Rock Creek Park, 90 years old this month, is maybe my favorite place in Washington. I walk in it. I run in it. I drive through and I have even, would you believe, waded in the creek itself -- once on purpose, once after being thrown head-first off my bike. I love the place. I thnk, though, it may kill me.
It is certain to kill someone, that's for sure -- and I'm not referring to muggers. Someday soon, a bicyclist will ram into a pedestrian -- a runner or a walker -- and simply splatter him or her. That no one has been killed so far is nothing more than a mircale. People have been killed in New York this way. It will happen here.
It will happen because the National Park Service has crowded everything into one little area. Runners use the walking path and walkers use the walking path and dogs use the path and bikers use the path, too. Most of the bikers are what you might call pros. They are the ones with helmets on their heads and packs over the back of their bikes. If you asked them who they were, they would probably respond, "serious biker." They yell "left" when they are on your left or "bike coming up." In this way you have a fighting chance to get out of the way.
This is not the case with many other bikers, though. A whole lot of them just come breezing around the bends, down the hills, doing an easy 25 to 35 miles per hour, never thinking that someone else might be on the path. The best of them blow on their whistles, warning you not that they are coming, but that you had better get out of their way. They think they own the damned path and it is only a matter of time until they kill someone.
I have been brushed by them. I have come so close to being hit that my shirt has been brushed and I could feel the bike's wheels rubbing against me. Not too long ago, I got caught in the middle of a group of bikers -- the urban version of the Wild Bunch. There were three or four of them and they took up the whole path. They came off a hill, going very fast and there was simply no getting away from them. I jumped one way and then another finally a third, missing each one by what seemed like inches. The best you can say for the experience is that it was good exercise.
I probably have the average city dweller's passionate love for urban parks. I consider them to be minor miracles, wondering sometimes how they came about -- not who signed what bill to create them, but how the real estate interests in each city managed, somehow, to lose choice land to nothing more than nothing. I can only conclude that man's need for green space is at least as great as his need for a real estate killing. For a long time, I thought Central Park in New York the greatest miracle of all. Now, though, I have changed my allegiance to Rock Creek Park.
Rock Creek Park, unlike most other parks, is unknowable. I have been living in Washington a good while now, and I still get lost in Rock Creek Park. I find myself going ways I never intended, heading in the wrong direction, being taken up hills and then in circles and not knowing anymore just what direction I am traveling in. I have seen the stables in the park once or twice, but have not been able to find them since. Sometimes I see views that I cannot get back to and often I go into the park in one area and come out in quite another area, finding a part of the city I never thought existed.
Unlike Central Park, which is a rectangle, neat and very geometric, Rock Creek Park looks like it was dropped from a traffic helcopter and just splattered all over the place. I keep running into tentacles of the park in places it really has no business being. Sometimes I'll be driving along and there it will be -- Rock Creek Park. I'll veer into it, drive a little while, and then find myself out of it. The park just disappears.
The other day, the park went very quiet. It was Saturday night, about 7 p.m. , and cops were stationed at the entrances to the park; south of Sheraton Washington Hotel where Ronald Reagan was going to speak. When the motorcade approached, the police cut the traffic and soon in the park itself there were few cars and then, almost mysteriously, no cars. Silence. You could hear the creek itself and the birds, and for a runner, alone in the silence, it was wonderful. Soon the motorcade passed, itself strangely quiet, and then once again -- silence. Soon, the police let the traffic back into the park and in a moment the first car appeared and then another and then the traffic resumed. For a moment, though, Rock Creek Park, was almost heaven. tI love the place.
I just hope it doesn't kill me.