It's the usual morning mayhem. Coffee, jump in the shower, bundle our 2-year-old off to day care. But then the routine halts abruptly. My wife, Catherine, calls a taxi and we grab our backpacks and my fishing gear and soon we're motoring 10 minutes from our home in Takoma Park to the outskirts of Silver Spring. Amid the suburban lawns along Primrose Road, we spy a green band of unbroken forest and a sign reading simply: Park Service Boundary.
We pay the taxi driver, shoulder our packs, then happily step out of Maryland and onto the northernmost footpath entering D.C.'s Rock Creek National Park. Instantly, the heat of this code-red summer day drops 10 degrees amid the deep shade of red oaks and black locusts. The sound of cicadas and mourning doves mingle for a while with a nearby lawn mower, but soon a rich quietude prevails as we edge deeper into Rock Creek's generous 1,700-acre sanctuary.
We head south, following a narrow trail as a swallowtail butterfly floats overhead. Then comes the awesome streak of a white-speckled doe in full, bouncing sprint. The water of Rock Creek murmurs softly nearby as we pause before a colossal tulip poplar tree. Catherine and I measure the tree's girth with a team hug, but only one set of our fingertips touch, leaving room for an entire extra person. As old as America? Probably.
The plan for this day of delicious Friday truancy is simple: While the rest of Washington sits in prison, sucking down artificially conditioned air in downtown offices, we'll stroll eight leisurely, circuitous miles through the Creator's own natural air conditioning. From Silver Spring to Woodley Park, we'll hike nearly the full length of Rock Creek Park, sheltered the whole way by preserved forest land, following trails maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. We'll emerge from the trees only at the far-off National Zoo, then walk 300 more steps to a bed-and-breakfast nearly overlooking the park off Connecticut Avenue. Then, before breakfast the next morning, I'll reenter the park and fish the leafy creek banks south of the zoo in search of a six-pound largemouth bass like the one my friend Zeljko caught here just six weeks before. Yes, six pounds. A bass. In Rock Creek.
Ours is an unlikely urban journey full of solitude and things that are wild, through a landscape a stone's throw from the sizzling sidewalks of K Street yet a million miles away. What kind of civilization could have designed such an ingenious park so many years ago--and then ignore it so thoroughly, as most Washingtonians seem to?
We cross Rock Creek's shallow water atop the wooden Boundary Bridge, then pick up the Western Ridge Trail that snakes to the southeast. Soon we're explorers in a rolling spread of forest that's a favorite among Rock Creek rangers--that large, undisturbed area north of Bingham Drive and west of Beach Drive. There are no picnic areas here, no roads, no bike paths and no people . . . except us this morning. Fox prints lay lightly upon the footpath below titan chestnut oaks with their deeply ridged bark and saw-toothed leaves. Catherine displays her left hand, remarking how nice her wedding ring looks in the diffuse forest light. I smile, knowing wine and a dinner out have nothing on a summer walk through the woods for romantic enchantment.
Just north of Pinehurst Branch, the forest erupts in a sudden symphony of music. The source: at least five different species of migratory songbirds. We hear a wood thrush, an acadian flycatcher, a scarlet tanager. These are forest-interior dependent birds, meaning you won't hear them in your back yard. They can only inhabit large forested tracts buffered against cars and development. So they come to Rock Creek Park, deep inside the city limits, and sing their heads off. Catherine and I sit on our upturned backpacks and take in several movements of the magical performance.
We eventually wander off on a looping secondary trail, where, south of Bingham Drive, we come upon a forest clearing and, to our surprise, a barn full of horses. It's the secluded stables of the Park Service mounted police. Inside, amid hay and scattered dung and pinewood stalls, officer Jack Guentz tells us that he has the best job in the world. Every day on his faithful steed Lonnegan he makes two big loops through the northern part of the park we've just hiked. Many times, he says--not occasionally, not sometimes but many times--he goes all day without seeing another human being. Appalled by his great fortune, I ask Guentz if there's anything about his job he doesn't like. He's stumped, standing mum in his tall black riding boots. "No," he finally says. "There's not one thing I dislike about my job."
It's hot out here away from the woods so I douse my head with a water hose that's filling up the horses' drinking trough. We reenter the trees, following another secondary trail, and 20 minutes to the south we come upon another big surprise: a nicely preserved, 138-year-old Civil War fort. Fort DeRussy was one of 68 garrisons protecting the Union capital, armed with bristling 100-pounder parrot rifles. But today it's almost completely forgotten, reclaimed entirely by forest cover with large trees growing inside and outside its tall earthen parapets. I'm a Civil War nut, and I'd never even heard of this place, all lonely and sort of spooky-looking in the green fastness of Rock Creek's interior.
Just past the fort we pause for lunch, spreading a spacious blanket atop crunchy leaves and below an arching persimmon tree. I take off my shoes and close my eyes after we eat while Catherine reads a book called "Being Peace."
Back on the trail, we flirt with heat exhaustion at the only stoplight of our hike. It's at Military Road, where four lanes of sun-blasted asphalt contribute to an urban heat index of 107 degrees and send us running for renewed forest cover the instant the light turns green. At the nearby Rock Creek Nature Center, Catherine calls a taxi and precedes me to our B&B, eager to phone friends watching our toddler that evening.
I continue down the lovely Western Ridge Trail, where gently falling slopes on either side offer views that half convince me I'm in West Virginia foothills. But the trail's losing altitude, and I feel myself gradually descending toward the jungle of downtown Washington. Near the historic stone building called Pierce Mill, a trail sign points west, saying: "Netherlands Embassy, .5 miles."
Just before reaching the zoo I'm forced to hike along Beach Drive, where I see one of the day's show-stoppers: an eight-point buck standing in the middle of Rock Creek regally lapping water while, to my immediate left, commuters form a snake of brake lights in the maddening Friday-afternoon crawl home.
It's 5 o'clock and I'm pleasantly worn out as I follow the shady Valley Trail through the zoo, past bald eagles and California sea lions. Then comes the sensory shock of car-clogged Connecticut Avenue, with accompanying bus shelters, apartment buildings and Samuel Adams parasols outside the Zoo Bar across the street. It's a welcome-home card, giant size. In seconds I reach the 90-year-old Kalorama Guest House B&B on Cathedral Avenue. Carole, the innkeeper, promptly informs me that, no, she's never had a guest walk to this inn through the woods from Maryland before.
Famished, Catherine and I go restaurant hunting near the Woodley Park Metro station. The urban setting, to be honest, is not a letdown but actually kind of a thrill after what we've done all day. What a miracle that such a journey is even possible! I've not been on one of those trips out west where you cross-country ski all day and a French chef waits for you at a different yurt each night. But where else can you walk through eight miles of Appalachian-class greenery and then sit, at the end of the day, like us, at a sushi bar eating misu soup and broiled eel with ice-cold Kirin beer?
Like a good fisherman I'm up at 6 the next morning, tiptoeing down the B&B stairs, then back through the zoo, where sleepy zookeepers stretch and rub their eyes and dispense food amid roaring lions. For the next several hours I cast spinners into the beautiful mist-covered oxbow pools of Rock Creek south of the zoo. But the fish aren't biting for the obvious reason that they can see me plain as day. The water is shallow and remarkably clear thanks to the summer-long drought and lack of silt-producing urban runoff. I can see the fish, too, of course, causing me near-tearful frustration as I repeatedly drop bait on the foreheads of two different three-pound bass.
Empty-handed, I emerge from under the Connecticut Avenue bridge around 10, greeted by the giant, pouting Marilyn Monroe mural above Sherry's Liquor on Calvert Street. Catherine and I have a leisurely brunch, then catch the Red Line home to Takoma Park around midday. Our backpacks and my disassembled fishing rod lay piled at our feet as the chime goes "bing bong" and the recorded voice says, "Doors closing."
We were never more than a few short miles from our home the whole time. Yet as we depart, leg muscles sore, we have a deep and satisfying sense of having really, really gone somewhere far away and special beyond imagining.
Maps of Rock Creek Park and its trails are available from the park's Nature Center (202-426-6829, open 9 to 5 Wednesday-Sunday at 5200 Glover Rd., near Military Road), or online at www.nps.gov/rocr.
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