Roads Less Traveled: Mid-Atlantic Bike Tour

August 20, 2010

Mid-Atlantic Bike Tour

On day three of my five-day bike tour, I stopped riding. Gravity and the south side of the Kittatinny Ridge had defeated me.

I’d expected a day of uninterrupted, flat pedaling along the Delaware River. But small nuisances that don’t show on a map—that you wouldn’t even notice in a car—mounted. A bit of flood damage. Road construction. Angry geese. River Road wasn’t flat and meandering as I’d imagined, but Hill Road lived up to its name. The day wore on and the list grew.

Finally, I thought I was approaching the end of my ride. After a 3-mile climb, alternating pedaling and walking—both at the same pace—I looked to turn onto Linaberry Road. “Doesn’t exist,” said the gate attendant at a reservoir right where the road appeared on my map.

I turned around and glided back down the ridge, then pedaled and pushed back up a different route. Ten miles later, I finally climbed off my bike and trudged up the stairs to AMC’s Mohican Outdoor Center lodge. Two hikers sat by the door. Bulging backpacks lay at their feet. “How was the ride up here?” one asked.

“Had to walk most of it,” I said, too tired to make eye contact.

“So did we!” he said.

I fell asleep dreading the next day’s ride. But early the following morning I was back on my bike.

***

“Where ya headed?”

The voice startled me. Looking up from the beef jerky rack in a deli, I saw a middle-aged man by the coffee machine. His weathered face hid behind a beard, more pepper than salt. He wore a beat-up baseball cap and smelled of cigarettes. After three days alone on the road I hadn’t expected to chat with anyone. Figured I’d just pick up some food and press on.

“Old Mine Road?” he asked, before I could speak. “It’s the best, isn’t it?” A gleam flashed across his eyes. He glanced out at my bike, 70 pounds of steel and camping gear. I was headed for the Old Mine Road, and then beyond. This guy didn’t fit my image of a cyclist, but he turned out to speak the language.

“Got a map?” he asked. “I’ll show you my favorite ride.”

***

For months I’d studied maps of the Mid-Atlantic, deciding how best to explore this region that’s become an AMC conservation priority—and how to navigate my first bike tour. I’d unfolded the maps across my desk every day, tweaking my route, swapping campgrounds. A plan had eventually emerged: Head from Philadelphia up the Schuylkill River. Cover 50 or 60 miles. Camp and repeat. Definitely hit Valley Forge, the Delaware Water Gap, and High Point State Park. Two hundred and fifty miles, give or take. Get exercise. Enjoy nature.

Sitting behind a desk in Boston, detached from the white-knuckle intensity of steep descents and narrow shouldered roads, I’d imagined light traffic and short hills. My route expanded. A pile of gear grew on my bedroom floor. It seemed like too much. I eliminated a pound here and there and finally stuffed what remained into my two panniers, stubbornly packing a 4-pound novel.

Graduating from leisurely weekend rides to bike touring compares to the jump from day-hiking to backpacking. A different mental approach and a modest investment in gear are required, and improved fitness wouldn’t hurt. Touring, as a result, attracts a passionate, niche group—but it seems to be growing. Membership in the leading bike touring organization, Adventure Cycling, grew 27 percent this decade, to 44,500. The group has also sold a quarter-million long-distance route maps.

Long-distance cycling has never quite caught on in the U.S. We’re too spread out, connected by too few roads safe for cycling, and pay too little for gas. Yet beyond the nation’s major arteries hides a pleasantly cycleable world. Bicycling organizations and groups like the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy have led the transformation of 20,000 miles of railbeds into bike paths—1,500 in Pennsylvania alone—and lobby to link paths and create safe long-distance routes. They’ve also revived plans for a U.S. Bike Route System, dormant since the 1980s. This grid of bike-friendly roads, some already in use, would be the world’s largest if completed. Similar networks have greatly increased the number of bike rides—long and short—taken in other countries. Green, healthy, and cheap, cycling is blossoming here.

Growing interest has led to an abundance of resources, and I pulled from several to create my route. Monday and Tuesday came from a Philadelphia Bicycle Alliance map, Wednesday and Thursday from Adventure Cycling and New Jersey Department of Transportation brochures. Google’s helpful—though not yet reliable—bicycle directions tool generated my Friday ride, and stitched the patchwork week together. The final stack of paper and Tyvek guided me through 300 miles and three states. A third of that was on bike paths, and a majority of the rest on quiet country roads. In hindsight the occasional wrong turn and extra hill don’t seem so bad.

***

Outside the deli, I pulled a map of the Water Gap from a pannier. The man flattened it on the back of my bike and traced his finger across the Kittatinny Ridge. “I used to ride all over this place in a recumbent,” he said. “It’s a hell of a climb up the ridge, but the descent—WOOO!” I pictured a pedaling Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, leaning back in his seat, legs stretched out, screaming downhill.

I told him my plan for the day—riding the Water Gap end-to-end, then climbing into High Point State Park and camping. He looked me up and down. “Well, you’re young,” he said. “You can do it.” After the challenges of the previous day, his words registered as a warning.

He offered me a ride to the start of the Old Mine Road, but that seemed like cheating. “I know,” he said. “You want to ride the whole thing.” He understood, but persisted.

“Take you about 30 minutes to get to Columbia? I’ll meet you there,” he called out as I began pedaling into a light rain. I wondered how to decline his offer politely again, but found myself flashing a thumbs-up. A mile walk along the interstate, on a sidewalk connecting sections of the Appalachian Trail, awaited. Skipping that seemed OK.

Nearing Columbia, I saw him by the side of the road, the tailgate of his purple Chevy pickup open. Holding his coffee in one hand, he waved me down. “Hop in. I’ll save you an hour and a half of the crappy stuff and drop you right at the start of the Old Mine Road.”

We hoisted my bike into the truck bed and finally introduced ourselves. Dave had grown up nearby. He told a story at every turn.

“I rode this once,” he said, gesturing toward the shoulder of I-80. Twenty-four inches of blacktop separated the road from a sheer rock cliff. “Had a couple of beers and figured what the heck.” Back problems had ended his riding, but “I’ve definitely got the itch to get back out there.”

I-80 snakes low toward the Gap, along and then over the Delaware River. Mount Minsi and Mount Tammany emerged above us. “Sorry you gotta see this from inside a truck,” Dave said. “It really is something.”

***

I’d spoken to a few experienced touring cyclists before setting out, hoping their insights and my research would get me through the week. They spoke about self-reliance and freedom, and described how biking engages all of the senses in a way car travel can’t. “It’s very sensual. You see, you smell, you hear, all day long,” said John Schubert, a columnist for Adventure Cyclist. “You’re very connected to everything around you.”

Everyone also talked about the people they inevitably met. Biking, like backpacking, requires individual effort, but you’re not isolated, as you might be in the backcountry. Curious, friendly folks take an interest in the spandex-clad riders passing through their communities.

When I finally pedaled out of Philadelphia, I was ready for a five-day immersion in this world. Sweet flowers surrounded one bike path, before giving way to the overpowering stench of a water treatment plant. I watched a pileated woodpecker swoop onto a tree. I fell asleep to the calls of peepers and bullfrogs and awoke to bird songs. Flipping through my diary today, I see and smell and hear each, and feel the dull burn of lactic acid in my legs.

Riding along paths and roads, I tuned into the routines of daily life while I took a break from my own. Each morning I passed dog walkers, in the afternoons I saw people riding lawn mowers in relentless rectangles, and I nodded to joggers in the evenings. I liked the pace—slow enough to take everything in but fast enough for the names on the newspaper boxes to shift throughout the day: The Courier Times became the Intelligencer which gave way to the Times Herald-Record.

On day two, rolling through Pennsylvania farm country, I’d heard a loud buzzing. Power lines? A hedge trimmer? I turned onto a side road and the noise built. Curious, I glanced into a backyard on the right. An elderly man stood in the middle of a driveway, a pair of electric hair clippers roaring in one hand. His wife sat in a lawn chair in front of him. She had a puff of white hair like the cumulus clouds overhead.

***

Dave pulled off the highway and onto the Old Mine Road. “I’ll drop you right here. You can ride every inch of it.” We lowered my bike out of his truck and I thanked him. “That’s what we do,” he said. I pushed off and pedaled into the Gap, wondering who he meant by “we.”

I glimpsed the Delaware through damp, fragrant forest before the road swung away from the river and opened into abandoned farmland. Two bird-watchers stood in the middle of the empty road, binoculars pressed to their faces, scanning the treeline for warblers.

At High Point that night I felt rejuvenated rather than exhausted and isolated, the prior day forgotten. I ate an early dinner, hid some leftover jerky from bears, and climbed into my tent, excited for the final day’s ride.

I descended into New York the next morning and joined a stream of commuters on Route 6. After stopping for breakfast I found one of the great pleasures of a trip: a new bike path. Without cars flashing past my left shoulder, I unclenched my hands from the brake levers and relaxed. A mile in, the crushed stone Orange Heritage Trail passed through a marsh where herons foraged. A mile after that, the path emptied into a small town where I stopped for a meal of my own.

The woman behind the lunch counter took extra care bundling my lunch so I could strap it to my bike. “Keep on truckin’, hon,” she said.

The short-order cook followed me out front, curious. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. “To deliver something?”

Outside of town, sitting on a bench eating lunch, I watched an 18-wheeler shudder along a side street. For five days I’d tuned in to my surroundings, but now I realized what I hadn’t seen. I’d dodged the generic landscape of commercial franchises so familiar from car travel. I hadn’t passed a big box store yet, and recalled just one fast food joint.

***

I remember my first solo bike ride. I was 5, and the ride lasted about 30 seconds, the time needed to pedal up the gradual hill in front of our house in Downeast Maine. For weeks, my dad’s hand had steadied the bike, but this time I turned and saw him off in the distance, walking toward me. Though I didn’t realize it then, that moment freed me—for transportation, for exploration, for sport. Over three decades, I recall sharing only one ride with my dad, but he’s always been a cyclist in my mind. He still talks about the summer after high school when he rode around France. An experience like that stays with you.

Years had passed since Dave’s last ride through the Water Gap, but he asked for a small favor before driving off. “The Park Service in here is real friendly. Tell ’em Recumbent Dave says hello.” He still saw himself as a cyclist. Over 35 miles in the Water Gap, I found no one to give that greeting to, but by the end of my ride I knew who he’d meant by “we.”


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Marc Chalufour

Marc Chalufour, a former senior editor of AMC Outdoors, writes the trail-running blog Running Wild.