Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Start of the Trail

It has been an eventful first few days on the Appalachian Trail. In three days hiking I have completed just over 50 miles, seen some wonderful scenery, have been rained on and met some interesting characters along the way.

Along the early stages of the Appalachian Trail there is a big trail community. There are just so many hikers around whether out for a day or those planning to thru-hike the trail, it would be hard not to have the kind of camaraderie that has evolved. That being the case, it made my life easy for the last couple of days. There were no real hardships; everything I could have possibly wanted or needed was a short distance off the trail. I pretty much had everything I needed and knew what to expect, but there were others out there (like the woman I met who quit two days in) that needed a hand. Its always nice to have people out there to lend a hand as I am sure I will be needing help myself at some point.

Every year on the Appalachian Trail there are a fair number of people who intend to thru-hike but only a handful succeed. I have heard stories of people who have quit before even reaching the start on Springer Mountain. I was told that 20% don't make it past 30 miles. Some succumb to injury while others claim it is not what they expected. The phrase I hear quite often is "Hike your own hike". Every person has their own reason as to why they are on the trail.

To start my hike I was dropped off at Amicalola Falls State Park, an 8.9 miles hike just to the starting point of the Appalachian Trail on the summit of Springer Mountain. I signed in at the office and as I did, I thumbed through the register to see the particulars of some other people hiking the trail. One of the columns in the logbook is for pack weight. I weighed my pack on the scale just out front of the office and came in at 23 pounds including food and water. I saw some people having pack weights north of 60 pounds! It seemed that the average was about 40 pounds, but still, I wouldn’t want to carry that along the entire Appalachian mountain chain.

I lingered a bit at the bottom of the falls and much like the bike ride, it didn’t seem as it I was setting out on some journey, but rather going out for a day hike. I asked a woman to take a photo for me, which she happily did. As she walked off, she joked to her friend, "Hey, you want to walk to Maine". Little did they know it was my destination.

The hike up the falls is what I would describe as McHike. The trail was paved and had several hundred stairs leading up the falls. I climbed the stairs with some trepidation, as I didn’t want to blow out my knee before even getting to the start of the trail, but they held strong. I chatted with a few people on the way up the falls who wished me well. It finally started sinking in that I would be on a long, long hike. I relished it.

The top of the falls offered a wonderful vista, exposing the mountains in the distance. The trees were still mostly bare and the water in the river was icy cold to the touch. I had packed light, so I was just hoping the weather would cooperate. Beyond the waterfall the paved paths disappeared, as did the people. The path finally wound through the wilderness, giving me a little taste of what I would be up against in the coming months. The path was rocky, but well worn, leaving little doubt as to which way to go.

It took me a little over 3 hours, but eventually I reached the starting line, Springer Mountain. I paused to look at the view from the top of the mountain and as I did so it started to rain. A harbinger for the first few days of the trip. I quickly signed the register that keeps track of people coming along the trail. I signed as "Magellan". It is tradition hiking the Appalachian Trail that one takes on a trail name. I was given the name Magellan by my friends Matt and Paul when we did the Vermont section hike in September 2007, due to my round the world travel. It certainly beat "Kung Pao" and "Sleeps with Squaws" as Matt and Paul were known.

I made my way to a nearby shelter where I was going to be spending the night and got settled in. Before long I was joined by one other guy who was planning to thru-hike the trail. He had blisters the size of silver dollars on both of his heels and the hike hadn’t even started yet. I was glad I wasn’t him. My feet were in fairly good shape with only the smallest blister on one of my toes.

From my experience on the trail I knew that all of the shelters had mice that frequented them. It is just the way it is and mice aren’t that dumb. Just look at Jerry. He always seems to outsmart Tom. Being wise to the whole mouse scenario I hung my food on the bear cables, as everyone is encouraged to do for bear deterrent purposes. I even hung my pack inside the shelter to keep it off the ground.

For my first night out in the woods I got a fair nights sleep. It always takes me a few days to get used to sleeping on a thin mat and confined in a sleeping bag. I was woken a handful of times by the mice running about the shelter. I could feel the vibration from their little footsteps as they ran about. I didn’t care; I am willing to share, even if it is with mice. They probably want to come out of the cold rain as well.

When I woke up in the morning and grabbed my backpack, it was literally crawling with mice. I had absolutely nothing of interest for a mouse to eat in there, but nonetheless, they were using my bag as a jungle gym. I counted five mice in total. The first three sort of scurried away while I had to prod two others to get them to move on. While there was no food, the mice thought it would be funny if they were to eat one of my sock liners. The sock liner was brand new, never even worn, so there was no scent they could have been attracted to, but there I was, with a chewed up sock liner. I wanted to hike lightweight, now I was a sock liner lighter.

I didn’t feel like eating breakfast, as I wanted to set off on the trail. I went back up to the summit of the mountain to make my official beginning on a grey overcast morning. I was only planning on hiking 15 miles for the day, so planned on stopping for a few hours around lunchtime to rest my feet. The mornings hike followed the up and down that one might expect hiking in mountains. The downhill sections wreaked havoc on my knees as the tendons weren’t used to that kind of treatment. I tread gingerly going downhill. Going up though was a breeze. I was able to cruise up any and all uphill sections without so much as being winded on all but the steepest and most prolonged climbs. I knew riding a bicycle across the country would be beneficial in the mountains. I think I like climbing hills while hiking better than on a bike.

By mid morning I stopped to have a bite to eat. I stopped by a shelter where most thru-hikers would spend their first night, about eight miles along the trail. I figured there were a large number of people staying at the shelter given all the gear that was there. As it turned out, it was all the gear that was abandoned by hikers after their first day on the trail. There was piles of clothing, toiletries, a pair of boots, a day pack, a camera case and a samurai sword. Yes, a samurai sword. As I went over to my bag to grab some food I saw some rustling going on inside. Apparently, there were six mice in my bag, this one hitching a ride eight miles up the trail. I was rather annoyed as he crapped in my bag, but I was able to find antiseptic wipes among all the other gear piled in the shelter. I will just say that it didn’t end well for the mouse.

The weather has been rather poor to start the trip, but I am not about to complain. Probably the most annoying thing is that when I climb up a mountain and expect a scenic vista, all I get is lots of fog. There was one point where visibility was no more than 100 feet. I was also glad to get the first heavy downpour out of the way. It just reinforced my belief that it wasn’t that bad. The rain was much warmer than the rain I had on my bike ride though. The rain also softened up the ground so as to lessen the pounding on my knees.

Wildlife, other than mice, has been sparse. I have come across the usual birds, squirrels and chipmunks. The only uncommon thing I had seen was a turkey. While I hadn’t seen any bears, I was told by some other hikers that there was a bear sighting in the area the day before I passed through.

After being on the trail for three days I had the option to stay someplace out of the woods. I waffled as to weather I wanted to sleep in a bed or not, but in the end decided to get away from the mice. As it turned out I had made the right decision. The temperature overnight dropped down to the low 30’s. It also rained most of the night. In my ultra lightweight sleeping bag I would have had a rough night out. I am guessing it was snow, or at least sleet on the mountain.

So I found myself sitting in the Jacuzzi, relaxing. After that I watched a hockey game. It was a pretty easy life for supposedly hiking the Appalachian Trail. As it turned out, Frank, the gentleman running the place is an avid fisherman. After chatting a bit he mentioned that he would be going out the following day and invited me to join him. How could a boy resist? I was only on the trail for three days so didn’t really want to stop, but after missing out on similar opportunities on my bike ride, I couldn’t turn this down. We fished from kayaks and even caught a few fish.

Tonight is supposed to be colder than last night, so I am not disappointed that I am indoors again. I will be back out on the trail tomorrow and will hopefully start picking up the pace. I have so many stories to tell, but I would be sitting here all night typing.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

One Last Pizza

I am down in Georgia and ready to start doing my thing. I am going to start tomorrow with the 8.8 mile trail leading up to Springer Mountain, the official start of the Appalachian Trail. Earlier today when I arrived at the lodge in which I am staying there was a woman who was planning to thru-hike the trail, but quit after two days. I hope I can make it a little farther than that. My main concern at this point is my left knee. When I went for one last hike to make sure my gear was all together, I wrenched it. It has given me some doubts. The only thing I can do tomorrow is put one foot in front of the other and climb the two thousand feet to the top of Springer Mountain. I will let you know if hiking up a mountain wearing a backpack is worse than climbing one on a bike. In the mean time I will have one last pizza.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Heading Down to Georgia

I am fully packed and am ready to start walking. It’s at this point when the doubts creep into my head. Should I have gone with a bigger backpack? Should I have gotten my boots a size smaller? Should I have brought an extra jacket? There is no substitute for experience. While I have done hikes of several days in length, none have been several months, so there is always that doubt.

I have arranged for a ride to the trailhead, or rather to the trail that will get me to the trailhead. I have to hike eight miles just to get to Springer Mountain, the official start of the Appalachian Trail. I will do the eight miles as a warm up day and start on the actual trail the day following.

For those of you not familiar with backpacking, I will give a little background. While the Appalachian Trail is mainly in the wilderness, the trail does cross over roads and near towns. With that, I will need to resupply my food stock when I am near the towns. At this point I am planning on stopping every four or five days, 100 miles or so, to load up with food. I have a mechanical water purifier and some purifying chemicals with me as well. I have the capacity to carry four liters of water, so I should be covered there. That being said, the southern states have had a severe drought, so some of the water sources may be dry. I’ll figure it out.

I am not bringing maps, but what I do have is a data book of distances and listings of services in towns nearby the trail. While it is possible to have things shipped to me in the towns along the trail when I need them (such as maps), I am trying not to do that. It is limiting if I have to pick up a package at a post office, being that they are only open for a limited time and not on weekends. I would hate to arrive at a pick up spot on a Friday night.

Much like on my bike ride I am sure some people will ask me what I am going to do when it rains. Quite simply, the answer is: get wet. I have a rain jacket and garbage bags to act as a pack cover to keep my things dry.

Also, I am not taking a tent so as to keep the overall weight of my pack down. There are a number of shelters along the trail where I am hoping to sleep most nights. In the event there is no shelter I will sleep out under the stars. If it is raining, I will make it a point to get to a shelter.

That is about it for the logistics, so here I go.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bermuda

Bermuda was a nice respite for me. I got to relax in between two of my trips, check out the island and catch up with a friend. I did however make the mistake of assuming that the process of getting to Bermuda would include a flight similar to a domestic one rather than international. With a flight time from New York of only 1:48, I am sure you can see why I went under that assumption. I broke all of my international travel rules thinking they wouldn’t apply. I even ended up being one of the last people through immigration and then got detained for 20 minutes for not knowing my friends address. Lesson learned.

The island of Bermuda is quite unique in its location, international influences and tax code. Some people believe that Bermuda is “somewhere down there in the Caribbean" however, Bermuda sits at approximately the same latitude of Charleston, South Carolina. Winters can get chilly, but the temperature doesn’t go below the mid forties. Geographically, Bermudas location leaves it well suited to pick up influence from both sides of the Atlantic. I found it amusing that the currency, the Bermuda Dollar, is pegged at one to one with the US Dollar, yet there are pictures of Queen Elizabeth II on the banknotes. Also, gas is sold in liters, but temperature is given in Fahrenheit.

The tax situation of Bermuda is unique in that there are no taxes on profits or capital gains. Revenue is collected mainly through customs duties, but also on land taxes and employment tax. While a large portion of the price increase over what you might pay on the mainland is due to transport, part is the duty paid to the government. For example, a gallon of milk is about $8 and standard magazine that would be three or four bucks in the US, runs about ten. I had seen gas for $1.97 a liter. That’s just about $7.50 a gallon. Suddenly $3.50 a gallon doesn’t sound so bad anymore, does it?

While most things in Bermuda aren’t necessarily good value, the island offers so much in natural beauty, friendly people, favorable temperatures and a stable business environment. People always ask me where I am going to settle down once I get back in to the swing of things. Bermuda just made the short list.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vacation

In total to this point I racked up a little over 50 trail miles in training for the Appalachian Trail. Again though, the trails on Long Island are awfully flat. I found one small hill on a particular trail and ended up walking up and down it 20 times, just to mix it up. I have been hiking with what I expect to be my full pack weight with food and water, about 25 pounds. I picked up a few blisters on my feet along the way (I am hoping to get them out of the way now). I have also been keeping a steady pace of about 3.7 Miles Per Hour on the flat. In the mountains I am sure it is going to drop significantly, but I might as well train hard. I also tried jogging with my pack, but the pack itself doesn’t lend itself to running along.

I have been hiking mostly in Connetquot State Park. The density of wildlife there is rather remarkable. I have seen dozens of deer, a couple different types of fox, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, a ribbon snake, ducks, geese and numerous different types of birds, not to mention brown, rainbow and brook trout.

While I should be training for my hike, I decided that a little vacation might be in order. I have a friend that just moved to Bermuda, so I figured I would go for a visit and help her get settled in. A wiser course of action may have been to go up to Vermont and get in some miles in the mountains. I thought about it. Hmm, go enjoy the sun sitting on a beach in Bermuda or rough it in the cold mountains of Vermont. Decision made.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Bike Ride to Montauk Point

Last year my buddy Art and I rode from his house, about half way out on Long Island, to Montauk, on the east end. We decided that it was going to be an annual trip, so in keeping up the tradition it was another day on the bike. While some people gave me a hard time, saying, "you ride all the way across the country only to come back and go for a bike ride"? Truth be told, I was really looking forward to it. I hadn’t been on the bike in a week and it is also much different riding with people than solo. This year, Art’s brother John and another friend of mine, Mike, were going to make the trip as well.

The ride began just fine and it was even unseasonably warm. Within the first hour some clouds and a cold wind blew in. At least the wind was at our back. While my buddies were hoping it wasn’t going to rain, secretly I was kind of hoping it did. It would give my friends a little taste of what I went through on my ride. We initially got a short burst of rain; just enough to make us wet, but it wasn’t bad.

One thing I didn’t have time to do before going on this ride was get a new rear tire. I was still riding on that chewed up piece of rubber that I finished my ride with. As it would turn out, I would end up with a flat tire. It wasn’t raining at the time, so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but I did take a good ribbing from my friends.

In the afternoon the sky opened and soaked us all through. As it was so warm in the morning, we all left of our cold weather gear behind. Initially, Art had on long pants and long finger gloves, but we ridiculed him to the point that he put on shorts and ditched the gloves. I’ll bet he was none the bit too pleased that he broke down and changed. Admittedly, I was getting a bit cold in the rain, but I couldn’t actually let on to my friends, lest I be the one that gets a ribbing.

Our initial plan was to ride to Montauk Point at the very end of the island, but as we approached the town of Montauk in a heavy rain, we called the trip there and checked into a hotel. I certainly didn’t have anything to prove. The ride wound up being 55 miles as opposed to 70, but I was fine with it as it scratched my itch of getting back out on the bike. The rain also showed my friends how little fun it is to ride in a cold rain, something I had to do far too often.

Doing the ride with my friends brought up an interesting discrepancy. While all their odometers came up with the same distance (within .2 miles), my odometer was a full two miles shy of the rest of the group. I rode the same exact route. It’s possible that my odometer ran short for the last two months. I know it was set to the proper tire size. If it was shy two miles for every 55, I actually rode an additional 80 miles on my trip. Also, it would push that day I rode 232 miles to a day where I rode 240 miles. I have to check in to that.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Preparing to Hike

I hadn’t been out on the bike since finishing my trip, but I am sort of feeling the need to get back out on the bike. For the last few days I had been trying to get my gear together for the hiking part of the program. I had also been going for some short hikes in a nearby park, up to 10 or so miles at a time. The area though is totally flat, significantly different from what I will encounter when I start my hike in Georgia.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Day After

While normally the day after finishing a ride like this I would wake up and wonder what is going on, but I had another trip to plan. I didn’t have time to relax and let it all sink in. Not only that, but I had to sort through two months of mail. Once piece of mail I had received was from the American Association of Retired Persons. They must have figured that if I haven’t worked in three years I have to be retired. While today is my birthday, I am still not old enough to qualify for AARP.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bike Ride - Complete!

There temperature was in the low 40’s and there was a light drizzle when I left in the morning, but not enough to put on my Halloween costume garbage bag rain vest. Worse yet was that twice within the first 15 miles I got lost. It is so frustrating when I have to stop, take out my laptop, turn it on, wait for it to boot up, open the map program, wait for it to open up and then try and figure out where I went wrong. It takes at least 10 minutes every time I have to check it. Covering as much distance as I do on a day, it doesn’t make sense to get paper maps. On the 2005 bike trip I found that the maps had to be at a county level to be of any real use and seeing that I can ride in and out of six or seven counties in a day, it was pointless to buy paper maps. I do however periodically sneak a peek at one when I stop at a convenience store.

I rode on Route 1 early in the morning. As it was a busy road, a highway, I had only planned on riding on it long enough to get to another road that split off and ran parallel. Rout 1 seemed ridable though, at least where I was, so I decided to ditch my complicated set of directions and ride on Route 1 all the way to Newark, NJ, a stones throw to New York City.

My first planned stop of the morning was at a Dunkin Donuts to grab a late morning snack. As I was there, numerous parents came in toting their children in soccer uniforms. It reminded me of my youth as my father used to take me out for breakfast after my soccer games on Sundays. Why is it though that so many children play soccer in the United States, yet no professional soccer league has had any real success?

There was a very definitive line of clouds in the distance that truncated light from dark. I was unfortunate enough to be under the dark section of clouds. My immediate goal was to make it across the line to the "light" side so as to improve my chances of not getting rained on. I kept looking up at the sky to check my progress as I rode along. My progress was slow as I was aiming for a moving target, but I was thrilled when I finally crossed the threshold. I knew that it didn’t mean that I wouldn’t get rained on; I just figured it would give me a better shot of staying dry.

Riding on Route 1 started getting a little dicey when it intersected the Garden State Parkway. Traffic started getting really heavy to the point where I knew a bicycle just didn’t belong on the road. The stretches of road with a shoulder for me to ride upon were vanishing. Also, I had to negotiate traffic using entrance and exit ramps. The area is an interchange for several major highways, so shortly thereafter I decided that it wasn’t worth risking my neck just so I didn’t have to remember a few extra directions.

As I was in the town of Woodbridge, NJ I climbed an overpass and from there, got my first glimpse of the New York City skyline. I knew it was still a long way off, but it was reassuring to see it. I have seen the New York skyline a million times, but for some reason I still get a kick out of it if I hadn’t seen it for a few weeks. It’s just so recognizable.

My Achilles heel was struck! I got a flat tire. I was being so careful about not running over things in the road, but to no avail. I think New Jersey has something against me. I get a flat on my last day of the trip. In 2005 I had my first and only flat tire on the first day of my trip in New Jersey. I wasn’t exactly in one of the nicer area of New Jersey, so I made quick work of changing the tube. I received at least a few curious glances from people milling about. I debated whether I should keep the bum tire on or switch to my emergency tire. I figured that I would keep my main tire on, being that if I switched to my emergency tire, I would be out of options if something else happened. What are the changes of having something hit the vulnerable three-inch section of my tire, I figured. I didn’t have another spare tube, but I did have a patch kit if necessary. The bigger problem would be to find the actual hole in the tube, though if I was in a bind I am sure I would have figured it out. I did ride quite nervously from then on though.

Throughout the day I watched planes landing at Newark airport. I gauged my progress by how much lower the planes would be when passing over my head. The lower the plane, the closer I was getting to my destination. It was frustrating at times looking up and seeing a plane way up in the air. To make myself feel better I tried to convince myself that they were landing at another airport.

In getting to Jersey City, NJ I had a route planned that would sneak me behind Newark Airport. I had some serious doubts that I would be able to get away with it, but if I did, it would be a major coup. The area behind the airport was essentially a container port. The container transportation route was coming full circle. First I was following the containers along the rail lines out west, then on the waterways down south and now to the air in the east.

The container port was desolate. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would have reason to be back there absent their employment in some respect to the containers. I was thinking that crossing through Philadelphia on a Saturday and hitting New York City on a Sunday worked out quite nicely. I had a feeling if it were a weekday I would be doing battle with hundreds of trucks carrying cargo through the container port. As it was though, I was able to ride along without worrying about traffic. The only semblance of traffic in the area was in the form of planes at the airport. For a little while I was riding right along the airport fence and watching the planes taxing on the tarmac.

My gamble of sneaking behind the airport paid off. The roads actually connected to get me north of the airport. I just had to cross two bridges and I would be in Jersey City, the town just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. I had called the police the day before to make sure that I was able to ride over the bridges and got the go ahead. I was told that it really isn’t all that safe, but it is legal. The first bridge was a non-event, but the second was an open grate bridge. I crossed the bridge at a crawl, which a few cars behind me took exception to, but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to be on the other side of the bridge. From the bridge I rode east until I hit the Hudson River and saw my destination just a mile across the river. Visually, my destination was a mile away, but by bike it was another 25 as I had to head north and cross over the George Washington Bridge, only to ride back down south. It was the very definition of “so close, yet so far".

I didn’t have a plan for getting north to the GW Bridge as I figured it was going to be a free for all. My plan was to keep the Hudson River on my right side and pedal until I came upon a large bridge. As I was riding through Hoboken, NJ I found myself riding right past my buddy Matt’s place. Matt was the third musketeer for the Vermont section hike of the Appalachian Trail in September 2007. I gave Matt a ring and he came out to say hello. Matt had a tough morning of getting out of bed, eating breakfast and spending the rest of the day on the couch. Busy day.

The ride up to the GW Bridge was quite easy as there is a somewhat established bike route. I had forgotten how steep the climb up to the bridge proper was. It was the second steepest climb of the trip, right behind that road in Delaware. I worked up a sweat just getting to the bridge. Not too surprisingly, the whole area was under construction, so I was in the way of traffic for a half a mile.

On the bridge I got the full view of the New York skyline. I got a little giddy when I turned off the George Washington Bridge and made my way for the west side greenway. I didn’t remember exactly how to get down to the greenway, so I stopped a couple of cyclists to see if they knew how to get there. They weren’t really sure, but we talked for a minute and of course I had to add, “I just rode here from California". I answered a volley of questions, fed my ego and continued on my way. I found the route down to the west side greenway path and it all came back to me. It was a steep descent down on to the path. Once on the path I was home free. I remembered all the ins and outs of the path; where to stay left so as to avoid a pot hole or where I needed to go right to stay off some bad pavement. The only curve ball and much to my delight, was that one entire section of the path had been completely repaved. I wasn’t necessarily zipping down the path, mostly because it was fairly crowded with other cyclists, rollerbladers and pedestrians. I also wanted to savor the last few miles of the ride. It was like a victory lap. I figured I had the best story of any cyclist I would come across.

I rode past the World Trade Center, my former place of employment. It didn’t look as if they were making much progress in building the Freedom Tower. They did however block off part of the bike path causing to me detour. As I rounded a corner I caught the first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. It gave me the chills. It was either that or I was really cold.

There was no entourage waiting for me in Battery Park. When I rode out of New York in 2005 I had some people sending me off and even ended up at a friends place when I finally arrived in Los Angeles. Now I was arriving in Battery Park amidst a bunch of tourists. I rode over to the very spot I left from in 2005, touched the railing and gave a fist pump while shouting "yeah!" I had someone take a photo for me and got into a conversation about the trip, but there was no fanfare. At that point it still hadn’t sunk in that the riding portion of the program had come to an end. Well, nearly.

I just had to ride back uptown to my buddy Scott’s place where I was staying for the night. First though, I had to grab a hot dog with the works from a street vendor. It just wouldn’t be New York without one. I didn’t have a set of keys to Scott’s apartment, so I had little choice but to sit and have a victory drink with a few of my friends that were beginning to gather at a bar nearby. At first I felt rather foolish wearing my cycling get up in a bar and even got a few odd glances, but it wasn’t like I dressed up specifically like this for a night out. Either way I had a good story. By the time the keys did show up I was firmly entrenched on my bar stool and was catching up with my friends. I had to tear myself away to go shower and change or I knew I would be spending the entire night in my bike clothes. It turned out to be a low-key night in comparison to the night out in Washington D.C., but it was good to have finished the first leg of my trip and see some friends again.

The final stats of the trip work out as such:

Days riding: 40

Average miles a day: 106.0

Total Miles: 4,241.8

Average time pedaling/day: 6 hours 50 minutes

Total time pedaling: 273 hours 57 minutes

Longest Day: 232.9 miles

Longest time pedaling/day: 12 hours 59 minutes

Shortest day: 65.6 miles

Shortest time pedaling/day: 4 hours 10 minutes

Saturday, April 5, 2008

In and Out of Delaware, Pennsylvania and to New Jersey

When I first peeked out of the window in the morning it looked as if it was going to be a great day for riding. It was partly cloudy and didn’t seem that cold, gauging it by how people were dressed outside. It was the first day in a few that I was fired up to get out and ride. I just had to contend with a bridge first.

I met Walter at his bike shop for my car trip over the bridge. He gave me a tour of his shop, which was located in a wonderful historic building. We also talked a bit about the East Coast Greenway and cycling in general. We threw my bike on his bike rack and he gave me a ride the mile over the bridge. Cycling over the bridge would have been a non-event. It wouldn’t have even made the list of top five worst bridges on my ride. While there was no shoulder, there was virtually zero traffic. It was Saturday morning after all. I can see not wanting to ride on the bridge at five on a Friday, but on Saturday morning it would have nearly been a treat.

I was eager to get riding as I was hoping to cover some ground in the pleasant weather. It wasn’t raining and it was significantly warmer than yesterday. I didn’t need my long sleeve shirt under my jacket and wore the short finger gloves for the first time in days.

It wasn’t long before I crossed into the state of Delaware. I didn’t spend much time in the state. I was so fired up to have crossed into Delaware that not long after entering the state I missed a turn. I rode two miles past Valley Road, where I was supposed to turn thinking I was looking for Cedar Road. I just wasn’t paying attention. All I needed to do was pull out the directions that I had in my jacket pocket and check. It would have saved me four hilly miles and winding up across the state border in Pennsylvania.

It was unbelievable how many cyclists I saw throughout the day. I ran into about eight separate groups of people riding. I had seen more cyclists in one day than I had in the entirety of my ride up until this point. At least I was riding in the right area if that many people were out and about. I was back in the hills, but also out of the way on back roads. The ride was worth the hills. I caught the scent of farms and only had to contend with a smattering of cars throughout the entire state of Delaware.

I found myself in an idyllic area in which to ride. I knew it would be the calm before the storm as I had Philadelphia to contend with, but that just made me enjoy it even more. I saw a deer drinking out of a stream on the side of the road. It could have been a photo from a wildlife magazine. I sighed as I rode past. A short distance up the road I came across a covered bridge. Smith’s Bridge was built in 1839 and was barn red. As it was a one-lane bridge I had to wait for a car crossing the other direction, but the bridge just added to the ambiance of the ride, as did the stream along which I rode for several miles.

The steepest hill of the entire trip so far was on Beaver Hill Road. I don’t mind steep hills, but the problem was that I wasn’t 100% certain that I was going in the right direction. While I don’t mind the steep hills, I also don’t find myself needing to ride up them unnecessarily. It could be worse. The last time I made a wrong turn I wound up in another state. This time, uncertain where I was going, I was climbing a massive hill at probably a 10% grade or better. Thankfully, it turned out that I was headed in the right direction.

As I rode on I knew I was getting close to Philadelphia, but all of a sudden I rounded a corner and there it was: the Philadelphia skyline. A US Airlines plane flew overhead, who have a major hub in Philadelphia, so it just reinforced the fact that I was in there. The fact that it was Saturday helped my case, but in any event, I cobbled together a pretty darn good route into Philly.

I spun past the Philadelphia Stock Exchange building and then the Liberty Bell on my route through downtown. I had thought about going in to check out the Liberty Bell, as I hadn’t seen it since I was in my young teens on a school trip. The line to visit the bell though was a couple hundred yards long so I wasn’t about to wait, but I did hang out for a bit at Independence National Historical Park. I like visiting things or places that I had seen many years ago. I like to see if my impressions of the thing/place in my mind are still accurate. I have seen and experienced so many new things over the years that invariably I am way off.

Leaving Philadelphia I had no problem finding the bridge to get me over the Delaware River. While the bridge was part of an Interstate Highway, there was a bicycle/pedestrian lane segregated from traffic. The problem I ran into though was that there were some sharp grates on the descent from the bridge. The grates managed to tear off a three-inch section of the Kevlar reinforcement on my rear tire, leaving only a thin strip of rubber between my inner tube and any sharp hazards in the road. I was now vulnerable. I had an Achilles Heel. There was only a small chance that I would run over glass or something when that three-inch section of tire was making contact with the road, but it was a legitimate possibility. There was enough debris on the road to give me a nervous feeling as I rode along. All I needed to do was run hit a piece of glass at just the wrong time. I had a spare foldable emergency tire, but it was for just that, an emergency. It surely would not hold up with how much debris is on the road in urban areas. It would be like trying to drive the Indianapolis 500 on a donut.

Once across the Delaware River I was in New Jersey. One state to go. The road for the first seven or eight miles out of Philadelphia was garbage in every sense of the word. It was bumpy, full of pot holes, had debris all over it, crossed through an urban area with me occupying a lane of traffic, had cars parked on the side of the road where people could unexpectedly open car doors into my path and many traffic lights. At one point the road on which I was riding ended at a blockade. It seemed odd, as it was a fairly major road. I noticed that the road did continue on the other side of the blockade, so I was able to make my way up a small footbridge to get over this concrete wall that was in between New York City and me. As I was hoping, the concrete cordon served as a boundary between the crappy area I was riding through and a much nicer neighborhood. It separated urban and suburban.

Further on I came up to a detour. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong with the road so I decided to ride straight through it. Absent the “No Trespassing" signs, I saw no reason why I shouldn’t ride down the road. It was in great shape. It is always a gamble and this one would have cost me four miles, two in each direction were I not able to make it past whatever caused the detour, but in this instance, I won.

I waffled as to where I should stop for the night. I wanted to leave myself with a fairly short distance to my final destination of New York City as I knew the riding in and around the greater New York area would be slow going. I was looking to burn some of my hotel points as well, so I ended up 15 miles shy of where I would have really like to be. I still had over an hour of daylight and it was fairly warm and dry, but I called it a day.

Once at the hotel I checked the weather for the next day. I was utterly disheartened when the forecast showed rain in the mix; it was a cold rain to boot.

Friday, April 4, 2008

A Day to Dry Out

I opted not to ride so as to dry off. Rain was in the forecast, but aside from that, were I to hold off for a day I would be able to pass through Philadelphia on a Saturday and arrive in New York on a Sunday. I would be drastically cutting down on the amount of traffic I would have to contend with in both cities opposed to riding on a weekday.

As I was eating breakfast in the morning I looked out the window and saw a sign on the road reading “Last Exit Before Toll" I was expecting to ride over the bridge further down the road and was having doubts, as bicycles generally can’t ride on toll roads. In this case there were two bridges running over the Susquehanna River, so I assumed that surely a bicycle would be permitted over one of them. The first bridge was an Interstate Highway so I knew that was out, but thought I would be OK on the other bridge. I called the local police to check with them and no; it wasn’t legal for me to ride over the bridge. Who builds two bridges right next to one another where bicycles or pedestrians are not permitted on either? I decided to go a step further and call the Department of Transportation. I explained the story about my bike ride and asked if there was any way I would be able to ride over one of the bridges. While I initially hit a wall, I finally got someone to give me the number to the bridge authority and the folks that were actually in charge of the bridges. In a 15-minute call I tried anything I could to try and get them to let me ride over a bridge. I asked about paying for an escort over the bridge among other things, but the conversation ended with a gruff, "there is no way a bicycle is permitted over the bridge under any circumstances" I was stuck. As it was a toll bridge, there was someone there to physically restrain me from riding across were I to try and go for it. The next closest bridge that it would be safe for me to cross the river was in Pennsylvania, 30 miles to the northwest as the crow flies.

There was a bike shop in town so I checked with Walter, the owner of the shop, what the deal was. It turned out that it the bridge was indeed not an option. Walter was doing work for the East Coast Greenway, a project that will eventually provide a bike route from Florida to Maine. The biggest sticking point in the area was how to cross the Susquehanna River. It was only when Walter agreed to shuttle cyclists over the river that the bike path was finalized for the area. That meant that I was going to have to hitch a ride over the river with Walter.

I took the day off to stay out of the rain and while the sky was still a dirty grey, I didn’t see a drop of rain the whole day. It just wasn’t my day. I had an argument with a security guard at a supermarket who didn’t want me to walk through a certain door, and later had to wait 40 minutes for my food to come out at Pizza Hut. I just hope my luck will turn around tomorrow.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Welcome to Maryland and a Late Day Rain

The morning greeted me with temperatures in the 30’s. While it was cold, it was dry, so I wasn’t complaining. In the morning Paul and I talked about the possibility of meeting up again for a couple of days on the Appalachian Trail when I make it up to Virginia. My current visit was at an end though, so I said “bye to Paul and set off for the day.

The start of the day had me riding on a fairly busy road without a shoulder. As it was rush hour I had the displeasure of sharing the road with heavy traffic. The closest call was when a school bus cut it pretty tight in passing me. The rear view mirror of the bus had to have come right over my head. It would be bad enough if a bus hit me, but what would the kids on the bus think?

Outside of the weather, my biggest concern was crossing the Potomac River. I had a feeling it was going to be a hassle getting across some bridge or another to the other side of the river. I pretty much put all my eggs in one basket as I had fully planned on crossing one particular bridge. I had made my way off the main roads and left the traffic behind, so was hoping that even if I wasn’t supposed to be on the bridge, it wouldn’t be instant death if I decided to risk it. As the area I was in became more rural I felt better about my prospect of the bridge being OK for bikes. My gamble worked, as I was able to cruise over the Potomac and into Maryland without issue. Where I had crossed the river was not nearly as wide as I had expected. I guess I had a preconceived notion of the Potomac River being as I had first seen in on TV in 80’s when that plane crashed into it.

I was welcomed to Maryland by a sign ringed with flowers and a cherry tree in full bloom standing in the background. The cherry blossoms were out in full force. There were tons to be seen in Virginia and in Washington D.C for the last few days. I was told yes; they are quite pretty, but only for two weeks out of the year and then they are a pain to clean up. I got all the enjoyment and none of the work.

As soon as I crossed the state line I headed for the back roads. Never mind secondary roads, I was on tertiary and quaternary roads. It was a lot more like my 2005 cross-country ride. It was so nice not having to worry about cars zooming past. The downside was that the roads I had chosen were far hillier than the main roads. One of the guys from a bike shop in the area had warned me about this. There wasn’t a single bit of flat road for miles. I didn’t mind so much. Some of the areas reminded me of the United Kingdom. The town names even aided in that thought: Westminster, Hampstead and Manchester.

It was a tough day of near misses. First up was a backhoe that apparently didn’t notice me. Half of the road was cordoned off from traffic as they were digging some sort of trench on the side of the road. I can only guess that the backhoe operator didn’t see any cars, so he figured it was safe to swing the end of the backhoe around into the road causing me to duck and swerve. It probably wasn’t that close a call, but when a giant metal arm is swung in my direction I make it a habit to try and steer clear. My bike helmet would have done little to keep my head from cracking open like an egg.

Later in the day I had to head back to some main roads to get were I was going. Though it was great to have an afternoon of not worrying about much being in my way or anything sharing the road with me, I was back to reality. To add to my woes, the sky opened up and pelted me with rain. I was really hoping to avoid the rain for the day, but it was not to be. So once again I rode along in my rain vest by Hefty. It was beginning to be a drag riding in the rain every day. It wouldn’t have been nearly so bad were it 70 degrees, but it was at least 30 degrees shy of that. I was able to see my breath as I exhaled. I knew I wasn’t going to die from the cold, or even have any lasting effects, but it was somewhat less pleasant than a day at the beach. My spirits were lifted though when I saw the first sign for New York. I was crossing over I-95 at the time, which I would ride parallel to for the remainder of my trip. Either that, or if I went the other direction I would have ended up in Miami.

To get to the town of Havre de Grace, MD I had to ride down a hill which was at an 8% grade. I was making my way down towards Chesapeake Bay. As it was raining and my brakes were wet, the stopping power on my bike was somewhat limited. If it were just a steep hill in the rain it would have been a non-event, but there is always a wrench in the works. As I was cruising down the hill, a motorist decided that it was a good idea to try and pull out in front of me to cross the road. I grabbed the brakes as hard as I could while yelling with similar effort. I swerving to avoid winding up as the hood ornament of a minivan and continued on.

I pulled in to town weary, wet and cold. The way I looked I wouldn’t have been surprised if the hotel turned me away. I looked like a drowned rat that had sand thrown at it. The prospect of brining my bike in my room probably didn’t appeal to the desk clerk either. In any event, I checked in and cleaned my bike as I waited for my large pizza to be delivered. I rounded out my evening with a long and well-deserved hot shower.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Whirlwind Tour of Washington D.C.

We sort of slept in, or rather slept it off. Paul and I motivated ourselves to the point that we were able to catch a late lunch. Paul gave me a quick tour of D.C. starting with the Smithsonian. What a great museum. Much like in Paris where I lived right next to the Louvre, were I in a similar situation in the D.C. area, I would be a regular visitor. There is so much in the museum that it would be hard to get bored.

We walked around the greater D.C. area for the afternoon taking in the major sights as best as one can in such a short period of time. In the evening we got to play with Paul’s son. The best part was Paul taking the two children out for ice cream.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rain: Day Three

I woke up at 5:30 to a heavy rain so I rolled over and caught another hour of sleep. Thankfully, by 6:30 the rain had stopped. I grabbed some breakfast and set off for the day. All of five minutes in my ride the rain started again and on went my garbage bag vest. I wasn’t looking forward to another day of rain, but there I was. At least I had different types of rain for the last three days. The first day the rain was cold and miserable, the second was like a guessing game as to when it would or wouldn’t rain and today, it was consistent throughout the morning.

I was still in the hill country, which I welcomed. Climbing up the hills generated some heat and kept me warm. The downside was, well, going down hill. The wind blowing on me as I was speeding downhill gave me the chills. It didn’t help when cars passed by and kicked up a spray in their wake. When an 18-wheeler passed by I was blinded by the mist. Also, each time I made a fist I wrung about an ounce of water out of each glove. When I stopped at traffic lights I noticed people watching me trying to dry my gloves. I wasn’t sure if they felt sorry for me or thought I was a moron for riding on a day like today.

As I rode along I found a bike shop. I stopped in as I needed brake pads. The break pads I had on my bicycle weren’t meant for wet conditions. The pads disintegrated quite quickly over the last two days and left little nubs in the place my brake pads used to be. Fortunately the shop had the break pads I was looking for and I was on my way. I later found out that the bike shop outfitted George Bush for a bike.

After leaving the bike shop the sun poked out through the clouds though I thought it was just a tease. Normally when I am riding I hate having to stop to get something out of my bike bag, but in this case stopping to get my sunglasses didn’t really bother me. The day was warming up quickly. I honestly didn’t think I would see my bare legs while riding for the rest of the trip, but there I was in near 70-degree temperatures pedaling along, working up a good sweat.

Riding through towns was growing to be a pain as I seemed to be catching all the red lights. The worst were the ones at the bottom of hills, as I lost all momentum going back up the other side. I tried my best to time the lights, but it didn’t always workout.

There was a bike path paralleling the road in the latter part the day. It was one of those paths that was segregated from the road, just the type I don’t like. It invariably happens that cars waiting to turn from a side street on to the main road, block the bike path. Either way I would have to stop or at least slow at every road crossing. Worst of all is when a car is on the main road moving in my direction of travel and makes a right turn in front of me. Either I am invisible or the driver pretends I am not there and just turns in front of me, forcing me to jam on the brakes. Just to continue my rant on bike paths, it seems that once a bike path is built it doesn’t get another second of attention from those who built it. It can collect an inch of sand or be covered in broken glass, riddled with potholes or whatever else, but it will stay that way. Drivers get angry that I don’t ride on the bike path, but if I could say my peace to them they might understand. Then again, maybe not.

Early in the afternoon I finished the day at my friend Paul’s house, just outside of Washington D.C.. Paul was one of the guys I did a section hike of the Appalachian Trail with in September 2007(there is a link to that trip in the Hike It! section of the web site), which I think was the last time I had seen him. I gave my bike a cursory cleanup at best and was done with it for another day.

Paul and I had some grand plans to catch the Washington Capitals hockey game that night. The Capitals were in the playoff hunt so we figured it would be an exciting game. We had an early steak dinner that would have even been too early for the early bird special at the Sizzler. It gave us time to make our way downtown and set up with some tickets for the game. The game turned out to be quite good and involved us having far too many cocktails, followed up by a few more cocktails after the game. In my travels it is always good to catch up with a friend. It was a great night out on the town, probably the best on my bike trip.