Days 12-20: Baltimore to Virginia

Since our last long blog post we’ve left the southern reaches of Pennsylvania, traversed Maryland and Washington DC, and arrived in the northern reaches of Virginia. The terrain and the culture are getting much more southern.

Crossing the Mason-Dixon Line.

With regards to the terrain, there are far fewer pine trees and more incredibly verdant deciduous forests. Some parts of Maryland almost seemed tropical, with ferns growing out of gaps in stone walls, and strange giant fruit littering the ground alongside fallen black walnut fruit and copious quantities of acorns. The insects are also getting a lot larger. Amy just noticed a very imposing spider with a body the size of a nickel (total size about the size of a poker chip) in the laundry room at the campground where I’m writing this blog post.

The temperature is also rising, although this may be due to a temporary heat wave more than the latitude. When we finish the day Amy and I are usually caked with sweat and salt. This makes us very exciting to our friends’ dogs. Our bikes carry about 1.80 liters of water each, so we haven’t yet run out of water. Usually if the day is hot we’ll run into a 7-11 or gas station periodically to get a cold soda. On one particularly warm day we purchased an entire bag of ice and filled up all our water bottles with it, using the remainder in the bag as a giant cold compress.

The culture is a bit more difficult to describe; there are more sweetened drinks, especially tea, on sale in convenience stores; we’ve eaten some barbecue. There are different accents, and people seem more polite, and at the same time, a bit more difficult to parse than the people we’re used to interacting with. Earlier today we were loitering outside a convenience store and a shopper told us that the clerk had asked us to move our bikes. No explanation as to why was given. Were were breaking some sort of moral code? Being an eyesore? Did we look suspicious? Why didn’t the clerk come out and tell us himself? I get the feeling that different cultural mechanics may be at work here.

Amy’s interpretation of this event.

The past week or so we’ve been mostly staying with friends, and our camping has been to a minimum.

Our first meeting with a familiar face was with Al, my father’s mentor and thesis advisor.

Al with one member of his aviary.

The last time that I saw Al was when he was visiting my family circa 2003, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he hasn’t aged a day since then! After a delicious lunch he took us back to his house and we saw his beautiful collection of birds. One of his oldest parrots, Zoltan, used to perch on my mother’s shoulder while she held me as an infant. Zoltan is still alive and well – I’ve always been impressed by the longevity of parrots.

Our friends Steve and Tatiana were next on our route. Tatiana went to university with Amy and I in 2006, and we both remember her very well from that time. Since then we’ve seen her and her husband a few times, most recently at our wedding a month ago (it’s hard to believe it’s been a month – it feels at the same time like more and less time than that has passed). They purchased a row house in the Canton district of Baltimore, and have a real plan for retrofitting it.

Back ally in Canton at sunrise.

I was really impressed how they seemed to have a *plan* for their long term life together. I only wish we had as much of a sense of certainty as they seem to. Steve and Tati are excited about craft beer and we sampled a few at a local bar. The most memorable one for me was a grapefruit radler (the German equivalent of a shandy), from Austria. I was reminded of our bike trip along the Danube in 2015, which was in many was the genesis of this trip. Tati, Amy and I also visited the AVAM, a museum of outsider and other experimental art. Both evenings were spent playing board games together.

Our next stop after Baltimore was to visit Mary and Doug. They used to live in Egypt in the 2000s and were very close to my parents. My brother and their youngest were inseparable rascals as five year-olds. They live in a house on the very northern edge of suburban DC, yet still within ready reach of the metro. I felt very much at home staying with them; we spent two great evenings drinking wine on their porch reminiscing about old times. In the interim day we commuted with Doug into Washington DC and took care of a few shopping errands (replacing a worn apple power cord and trying on sunglasses).

While we were in the city we also saw the new Smithsonian museum; the Museum of African American History and Culture. Like all Smithsonian it would have taken a few days to explore all the exhibits. After visiting the cafeteria for lunch (cornbread-stuffed trout is delicious!) we walked through the history section of the museum. Seeing the artifacts of slavery, particularly an actual auction block where human beings were separated from their families and sold, had a very profound emotional effect on me; which I haven’t felt since seeing the shattered bullet-ridden bones of civil war soldiers at the Mutter museum in Philadelphia. There is something about seeing the artifacts for me that makes history real. Most of the museum visitors were African American, and I kept thinking how they must remember this history, especially the more recent chapters: the civil rights movement and ongoing racism and prejudice. This is still very recent history; their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents likely were touched by this historical struggle making it not just national history, but family history for them. As for me.. well I’m somewhat of a new American – my parents are Canadian (as am I), and I was raised in Egypt, immigrating (if you will) to this country as an adult. How much of this history is mine? Can history every be owned or pinned on anyone anyway?

Our next stop was to visit our college friend John. He lives in a up-and-coming neighborhood on the far eastern side of the DC, sharing a house with two roommates. There was still lots of street culture in the area around where he was living, with raucous block parties and someone cutting up some giant salvaged container in the middle of the night. We passed by the site of a drive-by-shooting, which was being marked similarly to cyclist memorials in Brooklyn, with a shrine. There were quite a few mourners and we stopped for a moment to reflect with them on the life of the person who had died (she was a bystander with three young children). This was right outside a giant new REI. John and his friends were very hospitable. We watched Casablanca, along with an episode of the new Star Wars rebels cartoon, and spoke at length about the military. The military was a big part of the lives of all three members of the household. Two of them work at the pentagon (apparently there are no stairs in the pentagon, only ramps, and there is a cafe in the central courtyard). John himself finished a four-year tour of duty with the Marines recently and is currently working towards a degree in Russian studies.

Glamor shot of Amy’s bike at the Capitol.

After two nights with John, we continued onwards on the mount Vernon bike path, which heads into Virginia out of the city. Biking down that path was some of the most pleasant cycling I’ve ever experienced. For those readers who live in the Boston area and have driven down route 2A through Concord, etc during a beautiful time of the year, this was like that, only sized for a bicycle, with excellently spaced curves, stone walls and bridges over streams and swamps, and small trees providing shade.

Amy’s sketchbook page from day 18.

The path itself extended for 20 miles. I think I understand now why road cyclists enjoy moving through the French countryside at 30 miles per hour.

After a night of camping we made a small detour out to Haymarket, Virginia, to visit our friends Suzanne and Chris. The last time we saw them was at their wedding last year. They recently purchased a beautiful house in a suburban area. Both of their families are from Fairfax county VA (counties are like towns in Massachusetts). We went to a local pumpkin market with an immense variety of pumpkins (warty, smooth, apple-colored-and-shaped, large, small, cannonball, pale blue, and perfectly white), and had a very enjoyable dinner and evening discussing their lives and future plans. We were both impressed with how well decorated their house was; with matching rooms, real furniture, a finished basement! It was amazing!

During the past week it’s been overwhelmingly strange and wonderful to be able to peer into so many lives in such a short time. The next month we should be mostly on our own again, just us and the road, motels, campgrounds, and the occasional Warmshowers host. I’m going to miss the feeling of knocking on a unfamiliar door somewhere and seeing an old friend answer it.

Until next time!


4 Replies to “Days 12-20: Baltimore to Virginia”

  1. Jim, Amy,
    It’s wonderful to hear from/see/read you out there. Back here at Ranch 133, yesterday Besim said how wonderful you were. He stopped by to rejuvenate my smoke/gas alarm and we made a date for the installation of new kitchen floor tiles. And a curtain shower rod. I know this is incredibly interesting (not), but I thought maybe you needed a bit of grounding.

    Of course I am envious of your travels. Loved the expression “copious quantities of acorns.” What kind of large blue bird was that at Al’s feet?Amy: I particularly liked the topsy-turvy blue house. . . . It will be interesting to see how your recently married friends are doing a year hence. With or without matching furniture.

    Smiley and I send huggles and cuddles (you may have had to see late night TV for the reference); it came from a 5-year-old golf champion.

    1. The blue bird was a large species of pigeon (that seemed almost as large as a small turkey). It made this really deep hooting noise whenever a person stepped into its enclosure.

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