Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Made it to Lake Needwood!

When I first started biking, I contemplated the map of Rock Creek Park with amazement, watching the trail stretch miles out of the city to a place called Lake Needwood.

It seemed an impossible distance, a good twenty miles away on a winding ribbon of asphalt. One would need all day to get there – maybe two! The fantastical white spires of the Mormon Temple just beyond the Beltway was my idea of a long ride.

But you keep biking and the distances seem smaller and smaller. Twenty miles goes from an epic journey to something you do after a couple beers on an evening.

I did a century a few weeks ago, a 100-mile ride to the end of the WO&D Trail, a destination that once seemed as far away as Shangri-La. On Sunday, I set out for another place I hadn’t been to: Lake Needwood.

With just a sideways glance at the new Klingle Trail (I’ll do that another day), I enjoyed the widened Rock Creek trail by the National Zoo before encountering the rutted surface of Beach Drive. Then I just kept going north, past the Mormons and deep into suburban Maryland.

I imagined a beer garden. Or at least a place to get a hot dog. Yet, after a couple of hours of biking through the woods, there was neither. Instead, a beautiful lake dotted with bright kayaks. But I had made it to the end, accomplishing what once seemed impossible.

Needing food (a common theme of these bike journeys), Yelp alerted me that there was a Big Greek Cafe in Rockville. I love Big Greek!

My Strava route for this section is amusing, showing figure eights in a parking lot as I search for the restaurant, which was on other side of the shopping plaza.

After lunch, I decided to take a different route back to the city. Google Maps led me down this long, circular road with speed bumps next to a huge empty lot. Ahead, an unfamiliar tower of condos.

remains of the White Flint Mall

Then it hit me: this was the White Flint Mall. Or, rather, the remains of it, for the entire structure has been demolished save for Lord and Taylor. People don’t go to malls, anymore.

And they certainly don’t go to Rockville, for the entire area has been rebranded as North Bethesda, a tony district of new condos, restaurants and a Whole Foods.

Also included, the latest hipster amenity: a protected bike lane, running by  yoga studios and kombucha joints.

The protected bike lane led me to the Bethesda Trolley Trail, which goes through backyards all the way to actual Bethesda. The trail is being widened around NIH, for the population of cyclists is ever-increasing in this traffic-choked region.

The trail (which is just a sidewalk near NIH) ends in a postcard-cute Bethesda neighborhood. Good signage led me to the Capital Crescent Trail, another rail trail and a nice downhill run back to DC.

50 miles done! What once seemed impossible now very much possible, even easy, new horizons opened up by one of man’s greatest inventions: the bike.

Exit Right: Lives of the Apostates

The lives of those who abandoned liberalism are examined in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Whittaker Chambers, James Turnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens see their political lives examined in this profile of apostates.

What makes a man switch parties? It’s not just a question of changing an affiliation but often means leaving your friends, family and profession behind. The personal is the political.

Whittaker Chambers was a Soviet spy who discovered the error in his ways, his life a hopeless tangle of Christian belief, suppressed sexuality and a devastating family history. Secrecy was an easy fit for him and he left his world of subterfuge only when realizing that his own life was in danger.

Daniel Oppenheimer makes the point that there’s rarely a “road to Damascus” moment in political conversions. Instead, it’s a slow change in beliefs, often accelerated by practical concerns.

For example, Ronald Reagan faced the end of his acting career following WWII. A Roosevelt Democrat, he found a new calling in touring General Electric plants and speaking to employees. GE executives treated him well, offering a fresh arena, a new stage for the man who longed for the spotlight. Did the Democratic Party leave him or did he discover a more receptive audience on the other side of the aisle?

The saddest case is Christopher Hitchens, whose life marks the sputtering end of the neoconservative movement. A natural contrarian, he railed against dictatorships for years. But liberals, embodied by the poll-testing Bill Clinton, never did anything about the evils in the world. When there was a chance to finally right a wrong, using American power, he took it, reverting to a view of imperial power that shaped his youth. The United States would civilize the world, like Britain once aspired to, a project that lies in ruins in the bloody sands of Iraq.

Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neoconservative movement, once said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” Neocons watched the Democratic Party move left. They stood still – losing friends, families and livelihoods in the often wrenching process of political change.

Today, we see a Republican Party that has been captured by a conman, casting aside Reaganite principles in favor of a small, mean, America First philosophy. As for the Democrats – what do they believe in? Is the party merely a vehicle for rewarding coastal elites?

In this era of political turmoil, millions of Americans are confronted with the agonizing choices that faced the men in Exit Right. Do you stay loyal to the old faith or do you turn apostate?

Road Trip: Gettysburg

Monument to Gouverneur Warren

This post has been sponsored by Enterprise CarShare.

There’s a McDonalds at the edge of the Gettysburg battlefield, visible from the high water mark of the Confederacy, where Pickett’s charge crashed against Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. The rebels got this far but none further, their invasion of the North coming to an end.

And, past the green fields, golden arches, a reminder that this momentous battle took place on some very familiar territory. It didn’t happen in history books, it happened across a Mid-Atlantic landscape of farms and towns that General Lee would recognize today.

The battlefield sprawls over a vast territory – hills, forests, corn fields, peach orchards – and is cut into pie slices by roads that converge upon the town of Gettysburg. Turnpikes drew the Confederates from the west and Federals from the east, pulled into a three-day slug fest of cannon and rifle.

It’s fitting that a road tour is the best way to experience Gettysburg. After visiting a very modern museum that puts the battle in its Civil War context, the auto tour takes you to the action, leading you in chronological order around the battlefield, from the first skirmishes on the edge of town to the bloody struggles for the high ground. The way is dotted with historic landmarks erected by the states to honor their sacred dead.

Being there gives you a three-dimensional perspective to the battle. Standing on Little Round Top, you can see, as Brigadier General Gouverneur Kemble Warren did, that this was the key spot that dominated that battlefield, a steep and virtually unassailable hill on the Union left flank. His prompt action in fortifying the hill saved the Union army from defeat.

The auto tour leads you back to the town of Gettysburg, roads radiating out from it like spokes on a wheel, returning you to an imperfect America, McDonalds and all, still striving to live up to the words of Lincoln:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 

America First, Then and Now

America first
Newspaper headline from the Great Crusade exhibit

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

– Karl Marx

If the America First mantra of Donald Trump sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The slogan was used by American isolationists to keep America neutral in the face of Nazi tyranny. But the theme, with its small and fearful sentiment, comes from an earlier war.

Woodrow Wilson invented the mantra in 1916, covering the country with America First posters in one of the first modern propaganda campaigns. He kept us out of war, he claimed at the time.

But America couldn’t deny its global responsibilities forever. It had to pick a side in the European conflict. When it did, Wilson needed a whole new propaganda campaign. This time, with the aim to mobilize a reluctant American public to enlist and fight the Hun.

Mass media such as posters, songs and shows drew upon the 1776 spirit, the myths of the American Revolution, to join a total war against the Kaiser. “Lafayette, we are here!” the cry went up, as millions of American soldiers went to save a Continent.

Relive this momentous era in The Great Crusade: World War I and the Legacy of the American Revolution, now on display at Anderson House, the beautiful home of the Cincinnati House on Embassy Row in Washington, DC. It’s a small exhibit – just a room – but looking at the America First headlines and the debates about this country’s role in the world – it feels incredibly timely, as if we’re repeating history that was settled a hundred years ago.

Anderson House ballroom
Ballroom at the Anderson House was designed for inaugural galas and diplomatic receptions

And when you’re done, explore the rest of Anderson House, a Florentine mansion just a couple blocks from Dupont Circle.  Built in 1905, this grand home belonged to Larz Anderson, a wealthy diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, an author and art collector. With its drawing rooms and galleries reminiscent of the salons of Europe, the house was designed to host inaugural balls and diplomatic receptions. Anderson House was to represent the USA to the rest of the world, standing as a confident expression of a country that repudiated the small and fearful philosophy of America First.

As Marx wrote, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. We’re living through the farce. But remnants of other eras remind us that we’ve had these debates before – and won them. America is not the fearful, closed realm of Donald Trump but the confident, open and generous country represented by diplomat Larz Anderson, his art collector wife Isabel, and their glorious house on Massachusetts Avenue.

Bikes are Happiness Machines: Profiled in Greater Greater Washington

I was recently profiled in Greater Greater Washington for my photography and social media work documenting bike culture in this area. There’s nothing I like more than wandering the city by bike (and drinking coffee), which comes across in the nicely-written article.

Usually, I’m the one doing the interviewing so it was different to be on the receiving end of the questions. Rachel and the folks at GGW did a great job cleaning up my answers and turning them into coherent responses. My interview is part of a series called Behind the Handlebars, which will be profiling the people of #BikeDC.

“Bikes are happiness machines.” When I said that, I was thinking of this article in Momentum on the mental health benefits of cycling. I’ve been out on a bike in all kinds of weather, from the polar vortex to punishing heat, and I’ve never had a bad moment.

Letter from Washington: Protest Fatigue

a smattering of Trump supporters

The weather has gotten warm, mild May days segueing into June humidity. People still come to Washington to protest, nearly every weekend, but with diminished fervor, everyone waiting to see what happens next in the unfolding story of collusion between Trump and his Russian masters.

A rare event occurred on Saturday – a demonstration in favor of the President, a small band of supporters from Virginia, kids mostly, holding signs and shouting on Pennsylvania Avenue.

You had to really look for them, hidden amid the Segways and selfie sticks of summer tourists that crowd the plaza. Only the presence of TV cameras hinted at the presence of the Trump group, a gaggle of photographers encircling the small protest. At its peak, the Make America Great Again crowd mustered 50 people from the red state across the river.

It was a mostly white crowd, but not entirely. What struck me, however, was how many high school kids and preteens there were, as if MAGA was a form of youthful rebellion, sticking it to teachers and authority figures.

There were counter-protesters, people who had come down early for the March for Truth. They stood a respectful distance away, for the most part not interested in mixing it up with the Trump folks, confident in the strength of their numbers. The one flare-up I witnessed was when a 14-year-old Trump girl began shouting “Build the Wall!” at Trump opponents. “You’re everything that’s wrong with this country!” one responded.

Still, the day lacked the raw tension of Inauguration Day, when you felt that violence was imminent (and it was). The reason is that the Trump people have disappeared from the streets. Nearly every weekend, a massive march has filled the broad avenues of the capital – Women’s March, Immigration Ban Protest, LGBT Makeout Session, The March for Science, Climate March – driving Trump supporters underground. The only time you ever see a Trump hat in DC is when it’s perched on the head of a red state sophomore touring the monuments with a school group.

The March for Truth

The March for Truth, which was not a march but merely a rally under the Washington Monument, had an exhausted quality to it. “Protest is the new brunch!” a speaker announced as the crowd emerged from the under the shade of the cherry blossom trees, as if reporting for duty.

The era of the mass protest is over. By filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of people for weekends in a row, the point has been made: we outnumber you.

Now, it’s up to the institutions. The men and women in the Congress and the courts who are entrusted to preserve our precious democracy. We wait for former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday. Our system of government was explicitly crafted by men like Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington to prevent the rule of a tyrant. We’ll see if our current leaders have a fraction of the courage that these great men displayed.

Lessons from a Biking Birthday Century

a cathedral of trees

I hate my birthday – it’s a reminder that I’m getting old. Rather than stewing in annual misery, I decided to do something about it. My birthday would be the perfect opportunity to bike a century (100 miles). A Birthday Century!

I’m a city cyclist. A typical ride for me is a Sunday jaunt around DC, with a requisite stop for coffee. Decidedly not a MAMIL (a middle-aged man in lycra), I don’t have clip-in pedals, bike shoes, a trip computer or any of the other accoutrements of the serious cyclist.

Instead, I have a ten-year old Specialized Sirrus that I call Bikey.

With little more planning than filling up a water bottle, I set off early on May 31. Destination: the end of the WO&D Trail in Purcellville.

A hundred miles provides a lot of time to think. Here’s what I learned along the way:

BikeDC is a Rolling Community

I like Best Buns. I cannot lie. With hours of biking ahead of me, I decided to fuel up with a massive pastry from this Shirlington bakery.

Rolling up after crossing the river from DC, I saw bikes and a couple of bike people that I recognized.

It was the Hump Day Coffee Club, a meetup of Northern Virginia cyclists. There are coffee clubs around the region, including a Friday Coffee Club that I occasionally attend at A Baked Joint. It’s a chance to meet other bike riders, swap notes about commuting routes and plan future rides.

I proudly told them of my plan to bike to the end of the WO&D, as if I was Magellan about to set out into the unknown. One of the coffee klatch casually tossed out that she had done the whole trail herself, on a whim, when she got a new road bike for her 60th birthday.

Suitably shamed/impressed, I set out from Shirlington, following Four Mile Run until it connected to the WO&D Trail. A long day of biking stretched ahead. Twenty miles later, as I biked through Reston, I heard a shout. It was one of the coffee club members, passing me, with a friendly hello.

As I rode my century, I tweeted and shared photos using #abirthdaycentury. In return, I received suggestions and encouragement from other #BikeDC cyclists on Twitter and Instagram. Though I might find myself in a dark wood, in the middle of my journey (like Dante), I never felt alone because of the BikeDC community. Instead, I felt like I was part of a small town on wheels, a rolling community of cyclists that exists on streets, trails and in cyberspace.

Eat, Eat, Eat

My plan was to get as far down the trail as possible without stopping. I knew that each time you stop, it’s harder to get back on. So, I kept going, the towns going by every few miles – Falls Church, Vienna, Reston, Herndon, Ashburn.

I reached Leesburg around noon. Eat here or keeping going to Purcellville? I had packed a single Clif bar so I ate that, before beginning a four mile ascent through Clark’s Gap and over the low range of green hills that I’d been watching since Reston.

Long climb to Purcellville

The elevation profile tells the story. Doesn’t seem a lot but it was enough to wipe me out. This was the hardest part of the ride, 45 miles in and a climb to the highest point on the trail on an empty stomach.

You really cannot eat enough on a long bike ride. During the day, I ate:

  • Massive muffin (Shirlington)
  • Clif bar (Leesburg)
  • Burger and fries (Purcellville)
  • Smoothie (Herndon)
  • Clif bar (Vienna)

But this was not enough. I could’ve fit in a whole other meal and not been satisfied.

Never(mind) the Weather

I felt sense a tremendous sense of accomplishment seeing the end of the trail and the iconic Purcellville train station, photos of which I had seen in the Instagram feeds of countless #BikeDC friends. Now I had joined them.

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55 miles done. I just needed to get back. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill, providing me the opportunity to enjoy a gorgeous ride through the woods back to Leesburg.

Then I went back through the towns I had passed earlier, like a film being rewinded. Leesburg, Ashburn, Herndon. Local biking legend Mr T in DC suggested on Twitter that I stop for a smoothie at Green Lizard Cycling so I did. It was delicious but I needed more food.

The day before, Northern Virginia had been hit by a line of severe weather, possibly including a tornado. More storms were expected. As I biked back, I noticed the puffy clouds gathering behind me, chasing me back to DC.

Rolling into Vienna (almost home!), the skies grew dark and I felt the first patter of rain. I decided to duck into Whole Foods as a thunderstorm swept the region. I bought some Clif bars and waited for the storm to pass. It was a big one, with hail in Reston (which I had just gone through).

Rain won’t kill you. But lightning will. You should respect the weather. After the rain was mostly done, I resumed my journey on a jet-black trail with steam rising off it.

Gear Matters

I was going to write that gear doesn’t matter. After all, I did a 105 miles on an outdated hybrid bike with an even more outdated human.

But gear does matter. Without padded bike shorts, I wouldn’t have been able to spend all day in the saddle. A bike jersey with a ventilating zipper kept me cool in the stuffy weather. Gloves enabled me to hold on to handlebars slick with rain.

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Riding back after the storm, my backside grew damp, as my wheels kicked up water and grit from the trail. Fenders! Why don’t I have fenders? And as much I love Bikey, a road bike or even a newer hybrid would’ve made the century faster and in more comfort.

Gear matters. Of course, you can bike without bike shorts, a jersey, gloves or, hell, even a water bottle but those basics make biking easier.

I took the Custis Trail back into DC, a roller coaster ride, going up and down overpasses all the way into the city. I was hungry, and moving, flying down the descents as the sun emerged over the Washington Monument.

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I wanted to get a picture in front of the White House but, of course, the Secret Service had it blocked off. I settled for a photo from behind the yellow tape. Welcome back to the security theater of Washington, DC.

105.1 miles in nine and a half hours, according to Strava. But numbers don’t tell the true story of a Birthday Century. It wasn’t the miles biked or the hours in the saddle that was important. Instead, like any journey, it’s the lessons learned along the way.

I Hate South of the Border

A post shared by Joe Flood (@joeflood) on

Ever wonder what America would look like if the South had won the Civil War?

It would look a lot like South of the Border, the kitschy roadside attraction at the North Carolina-South Carolina border. A beloved landmark on I-95 for some, it’s an abomination for others (like me), its towering sombrero tower filling me with horror as it emerges on the horizon.

If Gettysburg had gone a different way, all of America would look like this – tacky, cheap and vaguely racist.

Sherman led his March to the Sea through South Carolina, famously offering Savannah, the birthplace of secession, as a gift to President Lincoln. General Sherman believed not just in defeating Southern armies, but destroying the Southern way of life by burning plantations and freeing slaves.

He didn’t do enough. More than a century later, vestiges of the Confederacy and its animating principles linger in city squares and the hearts of Trump supporters.

I long for a new Sherman to raze South of the Border. Consider it the ultimate highway beautification project. Let this vomit of technicolor along the interstate be replaced, even if it’s just with a simple welcome center, a recognition that South Carolina is just like every other state in the union.

Does Anyone Make Real Shit Anymore?

metro trash
Once the envy of the nation, Metro is now a mess.

I ask, cause I’m not sure:
Do anybody make real shit anymore?

– Kanye West, Stronger

I put off getting a new iPhone as long as possible, waiting until the battery life was mere minutes and I carried a charger every time I left the house.

I knew replacing it would be an ordeal. Months earlier, I had gone to the Apple Store and asked about my options. It took an Apple genius 30 minutes and a complicated diagram to explain the new pricing plans.

Eventually, I upgraded, ordering an iPhone 7 through my carrier, AT&T. FedEx lost it. I called AT&T, who blocked the phone from the network. Then, of course the phone showed up. AT&T unblocked it and then, perversely, decided to block it again the next day, making my phone a shiny, non-operational brick. I tweeted in frustration:

@ATTCares responded. Their Twitter account says that they provide support. But they don’t, they just refer you to the website, to an endless customer service chat. On Friday, I went through a lengthy chat where I had to type in various technical data about my phone. They said they would unblock. And I went through the whole process again on Sunday. My phone still doesn’t work.

This isn’t an unusual story. American life these days largely consists of doing battle with broken things.

On Sunday, while I was trying to work all this out, I had to go downtown. Ten years ago, I would’ve taken Metro. I avoid the transit system now. During the week, Metro features breakdowns and beatings, while on the weekends, it barely runs it all.

Instead, I took Capital Bikeshare. I write about CaBi so much because it’s a system that actually works. Swipe your key, hop on a bike, and go.

Capital Bikeshare 2.0
Capital Bikeshare – the one thing that works in Washington.

Washington seems to be going backwards in terms of transportation, from heavy rail to bicycles and rickshaws. I fully expect a horse-sharing scheme to emerge within the next couple years.

At least I wasn’t on Amtrak #161, a Twitter saga that also unfolded on Sunday, passengers trapped on a train outside Washington for so long that they had time to order pizza. Their rescue was delayed for want of a stool so that they could climb from one train to another. Richest country in the world.

Romans didn’t just wake up one morning in the ruins of empire. Instead, it was a slow decline. Officials weren’t paid. Water from the aqueducts stopped flowing. Barbarians walked in, unopposed.

We could have a national train system that’s not dependent on a stool. DC could have a safe and efficient Metro (it once did). AT&T could fix problems for customers instead of sending them to chat-based hell.

It’s a choice. As Kanye, bard of our age, asks: Does anybody make real shit anymore?

We can’t cut our way out of crisis. If America is going to move to the next chapter, then it needs to invest in quality once again. We need to make real shit.

Letter from Washington: Macron!

Saturday morning soccer

I’ve been to France a couple of times. It was my first real overseas trip. While England was interesting (I studied abroad there), it didn’t feel alien in the way that Paris did because I could speak the language.

In France, however, I had the experience of being immersed in a culture where I didn’t understand a word of what was going on around me. It’s an experience that every American should have because it makes you appreciate that the world is larger and more complex than you can possibly comprehend.

Fortunately, I was with a friend who spoke French. It was a feeling of agreeable helplessness, of being unable to even order in restaurants without my buddy translating for me. I knew the words for please, thank you and butter. And what more do you need in France?

We did all the tourist things – Eiffel Tower, Louvre, lunch in a brasserie – and everyone was lovely, maybe because I didn’t understand the blur of French around me.

My proudest moment came on the train back to Brussels. Speeding across the French countryside at 150 mph, I got up from my seat and went to order coffee unassisted:

Un café s’il vous plaît

Hearing me speak, the woman in the cafe instantly switched to English. She said my American accent was charming. Charmingly bad, I imagine.

But my biggest memory of France didn’t even happen there. It was 1998 when France won the World Cup. I went to Lucky Bar, after playing soccer that morning. Les Bleus won! Dancing broke out in the dingy bar, men still wearing cleats tangoing across the floor.

Later, I met my French-speaking friend at Au Pied de Cochon, a legendary French cafe in Georgetown. Open all night, it was where you went for steak and frites after everything else closed. Inside the bar, patrons were waving a huge tricolor and singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And then everyone left, marching up the street to the French Embassy.

That’s what today feels like, with the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential Election. The French have done what we couldn’t – turn back to the destructive tide of populism.

To quote Churchill:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.