Wilderness in the City: Rock Creek Park

March 11, 2012, Washington, DC: Some fifteen years ago, I took an overnight bike ride through New York City with hundreds of classmates in my history class. The ride is a bit legendary, and for good reason: Throughout the night, we descended from the Upper West Side, sang through Times Square, visited Fulton Fish Market as the fresh catch arrived, and concluded our adventure on the Brooklyn Promenade at sunrise. I biked home that morning to the smell of bagels thick on New York’s morning air.

Of many memorable stops on that ride, our first was in the middle of Central Park  sometime around midnight. Huddled around our professor, we listened to the history of the place where we stood and learned more about Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s intentions in designing the park. From there deep in Central Park, we couldn’t see a single city light despite our location in the heart of Manhattan.

I had that same feeling today biking through Washington’s Rock Creek Park, a design of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., once his father’s apprentice.

Pedaling alongside the creek this afternoon, there was no sense at all of biking through the heart of a major metropolis. On gravely paths and creeky bridges, during slow climbs and quick, breezy descents on wooded hillsides, I forgot about the city somewhere right there beyond.

This perception of escape is one that keeps creeping up as I learn more from people about why they love their cities. High on many of their lists is the ability to retreat to a place like Rock Creek or Central Park, to pedal away to a spot that creates the illusion of wilderness and stillness without going too far. Anita has found it Ottawa’s Gatineau Park, Sara and Pam have benefited from it in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It was evident that evening at Beaver Lake as snow fell throughout Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, and it is always clear in San Francisco, hiking a path through the pristine Presidio. Our parks and our outlets, our escapes and our retreats, seem to play a role in our happiness in each of our varied hometowns.

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