Friday, March 13, 2009

lesson two, part one: two lakes

A map.

A crisp bright morning. Blue skies with misty high clouds streaked with contrails. Start by taking it on the easier side, rolling down the Ave. at a coasting pace. Too early for the rats, only a handful of college kids wander up and down the filthy sidewalks. Pass them all and pass the slow 79, splitting the yellowline. Such moves are more daring when there is actually traffic.

At the foot of the hill, make a left onto the Burke-Gilman and slalom around the students making their way to and from classes. Dodge the cyclists who somehow manage to fill two large panniers for a commute consisting of a handful of miles. After a few minutes the trail leads you to one of the worst intersections in all of Seattle, 25th and Pacific. You have no choice but to act like a pedestrian and cross with their signal. Ride on the sidewalk and cross the ship channel on the baroque copper and concrete Montlake bridge, built long before public structures ceased to be beautiful. Twin turrets and graceful lines.

This route leads you to one of the gilded neighborhoods of Seattle, pedaling along the lush affluence. Trees, bricks, stairs up to the front door and an underground streetfront garage. Toys in the yard. Follow the bike route signs and find yourself in an alley and then another fine neighborhood. To your left is the Arboretum: a thick tangle of bare gray branches and a few muddy leaf-strewn paths leading beneath them. The mud spills onto the roadway and fills a handful of otherwise invisible depressions. Carve a lazy arc around each puddle, long slow invisible sine curves left on the pavement.

Cross Madison and there's a new neighborhood: less lush, more and smaller houses crowded into an almost treeless basin between two high ridges, themselves other neighborhoods. Leave the bike route here and follow the busy road up and over a small ridge. Cross Union at the crest and start to lose altitude again. Snap into a bigger gear and push harder, hugging the whiteline. Cars hustling by on your left and a long line of dormant vehicles on the right, the bike lane inviting you to ride into an opening door. Nowhere to ride that feels safe, so just keep going hard and fast and hope for the best.

Before long, there's a strip of green, a park built on top of a massive freeway. Here you turn left and join the I-90 trail that will take you into the foothills. First is the gateway tunnel. It is long and deserted. A shadow peloton, formed by the orange floodlights, passes by quickly on both sides briefly before going again out of sight. Burst once again into the sun and stop to see the massive floating freeway crossing the lake. The mountain king is visible today, as is a lesser monarch far to the north. The Cascades are ahead, blue white and black. A single road tacks up one of the peaks, a black crisscross against the white. Below the bridge the glass surface of the lake.

On the other side is Mercer Island, where the trail continues to wind amongst the trees and suburban boulevards. Most of the houses are new and grotesquely large. One alongside the trail is old and meanly attired, a relic of a more rural island. Worn out wood shingle siding, dirty white trim, unkempt lawn and deadlooking trees. A rotting shed beside with dirty white blinds askew in the windows.

Another bridge and the trail twists back onto itself and crosses under the freeway. It runs alongside the twelve lanes and narrows, crosses back under again and splits in a marsh. Take the right fork and ride an arched bridge over a channel of brown, sluggish water rimmed with motionless reeds. The roaring freeway only a few feet away. The sidewalk path runs just above the slough: placid water with bare branches above, always reminding you of the winter not quite done. No sounds other than the fury of the highway and the songlike thumping of the concrete sections under two hard skinny tires. The stench of rotting.

Further along, now into the depths of eastside, the trail becomes a concrete tunnel amongst the serpentine courses of a massive interchange. Eventually it finds its way along a freeway exit and dumps you onto a busy street. To the right is a long line of suburban business, including two Starbucks in one strip mall. Across the intersection the massive buildings of a corporate headquarters loom, connected by sky bridges. Professionsals mill about the oceanic parking lots, coffee in hand.

Following the prescribed route will take you past many identical office parks. Corporate offices shoulder to shoulder, some whose purpose is entirely obscure. The path changes course in order to cross the immense blank gulf of the highway right-of-way.

The bridge crosses the highway and spirals down to the ground level. A massive intersection of two arterial semi-highways awaits. Follow the signs and ride alongside yet more corporate headquarters. A procession of squat glass boxes uniformly drab with a squirt of color near the roof, always in the same place. Strips of hostile landscaping frame them.

The trail leaves the roads once again and continues to run alongside the highway, now only a few feet away to the right. Always the roar. The shrieking anger of thousands of automobiles at seventy-five. Shockingly loud, always. On the left a bare woods choked with blackberry bushes whose purple and green are the only colors. Little trails lead to the neighborhoods below. Keep riding keep going ignore the sounds. Suddenly, the tangle parts and reveals the second lake. Lake Sammamish. From a high vantage, the water seems perfectly still and perfectly blue, a tempting respite from the roar and stink of riding alongside the highway for mile after mile.

The lake is still distant so keep moving. Almost immediately the trail begins to drop away from the highway, descending in a series of mossy switchbacks.

Now the path follows a road running alongside the lake which is just out of sight beyond the houses and apartments. The highway returns, now separated from the path by a concrete barrier and nothing else. The stink and sound worse now than ever.

Keep pushing, keep pedaling. A radar station mocks your efforts: sixteen mph and you're pushing hard. Soon you're riding through the outskirts of Issaquah. Another small town that suddenly started growing too fast. The tiny nugget of downtown surrounded by layers and rings of development. Traffic is thick and snarled, big trucks jump to fill any gap no matter how small. See one bright yellow pickup jerk suddenly into the bike lane to make a quick right and make a note to yourself that this town is not your friend. One arterial ends in another even more massive with an impressive array of strip malls and subdivions crushed up against the hillside behind it. Fortunately you have reached the next objective: the Lake Samammish trail. Force yourself accross the street and take your bearings. Issaquah is behind you, affluent neighborhoods perched on the mountains surrounding it. All around you traffic and hurry. And in front of you, the trail and all its promise, a gravelgray path leading away from you straight as an arrow.

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