Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How far you get

You can ride a bike all year, of course, but snow is no fun. We decided go to in October, early November, a not advisable time but not completely inadvisable.

The day came at last, late October. Little Mighty, 25, arrived in Philadelphia, with her shiny red 1965 Schwinn 10-speed girls’ bike, all smooth and sprightly, with its upright shifters and brake extenders on the handlebars and pants protection wheel on the chainring. To this assemblage she had added some prim zip-up saddlebags that carried everything she needed, which at this point was about everything she owned. I had the Trek I had saved from the dumpster and which had now carried me through a large chunk of the west.

Ultimately Little Mighty was bound for Mexico, Ecuador and Columbia, but that was later, after the bike ride. She was a svelte little dynamo who gave an excellent impression of indifference when her clothing began to fall off as she walked, and, as I found out, as steady under duress as she was breezy, unwilling to notice inconvenience, unwilling to notice even the most jarring discomforts.

For fun she volunteers as a farmhand in South America and for work she cooks aboard tall ships. She had just spent two months sailing the Pacific in a wooden ship and whipping up crew-jubilating meals out of tumbleweeds. That is of course an exaggeration but not much. We are both sailors, I am sorry to report.

I cast a doubtful look at her bike. Early in life it had probably never taken its young owner farther from home than the corner store. It looked clean and capable enough. But God save me from rookies. God save me from riders who set out cross-country on a tank from Walmart wearing sneakers and a 50-pound backpack. How much time would I spend finding the shortest walkable distance to our destination after she got too tired to pedal? Where would I find the numbers of local cab companies? Who should I call when the emotional crisis occurred?

We got everything ready. Which direction should we go? South, of course. Ever south. South toward the waning sun, to a destination still vague but probably North Carolina.We set our caps south. We set everything we had south. Everything but our sails. We needed a break from those.

And so began the great No Pressure Tour, a vagueish sort of bike tour starting in Philadelphia, featuring Little Mighty and myself. You will not credit, reader, how two giant northeastern cities, connected by highways, connected by bus schedules, and train schedules, and flight plans, and gas prices, and weather patterns—you will not credit how two giant northeastern cities might also be connected by streets, ordinary streets that you might walk upon.

But they are. On streets, so it had been said, one may in fact travel from place to place, indeed from city to city, without ever resorting to that methamphetamine-with-rest stops that is the modern interstate highway. It’s like walking around your block 90 or 100 times and finding yourself in Chicago.

We set off from 30th Street Station and wound southwest through streets that had once been the main gates into town, Grays Ferry, Paschall, Lindburgh, Elmwood. This was the route George Washington took when traveling from Mount Vernon to New York, on the way to his inauguration. Brick town homes gave way to wooden Victorian ones, and then to plain wooden ones. The level of repair went from City Historical to Urban Neglect to Suburban Tidy. And so the miles passed until we reached The John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, that exuberant patch of wilderness beneath the main landing approaches at Philadelphia International Airport.

And then twisky-twee like a corskscrew we rode along the graveled paths, with a wrong turn here and wrong turn there, marveling the luxuriance of green just a javelin throw from Interstate 95, and the marshy lowland that was the original landscape through much of the northeast. We saw exotic birds in the swamps.

And then back to the street, and so on down along the western side of the Delaware River. We followed long streets of respectable residences, giving way to light industrial roads. And then to Chester, where a tunnel might be the best route through. Then we found a path along the waterfront that took us through the old Chester Waterside Station coal burning electric plant. It’s an office park these days, unless the utility workers must all wear business suits now, because that’s what we saw as we rode past: a complement of office workers in office casual dress, relaxing and smoking on the great fortress causeways of the power plant.

We missed our intended host and spent the night in chain hotel, a neo-Greek sort of place that had everything of a classical nature about it that could be rendered in cinder block. The night was peaceful, though we were still somehow astonished by the knowledge--the proof, now--that you can arrive at place without getting into an automobile. It didn’t seem right. We felt like cheaters. The staff were chirpy, happy and friendly.

Little Mighty had brought her own computer, and we planned our next day’s route, consulting everything the Internet could bring us. A good breakfast next morning and then: South.

We rode past Newcastle and through Newark, then into Maryland, past Elkton, past Northeast, much of this on a federal highway that by some accident has wide shoulders. We finally got to some country roads near the Susquehanna River and wandered northish to Perryville and more chirpy happy friendly.

Here we settled in satisfied, and comfortable in knowing that for the first time we had actually hit a target we aimed for. Once again the free Internet brought us more possibilities than we knew how to use, and for the next hours we planned exotic jaunts through Virginia by way of Sacramento and Disney World. Later we walked the non-exotic 100 yards to Denny’s for dinner, then went to bed happy and woke up to a driving rain.

Here it was. Rain. The make or break. The wheat from the chaff. The men from the boys. The women from the girls. The parking lot splashed and spattered with it. We knew what we had to do. There is only one thing to do in a case like this. We went back to bed. And all day the rain came down, heavy and thick. The rivulets ran in the gutters and into the storm drains. For a while we paced. We checked Facebook 70 or 80 times. We texted friends. The day wore on.

And then, next day, the rain had ended but puddles remained. Sunshine struggled, struggled. In place of rain there was now a constant 20 knots of wind from our intended direction. Already the dead leaves were flying off the maples and sycamores. Grasses bent horizontal. Ah, well. Wind will not soak you or give you flu. Wind’s discomfort lasts but a moment, unlike rain’s. (By this time our choices were dwelling among the least hurtful terribles.)

We suited up, executed the departure checklist I had written out the previous evening after becoming exceeding wroth about losing my phone charger, loaded the bikes and pedaled out. Our first job was crossing the Susquehanna River, the only unrideable part of the trip.

On maps and biking guides you will often find the assurance that, despite Maryland’s tenacious resistance to letting cyclists pedal across the river, several local bike shops will transport you, free or cheap, with 48 hours’ notice.

But faced with the prodigious fact of a long no-bikes-allowed bridge whizzing with motor traffic, or a 40-mile additional upriver pedal to an equally terrifying crossing of the Conowingo Dam, all that bike-friendly help disappears. The bike shops have moved on. The help lines to the Maryland Transportation Authority are dead. The MTA agent at the bridge itself answers your question with a flat No, then sends you for more help to a phone that rings forever. (It is ringing even now.) The trains don’t accept bicycles; the buses don’t run on weekends. All of this, plus rain, plus being too long indoors, plus your dying phone, plus your lost phone charger and your new bandana made of (you just realized) uncomfortable polyester, makes a challenging day.

At the Route 40 toll plaza we found no one to make big eyes at and get sympathy from, as had been our primary plan. (Little Mighty is a master at this.) A cop just then arriving told us we couldn’t cross, as of course we knew. And so, the cab. The cab came directly, a stationwagon, into which we squeezed our bikes—one longitudinal in the bed, another sideways in the backseat—and ourselves—one atop the other in the passenger seat—and prepared for the impossible passage.

The driver vouchsafed to us the many great places we might go for a bite or a sip, if we were inclined to abandon these ridiculous riding plans, my god look at that wind. Where did we want to go, anyways?

The Bridge Diner, I said.

Doesn’t exist anymore, he said. Gone.

Whatever is left of the Bridge Diner, I said. The ruins of the Bridge Diner.

I need an address, he said. There’s a Waffle House there.

We want to go to the Waffle House.

They’re building a Royal Farms where the diner was.

Let’s go to the Royal Farms.

Eight minutes later we were across. Before we had unloaded our stuff a cyclist dressed in foul-weather clothing screeched up and declared he was glad to see someone as crazy as himself out in this wind. Where did we intend to go?

When we told him he insisted we’d have no trouble. Insisted. Then he screeched off. We found the streets our map wanted us to. The turning cues seemed to correspond with our presumed direction. We got rolling. Not 10 minutes later as we lay into the breeze whistling through a housing tract a woman opened a window of her SUV and asked if she could take us wherever we were going. Anywhere, she said. She couldn’t stand the thought of riders out in this wind. By this time we were making a solid 3 miles per hour, which meant only 12 more hours of riding today. We thanked her and declined.

At the end of that street we turned left, somewhat off the main thrust of the wind and gained speed, though every 200 feet another gust smothered us to a stop. We could feel the bikes swerving and shying with every puff. The traffic in its endless flight came up behind and disappeared before. The shouldered highways gave way to unshouldered ones. On.

Over the hills, through the dips, the steady rush of traffic belittling our plebeian little two-wheeled-pumping-of-the-feet transport. If we amounted to anything in this world we would be in one of those big cars. We would be whushing past those poor suckers on bikes, those idiots too weak and poor to own an automobile. What is a pansy tin machine like that, with less than one horse of power, compared to the astronomical great power of an august and magnificent internal combustion engine, with its spinning fans and its harness of electric pulses and its thresh-work of pounding pistons tuned to maximum force? What it a simple pedal machine compared to tech-now-low-gee?

We made it finally to Monkton near sundown, the trees filtering the late afternoon autumn light as we made the last turn into a road marked with the sign of the farm Little Mighty had persuaded to let us stay.

Well, that was the beginning. We split after Monkton. She got as far south as North Carolina, where her boyfriend picked her up and took her to Florida. I got to Baltimore, where I stayed with my brother and his wife, and enjoyed the autumn colors, the landscape daubed with reds and golds, and the presentiment of wood fires and apple cider.