Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tribulus terrestris

After a breakfast of eggs and toast, I load my backpack with a water bottle, my camping knife, and a trowel. I strap my claw hammer to the outside of my pack, congratulating myself on having the foresight to bring such a tool. Then I put on my hiking shoes and don my adventuring hat and set out. It's 7:00 AM.

Among the various effects of having Achilles tendinosis is that my Tuesday mornings are free. This Tuesday morning I'm not biking; I'm walking—westward. Minutes into my walk, as I pass through a neighborhood of houses, my left shoe begins to scratch the ground with each step. I stop and balance on my right foot while lifting my left sole, and I pull out two goatheads. I place them on the sidewalk and smash them flat using my hammer. Then I re-strap the hammer to my pack and continue walking. Soon I arrive at my destination: the DC path.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new bike. It's a touring bike, meant to replace my previous touring bike, which was stolen a few months ago while locked up at a transit hub parking lot. I never fully liked that previous bike—I prefer my new one already—so the theft is no loss but the money and effort accompanying the purchase and breaking in of a new bike. As part of that effort, my first ride on it was to the hardware store to buy a bolt for its rear rack. In my experience, the bolts that come with rear racks are always too long and get in the way of the rear cassette.

The hardware store literally no longer allows customers direct access to its nuts and bolts, so I had a store employee help me find the right bolt. While doing so, she asked about my bike, which was leaning against a rack of plumbing parts. We talked about biking, and she said she had a problem with flat tires. “What do you do about flats?” she asked. I started my standard speech about flats, saying how some tires are better than others and which ones and so on. “Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires are good for casual riding,” I said. “Supposedly you can't even hammer a tack through them. That means you're just about invulnerable to goatheads.”

“You mean like the goathead that's stuck in your tire right now?” she responded. I looked down and indeed saw a goathead stuck in my rear tire. (The bike did not ship with Marathon Pluses.) I pulled out the goathead. Fortunately, it hadn't yet penetrated the inner tube.

I finished my business at the hardware store and continued thinking about that goathead. This was a new bike, and I had scarcely ridden it one mile. “Where do these things come from?” I wondered. I had biked only through a neighborhood and along the DC path. Come to think of it, the last two times I biked along that route I had gotten flats. At the time I blamed my bad luck on the cheap Panaracer tires I had been using, but maybe the problem is the route itself. And if the problem is the route, then it's probably the DC path, not the neighborhood streets. With that, I rode back the way I came, slowing down on the path to look for signs of puncturevine.

The DC path is not the same as the canal path. The canal path is the main thoroughfare for cyclists and pedestrians and lies between the canal and the diversion channel, the latter being a concrete trench fifty feet wide and twenty feet deep. The DC path, wherever there happens to be one, is a secondary path sandwiched between the channel and the backyard fences of houses and businesses. The path I was on then isn't landscaped; the only places anything can grow are the raised beds next to the backyard fences. But the beds are mostly barren dirt with only the occasional weed or bush. “Where's the puncturevine?” I wondered as I slowly rode along. And then I realized: those weeds are them.

Tribulus terrestris. Goathead. Devil's thorn. I had never before identified it, having seen it only in photos. In person the leaves looked much smaller. And it's not so much a vine as a broad, flat patch that grows along the ground. It's a handsome plant, actually, with dark green leaves and small yellow flowers. But then on closer look there are the seedpods: dozens of light green goatheads maturing on the plant, waiting to be dropped on the ground, dozens more already on the ground and awaiting a shoe or tire on which to hitchhike.

Most of the weeds along this path were puncturevine, amounting to thousands of goatheads in all. My stomach knotted sickeningly. I mounted my bike and continued riding home, stopping at the end of the path to make sure no goatheads had stuck to my tire. “Never bike here again,” I told myself.

But though I can't bike the path, I can still walk it. This Tuesday morning I walk it armed with weeding tools. Why wait for the bureaucracy of a utility company to do the right thing? Arriving at the first patch of puncturevine, I hop onto the raised bed and pull my trowel from my pack and begin digging.

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