This week I finally took a bike trip that has been on my mind for several years: a three-day, 210-mile journey from my hometown of Morrisville NY to West Hartford CT. During the seventeen years that Beth and I have lived in Connecticut, we’ve driven back and forth dozens of times, and on those occasions when we avoided the interstate highways, my mind fixated on finding a bike-friendly route with places to stop along the way. The key was to ride east on US 20 (which now has a bike lane), to NY 145 south through Cobleskill NY (overnight #1), then NY 23 east across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge (with a separate pedestrian path) over the Hudson River, then MA 23 east to Great Barrington MA (overnight #2), then MA/CT 183 south into central Connecticut.
If you don’t mind a few big hills (see the elevation maps below from http://BikeRoll.net), it’s a pretty nice ride, mostly through beautiful farmland, and for me, many familiar towns from my adolescence. Though a lot about how much my 12-year-old self began to see the world, one very small town at a time, by riding the school bus with our high school marching band to county fairs and fireman’s field days. Plus, I was incredibly lucky to have dodged several showers and thunderstorms, and didn’t face a drop of rain during my ride. Got home in time to take a shower before sitting in a dentist’s office for a procedure that I had put off for many months. For me, a good bike ride helps to push those unpleasantries out of one’s mind.
Follow my bike tour around Southern Florida from Dec 30th, 2016 to Jan 3rd, 2017. Click items in the map to view details, or view the full-screen map and photo album. See also my daily journal entries below the map.
Day 1, Dec 30th: Fort Myers Beach to Ochopee, Florida, 71.5 miles — When stopping to visit my friend David in Naples, Florida, he asked, “What do you think about when you’re biking?” One answer that came out is “nothing very interesting, which is why I like it so much.” When I’m bike touring along unfamiliar roads, even somewhat boring ones, my mind is so tuned to the little things, that there’s little room for larger ideas to creep inside. To me, it feels like there’s so much visual and aural stimulation when bike touring that my brain gets filled up simply by processing it while attempting to pedal in a straight line. For most of yesterday’s ride, my mental capacity was consumed by lots of little things: Is that a nail down the roadway in front of me? (Nope, that’s a millipede). How far back is that car coming up behind me? What kind of bird is that to the side? Have I been drinking enough water? How on earth did the 1950s “Jingle Bell Rock” song get stuck in my head, and what tune can I replace it with? Am I staying above my current average speed? How many miles until my legs insist on a short break? Is that another nail in front of me? (Nope, just a random piece of hardware) and so on. Not a lot of deep thinking there, until I rest for the night, the scenery stops changing, and my thoughts catch up with me.
Looking back on yesterday’s travels, here’s a few reflections to share: So far, although my route has taken me along various Florida highways, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the frequency of dedicated bike lanes or sufficiently wide shoulders for bike travel, in most (but not all) places. The Tamiami Trail (route 41) even had a few miles of new off-highway bike trail near Collier-Seminole State Park. Also, my overnight at the Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee, FL turned out to be a wonderful tent campsite on the grass by a pond, with picnic table and fire pit, and a short walk to a very clean bathroom with a hot shower, for $25, which is the best deal I’ve seen around here. (My friends like Tony probably would prefer “stealth camping,” but that didn’t seem like an option out here in the Everglades, and besides, I prefer a good toilet seat and other people around me.) Last night I met up with Rebel and his dog, Rosco, who built a large bonfire near my campsite, which I definitely appreciated on a chilly Florida night. They travel around building fires for events, and there’s a music festival/drum circle at the camp grounds on New Year’s Eve. I won’t be here, but saw the bonfire preview.
Day 2, Dec 31st: Ochopee to Florida City, 77.5 miles — The last day of the year also was probably the longest one (and hardest) one of this bike tour. Woke up refreshed at the campsite, though a bit chilly (47 degrees) for Florida, so gobbled down oatmeal and hot cocoa to warm up. Hopped aboard the bike and discovered a loud creaky sound in my left pedal, which accompanied me for the entire day, despite my best mechanical efforts (i.e. removing the pedal and banging it on the ground in a futile attempt to dislodge what I presume is a broken bearing). Lots and lots of birds in the Everglades, but my creaky pedal scared them away before I could get close. I knew that this long stretch of the Tamiami Trail had very few places to stop, so I prepared with three cold water bottles. But I didn’t realize how pedaling into a steady eastern wind would slow me down. Despite the flat terrain, my fully-loaded bike and I averaged only 10.5 miles per hour, compared to nearly 14.5 miles per hour the previous day, when I had fresh legs and a strong northern wind at my back.
One enjoyable stop about mid-way through the day was Shark Valley National Park, where my father brought me and my family years ago to go bird watching (and where he spotted former Attorney General Janet Reno). I paid the $8 entrance fee for the privilege of buying ice cream sandwiches for lunch, filling up my water bottles, and watching (perhaps too closely) some sleeping gators. If I had more time and energy, I would have done the 15-mile bike loop through the park, but that simply wasn’t in the cards today.
Back on the bike, the second half of my ride was harder than the first half. East of Shark Valley, the lush forest of birds empties into swampy flatlands, with few barriers to block the wind or sun. Outside of Miami, when turning south off of the Tamiami Trail, I made some poor navigational choices for the last 20 miles into Florida City, though it’s still not clear to me if any good choices were available. Google Maps suggested a route that was clearly a mountain-bike dirt path, so I skipped that choice and tried my luck on Krome Avenue, figuring that I’d find a highway with a rideable shoulder. Big mistake. A length construction project funneled all traffic into a narrowly-divided two lane road, with orange barrels from “Bob’s Barricades” blocking the shoulder. So I pedaled down the still-under-construction highway that paralleled traffic, which sometimes meant new pavement but more often meant dirt path. After what felt like 8 miles with no intersection, I finally reconnected with a network of side roads that took me though a large agricultural district, though paved streets suddenly disappeared and turned into dirt paths, with “no dumping” signs that were clearly ignored. No photos here of the German Shepherd dog that chased me, nor the wild peacocks that dazzled me, because I was tired and the sky was growing dark. Finally, my weary legs and empty water bottles and I arrived at the welcoming Everglades Hostel in Florida City. If anyone knows a better way to bike here from Tamiami Trail, let me know.
Day 3: January 1st, rest day at Everglades Hostel, Florida City — A delightful little oasis in the midst of Florida superhighways and strip malls. I made a batch of pancakes on the communal griddle, walked to the Walmart to buy a new pedal (the only nearby store selling bike parts on New Year’s Day), and wrote up sections of Data Visualization for All while sitting in a peaceful garden. Loaded up on carbs during dinner at Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant. Batteries recharged, and ready to start riding to the Keys early tomorrow morning.
Day 4: January 2nd, Florida City to northern Marathon, FL, 69 miles — When bike touring is good, it’s really good. Today turned into one of those memorable days, but it didn’t start out that way. I woke up early to start pedaling along a desolate stretch of US 1, from Florida City to Key Largo, which was safe, though boring. Yet the creaky sound in my bike mysteriously returned. Apparently the Walmart pedal was not the solution. Fortunately, the New Year’s holiday had ended, and I found an open bike shop, All Keys Cycles in Key Largo. The bike mechanics quickly helped me out by tightening the bottom bracket and crank, which I couldn’t do with my limited travel tools. They also sold me a cold container of orange juice, exactly what my taste buds were craving this morning. This fixed my problems, at least temporarily, and Key Largo also provided off-highway bike paths with partial shade.
Further down the road I met up with Eli and Henry, two bike tourists from Tallahassee, and we rode together for the rest of the day. These two young men are experienced cyclists, who have previously made this journey to Key West, and are very knowledgeable about the local habitat. Also, they ride each day to deliver food for competing sandwich shops, and they’re very active in non-profit community bicycle organizations in Tallahassee, similar to BiCiCo in Hartford. So we found that we had lots to talk about while riding together and taking breaks along the way. Eli also pointed out a pivot bolt near my crank that might be the true cause of the creak problem (which I’ve tightened and will test tomorrow). But best of all, my bike and I were able to keep up a relatively fast pace with these young whippersnappers. That makes me feel young again, perhaps the real reason why I love riding my bike.
While planning this bike tour of the Keys, I read that much of my journey would take place alongside US 1, a busy highway overrun with RVs and SUVs. So I kept my expectations low. But what I didn’t realize until biking here is the absolute beauty of the scenery when you look away from the cars. The best views are from the bridges: either a dedicated bike lane (that’s closer to the water than the cars), or separate bike-pedestrian bridge (where you can stop anywhere, or see what those who are fishing have caught). To the left is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the right is Florida Bay. On a sunny day like today, the shallow waters create shades of blue unlike any body of water I’ve ever seen.
Tonight I’m camping in my tent on a small “island” on the Florida Bay in Marathon, operated by an RV park. (Yes, it’s the only place within several miles where I could make a tent site reservation a month ago. Henry and Eli are trying their luck further down the road, and we’ll compare notes tomorrow night in Key West). There’s a warm breeze gently blowing across the picnic table as I write this before going to bed. My belly is full from eating an entire 14-inch spinach and tomato pizza (my only real meal today) at a diner down the road. They served me root beer in a mason jar, the kind that young hipsters drink from. The weather forecast for the Keys tomorrow is the same as today: sunny skies, with a low in the mid-70s, high in the low-80s. Sure beats the gray skies and icy rain back home in Connecticut. This is one of those bike touring days to live for.
Day 5: January 3rd, northern Marathon to Key West, FL, 59 miles — My last day on the tour took me across the Seven Mile Bridge (named for its length, not height!), several smaller bridges with less memorable names, and some long stretches of delightfully shaded off-highway bike trails, especially during the last 15 miles into Key West. After enjoying a delicious shrimp dinner on Duval Street, and changing out of my sweaty clothes, I completed my Southern Florida loop by taking the 6pm boat back to Fort Myers Beach (and paying an extra $20 to roll on my bike and gear).
But overall, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail is still a disconnected mix that remains “under development.” Too often, the dedicated bike lane or bike path abruptly ended, and I was confused about whether to continue pedaling south to wait for a dedicated bike lane or off-road bike path to pop up again, or cross traffic on US 1 to look for a bike path on the other side of the highway. At one point, when a bike path on the southern (ocean side) of US 1 suddenly stopped, I looked down and saw unofficially painted instructions to continue riding in the northbound bike lane — against traffic — to reach the next section of off-road bike path. Personally, I felt safe while biking the Keys (which in reality means biking mostly along US 1) because riding alongside high-speed traffic doesn’t bother me as long as the shoulders are relatively wide. But I don’t yet recommend this route to cyclists looking for a tranquil ride. Bonnie Gross accurately described the Heritage Trail as having “safe and scenic sections” in her detailed Florida Rambler blog post, last updated in December 2016. Based on what I’ve read, Florida is slowly improving its Heritage Trail, and with clearer connections, the disparate pieces could be transformed into a wonderful experience for all riders in future years.
Discover New Britain — Sun Sept 25th meet up at Jack’s house (4 Frederick Road, West Hartford) to depart at 7am sharp (new time!) and ride to New Britain art museum; sign up to ride a 10-25-50 mile route to support BikeWalkCT, which departs at 8:30am (fee required) http://www.bikewalkct.org/discover-ct-ride-series-20161.html
On my bike touring adventures, I’ve met many friendly people along the way who shared both food and stories. Yesterday I had an opportunity to return the favor. While taking a short ride down the Cape Cod Rail Trail, I noticed two riders sitting on a bench with fully-loaded Bike Friday New World Tourists, very similar to my own bike. I stopped to chat and soon discovered some common interests with Nathalie (left) and Sylvie (right), who have been riding for about two weeks from Quebec City. They are highly experienced bike tourists who have explored Iceland, New Zealand, and the Western United States, and many more places. We traded stories on the side of the trail, and I shared some cheese that I had just purchased, fondly remembering the many times that people shared what they had with me when I was bike touring. As I prepared to leave, they kindly welcomed me to visit them if my future travels happen to bring me to Quebec City. So I invited them to come visit my family at nearby house we are renting on Cape Cod this week, and was delighted that they accepted the offer, and enjoyed another hour of good food and conversation with Beth and my daughters. Thank you, Nathalie and Sylvie, for making my day and encouraging all of us to meet new people and explore the world on two wheels.
On Saturday I rode south from Hartford to check out a newly-built segment of the East Coast Greenway in Cheshire, CT, and continued on to learn about bicycle history at the Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven, CT.
The East Coast Greenway is a bike/walk route that stretches from Maine to Florida, and supporters are filling the gaps to convert more to off-road trail. The new segment will add 4 miles of trail through a beautiful wooded portion of Cheshire, CT, and connect to existing trail in the north (Southington) and south (Hamden and New Haven). While not yet finished nor officially open, the new trail is mostly paved and rideable, if you don’t mind a bit of gravel on the bridge aprons, and going around some fences (as hundreds of other riders have already done, judging from the tracks left behind).
I arrived in New Haven in time for a public demonstration by The Wheelmen, a group of antique bicycle collectors who gather to share their knowledge and show how people rode these two-wheeled inventions. (And yes, the group also included some Wheelwomen.) New Haven’s Arts and Ideas Festival coincided with the International Cycling History Conference and a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Pierre Lallement’s invention of the velocipede and his ride on the New Haven Green. While I had read some of this history, and seen a few old bikes on display in museums, this was a treat because never before had I seen so many people in one place, actually riding these bikes. They paraded their cycles in chronological order, and featured several items that were created in the Frog Hollow neighborhood of Hartford, the late 19th-century epicenter of bicycle manufacturing in the United States.
To celebrate National Trails Day, I rode the East Coast Greenway from Hartford to Willimantic, to see the newly-opened connector. In Bolton, I jumped on the Hop River Trail and pedaled southeast along this old railway bed, covered by wonderful shade trees. When this trail ended, I pedaled about a mile on the road west of town, then switched onto the brand-new trail that runs along the Willimantic river. While this new trail is relatively short, it now gives Hop River riders a way to avoid highway traffic into downtown Willimantic, or to cross a bridge to connect to the Air Line south trail to East Hampton. I took both options, first by zipping into town for a late breakfast at the Willimantic Food Co-op, then back across the bridge for a ride on the Air Line south trail, where I encountered dozens of cyclists and hikers enjoying the day as much as I did.
Update: This post features the easy routes that I would recommend to most riders with suitable tires for crushed stone trails, such as hybrid, touring, or mountain bikes. If you ride a skinny-tire road bike, these trails may not work for you. Also, these routes are ideal for dry weather, as heavy rains can turn sections into mud.
Also, I biked a longer route than shown above. I began in West Hartford and rode the East Coast Greenway through Hartford, East Hartford, and Manchester, and continued on the ECG/Hop River trail as described above. (See East Coast Greenway maps page for details.) When I finished the Air Line south trail in East Hampton, I biked through Glastonbury, crossed on the ferry at Cromwell, then back home through Rocky Hill and Newington. My total was 83 miles.
If you’re looking for friendly, non-racing bike rides with friendly folks this summer, check out two Hartford-area options.
Join the Hartford “Slow Rolls” for informal rides to explore the city and meet people on selected Sunday afternoons. The pace is usually around 10-12 miles per hour, for about an hour of actual riding, and the direction depends on whatever the group decides (which sometimes changes mid-route). This is not a highly-structured route with cue sheets, but rather a friendly ride with people who enjoy exploring. Although I’ve been riding around the city for fifteen years, I always learn something new, and enjoy meeting folks who come out with us. The organizers usually announce about two rides per month as Facebook events, which are usually shared on the FB sites of BiCiCoHartford or Transport Hartford or Breakfast Lunch & Dinner. Or see this event announcement for the next ride on Sunday June 12th at 3pm, starting at the parking lot on 1429 Park Street in Hartford.
Also, the Bike West Hartford group has announced a series of “Wheels on Wednesdays” rides, beginning on June 8th at 6:30pm in the parking lot behind West Hartford Town Hall, 50 South Main Street. These also are non-competitive friendly rides of about 10 miles or more, with groups for varying paces. The first ride will feature the West Hartford Reservoir. The organizers require you to wear a helmet and sign a liability form. This summer these rides are scheduled for alternate Wednesday evenings: June 8, June 22, July 6, July 20, Aug 3, Aug 17th. Learn more at the link above.
My new friend Jeff Allred at Hunter College learned of our shared interest in cycling, and recommended that I read John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. His book reveals what “the explorer,” traveling by foot or bicycle, can discover by looking more closely at ordinary objects that most of us pass by, especially when trapped inside the metal box of a motor car. This wide-ranging set of essays rambles across multiple topics, and many of these resonated with my own memories of what I’ve seen while riding a bike, though Stilgoe has taught me to take a second look. My favorite passage is his observation about fences:
Depending on the spacing of the pickets that seem at first glance to make a solid wall, the bicyclist-explorer can pedal with some magic speed that makes the fence transparent. Usually about 11 miles an hour does the trick. At that speed the explorer can see through the fence almost as though the fence had disappeared. At a speed that runners and pedestrians rarely reach for long and so slow that a few motorists ever attempt it, the explorer rides effortlessly, and secretly, screened from observation by the fences intended to block views, spying on what the fences surround.
Stilgoe also taught me how to look more closely at telephone poles, railroad ties, and rural delivery mailboxes. He also reminds us how bicyclists of the 1900s agitated government to improve roads in ways that benefitted cars, and how the Cold War led to the construction of interstate highways in the 1950s and 60s, which continue to ban walkers and bikers today. The book encourages us to explore the limited access frontage roads and the back parking lots that link together commercial strip malls. He shows us how to look at the fraternal-order signs that welcome visitors into small towns, and the historical relationship between main street businesses, trees, insurance companies, and firehouses.
Overall, it’s a book that I recommend, as have others, such as the Neglected Books site, which notes that this title is no longer in print, though used copies and digital editions are still available for sale. Or check it out from your library, as I did. In any case, it’s the right book to read outside.
Today marked the first Hartford “Slow Roll” Sunday bike ride of 2016. These are informal meetups of friendly cyclists who love to explore while riding around the city. Today did a leisurely 6-mile ride and landed at the southern branch of the Park River, where the waterway tunnels under downtown Hartford. I’ve lived here for over fifteen years and it was my first time seeing this. Come and join us on a future ride and go places that you can’t reach by car. Find out about the next Slow Roll by following the Facebook page for BiCiCo, Hartford’s new community-oriented bike shop.
Satellite view of the Park River southern branch tunnel from Google Maps
Tony Cherolis launches the Slow Roll with a portable sound system.