Through New York, Oct. 10 to 19

nys-c2c4conservationWe entered New York on the Peace Bridge on Friday, October 10. For most of the state we rode on the route of the Erie Canal Towpath. This meant paved bike trails through the Buffalo metro, local roads to Lockport, and then a grade-a bike trail that went all the way through Rochester. We switched back to local roads at Lyons and took them through Syracuse until the towpath started up again at the edge of Interstate 481. Then there was a delightful stretch of bike trail that runs unbroken to Utica. We picked through that city and 30 miles more, and then the towpath starts again. It goes all the way to Albany. When you aren’t on the towpath, you’re usually on NY State Bike Routes 5 and 31.

We didn’t go straight through. We stopped in Albion on Friday night and in Rochester on Saturday, after enjoying a party the Land Trust threw for us in the Genesee Park. On Sunday we were the guests of honor at another Land Trust party in Savannah, and then we took three days off to go home and open the mail. We started up again on Thursday and rode through Syracuse to Canastota, where we got in the truck and drove 11 miles north to the nearest campground. On Friday we rode east to re-join the towpath in Rome, then continued on a mix of towpath and surface roads through Utica to St. Johnsville. On Saturday we left the towpath and took state route 67 east to Johnstown, then continued on several different routes to Saratoga Springs. On Sunday the 19th we continued on route 29 through the Taconic Mountans, and took route 313 into Vermont.

Day 60: Crystal Beach, ON to Medina, NY

We slept at the Crystal Beach Motel, which was friendly, inexpensive, and clean. It would be a great choice for the start point of a weekend bike trip in the Niagara region. About 9am Jim, Tania and I started on the path to Fort Erie, about five miles east. Fort Erie was the scene of the bloodiest battle in Canada’s history. American troops captured it during the War of 1812 and by the time they were finally driven back across the river, over 1,000 British soldiers had died. Things gradually calmed down after that, and by the 20th Century we were so chummy with Canada that we named the Niagara River bridge Peace and the cross-border bike trail Friendship. Our relations too on a slightly darker cast when the Homeland Security Administration started managing the border. Now you need a passport to get back into the U.S. We heard stories about people’s computers being confiscated with no reasons given and no return possible. Jim decided he wanted to drive the truck and do the talking, so he met Sara at the bridge entrance while Tania and I rode across on our bikes.

Riding across the Peace Bridge on a bicycle was a good thing to do once, but next time I’d walk it. The traffic is heavy, with lots of trucks. There is no sidewalk rail between you and the roadbed, and an open steel railing separates you from the water. This means riding across is a white-knuckle experience; you are over 100 feet in the air on a long four-foot strip of concrete with bloody mayhem leering at you on both sides. Then you have to talk to black-shirted Homeland Security officers who have guns and cop equipment hanging all over them.

Getting through Homeland Security is confusing for cyclists, too. We walked our bikes up to a gate that was locked and untended, and it took several minutes to realize that I could reach through the bars and unlatch it from the inside and no one would care. Then we walked directly into the holding pen for people whose entrance papers had been confiscated and were waiting to be questioned. There were sixty or seventy people packed into a small waiting area, most of them from other countries and all of them looking seriously bummed. We had no indication of what to do until an officer took us aside and explained that since our passports had not been confiscated, we could walk straight up to the desk and we didn’t have to wait in line. A cursory glance, two questions, a swipe of the passports through the computer, and we were on our way. It was a preview of what America would look like if we lost the Bill of Rights. I found it scarier than the bridge.

We rode into Buffalo’s Columbus Park neighborhood, a lovely and historic section of the city that is endangered by a proposal to build a large new entrance plaza. The Peace Bridge entrance is undeniably messy, but improving security isn’t the main reason for the proposal. They want to be able to handle even more semi trucks. And here’s the punch line: there is plenty of land available for building in Canada, but the Bush Administration won’t consider putting it over there because Canada won’t honor certain scarier provisions of the Patriot Act.

On U.S. soil, anyone seen observing a Homeland Security site who looks “suspicious” can be seized and fingerprinted with no charges and no due process. Canada won’t go along with this misbegotten rule, so the Bush Administration is proposing to tear down 70 to 90 private homes in a thriving historic neighborhood in order to get their way. Local, state, and national groups are organizing to stop the proposal. You can learn more here.

After the bridge, Buffalo’s Riverwalk path immediately got us off of city roads. We re-joined Jim and rode north along the American side of the Niagara River. We stopped for lunch in Tonawanda (loganberry milkshakes) and then turned east on the Erie Canal Towpath, which would be our route for the next six days of riding. The towpath is an off-road bike path for most of its length and is one of the best rides in the Northeast, in my opinion, but the stretch from Tonawanda to Lockport uses a lot of surface roads and is hard to follow. We had maps that were also hard to follow. We were delighted to learn that someone had helpfully spray-painted arrows on the pavement to guide us. Jim cleverly referred to these arrows as “sperm man.” It could just have easily have ben “lollipop man,” but there you are. Tania and I would hear him call out, “Sperm man says turn left!” Sperm man never failed us.

The towpath trail goes off-road for a long stretch at Lockport, which is also the place where the canal descends the Niagara escarpment in a series of five connected locks. East of this point it’s a much more pleasant ride, with the glassy water surface to the south and changing views of farmland, woods, and small towns to the north. Some enterprising soul with an arc welder had turned the drum of a cement mixer into a large sculpture of a chicken just west of Middleport. The sculptor needs to go back and work on the head and tail and give the thing a rooster-colored paint job, but he has made an excellent start.

We continued on the towpath to Medina, where Sara took Jim north to a campsite at a state park on Lake Ontario. Tania and I checked into the Medina Stone Farm, a beautiful 1863 brick home with a menagerie out back. Ron and Nancy, who own the property, perform old-time country music under the name OneSong. They were preparing to host a dance the next night in their huge renovated barn. We would have loved to go, but we had a previous engagement on Saturday afternoon in Rochester: the first of two parties where our friends from the Finger Lakes Land Trust will help us celebrate the near-completion of the ride. And so to bed.

Day 61: Medina to Rochester, NY

We continued east on the Canalway Trail with 45 miles in front of us. Our destination was a party in Genesee River Park in Rochester, where friends from the Land Trust would gather to say hello and look at our legs. One of Medina’s notable characteristics is a 12-foot sculpture of an apple next to the canal. Another is that it is the home town of George Kennan, architect of the Cold War. It was also home to Frances Folsom, who became the bride of President Grover Cleveland at the age of 21. Cleveland was a friend of the family. He had known Frances since she was born, and was 27 years her senior.

Medina is also the place where the Oak Orchard Creek gorge crosses the canal. This engineering feat required a massive amount of concrete, and the waterway follows a curving aqueduct with the creek and its waterfall flowing underneath it.

In Albion, ten miles down the road, we reunited with Bill Yust and became a foursome. Bill’s wife Valerie dropped him off, and Sara plied us with local pears and peaches during a short rest stop. We had to pedal steadily to make the party at 3pm, so there wasn’t much time to stop and take pictures. We arrived roughly on time and met Roger Hopkins (who made the Google Earth program of our ride), Burch and Louise Craig, John DeHority, Donna Pacelli, Henry McCartney, and about two dozen others whose names I am too flaky to recall right now. Betsy Landre, the Land Trust staffer who organized the shindig, took a great photo of the group.

We continued the ride with a few friends to Pittsford, where Jim and Sara left to spend the night at Sybil Craig’s house while Tania and I went to the home of Bill and Valerie Yust. On Sunday our destination is a second party for the eastern half of the Land Trust at Montezuma, followed by three days of rest at home.

Day 62: Rochester to Savannah, NY

We returned to Lock 32 in Pittsford and started Sunday’s ride at 11am. Jim, Tania, and I had two companions for the day: Joe Avery and Jack Starke, friends from the Western Lakes. The trail from Pittsford to Fairport runs through some of the most affluent pats of Rochester, and on this Sunday morning we wove between well-coiffed women on their powerwalks, families out for a stroll, and men in cycling get-ups much more elaborate than ours. But Jim and I knew what to do. Back on the Root River trail in Minnesota we had found our identity as bike path pirates. While we were always polite, we cut through the ambling citizenry like a pair of bluefin tuna through a school of cod. Soon we were in the working-class canal cabins of Macedon, the crowds thinned out, and it was a midday of brilliant fall sunshine on leaves of red ochre and bright yellow.

The path from Macedon to Newark is probably the most scenic section of the canal. It cuts through large wetlands, cultivated fields, and mature woods. The canal itself gets wider, with more birds and fish, and you can usually see something stirring or jumping in the water. Joe turned around in Palmyra and rode back ot his car; Our friend Henry McCartney met Tania in Newark to drive her back to her car, and on the way he showed us his simple, comfy fishing camp. He said you can catch bass there by casting right off your porch.

The towpath ended after Newark. We were back in the world of cars, but thanks to the directional markers spray-painted on the pavement, we found a nice alternative to Highway 31 all the way to Lyons. These markers, by the way, are probably a side benefit of the annual ride across New York that is supported by the group Parks and Trails New York. It happens every July, and it’s a great way to do the route if you don’t have someone like Sara Kersting ho help you out.

I was back in familiar territory, moving along roads I had ridden while I was training for the cross-country ride, and less then 15 miles from a gathering of our friends at the Audubon Center in Savannah. It felt like the ride was over and in a sense it was, because I was back home.

About 30 Land Trust members and friends met us at the Center with cold beer, pizza, and lots of questions. Jim and I gave Andy Zepp the $14.62 in change we had found on the side of the road over the last nine weeks, and now we are even closer to our fund-raising goal! Just kidding. It was a great party  We exceeded the fund-raising goal easily and ended up raising $39,000 for the Land Trust, thanks to almost 200 people who contributed.  Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were rest days.

Days 63, 64, & 65: Home Furlough

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday October 13 to 15, Jim and Sara went back to Canadice and I returned to Ithaca for three days of rest at home. The delay allowed Jim to meet up with his daughter Rachel and granddaughter Emma at the end of the ride. I used the time to open mail, run errands, get ready to go back to work, and see friends.

I had a wonderful surprise when I got home.  My neighbors on Short Street had decorated my house with big red letters that said “Welcome Home” and “Yay Brad.”  They had also decorated the sidewalk.  They all came over the evening I got back so we could sit around and tell jokes.  I live in a great neighborhood.

Days 66 & 67: Savannah to St. Johnsville, NY

Rain set in on Wednesday night and was falling steadily when the sun came up on Thursday, October 16. The forecast said that the rain would end around noon, but the 45-minute ride to Savannah from Ithaca was still pretty grim. Tania dropped me off at a gas station/convenience store, and I made the clerk look twice when I brought five bags in with me. “Looks like you’re moving in,” she said. “I am, but only for 15 minutes,” I said.

Jim and Sara pulled in and when we set off at 11am. The rain had stopped but the road was wet. We set off in full gear — fenders and rain jackets and neoprene galoshes – and we were soon damp but not soaked. We took Route 31 east through the muckland north of the wildlife refuge, crossed the Seneca River, and passed through hard-scrabble towns like Port Byron and Jordan. The Erie Canal Towpath Trail started up again in Port Byron, but we stuck to the pavement in an attempt to avoid mud. Then in Camillus we had no alternative to the towpath, and soon our bikes and bags were spattered.

After Camillus the towpath trail ended and would not start up again until we were past Syracuse. We started through the city on Milton Avenue, which took us past one of my favorite Syracuse restaurants, Eva’s European Sweets and Polish Restaurant. We were just in time for lunch, too. The chicken and dumpling soup was delicious, and Jim said that their hot chocolate was made from scratch. I ordered a plate of potato pancakes topped with Hungarian tomato-and ground-beef goulash. I could happily eat at Eva’s three times a week, but I would weigh 300 pounds if I did.

Eva’s was a good consolation prize for the chore of riding through Syracuse. New York State Highway 5 is an official bike route, and in the city it follows Genesee Street downtown to Clinton Square, then continues east out of town on Erie Boulevard. Our old friend “sperm man” appeared and lead us to some lower-traffic alternative roads (“sperm man” is what we call the spray painted route markers put on the pavement by the group New York State Parks and Trails). It was mid-afternoon and not rush hour yet so the traffic was tolerable, but it was also urban riding on bad pavement with strip-mall scenery. The drudgery continued until we got to Interstate 481, where Old Erie Canal State Park begins.

Old Erie Canal State Park is a 34-mile stretch of the original canal bed, which was dug in 1817-25 and widened in 1851. Boat traffic now runs on the New York State Barge Canal (1908), which bypasses this section to go through Oneida Lake and re-joins it in Rome. The old canal doesn’t serve any commercial purpose any more, but in the years I’ve used it it has become more and more popular with boaters and bicyclists. The clouds were lifting and soon sun hit brilliant fall foliage as we moved through Syracuse’s wealthy eastern suburbs. Then we rode on to Chittenango, where Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum was raised, and onward to Canastota, the hometown of Heavyweight Boxing Champion Carmen Basilio. Thanks to Basilio’s influence, the Boxing Hall of Fame is in Canastota. It was closed, but we waited there for Sara to come and pick us up. The nearest campground was 11 miles away because camping season is over. A cold front had come through and a north wind was stiffening as we set up our gear and made dinner. By nightfall it was in the mid-40s, and it would be close to freezing overnight.

Day 67: Fish Creek to St. Johnsville, NY

Our campground on the 17th was on Fish Creek, which drains into Oneida Lake and is home to hundreds of geese, ducks, and other birds. We slept long and deep because of the cold, and the birds woke us up at dawn. It is possible to ride a bicycle when it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but if you don’t have to, why should you? We waited to leave until 10 am, when Jim’s bike thermometer read 45. But it was a sunny day, and by noon it was perfect riding weather.

We rode back to the canal towpath on county roads and crossed an early 20th-Century steel-deck bridge over the barge canal. It had been closed and was waiting for the wrecking crew. Soon we were met by a friend who came up for the day – Lloyd Peterson of Canandaigua, a faithful training partner for Jim and an important assistant on the blog for me. Lloyd met up with us at the Erie Canal Park outside of Rome, where several busloads of schoolchildren were being wheeled around a small track in an antique train. Lloyd took a panoramic photograph of us in front of a canal boat by taking several overlapping photos and stitching them together with photo software. Can you find the seams?

We rode on city streets through Rome, then left town on a county road that took us back to the towpath east of town. The towpath here borders a large wildlife refuge on the north side, and beyond that is Griffith Air Force Base; if you’re lucky, you can see a huge B-52 take off over the marsh, its engines shaking the earth, but we didn’t see anything on this day. We rode on through the day until the towpath ended just outside of Utica, and then we braved some overpasses and heavy traffic to get to Bleecker Street for lunch.

Bleecker Street is where Utica’s Italian neighborhood had its heyday. Those days are long past, but a few restaurants and pastry shops hang on. Their products are so good that you’d think you were in Brooklyn. We ate chicken parm subs at the O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria, owned and operated by the same family since 1914, and then finished it off with pastries and coffee at Caffe Caruso. After the first bite of his Napoleon, Jim said, “I could eat six of these, but then I’d have to take a nap.”

Lloyd turned around after lunch.  Jim and I pushed eastward, through Franklin, Mohawk, and other beaten-down little towns in the Mohawk Valley. At Little Falls we picked up the towpath again, and the last ten miles were a pleasant churn through fallen alder leaves on a surface of hard-packed stone dust. Sara had found us a great campsite at the St, Johnsville Municipal Marina Campground, wedged between the barge canal on the south and two active rail lines to the north, with the whine of Interstate 90 in the near distance. It will be a night for earplugs, but after riding 70 miles in cold weather you can pretty much sleep through anything.

Days 68 & 69: St. Johnsville, NY to Manchester, VT

A campsite at the bottom of the Mohawk Valley isn’t the warmest spot in mid-October. The barge canal was warmer than the air, so it steamed all night and we woke up surrounded by fog with the air temperature in the low 30s. It was well after 9 am when the sun burned the fog away, and even then the temperature was hovering around 40. But we had to go, so we put on every scrap of warm clothing we had and pedaled off. We felt as insulated as deep sea divers.

We turned up state route 67 and rode out of the Mohawk Valley in bright sunshine and brilliant fall color, although it was still way too cold. The strengthening sun pushed the fog higher into the sky and made cumulus clouds out of it. Traffic was light and the road had a good shoulder. Amish and Mennonite farms are common in the deeply rural parts of New York, and we saw men harvesting corn by hand in one field, piling it into shocks. Then we rode past a man driving two mules pulling a flatbed cart. Three girls in plain dress were standing perfectly still along the back rail of the cart. Was it lunchtime already? Were the girls allowed to work? I wanted to ask and take pictures, but I didn’t dare.

In Ephrata we rolled past the Saltzman Hotel, which looks like a place the owners care about and is unlikely to be making much money. After another half-hour we were in Johnstown, the seat of Fulton County, and the home of Jim’s Aunt Fran and Uncle Larry. Larry, who is in his 80s, was off in the woods because it was the opening day of bow-hunting season. The Kerstings are a tough bunch. Fran, her son Bruce, and Bruce’s son Joel met us at a diner for a late breakfast at the Forever Young’s Restaurant, which is owned by two Korean women. One of them sold us a special omelette made with beef marinated in homemade Korean-style sauce. It was tasty, but damn it was a lot of food. We rolled out of there about 12:30 with churning guts and 30 miles to go to Saratoga Springs.

The tangle of highways in Johnstown was too much for us. We took a wrong turn, which meant that we spent an hour or so on rural roads getting back to our route. It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-October and people were doing battle with their leaves – raking them up, blowing them around, mowing them into pulp, burning them in the ditches. Such sacrifices for the sake of a lawn! Where the leaves lay undisturbed, it was like a gold and red carpet in the bright sun.

This was our first day of climbing hills in quite a while — since South Dakota, really. We also were on the edge of Albany sprawl, so the roads were full of urban drivers who did not treat us with much respect. The last two hours were hard for these reasons, and it was with great relief that we pulled into the small hamlet of Rock City Falls, which is just a few houses and an abandoned mill a few miles west of Saratoga Spings. Sara met us there and loaded our bikes onto the truck for an eight-mile drive to the campsite.

After cleaning up we headed into Saratoga to meet my wife Tania and Henry Tepper, an old friend who was our host for the evening. We had a great meal and two hours of riotous fun at the Springwater Bistro, and then Henry drove Tania and I back to his house for a reunion with his wife Jane, daughter Kate, son Miles. Then it got even better: we slept in a heated room. A perfect end to the day.

Day 69: Saratoga Springs to Manchester, VT

We met Jim and Sara at the intersection of highway 29 and the Northway (Interstate 87) and started off around 10:30 am. The road was crowded and the shoulder was small. It was another brilliant fall day, and people were out buying pumpkins and looking at leaves – lots of people. We rode past an apple orchard just north of the site of the Battle of Saratoga, where General Schuyler repelled the British and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. A large stone obelisk marks the spot where the British surrendered. Shortly thereafter we rode past General Schuyler’s Internet Café in Schuylerville. No wonder he won the battle.

We crossed the Hudson River and rode on to Greenwich. We stopped there for coffee at the Local Market, which specializes in natural foods and local products. We had a great time talking to the proprietor, Margaret Jones, and as a present she gave us a bag of energy bars that are being made from all-natural ingredients in Saratoga Springs. Natural Performance “replenish” bars are made from rolled oats, honey, almonds, and other things you have in your kitchen, not the synthetic stuff packed into other energy bars. They taste good, and they give you the glycogen boost you need at the end of a workout. Thanks, Margaret!

At Greenwich we started following the Battenkill River upstream toward Vermont. To our great relief, the leaf-peepers and other distracted drivers seemed to prefer a different route, and we had a beautiful road to ourselves. We rode past the Shushan Covered Bridge Museum, which was closed, and then missed a turn where we were supposed to cross a bridge that had been closed. We went a few miles out of our way and had turned around when Tania came back to the crucial turn and waited for us. I have no idea how she knew we would miss the turn, but we have been married seven years now. Anyway, she seemed pretty pleased with herself.

We switched to state route 313 and continued up the Battenkill to the state line. The scenery immediately improved, with well-kept Greek Revival homes and big hillsides that still had a lot of color on them. At Arlington we found a back road that would take us to Manchester, which was a big help because north of Manchester are lots of big outlet stores and the traffic was starting up again. But the village center is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, which isn’t surprising: he used to live in Arlington. We switched to Route 11 and began battling our way up the Green Mountains, but only for two miles. Tania saved the day a second time by finding us a great motel, the Toll Road Motor Inn, which had a hot tub and wireless internet and was near good restaurants. Meryl Stark and her husband John, old friends of ours who live nearby, dropped in. Meryl stayed so we could take her out dinner as an early birthday celebration.