Friday, July 28, 2006

Biking in Baylands

This part of the Peninsula, near Mountain View and Palo Alto, is the only place I've been where it seems as though one is surrounded by mountains: foggy green to one side, sandy brown on the other.

The Palo Alto airport is nearby, and student pilots are making lazy loops overhead.

I followed a biker's map to find a pedestrian overpass crossing Highway 1o1 toward the Baylands Nature Preserve. The bike bridge is incredibly long, stretching over eight lanes of cars and a few on/off ramps. It makes a chain-link tube, vine-covered at both ends.

It's a strange, superior feeling to travel unimpeded over the tops of speeding cars. A two-lane bridge for cars was just a stone's throw away. This offered an interesting perspective: cars moving both parallel and perpendicular to me, beside me and beneath me, while I rolled safely through the see-through tunnel. As the path tilted down on the other side, all at once the cars were above my head.

Past the highway, an office park and the airport is a small, weatherbeaten nature center ("bay camp" going on inside, noisily), a tiny rangers' station, and a launch area for sailboards and kayaks. There's also a surprisingly large duck pond; it was created as a saltwater swimming area decades ago, but that didn't prove popular.

I wondered about an abandoned building at the edge of a marsh. It was obviously meant to look like a boat, with porthole windows and metal railings along a deck. A restaurant? A nature center? A quirky home? It wasn't on the map, and it bore no signs, just boarded-up windows.

A little farther down the road is the result of a collaboration between the city of Palo Alto and a group of landscape designers: Byxbee Park, public art on the site of a former landfill. (Once a landfill, always a landfill? At least on the human time scale.) Concrete berms form chevrons pointing down the hill. Telephone poles of varying heights are spread about six feet apart to cover another side of the hill. I'm not sure what to make of it. It's a man-made structure dropped into a natural space, obtrusive and demanding of attention. But the abstract forms don't immediately put ideas in your head, so they go with the flow of their surroundings more than a traditional sculpture would.

Along an asphalt path heading back to the highway, I kept getting hits of a licorice-like scent. Was it the head-high yellow flowers that looked like Queen Anne's lace? They had feathery leaves that reminded me of fennel.

The path was so humped and cracked that I wondered if I was seeing earthquake damage. Perhaps I'm too affected by the book I just finished, John McPhee's "Assembling California."

The highway hum grew stronger. In McPhee's latest book,"Uncommon Carriers," he describes the noise, heard while canoeing, as "the surf of highways we could not see." It's not hard to turn this sound over in my imagination and make it into a watery pulse. Are cars the waves, or just the foam?

When I was a child, lying awake in bed on a summer night with the windows open, the only sound in that quiet suburb was a barely audible drone, occasionally swelling and subsiding. It was the rumble of tractor-trailers on the Ohio Turnpike, just a few blocks away. Until I was old enough to understand, I thought this late-night surf sound was what people meant when they talked about silence.

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