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Something Happened

Something Happened
Virginia Central Railway Trail

Man or Bear?

By Claire Marshall Watkins

Summertime is the perfect season for bike riding, and I’m fortunate to live close to one end of the Virginia Central Railway Trail, the perfect place to ride. The trail spans 2.7 miles each way and it takes me another two-tenths of a mile to get there, so altogether cycling the full length and back spans about six miles. The trail is pleasant, lined by narrow stretches of woods. It cuts through Alum Springs Park, where I used to play as a kid, and alongside Hazel Run, the creek that meanders through town. When my youngest sister and I were little, we would jump from a small waterfall in the creek to a deep pool below. We thought it was a lot steeper back then. Some of my best memories from childhood occurred there. (And some of the worst: During a field trip to Alum Springs in middle school, my best friend at the time un-invited me to her pool party for spoiling The Fault in Our Stars by telling her who dies at the end.)

I’ve made a regular habit of riding the VCR Trail for the past three years when I’ve been home from university and working summer jobs. It’s meditative and peaceful; I feel present and calm as I fly down the trail, no longer fixated on my adult responsibilities or real-world troubles. But I’m also aware that I’m a 5’1, feminine-presenting person, even in my baggiest of clothes. Believe me, I don’t want to feed into the victim-complex people often assign to feminists. But the hard truth is that the world is not so kind to women, so I also have to stay vigilant when I’m riding alone. Any trail poses a safety risk to some extent. I know that; I have always known that.

There are two roads one must cross on the VCR Trail. The first is on Emancipation Highway, recently renamed from Jefferson Davis Highway after the only confederate “president.” The other is at the intersection of Lafayette Boulevard and—I kid you not—a section of highway called the Blue and Gray Parkway. That second intersection is perhaps a tenth of a mile from the start of Lee Drive, named for another despicable figure in Fredericksburg history. Despite its name, the road—which runs through much of the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg National Park—itself is beautiful, a winding adventure through picturesque verdure. 

A few days ago, I wanted to push myself on my ride and thought I might add some distance by cycling from the VCR Trail over to Lee Drive. As I rode up Lafayette Boulevard to get from one to the other, I heard a rattling noise nearby. I didn’t think it was an engine revving, but I was wrong. I looked over. There were only two cars on the road: a newer SUV a few yards behind me and a heavily rusted truck that had just passed and was now a few yards ahead. What looked like a teenage boy’s face fit exactly in the frame of the truck’s rear window. He was laughing and whooping, gesturing to his friends with one hand and waving at me with the other. He scrunched his pointer finger up and down the way you might do to say Hello to dogs. I had seen that smug, aggressive look on too many boys’ faces too many times and it pissed me off.

“Eat shit!” I shouted, though the truck was already too far gone by then for anyone to hear. It was headed toward Lee Drive. My mood shifted. I suddenly felt disappointed and uncomfortable. Don’t let them ruin your ride, I told myself. That’s exactly what they want. They want you to think about them. But I could barely pay attention to my playlist anymore. I turned down the volume in my headphones and abandoned any notion of riding alone onto Lee Drive.

I escaped Lafayette Boulevard and cycled onto a wooded stretch of the VCR Trail that also serves as an access road to a couple of houses. One of the driveways I passed was guarded by two identical lion statues. I wished they could come to life, just for a while, to watch over me until I made it home. Man or bear?

A couple on their bikes in full cycling gear passed me by. Nothing to worry about with them. I flew past a woman and her dog, and felt safe with them too.

Then, just ahead, I saw a man alone on the side of the trail. He wasn’t eating or drinking, just standing. There are benches every few tenths of a mile along the trail, but there was no bench anywhere around him. As I approached, I saw a wide grin spread across the man’s face. He was standing next to a bulky electric scooter. My legs were tired by then, but I picked up the pace anyway to get past him, and away from him, as quickly as I could. He didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, but it didn’t matter. I was still troubled by the assholes in the truck. After a few seconds, I looked back down the trail to make sure the man with the scooter wasn’t following me.

When I made it off the trail and onto my street, I felt as though I had just run through the rain yet arrived at my destination parched and dry. I felt relieved.

The next day, I decided to drive to Lee Drive and write about the experience. The back of my car is set up as a sort of hang-out spot. My grandparents’ big, blue Mexican blanket is spread out in the back where I also keep an oversized sweatshirt that I use as a pillow. Whenever I want to hang out back there, I just flip down my back seats, open the trunk and lie down on the blanket and sweatshirt to read or write. A while back, an old friend showed me a nice spot to park off Lee Drive, a wooded circle where people leave their cars so they can walk or run or rollerblade out on the road. I pulled in there to write. 

A shiny white car also sat in the roundabout, the only other vehicle in that area. I couldn’t see the driver through the heavily tinted windows, and though I decided it was likely harmless, I still made sure to park facing the other car just to be safe. Then I sprawled out in the back of my car. I’d been there ten minutes, writing and listening to Chappell Roan, when the other driver started the engine, pulled forward out of the parking space and began to drive. I assumed the car was going to leave, but instead the driver rolled down his windows and slowed way down as he passed my little Subaru. I saw then that he was an older man, alone in this pristine car, staring at me. I met his gaze and he slowed down even more. He couldn’t have been going more than two or three miles an hour. I was afraid at this point, and I couldn’t look away. We held eye contact for what felt like eternity until he finally broke it and kept driving. I assumed he would continue to pull forward and leave. After all, I had parked near the exit.

But he didn’t. He rolled up his windows and circled back around to the same parking space as before. I have to go, I thought. I calmly packed my things into my tote bag and tossed it into the front seat, keeping a close eye on the white car the whole time. I didn’t bother to fold my back seats upright. Once I pulled onto the road, I kept checking my rear-view mirror to make sure he wasn’t following me back down Lee Drive. 

I was flustered but still wanted to keep writing outside, somewhere close to nature, so I drove to the City Dock at the end of Sophia Street. When I got there and parked, I stayed in the front seat in case I needed to leave in a hurry once again. Some men were standing a short distance away, discussing some business or another. One said something about “the little girl over there” possibly being able to hear their conversation, and they soon left. This time I stayed.

I used to go to a historically women’s college where I could walk the perimeter of campus alone at midnight with music blasting through my headphones at full volume. The most dangerous thing that happened while I was there was when a baby bear crossed Front Quad one night. We all watched the cub without bother, even the people who mistakenly got closer than they should. It was a bubble away from the real world. 

When I transferred to the University of Mary Washington, I lost that sense of safety. Though I’ve forged some lovely friendships with men in this new coeducational environment, they don’t erase the reality of danger that women and other feminine-presenting people face, especially when out alone.

What I felt that day at Lee Drive—the sudden sense of panic, the urge to flee—was the same fear I’d experienced on Lafayette Boulevard and the VCR Trail the day before. It is something I’ve felt time and again, probably since I was 12 and grown men downtown started honking and catcalling me and my cohort of baby-faced middle school buddies.

But I ought to be grateful, I reminded myself as I sat alone at the City Dock, looking out at the wide river. Nothing actually happened.

*** 

Claire Marshall Watkins has spent the better part of 22 years growing up and living in Fredericksburg. A student journalist, DJ and English major at the University of Mary Washington, they enjoy reading, writing and making obscure pop culture references to anyone who will listen.