"Ouch!" says I to myself as the scraped heel of my left hand brushes the corner of the keyboard. "Ow!" as I shift in my seat and the bruised corner of my, uh, ego makes sudden contact with the chair. Then it's my turn to groan inwardly as a purpling thumb and index finger throb.

I don't usually have this kind of achy aftermath to report from a jogging expedition; at worst, a blister may annoy or a knee may complain the next day. But yesterday an exploratory jaunt turns into a tiny unanticipated adventure. I survive with minor abrasions, waterlogged socks, soggy shoes, and a ding on the old GPS receiver's antenna housing.

The story begins early that morning. Daughter has a violin lesson at University of Maryland --- wife will drive her --- hmmm! I sense an opportunity to go there on foot, via woodsy trails along backyard suburban streams. Funsies!

So I consult a Park Service map. It indicates that the Northwest Branch Trail extends almost to the Beltway, at a mile marked 7.0. Could I get to UM via a new and shorter route? Hitherto I've gone half an hour along Sligo Creek to mile ~2.1, then back up the Northwest Branch to University Boulevard at mile ~4.3, from which it's another mile to the school. Might I instead travel downstream?

A street map shows winding neighborhood lanes that curve tantalizingly close to the waterway. Wishful thinking fills in the rest: surely there must be paths that bridge the stream and reach the trail, eh?!

So off I go, first following a known route, vectoring along Colesville Road to Franklin Avenue. It takes me across University and suddenly I'm in terra incognita. I jog past a school and onto winding residential lanes. The GPS receiver that I carry is of no help, since I don't have coordinates for my goal.

I navigate crudely eastward, based on the angle of a morning sun half-visible through fog and clouds. A friendly guy in his front yard can't advise me how to get to the creek when I ask, but he vaguely indicates the direction that I'm heading anyway. I turn onto a no-outlet street. At the dead end circle a lady, loading kids into her minivan, says that I can go downhill through her back yard. "Thanks, Ma'am!" I reply.

Five minutes later I wonder if I've made a mistake. The yard is nice enough and leads to a steep slope covered with damp ferns and bushes, shaded by tall trees, punctuated by occasional rocky outcroppings. The Hill of Lost Balls I name it, as I spy basketballs, soccer balls, and other deteriorating sports equipment wedged among the roots.

"Wonder if there's poison ivy here?" The answer is surely "yes", but it's early in the season and perhaps I'm still safe --- the ground truth will emerge in a few days on my legs. Spiderwebs crisscross gaps between tree trunks and shrubberies. I shift my water bottle to the hand holding the GPS, to free my other hand to grasp at saplings and prevent a fall.

"Gotta get down," is my mantra, and down I zig-zag. It's a more dramatic hillside than I anticipated, over 50 meters elevation change. Yeah, I should have checked a topo map, but now it's a bit late. Beltway traffic noise from my left and shadows at my feet confirm that I'm still heading east and south.

At last the Northwest Branch comes into view below me. It's 10 meters or more wide and is flowing noisily through a rocky channel, fed by yesterday's heavy rains. So where's the trail? There's no sign of human activity on this side, not even the usual urban trash. Is that a dirt path on the farther bank? Or wishful thinking again?

Fantasy or not, I need to cross. The underbrush on the western side where I find myself is too thick to permit much progress. I don't fancy climbing back up from the notch to civilization, where I'll be at least an hour behind schedule on my journey. By process of elimination, the east bank is the lesser evil.

Big stones poke their noses up through the rapids, but much too far apart to permit me to get to the other side without impossible leaps. Maybe to the left, upstream a bit? That looks more promising, where the water pours over a slight ridge. So I scramble cautiously along the edge of the flood.

Suddenly, Oops! --- a rock that seemed merely smooth turns out to be teflon-slick, and in less than a reaction time I've fallen ker-splat. Arggghhhh! I take quick inventory: nothing feels broken; left hand is scraped and oozing blood; GPS has taken a nasty knock and turned itself off; cellphone in my fanny pack is fine, but there's no signal down here in the depths of the valley; and those most important parts of the body (quiet, you in the back, it's not what you're thinking) --- the legs --- are intact.

So is it time for Plan B? Naah, not quite yet. Let's continue, but slower and more cautiously. I start talking aloud to steady myself ... "slippery" ... "take it easy" ... "watch out" ...

I'm at the candidate ford without further mishap, but it's obvious now that the water is a bit deep between the stones. How deep? Visions arise of slipping, hitting my head, getting washed away by the current. I reassure myself that crossing a busy street is riskier. Sure ... but I have far more experience with that, and can manage the danger better.

OK, how to minimize or at least control the hazards here? First, give up the idea of dry feet. One is already wet anyway. Wading looks pretty feasible at this point. I eschew the stepping-stone scenario, shift bottle and GPS receiver to the left hand, and step in. The water is nice and cool, flowing fast but not impossibly so. A couple of strides and it's over my knees; it levels off mid-thigh. This I can handle. I steady myself with a free hand on an outcropping and keep going slow.

Then it's shallows again, and then I'm out. Shoes squish, socks are saturated, cellphone still has no signal, and GPS receiver's display is misty. But the unit powers up. It can't get a fix through the foliage, a not unexpected phenomenon. I take a drink and use some more water from my bottle to wash off my scraped palm.

And --- Good News! --- there is definitely a beaten track here on the east bank: damp dirt, well-packed, clearly defined, leading south. I start jogging along it.

No mileposts yet, but a few minutes later after stepping over a couple of muddy rivulets feeding in from the side I see the path widen, then become paved. A gravel side trail slopes up to the left; perhaps it's the connector shown as a dashed line on the Park Service map that I looked at a couple of hours ago? In any case, I trot onward. Excelsior!

My confidence grows as I pass a morning walker, then meet a dog and his owner. The trail becomes increasingly well-maintained, and finally I see a footbridge to the opposite shore, a mile below where I had my mini-adventure. From here on things become as expected ... markers point the way to neighborhood streets ... flat concrete spillways spread waters of tributary streams so they're easily crossed as they drain into the main flood ... the trail dips to crawl under a couple of major roads where they bridge the creek ... and at last I see a mile marker, number 5.5.

The GPS has by now seen enough sky to pick up four satellites and get a fix. I capture coordinates and punch my watch, only 47 minutes and 33 seconds after I left the last waypoint on Sligo Creek Trail. Less time by at least a factor of two than it felt like while it was happening.

Whew! Euphoria gives strength, and I cover the next measured mile in 9:20, a brisk pace for me. I pass another runner, sweating and laboring up a hill. "Great day, isn't it? You're looking strong!" I lie to her. She knows it's poetic exaggeration for encouragement, and grins back at me.

And it's on past a tiny park, an old mill, a community recreation center, and I'm back to terra cognita. I turn uphill toward the University and run on the shoulder of the road while speeders zip past at over 60 mph. I wait to cross at the lights, cut across a field of dandelions, climb a hill, and there's the inverted keel of the Clarice Smith Music Center. Eight miles to a happy ending, framing a few dozen yards of tension midway.

"Hi Paulette!" I fetch dry clothes from the car and change in the men's room, where I wash my wounds in the sink. Then hot coffee and a Clif Bar, and until Gray's lesson ends there's time to read the introduction to Njal's Saga, a millennium-old Icelandic story recommended by Merle. More on that anon, if I make some progress in it ...

(see also AnacostiaTributaries (28 Jan 2003), JogLogFog4 (20 Apr 2003), ...)

TopicRunning - TopicPersonalHistory - 2003-05-09

(correlates: WhyThis, 2004-11-10 - WOD Luncheon, ThingsPeopleAndIdeas, ...)