BEING ON THE FAST track in Washington surely has its rewards, but this is a city that can also be kind to those on the slow track -- provided one knows the Indian trails.
Not Massachusetts Avenue or Indian Head Highway, but actual footpaths through forest and meadow where people don't gad along four abreast (the sociopathic disease of Washington walkers during lunch hour) or cook up deals side-by-side. On the real footpaths of Washington, one goes Indian file.
There are miles of these paths. And after years of using them mainly for secluded picnics, I find that they actually go somewhere; that not an inconsiderable bit of the city is accessible by foot, with no hard pavement, no traffic lights, no traffic -- well, I passed a turtle the other morning.
One is not a complete fool to trod a turtle's path. Our carapaceous friend is a sucker for ferns, jack-in-the- pulpit, May apples and those knee-high carpets spread out under huge deciduous trees that -- unlike buildings on K Street -- don't all look the same.
Being on a byway completely off the gritty streets and high-angle avenues of Pierre L'Enfant's master plan doesn't necessarily mean you lose that much precious time while going from Point A to Point B.
For example, one evening ment upper Connecticut Avenue. I live one mile from the White House. At 5:30, most people probably would have taken a car. But I hate unparking and parking it during normal hours, much less rush hour.
I could have walked down Columbia Road to 18th Street and caught the bus that goes out Connecticut Avenue, but I've always had to wait for it. Besides, it's crowded during rush hour. And being shrouded by those dirty, scratched bus windows reminds me of hieroglyphics from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I don't take cabs. No one ever felt healthier after getting out of a cab.
So I crossed Columbia Road, went down quiet Ontario Road to shady Adams Mill Road, fought a little traffic to cross Beach Drive and walked north on the path past the National Zoo (asphalt, unfortunately). Just after the path crosses Rock Creek, I cut up a dirt trail, crossed Klingle Road, passed the "Do Not Enter" sign (banning cars only) and walked up a dirt and gravel road past the Klingle Mansion (always a good place for birds). At the spot where the dirt road turns down to Williamsburg Lane, I went straight, walked five strides on a wide dirt pathway, and then cut up the hill onto my favorite Indian trail.
How do I know the Indians made it? I don't. But this path is a religious experience. And since God doesn't make paths, I credit the Indians. It would be hard to credit the race of men that made K Street with anything so existential. This path humps three primordial hills with such perfect contour that it resets the camber of your feet. You feel yourself being tuned by the good earth.
Spar a few branches, skip a few roots, then downhill I joined the path along Melvin Hazen Park creek -- a good, damp path with leaves underneath dating from the time of Harry S Truman, the last walker in the White House -- and made the steep climb to Connecticut Avenue, a switchback artfully done and maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.
To be frank, after the half-hour walk I didn't care what time it was. I made a 10-minute walk up crowded Connecticut Avenue and was fashionably late for my meeting.
MY REGULAR commute is to the library, where I try to squeeze money out of books by doing research. For years I worked at the Martin Luther King Library at Ninth and G streets NW. It's a hard walk up and back, and now that nudism is out along 14th Street, there is nothing scenic about the walk.
Then I discovered I could get a borrower's card at the Georgetown University Library for a fee. I could take a bus that goes door to door, with only one transfer. Or I could walk along the brick sidewalks that all seem to lead to Georgetown, but I find nothing quaint about digging my heels into brick.
Instead I walk down to the employes' entrance to the National Zoo on Adams
Mill Road and down the service road. At the break in the small stone fence on the side of the road, I climb down a well-rooted hill onto the bridle path on the east side of Rock Creek and continue south under Calvert Street. Before I get to the National Park Service police stable, I cut down to an almost imperceptible path along Rock Creek (the side away from the overcrowded parkway). Pushing branches away, I go under Connecticut Avenue along a sandy clearing. (Sometimes I find Salvadorans from my neighborhood sitting in the humid brush by the fast- flowing and muddy creek, arguably the spot in the city that should seem most like home to them.)
I elbow my way through scrub along the narrow trail and back onto the bridle path. A winter storm has bridged the creek with a large -- and still living -- tree, so the creek can be crossed. The pavement from an old car ford still goes under the bridge that carries the parkway traffic. Usually I keep my feet dry and trot across the parkway, cross the creek on the footbridge and follow the path along the west side of the creek under Massachusetts Avenue and up into Dumbarton Oaks Park, which usually has something in bloom.
I stay close to the small creek and follow a path that pricks you with stickers in the summer, lures you off the trail with stands of bamboo, and questions you with a dark glen of rhododendrons. Do I really town?
Forty-three minutes from my apartment, I'm at 2001 Wisconsin Ave. With a 15- minute walk down a relatively quiet street, I'm at the library.
These are my usual commutes; they hardly exhaust the possibilities. At Wisconsin Avenue and Whitehaven Parkway, where the path comes up from Dumbarton Oaks Park, I can catch another trail that goes into Glover-Archbold Park. In 30 minutes I can be at the corner of New Mexico and Garfield, 30 minutes more at Van Ness and Nebraska. I could walk a few blocks east, hook up with Melvin Hazen Park and continue back home.
Or I can head south and connect with the C&O meters from the trail at Wisconsin Avenue and White that back up the Potomac River to the Appalachian Trail where I'd eventually hit an intersection and face a momentous decision: left to the Great Smoky Mountains or right to Maine?
But there is an advantage to walking in the woods, even if it's just a mile from the White House. It's a form of renewal. The lack of hydrocarbon feedback, the absence of red, green and amber commands, the dearth of messages commercial and otherwise seems to cleanse the synapses. You get pretty sure of yourself . . . like a turtle.