Subject: Close Encounters of the Icy Kind Ch01
Date: 20 Jan 1999 00:00:00 GMT
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Jim Vandewalker)
Close Encounters of the Icy Kind
Chapter I: Slouching Toward Great Falls
After crunching around all Friday afternoon through ice-covered grass in
street shoes at Arlington, I was glad to be wearing my boots with wool
socks. Maggie and I stuffed our puffy jackets in the back of the rented
Taurus and, after fueling up at Denney's, made our way out of Arlington and
onto the Beltway.
Thursday night's ice storm had turned into sullen rain by Friday morning.
The weather prophets promised it was going to warm up overnight and melt
the ice off. This did not occur. When we got up Saturday morning the
wooded hillside in back of the motel was crystalline in the sunshine and
the big piles of dirty ice at the corners of the parking lot hadn't melted
But the roads were free of ice and there really wasn't much traffic on the
Beltway. I was doing 60 in the middle lane and everything was passing me on
both sides even though the speed limit is 55. I was made uneasy by the
severe shortage of enormous recreational vehicles piloted by Old Guys in
Hats with Wraparound Sunglasses.
As far as I can figure out the whole Beltway is I-495 and it's marked
North, South, East and West even though if you stay on a North portion long
enough it will eventually turn into an East bit and then a South stretch.
It should be Clockwise and Counterclockwise, I think, or EVEN BETTER,
Widdershins and Deosil.
We set off Deosil. The goal was to meet Jack and "four variously sized
girls," he said, at Great Falls Park which is on the break where the river
descends from the Piedmont to the coastal plain. Our guidebook talked about
the stuff to be seen on the Maryland side, but Jack said the Virginia side
was the best. I was dubious; there's a TAVERN listed for Maryland.
In any case we were desperately early. Jack had said 11:00 and I didn't
figure they were going to be bang on time with the Pupettes to organize. So
we decided to go up the other side of the river anyway. I still had hopes
for the tavern.
Yep, that was Georgetown Pike, that's where we'll go LATER. Next we
SHOOOPED over the Potomac and took the first exit and there we were on the
Maryland side on Falls Road and IN FAIRYLAND. This is REALLY GREAT of
JackNMeg to put on show like this, can't IMAGINE how they did it, look at
the CRYSTALLINE PERFECTION of the ice-covered woods, and the HUGE BUILDING
of the US Navy Surface Warfare Center, wow, did you see the SIZE of that
We went along, and we went along, through the magic woods, and didn't see
any more obvious Department of Defense installations, but we did see a LOT
of splintered trees, MAJOR boost to the chainsaw and firewood industry,
Eventually we came to a sign that said the C&O Towpath Park was closed and
thereafter wound up in a TOWN named Potomac right beside a Colonial-themed
strip shopping center with a BOULANGERIE, which is French for BAKERY which
is one thing the French do RIGHT, infrequently changed underwear or not. We
got some stuff and made the first of many trips that day back to the
The map we were using looked like it had been decorated with long strings
of kelp, most labeled "Rock Creek Park." We got OFF the Beltway again, also
something that would be repeated MANY TIMES that day, and did in fact find
a strip of Rock Creek Park, not an impressive feat in that neck of the
woods. In fact, it looks like AVOIDING the writhing tendrils of Rock Creek
Park is what would take some doing.
To get to the Creek we went through Kensington which had NO TRAFFIC LIGHTS.
No working ones anyway. No electricity. Supposed to treat a non-functioning
traffic light like a four-way stop. This worked okay some places, not so
great others. An eight-lane intersection both ways is TOUGH to treat like a
Anyway Rock Creek Park, or that section of it, was covered in scintillating
ice and had a lone and steaming jogger (or joggress) every quarter mile or
so on the curving road that follows the creek. We took some pictures. (Of
the ice-covered trees -- not the steaming joggers and joggresses)
We went BACK to the Beltway, and went along it a little way.
We now headed out Georgetown Pike and readily saw the reason for some areas
being without juice: shattered trees collapsed across powerlines, utility
company trucks everywhere, and battle-weary linemen (and linewomen too, I
guess) leaning against them.
We took note of the location of the entrance to Great Falls Park and
steamed ahead to Great Falls Village in search of sustenance. Maggie
reckoned it was time for elevenses even though it was only ten o'clock. It
had been a LONG time since a not-especially ample breakfast. Great Falls
Village apparently has a ferocious sign ordinance: none over eight feet or
so high. This made it challenging to spot a likely place to get a cup of
tea. We did, but it was closed, so we gave in and went to the Arby's, in
ANOTHER Colonial-themed strip shopping center, where, in fact, tea and more
or less gourmet coffee were to be had. Also sticky buns.
Fortified, we hied ourselves back to Great Falls Park, which had no one
manning the gate and was therefore FREE of entrance. We were lurching up an
icy ramp when a ranger popped out to say the Visitor Center was closed due
to the power outage. There was a little portable generator chugging away in
a wheelbarrow, put there, so far as I could see, to amplify the noise it
made, which was considerable.
But the river and the falls were unaffected by the power outage, so we
crunched over ice-coated gravel, toward the lookout, looking up in surprise
as ice fell off twigs onto our heads. The falls were impressive and just as
impressive in a different way were the kayakers in the rapids below. It was
impossible for me to imagine how cold that water must be. What impressive
There was a family of Japanese tourists doing their camera thing on the
falls overlook and some other family groups milling around on the trail
downriver, but no mob that looked like my expectation of Jack and his
harem. We walked back to the car park and I put on my puffy jacket and
noticed a mini-van in the lot.
We crunched around the Visitor Center again and were cornered by a huge
gang of feral midgets hopping through the trees and over the rocks. They
had captured a mysterious woman in a long black coat and a tall man with
wild eyes being used as a beast of burden. When I recovered my wits enough
to count them, all but two had somehow disappeared. Well, and a third very
small one, digging her spurs into the tall man.
Meg was close enough to what I had imagined so that in a few minutes it was
impossible to think of her as any different. Jack though, had a tendency to
LOOM that I hadn't anticipated. He was a lot bigger than I would have
thought. The pupettes were EGGZACKLY as described. Sparky tended to keep a
treetrunk between herself and the strangers. Spunky REALLY IS from another
Later Jack was unharnessed from his baby-pack and Bo staggered and lurched
along the footpath with a manic grin. First Jack and I both were holding a
tiny cold paw, and then somehow Jack had faded back and Bo was dragging me
along full tilt.
"Hold up there some," I drawled in my best Billy-Bob Thornton voice. "I
ain't young like you; I'm old an' give out." But Bo wouldn't listen. Even
worse, Maggie and Meg were back there on the path talking in low tones.
Why had I thought that mixing on- and off-line lives would be fun and
instructive? Also I was really begining to regret that the rest rooms were
NEXT: Chapter II: Beltway to Nowhere
Subject: Close Encounters of the Icy Kind Ch02
Date: 21 Jan 1999 00:00:00 GMT
From: email@example.com (Jim Vandewalker)
Close Encounters of the Icy Kind
Chapter II: Beltway to Nowhere
In about an hour and a half the feral midgets had exhausted
the possibilities of Great Falls Park, but not themselves.
We got back to the mini-van and Jack fed the short people
some sandwiches. I asked Sparky what kind of sandwich she'd
had. She frowned.
"Well was it brown stuff or green stuff?"
"Um," she temporized. "Sort of brown."
"It was BOLONEAN JEEZE!" crowed Spunky. Bo sat proudly in
I was charmed, but Meg reckoned they'd better get the horde
back to the home steppe and their own yurt. We sought advice
on where to go looking for foolhardy birdlife. Jack dragged
two volumes of detailed maps out of the van, and, poring
over them, we decided that we'd make for Theodore Roosevelt
Island located in the Potomac between Arlington and the
District, as I was learning to call it.
"Okay, looks like what we do is //GO BACK TO THE BELTWAY\\
and around to 66 which goes right to it. This is doable,
this is definitely doable."
Maggie frowned at the map. "I can't see how we get OFF when
we get there."
"Oh, don't worry about that. It's gotta be signposted."
Jack pressed the maps on us and Meg mentioned a couple of
other lakes and parks in the direction of their lair, and we
were off. Well, actually we went to the Irish Pub in Great
Falls Village and had split pea soup and a sandwich and tea
and an Old Peculier and a potty break and THEN we were off.
We went BACK to the Beltway, and went along it a little way.
Actually we WANTED to go back to the Beltway but we
couldn't. The way we had come in was BARRED by huge PEPCO
(electric company) trucks. We pulled off into a lay-by and
consulted Jack's detailed maps and figured if we went down
THAT road to THERE we would come out on the toll road
to/from Dulles Airport which would then take us to --
-- THE BELTWAY --
-- and from thence to I-66 and Arlington and Theodore
Roosevelt Island and the wonders of its winter birdlife.
Well, we got to 66 okay, much quicker than I anticipated,
and were cruising along through Arlington (the town, not the
burying ground), and nary an indication did we see of how to
actually get to T.R. Island. According to the map the durn
road just sorta ran across the tip of the thing and then
swept into D.C.
Maybe if we got off on George Washington Memorial Parkway?
Well, it's the last exit before the river so we figured
let's try it.
Suddenly we were turning and turning in a widening gyre
right outside Arlington (the burying ground, not the town)
and then shooting off in the same direction we took
yesterday to go back to Alexandria, and T.R. Island was way
back THERE. Drat. Pentagon North Parking Lot, Pentagon South
Parking Lot, Pentagon City, okay, okay, let's get off here
and Take Counsel. We sat in an empty parking lot and turned
the map over and over in our poor little hands. It got no
"All right. If we just go UP THERE and take the first exit
that should put us on the George Washington Parkway going
UPRIVER, and see, there's some kind of VERY SKINNY LINE that
goes out to the Island."
Going back on the Big Road I guessed wrong and took the HOV
lane. This means "High Occupancy Vehicle" and is intended to
bully commuters out of their "one person, one car" habits.
It doesn't apply on weekends and anyway there were two of us
and so we actually qualified as an HOV. Unfortunately the
HOV lane DIDN'T EXIT onto the GWParkway, and we were
HURTLING ACROSS THE RIVER into the horrors of the The
Man! That side of the river was some kind of HOO-RAH'S NEST
of ramps and exits and cross-overs and feeders and
downspouts and aortas and esophaguses, looked like we could
end up in BALTIMORE pretty dam' quick, lemme OFFA this
Whew. We were now on Surface Streets in an area which I
think was near the Navy Yard which I had a vague
apprehension was Not a Nice Part of Town, but it was cold
and windy and any Denizens were staying in their lairs and
not preying on lost tourists.
We ended up on a whirlwind tour of Capitol Hill, the Mall,
the back of the Smithsonian and The Memorials. The
Washington Monument was apparently being crated up to be
shipped back to the factory. We swung around the Lincoln
Memorial and got on Memorial Bridge headed back for
Arlington (the town AND the burying ground), BUT we managed
to find the right exit and FINALLY got onto the GW Parkway.
It was a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. On the spot, and
with plenty of time to look the situation over (due to the
aforementioned traffic jam) I could now see that right
between the GW Parkway and the river was a jogging path that
sure enough was represented by a skinny black line on the
map and sure enough, up there a ways, right in the middle of
all the construction that was causing the traffic jam there
was a car park and a pedestrian bridge right where on the
map, the skinny black line crossed over to Theodore
We knew when to cut our losses and resolved to forget about
ol' Teddy and his durn old island, and just keep on up the
GWParkway. This was not a total loss. The Parkway is
maintained by the National Park Service and is much like the
Blue Ridge Parkway back in Virginia and Carolina that we'd
had more experience with. Once past the construction, the
traffic jam thinned out and we even found a Scenic Overlook
that was. Scenic that is. There was an amazing view of the
Potomac Palisades, and an inside bend of the river covered
I pulled off for Turkey Run Park, which is right across the
road from the CIA but it was closed due to the recent
weather disaster. We saw Chain Bridge, which just looked
like a regular concrete highway bridge, although it was a
LONG way down from where we were. Finally we were //BACK OUT
AT THE BELTWAY\\ passing a place called Cabin John, which
we had passed SEVERAL times that morning.
Well, it was getting later in the afternoon, maybe we'd
better head out north, see if we could find one of those
places Meg mentioned. I-270 going toward Rockville was about
a hundred lanes wide. There was an express highway of three
or four lanes down the middle where through traffic didn't
have to be pestered by exits and on-ramps, and then outside
a barrier to the right another entire superhighway, this one
with on and off capability.
We got off on 28 and went through the heart of Rockville
(motto: Our town looks exactly like every place else only
MORE SO), and thanks to Jack's maps FAILED TO GET LOST,
despite numerous opportunities to do so. Well, Maggie failed
to get lost and by judicious use of That Tone of Voice
ensured that your obedient servant Did Not Stray.
We got out in the woods and found Lake Bernard Frank, and
parked and began to walk along the footpath toward the lake
and I realized the large pale area glimmering through the
bare trees was the lake and that it was covered in ice, an
altogether remarkable sight to an ol' Florida boy like me.
There were geese walking around on top of the frozen water
on the other end.
The footpath down through the woods and over the dam and
through the woods on the other side was nicely paved and as
a special offer this weekend only was covered in places in
fine slick ICE, suitable for tossing the unwary tourist on
his tender breakable bits. I've got PINS in this hip and an
active DREAD of any more orthopedic surgery. I walked
carefully. It was quiet in the woods and we could hear the
geese honking half a mile away. The flock got up by thirds
and flew down over us and circled back to the far end and
disappeared over the trees.
We got back out to the four-lane without incident, and for
once were NOT headed //BACK TO THE BELTWAY\\. Nope. Now we
were headed for the Manse of the Pupal Uberfemmes in hopes
of getting there while some daylight remained. We were
getting into the area where there were some extensive power
outages and passed through several non-functioning traffic
lights that were in fact being treated as four-way stops.
Seemed to work okay.
We made it just as dusk was falling and found Jack moving
one of the cars down the street to give us a place to park.
"I'm not giving the maps back," I told him as we got out of
the car. "We'll never find our way back to the Beltway
An enormous black dog began to bay at us.
NEXT: Chapter III: No Room in the Strip Mall
Subject: The Beltway
Date: 19 Jan 1999 00:00:00 GMT
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Jim Vandewalker)
Getting out the map after we got on the Beltway was not a
good idea. It wasn't a very helpful map anyway -- it had a
lot of advertisements around the edges, and didn't give the
exit numbers. Just little boxes scattered along the thick
line meant to represent the highway.
"Okay," Maggie said. "If that was Chain Bridge, either the
third or fourth exit up here is Georgetown Pike and should
go to Great Falls Park which is presumably somewhere near
Great Falls Village."
Instead of paying attention to the navigator I was gawking
at the ice-covered trees. The motel had really skimped on
cable TV connections and there had been no Weather Channel.
Washington was in the grip of the worst ice storm in recent
memory, and the local TV newspeople chattering about road
conditions in Fairfax and Montgomery and power outages on
the Red Line and Liberal Leave Days may have made sense to
residents, but a confused tourist was left even more
confused. Especially a Florida tourist with no experience of
driving in icy conditions.
But the Beltway was clear and the woods west and north were
coated in ice, hillsides of crystal, glistening in the
morning sun. Saturday morning and the traffic wasn't bad.
I was doing 60 in the middle lane and everything was passing
me on both sides. The speed limit was 55.
"I think you need to be -- wait, wait!" Maggie turned half
around in her seat. "I think that was the turnoff for
I began to suffer the same frustration I always get: I
wanted to both look at the map and drive. I was convinced
that there must be something there that Maggie was
forgetting to tell me about. We were shooting over a bridge
high over the Potomac.
"You need to get over in the right lane." Maggie was
starting to get That Tone of Voice.
"All right. Okay. Look, there's a rest area up here. Let me
just pull in and take a look at the map. I think we can go
up the Maryland side."
Maggie was peering at the map as we rolled past the streaked
and faded blue sign that said Vanderdecker Memorial Rest
Area. "This doesn't show any rest areas on the Beltway," she
The parking area was well off the highway screened by a
thick stand of leafless, ice-covered trees. There was one
other car parked near a bronze marker rimed all down its
north side. A tall figure in a long dark coat stood by a
board with a brief roof that looked as if it might be a
larger and more detailed map than the one we had.
Maggie was turned around in the seat again, looking back at
the sign. "I never saw a rest area with a name before."
I was taking in the view. We were on a high hillside looking
down the Potomac valley and even though "The District" must
have been close by, we could see only woods dropping away in
the winter sunshine.
When I swung open the door the wind blew in, not strong but
cold and penetrating. I crunched across ice-covered gravel
to the mapboard. The bronze marker was unreadable under its
glaze and the tall man in the long dark coat was rubbing at
the map with an ungloved hand. He turned as I came up. His
hair was lank and white, blowing a little in the wind and
his eyes were the same blue as the cold winter sky.
"Does that show which exit to take for Falls Road?" I asked,
putting my hands in my pockets and and blowing a white
"It's here -- here," he said, turning back to the mapboard.
He rubbed again at the thick ice on the map. I couldn't make
out anything. I hesitated to step any closer. "There must be
a way --"
He turned without another word and stalked toward his car.
It was an enormous old Ford Torino that might have been blue
long ago but was now coverd with road grime and whatever
brew of stuff they use to melt the ice on the roads. The
door thumped loudly in the icy quiet and the engine grumbled
to life. He rolled the window down.
"Follow me. I can set you on the right road." The big car
rolled through the wet leaves toward the far end of the
Maggie came up beside me and peered at the mapboard. "Does
this show anything about where we are?"
"I can't see anything under that ice. I asked this guy about
Falls Road. Says he knows the right exit." I jerked my head
toward the Torino, idling toward the end of the parking
area. Maggie was looking at the bronze marker. There was a
bas relief of a three-masted sailing ship and some
"Vanderdecker sounds familiar," Maggie said
"Yeah, it does to me too. Somebody out of Washington Irving?
Did you know he wrote a big biography of George Washington?
He was ambassador to Spain."
"No, not Washington Irving. Something else." She huffed a
big white cloud
Back in the car I looked at the map. It wasn't much help.
"Well, it looks like Falls Road should be the first exit
after the river and we can go out the Maryland side to the
park. So I guess the exit should be right up here."
I started the car and swung around toward the far end of the
parking area. The Torino was still there, half blocking what
I thought must be the way back out to the highway. Another
narrow roadway curved away to the right and I pulled into
"Isn't the highway over that way?" said Maggie.
"That guy kind of gave me the creeps," I said. "It looks
like this joins back up along there. Maybe it goes right to
the exit." This roadway didn't look like it had been driven
on and I was a little worried about ice patches. I peered
ahead where it swung back left and realized the sparkle of
sun was gone from the icy trees.
"Those clouds came up fast," Maggie said.
"Yeah," I said, still preoccupied by the possibility of ice
on the road. The small roadway we were on opened out and
joined on to three lanes. "Boy," I said. "There sure isn't
much traffic this morning."
There were no other cars in sight. I pulled out into the
right lane, looking for the Falls Road exit. The old Torino
came past with a whoosh and dwindled into the distance
ahead. A blast of wind rocked the car like a big truck
passing, but there was no other traffic. Gray, ice-coated
trees crowded close to the highway on both sides. There was
no sign of an exit.
Maggie was craning to look around. "Are you sure we're back
on the Beltway?"
A thin drizzle spattered the windshield and I turned on the
wipers. The windshield streaked as the drizzle froze. Maggie
turned the control to defrost. I pushed the button for
windshield washer fluid and watched that freeze on the
"Look out!" Maggie gasped.
"Jesus!" The Torino loomed suddenly ahead, right blinker
flashing. The windshield defroster began to take hold and I
could see more of the road. The wind was still gusting,
rocking the car. The Torino was in the center lane. I didn't
want to pass on the right, especially not with that right
blinker going, so I swung over into the left lane.
I was startled to see the driver had his window down and was
looking back at us as we came around. He pointed ahead. I
couldn't see anything but more road and trees close on
either side. Thick clouds rushed above.
"Man! That guy is seriously crazy!" I said as we came
around. "He's also going to be seriously frostbitten." I
turned on the headlights in the gathering gloom. It was
quarter past ten in what had been a bright sunny morning.
"This can't be the Beltway," Maggie said. "I don't see any
exits at all and there are no other cars." The road curved
steadily to the right like an enormous racetrack and the
wind gusted again and again. "Where are the other lanes?
There's no oncoming traffic."
There didn't seem to be much to say to that. The only other
thing in sight was the Torino in the rearview mirror, coming
up on us again, sleet swirling in the beams of its
headlights. It pulled ahead, still in the center lane.
"We have got to find a place to turn around," I said
unnecessarily. The defroster was keeping up with the frozen
stuff on the windshield and it didn't seem as if any ice was
building up on the roadway, but I was feeling really panicky
about being out in what looked like the beginings of a bad
"I think there's something up ahead," Maggie said. The
Torino, blinker going, was still visible and beyond that a
sign and a pull-off to the right.
It was a streaked blue sign. It said Vanderdecker Memorial
Maggie was silent, her eyes wide. The wind buffeted the car.
I drove past the pull-off, passing the Torino at the same
"Was that --" I stammered. "I don't --" There was nothing
ahead, only freezing rain blowing across the three empty
lanes. I looked at the odometer and wished I'd d taken
notice of the mileage when we'd pulled out of the rest area.
The rest area we seemed to have passed again.
The Torino came up past us and hung ahead. The road
continued to curve to the right.
"What would happen if we just turned around in the road and
went back?" Maggie asked.
"I'd hate to meet something coming the other way in this
weather. . ."
"We could drive on the shoulder or something --"
I didn't know what to say. The wind continued to blow gusts
of freezing drizzle across the car. There was nothing to see
except the road and the bare trees on either side. We drove
on, the Torino not quite out of sight ahead. I looked at the
odometer again, shocked to realize that we had come more
than six miles since passing the rest area.
"He's got his turn signal on again," Maggie said.
Ahead, the right taillight of the Torino blinked through the
gusts of rain. We came into a clearer patch and ahead I
could see another sign and pull-off. I took a deep breath.
The sign said Vanderdecker Memorial Rest Area.
"Well -- " I said and pulled in.
There was no rain as we rolled through the wet leaves toward
the bronze marker and the mapboard. There were no other cars
in the parking area. We sat in the car looking at the winter
sun shining on the ice-covered trees down the slope.
I kept going through the parking area to the two roadways. I
glanced over at Maggie and pulled onto the lefthand roadway.
The sun continued to shine and we came around the screen of
trees to see a welter of traffic roaring away down the
"There's the sign for Falls Road," Maggie said, and I swung
onto the exit ramp. My hands were shaking a little on the
"I remember who Vanderdecker was," I said. "He was the