Several months ago, my awesome parents helped me move between apartments in Kansas City. Dad was driving the van and I was riding shotgun. On the way back from my old apartment, I looked out the window occasionally and was stunned at all the stuff I hadn't noticed before. I'd driven along this stretch of highway every day for over a year, and there were factories, office parks and subdivisions that I had just never seen, because of the way I look at the road when I'm driving.
That was a bit of an eye-opening experience for me. I still pay attention to where I'm driving, of course, but when traffic is light, especially if I've driven a route before, I'll try and catch glances sideways. I was doing this last week when I noticed a path running to the left of Highway 17, maybe about 10 feet below the grade. A lot of people were bicycling there; I caught five in the fraction of a second I looked there. Now that I'd caught it, I paid more attention on the way back from work. It became clear that this was a longish path, one that presumably ran further north and south than I'd seen yet.
I began to make some hypotheses. I knew that one guy at work (the "other" Chris) takes Caltrain from San Francisco every day, and then bikes all the way from San Jose Dridiron down to our Los Gatos office. I'd always assumed he rode down on city streets, but now it seemed likely that for part of the time he took this trail.
I'm not a hard-core environmentalist, but when I have two roughly equal alternatives I'll try to take the choice that causes less damage to our resources. One of the nice things about moving to the Bay Area (that phrase again!) is that in addition to seeing Priuses everywhere, there is a large and strong bicycle community. I'd earlier considered buying a bike, but had concluded that I wouldn't use it enough to justify getting one.
Now I had an inkling of a motivation. I don't live that far from work to begin with; it takes me around 10 minutes to drive there. Granted, most of that time is on a freeway going 65, but it still isn't that great a distance. It looked like this trail might run close to my apartment; if so, it would be very doable to become a bicycle commuter.
Growing up, I loved my bicycle. I remember with particular fondness a 21-speed mountain bike that I used to go exploring. I'd gradually venture further and further from home, and my parents would gradually expand my boundaries. I could now go past Highland! I could now cross Judicial and bicycle around the pond! The sense of freedom I got was acute, probably one of the five most liberating feelings I've had in my life. (Hm, 5? I should attach a list to the end of this post...)
But I had stopped riding after I turned 16 and my family moved to Illinois. First off, I was now learning to drive, and both needed and wanted to get more experience behind the wheels. Secondly, it was a new neighborhood, and just didn't have the same thrill that my old haunts had. Oh, there was a great bicycle trail called the prairie Path that seemed to run forever and could take you to downtown Wheaton and points far beyond, but you had to wait to cross a very busy intersection to get on it, and ultimately it didn't excite me that much to ride down a dirt path between trees and occasionally cross a road. The bicycle stayed in our garage, and while I was nostalgic for the times I remembered, I didn't feel very compelled to pick it up again.
Oh, maybe I should also mention that my dad is an avid cyclist. He's an absolute machine. He enjoyed cycling in Minnesota, but has gotten in phenomenal shape in Illinois, going amazing distances whenever he can. Once he cycled all the way from Wheaton down to Urbana to visit Andrew at school... but that's another story.
Anyways. I liked this idea, so I shot my dad an email asking if he had any advice for me in purchasing a bike. However, I wanted to make sure this trail did what I thought it did, and that it would be accessible at both ends. So, in lieu of my traditional Saturday hike, today I decided to walk to work.
I found a map of the trail online, appropriately enough called the Los Gatos Creek Trail. It did indeed run within a few blocks of my apartment, although the marked entrances were further away. I picked one that looked interesting and headed out a little before 9AM.
En route to the planned embarcation point, I discovered an even closer entrance that had not been marked. Encouraged, I hopped on the trail and headed south.
The trail itself was good. Fairly clean, in decent condition. It's a mixed-use trail so I passed plenty of joggers, cyclists, people walking their dogs, and a single roller blader. There wasn't the same level of friendliness that you encounter in a deserted mountain trail, but several people smiled and said "Hi."
The trail goes through a lot of varied terrain. The least attractive portions run parallel to Highway 17. Most of the time, though, it runs removed from any roadway, and generally runs along one of the banks of the creek, which grows and shrinks at different points. In some sections you run along houses' back yards. Several parks and a lake also lie along the route, adding plenty of pleasant green space.
Once I got down to Los Gatos I realized that I would not be able to get off at the point I had wanted; there was just no way to get from the trail up to Los Gatos Boulevard. So I kept on going. At the next exit I wandered off, trying to figure out how to move north and west towards my office. It turns out that that particular exit dumps you by the athletic field of Los Gatos High School, so I got to see the marching band practice. The only street out took me east, and from there I cut north.
Here I passed some really nice-looking houses. Los Gatos is a premium community in a premium part of the country. Last year, developers finished a parcel of new $1.5 million homes, and because they sold them, the average home sale price decreased 50% from a year before. I'm pretty sure that the homes I was walking by now were those that made the $1.5 million look cheap. They weren't new, and not all were in that great of condition, but they had great architecture, large lots, and one prime California real estate value: location. Of course, location is important anywhere, but even more so out here. These homes were built along a ridge, and in California, you can measure a person's net worth by their elevation. Looking down at the road below, I wondered how I could return to the third-estate world I was looking for.
After too many wrong turns (the Bay Area despises the grid system of streets), I reached my destination. I decided that on subsequent trips this wouldn't be bad at all. The whole trip, I would only need to cross one signaled intersection, a relatively quiet one near my apartment. But the next time I did this would definitely be on a bike: it had taken me three and a half hours to get down to the office.
I'd originally planned on stopping in downtown Los Gatos to get lunch, but a few things made me head directly home. First, I hadn't planned on taking so long coming down and wanted to get home. Secondly, I wasn't positively sure how a pedestrian could get to downtown, and didn't want to spend more time wandering side streets to figure it out. Finally, nothing particularly sounded good to me, and Los Gatos is fairly notorious for being expensive.
The trip back went smoother. I even found a shortcut that shaved a good fifteen minutes off of my return to the trail; a hidden and steeply inclined dirt cutout that allowed me to scramble directly up to the expensive-houses-road. I'm not sure if this shortcut is at all encouraged or even allowed, but it was clear I wasn't the first person to take it.
It only took me three hours to return to my apartment. I found coming back that several other exits from the trail could bring me just as close to home without needing to backtrack at all. Slightly tired but feeling satisfied, I went inside and have been mostly sitting down ever since.
I now feel inclined to gradually move ahead with the bike-purchasing plan. The trail is definitely nice enough to take, and I'm encouraged by the relatively little time I'll need to spend on city streets. Having gone for nearly a decade with very little riding, I'm sure I can pick up the mechanics of riding a bike quickly but it will take longer for me to recapture the special blend of alertness, reflexes and paranoia that served me so well in the past. So anyways, that's the plan for now. I'll probably hold off until the spring, once the rainy season is over, so I can start doing it in nice weather.