Friday, January 28, 2011

Stop, Look Around...

All the walking I've been doing lately on account of the weather has made me pay even closer attention to my surroundings than I do while cycling. Everything looks different in the snow - elegant and magical. The thin patch of woods near my house has turned into a majestic white forest worthy of a 19th century Scandinavian painting. It's as if the sky was squeezed straight out of a tube of cerulean blue and the austere vertical strokes of the trees were applied with a pallet knife. It's not my style, but I am certain this scene has been painted many times. It's archetypal.

Upon emerging from the pristine wonderland, I came face to face with this. Literally: It was located at face level, and in my willingness to submerge myself so fully in my daydream, I nearly walked into it.

The city is using excavators to facilitate snow removal, as the plows alone are not enough. The effect is interesting, making the neighbourhood look like an igloo construction zone. In order to clear the center of the roads, the excavator dumps more and more snow to the sides - creating monstrous, densely packed snowbanks that line the streets like the walls of some arctic city-state.

Walking on the sidewalk is a surreal experience. You are essentially in a tunnel - with buildings on one side, igloo wall on the other. Along some stretches, the snowbanks are taller than the average human height, so as a pedestrian I can only see the sidewalk in front of me and not the road to the side of me.

Those "Do Not Enter" and "Except Bicycles" signs are for a one-way side street that has a bike lane going in the direction against traffic. For most of last winter the lane looked like this. How cute that I complained about it then: This year it's been swallowed up by the snow banks entirely.

It is not uncommon to encounter bicycles "buried alive." There were actually three separate bicycles inside this snowbank.

Less common is the sight of a bicycle being ridden - but it happens, especially on the heavily salted main roads. Note how the yellow crosswalk sign, its reflection in the puddle, and the golden light of the setting sun play off the colours in the cyclist's knitted hat - all of it especially noticeable against the white, snowy backdrop. Somehow, everything seems to be reminding me of a painting these days. Certainly this person and his hat deserve to be painted.

It's been over a month and a half now without the car. We signed up for zipcar through the Co-Habitant's work, but have not used it yet. And ironically, the blizzards are making it easier to do without: With the roads as bad as they are, we wouldn't have been traveling to any photoshoots up North anyway, and so we don't feel as if not having our car is keeping us from accomplishing anything. We'll get the car fixed as it gets closer to Spring. But for now, it's been remarkably easy to just forget about that thing and for us both to get around entirely on foot and bike. And with so many snow days, I am rediscovering walking - which I appreciate for making me stop, look around, and see my neighborhood in a new light.

33 comments:

  1. Lovely photos, Veloria. The snow really does improve the look of an urban landscape, though by the fifth or sixth day trapped in my house...

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  2. Gorgeous pictures. The dinosaur you almost ran into seems a kindly brontosaurus type to me. I have a hat very similar to the one the young man is wearing in your picture. I bought it from a street vendor in NYC. It is Very warm. My wife says I need to wear it at night when I am outside at the telescope but not out in public. I am happy to see the rider has no such reservations.
    You have a keen eye. It is always nice when I get the opportunity to see things in a new light especially if I am able to appreciate what I see.

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  3. I envy your ability to have puddles

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  4. Yeah, I've not been riding much either- the snow and a tweaked rotator cuff, are making me do a lot of walking and T-ing. Walking longer distances (from work to MIT or from MIT to home) has helped me burn off a little of my excess energy. The snowbanks are like jersey barriers in my neighborhood, and the snow in my yard is almost waist deep. Sigh.

    Someone at the Boston Bikes meeting last night was complaining about the snow in bike lanes, and I think that Nicole Freedman had a pretty interesting point- This is an unusual event- it's record snow, and honestly there's no place to put the snow if they plowed to the curb. It's a pain for walkers, it's a pain for drivers, it's a pain for bikers, and we just all need to slow down and deal with it. A good time to slow down and look around! ( and hope for some warm weather to melt it all off!

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  5. Erin - They salt the main roads like crazy here after plowing them. By contrast, when we lived in Northern NH, they would just sort of scrape the top layer off and maybe sprinkle sand. I remember there was always a thin, trampled-down layer of snow even on the major roads there.

    cycler - I agree about the "unusual event" part. While normally, I think the city could work a little on making bike lanes a priority, that does not apply this year, because the snow is just too crazy. Everyone is inconvenienced equally. Even the main roads are not always cleared well, and some people's cars are just not safe to drive in these conditions. Employers have been really good about creating work from home days, and everyone seems to be dealing with it admirably for a city where this much snow is unusual. I have no complaints!

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  6. Thank you for this post, Velouria. I, too, have done very little riding because of the seemingly-perpetual snow we've had here in NY. (Just yesterday, we had 20 inches.)

    When I was younger, I became totally unbearable when I couldn't or didn't ride for more than a couple of days. But when I started to notice things I wouldn't have otherwise, I didn't dislike being off my bike so much.

    Last year, when I was recovering from my surgery, I couldn't ride. But I could walk. During my strolls I noticed, for the first time, some beautiful old houses and waterfront scenes in my neighborhood. And it was during that time that I found your blog!

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  7. So here is a hypothetical question:

    How many minutes of walking to work does it take to justify riding a bike there every day, taking it down and up stairs, locking it up and so on?

    I did a little experiment and I am past my threshold by 5 minutes.

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  8. MDI - For me it's not just about how long it takes to walk somewhere, but how the walk feels. I would be okay walking 40 minutes if the walk is interesting. But even 20 minutes of a tedious walk past parking lots and strip-malls would be too much. I need interesting houses and store fronts to look at, and I get depressed on desolate streets with crappy architecture and no vegetation.

    Justine - I wonder whether Mercian could design a "winter bike"... the geometry of a Surly Pugsley, with some modest Vincitore-ish lugwork : ))

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  9. I was totally thinking how I never look around enough as well. This lastest snow storm to hit the east coast dropped enough snow that this is the first time I have not ridden my bike. Even in my neighborhood where I bought my house, I was walking around and noticing architecture and other notes that I have missed.
    Your photos look great, as usual. thanks.

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  10. I always appreciate the times I have to walk as well - just recently I took my wife's bike in to the shop to have the front rack installed, and the shop is about 2 miles from our apartment, so I had to walk back from there, and you just notice so much when you're moving that slowly. It was also a gorgeous day out, which was fortunate, since I had just put ASA 100 film in my camera... (that's where some of those Ektar shots I showed you came from).

    The inner East side of Portland is very industrial, and honestly a bit run down, which actually I kind of like - it's very interesting to look at a lot of it. There's rail tracks through, and though it's a bit run down, there are sidewalks everywhere on every street and the streets are small and low on traffic, so it's easy to walk. I love that Portland has very distinct neighborhoods that each are quite different, it makes exploring the city feel worthwhile and interesting. There is something new and interesting to find everywhere.

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  11. Portlandize, that sounds like my neighborhood. It's a mix of beautiful and ugly industrial decay, active light manufacturing complete with obligatory third wave of artist and hipster infiltration. One of my favorite things is hearing the train. It's not close or frequent enough to be annoying and it is beautiful. I don't feel particularly safe walking on some blocks, which is one reason I started biking.

    I can't ride my bike right now. There's just too much snow. I see people out there but I don't have the emotional fortitude to deal. It's insane.

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  12. @neighbourtease: one thing I really love about Portland, is there really is nowhere in the inner part of the city that I feel uncomfortable walking (though I am a relatively young male person, so that may have something to do with it). I've never felt in danger walking around the city (though I have had some awkward interactions with people - but just kind of oddly awkward, not threateningly awkward).

    We definitely rarely have the problem of not being able to ride a bike because of snow. I don't think we've had any snow accumulation at all this year so far, in the city. We've seen a couple of flurries, but nothing has stuck. Plenty of rain though.

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  13. neighbourtease- Do you live in DUMBO?

    One of my favorite things is hearing the train. It's not close or frequent enough to be annoying and it is beautiful.

    There are railroad tracks 2 short blocks from our house for the commuter rail. No stop, just the train passing through. It's just far enough away and infrequent enough to feel romantic. We hear a distant sound from our kitchen, and experience the "idea" of the train without the inconvenience of everything shaking every hour.

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  14. I forgot to mention, we also live near train tracks - there's kind of a gulch very near our apartments that both a freeway and train tracks run through (the train tracks were there much earlier, I'm assuming they put the freeway there because the right-of-way was already pretty much cleared). There's a retaining wall, so we don't really hear the freeway much (just kind of a quiet rushing sound, we can't hear it at all if our apartment windows are shut). But we can hear the trains when they blow the whistles. Kind of a similar situation, it's not loud enough or frequent enough to be annoying, so it's kind of nice to have :)

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  15. Ah the whistle! Who knows what mysterious, distant lands the train is headed to.

    ...Though in reality, I once rode the overnight train from Berlin to Salzburg and it was not nearly as poetic as I hoped. And neither was the 10 hour train ride from Northern NH to Washington DC!

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  16. Wow, I haven't seen snow like that since I was a kid! I remember making tunnels through the snow banks. If there was ever snow like that here in TN, I do believe that this town would just seize up and die.

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  17. Velouria, One has to wonder why you don't just sell your car to go completely car free?

    You can always rent a car for those times you need one or a trip you know.

    And yes, life is so much better ,richer, when you slow down to enjoy all that is around you that others miss always being in a hurry. :)

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  18. Walt: She had a recent post on exactly why they weren't getting rid of the car.

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  19. Walt - Well, the main reason is that we both feel that our car is uniquely suited for our needs (mainly in its off-road capacities and storage space), and we do use it frequently during periods when we travel on location. Renting a car every time also takes time, which is something we are always short on. Without my writing a full-page essay and sharing too much personal information, suffice to say that rental is just not a good system for us. Oh, and the resale value of the car is next to nothing, so selling it won't really help us out at all.

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  20. Velouria said...
    "Without my writing a full-page essay and sharing too much personal information, suffice to say that rental is just not a good system for us. Oh, and the resale value of the car is next to nothing, so selling it won't really help us out at all."

    Ok by me. :)) I would never expect you to justify your reasoning for keeping your car. Never.......

    In fact both of our vehicles are getting very old. However, they are well cared for so I will just keep them till they die and save the money. :)

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  21. Our car is 2004, which would be obscene to call "old," but the loss of resale value on modern cars is brutal. Of course that's another topic entirely. We hope to live in the countryside again at some point in the (hopefully) near future, so we'll definitely always need a car. But for the next one, we might look for an older Jeep or truck model in barely used condition, or similar.

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  22. Cities on the eastern seaboard look like complete armpits outside train windows. All the beauty is hidden, and all you see are be backyards of the worst neighborhoods of dilapidated rowhouses and abandoned, half collapsed warehouses covered in graffiti. It's never as romantic as in the movies. My bedroom window looks down into the gulch next to Baltimore Penn Station, so an Amtrak train passes every 20 minutes or so. It's close but nice because they're all either stopping or pulling out and only going 10 mph. I don't think I could sleep without the methodic ding of the train bell. neighbourtease, I took up cycling for safety in my neighborhood too. Walking on the sidewalks at night is just too scary.

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  23. Ha. I went to college in Phila as an undergrad, and regularly took the Amtrak up North and back. I agree about the view - except for a brief moment somewhere in Connecticut.

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  24. For another brief moment when you cross the Susquehanna it is transcendentally beautiful, especially at dawn or dusk. But that's between Wilmington and Baltimore.

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  25. @Velouria, we live in East Williamsburg.

    I agree about the Amtrak views, there is a random bog on the way to Boston that I thought was so beautiful. It is hardly waking up in the Pyrenées with some extremely civilized person handing you local cheese and breakfast wine*, though. I love train travel.

    *champagne

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  26. Portlandize--Sullivan's Gulch is a valley created during the Ice Age that Portland planners have conveniently used for whatever transit upgrade is available: first transcontinental railroad (UP/Oregon Railway and Navigation Co), then freeway (I-84 Banfield Fwy), and finally light rail (MAX).

    As someone who loves trains and urban landscapes (and bikes!) I actually enjoy the view on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor between DC and Boston. Even the grimiest urban landscapes of Baltimore and Philly. I think part of that is because I live in an area of the country (Pacific NW) that has little of that scenery. I always appreciate the more industrial look on the Empire Builder line when the train comes into Milwaukee and Chicago. Then again, after a day of rolling plains for a view in eastern Montana and North Dakota, it's such a stark contrast.

    There are poetic experiences on trains. I think you just have to wind down and enjoy the little things to appreciate it correctly. (And it doesn't hurt if the train is on time!)

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  27. Lovely post! I love the sound of the train on the tracks as it travels behind my neighborhood. I can usually catch a glimpse of the train through the trees and I love it! Doesn't bother me one bit.

    Also, I know I'm going to have that tune in my head all day tomorrow as I stop and look around :)

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  28. "The effect is interesting, making the neighbourhood look like an igloo construction zone. In order to clear the center of the roads, the excavator dumps more and more snow to the sides - creating monstrous, densely packed snowbanks that line the streets like the walls of some arctic city-state"

    With remarkably florid and apocalyptic flair, you've managed to describe a completely average Minneapolis winter, in which many folk regularly commute by bike. I went to college in Boston, and was there for the big nor'easter of 1994. For all the direness of that event, it's still substandard for your garden-variety winter in the upper mid-west. Pampered coastal folk. ;-)

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  29. Velouria, you nailed it -- I haven't been riding either -- the snow pile ups have made the roads too narrow and the slush has made for unpredictable slipperiness. And the bike path on the brooklyn bridge (shared with pedestrians) has gotten narrower than a cowpath -- you have to dismount every time you pass someone; while slush on the wood surface makes it very slippery. Midwestern cities may well routinely get more snow, but their streets (except in the contained city centres) tend to be wider than dense East coast urban streets; there's just no place for the snow to go except in road and sidewalk space (most bike lanes have been completely obliterated), and no place to park the bicycle when you get to your destination, as racks and parking meters are simply buried. Velouria, that photo of the bicycle peaking out from the snowbank was great, and I see a fair number of its real-life versions right now; I am sad for their owners!

    So more walking it is.....
    Before I started riding, I loved my longish walks, watching the new growth; trying to identify the vegetation, etc. It's a very different way of experiencing one's environment. It's good to mix it up, though I can't wait to get back on my bicycle....

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  30. Neigbortease: My favorite ride, ever, was in the Pyrenees, from Pau into Spain. It's hard to say, though, whether it or the local cheeses were better. I'd go with the ride, simply because my memory of it is stronger.

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  31. neighbourtease - Breakfast champagne : ) When I was at university in England (grad school), that was actually a very real thing. And not just champagne. There were numerous bars within the university, and I believed they began serving at 11am, with students and professors alike indulging freely...

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  32. "oh, thass breakfast wine" is what my two year old declared at the site of champagne at New Year's day brunch. Obviously it entered our lexicon immediately. I definitely appreciate it on some mornings, though I am not much of a drinker, generally :)

    Justine, I love love love Basque food, cheeses most especially. I wish I had been biking when I've been there. What a great place to cycle.

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  33. Unless they bomb your bike. :)

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