The Georgetown Pike, once a buffalo run and now a narrow highway snaking through the exclusive northwest corner of Fairfax County, offers a commuter arresting beauty and danger.
The genteel, aristocratic splendor of the Virginia countryside includes, on the Pike, twice-a-day logjams of traffic, car-crushing trees that stand inches from the asphalt and white picket fences occasionally decorated with shredded chrome stripping and side-view mirrors from cars that could have used the shoulders the Pike doesn't have.
The Pike - Virginia Rte. 193 - is bucolic and sometimes bloody and it cannot be changed. Those who loved the road four years ago had it declared a "scenic by-way," which means the Pike cannot be radically improved no matter how bad the traffic gets.
A 16-mile-long, two-lane highway used by some of affluent Fairfax County's most affluent commuters, the Pike is a symbol of the conflicts born of suburban growth. The road evokes love and hate.
Elizabeth Cook, who lives besides the Pike and writes books about it, said, "Those who have bees here treasure the beauty of this road and the countryside."
F. Channing Smith, who lives near the Pike and as a fire chief chases accidents on it, said, "If you don't pay attention to the Pike, you are in a tree. When I get an emergency call off the Pike, I get a feeling . . . I'm going to go down and pick people up with a shovel."
The Pike passes pastures with thoroughbred horses and 18th-century stone houses. In some of the pastures, the horses and sweet spring grass have been replaced by clusters of large, two-story, $100,000 homes - subdivisions.
That word, "subdivisions," when spoken by those who love the Pike, like Elizabeth Cook, has a foul, evil meaning. The word, even when referring to the luxurious homes built near the Pike, is often and with the same disturbed sneer that the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy used when the castigated "communism."
In still other pastures near the Pike there are bulldozers and dirt mounds and signs announcing the coming of more subdivisions.
Yet the Pike cannot grow; the subdivision builders cannot desecrate the Pike. After years of fighting off proposals to turn the Pike into a fourlane road, the Great Falls Citizens Association persuaded the state to declare the road Virginia's first scenic byway.
What the Pike lovers have preserved is a road that in certain contorted sections look like a tested ribbon. Back in the 19th century, the Pike was a rough, steep trail, full of pot-holes, stumps and mud. Western pioneers had a saying for a road like the Pike: "That road's not passable, not even jackassable."
The Pike's been paved since then, but that's about the extent of major road improvements. The road has steep curves that are banked in such a way as to invite a car into nearby trees. Some massive trees that stand as close as six inches to the highway are scarred and gouged from years of destroying automobile fenders. In most places the Pike has no shoulder on either side. An automobile in trouble has no where to go but into trees or the deep ditches that the line much of the highway.
Donald Opsted, a retired executive for the 3-M Company, has lived beside the Pike for 13 years in a house built in the late 1700's. Every year, he says, the traffic gets heavier. "About six times a year I go out to my fence (that borders the Pike) and pick up bits and pieces of cars."
The Pike is not the most accident-ridden highway in Virginia, although the number of accidents on the road is far higher than the state average, nor is it the deadliest highway in Virginia, although eight people have been killed on the road in the last four years. Yet, police, politicians, communters and people who live on the Pike say the road is dangerous and traffic gets worse every year.
At rush hour, back-ups are often eight miles long and creep at 15 miles an hour. Firefighters dread the Pike at rush hour because they often are unable to break out of traffic. Police are sympathetic to motorists in accidents on the Pike. This month, Officer Forrest Root of the McLean District substation did not ticket a driver who pulled out in front of an oncoming car at the intersection of Swinks Mill Road and the Pike. It's a bad intersection," Root said. "The traffic here is so bad, I don't even come near here if I can avoid it."
Phil Nadeau, who's owned the Langley American service station on the Pike for 25 years, used to spend most of his time out of the road in his wrecker, picking up twisted cars. "It was just too dangerous . . . Out on the Pike those people come flying over the hills and you've had it."
The Pike cannot grow, but the corner of Fairfax County it serves, the Great Falls area that traditionally has been the land of farmers and the very rich, is expected to nearly double in population in the next five years. According to county figures, housing will increase by 74 percent in five years, bringing the total number of homes to nearly 7,000, the population to about 24,000 and adding about 8,000 cars to the Pike every day.
Traffic on the Pike would not be so bad, claim the people who've fought to preserve it, if it were not for those commuters from Loudoun County and Reston and Herndon. The Pike provides the most direct route to Washington for fany of these commuters and, although congested, is faster then another nearby road Rte. 7, with its traffic lights and bottleneck at Tysons Corner.
People who treasure the Pike, who love to get out on the road at dawn in a Mercedes and watch the flashes of sunlight through trees as they attack curves with rack-and-pinion steering, often mention "parallel lanes" as their hope for the future. The Federal Aviation Administration is considering construction of parallel lanes to the federally owned Dulles access highway, which now is open only to airport traffic. Such lanes would drain off much of the congestion created by Reston-area communters, Pike lovers claim.
There is doubt that a commuter, given the choice between driving on a four-lane that passes through industrial park and driving on an astheitically pleasing road like the Pike, will stay off the Pike. David Chamberlin, who has commuted in a car pool for two years on the Pike between Waterford in Loudoun County and Washington, said the only thing that will chase him off the road is more congestion. If the parallel lanes take traffic off the Pike, Chamberlin plans to keep driving on it.
The point, some cynics say, is that traffic on the Pike is not going to go away. And besides, these cynics say, the new people who move into developments alongside the Pike are going to clutter up the road, anyhow.
The Great Falls Fire Department is the hangout for many of these cynics, and fire chief Smith is the leader. Smith, who has lived near the Pike for 22 of his 43 years, works days as a mailman in Great Falls. He crosses the Pike more than 20 times a day, he courses the "environmentalists or whatever you want to call them" who have made it impossible for the Pike to change.
Out on the Pike, Smith drives and looks in disgust at preserved trees he considers omens of the inevitable accident and death. At Walker Road and the Pike, the citizens association has fought for and won the preservation of two giant oaks. The trees stand near the Pike and block the eastward vision of drivers on Walker Road who want to turn onto the road.
"See those two old raggedy trees there," says Smith as he drives by in his mail-delivering car. "What's so pretty about those trees that they're worth somebody's life?"
Supervisor John P. Shacochis, a Republican from the Dranesville District through which the Pike runs, says he is totally sympathy with Smith and other who are concerned about safety. Shacochis says he also is totally in sympathy with the people who managed to insure that the Pike will not be turned into a four-lane.
"Politically, it is an absolutely nowin situation for me," Shacochis says.