Thursday, January 8, 2009

four hills, and turn left

I'm not a big fan of the GPS craze. (Go figure.) Although I must admit, it is nice to have resources like GPS and Google Maps available (I use the latter quite frequently on my Blackberry), I would much rather explore the terrain and the routes around me, and get to know them at a human level. (Of course, now Google Maps brings us Street View, so you can do just that from the comfort of your desk or couch.)

There was a running joke, back when I lived in "the sticks" (if only), about giving directions like: "Turn left where the old barn used to be" (like I know where things are by landmarks that existed 20 years ago) or, "Watch for the driveway when you see cows" (they're always standing right where I need them to be?). There are still plenty of places around this country where route numbers and street signs are scarce, where you're better off knowing the general direction you need to head and keeping a sense of where that is as you go. Places where the main topics of discussion at family reunions are, "Which way did you come?" and "How high's your corn?"

Of course, it helps too if the roads run in more or less definable directions. In the flat wilderness of Western New York, most of the roads run north to south or east to west, with a few notable diagonals. So if you know the major routes and you can remember which direction you're heading, you can usually figure it out. In Grand Junction Colorado, where I lived for a while in fourth grade, roads are actually named on the map grid. We lived on F Rd., which of course was equidistant between E and G roads. There was also F-1/2 Rd., and running perpendicular were numbered roads. There's an artificiality to it, but it's very easy to navigate. At the same time, I have a romantic attraction to more curving, less predictable roads that are shaped by the hills, valleys, and waterways of the land. They require more familiarity with the place where you live. And of course they're infuriating to newcomers and those passing through.

Riding bike in and around the settlement of Elkridge has given me a new perspective on distance and direction. As I always like to mention, Elkridge is situated on the Fall Line--the boundary between the outer Piedmont and the Atlantic Coastal Plain. This location put Elkridge on the map, because it was at one time the furthest point inland on the Patapsco River where tobacco casks could be loaded onto ships and sent across the ocean. It also gives it a very hilly terrain, which makes for a great workout and a somewhat more grueling commute than I would really ask for.

These hills are a rather prominent feature of my rides back and forth to the train station. There are four main hills on my route. I live at the top of one hill, so heading out in the morning, the first leg is the easiest--downhill to Rt. 1, a level stretch, and then a long downhill to get me well on my way. Then comes the first uphill of the morning, past the library, and then another good downhill. That one always gets me breathing hard, but I'm still fresh, so getting over it isn't too much trouble. Thankfully, the second uphill, which crowns just past Ducketts Ln., isn't bad at all. I can conserve some energy for the last, long hill, running up to Rt. 100.

I think in theory I could make it over that hill without stopping, but in practice I never have. There's a bit of shoulder that widens out not too far before the stoplight that precedes the ramp. The road will widen enough at the stoplight for cars to get over and prepare their entrance to the ramp, even though there are no lines marking out a separate lane. I know that if the light is green, they'll want to come hurtling through it, changing lanes to the right, and already speeding up to the 55 mph that they know will apply on 100. I like to get over to the middle of the thru lane as soon as possible, but that means I'm chugging uphill while tying up a lane, with cars passing on both right and left. I want as much energy as possible, so I don't take too long getting past the ramp and back to where I have good shoulder to ride. Even then, I still have to get up and over the bridge. So, I always pull over before I reach the light, take a breather, and check the time to see how I'm doing. Once I'm up the hill, it levels off and even drops down a bit before I reach the station, so I can take it easy, coasting much of the way, or push a little harder if I'm short on time. I make my left turn at Rt. 103, not far beyond 100, and then I'm on pretty quiet roads for the last stretch before the station.

Really, I must say that Rt. 100 is the major landmark on my morning commute and the bane of my existence. If I didn't have to get over Rt. 100, that last hill wouldn't be so bad. For that matter, if I didn't have to get over Rt. 100, I'd have a shorter ride to the station. Even worse, it wasn't until they finished Rt. 100 that the Dorsey station opened, with its practically car-only design. Before that, there was actually an Elkridge train station, which would have been a much shorter ride and more accessible and friendly to biking. I suppose I should be glad I didn't have to experience its closing. It was long gone by the time I had to worry about it.

The return trip is harder for a few reasons:
  • The traffic is always heavier, which gives me more to worry about. Fortunately, there's some compensation for this. There are some long stretches of real shoulder heading north, and I've come up with a route that makes my only left turn pretty safe and easy. Of course, even the extra shoulder has its problems. It's all well and good to get over on the shoulder, especially when I'm crawling up a long, steep hill; but getting back off the shoulder when it becomes a turn lane isn't always easy.
  • Even though the ride between the station and Rt. 1 is mostly level, it does have an overall grade that's generally uphill heading home.
  • Maybe it's just my imagination, but the intermediate uphills seem if anything a bit steeper heading north.
  • It also seems that the places where I have no shoulder to work with are at the crowns of hills, particularly the second to last hill.
  • That nice, long downhill that I have first thing in the morning is a nice, long uphill in the evening.
  • Also, because of the heavier traffic and the long uphill at the end, I have a tough choice to make. If I stay on Rt. 1 all the way, it's more direct and the hill isn't quite as steep. The drawback, however, is that it's heavy traffic, and there's no shoulder for a good bit of the hill. Plus, by the time I get to the end of the climb, I have to get over for a left turn, crossing two lanes of thru traffic. I've opted for the alternative, which is to veer off on Old Washington, take the little bit longer ride and steeper hill but much less traffic and only one lane moving each way. There's a similar problem with shoulders, but with fewer cars it's not such a big deal. I usually have to stop at least once for a rest on the way up (sometimes more than once), but the left turn is much less harrowing. Also, if I luck out, I get a little bit of a downhill to build up some speed before the final push up Montgomery to our development.
  • Which reminds me--there's also that steep uphill from Rt. 1 to our development entrance. It's a short stretch, but almost inevitably coming from a stop and at the end of the ride so I'm already pretty worn out.
But then I'm topped out on the fourth hill, and I'm home. And that's always good.

1 comment:

  1. "Which way'd ya come?" and "How high is your corn?" need to be said with the appropriate country accent.