Out of Place

I am the least conventional thinker I know. I’m willing to conform when appropriate, just sometimes clueless about where that proverbial box is.

I had a pre-calc professor who lectured on convention, how the quadrants were always numbered the same way, starting with “I” in the upper right, continuing counter clockwise with “II” in the upper left. He spent 5 minutes saying that we followed these standard conventions so that everyone would know what to expect and do. He continued that there was nothing wrong with being unconventional, unless you happened to meet an unconventional thinker (going against traffic) in a Mack Truck.

On the Trail

This past week, I’ve been riding like I did before we put the video project on hold. It felt good but tiring because I was also restricting calories to loose the extra pounds that are still, somehow, hanging on.

Tuesday, I started at Big Creek Park in Roswell. Just after I started, still in the Roswell section, there was a private car on the path.

This isn’t the first time I’ve known a car to be on this trail in Roswell. About 3 years ago, several excited walkers and cyclists warned me to be careful because there was a car on the trail. I never saw that one, but I did report the claim to the mountain bike (MTB) team manager, because sometimes they use the greenway to go between MTB trails, or for cardio.

I don’t think the team manager believed me. Days later, I asked an officer patrolling the trail if anyone had reported the car. He said “No. If there had been a car out here, we’d know it.” He was ultra-confident, but I had seen the faces of the people warning me. I didn’t push it.

I rarely put myself at risk of selfie suicide, but after that experience, the first thing I did when I saw this car was to whip out my phone and get the proof.

The car slowed to a near stop. I passed. No one was excited this time. Perhaps because this car was moving so slowly, or maybe because they had seen it happen before. It occurred to me that the driver actually could have mistaken the paved path, 12 feet wide in most places, for a place they were allowed to drive. Who knows?

There are a lot of boardwalks in Roswell, and they weren’t built for automobile traffic. Getting stuck out there could be a real mess.

A car on Big Creek Greenway in Roswell

Moments later I saw someone pushing an adult trike up one of the bridges that passes over the stream. These bridges create small, but relatively steep hills in the otherwise flat winding streambed trail. The person on the trike clearly had a degenerative disease and the person pushing was helping them to get their physical therapy.

Should the two of them have met the car, it would have been like meeting that unconventional thinker in the Mack Truck. Following convention and behaving predictably doesn’t matter in so many places where people get all hung up about it, but on the trail it does.

What should you do? I follow “If you see something say something” only so far as I think it could prevent harm.

We all have bad days, miscommunications, distracting thoughts, missed guesses as to the speed or intentions of others. We find ourselves in situations that are unfamiliar and have to stop to figure out what to do, where to go, how to adjust.

Children don’t always do what their grown-ups say. Grown-ups don’t always read signs or know trail etiquette. Some pets are perfectly trained and others lead their owners around and around. Some groups are trying to negotiate a perfect storm of these things, or not thinking outside the conversation they’re having.

You didn’t expect the trail to narrow without warning right after a 90 degree turn, where the kids (and adults) like to watch through the grates as cars pass overhead, just at the grassy shoulder turns to rip-rap made of 2 ft stones? (Haynes Bridge Overpass in Alpharetta). There are a few distracting things inside that pretty short distance. They sometimes cause people to crowd and linger in the space.

It isn’t reasonable to assume that all trail users can hear cyclists or other people with wheels call their pass, even when they don’t have their ears stuffed or covered with audio devices.

People turn around, or step into a piece of trash to pick it up without looking or warning just as cyclists or skaters come up beside them. Faster trail users can’t reliably guess the age or mobility of slower trail users in a split second as they pass, especially on a curve. At some point anyone with wheels is going to be closer and faster than some of those without are comfortable having them.

There are even wildlife surprises on the trail sometimes. Have you ever really wished that squirrel would just decide which way to go ad do it, so that you could too? There’s a doe. Where’s the fawn?

And that guy who does double the speed limit on his Onewheel (electric unicycle), his knees, shins, wrists and elbows are padded in motorcycle grade safety gear (but no one he might collide with is). I’ve even seen a guy on a manual unicycle going faster than I knew was possible. It surprised me that his speed and mass intimidated me.

For all these reasons and more, convention (trail etiquette and rules), intention (kindness) and attention (knowing what’s going on in shared multi-use space) makes all the difference.

Some trails have specific rules. It’s always a good idea to read any that are posted, even if you’re experienced.

Going to the trail during low traffic reduces the number of interactions, but it is never ok to assume you can break with safety protocols because no one else will be out there, not even when you’re three counties out in the country during the pandemic.

Anything can and does happen, and if you assumed you were the only person out there, it will catch you more off guard when it does.

And if you’re that road cyclist who’s been taught to take control of the lane, remember to leave that attitude on the road while you’re on the trail. You are the fast, heavy, thing with momentum when you’re here.

And those traffic grade head lights? Trails are closed when you need those. I’m not talking about the low intensity lights that you can’t switch off on bikes like the Synapse. I’m talking about the high intensity lights that are competing with car headlights to be seen. Those are too bright to shine in the eyes of people that close. There’s a little bit of time, just before the trails close when it’s just dark enough for people’s eye to be adjusting to the low level light for those lights to blind people. Blind people aren’t as good at staying out of your way.

Understanding the needs and capabilities of trail users unlike yourself makes trail mishaps so much less frequent.

It is the responsibility of everyone to follow the conventions that keep us all safe in the space, but it is especially the responsibility of the strongest, fastest, heaviest and ablest users to make sure that they don’t harm others.

I understand how hard it is to pay attention and be conventional sometimes, especially in a place you may have come to for escape and distraction. I make so many mistakes myself. But, I accept that safety is important for everyone on the trail. Conforming to general and local rules, regulations and etiquette, considering others and being predictable reduces pain and makes all the difference. I hope you’ll join me in giving it your best effort.

Keep it safe. Have a glorious day, and we’ll see you on the trail.