1999 June. Cycling America’s East Coast

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My route from Boston to Richmond, Virginia

I arrive in Boston shell shocked after a flight of too many hours and just needing sleep. It’s late, dark, hot and unfamiliar. I tear the cardboard box apart and begin to put my bike together. It’s a real test as my brain is like putty and my fumbling hands refuse to work. My last energy goes into pumping up the tyres and wiping as much grease as possible from my hands.

I carry my bike onto an airport bus and then clamber into a tram hoping no-one screams at me because I know it’s not allowed. Finally I cycle the last few blocks to my backpackers room and slump in reception. It’s exactly midnight.

I’m in a room as hot as a sauna filled with thick, stale air from three snoring guys and no air conditioner. My top bunk is a murky cloud of hot stagnant air. I lay there facing the open window till 6am. It’s as long as I can manage, I shower and scamper.

6am and I’m away. Half asleep half fatigued, lost within an hour.

Just to ride away made me feel better. Finally my own movement causing a faint breeze, washed over me. I follow the murky Charles river out of Boston, it reminds me of the Yarra river in my hometown of Melbourne. I have my share of wasted klms as I miss turns and read the map incorrectly. I just want to keep moving, my body is protesting, cramping and the early heat of the day is sapping me. I’ve completed 140 klms when I finally slump onto a bed at a hotel well beyond my budget. I have no energy to argue nor seek a cheaper place.

The Charles river in Boston is the same murky browny, grey of my home town Yarra river.

I wake stiff and sore before the dawn and lay there trying to get my body to respond. It takes an hour before I can stand upright. I’m soon out amongst the rolling hills of Connecticut and clusters of hobby farms. Actual working farms have been subdivided into nearby city folk’s dreams. Tidy clapboard houses I’ve seen on ‘little house on the prairie’ with pairs of pickup trucks out the front. But no farms actually growing stuff. Eventually the hills flatten out and I glide into Windsor Locks late afternoon happy to be getting some rhythm into my riding day. Dinner isn’t what someone doing 130 klms needs it’s far from nourishing, yet I couldn’t finish it. It was to become a theme. I needed fuel, good fuel to ride these distances and I couldn’t find it.

My body is starting to loosen, just a little bit. It has never experienced back to back days of long riding before. Work hadn’t enabled me to train with long continues days and my legs are tight. I try to ease into my days counting chipmunks that have thrown themselves in front of night time drivers. Chipmunk carnage is everywhere…

The bridges are predominately steel, carry a patriotic flag and nowhere for the cyclist.

Spring has caused fast growing grass to spring up turning the vista to take on that vivid green. The air is filled with the scent of newness, Spring and it’s intoxicating. I ride on into Rhinebeck determined to find a cheaper place to stay, my budget is being blown daily. It’s frustrating when I am dog tired to circle a town looking for the best deal. The Australian dollar is weak against the American greenback.  I find a bargain at Betty’s, a true B&B and $50 !

I walk into town along row after row of white picket fences. Find myself a table on a restaurant balcony and order a blackened steak with onions and their biggest beer. I look around thinking this is what I’d hoped for, dreamed of. Scrubbed up couples soon fill the place and I sit back with another beer savouring the sound of people out enjoying themselves. It’s a stark contrast from my day alone on country backroads.

I spend the next day cycling around the Roosevelt homes along the Hudson River. Each mansion seems to be slightly bigger than its neighbour. They were predominately built off the back of early American manufacturing and its world domination. Their reign is over but these mansions represent a time when their owners were flush with money.

I finish my day scrambling over rough ground next to a highway trying to get to a nearby restaurant. There are no footpaths in any of the newer towns, no-one walks, the car is king. Hell, they drive at 16 years of age. Proof of the cars supremacy comes when I am given a vibrating disc to hold whilst I wait for a table. I sit uncomfortably and ungainly on the front fence outside whilst everyone else sits waiting in their cars to be called.

The Hudson river mansions. The palatial Roosevelt home dwarfs my bike.

I ride alongside the Delaware Water Gap National Park for much of the next day enjoying the flat country and watching locals bob along the huge river on tractor tyres or anything that floats. I turn a bend to see a mountain range ahead, The Kittatinny mountains soon have me huffing and puffing probably because I laughed at the name. I find a cheap room but cheap comes at a price. I have to carry my bike up three floors to my room. The clickety-clack of cars crossing the steel grid bridge over the Delaware river opposite keeps me awake but fatigue finally beats the noise.

I spotted a pair of American eagles early this morning. The National emblem of America hovering over the snaking bitumin road, eyes peeled for roadkill. They are majestic birds with thick, white, fluffy, drumstick legs and a beady stare that is intimidating. The mornings are best, the quiet, cool, fresh start to another day slowly builds. By 9am cars are all around me as is the general hubbub of life. So I’m grateful when I spot a cycle path alongside the road. The afternoon is spent on the path following the Delaware river from Frenchtown almost all the way into Philadelphia. I skirt the big city looking for small town America. I find it again in Valley Forge. I’m thinking pizza tonight, the smell is intoxicating but somehow the owner/chef convinces me to try his chicken. It’s good, real good but I really chose it just to shut him up, boy they can talk.

Amish country and their beautiful carriages of another time.

The days are starting to melt into each other. A hot shower seems to be the best way to get my stiff body to unfold these last few mornings. The weather is sticky and a headwind has me low over the handlebars, my mind in neutral. I see my first Amish today. Some are working farms along the road others I spot bouncing along in elaborate shiny black jinkers and carriages. It’s of another time, seeing these carriages out amongst the tall fields of corn. I finish the day in pelting rain after my intended town has no rooms. The woman in the small town of Colombia stares blankly as I stand there absolutely saturated smiling and saying with some irony “just a room please, I’ve had the shower already.” I guess she’s seen a lot… I’m just another smartarse. My highlight today was buying a glass of homemade lemonade off a ten year old boy, standing at a wooden stall on a lonely backroad. Trying to get some dollars together for the summer holidays. No alcohol tonight there are strict rules in this county regarding drink. Evil drink… pain neutralising, thirst quenching elixir that it is.

Fertile land, corn growing madly and those spaceship looking American feed silos.

I seem to be doubling back every morning usually around ten klms. It’s because the new fast highways skirt the old towns. The cheap motels are in the old towns slowly fading away. Fewer tourists show interest in stopping in Hicksville when they can drive 500 miles or catch a plane. I’m seeing the end of an era, it’s rather sad. I’m now spinning along in beautiful horse country on the outskirts of Baltimore. I can no longer smell the lush green grass that abounds here, I can just smell money. A local fishing-tackle shop owner points me towards a cheap hotel run by Indians. As I leave his shop he calls out ” make sure you are off the streets by dark when you hit Washington ” I’m as green as the grass on those horse properties, I had no idea that Washington was so dangerous. I nod and ride on.

The White House, Washington D.C

I ride straight into Washington the next morning. A bike path starts at suburbia and I simply follow it all the way to the centre of the city. “Excuse me sir can you point me towards the White House ?” I find it easy enough, there are a handful of people protesting about this and that and evidently my invitation is still in the mail. I stop at a set of lights, I’m immediately surrounded on my bike by three local boys asking for money. Come on man you a rich man they chime give us a few bucks. It doesnt sound like a request. If I am so rich why am I riding a bike and whilst they step back to ponder this I ride straight through the red light and don’t look back.

I ride a short distance along the Pontamac river towards Mount Vernon. It’s a beautiful ride alongside the founding suburbs of Washington City. I just keep peddling spooked by my meeting with the locals and remembering my advise to be off the street by dark. Dinner is in an Italian restaurant where I can’t help but think these rather large local people aren’t rednecks, they’re ‘no necks’ such is their obesity.

I ride through rain that is slightly more appealing than the humid weather towards Fredericksburg. I stop at a local library where they allow me to use a computer to search for a place to stay. It’s just me dripping wet and a room full of unhealthy looking, pimply nerds. But how much easier, how reassuring to be able to book my bed at day’s end. I must be getting fitter my notes called today a short day yet I peddled 99 klms. My legs are screaming tight and my butt is permanently bruised, I will have a day off soon.

There was something going on two doors down from mine. A woman stood in the hallway till late into the night whilst people came and went. Meanwhile my air conditioner wheezed, coughed and spluttered like an asthmatic drinking too fast. I’m out of this fleapit real early the next morning, well before any of the other occupants rise. It’s a bright sunny morning but the temperature is near freezing. I rub sunscreen on my goosebumps in the car park then throw my leg over the bike. I stop just down the road and load up on a large bowl of grits at the Battlefield breakfast bar. I’ve had them a few times and can’t wait to get back to cornflakes.

The road is sprinkled with signs identifying this and that battle from the American Civil war. A retreat here, a victory on this bridge and I try to visualise the scenes from America’s real coming of age. I start to read bits and pieces and this was my take on who threw the first punch ! The South full of farmers using slave labour and the North already moving to industry meant the country had two very different philosophies. The electing of Abraham Lincoln brought this to boiling point and then the fight started…

My last day in the South is peddling around Gettysburg to see where the final action took place in the Civil War. Ironically whilst I am in Gettysburg the Americans are bombing the bejesus out of Bosnia without putting one soldier on the ground. How times have changed. I look ridiculous in my Lycra in amongst the Civil war enthusiasts dressed ready for battle in their period costume. There is a smell of gunpowder and testosterone wafting in the air and the sound of a distant bugler.

Back into Richmond it is a big new city, wide streets, huge public buildings and I cruise around it looking for the Amtrak station. Ive ridden so far and so fast I have a few spare days and will spend them in the hills of Vermont. I head back North through New York to Vermont my aim is to see those covered bridges.

I find myself sitting next to an old guy heading back to New York to file divorce papers against his ex-wife. I know far too much about her by the time we pull into Penn Station. I wish he would keep it to himself but he can’t bare the silence and blurts out another horrible thing she did. Finally he tells me, I’m 71 years old and not keen on commitment these days. I nod but he wants me to ask more questions. I don’t give him the pleasure.

The train finally pulls into Penn station, I only just manage to carry my bike between platforms for the next train to Rutland following the Hudson River. It’s late, nearly 11pm when I find myself trying to screw the peddles back on my bike under the Rutland railway station lights. I peddle off looking for a place next door to Dunkin’ donuts, should be easy to find and it is but it’s far from cheap.

Bike off train in Rutland Vermont.JPG
Rutland, Vermont and my bike is ready to be loaded for the return to New York.

I’m peddling away in probably the most remote area I have ridden when the bike starts to make an unfamiliar grinding noise. Eventually I stop to find the chain has a damaged link. I ease off the pedal pressure trying to find something / someone to help me but there are just trees around here. I spot a farmhouse and walk gingerly up the driveway to the front door. I am sure a toothless guy, lets call him Jed, in filthy dungarees complete with a four day growth will greet me. A shotgun hanging loosely from his right hand will be on display as he opens the fly-wire door. Instead he smiles, most of his teeth are there and he tells me he has an anvil that may be helpful in repairing my chain. A few delicately blows from a large steel hammer and I think I’ve avoided walking my bike all the way back to Rutland.

Wick Ahrens, Whale Gallery, Weston, Vermont.

Weston is home to an artist, Wick Ahrens.  I read an article in the Qantas magazine whilst flying to America, tore it out and stuck it in my journal for later reference. Today is the day I’m nearby and I hope I manage to find his gallery. He carves whales from wood and sells these sculptures from his ‘whale gallery ‘ I arrive at the gallery slap bang in the middle of him opening an exhibition. Wick still takes some time out to walk and talk with me, fascinated that I had read about him high above the clouds. I tell him to return to his guests but he waves in their direction that they can wait. Very down to earth guy. I just wish the price of his whales was more down to earth as it would have been a heavy yet beautiful souvenir of our meeting but I haven’t got hundreds of spare dollars nor the strength to carry the carving home on the bike.

The lady on reception at the Econolodge in Rutland has thoughtfully arranged for me to ride with a group of local bikers. The group meet me in the middle of town a few have snuck away from work and we ride out over roads I’ve previously ridden. A mixture of hills and winding flats next to a beautiful river. They have me telling them tales of my ride as we cruise along. I suddenly notice that they are all huffing and puffing yet I’m the one talking. My fitness has obviously progressed along the way. The local bike shop has arranged for a friend to meet our group with freshly cut sandwiches in the square at Weston. I’m impressed and would have liked someone arriving with lunch each day.

I meet some of the local riders again the next day. They are out to test me, nothing is said but I feel the pace build. I am at full tilt on my touring bike whilst their lighter racing bikes are doing it easy. We turn onto some dirt roads to inspect a few more covered bridges and the pace slackens off. I think I passed their unofficial test.

The covered bridges of Vermont stopped ice forming on the bridges in Winter.

After a few days without the pannier bags I slip them back onto the bike for a couple of days further afield. I head towards Londonderry and arrive late afternoon to find it’s a tourist town with predominately expensive accomodation. My dog, Herman would have turned his nose up at the basic room I find within my budget. He would have been right too because I wake the next morning covered in flea or bed bug bites. I ride out through lumpy country the bites driving me crazy as my body slowly heats up.

My final day and I ride early, the days are becoming hot. I startle a young deer alongside a lake and it scampers parallel with me through a thin forest of trees. I think we were both startled by the chance meeting. In the next town I run a red light on my bike in a small town with no-one else on the intersection. I’d looked around, seen no-one and peddled on through. Minutes later a pick-up races past me then brakes hard in front of me, the driver jumps out. He gives me the third degree on running the light and I’m waiting for him to do the citizens arrest thing. Finally he jumps back in his pick-up and races off shaking his head. I feel guilty and bewildered in the same breathe. I can’t imagine anywhere else in the world where that would happen.

A shingled house in Vermont.

It’s time to go home and I return to town pack my things and catch the train back along the Hudson River into New York. On arrival at Penn station I carry my loaded bike up the escalator to street level. Two policemen are standing at the station entrance. “Excuse me can you show me the best way to cycle towards Queens” I ask. One started laughing whilst the other turned, called me a fucking idiot then pointed towards Central Park. I find myself crossing the Williamsburg bridge and somehow end up near Queens. A couple of klms from the end of my final ride the right peddle simply drops off ! I must have cross threaded it when reassembling the bike and it has slowly worn the thread completely away. I scoot one legged towards my hotel. The gods have given me a warning, it’s over Jeff.

Skyway hotel, pay by the hour and Steve’s bar next-door.

My hotel is close to La Guardia airport. There is a bar next door and I wander in and get talking to Steve, the barman. He says I can leave my bike in the cellar as my hotel doesn’t have any storage room. For the next two days I wander New York admiring the famous buildings, the Empire state, the World Trade Centre and the Chrysler building. I head out early to catch the Stratten island ferry. A chance to get up close with the Statue of Liberty. Such a tiny island with so many massive highrise buildings and a pace of life I have never felt before. New York is equally invigorating and scary.

Manhatten, New York skyline from the Stratten Island ferry.

I get back to Steve’s bar mid afternoon on my final day. It’s quiet, too quiet… it’s closed ? Oh dear, I start to panic, everything except my daypack is down there in the basement. I circle the building hoping to find a window open, maybe another entrance but around here it’s like Fort Knox. If it’s not tied or bolted down it would be stolen. If I smash a window I will miss my plane for sure, locked up in a nearby police station. I wait, I wait till I’m scared I’ll miss my flight then with head hanging low and feeling like I could vomit I leave my bike and bags behind. I trudge across the road and into the airport. I spend the time before the flight with cramps in my stomach sitting in the toilets. The whole trip feels like it has unravelled before my eyes.

The drone of the plane seems to match my mood. First to Chicago which is having a weather meltdown. My plane in Los Angeles has its own problems. The plane sits for three hours on the tarmac then 500 of us are ushered onto buses and taken to a holiday Inn. But it ain’t no holiday, I just want to get home. Some hours later I’m called and shunted onto a flight to Auckland. On reaching our destination the cabin crew rebel say their hours are up, refusing to continue to Melbourne. Again we are off to nearby hotels. Where do you find 500 beds at short notice in New Zealand ?

I am a lucky one and get the first available flight with Air New Zealand leaving at 4.45am. I sit on the bed watching tennis fromWimbledon fearful of sleep. Finally onto the plane with smiling staff and food I can eat. In a few hours I step onto Australian soil, oh so relieved.

I head straight to work in the city me and my daypack, I must look a mess. I convince the Manager’s secretary to allow me to use the phone to ring New York. Steve answers the phone, there is laughter and bar room chatter in the background. “Where you been man ?”   “I’m home, in Australia. I will send someone to pick up my bike and ship it to Australia, can you give it to them ?”  “Sure man, sorry I missed you” comes back down the line. I close my eyes for a minute and sigh, phew.

Over the following weeks the overall trip rises above the gut wrenching dilemma at the end. It was a great trip, I saw some truly beautiful countryside, some iconic places and some caring, energetic and interesting people. All under my own steam.  I’m certainly better for the experience, life is good.