paved two-lane roads at a minimum; I will be home in short order with ample light left to take care of chores, yet not so much dead time that I will embarrass myself in front of the pets before Mary gets home.

All I need concern myself with now is the deer.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

All Roads Lead to Reuben

About a decade ago, I wrote and posted a piece about D.C. motorcycle courier culture in its heyday, the nineteen seventies and eighties. From time to time, I still get a response from one lost soul or another seeking to reconnect with their past. I’m surprised to find the piece is first and practically only legitimate hit when you Google some key phrases. The responses are pretty consistent, asking who I am, when was I there, do I remember so-and-so, did I ever work with somebody, and so forth.

And I try and respond, but most of the queries are anonymous, so we never have a conversation, simply a long disjointed series of free-floating comments, seeking connection but never attaining it.

Because of the ongoing interest, and my own interest in the subject, I wanted to reach out to the primary sources while I still can. Jerry Blum is gone; likewise, Dave Watson, Lap Nguyen and Dave McComb. Those are just the ones I know of. The others? Scattered to the winds…

I wanted to write the story of a place and time that is long gone, so those of us who still share that common experience can better remember it and maybe compare notes. I know that for a lot of us who passed through Metro Messenger, we will remember it as one of the best jobs we ever had. Not for the money, but for the sense of being part of something that’s hard to explain. I’d never want to do it again, and I wouldn’t want my kids to do it, but I’m glad for the experience. And proud of the three and a half years I spent on the street, logging about thirty thousand urban miles on a succession of Schwinn Travelers.

So I dug up an address from the internet, and wrote a letter to Reuben W. Moore asking if he would meet with me and tell his story. I mailed the letter, feeling like I was throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean. I wondered about it for a few days, and then forgot about it. At least I had sent the letter.

Imagine my surprise several weeks later when I got a voicemail with a distinctive, unforgettable and instantly recognizable voice. It was Reuben.

He and I spoke that evening for almost half an hour, establishing a common frame of reference and, oddly enough, comparing notes on the infirmities that age brings. He graciously agreed to meet with me the following week.

We met on a sunny June afternoon at his home in the Northern Virginia suburbs. As I arrive he is sorting various boxes in the garage, clad only in running shorts, running shoes and a baseball cap sporting the insignia of the 82nd Airborne. His garage is home to an admirable collection of motorcycles—all of which he still rides from time to time. Among them is a /2 sidecar rig, modified with the engine from an R100. It was custom made for him by the late Lap Nguyen, longtime mechanic for Metro Messenger and Capital Cycle, who went on to own and operate a shop in Alexandria, specializing in BMWs of all kinds. That shop is now run by Lap’s son, Khan. Also in that collection are a well-worn R75/6, an R100RS, (my personal all-time favorite bike; sadly, sans its distinctive fairing), and a first year K100.

A native of the D.C. area, he has recently moved to this house from his long-time home in Great Falls with his third wife. The house is spare and uncluttered; there is still much unpacking and sorting to be done. He remarried following the unexpected death of his second wife of twenty-five years some two years ago. He is haunted by the sudden tragedy, and the conversation tends to revert to that subject abruptly from time to time.

Despite the air conditioning, he remains shirtless, and I see that three decades has not softened his physique. It makes me suddenly very self-conscious of how out of shape I am as a longtime mouse jockey. He always had an uncanny ability to appear out of nowhere, anytime or anyplace in the city, running from one thing to another, ready to catch a careless rider off guard. He appears to keep his veins on the outside of his body, and while I suspect his peers would consider it an accomplishment to complete eighteen holes using an electric golf cart, he has run every day of his adult life, until sidelined recently by surgery. He clearly resents the interruption of this routine.

I sit across from him at a simple oak table in the dining room. We are joined by an elderly one-eyed Portuguese water dog, whose contribution to the conversation comes from gnawing on one squeaky toy, then a different toy that incessantly bleats out something about bananas. But the dog is fond of leaning into my leg, and is endlessly amenable to being petted and scratched behind the ears. I come prepared for a full-on interview, with notepad, list of prepared questions, and two recorders. But from the moment we step inside, it is clear this will not be an interview, but a conversation between two old acquaintances. I have a slight advantage, because there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of motorcyclists and bicyclists who passed through Metro Messenger back in the day. But there was only one Reuben Moore.

Reuben grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. He was educated by nuns before leaving home to join the Army. He went to Fort Bragg where he joined the 82nd Airborne. It was in the chow line at Fort Bragg that he met Jerry Blum, who he later brought on to manage Metro Messenger.

Besides introducing Moore to the joys of jumping out of airplanes, the Army also took him to Germany, where he discovered BMW motorcycles. His first BMW was an R26, a single-cylinder bike (produced from 1956 to 1960) which produced a whopping 15 hp.

When the Army was done with him, he returned to the D.C. area. In a story familiar to many who followed in his footsteps, he attended college while working two part-time jobs: He made deliveries for the Washington Post in the morning, and for CBS news in the evenings.

With time, the volume of deliveries began to overshadow his coursework. Slowly and gradually, he began to accumulate BMWs and the riders to operate them. Metropolitan Messenger & Delivery Service was formed, operating out of a warehouse off Blues Alley in Georgetown. Now a new challenge presented itself. The motorcycles needed to be taken care of.

While making some of his early trips to Germany—he would make more than a hundred such trips during his career—he made valuable contacts within BMW and its network of over fifty OEM suppliers. It simply was easier to become an importer of parts for the motorcycles; in short order, Capital Cycles was formed as a mail order supplier of BMW parts—and an in-house resource for Metro Messenger’s fleet of bikes. It even served as its own customs broker, with a dedicated full-time customs brokerage clerk.

Metro Messenger and Capital Cycle operated from Blues Alley from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. He describes being in Georgetown during the 1968 riots. Parts of the city were so devastated they have only recently recovered, nearly five decades later. “You could smell the smoke from Georgetown. The smell clung for years. It looked like what I imagine Dresden looked like.”

He confirms the apocryphal tales of training new hires by leading them from the Georgetown base out on deliveries ‘Mother-goose’ style. He would initially lead the way, holding up fingers to indicate the appropriate gear to be in for urban riding. It was not something that came naturally to all riders. He has harsh recollections—to put it mildly—of some of his less capable charges. Mistakes were not tolerated, and carelessness with a Metro Messenger motorcycle could result in dismissal on the spot.

At its peak (at the time I was part of Metro) the Metro fleet comprised an assortment of BMWs from vintage /2s to relatively late-model R80/7s. Most were /2s and /5s; all carried a simple fiberglass fairing with a Plexiglas windshield. All the bikes were painted bright yellow for visibility, with the company name and phone number on the fairing. (There is still a yellow /2 gas tank from a Metro bike in the “museum” at Bob’s BMW in Jessup, Maryland). There is a photograph of the fleet, some two dozen bikes in all, parked in a row somewhere on L’Enfant Plaza S.W. That picture hung in the Metro dispatch offices for many years, and now hangs in Reuben’s garage.

Part of the fleet was equipped with rear-fender mounted radio boxes with whip antennas; the rest of the riders wore two-way radios in holsters on their hip. In the early eighties, Metro began requiring all its riders to wear bright yellow reflective safety vests, to help reduce their accident and injury rate; the vests were uncomfortable and awkward; riders generally hated them and would make any excuse to ditch them. But riding without your vest was a fireable offense, and eventually they were accepted as a necessary evil, though protests persisted.

The conspicuous radios frequently caused Metro riders to be confused for Police or other officials by tourists; the rider’s use of ‘10-codes’ to talk with dispatchers exacerbated the confusion. Simple questions for directions or the location of one attraction or another were likely to be met by an indifferent stare and a roar of exhaust as the rider wordlessly rode off.

Packages were carried in canvas bags slung on each side beside the rear wheel and above the mufflers. Once in a while, the bags might catch fire from the heat, as one rider enroute to Dulles Airport, twenty or so miles outside the city, discovered. He was described as racing out the Access Road, trailing a thin line of white smoke behind him much of the way, only to arrive at his destination with smoldering bags and an incinerated package.

As both companies expanded, Reuben brought Jerry Blum into the picture to run Metro; while he focused his attention on the parts import and distribution business. I asked if there was a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” dynamic with them; many riders felt that way. He rejects that notion, but adds that he was always more serious about the business side of things, while Jerry was more affable and interested in socializing and ‘being friends’ with the staff.

I will add that from my recollection as a young twenty-something bicycle courier, Reuben was frequently intimidating and terrifying and someone to steer clear of, just in case. There were all sorts of folk legends about what might happen if Reuben spied you doing something untoward while he was running about the city. In hindsight and with the benefit of speaking with him in person and at length, I think my concerns may have been exaggerated; his approach to the business seems quite reasonable.

After Blues Alley, both companies moved to 2328 Champlain Street N.W., a block east of 18th street in pre-gentrified Adams Morgan. Capital Cycle operated from the first floor, opening onto Champlain Street, while Metro Messenger operated from the second floor, accessed via the ramp and loading dock from the alley. The relatively short, steep ramp served to launch both motorcycles and bicycles into the alley at the beginning of the day as well as to stall their entry on returning at the end of the day. The garage was lined with steel lockers and had enough space for the fleet of motorcycles to park, as well as space for bicycles to be wedged in here and there.

The office and dispatch bullpens, nominally off-limits to couriers, faced the front of the building and were a smoke-clogged cacophony of phone calls, shouted interrogatories, crackling radio calls and urgent commands barked in 10-codes.

The ramp and loading dock were the hangouts of choice when the day was done. Beers were consumed, cigarettes et cetera were smoked, fables spun, advice given, notes compared, receptionists ranked, hazards discussed, outrages shared. The camaraderie was thick; what we experienced on the street was difficult to share with outsiders. It was hard to convey the good or the bad to people who weren’t doing it all day, every day. And yet it was critical to be able to unwind, to share in the common experience. The only respect or regard you received came from your peers; you faced an unflinchingly hostile world from the moment you rolled out in the morning until the moment you rolled back in at the end of the day. The outside world just didn’t get it.

It was easy enough for an upstart company to poach a disgruntled client or two from someone else with the promise of cheaper rates and faster service; just a handful of clients in different lines of business were all it really took to get off the ground. As long as there was a certain degree of counter-cyclical business built in, you could hardly go wrong. The growth of the federal regulatory sphere in the late seventies and early eighties (even well into the Reagan era) fed a booming band of competing companies, some as Washington outposts of national companies, others home-grown.

The barriers to entry in the courier business were few and slight. A cheap office and a phone line or two were all you really needed to break into the business; the niceties could come with time. Couriers communicated with the dispatchers through a mix of payphones, pagers, two-way radios and the courtesy phones of patient, long-suffering clients.

Riders who “aged off” the street (via burnout, injury or simply through wising up) would often be repurposed and recycled into any available office position. If they were presentable and personable, they might become an outside salesperson; if less presentable, they might find themselves answering phones. A very few former riders had the right mix of instinct, knowledge, patience, temperament and fortitude to become dispatchers. And a very select subset of those became good dispatchers. The best worked for Metro.

I started my courier life on a sweltering June morning at second-tier company located in the nondescript-est of nondescript office building in N.W., the D.C. outpost of a Manhattan-based company. I hated the dead end job I had, and an article in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine told of the exciting and thrilling life of a bike messenger. I took their written test and passed with flying colors. It was a single page with questions about which side of the street the odd addresses were on, what streets met at Dupont Circle, what street ran north from the Capitol, and such. I thought I was a whiz for doing so well, but realized quickly that passing and failing meant pretty much exactly the same thing as far as that company was concerned.

The pace of work there that summer was languid, and my paltry commissions reflected it. Their office shared a block with a bookstore with a large cart full of esoteric remainders, so at least I was well read.

Working there was kind of like how you see taxi or delivery services portrayed in movies or on T.V. A dispatch window; a fetid waiting room full of characters who were assigned a run, went out and completed it, called in to the dispatcher, then came back to the office and got back in the rotation. On a good day you might do a dozen jobs. After two summer stints there, about a year in total, I got annoyed by some trivial incident (…how was I supposed to know nobody makes money in the summer because D.C. shuts down?) and got the word about Metro. I was told to go and ask for “Jerry Rubin” or something like that. I applied and was told to come back the next day, ready to go to work.

It was a rude awakening to say the least. Kingfish was my “Mother Goose,” and I was his ugly spastic duckling. I did my best to keep up with him as he flew across the city. I had no idea what was going on, and by mid-afternoon I was convinced the bones in my feet were ground to powder. I was hungry, dehydrated, and I ached in places I had never felt before. We raced from point to point, interweaving picks and drops in what I had to admit was an amazingly logical fashion. I strained to understand the gibberish and static that came over the radio, but failed miserably. When it came my time to speak on the radio, I could never find a moment to get a word in edgewise; everyone else was so quick and fluid. We never went back to the office until the dispatcher barked “R-T-B” to us at the end of the day, telling us we could return to base. I was utterly exhausted, confused, overwhelmed, my head was spinning, and sure I couldn’t cut it. This was the big leagues, for sure.

My first few days were embarrassing and a little humbling. At Metro, you were expected to know which entrance to a building you used to get to a specific room number. You were expected to park your bike in the right spot. You took the elevators up and ran the stairs down, except where the stairs might take longer. We didn’t bother with signatures or manifests; they wasted time and time was money. Every second spared added up to a few more jobs by the end of the day. I once trailed one of my coworkers as he sprinted down a hallway, whipping envelopes under doors as he passed; I followed into one of those offices to see the receptionist pick up the envelope from under her chair without moving.

The dispatchers all knew exactly how long a task should take, and knew the second you were overdue. The singularly unforgivable transgression was “ghosting”—disappearing while on a run. It was the equivalent of being “AWOL,” but with the added concern that someone unaccounted for might be in trouble. If you wanted to have a steady stream of work lined up for you, you learned quickly to be where you were expected when you were expected. Being smart was good; being fast was good; being predictable was even better.

What I didn’t appreciate at first was the peculiar dynamic of a place like Metro Messenger. Turnover was high, something like four hundred percent annually by my rough estimate. Long-timers simply didn’t bother getting to know rookies; it wasn’t worth the bother because so many came and went every week. But around the three month mark, suddenly you ‘vested.’ You became 100% part of the group simply because they had seen you around long enough and all of a sudden, you were part of the club. It was an amazing transition to witness, even better to be a part of.

Metro spawned a number of competitors over the years like Speed Service and Mar-Sid, and through the seventies and eighties, services founded or staffed by Metro alumni followed a similar business model, though generally without the owned fleet of motorcycles. Metro begat a veritable Genesis’ worth of progeny over the years; second and third generation offspring traced their lineages back to Blues Alley or Champlain Street. Each new generation explored either a different niche or took a different approach to solving the same problem: How to make money by getting something from here to there.

By the early eighties, the relationship between Reuben and Jerry Blum began to fray. Eventually, a schism erupted between the two men that resulted in severing the long-standing partnership of Capital Cycle and Metro Messenger. Reuben turned Metro over fully to Jerry, and in 1982 Metro moved into new quarters at 2327 Champlain Street N.W., directly across from the old building. The new space had a fenced parking lot with parking for couriers, a larger garage, and office space upstairs which allowed the management offices to be separated from the dispatch area.

With the relationship with Capital Cycle sundered, the BMW fleet was no longer commercially viable. The decision was made to begin phasing out the BMWs and operating the newly released Honda Rebel 250 instead. (The Metropolitan Police Department has just added Rebels to their fleet, so the logic seemed sound.) Metro even made an appealing offer to its motorcyclists to help ease them through the transition from the prestigious BMWs to the more downscale Hondas: Ride a Rebel for a year and you can have it. Of course, most experienced riders added the phrase “…what’s left of it!” to the offer. The cheap, underpowered Rebels would be no match for the daily abuses a courier motorcycle experiences. I don’t know if anyone ever managed to earn their Rebel or not.

Capital Cycle left D.C., moving to new quarters on Moran Road in Sterling, Virginia, an area near Dulles Airport which was undergoing a transition from abandoned farmland to industrial parks and exurban sprawl. The location near the airport greatly improved the logistics of receiving inbound freight shipments from Capital’s many overseas suppliers, and outbound shipments of parts to its many customers.

Metro Messenger began using independent contractors in place of employees, offering a higher commission as an incentive. But the transition away from company maintained BMWs diminished the company’s reputation among the young riders of the city, and gradually there was little to differentiate Metro Messenger from its myriad competitors to potential riders.

At the same time, fundamental technological changes undermined the foundations of the delivery business worldwide. The fax machine is certainly cited as the primary blow to an industry built on moving papers from one place to another, but the emergence of desktop publishing and the laser printer (through the joint efforts of Apple, Aldus and Xerox) was another upheaval. Printing companies and the design, editorial, and prepress companies they worked with were all benefactors to the messenger business. The demand for sending bulky, deadline-driven analog artwork and proofs represented a large percentage of many companies’ revenue and many couriers’ earnings.

Microwave transmission of news stories from remote sites was another blow to demand for courier services. Couriers were a mainstay of the news business from the post-WW2 era until the eighties, when suddenly every network and most local affiliates had trucks with antennas and built-in mobile editing bays. No longer was a roll of film popped from a camera and handed off to a waiting motorcyclist who would rush it back to the network’s bureau on M Street or DeSales Street or Nebraska Avenue to be developed. By the mid-eighties the news was beamed back to the bureau immediately, ready to go on the next news segment, before the onsite talent stubbed out their cigarette.

The local messenger business which had grown so explosively from the sixties to the mid-eighties began to implode. Complex systemic changes shattered the foundation of the delivery business “Version 1.0,” long before the Internet or World Wide Web caught the public’s fancy in the nineties. Revenues collapsed across the board. It would take decades for a resurgence of sorts to occur, not to move paper anymore but to address the “last mile” problem of online retailing and logistics; when the delivery business did rise again, it had little use for bicyclists and motorcyclists. Metro Messenger never recovered to the heights it experienced in its heyday. As the business faltered, so did the health of Jerry Blum. He died in 1998.

In 1990, Reuben sold Capital Cycle. Today, it is no longer on Moran Road, but just a few miles away, still in Sterling, near Dulles Airport. He describes his post-Capital Cycle life: “Every day is Saturday.”

I ask him if he thinks he had a hand in growing BMW motorcycle culture in the mid-Atlantic. (The Washington metropolitan area has long has a higher proportion of BMW motorcycles registered than most parts of the country.) I posit that his introduction of so many hundreds of motorcyclists to the pleasure of riding and the quality of manufacturing of BMWs enticed many to adopt BMWs for their own pleasure riding.

It was certainly a common phenomenon to see many new Metro riders arrive at work on any number of other brands of motorcycle initially, only to succumb to the next available used BMW to appear in the want ads and never look back. And it was not uncommon to chat up a BMW rider on the streets in the D.C. area and find a Metro Messenger connection somewhere.

Certainly, the presence of Capital Cycle made it easy and affordable to maintain a BMW in the D.C. area, another factor which certainly had to contribute to the healthy BMW community here. If there were an award for “Friend of the Marque,” he would certainly merit it. But he demurs, and suggests he never considered that he had played such a role. The humility with which he rejects my suggestion is endearing.

We move from the living room to his screened-in porch to watch the lengthening shadows cross the lawn and enjoy a beer. We discuss his interest in politics and religion and backpacking and skydiving and a host of other things, and I discover we have many interests in common besides motorcycling. In fact, I find that our paths have likely crossed a number of times, and we have explored many of the same places—though his list of places explored is an order of magnitude greater than mine.

We have now spoken for hours. The dog, who listened patiently to most of our conversation, needs tending. So we step outside into the June evening, and walk with the dog to the end of the street, so the dog can sniff things and do whatever it is that dogs find important.

We end our visit with a handshake and thank-yous, and the suggestion we make the time for a ride when the conditions are appropriate. Suddenly, I understand that time in my life a whole lot better than I did when I was in it. Metro Messenger was as Sui generis and integral a part of Washington, D.C. in the sixties, seventies and eighties as Ben’s Chili Bowl, Go-go and Straight Edge punk. The city is poorer for losing the unmistakable growl of a vintage /2 wound out and roaring up Pennsylvania Avenue past Lafayette Park; poorer without the flash of canary yellow as the bike zooms past; poorer without the rider’s grin flashed from behind mirrored sunglasses.

We now transact our 4g business in drab, colorless, virtual exchanges facilitated by gaudy apps on smartphones. It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, our transactions were made possible by scores of young people—mostly men—who were willing to ride bicycles and motorcycles in urban traffic year round, eight or ten hours a day, in sub-zero to triple-digit temperatures, rain or shine. All for a buck or two a delivery, plus the sheer joy we got from getting paid to ride. Yeah, honestly, sometimes it just felt like a scam to get paid to ride, whether you were riding a yellow BMW or a Schwinn 12-speed.

When I look back on that business in D.C., it’s impossible for me see it as anything but a gigantic tree, planted back in the sixties. Branch upon branch grows, splitting and dividing into countless smaller branches over time; some branches wither and drop off. Yet regardless how far the branches go, the roots all go back to Reuben.

He made a good thing back then, Reuben did.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Things You See in Traffic

Yesterday I’m heading home in light Friday evening rush hour traffic, minding my own business, when a raptor of some kind (really didn’t get a good look, what with the driving 70 mph in rush hour and all) lumbers across the sky just a hundred yards or so ahead of me. 

That’s not what caught my attention; what caught my attention was the fluorescent-orange koi gripped in its talons, easily the same size as the bird itself. Somebody’s pond is down one, I suspect. And that hawk (or whatever) is gonna dine well for a day or two.

The alternate explanation, of course, is the children's book version, where the hawk is simply letting his water-bound little buddy have a chance to finally see the whole world from a different vantage point. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's what was going on.


On December 1, 1974, TWA flight 514 en route from Cincinnati to Washington National Airport was diverted to Dulles Airport due to strong crosswinds in Washington. Because of miscommunication between the flight crew and air traffic control, it began its descent into Dulles before it had cleared the Blue Ridge Mountains. At ten after eleven in the morning, Flight 514 struck the western flank of Mount Weather at about seventeen hundred feet above sea level and was destroyed, killing all on board.

In July of 1975, I set out to section-hike the Appalachian Trail southbound from Snickers Gap (where Route 7 crosses the Blue Ridge and A.T) to Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park, a distance of about 140 trail miles. At this point (and at that time) the A.T. was a notorious and reviled road-walk section, white blazes on telephone poles.Within an hour or so of setting out, pavement under my vibram-soled boots, I walked into the crash site of Flight 514, barely seven months after the fact. It told a very simple, very detailed story.

The point of impact was squarely on Blue Ridge Mountain Road, Virginia Route 601. There was a clear vista westward across the shattered treetops, revealing the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester and South Mountain. To the western edge of the brutal clearing, trees were neatly cropped; each successive rank eastward was increasingly shattered and splintered. There were clearly defined notches at the western edge where the engine nacelles ate into the trees; they faded and disappeared midway, as I suppose the engine pods had. It displayed the cross-section silhouette of a gently banking airplane. I have pictures of it, somewhere.

On the very west side of the road, forming the road bank, was a large outcropping of metamorphic rock. This is what stopped the forward movement of Flight 514 that bleak December morning. The rock was shattered, but beyond the road the trees remained intact; there was no undergrowth. The earth, even seven months later, was scoured. At that instant in time and space, the airplane became a mass of shrapnel too small to take down the trees but massive enough to scythe the forest floor for hundreds of yards up the hillside. It looked like a park. I don’t recall from the news at the time whether or not there was fire, but since the plane was near the end of its flight, most of its fuel had been consumed and the weather was cold and snowy, I don’t think it was a fiery kind of crash. The forest in that next July was not marked by the scars of a large fire.

In July 1975, I was young and impressionable, and modestly observant. I took a short break at the endpoint of Flight 514 to pay respect and take in the image of that moment, captured indelibly in that ravaged landscape. I still go down Blue Mountain Road from time to time; it is a favorite motorcycling destination, and the rock outcrop has become an informal memorial to Flight 514.

The woods to the east and west of the road have largely grown up to hide the scar, but forty years on, the weirdly tortured trees still bear mute testimony to the damage they both bore and caused. Trees grow from their tips; once damaged, they don’t grow them back. They find other routes to the sunshine. It will be generations before the woods fully conceal their secrets from us again.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Snows of March

At twilight—mercifully longer by this time of the year—we decided to take the dog and walk the river trail. The unbroken snow rose to my boot tops, and Schroeder bounded ahead in great arcing leaps like a porpoise. The grey skies, dwindling daylight and slowly diminishing snowfall conspired to smudge and blur the boundary of ground and sky until it all appeared as one great sweep of cold.

We strode down the drive to the pines, where the fresh snow lay treacherously uneven on the trail—one moment ankle-deep, then a calf-deep drift the next. Unabashed, Schroeder led the way manically. He punctuated his progress by briefly laying down in the snow every fifty yards to lick the snow and ice from his front paws, then standing up and looking back towards us expectantly.

The steep road through the woods down to the floodplain was deep with drifted snow that obscured the rough and eroded surface; we lurched and stumbled our way down to where the way levelled out and our passage was easier. With Schroeder in the lead, we began to make our way to the west and the upstream end of the floodplain. But the going was slow and difficult; in the shadow of the great looming hillside, the weak March sun had done little to reduce the prior snow, and today’s fall built upon it to where it seemed like a real challenge in the fading light. Within just a few dozen yards, we turned around and headed downstream and towards the stream trailhead.

The river beside us ran fast and loud. It was brown as mocha and churned not so very far below the banks; the familiar rocks and landmarks were obscured by the roiling waters. The eddys and backwaters and shores were bound with a milky, opaque layer of slush and fallen snow that slowly became ice. The same waxy-looking mix grew off the shores of the stream until just a modest channel of open water remained; the clear waters of the stream mixed reluctantly with the murky waters of the river in clouds of diminishing whorls and vortices that gradually drifted away downstream and merged into the heart of the river.

We turned from the riverside and made our way into the deep snowy woods. The trail, well-worn and familiar, was plain to follow even with the layer of untracked snow upon snow. We paused for a moment to dwell in the dwindling light of evening, then made our way along the stream, beneath the lone hemlock bent low beneath its burden of fresh snow, to the lower stream crossing.

Our familiar stepping stones were hidden beneath tall caps of icy snow; the stream, flush with recent rains and melting snow, found new and unexpected channels to follow. Deeper than we imagined, the icy water was daunting to consider fording. Tentatively at first, then with a degree of abandon, we made the crossing without mishap or incident while Schroeder watched on disinterestedly from the woods on the far side.

We wound our way upstream with the icy waters to our left, the deep snowy forest silent but for the sound of the rushing stream. Schroeder chose the switchback trail for us, and we followed his lead up the steep path, slipping from time to time on the snow. We make it to the house tired, a little bit sweaty, as darkness finally embraces our little hilltop for the night. Schroeder is happy to be home.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


We had Carrie killed, just a few days after her 14th birthday.

She had been faltering for the last few months, increasingly so in the last few weeks. But around her birthday, she rallied and enjoyed having the company of family around. But the day came when she finally could no longer stand on her own and would not eat.

We knew her time had come, but still we debated. In the end, we called the local veterinarian who would make a house call. But the earliest she could come was in the afternoon, leaving us with an emotionally exhausting and trying wait.

We use the time to dig a grave for her in the slight meadow, near the gnarled pitch pine. Our rocky hilltop begrudged her enough loose orange clay and feeble rock to make a decent dog-sized hole in the cold ground.

At the end, Carrie lay on her favorite pillows surrounded by family and the veterinarian and the vet’s assistant. Schroeder sat nearby on the couch. She got one shot of a relaxant to put her at ease, followed by the lethal dose. One moment she was there, and the next she wasn’t

I tucked her in a curled sleeping pose, and wrapped her in a clean cotton sheet. She felt remarkably heavy; we needed the wheelbarrow to move her with any ease. We placed her in the hole, and each one of us laid upon her a few stalks and stems of dry plants from the backyard. They were a memento of her curious hobby, deadheading the spent flowers and shrubs with her teeth. Then we all took turns shoveling the rocky dirt into the hole, and finally placed a large chunk of rough white quartz on top to mark the grave.

The holidays and the presence of family and friends served to keep emotion at bay, and I could not see clear to grieve the loss of my first dog for a time. But some days later, on a blustery, misty gray morning, I took down the green lead and collar from its peg, and began to walk the path through the pines, down to the river, along the meadows of the river, and up the stream valley.

I had barely begun when the weight of the empty lead in my hands was too great to bear. I could hardly walk, and the grief washed over me again and again. I felt so keenly both Carrie’s presence and her absence with every step and at every point at which she would have always paused. It took a long time.

A few days later, we went into town for some errands. I walked into the feed store, and standing at the register was a woman with a dog on a green lead—a Saluki, the only saluki I have ever seen.

A Saluki is a sighthound, related to greyhounds but closer in appearance to a Borzoi but smaller. Timid, pure white, with long hair, elegant bearing and sweeping lines, the sight of the dog rendered me speechless. I explained to the woman I had just put my greyhound to sleep…but didn’t complete my thought that this dog looked like an “Angel Carrie”—a perfected vision of our little rescue, free from the scars of her racing career and the infirmities of a long greyhound life. It was a remarkable chance encounter that left me speechless and somehow comforted.

I feel a little better now, having wrung out some grief and coming to a measure of peace. She was a good dog, a great dog, and had a pretty full life—certainly a long life for a retired racer. I would like to imagine her in a perfected form, something like that sweet saluki but with Carrie’s wry sense of mischief.

We will miss her for a long time, no doubt about that.