Despite a viewshed that most chambers of commerce would kill for (and probably have killed for, by the usual market mechanisms), the area just east of Burlington is standard Americana. As you approach the suburbs and the postglacial slopes above Lake Champlain grow steeper, you depend physically and psychologically on the gravitational pull to get you quickly through the overdeveloped mess. I happened to hit this zone at rush hour, and believe me, it was no lark. But despite its being Vermont’s version of metropolis, Burlington is really a small town, and you can hold your nose and get through the worst its roadways have to offer. And as I’ve said before, the city center is very bike- and pedestrian-friendly. (City Hall, in fact, runs a pedestrian rights/responsibilities program, with appropriate signage, etc.)
But even the heart of Burlington must cope with the Open Road’s ubiquitous monstrosities. Motorcycles, for example. I can tell you, after a couple thousand miles this summer on roads large and small, various post-adolescent noisemakers have driven me to distraction. These goddamn testosterone-fueled Guymobiles - crotch rockets and choppers, ATVs, and various road-legal “customized” trucks and sedans with aftermarket “tuned” pipes instead of mufflers – were always nuisances, but these days they’ve proliferated so much that, for bystanders, they’re like something prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.
Okay, maybe I shouldn’t make jokes with contexts like that. But some combination of irony and outrage is necessary. I get depressed thinking about how America long ago forfeited the public highways to hyper-individualized modes of destruction. Look at the typical New York or New England town center, with woodframe homes and commercial buildings lined up close to the road, often within 20 feet, sometimes only at arm’s length. Loud, stinking motor traffic has squeezed the value – monetary and quality-of-life – right out of these old structures. The roadway is now the enemy, and building codes with ample setback requirements are the norm. I mean, who in their right mind wants to live next to thundering herd of pollution generators? But the setbacks and other accommodations to what’s deceptively packaged as “modern life” are forms of alienation, literal distancing from the “commons.” And they’re just what the bicyclist and pedestrian can counteract simply by doing their thing.
Well, it might seem that I’m digressing, avoiding the actual experience of my trip – but not so. The bicyclist’s mindscape is part and parcel of the journey; under pedal power, your body drives your thoughts to destinations not attainable by other means. You’re simply much more embedded in your impressions and reactions..
One last thought for this installment, this time from my home base. Last night, when the temperature and humidity were coming down after a near-90-degree afternoon, I got one of my frequent itches to walk up through Highland Park. But when I stepped into the arboretum at the high end of Meigs Street, I saw mountain bike tracks where they don’t belong – and bikes are legally prohibited anywhere in Highland and other county parks. Then sure enough, I saw the biker himself. Not one to be silent in the face of assaults on this beautiful park, even non-motorized ones, I motioned to him (he was plugged into a “personal audio device”) but he blew me off, then did a 20-mph schuss down a steep hill across from the reservoir. Then he pedaled back around to harass me for spoiling his idyllic experience!
You run into these barbarians every day, I know, but that doesn’t make the experience any less maddening. They think they’re harmless, even while they’re literally carving up the park with their knobbies and disturbing the atmosphere that draws so many walkers to the quiet paths. Much of the blame for these intrusions rests with the parks administration and higher up in the junta, though. The Monroe County Parks office is located right next to Highland Park, just off South Avenue; yet there are no patrols, docents, or even proper signs regarding permitted use. I think we need to get rid of two groups: the rogue mountain bikers and other park abusers, on one hand; and the King-Doyle-Brooks generation of politicians, on the other. Enough of budget cuts and looking the other way on a range of violations.
Next time: I rediscover the Lake Champlain Valley, north to south.