Escape from Barnstable
Finding my way alone on a bike, slime mold, trees changing color, and plant of the week (a fruit!)
Why do trees change color from the top down?
Here in Rhode Island it’s mildly warm during the days and into the 50s at night—pretty good weather if you ask me. But with the shortening days, the honeylocusts promptly turned yellow and covered the sidewalks with their leaves, and the maples are starting to take on a tinge of red in their crowns. Here’s my little investigation into why some trees change color from the top down from last season. Thanks again to Delia Cai for noticing this trend and asking me about it.
Escape from Barnstable
Last Sunday, I found myself alone on a bike unsure of exactly where I was, out of food, and the temperature was falling. My phone had died, leaving me without GPS. A few minutes before, I had seen a sign reading “West Barnstable.” I couldn’t remember—dehydrated, exhausted—if Barnstable was any part of the 60-mile bike ride through the eastern part of Cape Cod I had signed up for. First things first, though: I needed to eat something.
Cape Cod has stretches where there’s not a gas station or convenience store to be found, just house after house in the woods. After miles like that, I found a small grocery store with a deli. Parking the bike and not bothering to take off my helmet, I grabbed an Italian sub and a ginger ale, paid, and ate the entire sandwich in a couple minutes on the sidewalk. I quickly began to feel a little better. What a blunder, to have forgotten food on top of forgetting my portable phone charger. I wondered if I had a better chance of the cashier letting me charge my phone at this deli or at the gas station next door. I felt like this choice mattered because I thought, pathetically, that if I was told no, I just couldn’t handle that disappointment on top of all my other mistakes that day.
A promising day had started with a small mistake. I had registered for a friendly, casual bike tour that began an hour away from us on the eastern edge of the Cape. I’ve rarely gone on long bike rides with other people and was excited to give it a try. I’d have to leave the house before nine to get there for the 10 o’clock start. But I woke up around eight (usually I wake up at seven on my own) and struggled to get things together. Various adjustments to the bike, getting it strapped to the car, and so on. I got on the road, only to discover that one of the car tires had slightly low pressure. I didn’t feel comfortable driving for an hour like that, so I found a gas station and filled the tire. Then I realized I’d have to stop at a rest stop to use the bathroom.
One mistake led to another. All of those little mishaps whittled down my ETA to exactly 10:00 am, no cushion time at all. As I parked in a school parking lot, I saw dozens of bikers waiting and ready to leave. I got out and started taking the bike off the car, fingers fumbling at the straps. I heard different pace groups being sent off—16 mph, 14 mph. Once I was on the bike, almost everyone was gone.
I turned on my GPS and rode as fast as I could for several miles to try and catch up with people going roughly my target pace. But because I had missed the start, I wasn’t sure which little group was the right group for me (a little over 15 mph, though I had the delusion that I could probably handle faster that day.) I would find a group, realize they were going a bit too slow, then try and scoot up to the next little group. I really enjoyed riding among 3-4 people going a similar speed. By drafting in the wake of bikers in front of you, you save energy. You’re also less likely to overtire yourself trying to blast your way up a big hill with no one to pace you. And it’s just more fun than plugging away on your own.
But I thought I should push myself, to get a sense for what that’s like. Nearing the town of Woods Hole, I found a group of people all with jerseys and nice bikes, a decent amount older than me but very in shape, and looking like they were having a lot of fun with the ride. (I think it’s fair to say that the purest form of biking is an extremely in-shape 55-year-old having the time of their life.) I found I could keep up with them and decided to stick with them for a bit. We took a break in Woods Hole, where I inflated someone’s flat tires with the emergency hand pump I had brought along. I felt virtuous and ready for many more miles.
But more experienced people had their eyes on the gray clouds, the occasional drizzle, and the chill winds coming off the ocean. It could become a downpour any time, it seemed. Having gone about 20 miles, many were turning around here to complete an optional 40 mile loop instead of the 60 mile route that would bring us past Cape Cod Bay near Sandwich. I thought about doing the same, but my current group was pressing on to try and finish the 60 miles, and I thought, why not? I have a little time today.
But as soon as we had left Woods Hole behind, we hit a road along the sand dunes where a stiff headwind made me feel like I was pedaling just to stay still. It was like going up an endless hill. To my right, sailboats ripped through the chop at high speed, their hulls leaning far over in the wind. It looked like a painting designed to inspire awe at the power of the elements—and awed I was. I fell behind the group and slowly caught up once we had turned off the coast road. We took a break, made jokes about the wind for a minute, then carried on. To my dismay, I found I couldn’t go as fast as them anymore. I’ll catch up as we go, I thought, while they drew further away. (They knew I had the GPS directions, so we weren’t worried about separating.)
And I did catch up, one more time. But then, like the proverbial drowning sailor who goes underwater for a third and final time, I fell behind and never closed the gap. I realized I had hit a wall and couldn’t recover. The hills, the wind along the beach, the riding at too fast of a pace—it was too many challenges in one day for my inexperienced legs to handle. I began to take little breaks every five minutes or so.
Then, my phone, which had been chugging along at low power, occasionally announcing my next turn, died. And despite all the other things I had brought, I had forgotten my portable battery charger. There were a few arrows that volunteers had painted at key turns on the route, so I followed those as best I could. But eventually I realized I had been following a road for several miles without seeing another marker. I saw the “West Barnstable” sign and hazily accepted that as where I was supposed to be. After more than two hours on the bike, forgetting my granola bars and running out of water were becoming even more significant errors. And strangely, on a day that had started off warm, it had gotten chilly as the afternoon wore on. I was starting to shiver. I considered how far I had to get back to safety, how little resources I had to do it, and felt pretty miserable.
After I ate my sub, the prosciutto and capicola rapidly transforming into available calories in my bloodstream, I decided to try the gas station next door to charge my phone. Fortunately, the cashier had no problem with it, plugging my phone into her own phone charger behind the counter. She said she knew it was no fun to be lost. I waited a few minutes outside. Once the phone had a little charge, I collected it and headed out. Looking at the map, I saw that I had really only taken one wrong turn, which put me heading due east into Barnstable (decidedly not where I should be) but there was a simple way for me to head northwest and get back to where I had started. I texted Priya to let her know I was okay and was on my way back. Out of Barnstable.
At that point, my series of mistakes was basically over. I took it easy over the next 15-20 miles and, having eaten, was able to ride pretty well. There was one more wrong turn in Bourne, but I quickly corrected it this time. It was just a little lonely, because of course I had fallen far behind all the other riders. Obviously it’s safer and more fun to bike with other people, and that had been the whole point of coming here anyway. Next time, I thought.
The school parking lot was empty besides two other cars when I finally reached it. Driving home, I mulled over a few clear lessons. First, my pace is still a little less than 16 mph over a long distance, and it’s a bad idea to try and stick with people going any faster than that. Second, I need food and a lot of water for a long ride. It’s different than a long run, where you just have to push through your discomfort: on a bike, you need to refuel as you go, and once you’ve done that, you often feel back at 95%. Third, I needed to focus on spinning the pedals on lower gears for endurance rather than trying to push myself on the big gears like I might for sprinting. Fourth, always stay with a group on a long ride, even if they’re not going quite as fast as you want.
But finally and most importantly, that being on a bike means being dependent on the elements—the terrain, the wind, the rain, the temperature—for better or worse, and that I have to accept the constraints imposed by the elements in ways that I don’t if I’m hiking with a good jacket or in a car with HVAC. I should have just turned around for the shorter, 40 mile route—I think many people did, knowing it wasn’t their day to do the full 60 miles. Now I know better.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. The first third of the ride was really fun. I do think that in hiking, birding, biking and other outdoor activities, it’s good to sometimes have a taste of what you don’t want out of those experiences to know what you do want. It helps you figure out exactly what your skill level is and how to balance pushing yourself with enjoying the limited time you spend out there. But this was not so much a taste and more like a whole Italian sub of “not what I wanted.”
Back home warming myself up, I commiserated with our cat. She made it through a winter outside—she has a sense of what it’s like to be cold and lonely for a while.
What I’m reading: about slime
The details of slime mold’s life cycle and physical form sound like something the crew of the Enterprise encounters in the Beta Quadrant—and yet slime mold appears to writer Lacy M. Johnson just outside her front door in the flower bed, both ordinary and strange. Her essay in Orion, “What Slime Knows,” considers the slime mold as a life form. Though they can appear as seemingly simple amoebas, the amoebas can “fuse, joining chromosomes and nuclei, and the newly fused nucleus begins dividing and redividing as the creature oozes along the forest floor, or on the underside of decaying logs, or between damp leaves, hunting its microscopic prey, drawing each morsel inside its gooey plasmodium, growing ever larger.” I once looked through a microscope at a large web-like plasmodium and saw the streaming movement of the slime mold’s cytoplasm, the fluid that carries nutrients throughout the body. It looked like the flow of blood vessels in something with a spine and a brain.
Johnson makes a beautiful comparison between the slime mold’s undivided, networked form and the “web of life” that evolution has made. Rather than the divisions and hierarchy indicated by a “chain of being” or “tree of life,” she argues that a better depiction is found in “sprawling, networked webs that trace the many points of relation back to ever more ancient origins.” Scientists and science writers have struggled to illustrate evolution in ways that don’t portray it as a deterministic, linear cartoon of fish to human. As biologists have delved deeper into evolution and the diversity of life, what had seemed stable has revealed itself to be mutable and contingent. While different branches of the web of life might not re-fuse like a slime mold—a shrub sharing genetic material with a bat, for example—it’s hard not to look at the endless convergences and mutualisms of biology and not be reminded of the slime mold, how it sends a tendril out that then rejoins the network, everything part of one “vast and astonishing web that pulsates all around us and beyond our comprehension,” as Johnson puts it.
Plant of the week: Pawpaw
This week’s plant is one of the best-tasting trees you can find in the eastern U.S. The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) grows large fruits that taste like bananas “but with hints of mango, vanilla, and citrus,” according to the National Park Service. The species belongs to the Annonaceae or custard-apple family, a group within the Magnolia order that is almost exclusively found in the tropics, the pawpaw being the exception that proves the rule. Pawpaws are native to the Midwest, South, and much of the Eastern U.S., reaching their northern limit around New York and Pennsylvania. The one in the picture is a planted tree just a little outside its native range here in Providence, but I’m guessing the more moderate and moist climate of southern New England is probably pretty good for this demi-tropical tree (I mean, compare here to central Illinois.)
Pawpaw has a long history in the cuisine of Native American cultures, both as a ready-to-eat snack and as an ingredient. In the northern end of the tree’s range, the Iroquois developed a way to make pawpaw cakes that they preserved by drying, then rehydrated to serve as a topping for corn bread. The Shawnee celebrated “pawpaw month” during the tree’s fruiting season.
White-tailed deer don’t eat pawpaw leaves, which has allowed the small tree to thrive while other understory plant species have dwindled amid skyrocketing numbers of hungry deer. According to NPS botanist Elizabeth Matthews, there’s some concern as to whether the continued spread of pawpaw could limit the success of other species’ saplings like oak and maple that create a mature forest’s high canopy. It’s also possible, though, that the result could instead be forests with dense patches of pawpaw and patches of taller trees elsewhere. At the least, that scenario offers the possibility of hundreds or thousands of pawpaw fruits easy to find and ripe for the picking in early fall.
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Possum Notes is a weekly newsletter about wildlife and landscapes around where I live. It’s produced on occupied Wampanoag and Narragansett land.