In the village

I’ve traded in suburban sprawl for village life. Fairfax County, Virginia where I used to live was mostly very prosperous suburban sprawl. There were two cities (Vienna and Fairfax City) and a couple of towns but mostly the county consists of endless acres of detached houses, strip malls and neighborhood schools. The only distinction among the sprawl was what developer built the neighborhood and how moneyed the people they were marketing to. Fifty years earlier most of the land was pastoral, home to more cows than people.

Florence, a village in the city of Northampton, Massachusetts where I currently live has history. Sitting a few miles to the west of the city, the clear Mill River drove its early development. I know this from spending a couple of hours walking around the village with a local historian. The Mill River was aptly named. Like many places in New England, mills were built around the river to harness its power. From its start as a community in the 1830s, Florence embraced diversity and practiced progressive values. In 1832 Samuel Whitmarsh planted mulberry trees in hopes of creating a sustainable silk business. Run as a community project it attracted both abolitionists and those looking for a utopia. Women and minorities had an equal voting share in the mill, which was essentially a cooperative, which also handled the schools and was a de-facto government. The mill eventually proved to be not financially successful, a victim of foreign competition. But the idea of a utopian community remained.

Florence got its name from Dr. Charles Munde, who built a business called The Florence Water Cure around the pristine and clean Mill River. In the 19th century water could not usually be trusted as it was often contaminated and there were no obvious ways to purify water. Instead people drank a lot of alcohol: beer mostly, but spirits of all kinds which had the benefit of being sterile. While this kept them from getting sick it drove the incidence of alcoholism. Some seeking a cure came to Florence for the Water Cure, which involved drinking lots of water from the clean Mill River and being alternately wrapped in hot and cold towels with water from the Mill River.

Munde’s building is gone but there is a new building at its location: an Elks Lodge. About that time the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to Canada started. For a while Florence was a stop on the railroad, until Congress unwisely passed a law that made it a criminal offense to aid and abet these fugitives. There was a sizeable minority community of African Americans in Florence in the 19th century where they were generally welcomed. For seven years one of its residents was Sojourner Truth, a former slave who advocated for equality and justice. Her home is still there on Park Street but is not prominently marked.

Eventually all the lots were taken along the river, so new residents moved to higher elevations. Gradually what is now known as Locust and Main streets became the center of town. Today the City of Northampton is known for its progressive values. Back in the 18th and 19th century Northampton was very much conservative and Calvinist in outlook. Florence, its uppity village to the west with its progressive values did much to spread its values there. Today, the City of Northampton is one of the most progressive places on the east coast.

Florence is not entirely without woes. Western Massachusetts is not as prosperous as the more densely populated eastern part. There is little in the way of industry here. The area does have its colleges and universities so it attracts a lot of educated folk who mostly work for these institutions, which include a women’s college (Smith) in Northampton. A lot of people struggle here as they do anywhere else, working two or sometimes three jobs to get by. A few bums can be found in downtown Florence. My credit monitoring service alerts me to a number of known child molesters and convicted child pornographers living downtown as well. A cheap heroin epidemic affects Florence to some extent as well. Mostly though Florence is healthy and well ordered with houses more than a hundred years old being the rule here, most of which are decently maintained.

It will take me years to discover all the virtues of this new community. Some are obvious. Look Park is just across the street from us. It’s a large park excellent for strolling and there are lots of us strolling it at any time of day, as there are a lot of us retirees living here. I walk around it, sometimes more than once, at least several times a week. If so inclined I can pause at a gazebo and look out at the pond, or wander down to the banks of the Mill River and watch the water rush by. It is currently decorated with holiday lights, which makes driving through it a treat for local citizens. In more temperate weather there are activities for kids: mini golf, train rides and a petting zoo as well as some activities for adults including tennis and swimming. I watched one wedding performed there in October at an outdoor shelter. If you want nature, Look Park is more sanitized nature. Real nature is never far away in Florence. In my case, I just have to climb the hill behind us. Much of the land around here is in conservation areas that will never get developed.

There is also the Northampton Bikeway nearby which allows bicyclists to get downtown conveniently under a tree-lined canvas. They can take it across the Connecticut River past Amherst and as far east as Belchertown if they wish, or south to Easthampton where they can connect with other routes that take them further south into Holyoke. The trail is being extended to the town boundary of Williamsburg to the west.

Part of the success of Florence is that it grows slowly, if at all. Rather than tearing down buildings they are usually retained for their historical value but rehabilitated inside, often becoming small condominiums in the process. Our community is the exception with new but pricey housing for the 55+ community.

For exercise I walk into town regularly, often along the bike path. This time of year even with the leaves absent, the bike path is still bucolic. It’s an easy walk, about a mile each way. Downtown Florence has a few notable places, most notably the Miss Florence Diner at the corner of Maple and Main, which goes back to the 1940s. You get an authentic diner experience at Miss Flo’s, prices are cheap and the omelets are excellent. Florence also has its own casket company near Maple and Main, an inconspicuous business at best. It’s probably what’s left of industry in Florence. Another institution is Florence Hardware, very much a neighborhood hardware store where in its compact space you can find pretty much everything also available at Lowes and Home Depot, but with much friendlier service. Less an institution than a community hangout, Cooper’s Corner at the intersection of Main and Chestnut Streets offers a clean and stylish combination package store and mini-mart that includes its own deli, premade sandwiches and fresh bakery items. During the summer time, my wife reports that the best soft serve ice cream is also downtown at Florence Soft Serve. (The best ice cream in the area is unquestionably Herrell’s in downtown Northampton.)

Overall we are grooving on Florence and expect to groove even more so in coming years as we fully settled in. All of life’s conveniences are generally within a mile or two of home. Nature is always at hand. It is fortunately not special enough where it has become trendy, which would spoil its charm. For a mini-urban experience Northampton is a few miles away. If you feel the lure of real strip malls though you will have to cross the river and venture into Hadley. There you can find a mini-mall, movie theaters, Applebees and lots of other chains that I was glad to escape.

Florence is not quite Mayberry, but it does have an authentic healthy village feeling to it. If you enjoy village life, you’d have a hard time finding a better place.

A short walk on Fairfax County’s Cross-County Trail

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s known for having a million people, being nestled up to the capital beltway (and partly inside it), beltway bandits, clean industries, great schools and well-moneyed people. One thing that doesn’t come to mind when you think about Fairfax County is nature. It’s not that nature is wholly absent, it’s just that nature consists mostly of modest county parks and little asphalt trails winding their way through patches of woods that are overseen by hulking single family houses. Some communities in the county try to celebrate nature. Reston does a good job of it, or at least did before they put the downtown in. Mostly though Fairfax County is about nice houses, annoying traffic, lawns, keeping up with the Joneses and people who think they are more important than they actually are.

In general, if you want nature you go west. The Shenandoah Mountains is about an hour away. Many people from Fairfax County consider a trip to nature to be climbing Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoahs. (It has a granite face so you can take in a view.)

It turns out that Fairfax County has a trail that almost no one knows about. I walked part of it last weekend. It’s the Cross County Trail and it literally crosses the entire length of the county, from the Potomac River in the North to Woodbridge in the South. It does touch civilization in spots but mostly it cuts its way through remnants of forests and along local streambeds. I had known about the trail for a couple of years and had ignored it. Most Fairfax County residents don’t even know it’s there. But if you are a hiker, it’s right here and a great way to get some exercise. You just have to find the darn thing. At least that was my experience last Sunday walking a stretch of it between Vale and Lawyers roads.

The trail may not be well known because it is not well marked. I had to drive to it and it took me a while to find it. There was no place to park my car, so I pulled off and parked by the side of the road. The entrance to the trail at first escaped me, as all I could see was a gravel road into Camp Crowell, the local Girl Scout camp. There was a hard to see dirt path off on the side, and this happened to be the trail. I was expecting something grander and wasn’t even sure I was on it at all until I saw a small trail marker. Water bottle and camera in hand I headed north. Slowly the noise from cars on Vale Road disappeared behind me.

Horse at Camp Crowell
Horse at Camp Crowell

What appeared ahead of me was pasture, and then another pasture, this one bounded by fences. Inside were two horses for the girls of Camp Crowell looking very bored in the distance. There were prominent no trespassing signs, so I didn’t. I did however come up to the fence just to get a better look at the horses, a rare sight in Fairfax County. The two horses, including one foal, were frisky, playful and curious and came right up to me. “How you doing, fellas,” I said, stroking their heads, affection that they were very happy to receive. I could not recall how long it had been since I had the pleasure of touching a horse. It was likely more than a decade, but it was a welcome, almost sensuous experience. I regretted not having packed a couple of apples, but I had no idea I would be encountering horse on my little four-mile hike.

I wandered past the pastures and soon found myself in the woods, somewhat past their autumn peak. To my right was the sound of gently flowing water, a stream called Difficult Run to be precise. I knew of it not because I have lived in Fairfax County for nearly thirty years but because I manage a web site for the USGS that serves data for thousands of water monitoring sites, including one on Difficult Run. I wasn’t sure whether I would encounter our gaging station or not, but water flow was gentle so it couldn’t be flowing more than a few cubic feet per second. The creek’s banks, covered with sand and gravel, attested to the power of the stream after storms. Today it was moving at a languid pace. I breathed deeply. How wonderful: invigorating autumn air, temperatures in the lower 60s, mostly dry ground to walk across, a mixture of hazy sunshine filtering through the canopy and a gently winding trail to traverse.

And yet it was not wholly unmaintained. I crossed a few bridges the county had put in. I also found one volunteer about my age, with his aging dog sporting a large benign tumor on his right side, maintaining the trail of sorts. He had a little rake and was engaged in the thankless task of sweeping leaves off the trail, but only in spots where they masked hidden roots. I stopped and we chatted for a bit. He spoke of the trail as a hidden gem and said he walked it regularly, but usually alone and sometimes in the evening when the deer came out. It was both sad and nice to hear about its little use. Today, I didn’t mind so much the lack of human company. Instead I hungered for a little nature. I got it with the rustling of leaves, mostly wind driven but occasionally caused by a squirrel in the bush. I heard it in the birds overhead and the occasional call of a crow.

It was not quite just me, this man and his dog on the trail. A little further I found a mother with two daughters and two dogs. Dog lovers know what happens if you put dogs near a stream: they were in it, lapping it, walking in it, prancing through it from time to time, and mostly making a happy but soggy mess of themselves. It’s a natural things for dogs to do, except you don’t see it much in Fairfax County, where leash laws are in effect and where nature like this tends to be far away. Here, hidden in the woods, dogs could be dogs.

Difficult Run
Difficult Run

“Follow the signs carefully,” the trail guide with the broom told me. “Cross the creek to the path on the other side and you can end up on private property. Nothing should happen to you, but it’s best avoided.” Instead he pointed me to the trail marker pointing to the left. It moved me away from Difficult Run and up a small hill. Up the hill I found some tents in the woods, which I first mistook for tents of homeless people. On further inspection I realized that they were there to keep cords of firewood dry. Nearby were some large estates for rich people. Their chimneys would use that that wood when the weather turned colder. I was more than a little envious. I wished I could purchase an opportunity to be so close to nature.

Up to Lawyers Road then back again. My pace back was brisker as rain looked like it might threaten. The horses were nowhere to be found when I past their pasture again. There was no sign of an outhouse, but plenty of nature. When privacy allowed, I let nature be my outhouse.

Finally the distant sound of cars on Vale Road, and suddenly the magic was over. But now that I know the Cross County Trail is so close and often so unused, it is likely that I will be back again soon, and exploring other parts of this largely unknown gem secretly nestled in the heart of Fairfax County. Walking the trail I can renew both body and spirit. And I don’t have to go too far. Call me selfish, but I hope it stays our little hidden natural gem.

My May Day Biking Journey

Biking is a large part of my leisure life and my primary form of exercise. Today I will share with you my May Day 2005 bike ride. This ride lasted about three hours, at least half an hour of which were consumed taking these pictures. My total ride was about 30 miles. As
usual the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail was my gateway to adventure. Yesterday I chose to bike west.

After two days of inclement weather it was a pleasure to have a Sunday that was mostly sunny. The temperature hovered in the low 60s. The wind was brisk out of the northwest. I began my bike ride as I always do from my house.

All the images are thumbnails. Click on them for the full size image.

PDRM0037.jpg (210559 bytes) I had to bike three miles north up the Fairfax County Parkway before I was able to pick up an on ramp to the W&OD Trail on the west side of Reston.
PDRM0038.jpg (142750 bytes) Like many places on the W&OD trail, there are elevated bridges over the major highways. This is good because we high speed bicyclists don’t like coming to unnecessary stops. Here is the W&OD trail bridge crossing the Fairfax County Parkway (Rt. 7100), where I got on the trail. I headed west toward Leesburg.
PDRM0039.jpg (190036 bytes) This bridge over the Fairfax County Parkway is high quality. Because this part of the parkway is new, this may be the newest bridge on the trail. Here bicyclists hang to the left, and horses/joggers hang to the right. For much of the trail an equestrian path follows on one side. Unfortunately you don’t see many horses on the trail. The view here is looking west.
PDRM0040.jpg (129715 bytes) A couple miles west the trail crosses Elden Street in Herndon. This is part of “Old Town” Herndon. Concerts are held here in the summer, but the businesses here get a fair amount of bike traffic. There is a convenient Dairy Queen for fat friendly bicyclists a hundred feet off the trail.
PDRM0041.jpg (114211 bytes) Here is what is left of the old Herndon train depot. The view is looking east.
PDRM0042.jpg (181724 bytes) As I prepared to get on my bike I snapped this picture of the trail looking West from Old Town Herndon.
PDRM0043.jpg (109896 bytes) An old caboose is kept for visitors to inspect (from the outside only) at the Herndon station.
PDRM0044.jpg (120674 bytes) A few miles to the west of Herndon, the trail crosses Sterling Boulevard. At this point you have crossed from Fairfax County into Loudoun County. Before you reach Sterling Boulevard you pass over the western part of the Herndon Parkway and the Herndon Centennial Golf and Country Club. Here is a more typical “at grade” crossing on the trail. A median makes it not too difficult to cross. There is no walk light for bike riders.
PDRM0045.jpg (99405 bytes) A mile or so further you pass Church Street in Sterling. Here is a view looking east.
PDRM0046.jpg (189186 bytes) Another large trail bridge crosses over Sully Road (Route 28). This is the best picture I could capture since the mesh in the wire fence leaves small gaps. This is looking South on Sully Road.
PDRM0047.jpg (105737 bytes) Crossing over Sully Road, the trail west looks like you may be going toward the frontier. Alas, the frontier is more than half
PDRM0048.jpg (119910 bytes) A mile or two west of Sully Road is Smith’s Switch Station. You almost feel like you are in the country at this point. The portable toilets lend to the feeling that you are approaching the end of civilization. You can get water here and stretch your legs, but don’t look for snack machines. This view is looking west.
PDRM0049.jpg (108968 bytes) Another view from Smith’s Switch Station, looking west. I continue heading west.
PDRM0050.jpg (91248 bytes) After three or four miles of hard biking, and after passing under the Loudoun County Parkway, you end up at Ashburn Road. Here you will find a restaurant and an antiques store. Be careful crossing the street. Loudoun County commuters are not always accommodating to bicyclists.
PDRM0051.jpg (156059 bytes) Here was my destination for the day: Goose Creek. This bridge is the W&OD trail bridge, built on the foundation that used to
support heavy trains. You can park your bike and wander down and do some hiking or dirt bike riding if you choose. But warning: you can’t get here by car!
PDRM0055.jpg (160613 bytes) Sycolin Creek joins the much larger Goose Creek just north of the trail bridge. It was very bucolic on the spring day.
PDRM0054.jpg (342956 bytes) Here is where Sycolin Creek joins Goose Creek. Goose Creek is quite wide, more than a hundred feet. It counts as a river in my book.
PDRM0056.jpg (241195 bytes) Some wildlife in bloom along the banks of the creek
PDRM0060.jpg (110218 bytes) Undeveloped land (but doubtless not for long) right next to Goose Creek.
PDRM0061.jpg (244180 bytes) A better view of Goose Creek from the W&OD Trail bridge, looking South.
PDRM0062.jpg (112351 bytes) Goose Creek, looking north from the W&OD Trail bridge.
PDRM0063.jpg (181118 bytes) Just to the east of Goose Creek is the Luckstone Quarry. This is a wonderful destination. You can park your bike, enjoy a picnic or just enjoy the view. On weekends you are unlikely to hear the roar of the giant trucks pulling stone out of the quarry. No water fountain here, but portable toilets are across the trail.
PDRM0064.jpg (138485 bytes) A view of the Luckstone Quarry.
PDRM0065.jpg (81171 bytes) Another view of the quarry, looking southeast.
PDRM0067.jpg (148074 bytes) Heading home I had to pass Ashburn Road again. There is food to be found here for the hungry bicyclist.