Trail(s): Roads, Bethesda Trolley Trail, Capital Crescent Trail
Distance: 35ish miles
Weather: Overcast but pleasant, temperatures in the low 70s
Company: Just me
I’ve been riding down to D.C. quite a bit, in part because there’s been a number of events worth going to in the city and in part because I’m trying to avoid having my parents totally kick my ass at the Seagull Century in a couple of weeks. Last weekend, I made the ride a quadruple whammy, hitting two events, a new cycling spot, and a friend’s party. Environmental sustainability, books, biking and friends – what else could a gal want?
I took my usual route into DC, through North Bethesda and down the Capital Crescent Trail. Except instead of turning left at the Lincoln Memorial and riding down the Mall, I went straight into West Potomac Park. West Potomac Park is one of those places that lots of people have been to, but most have no idea what it’s named. It’s not part of the “Mall” per say, but is run by the National Parks Service and is the home of the FDR Memorial (my favorite) and the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It was also the home of this year’s Solar Decathlon.
The Solar Decathlon is a competition put on every two years by the U.S. Department of Energy to challenge college students from around the world to build a home that produces more energy than it uses. To make it far more challenging, the houses must be appealing and innately livable. This year, they upped the stakes even more by throwing in affordability as a requirement. Although most of the houses cost around the same to build as our house cost to buy (for the same size), it’s excellent that it’s at least a major consideration. The Decathlon bit comes from the fact that they are judged in 10 categories, including the ones I just mentioned. Once the houses are assembled in their final form, they are displayed for a week, to allow the judging to occur and members of the public to tour them. Even though I work for the DOE, I was still excited to visit because it’s really cool to see our technologies in action. It was even more thrilling to see how the houses fired up other people too, even though it made for some really long waits.
Of the ones I did see, my two favorites aesthetically were the University of Maryland Watershed house (which won the whole competition), and INhome, Purdue University’s house from Indiana. University of Maryland’s team based their entire house around the ecology of the Chesapeake Watershed, which gave a whole new meaning to a house fitting its surroundings. With both a landscape architect and a wetland ecologist on the team, in addition to the usual set of engineers and architects, the house truly did mimic natural processes, from the recycled water system to the adaptive solar technology. If the residents wanted to, they could even experience the wetland inside their home. Assuming the house was in a private enough area, the resident could choose to shower with the walls open, allowing them to look out on the constructed swamp outside their home! I’m not a huge Frank Lloyd Wright fan, but their house definitely captures his ethos of matching a home to its location. Also, I know that team’s houses are livable, as I’ve actually met someone living in their house from the last competition.
In contrast, the Purdue University team’s house was all about fitting in with the neighborhood. Honestly, it was the most normal looking house, especially from the outside. Even the most neurotic homeowner’s association chair would have a difficult time finding something they didn’t like about it. Besides the beautiful sweeping porch and obviously, the solar panels, there was nothing particularly distinguishable about it. Which in my opinion, makes it ideal for selling to the masses. Most people just don’t like super-modern architecture and this perfectly suburban house is for them. Because ultra-energy efficiency and solar power should be for everyone, not just people who actually enjoy the Brutalist era.
Although it wasn’t my aesthetic favorite, I was also quite fond of the philosophy behind the Empowerhouse from the New School at Parsons. They collaborated with Habitat for Humanity in Washington D.C., and the house is going to be relocated in Deanwood, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. In addition to the contest’s rules, they also had to meet up to city codes and keep the costs as low as possible, an impressive feat.
From the Solar Decathalon, I headed over to hear Dave Eggers speak at the National Book Festival. Ever since reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he’s been one of my favorite writers. When I found out about his awesome outreach to youth, from which he’s founded eight youth writing centers, he’s become one of my most respected ones. He had one of the young poets from 826 DC read a poem, read an excerpt from his novel in progress (as he said, “It’s not going to be polished. But we’re in a tent, so that’s okay.”) and answered questions. Not life-changing, but life-reaffirming, which was quite enough to make me smile. It also inspired me to buy his book Zeitoun, about a Syrian-American unjustly arrested post-Katrina, which I hadn’t even heard of before the talk.
Before popping over to my friend’s birthday party, I decided I would slip in a few more miles by checking out Hains Point. Although many tourists have been to or through West Potomac Park, far fewer even know East Potomac Park exists. Even I had only been there once, for a work picnic a few years ago. Honestly, there’s just not that much monumental there.
But as it turns out, that lack of bombast is what’s so thoroughly refreshing. It’s a spit of land reaching out into the harbor with views of DC on one side and Arlington on the other. The road looping around it is two wide, one-way lanes, allowing for plenty of space for both cars and bikes. It’s flat as could be with few stop signs and no lights, allowing you to build up some nice speed. It was a very unrushed, quiet place. A haven that just happens to have a mini golf-course. (A non-cheesy one – it is run by the Parks Service.) After just one lap around, I completely understood why many of the racers in DC trained here. Even if you do endless 3-mile laps, it’s still far more pleasant than dodging traffic and stopping every few moments for lights in downtown. I also noticed that it was very much a “towny” spot. Unlike some of the places I go in the city with friends, Hains Point had a refreshing racial and age diversity. People were biking, running, fishing, picnicking, playing golf, and romancing each other along the water. Despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten a proper meal and had already biked 20 miles, I felt genuinely good. It was just a peaceful, lovely place.
Overall, a highly successful day for both riding and taking in the pleasures D.C. had to offer.