Many cultures along the W&OD Trail

I achieved one of my personal goals yesterday. I live about three miles from the midpoint of the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) trail here in Northern Virginia. This is a combination of a paved biking, walking and equestrian trail that stretches from Shirlington Road on the edge of Alexandria to Purcellville, in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains. It so happens that I can get on the trail close to its midpoint. Until yesterday, I had not made it to either end.

Yesterday though I threw caution to the wind. I was worried that after our recent excessive rainfall, that part of the trail would be washed out. Still, the comfortable humidity and temperatures reaching about ninety it was too lovely a day with not to push myself. However, it was the first day of July, so I made sure I covered every inch of my exposed skin with SPF-30 sunscreen.

“Pushing myself” turned out to be forty-three miles, which is about six more miles than I had ever traveled on one trip. The elapsed time from my driveway and back was close to four hours. The first half of the ride seemed almost effortless. Winds were generally from the west and moderate. As you might expect, with some exceptions as you travel east on the trail toward the Potomac River you generally lose elevation. I realized five minutes into my ride that I had forgotten my water bottle. This did not turn out to be a problem. If you know where to look there are many water fountains and even a couple public restrooms along the trail.

As I hit the end of the trail at Shirlington Road yesterday, I was struck by how ethnically diverse the neighborhoods along the W&OD trail are. The further west you go the more redneck it becomes. Head east on the trail though and the more multiethnic it becomes. It is remarkable that one bike trail can take you through so many different kinds of neighborhoods. To ride it from one end to the other is to see a representative slice of America.

I entered the trail where it intersects with the Fairfax County Parkway near Reston, then headed east. On the west side of Reston, you are in Yuppieville. The Reston Town Center and its ever-expanding numbers of overpriced mid-rise and high-rise condominiums surrounding downtown Reston are easy to see from the trail. Somehow, a working class does manage to eke out a living in the area. I often see Hispanics on their bikes on this part of the trail, likely going to and from restaurant jobs in and around Reston. The nearby Town of Herndon has grown increasingly Hispanic over the last few decades, so I assume most Hispanics I see on the trail live in Herndon. There are Hispanic neighborhoods in Reston, however. An apartment complex called Cedar Ridge on the North Side of Reston has morphed into a largely Hispanic neighborhood. There is also what amounts to public housing in apartments in the Dogwood section of Reston. I am amazed that rising property values have not forced these people to live elsewhere. From the trail, you can hear Fairfax Connector buses idling at a Reston hub, which is at the south side of the Reston Town Center. Since those who can afford it drive where they need to go, the active bus system in Reston is proof that many residents still depend on public transportation.

Between Reston and Vienna, the trail takes you through neighborhoods, which if they are not the upper crust, at least come close to it. There are many lovely houses in Reston near the Sunrise Valley School that rest beneath old growth trees, many of which back up the bucolic Difficult Run. As the trail passes Hunter Mill Road, when you can glimpse houses at all, you sense prosperity and inherited wealth. The houses are large and many of them could qualify as estates. This is where many of Fairfax County’s gentrified class lives.

When you slip over the boarder to the Town of Vienna, instead of a gentrified class, you feel the presence of a gentrified community. Most of the houses are the smaller, brownstone rambler types of home. They were built during a time when Vienna was the farthest outskirts of the Washington region, land was cheap and the middle class had modest expectations. These modest brownstones now attract a more moneyed crowd. With few exceptions, they have elected not to tear down the brownstones and put up McMansions, perhaps because the town would not allow it. Yet these modest brownstone houses though are simply out of the price range of even many upper income Washingtonians. People who live there either bought their house decades ago, or have some combination of inherited wealth and great paying jobs in order to afford their inflated prices. The houses are modest in appearance and due to their age appear to be high maintenance houses. Since these are not covenant-controlled communities, you have to hope your neighborhood values include mowing lawns regularly. For the most part, it is a heavily white neighborhood, with a spattering of Orientals. You can get a sense of Vienna’s values by stopping at the Whole Foods Market next to the trail as you cross Maple Avenue.

So it continues until you are past the limits of the town. You cross Cedar Lane and Gallows Road and the neighborhoods feel much the same. The W&OD trail has its own bridge over the Capital Beltway. To cross I-66 you must first hoof it up a steep spot in the trail near Idylwood Park, and then follow the sidewalk on Virginia Avenue. Another bridge takes you over Leesburg Pike, and then you quickly descend into the City of Falls Church. The City is an odd mixture of rich and working class. Tree lined streets contain forties style houses which the moneyed class inhabits. The many Brownstone apartments in Falls Church presumably service the working class. The moneyed class must be okay with paying taxes, for the trail winds through many parks along I-66 that are well maintained. Here the runners nearly outnumber the bicyclists on the trail. Falls Church also maintains a number of walking and biking trails. You need to watch your signs carefully to stay on the W&OD trail, for it make some unexpected detours on residential streets and surprising turns. As the trail nears Seven Corners, you realize that you are close to a predominantly Korean area of town. That quickly falls behind you though if you press on. The trail follows a path next to Four Mile Run. Glencarlyn Park through which the trail winds seems just an extension of the park-like environment that is much of the trail.

Suddenly you hit serious civilization. To get to the end of the trail, Columbia Pike must be crossed. Be prepared to wait for a signal because it is clear that drivers, not bikers, will get top priority. Dollar stores, Mom and Pop establishments and gas stations are easy to find on Columbia Pike, along with many Hispanic owned establishments. You cross George Mason Drive, then Walter Reed Drive and arrive at a gritty area of Arlington full of industrial businesses. There is a trash hauling company and the predominant language is Spanish. You pass the headquarters of WETA, and it is not in a nice neighborhood. On this Saturday morning, I found many Hispanics from El Salvador. A greasy looking truck selling discount enchiladas sat parked next to Four Mile Run Road. A number of Hispanics whom I assumed to be day laborers sat on the lawn next to the truck chatting. Just up the road was another truck selling fruit out its back.

Finally, the trail ended ingloriously at Shirlington Road, just a hop, skip and a jump from I-395. Thankfully, at trail’s end there is a water fountain. The water felt refreshing since the day was now hot.

The trip home was just as interesting but anticlimactic. On the low ascent back to Reston, I naturally had to apply much more leg power. It was not until I stopped at Vienna for more water that I realized I was wearing out quickly. I took the rest of the ride at a more sedate pace. Even so, I had to stop for five minutes to catch my breath in Reston, before tackling the final five miles to my driveway. The last hill on the Fairfax County Parkway as it approaches West Ox Road felt excruciating. I was riding erratically. I arrive home covered in sweat and bugs. I hustled to the shower but soon found I was having a hard time standing. I ended up on the bed flat on my back just staring at the ceiling for half an hour. Perhaps a forty nine year old man should not push himself like this. In retrospect, it was a bit crazy. Yet I certainly enjoyed this biking adventure, and felt more than a little exhilarated for meeting this personal goal.

My next goal is to make it to the west end of the trail in Purcellville. That will be an even more challenging ride. However, since I have made it to Leesburg, it is probably not beyond me. I should probably attempt it on a cooler day than yesterday, perhaps when the fall leaves are at their peak. I will need more water and more breaks to accomplish that one, but I will do it in time.

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