Thursday, September 17, 2009

Washington, DC: Capital Arrival

It seems fitting, that on our last day of cycling, we would have nothing but dampness and rain.  It was only 20 miles from Washington Grove to DC, following the Rockville Bike Trail which wound through forest that shielded us from the mania of urban traffic all the way to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The predominant memory of the last three and a half months of bike touring is wetness in all its forms -- rain, fog, dew, humidity.  In this year, where the locals assured us was the most unusual spring and summer they can recall, we arrived at our goal wearing the bright rain gear that has served us well.

We waved goodbye to Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie as they crossed the Arlington Bridge to Virginia and beyond.  They had still over a year and many more miles to go.  We wished them the best of luck, with the certainty that we would meet again.

We walked our bikes along the Mall towards Union Station, where we wanted to catch the Metro north to Greenbelt Park.  Bikes are not allowed between 4 and 7 pm, and we missed the earlier time by seconds.  Metro attendants are both unsympathetic and unyielding and, at times, rude.  So we hung out in the food court in the basement and ate our fill of Indian fast food.

By the time we got off the Metro and mounted our bikes for the five mile ride to Greenbelt Park it was quite dark.  Greenbelt Park is a large recreation area with picnic grounds and camping, a green haven in the middle of the greater Washington DC metropolitan chaos.  It would be our home for the next 10 days, where we would use it as a base for daily trips into DC to visit the sights.  The entrance gate was closed when we arrived, and all that was visible was a lighted sign warning us about chiggers and ticks in the park.  My little headlamp barely illuminated the couple feet in front of me, and I followed John's red blinking taillight up and down the forested road that led to the campground.  Biking the roller coaster of a  road, blinded by the darkness, left me with near vertigo.

It was late when we finally found a campsite and set up the tent.  Our little tent was worn out -- the zippers barely worked and the fabric was no longer waterproof.  Both air mattresses had slow leaks.  Our fuel tank was nearly empty.  The gear just had to last a few more days.  After 3,500 miles and three and a half months, we lay in our little shelter, anticipating with excitement the wonders of Washington DC and a bit melancholy that that the trip was nearly over.  But we both were looking forward to going home where there were solid walls, sunshine, and dry air.  It is nothing like traveling to make one appreciate of the comforts of home.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Clay, PA to Washington Grove, MD: The Final Six Nights

The simplicity of bike touring is that there are only three main priorities: where to find food, where to sleep, and how to get there. The relative importance of any of these changes continuously based on quantity and quality, and distractions such as politics and popular culture become irrelevant in comparison. On our final week accommodations became the greatest challenge.  We were crossing a stretch where there were few camping and hotel options off the ACA route. We would experience the worst hotel, the oddest B&B, and the warmest hospitality of the trip.

Given a choice, we would have stayed in the yurt a third night.  It was pouring rain starting at dawn.  But the hut was reserved for the weekend, and our appeal for sympathy didn't succeed -- the park management insisted we be gone by 10am so they could clean the place.  So we loaded the bikes and gazed out the plastic windows at the torrents coming down, counting down until the designated time.  And like a miracle, the rain stopped, the clouds lifted, and we made a break for it.

The rain-slicked roads required cautious progress.  Within an hour it started to rain again, and at one point I looked down and saw my front wheel slicing through flowing water.  We stopped for lunch in a small town restaurant.  We entered the place dripping wet, but no one batted an eye as we hung our clothes on chairs and hooks.  The place was sparsely decorated -- white walls, simple tables and chairs.  Beautiful quilts for sale hung on racks covered by plastic sheeting and the waitresses wore the headdresses and plain clothing of the Mennonite.  Soon there were steaming bowls of bean chowder in front of us.  By the time the rain outside finally ended, we were nourished and dry and ready to take on the rest of the day.

From our hotel that night we made telephone contact with Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie.  They were also in a hotel, some 10 miles from us.  We were both surfing the internet for the next night's options.  We found a B&B in the town of Manheim, in the heart of Amish country, that sounded ideal -- a suite with two bedrooms and a kitchen and living room, for just $140 per night.  We called and made reservations, and planned to meet there the next day.

It was quite an international party that night -- The Americans cooked Mexican food, the French-Canadians made Indian, the meal accompanied by wine from Australia.  The suite was comfortable, if you got past the faux Victorian decor, the preponderance of religious pamphlets, and a library with that included the autobiography of Dan Quayle.  But the experience was marred by the surprise that the suite was actually $30 more than the internet price, and our hostess was unyielding in honoring the advertised price.  Breakfast was part of the deal, and we let her know that we did not eat pork and Nathalie could not eat eggs.  The next morning we arrived to a lavishly set table, consisting of an egg and ham casserole, two cakes with whip cream, and pickled eggs.  We were told exactly where to sit ("tea drinkers here, coffee drinkers there"), informed that she would not be offended if we picked out the ham, and that in Pennsylvania Dutch dictates we pass the dishes from right to left.  The conversation was strained, the four of us having nothing in common with our fellow guests and hosts.  Poor Nathalie could eat nothing, and it was with great reluctance that some yogurt and bread was offered.  We could not wait to get out of there, leaving only empty bottles of wine and Scotch behind for the proprietress to ponder.

The antidote to that frilly guesthouse was a quiet wooded campground on the Susquehanna River. We wouldn't believe the previous night was reality had we not experienced it with our traveling companions.

We soon left Pennsylvania and entered rural Maryland.

Through WarmShowers we hooked up with Steve and Frann for a night.  Steve has done a number of tours, including a ride through the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie were heading.  Maps and photos were spread out everywhere.  And they showed the greatest generosity -- a hearty meal, laundry, soft beds, and good company.  Steve stuffed foil wrapped brownies into our packs the next morning and rode with us the first ten miles out of town.

From the highest highs we plunged into the lowest lows.  The following night, not wanting to stray too far off route, we opted for the Scenic View Motel -- both scenic and motel were questionable descriptors.  Marginally sanitary, reeking of smoke , and with the sound of constant traffic, we endured the best we could. We couldn't drink the tap water because of excessive nitrates.  The memory of that place lived on for a few days by the stale stench that permeated our clothes.

But Warmshowers saved us again for our final night together as a group.  We contacted Hutch earlier, and over the phone he offered to give us a ride the last few miles to his house -- terrible traffic, and their place is hard to find.  But Jean-Phillipe programmed the GPS, and it led us right to the most amazing oasis of a neighborhood in suburbs of Gaithersburg.  In pedestrian mode, the device led us down residential streets, along gradually narrowing roads, and finally to gravel-lined paths that wound by the most quaint storybook houses.  We pulled in front of our host's house, and through the open door we saw Linda, who confirmed that, yes, this was the place, and that she knew we were on our way because a friend had called to report that this bike caravan was just down the road.
Washington Grove is a community evolved from a former Methodist camp.  The homes that line the perimeter around the former "Sacred Circle" have been lovingly maintained and embellished.  Hutch took us on a strolling tour of the neighborhood he has called home for over thirty years.  Surrounded by nearly 50 acres of forest that buffers it from the metropolis that envelopes it, paths rather than roads provide access.  One resident has painted representations of local flowers on the street signs, with the scientific names as captions.  The residents are eclectic, and there is no doubt of the political leanings as evidenced by the bumper stickers like "Wouldn't it be great if our schools had all the money they need, and the Army had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?"  The place felt so right, and the only place in we have seen on the East Coast that we could envision ourselves living (needs some big mountains nearby, though).

Thanks, Hutch and Linda, for the comfort and hospitality.  You are true friends to bike tourists.  It made our last night truly memorable (in a good way).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

French Creek State Forest, PA: Pennsylvania Wanderings

Pictures only tell part of the story, and it is difficult to convey all the details of bike touring with pedaling down the road and smelling the distinctive odor of road kill...the welcome coolness of a tree canopy on a hot day...the burning of leg muscles on the first big hill after lunch...the intense hunger that hits mid-morning so hard that I can't concentrate till I get my "snackie"...the feeling of near flight of a long downhill...the constant looking at maps, planning the next day, and worrying where the next grocery shopping opportunity will be.  Our first few days in Pennsylvannia included all of the above, and a few more interesting events that we could not fully capture in pictures.

The Sunday of Labor Day we were on the road early. The best times to cycle are the early mornings on Sundays and holidays. And on this morning it was no exception, quiet and traffic-free, with the partiers like those occupying the campsite next to us on the last couple of nights still snoring away somewhere. We followed the Delaware River most of the morning. Later we approached the National Recreation Area, and most of the cars had inflated tubes or kayaks strapped to their roofs, on their way between river access points.

We crossed over the river into Pennsylvania using a dedicated bike lane, alongside a four-lane highway choked with traffic. John commented on the way over that he now knows how Washington crossed the Delaware -- he took I-80. We rode our bikes, despite the sign stating to walk bikes across the bridge. A day later we crossed over and back again, also ignoring the directive, but that time our action was observed by an officer that stopped us on the other side. We did not know it was the law on interstate bridges, and our contrite attitude saved us from being fined.

The Delaware River flows through a narrow area called the Gap, and we got all excited because we saw a rock outcrop.
We found a wonderful campground, luckily with an open site, right on the river. They greeted us with smiles when we arrived and made sure we found a site to our liking. What a contrast to the last place, where they purposely put us on a sub-standard site so they would have room for the higher-paying RVers.

Labor Day was quiet, too, on really small country roads along the Delaware River, often crossing old rail bridges now covered in overgrowth. The small roads are nice, but sometimes they have some lung-busting, unrealistic grades that go straight up.

As we traveled downstream we saw more signs of industry -- abandoned steel mills, a Superfund landfill, and a power plant. We decided that swimming is not an option on this part of the river. We arrived in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where environmental blight intersected urban blight. It is a historic town with beautiful brick buildings, but some stretches along the main street are not ones we would choose to spend time in. Unfortunately, we got disoriented and we had to retrace our steps along a mile stretch three times before we got back on route.

We arrived at Bull's Island Recreation Area late in the afternoon.  The throngs of Labor Day revelers were gone, although you wouldn't know it from the "Campground Full" sign at the entrance.  We have learned  that there is often a disconnect between the front desk clerk and the park personnel cruising the grounds in a golf cart.  We were assigned a walk-in site right on the river.  While setting up our tent, who walks by but our French-Canadian friend Nathalie!  Exclamations and hugs were exchanged all around.  We were thinking of them all the time, wondering how they fared after their frustrated departure from New Jersey and not knowing if they were ahead of us or behind us.  Luck brought us together again.  We shared a table that night in the sunset slanting through the trees along the rolling waters of the Delaware River, making plans for the few nights.

Our friends decided to stay another night, but we were anxious to move on.  We made plans to meet again at a designated campground in a couple of days.  We pushed on, staying one night in an armpit of a hotel in Norristown.  It was $60, an outrageous amount for sticky carpet that stained our socks and mold that made John sneeze for a couple of days.  We were consoled by a feast from our first Trader Joe's since we left California.

Our route took us through Valley Forge on a gloomy day dominated by overcast skies. We made a decision to camp at French Creek State Park instead of the campground for our planned rendezvous with Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie.  We emailed them, in hopes they would get the message and meet us there.  The State Park is next to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, a wonderfully preserved remnant of the industrial age.
The complete cycle of iron production happened here -- charcoal was produced in great piles from the nearby forest and was used in the blast furnace that extracted the iron from ore that was mined nearby.  The process is brought to life with on-site demonstrations by volunteers in period clothing.

At the height of production, the operation created intricately decorated sand cast plates that were sent to far away places for assembly into stoves.

The technique of making the cast iron lives on today, using the tools of the period by dedicated people who preserve the arts of the past.

It was our good fortune that the State Park had yurts, and in the post-Labor Day lull, they were unreserved and inexpensive -- $39 per night during the off-season.  We ended up staying two nights so we could wait out some intense rains.

Although there were no running water or bathrooms, the yurt was comfortably equipped with a stove, refrigerator, electric lights, and bunk beds. We waited and waited for our dear Jean-Phillipe and Nathalie to arrive -- there was plenty of room for all of us, and we had extra wine, too -- but  they never showed up.  And as water poured from the sky, we wondered if they had found as nice of a place to stay dry as our little yurt.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Port Jervis, NY: Transient States

So folks, we are moving, moving, moving. After our little encounter with Atlantic hurricanes, fine weather has settled in and we are making some progress, thank you. Three days in Massachusetts, and then three more states in a week -- Connecticut, New York, New Jersey -- they are just flying by. Granted, we are just clipping the corners of some of them, but we stay long enough to note the subtle differences in the landscape and the people to feel we have a good sense of them.

It is heavily wooded in Connecticut, hilly in New York, and people definitely have attitudes and accents in New Jersey. We are often surrounded by tunnels of green foliage, with glimpses occasionally of wooded ridges and waterways. It is not a landscape of grand vistas that we normally would stop to take photographs of, so there is a sparse digital record of this section of our journey. But we also ride by many quaint farmhouses and miles of cornfields, and the image below in New York captures the rural spirit of the country we are passing through.

And sometimes we go by some really nice houses, like the one below in Hyde Park, NY, formerly owned some guy named Vanderbilt. His neighbor down the street was Roosevelt.

These men made their fortunes during the industrial birth of our nation, on the banks of the Hudson River. Probably the biggest river we have crossed thus far, we had a nice view from the bridge at Poughkeepsie looking north on a day of spectacular blue skies.
And it is not just the nice weather keeping up our spirits. Farm stands are frequent, and the sweetest tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and corn are a daily treat. And we have some new friends! We met Jean-Philippe and Nathalie from Quebec, at a state park in Connecticut, and they are also traveling the Adventure Cycling Atlantic Coast route. They are an inspiration -- they got rid of everything -- house, cars, clothes -- and are on an 18-month journey to see North America and beyond. Everything they own is what they have on their bikes. They go about as far as we do each day (although quicker up the hills -- they are 10 years younger, after all!). And so we traveled in sync for a couple of days together.

That is Nathalie in front of the mansion above. Jean-Philippe is keeping his own on-line journal, and takes excellent photos, like the two below. They are goal-oriented planners like us, so it is fun to have someone else to endlessly check the route map with.

Here we are chugging over the Hudson River. They are patient traveling companions, waiting for us as we stopped at three, count 'em, three Italian bakeries in Poughkeepsie in pursuit of bread and cuccidati.
And my portrait of them below.

Our last night together we shared a bottle of wine together to celebrate Jean-Philippe's 39th birthday. It was a bittersweet departure the next day. It was the Friday night of Labor Day weekend, and we were surrounded by partying teenagers that caroused until 3 am. John and I sleep with foam earplugs every night, but our friends cannot tolerate them. Exhausted from lack of sleep and angry with the campground management, they left to try and find a quiet hotel to get some rest. We stayed put for a day of rest and to wait out the weekend.

I hope we will meet them again...

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