CityStrides – 100% of Northampton!

(back-dating this post, completed 2/2/2021)

On November 7th, 2020, I completed my years-long project of running every street in Northampton, thanks to CityStrides.

I joined in 2018 while training for the New York Marathon, but since it syncs with RunKeeper, my favorite run-recording app, it counted runs I had in 2015 while training for the Rochester Marathon and so I was already at 18%. I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled on it, but it was connected to working with CommonMedia because that’s where James Chevalier, the creator of the app, was working; I had signed up already when I saw him at a tech happy hour and we talked about it. Having it be something local was completely cool and unexpected.

CityStrides has made running so much more fun! It helped a ton during marathon training when the miles started adding up; the extra motivation to complete streets made the long runs more rewarding. That got me to 76% of the city, pulling ahead of the nearest competitors (#2 is at 65% as of today and #3 is at 49%; I didn’t record where they were then, but I don’t think either of them has been focusing on Northampton). It felt awesome to be in the lead, and I kept plugging away at nearby routes post-marathon, but my normal routine is only about 6 miles for a long run and I soon plateaued at a little over 80%.

My philosophy (even pre-CityStrides) is that I want exercise to be self-propelled, so I strenuously avoid driving to a route. I make exceptions for races, of course, and some of my favorite hikes (especially with friends) require getting in the car, but I didn’t want a single stretch of CityStrides to involve driving, so I didn’t make much progress in 2019. This year I decided to prioritize finishing by biking to the outlying areas, starting with sections near ValleyBike stations and then mixing in my regular bike.

I got a bottle of champagne at the end of October in order to celebrate, with the unspoken hope that we’d actually be celebrating a Biden-Harris victory. On November 7th, after the spontaneous celebrations all over downtown, I rode to North King Street to finish the last segment, Trinity Circle in Laurel Park. As I had suspected from a previous attempt, it turns out to be a phantom section that I had to mark manually complete. But one of the really great things about CityStrides is it’s based on the open-source Open Street Map, so I’m trying to figure out how to report this as a phantom or paper street and make it better for everyone. It’s very interesting that the official Laurel Park map, GMaps, and OSM of this area are all totally different.

I became a supporting member so I could get the instant gratification of uploading and syncing my new runs when I got home, but I’m really happy to do so anyway. It’s a great project and it’s free to use! One of the extra-nice features is that it brings in weather data, which RunKeeper doesn’t. I can look back on a particularly slow run and be reminded that it was 85 degrees with 100% humidity!

Some thoughts on why this was so much fun:

  • Obviously, it got me to explore every single street. I saw all kinds of things I would have otherwise missed.
  • Less obviously, I have memories and associations all over town – the neighborhoods I went to over and over, the little streets that eluded me at first, the places I want to revisit.
  • Seeing the variety of architecture, gardens, wild areas, industrial parks – all delightful. Some of the newer/developer-driven neighborhoods remind me of McMansion Hell, but that’s interesting too!
  • I found new conservation areas to explore, and now I have a secondary goal of tracking all the public trails in Northampton.
  • It helped me enjoy what I don’t have – both in the positive sense, that other people’s gardens and design choices bring me pleasure, but also in the negative sense, that every lawn is one I don’t have to mow, and every soffit is one I don’t have to paint.
  • When traveling or visiting family, picking a running route is (rather, was, and will be again…) an additional small joy. I won’t do much of DC or Rochester etc., but I can at least add a few streets on each trip.

On top of getting all the Northampton hiking trails on my lifemap, I can also set new goals – covering neighboring towns like Hatfield (fewer, longer streets) and Easthampton (tons of streets, accessible via ValleyBike). Years ago I had the vague project of walking every Manhattan street, which I was going to manually map. Once the pandemic is over, I’ll be able to work on that when we visit family.

Carrot cake from Iconica

The time between eating and writing is stretching. I’ve also had two muffins (peach-ginger by Tart from Northampton Coffee, raspberry almond from Sylvester’s) and a scone (maple nutmeg oat from Hungry Ghost) which I didn’t blog. So this experiment is probably drawing to an end, as expected. An important aspect of evolution/maturity for me is to recognize that I have way too many ideas to fully carry out in a human lifetime, and it’s not a failure to start many and only finish a few. But what I might try first is just focusing on cake. When I first had the notion to do something like this, pre-pandemic, I wanted to focus on one type of baked good at a time, starting with almond croissants – like Nosh and Nibble’s ranking of them in the Vancouver area, which I just found – so I could start with cake. We’ll see.

Carrot cake from IconicaI had already had Iconica‘s carrot cake, which they describe specifically as “Carrot Cake w/ Ginger + Walnut: 3 layer; yogurt + honey cake, lemon + turmeric cream cheese frosting,” so I knew it was good. The frosting’s bright yellow color is a little shouty because of the turmeric, but it’s a lovely contrast with the dark brown cake, and as usual it’s not tooth-achingly sweet and there’s just the right amount (nor does it taste of tumeric in a detectable way). Note my slice got a little banged up in transit, plus I’m not a food photographer! Texture great, flavor amazing – I think maybe it’s the honey that lingers as a sort of unplaceable yummy aftertaste? It makes me want more, and I did eat it a little faster than I meant to. But one of the things I particularly appreciate about Iconica’s style of cake is that while they taste super-delicious, they don’t have that extra level of butter/sugar/grease that some “indulgent” baked goods have, and as a result my body has never regretted the eating of them. It helps that the slice is the right size to be a satisfying serving and not a temptation to eat too much. Anyway – high marks!

  • Compared to platonic version – 4/5 (my ideal classic carrot cake has coconut, more raisins, and pecans, but this a 5/5 of this specific style!)
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 4.5/5 ($4 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4/5
  • 6 minutes to eat, 26 to write but there was a whole meta-paragraph!

Red velvet beet cake from Iconica

Red velvet beet cake from IconicaAs I told the Iconica folks, red velvet is not a favorite flavor of mine; I hoped the beet would make it more interesting. I wouldn’t have been able to pick it out, but the texture was not only moist but particularly sturdy – not chewy, yet resistant to the tooth in a pleasurable way. I wished the frosting had been a little more assertive on the lemon front. The cake itself had the classic “I don’t know what this tastes like but vaguely cocoa?” of red velvet cake, which is why I don’t much like it. Not a winner, but at least the beet meant it wasn’t soaked in red food coloring.

  • Compared to a platonic version – 4/5? (hard to say)
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 3.5/5 ($4.50 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4.5/5, grating beets being an especially big nope
  • 9 minutes to eat, 12 to write

Southern hummingbird cake from Iconica

Southern Hummingbird Cake from IconicaOooh, a new cake variety – new at Iconica that I can recall, and totally new to me as I’d never heard of it before. Iconica’s description: “3 layer; crushed pineapple, banana, pecan cake; cream cheese custard; browned butter buttercream,” and their promo email explained “the pineapple creates a moist crumb but doesn’t feature as a taste in the cake, itself.” Indeed, the flavor was predominantly banana. I like fresh bananas but I tend to avoid them in ice cream or baked goods. It’s an instinctive aversion which doesn’t make much sense because I usually enjoy the flavor once I’m eating it, and this was the epitome of that intense banana flavor – interestingly, not only the pineapple but also the pecans blended in, contributing to the texture alone. As always, perfect proportions, great slice integrity, and delicious (lovely to look at too – the photo didn’t come out very well).

  • Compared to a platonic version – another holotype! – 5/5
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 4.5/5 ($4.50 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4/5
  • 12 minutes to eat, 22 to write

Chocolate chunk scone from Hungry Ghost

Hungry Ghost scone Hungry Ghost makes my favorite scones, hands-down, but it doesn’t open until 10am these days and when I was working a regular schedule, I would seldom get there before they sold out. Got this one at 10:30 and had it for lunch/dessert – a new flavor for me, not quite as delicious as their rosemary/walnut/currant combos but a classic and plenty satisfying. I love the traditional triangle shape because the toasty points are my favorite bit, and Hungry Ghost always bakes to a lovely dark shade – my mother describes undercooked baked goods as “floppy,” and I join her in abhorring them (although sometimes I can redeem a limp cookie or biscuit in the oven). The texture is also perfect, breaking into craggy chunks without falling apart, moist but still with good tooth, and the cubes of chocolate were a good size.

  • Compared to a platonic chocolate chip scone – 4.5/5
  • Originality: 2/5
  • Value for money: 5/5 ($3 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 3/5
  • 14 minutes to eat, 15 minutes to write – that’s more like it!!!

Pistachio cardamom cake from Iconica

Pistachio cardamom cake from IconicaIconica has five different regular cake flavors, of which I’ve already had four, so this completes the set – and I think it’s my favorite! It’s gorgeous to look at, lovely gold layers with warm brown frosting decorated with whole nuts and rose petals, and it smells wonderful. I bought it early in the day to make sure they didn’t run out but didn’t eat it until later, so I kept sniffing it (I do call myself a “cakesniffer,” which I got from the A Series of Unfortunate Events books but define more descriptively than pejoratively). I’m not very familiar with cardamom outside of Indian cuisine and wouldn’t have guessed its presence, but it might contribute to the almost lemony fragrance (Wikipedia describes it as “intensely aromatic, resinous”). This is part of the challenge I’ve given myself – if I were only eating I’d call it delicious and move on, but trying to figure out why it’s delicious is interesting. As cake it hit every mark: very moist but kept its integrity under the fork, clearly-delineated layers with the creamy texture of the frosting complementing the softly-grainy crumb dominated by ground pistachio, complex flavors, not too sweet, just the right amount of frosting, the perfect serving size.

  • Compared to a platonic pistachio cake – this is my holotype since I’ve never had any kind before! 5/5
  • Originality: 4/5
  • Value for money: 5/5 ($4 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4.5/5
  • 13 minutes to eat, 40(!) minutes to write

Coconut cake pastry from Roost

My goodness, what a ridiculous and ridiculously-delicious little Smurf house (actually proportioned more like a Moomin house – the image is forshortened)! The Roost is a cooperative so I’m extra-happy to support them now they’ve re-opened. I’ve been on the search for ideal cake for a few years—Iconica holds the current title—and had tried Roost’s coconut cake near the beginning of my quest, when it was a classic slice form factor, yummy but a little too sweet and with way too much frosting. This small tower gets the proportions much much better. There’s sour cream in the frosting, which balances the sugar, keeps the texture smooth, not grainy,  and allows enough stickiness to prevent the toasted coconut from falling off without adhering to the fork too much. The cake itself is fine – decently moist, unassertive crumb, a little bland but a good carrier. The marshmallow top adds fluff and a just-right bitterness from the browning. The whole thing held together surprisingly well – I ate half and have another half to enjoy!

  • Compared to platonic coconut cake: 4.5/5
  • Originality: 3/5
  • Value for money: 4/5 ($5.50 before tax for 2 big servings)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4.5/5
  • 12 minutes to eat, 22 to write (lots of links)

French toast from Iconica

French toast from IconicaIconica‘s full description is “FRENCH TOAST w/ MAPLE + VANILLA CREME ANGLAISE:  Sourdough toast with egg, milk + grapefruit zest custard; sweet maple syrup + vanilla bean cream, nectarines, blueberries.” It was gorgeous to look at, absolutely delicious, and very substantial, with three thick slices of sourdough. I devoured it all and licked up the little bit of extra creme anglaise! I couldn’t taste the grapefruit zest specifically but the flavor profile had a lot going on. The toast was properly cooked with a crusty top and bottom, moist but not soggy in the middle. For truly platonic French toast I’d expect it to be a little bit eggier and soft enough to cut with a fork, but this variant lets the chewiness of the sourdough assert itself. The blueberries and nectarines were perfectly ripe, the creme anglaise was just sweet enough and the exact consistency for pouring over without dripping off, and the proportions of each element were right. A high point of my Sunday!

  • Compared to platonic French toast: 4.5/5
  • Originality: 3.5/5
  • Value for money: 4/5 ($9.50 before tip)
  • Effort factor (1 = could make in my sleep; 5 = no way would I ever make this for myself): 4/5
  • 13 minutes to eat, 16 minutes to write

Updated: it worked! (was “Let’s plow the missing piece!”)

Update: thanks to everyone who contacted the powers-that-be, the trail between Pleasant and North King was plowed during the winter of 2012-2013. It stopped after the demise of the BID, but this past winter (2016-2017) it started again. Thank you to the Mayor and the DPW! Now, if we could get the Norwottuck plowed from Northampton to Amherst, especially once the tunnel under the railroad tracks is completed, that would be awesome!

Since we moved to Northampton in early 2012, I’ve been enjoying the incredible network of trails we have here. But some sections are now plowed in the winter, which is too bad. With support from the Friends of Northampton Trails and Greenways, the Northampton Business Improvement District, and various individuals, I’ve started an informal group to try and address that. Initially we’re focusing on the mile-long stretch of the downtown rail-trail parallel with King St. The city’s Department of Public Works plows north and south of that section.

Why?

  • Snow turns into rough, bumpy ice (because people use the trail anyway!)
  • Compacted ice takes forever to melt
  • On dry winter days, trail could be used by hundreds of people if not for the ice
  • Plowing the trail will increase:
    • Recreation and fun
    • Physical and mental health
    • Carbon-free commuting options

There are costs (equipment and labor) and issues (fences and bridges). But it is less than a mile, and the benefits are huge!

Will you help?

If you’re a Northampton resident, please contact the mayor and city council and tell them you support plowing the trail! And/or, please download the Plow the Trail PDF (a poster and handout sheet) and distribute it.

The Norwottuck Rail Trail is also not plowed, but that is the responsibility of the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Separate campaign to come!