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.
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.
To celebrate our 27th anniversary, Beth and I biked along Le P’tit Train du Nord (The Little Train of the North) rail trail, which stretches about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Mont-Laurier to Saint Jerome in the northwest region of Montreal, Quebec. We highly recommend this wonderful trail for couples and families who are looking for beginner-to-intermediate rides of 50-80 km (30-50 miles) per day on asphalt and packed stone trails, with bed and breakfasts (or rustic camping) along the way. Learn about our three-day adventure below and read more about this trail on Wikipedia and the official tourism site.
The day before our bike trip, we drove to Saint Jerome, a suburb to the north of Montreal, where we parked our van at the 0 km mark and boarded the Autobus shuttle to Mont-Laurier, a town at the opposite end of the trail on the 200km mark. Max and his co-workers kindly loaded and secured our tandem bike to the trailer of their shuttle. Finding our way to the Autobus parking lot in St. Jerome was challenging for us because we could not rely on Google Maps, as we chose not to pay extra international data roaming fees to our smartphone carrier. But Beth navigated “old-school” using paper maps she found in our 1998 minivan, and we also downloaded the Open Street Map for Quebec using the inexpensive Maps.me smartphone app, which we highly recommend.
Navigator Beth goes old-school with paper maps in Canada, where we lack phone reception
Max loaded our tandem onto the shuttle trailer to take us from St Jerome to the trailhead at Mont-Laurier
The 200km Le P'tit Train du Nord rail trail
On Day 1 of our bike trip, we pedaled 55 km (34 miles) from our Mont-Laurier hotel to Nominingue, which led us up a gradual incline through the most rural portion of the trip. This section of the rail trail was paved asphalt and in good condition, with warning signs for bumps or holes. About every 10km along this section of trail were wooden “caboose” shelters and picnic tables, with water faucets less frequently, though we were glad to have brought our own lunch food from the IGA grocery store in Mont-Laurier. We met several friendly riders on the trail this day. Nearly all were Canadian, and most spoke French as their first language. In Nominingue, we arrived at the Auberge Chez Ignance, where Beth had booked us a room at this bed and breakfast, which also fed us an amazing gourmet dinner. Honestly, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, with amazing variety (meat, poultry, fish, and vegetarian options) and outstanding flavors. Beth, my French translator and cultural guide, taught me a new phrase—tourisme gastronomique—or traveling primarily to explore new foods.
Fabulous dinner for two at the Auberge Chez Ignance
The Canadians write "danger" on the trail next to hazards, big or small
Riding along with Stu
Riding alongside Jacqueline
Riding alongside Hailey
Riding alongside Mike
The Canadians built these cute "caboose" shelters, plus picnic tables and outhouses, about every 10km along the trail from Mont-Laurier
Beth was impressed with the historical placards and interpreted them from French for me.
Shared the rail trail with several roller bladed dog walkers
We met Stu and Mike (and their spouses) from Toronto on the trail
Tandem selfie on the trail
Only 200 kilometers to our destination at St Jerome
Beginning the bike trail at the Mont-Laurier Station
On Day 2, we rode 63 km (39 miles) from Nominingue to the Mont-Tremblant region, and we stopped for the night at another bed and breakfast in the small town of Saint Jovite. The portion of the trail was relatively flat and shifted from asphalt to packed stone, which also was in good condition (with fewer bumps and holes than the asphalt section). Several of the old train stations here had been renovated into cafes and museums, and our lunch stop at La Belle was one of our favorites. Since Mont-Tremblant is home to a national park and center for tourism, we encountered many more cyclists here, and were pleased to see so many senior citizens and families with young children riding the trail.
Oddly, Beth chose not to join me in this photo
We stumbled into a free jazz festival in Mont-Tremblant
We were pleasantly surprised to see so many cyclists in Mont-Tremblant, especially senior citizens and families with children
After La Belle, the trail shifted from asphalt to hard packed stone, but it's in fabulous condition
Fab poster from 1980s about how trains can kill you at LaBelle Station. The train stopped running in 1990s
Stopping on the bridge
Along the rail trail, old stations have been converted into cafes and museums, like this one in Rivière-Rouge
Outside our inn, Auberge Chez Ignance
Eli would enjoy this backyard chess set
Based on where we stayed the previous two nights, we had a long third day (82 km, or 51 miles) to finish our journey back to Saint Jerome. To start off the morning, we rode uphill for about 10 km, pedaled along the summit, then glided downhill to the end. Overall, the packed stone dust trail was in good shape, but watch out for some weather-related deterioration near the end, where it turned into sand. Although we rode through a not-so-attractive quarry and lumber mill at the summit, biking through the forest and along the waterfalls during the rest of the day was beautiful.
Archway to the Little Train of the North rail trail in Saint Jerome
Happy to have finished our 200 km ride at the Saint Jerome station
Cycling and cross-country skiing sculpture in Prevost
As we rolled closer to Montreal on a Friday afternoon, we encountered many cyclists of all ages
Fawn enjoying lunch near the trail
One of the many beautifully renovated train stations and cafes in La Belle
The ugliest portion of an otherwise beautiful trail was an enormous quarry, lumber mill, and junk pile near the summit
You can tell that we don't have many phone booths in the U.S., but they're still common in Quebec
Catching some morning sunshine on a bike trail platform overlooking Lac Carre
My post-trip reflections for anyone who is thinking about biking all or part of this trail, and you should, because it’s a wonderful journey:
Decide how much to see, and in which direction. I rode west on the full DC-to-Pittsburgh trail (336 miles) plus an extra 20 miles for side trips in 5 full days, averaging about 70 per day. I had planned to do it over 6 days, but the weather changed my mind, as explained below. Most people would prefer a week to do the full trail. If you don’t have that much time, consider a shorter segment from Pittsburgh to Cumberland (the GAP portion, which is the prettiest, in my opinion), or DC to Cumberland (the C&O Canal portion, which also has its charms). Note that the C&O portion follows an old towpath which varies from a single-track dirt trail to a wider crushed stone trail. It’s relatively flat, and has hiker/biker campsites with water pumps (most work, but not all) about every 10 miles or so. By contrast, the GAP portion is a well-maintained and wider crushed stone trail, but rises in elevation from about 600 to 2400 feet. I had no choice but to ride the C&O portion first, and I’m glad that I did because it got the rougher (muddy) portion out of the way first. Order the Trailbook, which includes a waterproof map. See a handy route guide with elevation that Matt Black uploaded to Ride with GPS.
Do you prefer to camp and/or lodge? I rode with full gear and alternated between camping and staying in a bed and breakfast. On the trail I met some who camped only, and others who only stayed in B&Bs. Prices and experiences will vary during the season, but I camped for free (or $10 in Cumberland) and found space without reservations in very nice B&Bs in Hancock and Confluence, MD for $75/night. My strategy provided maximum flexibility, but required me to carry extra weight on my bike. If you stick to a firm schedule and accurately estimate your pace, you could do the whole trip with reservations at carefully-placed B&Bs (or maybe AirBNBs).
Rain and mud may slow you down. While I dodged two big storms, it wasn’t possible to avoid rain-soaked trails (aka very long puddles) that they created. For me, the biggest surprise of this trip was how much energy it took me to slog through muddy trails. My touring bike has 1.5 inch tires, and I’m used to riding it on pavement at 13 to 15 mph when touring. But a day after a serious storm, the muddy path slowed me down to 7 to 10 mph, and clogged my brake pads and brake lines. You can definitely ride the trail on a hybrid bike, but if the forecast calls for rain and you have access to a mountain bike, take it instead.
Make time to talk with folks along the way. A friendly smile can be a great way to start a conversation. Not everyone wants to talk; some people wish to be alone or are in a big hurry. But I had a wonderful time meeting up with some fascinating people.
Day 0: Connecticut to DC
Rode every form of mass transit to haul my bike (in the green suitcase) and my gear (in the red backpack suitcase, which I stole from my daughter Eva — you’ll get it back soon!) from West Hartford CT to my in-law’s house in Chevy Chase MD. Caught the #62 bus ($1.50) down Farmington Ave to the Hartford bus station. Switched to the #30 Bradley Flyer bus ($1.50) to the airport, which I’ve never taken before. About a 45 minute ride, picking up workers in downtown Hartford and dropping them off around Windsor Locks and the airport. Flew on Southwest Airlines ($5, thanks to my frequent flyer points) to BWI Airport. Rode the free BWI-Amtrak/MARC shuttle, then caught the MARC train to Union Station in DC ($6). Rode the Metro red line to Bethesda ($3.75), then walked the last mile to the Rose’s house. A little over 6 hours door-to-door.
Geared up for the trip
Day 1: DC to Harper’s Ferry, WV
From the Rose’s house in Chevy Chase, MD, about 10 miles downhill on the Crescent Circle trail to the Georgetown area of DC, where the C&O Canal trail begins, then another 62 miles to Huckleberry Hill biker/hiker campsite near Harper’s Ferry, WV. Lots of joggers, kayakers, and families on the trail and in the Potomac River on this beautiful Saturday, until a big thunderstorm rolled in, which I dodged by hanging out in the Beans in the Belfry cafe in Brunswick (their paninis and chocolate milkshakes are highly recommended). Things that happened too quickly for me to photograph: two Great Blue Herons swooping down the canal, and several White-Tailed Deer jumping across the towpath, including one about three feet in front of me. Funniest moment of the day: biking next to a guy named Mike, who happened to mention that he grew up in Whitesboro in Upstate New York (about 25 miles from my hometown of Morrisville), and that his brother went to SUNY Morrisville, and also that Mike was stationed during his Navy years in Whidbey Island, near Seattle, where I biked last summer. Small world on the bike trail.
Photo bombing the famous 1954 hike by Justice Douglas to preserve C&O Canal
In the park with David Rose before my trip
Set up my tent at Huckleberry Hill bike/hike campsite, then discovered the water pump was broken. Oh well, maybe the rain will solve that problem.
Eunice (an emotional support dog) and Virginia (carrying a GPS tracking device) accompanied some hikers I met where the Appalachian Trail merges with the C&O bike trail.
My turtle buddy and I slogged our way through post-thunderstorm puddles on the C&O bike trail
The C&O Canal bike route includes these impressive old aqueducts, now dry, where engineers routed the canal to cross over rivers
Beans in the Belfry Cafe in Brunswick MD is a popular bike stop.
On the C&O bike trail I met Mike, who happened to grow up in Whitesboro NY, about 20 miles from my hometown of Morrisville.
Baby goslings along the canal bike trail
Enjoying the water along the canal bike trail
Next bike trip, bring the kayak. Lots of folks at Great Falls today
Starting at mile 0 on C&O Canal bike trail in Washington DC
Father-in-law David tried to catch a ride on my bike trip, but I didn't have room. Need another bungee cord.
Day 2: Harper’s Ferry to Hancock, MD
Today’s theme was mud. While I dodges yesterday’s late-afternoon thunderstorm, I couldn’t avoid that dirt trails of the C&O canal towpath had transformed into long patches of mud, interspersed with a stretch of crushed limestone, then more mud. Steering and pedaling my way through this slop with my bike and gear strapped was a physical challenge that slowed me down to 8-9 miles per hour (compared to 13-15 mph on pavement) and strained my leg muscles. After 40 miles to the Williamsport historic park, I took a nap on a shady picnic table bench in the shade (rather than on the grass with the Black Snake who greeted my entrance to the park). For the next 15 miles, the trail to Hancock was a more consistent stretch of limestone, then for the last 10 miles I rolled on the glorious pavement of the Western Maryland Rail Trail. Never before had asphalt looked so beautiful. Decided to check into the River Run B&B in Hancock for the night to clean up and rest. It’s been two days without a shower and even the dogs were beginning to howl and hide their noses as I rode by. I borrowed a hose to wash the mud off of my bike, then crawled into the shower to wash it off of me.
Was drawn to this restaurant in Hancock MD by their bike on the roof
A Black Snake greeted me at Williamsport Historical Park, so napped on picnic table rather than grass.
At the Farmers Market in Shepherdstown, I met Rudy the Great Dane, who is deaf due to inbreeding, say the owners. Will be an emotional support dog for the elderly.
Took a bike detour into Shepherdstown WV
Some obstacles on the bike trail. Maybe I can learn to jump these?
My bike travels led me to the Farmers Market in Shepherdstown WV
Followed Kristen Nawrotzki's advice to hang my food bag with fishing line to avoid raccoon problems I had on a previous bike trip. The digital history geek bag was all I had around the house
Day 3: Hancock to Cumberland, MD
The day started with a smooth roll along with (paved) Western Maryland Rail Trail out of Hancock, parallel to the (gravel and muddy) C&O towpath. A pleasant break from yesterday’s mud bath, at least for my first ten miles or so. Rode along with some cyclists and discovered some funny coincidences. Drew Tappan happens to share the same last name with the Oberlin College square where Eli will be graduating next weekend (long story) and he also might have known my sister-in-law Becca at Earlham in the early 1990s. I also rode alongside Pamela and Jess, who are celebrating their honeymoon along the bike trail on their way to visit family in Pittsburgh, and saw that Pamela carries a Mark Twain House coffee mug from a visit to Hartford years ago. Also met a friendly pair of hikers, Valerie and Rick, who helped me get a water pump flowing. This particular one was a two-person job, which I couldn’t have managed alone.
As I huffed and puffed my way along the trail on a fairly hot and humid day, imagine my delight as I descended into the mouth of the Paw Paw Tunnel (3,300 feet long), which felt like I had stumbled into a giant air conditioner. Turned on my big light and walked my bike, rather than ride through the tunnel, due to all of the puddles and potholes, and well, because I wanted that feeling to last as long as possible. Later on the trail I took a nap on the front porch of an old canal lock keeper’s house, and further down the trail I found another porch to dodge a rainstorm. But that storm meant the last 20 miles turned into another long series of mud puddles on the C&O canal towpath. My bike and my legs have told me that they’re done with mud for this week. Had a pleasant night camping outside the Cumberland YMCA (five stars, if you don’t mind trains) and am looking forward to some solid trail (though uphill) as I switch over to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP).
Peaceful night in the bike campground at Cumberland YMCA, as long as you don't mind trains.
They got creative with the numbering system out on the C&O canal / bike trail
On the bike trail I met Drew Tappan, who might have known my sister-in-law at Earlham College
We walked our bikes through the 1/2 mile Paw Paw Tunnel
Took a bike siesta on the porch of an old canal lock tender's house
Valerie and Rick are hiking the bike trail, and helped me out at the water pump (this one was a two-person job).
Riding with Pamela and Jess, on the bike trail for their honeymoon. (Pamela's coffee mug was from the Mark Twain House in Hartford. Small world.)
Day 4: Cumberland, MD to Confluence, PA
Compared to my post-rainstorm experience of the muddy C&O Canal, Cathy from North Carolina told me, “the GAP trail is a superhighway for bicyclists.” I wholeheartedly agree. The Cumberland-to-Pittsburgh GAP trail is a well-packed and wide crushed stone trail. Much smoother sailing than the on-and-off mud (mostly on) that I slogged through these past few days, which is fortunate because today I had to climb one big long hill, from Cumberland (about 600 feet) to the Eastern Continental Divide (about 2400 feet). No big deal compared to the West Coast hills I biked this summer, but was thankful that this route was on solid ground.
Met several friendly folks along the way. Terry from West Virginia and I cycled together for several miles on our climb out of Cumberland. At one point he leaped off his bike, pointed to the ground, and declared “that’s a red salamander in the eft stage!” Turns out Terry is a licensed West Virginia naturalist, who kindly pointed out several aspects of the terrain that I never would have noticed. Farther up the trail, at the Mason-Dixon Line between MD and PA, I stopped to chat with Cathy and Tom from North Carolina, and we compared notes on different bike tours we’ve done or have fantasized about in the future. Riding through Big Savage Tunnel (another natural air conditioner during hot noon hour) and reaching the Eastern Continental Divide were milestones of the day, then it was all downhill (gradually) into Confluence PA (a very nice spot to visit, if you really want to get away from AT&T mobile phone service and internet connections).
In Confluence I checked into a cute B&B on the river’s edge (Beth would love it here) to clean up, since I’ll be camping tomorrow night and don’t expect to find a warm shower until I reach Pittsburgh on Thursday. Ate dinner with Linda and Terry, a friendly couple from Smyrna, Delaware, who consider Confluence to be their second home and brought their bikes to ride a portion of the trail. Halfway through our conversation, I mentioned that I grew up in a small town in New York State. ” I recognized your Upstate New York accent!” exclaimed Linda. (She’s not the first person to have told me this, but I’ve never been able to detect this accent in other people, or hear it in my own voice.) Turns out that many moons ago, Linda had been a guidance counselor in Lafayette NY (about 30 miles west of my hometown of Morrisville) and also Solvay NY (closer to Syracuse). Once again, a small world on the bike trail.
I wouldn't have seen this red salamander on the GAP bike trail if Terry the naturalist hadn't pointed it out to me
Lynn Wollenberg Poland made me eat this, in Confluence PA.
Hard to take a good selfie inside the Big Savage Tunnel on the GAP bike trail
Tom and Cathy (from NC) standing on the PA and MD sides of the Mason Dixon line on GAP bike trail
Terry the naturalist from West Virginia pointed out several creatures and land features as we rode together
Very cool wind-powered bike art on the GAP switchback side trail up to Frostburg MD
I love these Road Runner cartoon-style signs to avoid trains in tunnels along the bike trail
The famous Cumberland Bone Cave along the GAP bike trail
Made it through the toughest part of my bike trip. All downhill from here!
Day 5: Confluence, PA to some campsite about 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh PA
Around 4:40pm I finally placed the call, and my spirits brightened when a familiar voice picked up on the second ring. “Hey Myron,” I asked, “how would you feel about me coming into Pittsburgh a day early?” He kindly agreed. I bought a couple of dark chocolate bars to fuel my decision to ride an additional 36 miles, on top of the 54 I had already pedaled, for a 90-mile ride from Confluence PA to their downtown Pittsburgh neighborhood. This was not the original plan, nor one that I had even considered throughout the day. But the overnight forecast called for mid-40 degree temperatures and rain the next morning. The Dravo hiker/biker campsite looked very peaceful, but that’s because it was also an historic cemetery. The only bed and breakfast in the region charged about $145 and didn’t offer Wi-Fi. So pushing on to Pittsburgh made sense, and the timing worked out to arrive before dark at the house of my old college friends Nancy and Myron, before their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Peggy went to bed.
I was impressed by the GAP bike trail along the Monongahela River through the Steel Valley section and into downtown Pittsburgh. Some folks prefer riding in the woods, but I also enjoy urban biking trails to see both abandoned steel mills and repurposed waterfront districts. While a couple of sections are on road, most of the GAP creatively winds its way on bike/pedestrian paths and bridges. Lots of walkers, joggers, and bikers shared the trail with me, as the evening hours were the warmest part of that particular day.
On Thursday, I rested my legs and walked around downtown Pittsburgh, then departed Friday morning on my bike to visit other friends in the city. At Carnegie Mellon University, I lunched with Wanda Dann, my former high school chemistry teacher in Upstate New York, who is now a professor of computer science and director of the Alice Project, an innovative way to teach object-oriented programming through animated visualization. I had not seen her since the mid-1980s, but looked her up a couple of years ago on Ada Lovelace Day to thank her for helping me learn a bit about coding. Then I biked to our friend Faith’s house in the Edgewood/Swissvale neighborhood, just outside of Pittsburgh, to meet up with my family and enjoy a fabulous meal to end another fabulous bike adventure. Early Saturday, I loaded my bike and gear into the trunk of the car, and we drove to the Cleveland area to meet more family for Eli’s graduation weekend at Oberlin College.
Biking around Sonke's old neighborhood
Wanda Dann, my former HS chem teacher, now a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon
Jack, Peggy, and Nancy for story time
Peggy loves to ride her bike
My bike trip ends at Nancy and Myron's house in downtown Pittsburgh, arriving before Peggy's bedtime
Riding the GAP bike trail along Fort Pitt Bridge into downtown Pittsburgh
Mother Goose and goslings (and a freight train in background) and I share the GAP bike trail in Pittsburgh
The GAP bike trail winds its way out of the woods and into Steel Valley, near Pittsburgh.
Rather than camp a cold rainy night at Dravo (a cemetery!), I pushed further on the bike trail to Pittsburgh.
Stunning bike route along the Youghiogheny River, with white water rafting below, Ohio Pyle PA
Best damn restrooms on the C&O-GAP bike trail in the Ohio Pyle PA depot.
Coolest water tower murals on the GAP bike trail
Thinking of my sisters on the bike trail. Ordered the #2 special: two poached eggs on English muffins, with homefries.
Follow me and forty other cyclists on the “One Week A Year” tour of the East Coast Greenway. This wonderful non-profit organization works hard to create safe bike routes from Maine to Florida. Each year they host a fundraising tour that features one segment of the Greenway, and for 2014 it’s a 325-mile ride from Philadelphia, PA to Fredericksburg, VA. Thanks to my flexible schedule this fall, I’m able to ride along with the group for five days from Sunday, Oct 5th to Thursday, Oct 9th, but need to hop off in Washington DC and take the train to an urban history conference back in Philly. If you can’t join us in person, come along for a “virtual ride” by checking out my photo map below (see full-screen version). Click to view any of my geotagged photos along a GPX route map of our trip. (Thanks to my son Eli, who helped me to create this code. )
Thanks to Eric Cohen, an old friend who hosted me in Philadelphia the night before my East Coast Greenway bike ride
Inspiring pre-bike ride pep talk from Dennis Markatos-Soriano (on right), executive director of East Coast Greenway. "We'll start after I finish this speech in an hour or so," he joked.
Enjoying sunshine with my bike (and hundreds of other people) on the new Schuylkill Boardwalk, which opened this week in Philadelphia
The East Coast Greenway bike route connects communities, including the impoverished city of Chester, PA. I looked for the home of the Harris family on West 3rd St, where I lived in 1985 while working with a housing group instead of college.
On ECG bike trip through Chester PA, I stopped by the Calvary Baptist Church that I attended while living with the Harris family. This experience profoundly changed my narrow view of African-American spirituality and culture.
While riding my bike under the Commodore Barry Bridge in Chester PA, I'm stunned by the number of city blocks that have vanished since I renovated houses here in the mid-1980s.
Welcome to Delaware! Let's see if we can persuade the Governor to replace sewer drains like this one, which are deadly for bikes
Delaware Governor Jack Markell, "the most bike friendly governor in the nation," welcomes the East Coast Greenway riders to the DuPont Environmental Education Center.
A great day to ride a bike on the East Coast Greenway in New Castle, Delaware, along the river
During a lunch break on the bike tour, people at the next table heard us talking and asked for help fixing a flat tire on a bike in their car (Photo: Silvia Ascarelli)
The East Coast Greenway is working with local partners to create a bike and pedestrian bridge across the Susquehanna River when Amtrak constructs a new rail bridge.
How General Hamilton helped us to cross the Susquehanna River on our East Coast Greenway bike trip.
On today's bike ride I found these Osage orange tree fruit, which I haven't seen since we lived in Nashville.
Riding the East Coast Greenway bike tour with Chuck and his son Alex from Media, PA, where I lived for a short time many years ago.
Wonderful bike ride into Baltimore on the Jones Falls Trail through Druid Park
Bike police officers Cam and Dom from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, who escorted our crew along the BWI bike trail.
Great view of Baltimore by bike, thanks to the East Coast Greenway. We rode the Jones Falls Trail for about 8 miles to the Inner Harbor.
Seeing Baltimore from the top of Federal Hill Park with our ECG bike guide Greg
Thanks to Karen from Annapolis (left), who rode about 20 miles to meet our ECG bike tour group and escort us into her city.
My favorite sign on the East Coast Greenway bike tour in the Woodridge neighborhood of northeast Washington DC (Photo: Silvia Ascarelli)
Our East Coast Greenway bike tour finally arrived in Washington DC
After arriving in DC, I disassembled my folding bike, placed it inside a suitcase that I had stashed at my in-laws' house, and boarded Amtrak back to a work conference in Philadelphia.
Visited Beth's cousin Robert and Colleen during bike tour in Annapolis, and 10-week-old Henry slept through the entire meal
Special thanks to Silvia Ascarelli, who also posted photos from our ride and wrote about the experience on her blog, ExploringByBike, which you should definitely check out. I’ve credited the photos she took that also appear in my album.
After completing my Seattle-Vancouver one-week loop, I was puzzling over how to do a Portland-Oregon Coast loop in less than two weeks. The problem was that riding from Seattle to Portland would take me 3 full days, plus 3 more to get back, which would seriously cut into the fun parts of the Oregon Coast. Speedier cyclists like my friend Chris Payne do most or all of this 200-mile jaunt in one day on the annual STP, or Seattle to Portland ride, but that’s much faster than the 75-mile per day maximum I can handle on my touring bike with 50+ pounds of camping gear. I needed to find another way. Fortunately, my sister Kris’s friend Hooper put the idea in my head to jump ahead to Portland to begin my ride. Turns out that the Amtrak Cascades train runs frequently from Seattle to Portland (and other stops) at a reasonable fare ($30-50), and charges only $5 extra to load your fully-assembled bike into their newly-designed baggage car, with no box required. Wonderful!
I rode my fully-loaded rig to Seattle’s King Street station to catch the Sunday 2pm train to Portland. (Coincidentally, I had a lunch meeting scheduled at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant with Michael Bowman, a University of Washington doctoral student who’s writing his dissertation on the spatial history of schooling, housing, and planning in Seattle.) The ticketing office gave me a tag to put on my bike, and just before boarding I rolled it over to the baggage handler, who lifted it onto bicycle hangers in a specially-designed car, with about six other cyclists who reserved a slot. Everything went smoothly on the other end, too. Tip for next time: I removed my handlebar bag and blue pannier bags, but the Portland baggage handlers advised me to remove my tent etc. from the rack, too, because excess weight could damage the bike when it’s on the hangers in the train.
Follow my photomap of this loop, which begins in Portland, heads north to the Washington border, then around to the Oregon Coast. Looking back, I could have gotten off the train in Longview WA, rather than Portland OR, which would have saved me riding 50 miles north to Longview the next day. But I love biking in Portland, and will blog more about those adventures at the end of my loop. Thanks again to Eli for helping me with code to integrate Flickr photos and GPX routes into an interactive Leaflet map, which interested folks can explore on GitHub. My job is to improve its interactivity and appearance (without breaking it!). Scroll around inside the map below OR click to view the full-screen version.
Before leaving on this bike tour, my son Eli kindly helped his old man craft some code to integrate geotagged Flickr photos onto a map with a blue line to trace the route. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting, Eli, which code-fanatics can view on GitHub. My job is to improve the map appearance and interactivity during this trip, so expect to see some changes (and there’s always the possibility that I’ll accidentally break the darn thing). Scroll around the map below OR click here to view the full-screen version.
See also additional posts I wrote on this bike tour:
Back in the Spring of 2012, when Eli was finishing up his first year at Oberlin College, we spoke on a Skype call. I asked him if he wanted me to give him a ride back home after his final exams. “Yeah, that’d be great,” he responded, then paused to confirm one important detail. “You are bringing the car, right?”
“No car. Just the tandem bike,” I replied. A few weeks later, I flew into Columbus Ohio with our Bike Friday tandem packed in two suitcases, and my old friend David Levine drove me up to Oberlin the next day. I assembled the bike, and Eli packed his summer gear into the suitcases, which David shipped back East for us. Eli had seven days to ride over 400 miles to central New York State for a family reunion and memorial service for my father, John, who also enjoyed riding his bike. Below is a photomap of our ride (see full-screen version). We originally planned to ride 480 miles across the Northern Tier bike route (by Adventure Cycling) and the Erie Canal bike trail (by Parks and Trails NY) to my hometown of Morrisville, NY. But we modified our trip and rode 429 miles in 5 days, then caught a ride with relatives in Skaneateles, NY to avoid some hills on a very hot day.