Thursday, June 14, 2012

Best ways to see the land, Part 2

Okay, I’ve argued that driving is a better way to see the country than flying. But once you get to wherever you’re going, nothing beats running for exploring a new place.

After arrival in New Orleans, I conducted some research into running routes. My first step was to consult the hotel desk manager. She handed me a map, and suggested I run down the middle of St. Charles Avenue, between the railroad tracks. She noted that after a few blocks of concrete street, the tracks would run in the grass instead, making running more pleasant. Though friendly and willing to help, she was not sufficiently perceptive to notice my confused expression, and she hurried off to help other guests. I stood there blinking for a minute or so….did she really just tell me to run down the train tracks in the middle of a street in downtown New Orleans?

Interview over, I returned to my room and consulted friend Google, who revealed that yes, indeed, the St. Charles trolley tracks are (is??) a favorite route for local runner. (Golly, there has got to be a way to repair the grammar in that sentence, but I don’t know what it is. Fortunately, this is not my dissertation, so I am not obligated to invest the time.) On the St. Charles trolley route is Audubon Park, which reportedly features a two-mile running path lined with stately oaks. Mapping the route, I learned the round trip to Audobon Park would be over 10 miles, a bit much for an out-of-shape grad student in a strange city at night.

So, I revisited the front desk in search of trolley details. This time, my helper was a friendly young man. He suggested I ride the trolley to Audubon Park and then run back, perhaps reboarding the trolley at Lee Circle to avoid running the downtown streets (and, said he, Lee Circle is worth running around a couple of times). A true gentleman, he was concerned for my safety, and warned me not to start my run before 6:00 a.m., not to run when the park was closed (unless the ROTC was drilling there), and to keep left on the trolley tracks to avoid being run over.

The next night I implemented this plan. I walked to the trolley stop (my friend from the front desk had directed me to a stop serving only the St. Charles line, so I couldn’t possibly go astray). Though I’d been warned about erratic trolley schedules, my timing was perfect and a trolley rolled up within 30 seconds. Thanks again to my young friend, I was prepared with $1.25 in exact change, and I climbed aboard. 

Everything went great and I enjoyed the ride and the view until, just past Lee Circle, it started to rain. The trolley driver closed the windshield, and the rest of us scrambled to shut the windows. I was very sad…my beautiful run was going to get ruined by rain! I don’t mind running in a light rain at home, on streets I know, but did I want to get caught in a storm in an unfamiliar city, miles from my hotel? I decided to just ride to the end of the line, pay another $1.25, and ride back.

As we rolled along, and I tried to peer out the rain-covered windows, I reconsidered. I had already skipped out on a meet-and-greet at my conference to go running, and I didn’t want it to be for nothing. Plus, I had worn my Winslow shoes, so it would be a shame if I didn’t get muddy. I decided to at least run the two miles around Audobon Park, and then I could hop back on the trolley. Fortunately, by the time we got to the park, the rain had lessened a bit. I found the path and set off. The dirt path looked muddier than it actually was. Even the places with standing water were surprisingly solid under my feet.

While on the trolley, I had only seen three runners, all male, running down the tracks. In the entire loop through the park, I saw less than half a dozen. Apparently running is not the most popular activity for rainy Saturday nights in New Orleans. I said a quick hi to the first runner I saw. No response. Hmmmm….that’s okay, she probably had a long day. Anyway, I’m both a Texan and an Aggie, so I shouldn’t be saying hi anyway. The next three runners received a friendly hand-wave, a smile, and a howdy. No response. How very odd. In Texas, nearly all runners are willing to return a friendly greeting. Even if they are clearly running hard, doing intervals or a tempo run or whatever, they manage a polite nod. On rainy or really hot days in Texas, when all the sensible people are indoors, the few die-hards are especially friendly—I think prompted by an “oh good, someone else is also crazy enough to be out here” kinship. Not in New Orleans. Is it possible Louisianans do not know the word “howdy?”

Anyway, by the time I finished the park loop, I was having a blast and was not about to climb onto a streetcar, rain or no rain. I was still scared of running on the tracks. These are called trolleys, not trains, but as far as I am concerned, anything that runs on rails is a train, and walking or running on train tracks is a bad idea. I opted for the sidewalk. I ran a couple very pleasant miles on the sidewalk, enjoying the gentle rain.

I started to wish I’d run at least a block or two on the tracks, just so I could say I’d done it. And, as I got closer to downtown, the sidewalk became difficult, with many cross streets, driveways, cars, and tipped-up sections of sidewalk. I decided the train tracks might be not only more satisfying, but also safer. I was right.

The trolleys, on two parallel sets of tracks, run along St. Charles’ grassy median, between the traffic lanes. Since only a few cross streets intersect the median, I didn’t often have to stop and look for traffic. On the sidewalks, there was danger from cars and people, both unpredictable. On the median, no one could back a car into me without warning. Anyone wishing to surprise me from behind and drag me into a dark alley would have to cross a street to do it, and any potential attack would take place in full view of pedestrians, drivers, and possibly trolley passengers. Once I got used to the concept, I felt right at home running down the median, between the two sets of tracks.

Here, my only danger was from the trolleys themselves. Fortunately, unlike cars and pedestrians, trolleys are very predictable. They have no choice but to follow the rails. Like cars, trolleys drive on the left. So, by staying left, I could avoid being hit from behind, and I would see oncoming trolleys in time to get out of the way. My one fear was that two trolleys, one from each direction, would converge at the exact time I was running between them. I think there was room, just barely, for an average-sized human to fit between the trolleys as they passed each other. But I knew it would be terrifying, and I wasn’t about to take any chances. Whenever I approached an oncoming trolley, I glanced behind me to see if the coast was clear. If it was, I ran down the right-hand set of tracks, well away from the oncoming trolley as it passed. Only once did both trolleys pass me at nearly the same time. I dodged them both by moving to the far left edge of the median, letting both trolleys pass on my right. 

When I set out from my hotel, I felt a bit self-conscious (running shorts are not normal attire on Bourbon Street). By the time I finished, I was running down Canal Street, with its shops and nightlife, dodging pedestrians dressed to the nines, and I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. (I lost my nerve when the sidewalk was occupied by rows of tables, complete with fancy place settings, set up by a restaurant for outside find dining. I wish I’d run between the tables, instead of skirting around, running on the street). I drew the line at running down Bourbon Street—it was just too crowded, especially with all the umbrellas. And, a common-sense voice inside told me that there are some places in which you don’t want to draw undue attention to yourself. This part of New Orleans has a spirit about it that I pray I never become comfortable with.

Wow, what a marvelous run! I had a big silly grin plastered across my face the whole time. It was a joy to feel the rain, and drink in the atmosphere, architecture and plant and people life. You just can’t get this sort of an experience in a car. I don’t think you could get it by walking either, and I’m not sure why. It’s partly the speed—my run may be slow, but it’s quite a bit quicker than walking. Yet I don’t think that’s the whole reason….I think running adds a certain intangible “aliveness” that is necessary to truly appreciate and connect with everything you see. And, as I learned today, running imparts courage.

So, next time you go somewhere new, don’t forget your running shoes. 

Audubon Park

Audubon Park

A short pea-gravel section of the Audubon Park trail. No mud, but made running very hard work.


Statue inside Lee Circle.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Best ways to see the land, Part 1

Perhaps a plane is the most efficient way to get somewhere, particularly somewhere as far from Houston as New Orleans. If I added the time driving to and from the airport, sitting in the airport, waiting for an airport shuttle, and riding in the airport shuttle, flying still might have been quicker than driving (and I could have slept on the way, a nice bonus).

But flying would have meant missing out on so much. It’s one thing to know intellectually that most of Louisiana is a swamp. It’s quite another to drive down the freeway and see trees growing out of the water. In some places, the trees are dense enough to almost form a forest, albeit a thin one. In other places, only black jagged tree trunks are visible above the water (except for scattered signs, affixed to the trunks by enterprising businessmen). What happened to the treetops? Did the trees die of some disease? Or was there a forest fire? That would have been a sight…an out-of-control forest fire, with the flames reflected in the water below.

If I’d flown, I would have missed gas stations and the candid glimpse of local life they provide. If I’d flown, I couldn’t have read the highway signs: Lake Bigeaux, Breaux Basin, Atchafalaya River, Iberville and St. Charles’ Parishes, Oupelousas, Grosse Tete, Billy’s Boudin and Cracklins. I wouldn't have learned that Lousiana gas pumps are regulated by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, led by a veterinarian. (Texas gas pumps are overseen by the Railroad Commission). If I'd flown, I wouldn't have marveled at the ingenuity required to build highways across twenty-mile-wide bodies of water. Then, when I arrived at my destination, I would have missed the disconcerting experience of driving down long streets narrower than my home driveway—I felt closed-in, as if I were walking down a hallway so narrow I could drag my hands along both walls. And If I’d flown, I would not have faced, and overcome, the challenge of crossing Bourbon Street by car.

In Texas, cars drive on the streets and pedestrians can only legally cross the streets at intersections. Pedestrians cannot legally walk down the middles of busy streets. In Texas, pedestrians (usually) proceed into the intersection only if it is either empty of cars, or if the drivers, using eye contact or a wave, indicate their willingness to let the pedestrians cross. This works pretty well, because the cars arrange themselves nicely into designated lanes, all going the same direction.

New Orleans uses the same system, but in reverse. The people walk on Bourbon Street and the cars can only cross at intersections--cars are not allowed on the street itself. At Bourbon Street intersections, the cars must wait for either the intersection to become free of pedestrians (which never happens), or for the pedestrians to politely motion the car across. Unfortunately, New Orleans pedestrians are not nearly as well-organized as Texas cars. They do not walk in designated lanes in predictable directions. Within the intersections, many are not walking at all, but are standing, sitting, or milling around randomly. The driver’s only hope is for all the people in the intersection to simultaneously yield their territory. As a driver, your best bet is to simply wait patiently. Eventually, by luck and randomization, a group of magnanimous male pedestrians are bound to arrive at the intersection. They will enthusiastically wave you across, and because of their outgoing nature and friendly countenances, the other pedestrians will grudgingly let you through.

In Texas, at least for most addresses, you can look up the address on the worldwide web and obtain reasonably accurate directions or a map. Don’t try this for a hotel on Bourbon Street. If you do, you’ll have to pull over and call the hotel for directions. If I’d taken the airport shuttle, I would still be ignorant of the fact that Burgundy Street is really Bur-GUN-dy Street, and I would still think Conti Street rhymes with TEA. Because I drove, I know Conti rhymes with EYE.

I’m so glad I decided to drive to New Orleans.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Zachry Engineering Center: a visit to home?

(This is Stop #6 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.) 

I visited Zachry late on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend. Though it was not exactly teeming with student activity, I saw a more students and heard more voices than I expected. I really wish I had time to visit a non-engineering building the same day, just to assess any activity level differences.

I was nearly alone in the first floor atrium where I chose to write. One student was studying at a table, and another was sleeping on an elaborate wooden bench with striped cushions. I love the old benches and sofas lining Zachry’s hallways. Though they are old, it’s a solid mahogany sort of old, not a worn-out decrepit sort of old. This is the kind of furniture that when you see it, your first reaction is, “they don’t make benches like that anymore”.

I loved Zachry’s three-story atrium. My favorite feature was the ceiling…they somehow managed to put 5 rows of vertical windows onto one horizontal ceiling. My second favorite feature was the old-fashioned brown paneling lining the walls of the atrium and hall. It reminded me of the house I grew up in (technically a mobile home but never seemed like it.)

I’m glad the Mitchell Fundamental Physics Institute and Zachry were back-to-back stops on my writing tour, as this made the contrasts obvious. Both atriums are beautiful, but one is shiny and showy and new, and the other is pleasant and functional and much older. One possesses the sort of beauty that shouts, “look at me!”, and the other has a quiet modest brand of beauty. Zachry is very pretty, and not just the back-handed “you’re surprisingly pretty for someone so old” sort. I like the fancy physics building, but if I had to live somewhere, I think I’d pick Zachry instead.

Noticing Zachry felt like home got me thinking….why have almost all the early stops on my writing tour been engineering buildings? In keeping with the fact that a Ph.D. is a research degree, I probably should have randomized my building tour, writing the building names on scraps of paper, and drawing them out of a hat. Too late for that now. One reason for starting in the engineering quadrant is purely practical: it is adjacent to the parking lot listed on my $275 hangtag. (A side benefit of my writing tour is that it is reducing the per visit cost of my parking permit.) Sometimes I’ve been in a time crunch and didn’t want to waste time walking across campus to a faraway building (that’s a ridiculous argument really….why am I wasting time driving 70 miles to campus to write when I could write at home in my living room?)

I wonder if the true reason I’ve gravitated to the engineering buildings is that my long-unused engineering degree makes me feel at home in them. As I have wandered into campus buildings, I’ve been surprised by an odd self-conscious sensation, as if I’m intruding. I recognize that this is a public university and these buildings are open to all students (except for restricted-access labs and such, which are understandably safeguarded by card-swipers and number pads). I know perfectly well that students take classes in all sorts of buildings. Even engineering students must take history, and presumably their history classes meet in a history building. Granted, there are probably not many history majors attending class in Zachry Engineering Center, but the same principle applies. No one needs to show an engineering identification card to enter Zachry or Wisenbaker. I’m sure no engineer would object to any education grad student writing in Zachry’s atrium, and no physicist would mind my revising research compliance documents next to the Foucalt Pendulum. Similarly, the business majors won’t mind me writing in the business building (whatever that is…guess I’ll find out eventually!) Still, visiting Zachry felt like coming home. I may have left engineering a long time ago, but apparently engineering has not quite left me.