10 May 2019

Hitting the Bottom(s)

I really wanted to hit the Bottoms this week. And no, that’s not a grammatical, usage, or punctuation error, it’s just a pun that stands in for a quest to overcome a small bit of nastiness in the world. So to continue with the pun, they say you have to hit Bottoms to see what’s important and to start the fight back. I somewhat non-concur. I had to fight just to hit Bottoms.

Right, he’s truly lost it, I hear you saying. So, let’s back up a few days.

Recovery from Boston wasn’t pretty, though it really had little to do with Boston. Any soreness from that adventure peaked, as usual, a couple days hence, and quickly subsided, but a general malaise set in that went beyond the usual joint complaints and instead rose to a general alarm complaint. About a week back I turned in the closest thing to a tempo run since Beantown, circling Portland Maine’s Back Cove a couple of times, one of my favorite spots to hit after a northern customer meeting. My pace wasn’t horrid, but to think that it was all I could muster, and to think of the ugliness that accompanied the effort, well, it just wasn’t right. It seemed pretty clear that the meds that Lady Doc had directed – the ones that killed me back in February and I’d abandoned till after Boston, but then being a duly compliant patient had in fact restarted right afterwards – were at it again. Having failed to qualify at Boston and with my second chance race, Sugarloaf, a scant two weeks out, I pulled the plug on the pills once again.

A mere two days later I toed the line (well, sort of, since there was no line at the start to toe and they didn’t bother let us all get into the road before calling ‘go’, but I digress…) at Foley’s Backstreet 5K, a decent-sized local event that our local club had descended upon en-masse last year, and had so much fun that we descended again en-larger-masse this year. I could harp about how I pulled in over a minute slower than last year’s outing despite ideal conditions, but that would skip the important bits: first, that a couple hundred meters in it was clear that I actually felt good for the first time since Boston, second, that while not blazing, I maintained the intensity, rolling back late-race challenges by a pair of youngsters, and third, that I actually had the oomph to kick it in, avoid a get-passed-at-the-finish-line insult, and score a finish line photo in which I am not, for a change, exhibiting my usual death-warmed-over look. Oh, and I took the old farts’ division, much to the chagrin of my club-mate who, like last year, would have owned that title had he not invited me along. Next year he’ll probably keep quiet about this one.

Next up after Foley’s on Sunday was an early Monday foray to a Company Rah-Rah (which, to be fair, turned out to be a pretty good Rah-Rah) in Nashville, Tennessee. Aha, that light bulb just went on; you frequent readers probably have an inkling of where this is going. Yes, a traveling runner story, with a twist.

On the ride home from Foley’s, my carpooling club-mates, who’d just visited Nashville a few weeks prior, suggested getting in a run at the Shelby Bottoms Greenway, a roughly four-mile-long stretch of green, trails, and more green, hugging the Cumberland River almost directly across from my home away from home for the next few days, the truly gargantuan Gaylord Opryland hotel. The Gaylord, one of the biggest non-casino hotels in the country, is a combination convention factory and adult Disneyland. It features at least three glass-enclosed climate-controlled atria, the largest of which could probably hold several Midwestern towns in entirety. Every detail is attended to, every plant perfectly coifed, every faux waterfall perfectly designed, even the walkways are varnished with some magical substance that makes them always sport an ‘it just showered and things are pleasantly damp and shiny’ look while remaining remarkably non-skid. And it would turn out that the staff was top-notch and the food was almost uniformly excellent (smoked brisket hash! – a food providing the perfect way to die and inspiring my social media idea… #hashtag). Everything in the facility was top shelf. But everything was in the facility. These places are designed to be the hospitality equivalent of Alcatraz. You’re not supposed to leave. Indeed, it’s very hard to leave, at least without motored conveyance.

But I run. I insist that I leave. I want to see the real world on the outside, the tour from ground level. And I’m not satisfied with the one-point-four-mile all-sidewalk round-the-hotel jogging loop they offered up on my arrival, neatly packaged in a pocket-sized brochure with the warning that this was urban running and that all due caution should be taken. Blech.

But on Sunday afternoon, I didn’t yet know about that neatly packaged three-inch brochure. What I did know was that no amount of Internet searches would turn up any decent places to run from the Gaylord Opryland (though to my amusement I did find this page which highlights the worst cities to run in, four of the five of which I’ve previously railed about in this column). I also knew that the resort occupied a slim strip of pavement hemmed in by the river and an eight-lane freeway. I further knew that there were some non-descript roads by which I could escape to north, though with no apparent destination or scenery. But mostly I knew that I wanted to take advantage of my friend’s recommendation and make my way to Shelby Bottoms to enjoy all that green, which meant escaping to the south and crossing the river. The problem was getting there.

The City of Nashville did its part to solve my problem. A bit over a decade ago they built a lovely pedestrian suspension bridge from the Bottoms to the Opryland side of the river. Google Maps then served up hope in the form of a small road that paralleled the freeway and connected the south end of the Opryland resort-cum-hotel-cum-mall-cum-behemoth to a tiny rotary where the trail from Shelby came off the pedestrian bridge and plunged into a tunnel to parking lot across said freeway. Other than the need to hop down from the roundabout onto the trail, which appeared pretty easy, it looked like a win. Two miles from my hotel room would put me across the river with miles and miles of both paved and unpaved trails – and lots and lots of green. An early morning start would give me time for a fine tour of the Bottoms and still get me back for the Rah-Rah.

Except for one little problem. Well, two, to be precise.

That little road was actually the entrance to a building housing Ryman Hospitality Properties. (You’ll understand why I’m calling them out by name shortly.) And a quick peek at Google Street View turned up a big issue: that little road was guarded by spiked iron gates at both ends, hermetically sealing off Ryman from the rabble of the real world. While it looked likely I could get around the one on the south end, resplendent with open lawns, the one on the north end was embedded in deep, thick woods, thwarting any attempt to circumvent its distinct lack of hospitality; rather ironic for a company whose name is hospitality.

A study of the map showed that no reasonable alternative routes existed. To cross over the freeway from the hotel would involve, besides a lot of busy and highly unpleasant intersections, a crazy-long detour that would make the round-trip to the bridge a long run in its own right. No, there was no alternative but to breach the ramparts.

Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not being so pompous as to claim that as a runner I have any special rights to cross someone’s private property. Of course I don’t. But here’s an interesting little detail: Ryman, it turns out, owns Opryland. The hotel (Marriott only manages it). The music hall and famed show. A bunch more places. So Ryman, in the hospitality business, is sealing itself off from its own customers, a most inhospitable stance. We love you, or at least your money. Now don’t bother us.

In part, I get it. If you look at the map, you can understand why they wouldn’t want vehicular traffic coming down the road. It’s small. It’s not designed for volume. And when things happen at Opryland, they happen big. It really would be unpleasant to try to empty out a show, the mall, or a convention through their driveway, especially if the freeway backed up and people bailed for this alternative. So that part makes sense.

But nobody would pass this way on foot, save a few fitness crazies like me. Nobody would leave a performance at the Grand Ol’ Opry and try to walk back to downtown Nashville. It’s a long, long way (and it’d probably be very dark). Nobody would walk from the mall with their shopping treasures in hand. There’s nothing on the other end, save that bridge to the greenway, and once you’re there, there’s nothing there either, again, for a long, long way. And the southern end appeared (and I’d confirm later) to offer plenty of ways around the gate, so this blockade wasn’t adding any level of facility security. So why not allow pedestrians to pass, at least during daylight hours? Isn’t the point of the greenway to provide accessibility to outdoors? Isn’t the point of a hospitality business to provide a pleasant experience to their customers?

Before I slept Sunday night, I was already roiling at the irony. Here was a city that had made an effort not only to preserve open space, but to make it accessible by building a bridge (and a big and costly one at that, mind you), only to have that wonderful resource be put off-limits to their biggest point-source of visitors and tourist and convention revenue – by the very firm that was drawing those people in. It’s a wound inflicted by their own benefactor. It’s the antithesis of what enlightened civic leaders strive for. Readers of this column will recall just three months ago in A Tale of Two Cities my praise for what Austin, Texas has created, and how their work has transformed their city by slathering it with a sizable dose of healthy lifestyle, and it has paid back in spades. Nashville is trying, but they’ve been blocked at the ten-yard-line by a member of their own team.

But I’ve jumped ahead and made a lot of conclusions before spelling out the story, so, let’s back up.

Owing to what I’d learned in my pre-trip research, I arrived in Nashville with an agenda, no, make that a mission, seasoned with a relish of indignance. Fight the injustice! Free the Bottoms! On check-in, the Gaylord’s front desk was a bit flummoxed by my ask of a way to get to the greenway and sent me to the concierge. Once there, I thought I’d hit the jackpot when Concierge The First not only understood my plight and seemed to have a solution, but doused her answer in passion for my cause. Enlightenment! Yes, she said, you can get around that gate through the woods (foolish me, having seen the barrier only from a distance on Street View, I thought the method would be obvious and didn’t ask further details), and further, she said she’d been working with the city to open up the very access I sought. Hallelujah! There is hope for the world!

And so I duly dragged my stiff and aged butt out of bed the next morning and made it out the door a few minutes after six, which those who know me know is not a time I prefer to be active. I worked out the kinks while traversing the acres of parking lot that offered the shortest route south. Reaching the resort’s southern terminus, just before the resort road melded into the mega-freeway, off in a last forlorn lot to the right… yes, there it was. The Gate of Unwelcoming, the Portal of Prohibited Passage. And to my surprise, a Gaylord pickup truck was in front of it, and it was open. The Evil Empire making rounds perhaps? As I approached, the truck rolled through, and the gate started to swing slowly shut.

I contemplated making a dash. I could have made it. But if I did (and if nobody shot me) I would still have to get back. Scaling the spikey thing was not an option. If I couldn’t return, I certainly wouldn’t make it back in time for the Rah-Rah. And we’d been read the riot act that we would be at the Rah-Rah on time.

I let it swing shut, and when the truck was long gone, surveyed the scene. A Most Unwelcoming Sign warned that trespassers would be eaten by angry hippos (yeah, I made that part up, but it was unwelcoming). Fences along the road melded gapless with the gate, and southern-style-thick foliage extending on both sides. But the fence along the road only ran for perhaps twenty feet, and it almost looked trodden behind it. This, I surmised, must have been the ‘through the woods’ that Concierge The First had spoken of. I swung myself around the end of the fence and, clinging to that barrier to avoid the poison ivy and the slight drop into even thicker poison ivy, made my way to the gate – only to find Yet Another Fence, this one extending outward from the gate directly into the thick, no end visible, no trodden path, passage thwarted. Well, at least I wouldn’t get eaten by angry hippos. Extracting myself from the fences, I circled the small lot from whence the fence commenced, and finding no trodden paths into the thick, considered myself repelled but not defeated. I retreated, took a tour of the soft yellow underbelly of the resort (the service and warehouse district, so to speak), and popped in a few more miles by popping out the north end into a residential road amusingly signed to repel RVs.

Back to the drawing boards. Concierge The First happened to be off that day, so my next effort landed me with Concierge The Second. Once again, the effort and caring offered up was second-to-none. Second got creative, explored several transit options, and went so far as to offer that she’d personally drive me down there (at 5:45 AM!) which I politely declined since it kind of subverted the point of the quest, and more importantly, since I could have permanently contaminated her seat cushions on the ride back. But key to this story is that she got on the phone and called our now mutual nemesis, Ryman (Non-)Hospitality, expecting that a reasonable request from a reasonable person would get a reasonable response. Expecting to hear that yes, we keep that locked to keep crowds of vehicles at bay, but sure, you can run through, since there will never be a full marathon crowd passing by, or maybe we can offer you a one-time code for the electronic gate lock, or…let’s just say, expecting hospitality.

Nope. No way. Absolutely not. We don’t want your stinkin’ stinky runners. Go away.

I think Concierge The Second was just about as devastated by this as was I. Oh, the humanity.

Well, kids, there’s only one option left: Yup, the freeway.

Now before you rise in horror, before you call Dearest Spouse and tell her to reign me in (or you are Dearest Spouse and would prefer I come home alive, which I did, but, well, you know), consider that in the course of runs everywhere I occasionally find myself on stretches of freeway-like roads with exit ramps that often must be crossed (not the case here) and traffic moving quickly, like rural highways. And worse, I often find myself on roads that aren’t freeways but have such a nasty lack of shoulders or other safe spaces that even slower-moving traffic represents a huge hazard. But still, this was really a freeway.

As it turns out, the distance from where the south end of the resort road melded into said eight-lane freeway and where the next exit ramp departed for that tiny rotary was only about a quarter mile, all with a good shoulder. With the exception of about a quarter of that distance where a concrete wall forced running on that shoulder, it looked like (thanks again, Street View) that one could hop the guard rail and run protected along the rough but passable edge on the other side. I was a bit more nervous about the outbound trip since traffic would be coming from behind me, but it would be early and volume, I reasoned, should be light.

The next morning, I hit the parking lot at a quarter to six. Passing the gate which had stymied me the day prior there was again a Gaylord pickup truck making rounds. Or perhaps they’d had a change of heart and sent someone out to see if I’d show up and politely let me pass? Or, alternately, that staffer was there to unleash the angry hippos on me if I tried? I mentally gave the truck an impolite salute as I passed and hit the on-ramp (which I note did not have one of those ‘pedestrians prohibited’ signs) with acceleration akin to my aged Prius.

Traffic was indeed light, but it only takes one semi doing seventy to rattle you a bit. The concrete barrier section came early and passed in a minute. Hopping the guard rail wasn’t hard, though the terrain on the other side probably offered up more chance of injury than had I stayed on the road –those
six-inch cobbles they use for drainage really aren’t amenable to confident footfalls. As the thick woods gave way to the open lawns of the Ryman Hospitality building, I noticed another Gaylord pickup truck at their south gate. Were they really coordinating to let the fool pass? Or were they doubling down on their defense in anticipation of my threatening arrival? Ominous.

Reaching the rotary victorious, and more importantly still alive,
it was an easy task to hop down the banking to the trail. In another minute I was on Nashville’s quite glorious suspension bridge, then swirling down its looping approach ramp, and I’d finally hit the Bottoms.

Shelby Bottoms wasn’t a stunning piece of scenery; indeed, it was rather unremarkable (though had I gotten further south I would have gained more river views to turn up the remarkability meter). Instead, it was glorious for what it wasn’t. It wasn’t urban. It wasn’t developed, save for the main path being paved as a bikeway with a few small bridges. It wasn’t crowded – indeed, I was surprised at how few people I saw, which told me that Nashville has a way to go to try to reach Austin’s widespread embrace of their green spaces. And oddly, it wasn’t even that quiet: traffic noise from the freeway across the river never ceased, but the cacophony of birds and insects closer by made a credible effort at allowing me to forget the former. In truth, it was quieter while running behind the mall to get there than it was at the Bottoms, but I’ll take the Bottoms any day.

And it was green. Stupendously green. Entirely green, save for the flitting of cardinals, the occasional bits of mud, and the gray of the bikeway. The unpaved paths ranged from wide and road-like to single track, where the green impinged so quickly that a tree down across the trail had rapidly grown over green again. Dewy grass was politely cleaning the mud from my shoes when I came around a corner and almost ran into a trio of deer. Various critters rustled in the brush and occasionally bunny-hopped out for a look. It was just what I’d hoped for.

I overstayed my schedule, because, well, after what it took to get there, why not? Energized, the trip back north flew by. Passing the Palace of Prohibition, I offered up one final mental ‘driving finger salute’ in defiance to yet another looming Gaylord pickup truck as I hit the freeway again. Facing traffic this time, the brief stretch where I had to be on the inside of the retaining wall was over before I’d gotten nervous about the now early-rush-hour traffic. Getting back a bit later than planned, knowing my co-workers were used to, and at times even inspired, by my antics, I opted to hit the open-air (well, open atrium?) breakfast pre-shower – which turned out to be rather fun when the new exec-level guy at the table turned out to be a triathlete. Mutual respect gained.

I’m not immune to the truth: I took a risk here for what most would say was a rather meaningless goal. But I calculated and accepted that risk as low enough (and frankly probably lower than the ‘legal’ long detour, which entailed crossing major intersections), and besides, everything carries risks. Travelling to Nashville itself probably offered up far more risk in aggregate. I came through fine and relished my reward for taking that risk.

But Nashville, and more specifically, Ryman Hospitality, needs to fix this. Not everyone will be so daring, and the chance of a tragedy does exist. Open up access. Free the Bottoms.