Pennsylvania to Connecticut
As I neared the Delaware River due north of Philadelphia , a stark contrast in scenery took place almost at once. I seemed to have crossed into another dimension...literally. What was relatively flat terrain as I pedaled well away from the Appalachian Mountains was all of a sudden...not flat. North and East were now joined by Up and Down once again. And since extremes of topography are difficult to plow into tidy rows, farmland gave way to woodland. To add to my joy, I was totally ignorant of the Delaware Water Gap area, in name and description. What a welcome surprise to cross into New Jersey and immediately be served with the knowledge that New Jersey was beautiful.
Sometimes peril comes with interesting landscapes. After crossing the river at Delaware Water Gap my route found me on River Road parallel to the flowing waterway. Not many miles passed under my wheels before I approached something unusual. A traffic signal in the middle of nowhere. Just hanging there over the road, no intersection in sight. A few more pedal strokes and I found out why. The road, as it curved upward around that mountain, funneled down to one very narrow lane. The traffic signals, one on each end of the pinched roadway, were timed to allow automobiles a few minutes to traverse that section from each direction in turn. The problem for me was lack of horsepower. If a motor vehicle could make the journey upward in five minutes, it would take me at least double that amount of time. I could get caught between a rock and a hard place when time expired. The rock in that case was a sheer wall of granite on one side, the hard place on the other side was a man-made concrete barrier from the oblivion beyond. Because of those worries I waited for the light to turn green then hunkered down on the pedals as hard as I could. What a spectacular ride it would have been if I could have taken the time to look around. I sprinted on, the road gently curving to my right, the rock wall blocking my view of possible oncoming doom. Or at least oncoming inconvenience. As I huffed up the grade it felt like one of those bad dreams where I needed to run really fast, but some unseen force was holding me back. Gravity was the evil force in action on that stretch of road.
On and on I pedaled, ears straining for the slightest sound of car tires squealing down from above, or throaty internal combustion engines roaring up from behind. My internal cardiometer and stressometer were at redline. Up, up, up. Jagged rocks on my right, sheer drop to death on my left, and poor sightlines. Man, it was good to be alive. I could not have known at the time that events that day were a preview of what was in store for me later. That novel roadway would become the norm in many places farther north, only with the addition of logging trucks and moose "sharing" the road with me as well. At last up ahead I sighted the backside of another traffic signal. Death would have to reschedule his appointment with me later, in Maine.
My first day in New York was a blur of maps, towns, and route changes. I was extremely happy to see the first road in the state, and all the rest as well, had a small shoulder perfect for cycling. Just wide enough to keep any part of me out of the auto lane, just narrow enough to be self-cleaning as the wind created by passing motor vehicles blew small debris off the edge of the tarmac. I was excited to be visiting the family of a previous girlfriend who guaranteed me a place to set up a tent for a few days. Sharon decided to go to Europe for a month just before I crossed the border into New York. I would have to integrate myself into her family without any help from an insider. I met her mother once and only heard tales of her father, brothers and sisters. I also knew they lived on a small farm and grew most of their own food. I really liked the sound of that.
I was aiming for a bridge where I could cycle across the Hudson River. Following instructions from Sharon's father via an earlier telephone conversation my target was the Beacon-Newbergh Bridge, the namesake of towns on either side of the river. After crossing the Hudson I had to cycle due southward a bit for the first time since leaving Florida. Following the Hudson River on Highway 9D I encountered a tunnel near Hudson Highlands. When I emerged from the other side I noticed rock climbers on the cliffs above along with an awful lot of abandoned climbing equipment dangling from the rock face. Seeing that made me happy and homesick at the same time. The job I quit to do this ride included selling rock climbing equipment - mostly to movie film crews in New Orleans. I had also done a bit of actual climbing and mountaineering myself in the Rocky Mountains. I always enjoy cycling through areas where people are outdoors doing things. I relate well to the exercise set.
There were no difficulties finding Sharon's home. Even easier was hanging out with her family, pets, and farm critters. I would have happily let her family adopt me. Her parents were both long-time school teachers. Dad taught inner city youth in what looked like a prison on Manhattan Island. I know that because he took me with him to school one day as a "show-and-tell" project.
Besides the field trip to a Harlem public school, I got a good taste of what a New England commute was like. We were out of the house at dawn, into an automobile, then a twenty minute drive to the train station. A few minutes later we were on the train rattling south. The train zipped along for half an hour as it left the organic jungles of Upstate New York, passed through suburban neighborhoods, then entered the concrete canyons of Manhattan. As we neared the Harlem public school where I would be displayed as a talking exhibit from another world, it was impossible not to notice mile after mile of decayed low-rise buildings, some with trees growing large inside of long-vacant apartments. The elevated tracks hid from view any human element that may have been present at ground level. All that was left to take in was an apocalyptic landscape devoid of human presence rivaled by only the most dire Hollywood doomsday sets.
At last we freed ourselves of the train and made a short walk to the school complex which had all of the visual cues of a minimum security prison. Chain link and barbed wire surrounded the school and made me consider the purpose. It was not just to keep potential truants from sneaking out, but more to keep a bad element from wandering in. Long before the 9-11 attacks, security at the gate gave me pause. I asked myself: "What sort of community must build a fortress to protect their children in schools?"
I entered into that situation determined to keep a positive attitude. Had I been properly briefed about my day beforehand I would not have started my journey into the halls of education adjusting on the fly to an onslaught of disturbing images. Hell, if I wasn't extremely curious in nature I would not have cycled nearly two thousand miles to New York in the first place. I do not frighten easily, especially in the company of a seasoned professional New Yorker like Sharon's father. From the inside of the school building things looked a bit more normal. The kids were certainly sweet for the most part, which cemented the notion in my head that electric fences were to keep trouble out of that place.
As for my lecture, most of the high school juniors were quietly polite. One young man voiced his utter amazement that I had not been murdered yet. I made a vain attempt to explain how the world was a lot different just across the Hudson. What they actually heard was probably: "The weather is nice on Mars this time of year. You can breath up there...I promise!" In the end, I performed my duty as requested - politely and without getting ruffled. I departed with the tart taste in my mouth of what teaching in a rough public school might be like. That I was not cut from the teacher's mold was not shocking to me. To stand in front of a group of people I don't care about and offer information they don't care about seemed like a bad way to spend my days. My hat was off to dedicated school teachers. We could never pay them what they are worth - but we should try a lot harder.
The sour taste for teaching was soon replaced by a more delicate flavor. As my reward, Dad took me to Chinatown and introduced me to a secret eatery in the basement of an old brick building. No sign advertised the entrance, and no menu was offered once we were seated in a booth with fire red upholstery. Dad swore he had never been infected with food poisoning there, a great relief considering the borderline cleanliness of the horizontal surfaces I could see. The daily special was served hot and quickly. It smelled really good considering I could not visually identify any of it. Since I have never met the food I did not like, all I required to dig in was some assurance that I might not get sick. All of my previous distribution of unwanted and unappreciated information at the school made me ravenous. With my full stomach it was a challenge to stay awake as the northbound train tried to rock me into unconsciousness.
I was lovingly absorbed into Sharon's family before my second evening with them. Even the managerie of pets warmed up to me, perhaps sensing the level of comfort displayed by their trusted human housemates. Running wild inside the house were three dogs and a hooded rat. Outside were two cats, a goat, and several chickens. Sharon's older brother and youngest sister were still living at home and seemed happy to include me in their activities as well. Never one to sit around like a prince, I made myself useful scrubbing bathrooms, cleaning floors, snapping beans, and whatever else needed doing around the farm. One evening, Dad called a family meeting at the main bathroom. He paraded everyone through the just cleaned and polished walls and fixtures one by one, then announced: "You see...I told you it could be this clean!" My skills at housework backfired a bit, temporarily creating some angst toward me by family members also on the housework rotation schedule. The pursed lips and squinty-eyed looks only continued for a few hours.
I drove a surprising number of automobiles during this trip, including trips to deliver my Charlottesville, Virginia friends to and from airports as well as grocery runs and some other errands for them. Nothing compared to my Saturday afternoon drive in Manhattan. Sharon's dad wanted some cigars from a certain smoke shop located at the corner of No Parking Street and Tow Zone Avenue. He drove up to the storefront, double-parked, then told me to drive around the block as he was bailing out of the driver's door. One city block in Manhattan is about the size of four Amish dairy farms lined up end to end. Thankfully it was not a weekday as traffic levels were light enough for me to slalom the car past legions of yellow taxi cabs double and triple parked wherever they pleased. I was not in any rush and did not want to get back to the cigar shop before Dad emerged. My drive in The City ended with success. I felt I had drawn a minimal amount of blown horns and shaken fists from the local motorists.
Armed with a parking pass for a lot near Chinatown, we ventured there again for lunch. What an amazing place. I never gave much thought to communities in my own country where I might see ten thousand faces without spying one pasty white Anglo of European descent in the bunch, other than my own reflection in the windows of Chinese bakeries. And I looked in a lot of bakery windows. Again, most of what I saw was unfamiliar to me. It all tasted great.
Before driving back upstate, Dad gave me the speed-driving tour of Manhattan Island including as many landmarks as he could honk his way through traffic to show me. It came as no surprise that Time Square would stick in my mind's eye like an accidental glance at the sun. We didn't actually DO any of the touristy things as real New Yorkers couldn't be bothered, but I was not cheated. My next destination was just an hour bike ride north to Fishkill where a fellow New Orleanean and college buddy of mine had just been transferred.
I timed my visit with Mark in Fishkill for the weekend because he would be off from work. Just an hour of riding from Sharon's family home, Mark's new apartment was easy to find. He rented a tiny one bedroom place near his work which was used as a basecamp to store his work clothes, sleep, and eat while house hunting. His family would move to the area as soon as the new house was ready for occupation.
Mark was an outdoorsman and curious explorer with a list of places he wanted to check out. Everything in the area was new to both of us, so the list was long. We spent our first day hiking and exploring Mohonk Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains just across the Hudson River and a bit north of Fishkill. The preserve was a premier rock climbing and hiking area - very popular and crowded due to the reasonable proximity to eastern population centers. When we arrived I saw colorful camping tents sprinkled all over the valleys and cars parked precariously at the edge of narrow mountain roads. We chose to park in a gravel lot and pay for the privilege along with the fee to access the grounds. Soon we were hiking past small groups of people, connected by colorful ropes and clinging to cliff faces that went on for a mile. Eventually, the trail we chose narrowed and disappeared. We finally found the trail blaze down inside of a jumble of huge rocks. Down we went, carefully, sometimes with hands and feet on parallel rock walls. Falling would have resulted in a few bruises as we were never high off of the ground. Anytime I am forced to use my hands on a hike I consider it to be a challenging trail.
We were hiking Mohonk Preserve at the recommendation of Sharon's father. Mohonk was first on his list of things we should do and by then we could see why. Eventually we found a trail encouraging us to gain elevation as we desired a look around from a higher perch. As we hiked upward, the vastness of the preserve was more easily grasped. Besides the wilderness aspect there was an old hotel converted into a resort. Craftily built on Lake Mohonk in 1869, a grand 266-room Victorian castle was the last thing we expected to encounter on a hike in the woods. That castle had a beach as well as a network of paths and trails accessing the surrounding gardens and places where a patron could find solitude and silence if desired. As we reached the high point of our trail the scene before us seemed as a painting, not real life. The temperature was perfect, puffy white clouds were slowly drifting across the scene. Muffled conversations mixed politely with the cool breeze. Sometimes I felt like we were talking in church and consciously strove to only speak necessary words.
Our second day together found us on a train to Manhattan Island and a much more urban adventure. It was Sunday and New York City was going to be a tourist playground. Mark had never been to Manhattan and was excited to learn I had some recent experience there. I had a general lay of the land in my head as one might expect from someone who can find his way across a whole continent on backroads he had never seen before. I had two days of experience on Manhattan. Before leaving Fishkill we both took time to memorize the main surface streets of the city. The cross streets were numbered and the others were either numbered or famous and easily memorized. As for the subway system, we would learn on the fly.
Walking was the main event for us in the city. Mark was an athlete too. We had not problem walking the length of Manhattan from the Central Park to the Twin Towers. Central Park was alive with skaters, cyclists, carriages, and music. It was a great place to get energized for our walking day. We walked south to the Empire State Building, bought a very expensive beer in the lobby bar, then rode the elevators to the top. We both wanted to see the city from above, but were leery of the Twin Towers as terrorists had recently tried to blow them up (down actually). I remember looking at them across the expanse from the Empire summit and wondering what would become of those buildings. Certainly no one would ever want to work there knowing the towers were the number one target on the extremist hit list.
The other sharp memory of the view from up high was committed to a neuron permanently upon looking downward. My reaction says it all: "God Almighty...look at all the taxi cabs down there!" And that was a Sunday. I would love to revisit the lofty view on a busy weekday as it must appear as rivers of gold at the bottom of granite and brick canyons. I was soon distracted from the streaming automobiles below by the task at hand. We planned to walk way over there.
As we fast-walked southward I found myself wishing I had my inline skates, as smooth concrete stretched to the artificial horizon. I would also be traveling at a faster pace which would certainly deter "salesmen" with briefcases full of knock-off watches from engaging me. Mark and I quickly discovered if we walked fifty paces apart and pretended to be talking to ourselves with added hand and arm motions for emphasis, the salesmen would ignore us. I also tucked my shirt into my pants on one side only - for added visual effect. And being savvy city folk from New Orleans, we knew better than to EVER open a street map in public to get our bearings. As a result we would take turns standing next to a bus stop with a large route map posted on the side, trying to be nonchalant in our studying glances of the graphic. We were in the urban big leagues now. We pulled no punches. But sometime during that hike we decided to return to Grand Central Station safely underground at the end of our day.
My memory was good and our sneaky map-reading tactic worked. We found our way to Chinatown without any wrong turns to find the main drag was crowded with Asian peoples. I had not been to Chinatown on a weekend and was surprised at the lack of tourist-looking folks there. The only non-asian I could see was Mark. We were both happy to pretend we were really in the Far East somewhere and the day did not disappoint us. Ravenous from our long and sometimes emotionally stressful walk, Mark and I ducked into the first busy eatery we found. Not a word of English was supplied as clues to the entrées served. When our waitress approached, and presumably beckoned us to order, Mark and I pointed up to a sign above our table we could not read, praying it was not an advertisement for Chinese dish washing liquid. Since I like every kind of food, my only fear was the order might be too spicy to consume. My alternate plan was to eat at a bakery.
Our food order was delicious and the waitress happily accepted American dollars as payment. We then wandered the neighborhood aimlessly never passing a pastry shop without sampling something new. By the end of our day we were certain our decision to ride a subway train back to Grand Central was the right move. Grand Central Station must be the easiest destination on the island to find by train. We walked down into a tunnel, bought our tokens, fed them to a turnstile, climbed aboard a train and were whisked off as if we did that every day. Subway travel was so easy I have little memory of the task at all. My next vivid memory was the sight of taxi cabs driving right into Grand Central on an elevated roadway to drop off fares. From there we caught a commuter train up the Hudson and returned to Mark's apartment where I would prepare my gear for an early departure the following morning.
My weeklong break from the open road had not softened me too much as threatening skies did not discourage me at all. I cycled up the east side of the Hudson River past the old Vanderbilt Mansion. I had never been a homeowner partly because I don't want chores and bills. It came as no surprise to me how I interpreted those vast acres of grass to mow as a sign of inferior intellect. Soon after passing Vanderbilt Acres I turned right and crossed the border into the mountainous region of western Connecticut. It was there where my hopes were raised to new heights by the landscape all around me and heavenly roads under my wheels. Postcards from Vermont do not rival real life in that part of The Nutmeg State. The rumor I heard about the roads claimed the former governor bankrupted the state building roads. The story was quite believable. Those roads were wide, smooth, clean, and had shoulders sometimes wider than the auto lane. I had to laugh at myself because I did not know where I should ride on such a thing. One of the roads I picked parallel to the New York border followed the crystal clear and fast moving Housatonic River filled with kayakers and spanned by historic covered bridges. Unfortunately, my ride there was short as I had chosen to cut across the northwestern corner of Connecticut strictly to add the state to my trophy case. At the time my plan was to bike north until there were no more roads to ride, then fly home. Skipping a state just a few miles off my route was not up for debate. What I could not have known at the time was how my short ride through Connecticut became a huge factor when the decision had to be made regarding my direction of travel after reaching Maine.
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