November 6, 2011

Berkshire Cycling: The Landscape of Home, 3

Land Use

This weekend brought three sunny days in a row, and it is a good start to November when I get on the bike every day. Though most of last weekend's snow has melted, when the sides of the road are white, it's chilly on a bike. There's a skim of ice on the swamp, which doesn't melt off until the  afternoon sun has some time to do its work.

It is always warmer in the valleys, so Friday I drove to Pittsfield, parked in the giant and oh-so-American parking lot at the giant grocery store on Rt. 7 (where everything anyone actually needs is located in the perimeter aisle or two) and rode across Dan Fox Drive, then south on Swamp Road to West Stockbridge. I was hoping for lunch at Cafe Pomo d'Oro, but it was past tourist season, and Scott is only open on Saturday and Sunday.

Sunday, looking for somewhat warmer temperatures, I drove to the Connecticut River Valley with temperatures rising into the 50s. Parking on Damon Rd., I used the rail trail to cross the river, rode up Rt. 47 to Sunderland, crossed back west over the river on Rt. 116, and returned south on River Road. It makes a nice, very flat 26 miles, with not much bothersome traffic, although the road is busy, and cluttered with shopping malls on the west side at Northampton.

This is traditionally farmland. Sadly, most has been lost to housing. There remain some small vegetable farms, and tobacco, a profitable crop. You still see drying barns on the landscape. I know next to nothing about its history: one of the remaining large farms had a sign reading: established 1953. I wondered if 58 years makes an old farm here.

This time, more than my other trips, it has been a hard re-entry, from riding in southern France to riding at home again, and I'm not yet sure precisely why. Maybe a part of it is returning at the approach of winter, the time of year to put the bike away for months. But for whatever reason, I am constantly conscious of the cultural differences. The similarities and differences between the two countries fascinate me.

The landscape is beautiful here, also. Differently, though there seems so little open space between towns, we fill most every spot along the road with houses. And the more houses we have, the bigger we make the roads, and the more traffic they accommodate, the further away from jobs and towns go the houses, and  the more houses (and so commuters) there are, the bigger we make the roads. One man I met in France, talking about suburban sprawl around Toulouse, said that France of course keeps space for farmland, it needs the food. He said, compared to the U.S, it is a small country, so there must be space for farms. Now, you need to know that  Toulouse is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city, with major industry, the fourth largest city in France, and I was, by the efficient, affordable, train system, less than  hour away ... still,  commuting is just arriving there. Try to imagine that: outside the 4th biggest city in the US,  an hour away by train, there is virtually no commuting, a distinct local culture, and a small city surrounded by productive farmland. It is almost unimaginable, in a place where there is barely a rural gap between Boston and Richmond.

Riding along, it is impossible not to notice that along these roads our culture  leaves far more litter, thrown from car windows. I have no idea why we do this, or what we are thinking, when we do it ... probably we are not thinking. The roads here are also beautiful, though there always seems to be more traffic. The two things may be related. We are always driving somewhere, and always eating and drinking: coffee, chips, donuts, a soda in hand as we go ... and then thrown out the window into the landscape. Not to mention, based on the litter, how much boozing goes on in cars. It escapes me, but is perhaps because generally, culturally, we don't walk or cycle our roads, and experience them only as  passageways that we speed insularly through. In any case there is a constant stream of litter roadside here.

Three days off work, all sunny, three rides. A fine weekend and an excellent beginning to November.

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