It's late Sunday afternoon and I'm setting out on a hike in Washington DC. My daughter is preparing to play her violin at an entertain-wealthy-potential-donors party for a music school. We arrive early at the old building, are buzzed through heavy brass doors, show our invitation, and pass scrutiny at the front desk. Then we ride up in a slow elevator that includes a narrow cushioned bench, presumably placed there for the elderly or infirm to take their rest on during the journey.
The affair is being held in an apartment --- though that word scarcely does the place justice. It's bigger than our house; don't ask about the marble or the mirrors. Servants offer us drinks from silver trays. The general atmosphere is a bit too stratospheric for comfortable breathing.
So I slip out from the soirée and walk northwest beside busy Connecticut Avenue, past the utilitarian Chinese Embassy and toward Rock Creek. My left knee feels good in the cold air, much better than on the previous day's run when it stiffened up and ached after half a mile. I venture along an alley, seeking a path down to the water, but the route dead-ends at a leaf-covered hillside too steep to navigate. Back on the main road I pass two stone lions and start across the long bridge. A hundred feet below, fenced paddocks for Park Service horses look small and muddy. On the other side of the span I find a rough asphalt and stone stairway that lets me descend to the trail.
A bulletin board by the side of the path features an old map of the park. It's hard to read in the December twilight, but I can see that the Kennedy Center is too far for me to reach and return in the hour or so that remains before dark. Only half a mile downstream from me, however, a dotted line leads away from the creek along something labeled Normanstone Drive. It seems to run almost all the way to the Naval Observatory, from which another dotted line curves off to Dumbarton Oaks Park and then back to Rock Creek somewhat farther down. Maybe a total length of a couple of miles, just the right amount to stretch the old legs and still get me back in time for the concert's finale.
I proceed. The path leads southwest past a series of old exercise areas --- benches and bars, steps and ramps --- to a small wooden bridge over Rock Creek. A juggler stands on the gray grass meadow between the trail and the road. He holds three painted clubs in one hand, two in the other ... flips one up, then another and another ... catches and throws, misses and drops ... then stops and stoops to pick up his equipment ... and tries again. A cyclist swoops by and warns, "One more coming!" I step aside for his follower to pedal past.
I've jogged past here a few times earlier this year, back in September and October while getting into shape for longer runs. Hitherto I've always followed the paved path. Today at the bridge I turn right and take the track on the west side of the stream, marked "No Bicycles" by a wooden signpost. The route is leaf-covered and rutted from foot traffic as it snakes down through boggy dips and climbs up to cross little woodsy ridges. There's a nice view of the creek from here. I remember peering across from the opposite side a few months ago, watching people walking on the farther bank and wondering where they were going to end up. Now here I am.
The track wriggles along for perhaps a quarter mile, past fallen trees and a sign that warns of possible leakage from the sewer system during flood times. Then a clear path branches off to the right. Is this the Normanstone Trail? I climb uphill, parallelling a tributary stream for a hundred yards --- and suddenly I'm on a sidewalk by a city street. This is obviously a well-to-do neighborhood, one that deliberately isolates itself from the masses with narrow curving lanes, stone walls, and high gates. I continue somewhat nervously along the sidewalk, looking for signs of a trail. An urban walker in front of me pauses to light a cigarette, then asks for directions to 33rd Street; I offer a vague guess that it may be somewhere ahead.
The road leads westward a few blocks to a hillside where I spy another Park Service signpost forbidding wheeled vehicles. I clamber up the slope, hear traffic ahead, and emerge out of breath on Massachusetts Avenue at Observatory Circle, just as the glimpsed map at the bulletin board had promised me half an hour ago. Barbed wire fences and pop-up barricades protect the Vice President's home and the other US Naval Observatory buildings. I cross the street at a traffic signal and find myself in front of the British Embassy. A police car blocks the road. I ask the officer whether it's OK to walk past to find the rest of the trail, and she says "Sure."
It's beginning to get dark now, but a nearly full moon plus the glow of city lights conspire to make navigation easy. I take off my coat and carry it over one arm while I stroll briskly past a chancery office building. Then a big square wooden gate forms an open portal on the lawn in front of the New Zealand Embassy, the next structure along the road. I divert to admire the gateway, but it's hard to read the inscription on the plaque by its side ... something about Maori traditional architecture, perhaps. I refrain from walking through the archway lest it offend against some illegible tradition or unilluminated gods.
The street proper ends at another barricaded gate, the southeast entrance to the Naval Observatory. No guards are visible but there are plenty of cameras. A dirt path bends along the periphery of the facility a few feet outside of the high fence with its crown of barbed wire. I follow the trail until a well-used track branches off to the left. There are more leaves, a few fallen trees, and some mud, but overall it's quite passable.
Downwards again through the woods, wondering whether I should have brought a GPS receiver along, suddenly I emerge onto a narrow lane --- clearly part of another fine ambassadorial-class 'hood. Houses bulge with bay windows; classy cars grace the driveways. I see the Danish Embassy, and then at the bottom of the hill the Embassy of Brazil, proudly decked with holiday lights. Apparently I've curved prematurely back to Mass Ave and have missed most of if not all Dumbarton Oaks Park. Perhaps there was another path in the Observatory woods that I overlooked?
I cross the big street and continue along a side road named Rock Creek Drive, past imposing residences decorated with Canadian maple-leaf flags and other diplomatic insignia. Looking downhill I glimpse a trail below. I scramble down a steep slope and discover that I've returned to a point just a few hundred yards southwest of where the Normanstone Trail first led me astray.
Retracing my route I get back to Connecticut Avenue. Now streetlights are lit as I cross the high bridge again toward the building where my musical daughter is playing her violin. I walk around the block to our parking place, past the Embassies of Portugal and Ethiopia. An abandoned building --- the Embassy of Algeria, damaged in a fire almost two years ago --- stands incongruous, apparently deteriorating behind cheap chain-link fences. I get into the car and take out a book on MySQL that I'm studying. After I strain to read a few pages under the faint dome light I give up. It's time to return to the apartment, catch the end of the performance, then head home to dinner and to bed.