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Urban Exploration

Every weekend, joggers, cyclists, power walks and other exercise enthusiasts hit the trails in and around DC to ‘get in some miles’. The region has some fantastic multi-purpose trails that are great for recreational exercise. Personally, though, when I go out to get a few miles in, especially on the weekend, I love riding in the city.

(from Flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

My rides are usually between 15 and 25 miles and I try to mix up the routes that I take. I like riding in the city because its the perfect way to see unique things. I’ve never really made much of an attempt to document my rides, but last Saturday, after I got home, I decided to write down, to the best of my memory, everything that I saw.

The ride started near my house near the Ballston Metro and traversed at about 14 neighborhoods (depending on what you interpret as a neighborhood). My pace was pretty casual since I wasn't really in a rush to be anywhere, nor am I in training to be another Lance Armstrong.

(click to enlarge the route map)

I pulled my bike out of the garage around high noon. The temperature was about 85 degree and the sun was shining. It felt hot but relatively pleasant compared to the 100 plus degree days DC has been having this summer. Ballston was tranquil. A few people milled around outside of the mall, and a few others sat waiting for buses near the Metro station. A few businesses were open, but some were closed for the weekend. Ballston still has progress to make before it becomes more than a 'business hours' kind of neighborhood. I rode down North Stuart Street, past the Metro entrance and turned right onto Fairfax Drive, mirroring the Orange Line as I headed toward DC.

As I made my way into Clarendon, I rode past Northside Social, where the outside patio was bustling with DC's brunch crowd. By nightfall, that patio would be packed with well-dressed wine drinkers. I crossed over onto Clarendon Blvd. which was quiet, though I knew in a few hours the sidewalks would be packed with people waiting to get into the Clarendon Ballroom, Spider Kelly's and Liberty Tavern. I passed Clarendon Center, in its final stage of construction. I rode down the hill and past Whole Foods and Starbucks, where young and parents pushed strollers as they shopped.

Court House
When I got to North 15th Street I dismounted from my bike and walked it through the weekly flea market. The Arlington County office building sat quiet. A few people walked around Court House Plaza and joggers were all over. Workers were putting the finishing touches on Fireworks Pizza, which was set to open soon - the newest addition to Arlington's restaurant/bar scene.

Iwo Jima
As I approached the downhill stretch from Court House toward the Potomac River, I checked my brakes and started the descent. I coasted all the way down 15th Street, which turned into 14th Street and then into Fairfax Drive. I cut over toward the Iwo Jima park. I passed rows and rows of white tombstones as I made my way up toward the entrance to Alrington National Cemetery. A charter bus from Georgia was unloading a group of middle-aged passengers and straight ahead I could see the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

The National Mall
A noticeable cross-wind was blowing as I crossed Memorial Bridge and into the District. Near the Lincoln Memorial, Marine One hovered overhead. Tourists stood memorized, staring into the sky and pointing. Park police were yelling at motorists to keep moving. Once through the thick crowd I pedaled toward the Washington Monument. The Mall is certainly not route for anyone in a hurry to get someplace. No matter how much I used my bell, few people seemed to comprehend what I wanted. Once past 15th Street I hopped on Jefferson Drive where the Smithsonian museums lined the right side for the street. I rode all the way to 4th before looping back around on Madison Drive.

I turned right on 15th Street and began heading north. Washington DC's economy may be heavily concentrated in government, but the Central Business District feels very similar to most other cities. On weekends the streets are empty, few professionals can be found, although plenty of tourists traveling between the hotels and the sites can be spotted.

Logan Circle
Once through the downtown core I turned right onto P Street. The street was bustling with people. On the left, twenty-somethings sat inside the Starbucks. On the right, delicious scents from the grill in front of Whole Foods wafted through the air. I approached the circle itself, which was surprisingly easy to make my way around; at least compared to Dupont Circle, immediately to the west. I thought about gentrification in DC. Logan Circle is frequently mentioned as the place that used to be a drug-infested hellhole but has really cleaned up its act. At least on a Saturday afternoon, it felt like a nice place to be.

I cut over to Q Street so I could take advantage of the bike lanes as I continued east. Shaw leaves me with mixed feelings. It's a historic neighborhood with a pretty good-looking housing stock. For everything the neighborhood has been through, the colorful rowhouses look like they're in pretty solid shape. Shaw might be described as up-and-coming. It certainly isn't a 'favored' neighborhood just yet. But it's interesting to look at what's happening in Logan Circle and wonder if the rest of Shaw just needs more time.

Continuing along Q, I hung a left on 1st Street. A block up, on R Street, lies Big Bear Cafe. I stopped for an iced-coffee. The inside of the cafe was packed, so I grabbed a seat on a bench outside. Next to me, a young woman loudly gushed to her friend about unemployment, and how badly she hopes she can get a job at a non-profit in DC. Across the street, a group of about 10 guys were playing basketball on a outdoor court. On both side of Big Bear were rowhouses. In front of one, a man was out mowing the lawn with a push mower. At another, a family sat out on the front porch chatting. Once I finished my coffee, I grabbed my bike and headed west on R Street.

Adams Morgan
Once I hit 18th Street I turned right and started riding up the hill. Most of the bars were open, although they sat pretty much empty. I knew in a few hours those bars would be packed to the brim, and people would be spilling out onto the narrow sidewalks along 18th. I passed Tryst - through the open front window I could see it was crowded with a diverse group of people. Adams Morgan is a neighborhood known for its nightlife; but I don't think it's an uninteresting place to be during the day either.

Woodley Park
I turned left onto Calvert and continued west. I rode over the Rock Creek and entered the 'preferred' section of the city. On my right I saw groups of brunch-goers inside Open City. Up and down Connecticut were tourists coming or going from the National Zoo. I continued on Calvert until I hit Cleveland Avenue. As I slowly made my way up the seemingly never-ending hill, it was amazing to see gigantic mansions lining the street. A few homes were completely gated off, ensuring that no one from the outside could ever get in. These homes were merely a mile from the somewhat rough and seedy streets of Adams Morgan, and yet, it felt like they were in a different universe.

Cleveland Park
Cleveland Avenue eventually dead-ended into 34th Street. I continued heading north, with the National Cathedral towering over my left shoulder. I turned left onto Woodley Road. Through the giant gate, I could see high-school aged kids playing soccer near the cathedral. I couldn't help but contrast this with the pickup basketball game I saw in Bloomingdale. Again, these events were happening in the same city, at the same time, and merely a few miles away; but they felt worlds apart. By the time I made it over to Wisconsin Avenue, I felt exhausted, but also relieved that the next big section of my ride would be downhill.

Glover Park
I quickly made my way down Wisconsin, maneuvering around the many buses that travel the street. Relatively inaccessible by Metro, I felt like Glover Park is a section of the city that a lot of people probably never see. It feels like a neighborhood that's always benefited from an affluent constituency. I rode south on Wisconsin, past the boutique shops, the nice restaurants and the Whole Foods.

The crowds of pedestrians continued to thicken along Wisconsin until I arrived at M Street. Cars jammed the street, moving slowly, if at all. People touting shopping bags packed onto the sidewalk. I rode along M Street toward the Key Bridge. I passed Georgetown Cupcake, with its infamous line. I saw tourists taking photos in front of the line, apparently a site in itself. I maneuvered past buses and taxis and SUVs until I was finally on the Key Bridge and headed back toward Virginia.

Back home...
I made my way into Rosslyn, another 'business district', which felt empty on Saturday afternoon. I made my way up the hill, stopping a few times for water and to catch my breath. As I followed the same path back toward Ballston that I'd rode earlier, I contemplated the things I saw, and thought about writing this post. I thought about the things I saw during my ride that other DC residents may have never seen. I realized that one of the things that makes city-living so great is the diversity of neighborhoods; the unique character and charm that each one exhibits. I thought about the neighborhoods that I didn't bike through, and how my ride only scratched the surface of places to see. I wondered if other people have ever taken their bike and just ridden through the city, and if not, what's stopping them?


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