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.