Freewheeling Around D.C.


When Stephen Marks and his wife, Janna, acquired Bike the Sites in December 2002, they didn’t realize how their two-wheeled tours of Washington, D.C., would translate to a Jewish audience.

“We put together some talking points to generate discussion and thought from a Jewish perspective at the different sites,” says Stephen, who took over the company from its founder, Gary Oelsner, who began offering professionally guided bicycle tours and rentals in 1995.

The Markses, recreational bikers until purchasing the company, also started providing customized programs for Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith, Jewish camps, federations and synagogue groups.

Bike the Sites, a smart solution to the challenges of sightseeing in heavily trafficked D.C., allows visitors to enjoy Washington’s history and architecture in an environmentally friendly way. It is among a handful of unique ways to explore the capital and enjoy local Jewish culture, kosher restaurants and community resources.

On a trip to Washington in 2003, a friend and I opted for the Marks’ Sites@Nite tour — a warm-weather option. March 1 through Dec. 30, the Bike the Sites menu features its flagship outing, the Capital Sites Tour, an easy three-hour ride around the National Mall and the Potomac’s Tidal Basin. Guides share the scoop on more than 50 of the nation’s most popular attractions, including the presidential monuments, as well as a few lesser-known sites that may have more meaning to Jewish visitors, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Einstein Memorial.

After adjusting our seat height on our 21-speed comfort mountain bike (a more upright ride and a larger seat) and helmets, we began our tour with a brief orientation on safety tips and hand signals from a CPR-trained guide. We took off from the Bike the Sites headquarters at the Old Post Office Pavilion (near the offices of the Internal Revenue Service) and rode on the sidewalk up busy 12th Street to the Mall.

In a picture-postcard setting, we rode past locals playing ball on the green open spaces in the shadow of landmarks. We cruised toward the Smithsonian Castle on a level, gravel path toward a number of top-billing destinations: the National Gallery and Sculpture Garden, National Archives, Air and Space Museum and the future American Indian Museum, which is slated to debut in September 2004.

From time to time, our energetic guide Mark, who earned a bachelor’s degree in American history at George Washington University in D.C., would roll to a stop and tell us more about our capital.

As we looked on at the Capitol building and munched on kosher Clif Bars (provided gratis for hungry guests), we learned how President Abraham Lincoln ordered tons of iron to be used for the construction of the Capitol dome — a message of strength and determination to the rest of the world that the North would win the Civil War.

Pedaling onward, we noted the increased security around the majestic Washington Monument and the White House. At the Vietnam Memorial, Mark told us an Israeli visitor pointed out that the soldiers on a statue that looks on at the poignant wall of victims’ names are equipped with authentic models of the M-16 rifle.

At the Einstein Memorial, we took a water break and marveled at the beautiful execution of this memorial to the 20th century’s most legendary scientist. A larger-than-life statue combines Einstein’s thoughtful gaze with the body of a child to evoke his childlike wonder of the world and his unique ability to see it anew.

At the foot of the statue, a fascinating star map depicts the skies on the night of what would have been his 100th birthday. As you stand in the apex of converging rays and say a few words to Einstein, you hear yourself speaking to him in the most perfect echo. It’s a whole new theory on relativity.

Bike the Sites is at 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, behind the Old Post Office Pavilion in the historic Penn Quarter. Prices for the Capitol Sites Tour are $40 for adults and $30 for children under 13. The fee includes the use of bikes and helmets, professional tour guides, bottled water and snacks.

Summertime Beat the Heat trips and customized tours for
Jewish groups are also available. All groups of riders receive a 15 percent
discount for a post-bike ride meal at Stacks, a nearby kosher delicatessen.
Bike, tandem, trailer tandem, burley (a buggy that attaches to bikes for young
children) and stroller rentals are also available. For group reservations, call
(202) 842-BIKE; e-mail, Stephen@bikethesites.com; or visit,

A Desert High in Palm Springs


While nearby flatlands warm under perfect 60-degree winter weather, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway transports visitors to a pristine snow-covered forest. In just 10 minutes, this aerial tram carries passengers nearly 6,000 feet. The beautiful 14,000 acres of Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area are among the most visit-worthy in this heavily tourist destination.

As you ride in the world’s largest rotating cars of the Aerial Tramway, the flora and fauna include everything one would see driving from the hot Sonora Desert of Mexico to the Transitional (alpine) Zone of Alaska. The highlights read like entries from a naturalist guide. From the main road nearest the tram, Highway 111, to the tram station, this green cienega, or Spanish marsh, nurtures cottonwood, sycamore, wild grape, mesquite and native Washingtonia filifera palm trees. Barrel cactus, cholla, prickly pear and yucca grow amid springtime wildflowers, including lupine, Canterbury bells and sunflowers.

Desert bighorn sheep, kit and gray foxes, bobcats, coyotes and ringtail raccoons also make their home here. As the tram climbs, wild apricot trees stand amid metamorphic rock, gneisses and schists. Deer and mountain lion roam among chaparral. And as the elevation rises, evergreens, firs and oaks thin as the peak approaches.

At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, there are a host of trails — including a three-quarters of a mile loop through picturesque Long Valley, just behind the Mountain Station that introduces visitors to regional plants and animals. A much longer path, at 5.5 miles, leads to the peak of Mount San Jacinto, the second-tallest mountain in Southern California at 10,834 feet.

The ideal tram departure time is just before sunset. The reversible 80-passenger cars revolve slowly from within, making two rotations and offering spectacular views. One popular option: capping off the day with a drink in the Top of the Tram Restaurant and the Elevations Restaurant while admiring the city lights below.

Erected in 1963, nearly 30 years after its inception, the tramway was named an engineering “wonder of the world” for its ingenious use of helicopters in erecting four of five support towers; 23,000 flight missions were required to carry workers, supplies and materials for the towers and the Mountain Station.

During the summer, the mercury reaches well into the 100s in Palm Springs, but the mountain offers more than 54 miles of hiking trails, camping and guided nature walks, at almost 40 degrees cooler.

Another day, my father and I opted to hike closer to sea level at nearby Palm Canyons. This ancient home of the band of Cahuilla (Agua Caliente) Indians boasts palms that are 200 years old, many of them with the natural foliage skirts that are removed on commercial palms. These layers of dried branches encircle the trunk-like structure of these trees, which technically are massive grasses rather than trees.

We learned these facts and more by joining a guided tour with Rocky, a native Hawaiian who turned tribal ranger after serving 20 years in the Marine Corps and 10 volunteering with the San Bernadino Police Department as a rescue tracker. His desert survival skills make him a perfect guide. Rocky showed us all the edibles and how the native peoples prepared acorns, made their homes and harvested the sweet date palm fruit growing high overhead.

We wandered amid giant palms, verdant grasses and a warm, picturesque creek that smelled of sulfur due to a high mineral content. Rocky pointed out one tiny, creek-side impression where a native family would have once ground their acorns (five such mini-ditches appear in rocks throughout the canyon).

In contrast to our inspiring, mellow days of hiking, one evening we attended the raucous “Palm Springs Follies,” a Rockette-style music and dance of the 1930s and ’40s with performers old enough to have lived it. Amazingly youthful seniors age 56 to 86 strut their stuff in between international vaudeville acts from November through May.

Jewish impresario Riff Markowitz, a former television producer, serves as emcee for this three-hour extravaganza, leading the audience through a show peppered with Jewish jokes — even a few relating to travel.

At one point he turned his attention to the holiday of Thanksgiving, saying no Jews were aboard the Mayflower.

“Do you know why?” he asked. “There were no first-class seats.”

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is located at One Tramway
Road. The cost is about $20. Tramcars depart every half hour from 10 a.m. to 8
p.m. For more information, call (888) 515-TRAM or visit “>www.psfollies.com .

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