It began as a glorious Sunday afternoon, a day filled with the promise of spring. It ended with a $37 parking ticket. In between was a walk in the woods.
Early in the day the sun was warm and the chores were frustrating. So I tossed down the tools and packed the bikes, the kids and my wife in the station wagon.
The family wanted pastoral pleasure so we headed for the Loch Raven Reservoir. There we could ride bicycles or walk along sections of tree-lined roadway that had been blocked off to car traffic. It seemed like a good way for the kids and their keepers to "let off some steam."
Lots of other people had the same idea. Soon after we passed Peerce's Plantation restaurant and entered the reservoir grounds, we began passing cars parked along the right-hand side of Loch Raven Road.
I unloaded the family and the bikes at an entrance of the no-car zone, a gate at Loch Raven and Morgan Mill roads.
I then turned around and began hunting for a place to park. I found one on Loch Raven Road.
I should have been wary. Whenever I find a parking space in the congested city, I immediately assume that something must be wrong. I read the fine print on the parking meter. I check the color of the curb. I have learned that you never park near a painted curb or within 20 blocks of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, even in December.
But when I got in the woods, the fresh air went to my head. I believed once again in the goodness of man and in the common sense of government.
As I left the car and hiked about a quarter mile down the road to join my family, I spotted a few "No Parking" signs along the way.
I figured these signs applied to the other six days of the week when all the roads were open and the parking spots deeper in the interior of the reservoir were available.
Sunday, I told myself, must be a parking holiday.
Since cars were parked only on the one side of the road, traffic could move in both directions, although not at a high speed. Again I thought this was part of a brilliant plan to slow down traffic on Sunday. Finally, there were maybe 200 cars parked along the right side of the road. Two hundred parkers couldn't be wrong.
We were wrong -- at least, some of us were. All the "No Parking" signs were not equal.
One of the "No Parking" signs had an arrow on it that pointed south. Another "No Parking" sign had an arrow on it that pointed north. If you parked between the "No Parking" north arrow and the "No Parking" south arrow, you were OK. If not, you were nailed.
The family walk was relaxing. The closed-off section of Loch Raven Road had been transformed into a pastoral promenade. Parents meandered after their offspring. Dog owners trotted after their charges. Serious walkers puffed past. In-line skaters defied gravity. And dirt bikers, splattered with mud, emerged from the woods, then pedaled back in.
My family hit all the attractions. We skipped rocks in the reservoir. We watched dogs fetch sticks. We rode the bikes on pavement, then some of us careened down a muddy hillside trail on a bike and splashed through a creek.
We felt invigorated, until we got the ticket. Then urban anger returned.
On the ride home we considered what to do. The 12-year-old, who is becoming increasingly defiant, suggested tearing the ticket up. The 8-year-old, who has been hanging around with the son of two lawyers, suggested "suing." My wife mentioned going to court. I thought of ways to weasel out of paying. I didn't come up with any, so the other day I sent in the money.
I also called the Baltimore County police, who patrol the roads, even though the reservoir belongs to the City of Baltimore. And I called the county sign posters, who said they help the city put up "No Parking" signs. I told them it wasn't clear where people could park.
They said they would check into it.
No one knew why the fine for illegal parking on a city reservoir was $10 higher than the fine for parking in a no-stopping zone in downtown Towson.
I got the feeling that I was not the only one whose glorious Sunday outing at Loch Raven Reservoir had been flattened by a parking ticket.
And so the next time I go out to the reservoir, I will remember these words: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but the parking signs are tricky, and the fine is steep.