free travel advice

While walking at the harbor, it’s best to avoid large groups of people wearing matching shirts. One is never quite sure what these people are doing, but whatever it is can’t be good. Particularly insidious are the seemingly disparate groups whose members are all wearing plain white t-shirts. No identifying marks indicates a sure sign of criminal activity, or possibly a cult.
Insider tip: Avoid at all costs.

While walking at the harbor, it’s best to avoid the urban pirate ship. Individuals paid to dress up like pirates gambol on the ship’s deck in the midst of a gaggle of confused tourists. Why did I allow my family to badger me into paying $20 per person for this nonsense, thinks that one morose guy on the port side. Other tourists walking around the harbor spot the ship and excitedly take photos. The guy who drives the weird boat that scoops up trash from the harbor looks bored and/or disappointed with his life as he waits for the ‘pirate ship’ to circle around, thus freeing his vessel from temporary bondage. Potential for heckling from the ‘pirates’ is suspected to be high.
Insider tip: Walk fast in the opposite direction.

While walking at the harbor, watch out for tourists riding bicycles, most of whom appear to have not ridden a bicycle since their training wheels were mistakenly removed at age 6. If one finds oneself in the path of one of these hazards, stay calm. While it appears that the bicycle is on a collision course with your personage, anecdotal evidence suggests that these people do have some semblance of control over their vehicles. It’s likely that, at the last second, they will veer off into the path of some less-suspecting pedestrian.
Insider tip: Get your own bike and challenge these villains to a bike jousting match.

disordered chronology of movement

I.

Failed recollections to begin with. Slow-creeping toward habit. A giant round metal head. Sudden velocity. Sudden inertia. Pavement merges with gravel. The emergence of a tentative consciousness, neither hard nor pebbly. Vexation of unidentified raptors. Vultures soar over open sore in ground. A blast. Winged assassins. New commonness of thrashers in the street. Feet to pedals. The river like a swollen artery choked with plaque. Ungroundedness. Slow mounting keen of a train not far off. Dream rivulets running off a dry and calloused cerebellum. The importance of a second floor. Eye contact with strangers. Avoid building awareness of a presence. A body imagined close, a body far off yet close, a body buried in dry soil, a body husking a soul. A dipping line, looming and drawing back, tangled in the hanging moss of a halting lifetime.

II.

The exultant dismissal of everything. A hitching-up of trouser legs above this rising level of foreign liquidity. A spreading out tempered by a wish to gather in. Weathering. Rusty rooftop with greenery. The futile accomplishment of deletion. Southern hospitality. Sensory overload. Sensory deprivation. Every atom split to populate a neverending shell game run by con artists connotating the building blocks of life. It’s so casual is what it feels like. An unseemly seeming accidental existence. And yet people fly planes. Against near-white skies. This is a reason not to listen to all the best songs in a row. This is the reason time means nothing. Look out, the fuse is lit. See how it sputters, this heat seen and heard, racing on its journey to a black-powder shattered shack. Every early morning blink of a first-opened eye, this fuse is lit. And wetted fingertips flutter to pinch it out quick.

III.

Bird on a wire, sing your song, lift your wing to the world. Swoop down and over this set of fleet footprints filled in long ago. Expectations of nothing can never be unfulfilled. It’s a something-nothing to believe in, at least. An anti-ideal to carry stuck beneath an idealist’s forever-sweating armpit. Relish the freedom of solitude in public places. Deny detours diverting detritus. Pick it up, handle it, determine meaning and value, discard when done. Don’t look back but for inspiration. Forward motion fuels freedom. Reminders come free.

seaside

At times I can go back to St Ives more completely than I can this morning. I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there.

Now if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence?

—Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”

I stood in the grass, breathing in stories of stunted pitch pines. The house, grey clapboard weathered in sea air, loomed behind me. I remember walking on zigzagged boardwalks over brackish marsh. Jigsaw puzzles in yellow afternoon light, pouring across the floor like liquid pollen of no real substance. I still hold this yellow light. The stretch and scrape of the screen door spring as it opens, the loud slam as it shuts. Riding bikes down sand-strewn streets. Comic books and chewing gum. Beach grass swaying in salty breezes. The rising dunes in purple evening light.

late rain world

The world was late today. I don’t know. I was late. But I wasn’t expecting the world to also be late. I had hoped for a leisurely ride in on mi bicicleta. Instead there were cars everywhere. An automotive horror show. Maybe it was the rain. Rain slows the world to a crawl. Like slow motion, creeping and crawling. Not me, though. I was pedaling quite rapidly, in fact. Bike commuting reminds me I am alive. Otherwise I might think I was a walking corpse. Or a dancing one. I’m skipping a meeting this morning. I don’t care. It empowers me. Robert Walser would skip it. Walser wouldn’t still be here seven years later, though. Walser wouldn’t have made it seven months. Seven weeks, maybe. More likely seven days. He’d be in his attic room writing his soul out on shreds of borrowed paper with a stolen pen. Oh, where is the rain crow. He migrated long ago. Now who will tell us when it is about to rain. I felt the cold rain on my face and knew I was alive. No more alive than last month or last week or yesterday, but alive nonetheless. 2013 dreams have been vivid so far. It’s like there is an arthouse revival series going on in my dream life. I’m liking it. There’s nothing else to report, I’m afraid. Raining, check. Biking, check. Reading Walser, check. No more rain crow, check. Not a corpse, check. Alive, check.

city biking: where fun meets frustration

© S. D. Stewart

Early self-portrait of the author with his first 10-speed.
Note: Film developed poorly by the author at the time in his school’s darkroom.

On the ride to work yesterday I ran into an acquaintance. We live in adjacent neighborhoods so I see him from time to time on my commute. I believe we first met years ago while I was volunteering at the bike collective. This morning we rode through the streets toward downtown, chatting and getting caught up, talking about our respective neighborhoods and dogs and the heat and how when dogs are hot they like to lie flat on the cool kitchen tile. We complained about the city’s well-intentioned but sometimes ineffective attempts at bike improvements. Case in point: the mini traffic circles on Guilford. What a failure they have been. Before they were even implemented I questioned their value. The circles replaced two four-way stop intersections on a section of road with light automotive traffic, with the idea being that cyclists shouldn’t have to stop at these low-traffic stop signs because it needlessly slows us down. Of course no cyclist ever came to a complete stop at them before, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. But the idea with the traffic circle is that cyclists can just merge into the circle and continue merrily on their way. Sounds good so far, right? The only problem is that this is Baltimore and when you take a stop sign away, unless you replace it with a traffic signal or, say, a brick wall, the typical driver response is to then accelerate through the intersection as fast as possible without yielding to anyone. At least before, in theory, everyone had to come to a stop before proceeding through the intersection. Now there are just these wimpy Yield signs before the circles. “Yield” being a term largely absent from the lexicon of the average Baltimore driver. The other problem with circles is that they are only useful if you can see all oncoming traffic as you approach; if the coast looks clear, you don’t need to slow down quite as much and you can pass safely through the circle. This doesn’t work on city blocks stacked with rowhouses. You can’t see if traffic is coming until you are literally paused at the intersection. That’s why there were stop signs before! What good is a circle if you still have to get to the intesection before you can tell if traffic is coming??

To recap: what used to be two relatively safe intersections for cyclists to pass through with a minimal pause have now been “improved” to be two potential death traps requiring a complete stop to avoid being broadsided by motorists barreling down the cross streets. Thanks, city planners! As my friend joked this morning, that type of thing might work in Portland, Oregon where the concept of the considerate motorist is not yet a fossilized archetype, but this is Baltimore. It’s like the Wild West. No one follows traffic rules here. People routinely ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers on the street while doing wheelies (it’s actually quite impressive; here’s one video of about a thousand on YouTube [side note: watching those videos always makes me love Baltimore while simultaneously wanting to flee from it]).

While I am ranting, there is another problem on this stretch of road that was supposed to be corrected during this phase of “bike improvements.” Without getting into too many of the technical details of this particular section of the road, there was another cross street that previously did not have a stop sign. When approaching this mostly blind intersection, cyclists had to be extremely careful crossing through. While typically a low traffic cross street, it does get some use and particularly from city buses. As part of the bike improvements to this street, they installed a stop sign for the cross street. I was overjoyed until I saw that they had just tacked it onto an existing pole, not at the top of the pole where people can see it, but underneath TWO other signs!! Approaching motorists cannot see this sign because there is parking on that side of the street all the way up to the intersection, so the front parked car obscures the stop sign, which is only about 4 feet (1.2 meters) off the ground. This morning as I approached the intersection I watched a city bus blow right through the stop sign. This is a daily occurrence.

Finally, don’t even get me started on the dedicated bike lane they began feverishly constructing at the beginning of the year, only to mysteriously abandon work on several weeks later just when the project was nearly done. Long stretches of the lane remain riddled with ditches, effectively rendering it useless and forcing riders out into traffic on a road that used to be the safest one on this popular south-north commuter route.

As we rolled into downtown, my friend and I parted ways. I continued on my way to work, mulling over our conversation about some of the joys and pitfalls of cycling in the city. In my opinion, the best way to improve biking conditions in a city is to get more people out riding on the streets. That has happened exponentially in my time here. When I first arrived, riding in the city was still kind of a freakish activity, unless you were a bike messenger. Now there are hundreds of cyclists on the road during peak commuting hours. This is what will make it easier. Unfortunately to get this quantity of people on the road, a certain percentage of them need to be convinced that it’s already started to get safer and easier. That is where the city planning comes in to play. More bike lanes and bike racks increase convenience and safety. So I still applaud the city for what it’s done so far. I just wish the planners would put a little more thought into how they do things (note: if you’re going to half-assedly implement something, please just don’t do it at all…we’ll be fine, reallly), and whether what they’re planning is going to work right here, in Baltimore. Because it’s not just any city…it’s the home of Space Poe!

maine

On the outskirts of town, we stop at a used bookstore & antique shop. I pick up a reissue of Black Sun and Em Ell finds me an old Western shirt with snaps down the front. Twenty minutes later as we pull into our place for the week, I hear the first hermit thrushes. That night I crack open the book and read Abbey’s words in the first paragraph: “He hears the flutelike song, cool as silver, of a hermit thrush.” Fiction mirrors life, every single time. If it’s good and true, that is.

Maine’s natural beauty, both rugged and fine, bowled me over. I came as a pilgrim, seeking solace from the noisy, angry city streets, and I left a zealot, prepared to spread the gospel. Maybe better to keep it to myself, I thought later, though, don’t want to spoil a good thing anymore than it’s already been spoiled, which is surprisingly very little, as evidenced by views such as this:

We explored by boat, by foot, by bike, by kayak, and again by foot. I saw and/or heard 62 species of birds (several of them were lifers), a little lower than my expectations, but considering I did very little dedicated birding, not bad by a long shot. We climbed in the mountains, topping out somewhere around 1160 feet. We kayaked with the loons and listened to their haunting song. This particular loon seemed unimpressed with us:

The one day I went out by myself specifically to go birding was cool and rainy. I woke at 6 AM to the sound of steady rain and almost decided not to go. I lay back down in bed, but I just kept thinking about how I am only in this place for one more day. So I went. At my first stop, deep in the park on the western side of the island, I found myself surrounded by ravens scronking their unearthly calls in the trees. I’d hear sounds like churning helicopter blades, and look up to see another raven flapping its wings, off to unknown places. I then found myself slightly off-track due to a confusing turn in the trail. So I returned to the car and drove on twisting gravel roads to the place I was looking for. I’d planned out this excursion using a birding guide to Mount Desert Island. This first place ended up a bust, though. There I was deep in the forest, and all I could find was a robin and some mourning doves. I can find those birds in my backyard any day of the week!  But they don’t get to see this:

A curious thing about birding that you learn early on is that the most beautiful isolated places in the world are not necessarily the birdiest places. In fact, they are often not very birdy at all. Birders often find themselves hanging around water treatment plants, landfills, parking lots, and disgusting ponds behind shopping centers. Birds don’t care what a place looks like, per se, as song as their needs are met. On this particular day in Maine, I was experiencing this phenomenon.  It’s hard to be upset at a lack of birds, though, when there is so much else to look at, such as this White Admiral butterfly.

I left the forest and headed to the western coast, where I hiked in to some land preserved by the Nature Conservancy. This was a tract of towering white cedars, red spruce, and balsam firs that were untouched by the great fire of 1947. The trail, gnarled with massive tree roots, wound a circuitous route to the beach. When it opened up out of the forest, I found singing warblers, most very high in the trees. Busy woodpeckers worked the lower trunks. A winter wren trilled its bubbling song. I only lingered for a little while, though, as I’d already been out for several hours.

Later that day we explored the Wonderland and Ship Harbor trails in the southwestern section of the park. It was quite birdy there, and we saw a bald eagle land off-shore on some exposed rocks where a group of gulls was roosting. The gulls were none too pleased with the eagle and started dive-bombing it.  I forgot the camera in the car during these hikes so I don’t have any visuals.  But here is where we hiked to the very next morning:

After climbing mountains that last day, we returned to home base. I needed to reflect and absorb, as I felt the end of this time nearing and my state of mind already shifting. Near our place, at the bottom of a long cascading series of wooden steps lies a rocky beach. I go there, close my eyes and hear the tide wash in and recede. I open my eyes and see that large smooth stone on the beach as my soul, washed as it has been by the saltwater tonic of this place. I want to distill the salt-laced air, the fragrant pine boughs, the views of aching beauty, the hermit thrush’s song–take it all and fill a tiny bottle to carry with me and open to breathe in as needed. But the grains of my recollections will instead likely drift away over time in the stale winds of the day-to-day. Perhaps, though, if I concentrate hard enough, I can keep some of the uniqueness of what I saw cloistered deep within my mind, where nothing from the outside can ever destroy it.

minutiae

I wrote a post last night but it was way too introspective to publicize on here.  Seeing as much of what I write here is probably way too introspective, it must have been pretty bad, huh?  Yes, yes it was.  So what has been going on?  Well, I went away for a few days to the beach.  Did some birding over there, but nothing extraordinary.  The mist on Saturday morning worked against us.  Birds were present but it was too foggy to see many of them.  Next day was clear, but birds were on the inaccessible side of the pond, and we had no scope. That’s on the list to get.  On Sunday, I saw my first of year Barn Swallow, flying over the ocean of all places.  Best shot of the trip was probably that of an osprey perched in a tree limb leaning out over a pond, clutching a dead fish in its talon. It was a majestic sight, and in my opinion much more impressive than, say, a Bald Eagle holding some scrap it just stole from a Turkey Vulture.  Many Pine Warblers were present in the pines (natch) but it was still early for most passerine migrants. A few other warblers are being reported elsewhere in Maryland (Louisiana Waterthrush, Palm, Yellow).  In a few weeks things will be in full swing!

We planted the garden last week.  The mesclun mix came up yesterday, but nothing else has poked through yet.  The sprawling multiflora rose (aka “rambling rose”) has been targeted for removal due to its invasive nature.  I hope to replace it with a native shrub, probably one with berries that birds like to eat.

It’s taking me three days to write this entry…

Updates: some radishes and lettuce up now in the garden.  I put out the hummingbird feeder this morning.  Crabapple tree out back is in full flower (white), and the cherry tree out front has shed all of its flowers…pink petals now scatter the yard.  Weather has been in the low 90s (!) past couple of days.  Not good for sleeping.

At work, I sneak away for a few minutes in the afternoon and listen to the house finches sing as I walk around the harbor. One of them has staked out his territory on the Coast Guard vessel and sings his heart out from the very top of the ship each day.  This is all I can do to maintain a few tendrils of sanity.

Another cyclist was killed by a car, this time in the county on a road I’ve ridden often.  The usual “road rights” argument rages as a family grieves another senseless death.

I am weary, and my dreams, when I remember them, horrify me.

if dante had worked here, there would be another circle of hell in the inferno

Today is meeting day at work.  Tuesday is always meeting day.  In my lexicon, meeting day is known as the Inferno.  We have an all-staff meeting, and then after only a 30-minute reprieve (Purgatorio), my section has its weekly meeting.  These section meetings are excruciating and often stretch their weedy tendrils into the lunch hour, so that near the end everyone has been stricken blind by the gnawing hunger in their bellies, and they begin to hallucinate that there are even more items to discuss on the agenda.  Nine times out of ten there is absolutely nothing on the agenda that relates directly to my work and so the torture is particularly poignant for me.  The boss man spews his oily drivel and we all flop around in it.  We drink down his bitter poison and smile through our gag reflexes, even as our insides melt away.  Then I go back to my desk and stare hollow-eyed at the computer until the end of the day.

On many of these days, the only moments I truly feel alive are those I spend biking to work.  Attention to my surroundings is crucial, as traffic is unpredictable and hazards abound.  At work, at my desk, my senses dull to a blunted finish.  I sit for hours, an empty husk, with glazed eyes and blank mind.  At the end of the day, I struggle to shake it off for the ride home.

Every day they dump new blazing coals upon us, and the greedy flames consume another chunk of our dignity.  As the fat sizzles, so do our ideals.

P.S.  Someone just told me that the staff meeting has been moved to Thursday.  Perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel after all!

mixed messages

Fact: it is illegal to ride your bike on the sidewalk here.

Fact: people have been issued tickets for this offense.

Fact: it is illegal here for a cyclist not to stop at a stop sign or red light.

Fact: the other day I was riding home from work and saw a police officer directing traffic up ahead at a light that I usually run. So I opted to pause and wait for it to change. However, a young woman riding her bike on the sidewalk in the same direction that I was riding reached the intersection and was waved through it by the cop!

Not only did the cop see her riding on the sidewalk and did nothing about it, but she also waved her through a red light!

What is the point of these so-called laws then when they are not enforced and, in fact, violation of them is even encouraged by law enforcement officers?

Fact: Idaho has a law on the books that says a cyclist is permitted to roll through a red light or stop sign provided the intersection is clear.

All states and cities should have this law. It is ridiculous that a cyclist should have to wait at a light or stop sign if they can pass safely through the intersection. One of the many benefits of cycling in the city is that you can get places quicker than a car. Part of this involves running some red lights and stop signs. And I don’t buy the argument of drivers who say cyclists don’t deserve to be on the roads because they are generally irresponsible (e.g. run stop lights). I see drivers run lights and stop signs ALL THE TIME. But a 2-tjavascript:void(0)on hunk of steel moving through an intersection at 30 mph is WAY more dangerous than a 160 lb person on a 20 lb bike moving at 5 mph. If a cyclist wants to assume the personal risk, then they should be allowed to. But a driver is piloting a deadly weapon capable of killing a person and as such, should be subject to much stricter traffic laws.

This great animated video explains how the Idaho rolling stop law works.

the fog that turns people inside out

As I sit here staring out at the foggy woods, interrupted only by my compulsions to chase away the squirrels leaping from the house onto the bird feeder, I once again contemplate my general feelings of dissatisfaction. Yesterday, walking home from the park in the cool drizzle, I paused on the bridge over the interstate. I look down at this abomination: two strips of hot pavement running north and south, hardened abscesses cut into the Earth, supporting two-ton blocks of steel racing here and there, the blocks full of people (of all things!) going everywhere and nowhere all at once. I suppress the bile rising from my gut and walk on. I pass by the stream and stare at the trash floating in the water, the grotesquely shredded plastic bags hanging in the trees. I curse my sensitivity, my thin skin like a gossamer membrane through which I have no control over what passes in or out. But by turning away from the ugliness, by trying to dull the extremes and desperately seek out a middle ground (the Middle Way!), I only make myself sicker. The only times I come close to traveling on the middle path are while running or riding my bicycle for long distances. In motion, my mind stands still. When my body rests, my mind races without end. But I cannot stay in constant motion, so I continue in my struggle to find the right state of mind.

“Develop a state of mind like the earth, Rahula. For on the earth people throw clean and unclean things, dung and urine, spittle, pus, blood, and the earth is not troubled or repelled or disgusted. And as you grow like the earth no contacts with pleasant or unpleasant will lay hold of your mind or stick to it.

Similarly you should develop a state of mind like water, for people throw all manner of clean and unclean things into water and it is not troubled or repelled or disgusted. And similarly with fire, which burns all things, clean and unclean, and with air, which blows upon them all, and with space, which is nowhere established.

Develop the state of mind of friendliness, Rahula, for, as you do so, ill-will will grow less; and of compassion, for thus vexation will grow less; and of joy, for thus aversion will grow less; and of equanimity, for thus repugnance will grow less.”

~from the Majjhima Nikaya, translated by A.L. Basham

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