At 9 a.m. on a sultry summer morning, cars commuting to downtown Washington, D.C., hum north along the George Washington Memorial Parkway at a steady pitch. The mallards, Canada geese and I can barely hear them. We can't see the faces behind the wheels or the traffic backing up at the bridges across the river. We're in another world, ten yards away, down on the banks of the Potomac River, where the breeze is kicking up whitecaps and brushing back our feathers (hair in my case). I'm cycling along at a pretty good clip on the bike trail up the Parkway.
It may not be Lance Armstrong speed, but it will be fast enough to get me from Alexandria, Virginia, to Washington in less than an hour, with stops to appreciate the sites.
Across America, there are great biking trails and there are fine commuting routes. This path along the Potomac may be the best of both, combining a majestic ride and views of national monuments across the river with a smooth and efficient route from home to office.
The eight-mile stretch is also the heart of the East Coast Greenway - a National Millennium Trail - and one of the featured trails in On the American Trail, which will connect Calais, Maine, to the Florida Keys. When complete in 2010, the 2,600-mile route will parallel the Appalachian
Trail but take cyclists and bladers, horses and wheelchairs, through the cities, rather than the mountains. As it strings together the metropolitan regions up and down the coast, it will trace the banks of the Charles River in Boston, the Hudson River in New York, the Potomac, and other rivers through cities down the coast.
The bike path begins at Mount Vernon and winds 25 miles past bridges, over creeks, through waterfowl sanctuaries, and by Arlington National Cemetery to Turkey Run Park. My morning ride started in Old Town Alexandria, a town founded in 1749 by Scottish merchants. George Washington considered it his hometown; now it's home to dot-com companies and a flourishing tourist trade. The streets of Alexandria are busy but bike-friendly at this hour of the morning.
A quarter-mile north of town the bike path goes native. It takes me right to the Potomac, where a whiff of fish and the ducks scudding a foot over the surface make me forget the town I had just left behind. At Dangerfield Island, sailboat masts tick like metronomes, and a lone fisherman angles for catfish at the mouth of Four Mile Run. Just north of the island the path meanders through a quiet, sylvan glade, down to the riverbank, and then up to the four-lane Parkway for a few hundred yards before it skirts Ronald Reagan National Airport on a series of bikeway bridges. The entire bike route is freshly paved and lined for two-way commuters.
By now most of the regular commuters are downtown and have morphed into office workers, but a few riders packing briefcases are spinning their way north. I pass runners and walkers and bladers. A father and daughter walk hand-in-hand toward me. Another fisherman casts into the river. I choose to ride through National Airport past the ticketing entrances. I imagine the possibilities of parking my bike and boarding a flight to Paris. Back to reality, I follow the path right to the banks of the Potomac, lined here with willow trees waving in the wind, lavender Russian sage and crepe myrtle trees just coming into bloom. A crow perches on a young willow, its black feathers combed back by the breeze.
Now the monuments start to come into view across the river. First I see the U.S. Capitol dome far in the distance. Once I pass under the Fourteenth Street Bridge and over Roaches Run, the Washington Monument rises up directly across the water. The path is right along the river here, and the obelisk across the way seems close enough to grab. The dome of the Jefferson Memorial is off to the right, and the Lincoln Memorial peeks above the trees upriver.
The path divides here into the route north up the river, and the leg up and over Memorial Bridge. I have to cross the roadway before I reach the bridge that's as much of a monument as the Lincoln Memorial across the way and the Arlington Cemetery behind me on the Virginia side. Joining the flow of cyclists and joggers, I start across the broad sidewalk into Washington, where I can pedal to the Mall and the Smithsonian museums, or finish the morning commute to my office.
Alas, it's the office for me.