A Trail of Rage
Now standing about eight feet away, our adversary methodically shifts the spray from Bill's face to mine, alternating the blasts for about 20 seconds before sprinting off.
We are bewildered more than anything. Bill and I yell unprintables at the fleeing coward and walk over to the creek to rinse the pepper spray from our faces. I don't feel injured (though after the adrenaline recedes, I realize I have a bruised rib and a jammed thumb from rolling off the bike). We pedal slowly to the cop station to file an assault report.
Can't We Get Along? This is my first physical encounter in 30 years of use of dozens of trail systems in the area: Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal towpath, the Billy Goat trail along the Potomac River, the Cabin John trail, the multi-use trails mentioned above. My activities span the gamut, from mountain biking, jogging and dog walking to taking photographs and strolling to relieve a hangover.
I have had words with other trail users -- spawned by my illegal mountain biking or by someone's failure to control an aggressive dog -- but I rarely feared that any of those verbal snipes would escalate to a real fight. And I never imagined that, out there along the woodsy paths with the chirping birds and docile deer, were trail users so hostile or imbalanced that they spent their Saturdays armed with pepper spray, looking for trouble.
The police who take our report are flabbergasted, too, saying such outbursts without a robbery (or more sinister) motive are unheard of. U.S. Park Police in Rock Creek issue "no more than three of four" citations a year for illegal mountain biking, said Sgt. Scott Fear, the force's public information officer. "We rarely get calls about it; it is not a big issue." Park Police give verbal warnings to most trail riders because, Fear says, "most people don't know they're not supposed to be doing it."
The National Park Service bars mountain bikes from unpaved trails in Rock Creek Park "for the protection of park resources and to reduce conflict among visitors," Park Service spokesman Gerry Gaumer explained.
Fear noted that police in Rock Creek Park get many more calls about unleashed dogs, and they do reprimand people for violating the leash law. "That is a big problem -- much bigger than mountain biking," he said. Still, police issue "only a handful of tickets" per year for such breaches.
Many trails in the Washington area are multi-use, including the C&O Canal towpath: all non-motorized users are welcome and dogs must be leashed. The park does mandate that cyclists dismount when in the presence of groups of pedestrians, but the policy is rarely observed and almost never enforced. The paved Mount Vernon trail in Virginia, also non-motorized, has a stay-to-the-right policy and a 15-mph speed limit. In-line skaters, with their wide arm swings, pose the biggest problem there, said Audrey Calhoun, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which oversees the trail.
But Calhoun, like most local trail managers, said serious conflicts on the paths are extremely rare. Most users of local trails understand that the land is public. By my observation, they do what they can to peacefully share the space.
Still, trail use has risen dramatically over the past 20 years, and that means more potential for conflict. Authorities do not keep statistics on the number of fights that stem directly from trail-use disputes, but local park managers acknowledge the potential.
"I spent a Saturday on the C&O Canal towpath pulling my granddaughter out of the way of bikers," said Naomi Manders, volunteer coordinator for natural surface trails for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "Weekends are just too busy on that trail," she added.
Bill Justice, chief of interpretation for the C&O National Historical Park, noted a "tremendous increase in use" over past 10 years. Visitation to that park, which runs from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md., peaked at more than 4 million visitors in 2000 and has dropped only slightly since then. "Any time you have that volume, there is a potential for conflict -- between fishermen and birders, joggers and bikers, all kinds of groups." But Justice said he could not recall one incident of a physical fight erupting on a trail.
Share the Road
Scott Scudamore, president of the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts (MORE), a 350-member mountain bike club for the Washington area, said shared-use trails are a necessity. "There is only so much real estate," he said. "If we gave every [activity] a separate trail, there simply wouldn't be enough to go around."
At the same time, Scudamore does not advocate what I did -- i.e., pedaling on trails that are closed to mountain biking. "We really try to discourage people from poaching. When [mountain bikers] poach, we lose credibility." He's right and I know it, but I meekly remind myself that I only do this on occasion and only in Rock Creek Park.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company