Alexandria, VA to Otisville, NY 24,744 KM (15,341 MI) cumulative
Temperatures hovered in the 80s with a matching number for humidity. Bathed in sunshine filtered through a hazy sky we hugged my mother goodbye, climbed aboard our heavy Treks, and wobbled down the road. It was 11 AM Virginia time and we were setting off to finish the last leg of the perimeter of the continental U.S. The goal we unknowingly began 9 years ago was finally about to be realized. Gliding smoothly down the short hill to the edge of the wide Potomac River we pedaled onto the Mount Vernon bike path for the start of an easy 20 miles following first the Potomac and then Rock Creek. We stopped for an early lunch at one of the many well maintained picnic areas where we could watch fishermen lazying on the banks keeping watch for that tell tale tug of the line. Near the shore along the path marshes filled with water plants and cattails provided excellent hunting grounds for egrets and ducks. Further out, the striped triangular shapes of sunfish sails fritted back and forth across the waters as their novice skippers tried to learn the intricacies of negotiating the channels of the shallow Potomac. These wild scenes soon gave way to brick and wood fronts of the old Alexandria row houses, the concrete of National Airport's runway, and roaring traffic all circling the Lincon Memorial to reach the heart of the city. We skirted around all this and headed toward the Rock Creek bike path which continued following a small stream through more dense vegetation. It always amazes us that despite the size and metropolitan nature of Washington, D.C. it is still possible to enter and leave in almost any direction on a completely separate bike path.
Unfortunatly it was all too soon when the bike paths came to an end and we were once again forced to contend with urban streets. We climbed over those east coast style rolling hills that'll put any rider's knees to the test. We rode past enormous houses and mansions of Washington's quite affluent west side suburbs, the National Zoo, and even an Embassy or two. But, woefully out of shape after a 6 week hiatus we barely managed to ride the 35 miles to the city of Rockville Where we collapsed into the only hotel room available, a dirty smokey smelling room. It was just a typical day in the life of a bike tourist.
It's hard to believe just a mere 2 months earlier we made our way across the border from Mexico in the very desert town of El Paso. So litle time had past yet so much had happened. One of our primary objectives in El Paso was to find and purchase a VW Westfalia camper. While in Mexico and Central America Brian and I had been going through further discussions of our objectives, expectations, and goals for this travel life of ours. My goals were to ride or take mass transportation when riding was not feasible. Brian, on the other hand, has discovered that he wants a rest from this lifestyle. In particular in the winter months when days are so short, nights so cold, and storms so severe. So a compromise was needed.
After reading part of a book about driving and camping in Mexico we learned that VW campers offer some of the most versatile means of transportation possible. They're fairly simple to repair, rugged and long lasting, come complete with beds, stove, refrigerator, and plenty of storage space. They also have very high wheel clearance allowing them to travel roads normaly restricted to 4X4s. So we decided to buy one to use as our winter home both here in the U.S. and in Europe in the future. It's a compromise that Brian is more happy with than I, but it should make winter life far more pleasant for the both of us.
Buying the van was an adventure in itself that I won't spend too much time on. I'll just say the one and only one we saw advertized in El Paso seemed priced mighty high. So we drove all the way to Dallas in one night only to dicover it is not a VW town, got smart and checked prices in newspapers across the country in a Barnes & Nobel bookstore, concluded that the one in El Paso was not such a bad deal after all, we then drove all the way back and bought it. It was a lesson that took some 1000 miles and 20 hours for us to learn. After all that I can say we are now the proud owners of a 1985 WV Westphalia winter home.
There were many things we had to do both to the van and the bikes before we stored the van and headed out for the summer. In El Paso we ordered a trailer hitch, the one and only make or model that fits VW Vanagons, and had the clutch, alternator, and rear brakes rebuilt. We picked up the hitch in Albuquerque, had a 2" receiver tube welded on and had it installed. At REI we bought one of those Yakima bike racks that fit into the receiver and voila, we were bike compatible.
On the way east we stopped at Brian's brother's house to sort through all those boxes we'd left behind 2 years ago. Between another large donation to charity and packing some of the backpacking gear into the van we managed to eliminate over 8 boxes. We hightailed it up to Wyoming just before the Memorial Day weekend to register the van, a feat we accomplished right through getting our new cowboy plates in just one hour. We headed east catching, passing, and then being passed by drenching thunderstorms to Michigan. We stopped at my sister's house where we did the usual bike cleaning and overhauling.
Finally ending up to Alexandria we gave the van a good wash and polish for summer storage, put a temporary fix on the leaking top vent, fixed the bulls eye cracks in the windshield, emptied the water and propane, actually it emptied itself as we'd also been trying to get a propane leak fixed along the way, and we were at last ready to leave it behind while we rode north on the bikes.
Our trek across country was not entirely filled with just driving and working on the van. We did stop to visit numerous National Parks and Historic sites along the way. There was the Guadelupe mountains in Texas which offered a pleasant walks through dry deserts and green oasis canyons. Carlsbad Caverns with its enormous underground rooms filled with strange rock formations. A pathway around the caves allowed for unique, unescorted, self paced touring which is completely different from Jewel or Wind caves and even an underground lunch room. With cool underground temperatures who'd want to eat elsewhere. Rock formations were so bizare I thought for sure George Lucas would find inumerable ideas for some otherworld planet landscape for the next Star Wars movies. We played in piles of sand looking much like snow banks in White Sands NP, wondered at the meaning of bird, mask, hand, and animal shaped petroglyphs in Petroglyph NP, looked over erie, black rugged 100,000 year old lava flows at El Malpais, saw hundreds of rock inscriptions made by both Indians and Europeans including the first by any white man in what is now the U.S., Don Onate in 1692, al El Morro, visited but couldn't afford anything at the oldest continually operating Indian trading post, Hubble trading post, and saw numerous ancient Indian and European ruins at Salinas, Canyon de Chelly, and Hovenweep, and oohed and ahed over spectacular natural rock formations at Arches, Natural Bridges, and Canyonlands NPs. We also attempted to do some backpacking in the Tetons of Wyo and Black Hills of SD, but high snow levels and daily thunderstormes accompanied with local floods restricted us to short bike rides and day hikes.
One of our final stops was at Pipestone National Monument. There we overlooked the spot where, for centuries, Indians have mined the special red stone used to fashion their cerimonial pipes and other religious artifacts. This stone was so highly regarded by all native peoples that the mine grounds were considered neutral and sacred lands, weapons were not allowed in, tribal disputes were left behind. Trade for the stone, both unworked and finished pieces, extended throughout North America, even into Mexico, long before Europeans arrived. Good qulity stones demanded a high price. Still today, native tribes from all over come to this site to mine their alloted spot late in the summer when the water has dried up. They produce pipes and artifacts for ceremonial use as well as other not so special items for sale to us tourists. It looked to me that an awful lot of work went into the carving, forming, sanding, and polishing of even the simplist pipe bowl that sells for only $18. I wondered if these folks were charging enough for their labor or if, perhaps, more automated methods were used at home, away from the tourists' eyes.
The final highlight, at least for Brian, in this whirlwind tour east was his chance of a lifetime. Thanks to my father, he got to be a marshal at the U.S. Open. Voices hushed with just the raise of his hand, people moved to his beckoning. Such power. And the view. He got to stand within spitting distance of such greats as the "golden bear" Nicolas and that up and coming young star Tiger Woods. Such a vantage point comes to only a privileged few each year. It was quite an experience getting to watch all of the worlds greatest players from a few feet away, rather than from behind the ropes.
After all this hectic, whirlwind touring, van repairs, and summer preparations climbing aboard our bikes that hot, humid Tuesday to return to our simple lives of ride, eat, sleep, and ocassionally visit sites was a welcome relief.
Eastern Maryland and southeast Pennsylvania proved to be a surprise. Not the terrain as we were expecting the lush green rolling hills dotted with picture perfect farms and the quaint 200 year old towns. It was the people who surprised us. It started that very first night when a lady who worked at a gas station told us if we couldn't find a place to stay we were welcome to stay at her place in her bed and she'd take the couch. When we did find our way to a campground the next night we found ourselves invited to a huge dinner of chicken, corn, pasta and potatoe salad by Barry and Rose, two very free spirited and generous people. Barry and Brian have a bit in common, Barry works at Lockheed Martin and has worked on some of the same projects Brian worked on when he spent time at the Baltimore plant. Barry has worked perhaps every manufacturing job that could possibly exist, including his current assignment in the composites lay-up area. Rose worked in a hospital lab until one too many hostile corporate take-overs forced her to resign. She's now doing the thing she enjoys most, cooking and taking care of the house. We say "good for her".
The very next day we found ourselves at the dinner table of Dawn, Laura, Todd, Larry, and a whole gaggle of blond and redheaded kids ranging in ages from 2 to 16. We chowed down on homemade, not mix, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, pork and saurkraut, and chocolate cake with melted peanut butter frosting. This was after getting free peaches and tomatoes earlier in the day at a local fruit stand. Despite the added weight I couldn't resist. The final surprise was the dinner-to-go we got just for stopping to ask directions. We happened to have stopped at a lodge hall where a family was celebrating the graduation of one of their girls. Food was piled high on the tables, far more than the group would eat. So as we explained what we were about they piled heaps of turkey, ham, potatoes, and fresh vegetables on plates to go. In all our tours throughout the world we have occasionally received good will help from people. But never, ever have we had it happen in such quantity and with such frequency. It was completely changed our opinion of both Maryland and south Pennsylvania for good.
Our route took us northwest out of the Potomac valley into the Maryland and Pennsylvania hills, skirted around Baltimore, and aimed straight for Philadelphia. We stopped by the Hopewell Furnace National Historic site just west of Phily, gasped at the high hotel prices at Valley Forge and kept on going. Phily is not a place for tight wallets.
Hopewell Furnace was an old iron blast furnace operated around revolutionary times. It was founded by Mark Bird in 1772. The location on the Schukil River was selected because of its proximity to wood to make charcoal, limestone for the flux used to remove impurities form the iron, and magnitite from which the iron was extraceed. It was also located right near roads to Valley Forge, Phily, and other neighboring cities. Iron products are heavy and bulky making transportation one of the most costly parts of manufacturing.
Before the war they primarily made molded pots, pans, flat stove plates, and what they called "pig iron". A single trough is dug extending out of the furnace. Small short troughs are then dug perpendicular to the main line. Iron pours down the main trough into the short side troughs. It was named "pig iron" because the side trooughs looked like baby pigs suckling on mamma pig. Pig iron was shipped to other forgers and blacksmiths to be worked into other tools. During the war the furnace tried to make cannon for the war effort, but we were told they were lousy cannon makers. Of the approximately 100 made, 80 blew up. I'll bet that was the end to government contracts at Hopewell. Mark Bird was a good patriot, even if his cannons weren't. He formed and funded his own regiment of some 100 men to fight the war and he also shipped food and supplies to Washington's starving troops stationed in Valley Forge over the winter 1777-78.
Following the war a nationwide depression hit the newly formed U.S. England had been the colonies only market, more by force than by choice, and after those upstarts kicked their butts out, England wasn't about to continue trading relations. At least not for a while. So the Hopewell furnace, and Mark Bird, suffered. The furnace was bought and sold several times until it finally came under the ownership of a duo, Buckley and Brooke. Shrewd business men who gallantly lead Hopewell to closure in 1808. Fear not, for they reopened in 1816 as the full ferver of the industrial revolution hit the states. Their biggest blast years were 1836,37 when they produced over 1,000 tons of iron. This boom was to be shortlived, however, as the new antricite coal burning furnaces soon could make iron better, cheaper, and faster than the charcoal furnaces. Hopewell made its last blast in 1883. Although the old furnace no longer spouts its red flame into the sky, it did help fuel the huge iron and steel industries that sustained eastern Pennsylvania economy up until just the most recent years.
Hopewell Furnace was eventually turned over to the National Park service to provide an insight into the beginnings of the U.S. steel industry. Nestled in a small, green valley with the clear Hopewell lake and stream flowing through are these quaint, clean white and red buildings. There was the cooling barn where hot charcoal was unloaded, occasionallly reigniting making for some excitment, and then carted in hand wheelbarrows through a covered walkway to the top of the furnace. The furnace building looking like a church with a big barn door. The bell on top was used to signal that good "gray" iron was flowing and the moulders were to report for work. A blacksmtih shop next to the furnace supplied parts for the furnace as well as everyday needs for the community. Company supplied housing ran down both sides of the small street leading up to the furnace, although only a couple buildings remain. There were horse and carriage barn, a store where employees traded wages earned for goods, a spring house which provided slight refrigeration in summer, and the "big house", combination owner's residence, office, and hotel for traveling salesmen. All looks clean, neat, and serene now. It's hard to imagine at its peak there were no trees within miles, as all were cut to make charcoal, and black soot belched out of the furnace chimney making the air stink and leaving a black, dusty, film on everything. It's doubtful Hopewell when in full operation was a very pretty sight.
After bypassing Valley Forge we continued around Philadelphia toward the Deleware river. The Deleware is one of those placs where you can really get a sense of how waterways were so important to the early commerce of the east. In the beginning, people boats plied the waters taking goods up and down river, braving the idiosyncrasies of the currents and rapids. Later, two canals were built, one on each side. The Deleware canal, on the Pennsylvania side, was operated from 1831 to as late as 1932. The primary shipment was coal headed downriver. After that came the railroad on the New Jersey side and finally paved roadways. The wterways have now lost their importance as the interstate system bypasses it entirely. Where canal boats pulled by mules used to float, thick weeds now grow. Lock gates hang askew their hinges rotting and rusting into oblivion. However, all is not lost. The canal towpaths are being deeloped into bike/hike paths giving us a long, flat, but somewhat rough respite from the high traffic roads. Work is underway to dig out some of the old canal and return it to pseudo usable condition, or at least get water back in it. So perhaps the labors of all those Irishmen who dug that ditch by pick and shovel will still have use into the year 2000 and beyond.
After bumping and bouncing along for a good 30 miles up the towpath, discovering along the way that riding through grass and soft dirt takes a lot more effort than it first appears, we turned west at the Lehigh River and headed upstream to Bethleham where we could visit and finally meet the wonderful lady who's been so graciously posting these newsletters on her web site, Wendy Strutin.
Wendy, and her brand new hubby Jeffery, treated us to two nights of luxery in a nice soft bed with hot showers all around. They live in a 3 story townhouse and like any good bikers have at least 2 bikes per person stashed in the lower lever and garage. I think I counted 7 in all. Their latest pride and joy is a beautiful blue tandem, wedding gift. But there are also single touring bikes, track racers, road bikes, and one very ancient but lovable Schwinn 10 speed. True bike enthusiasts seem to never sell a bike, they hold too many memories. We also have two Schwinn touring bikes stashed away that may or may not ever be ridden again. But we'll never get rid of them.
During the day we grabbed a bus for Philadelphia for a brief, and I do mean brief, tour of the old part of the city. Philadelphia, the city where some 220 years ago men with names like Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Hancock initiated a great experiment in self government we now know as the United States of America. It hadn't been tried before, selecting leaders through the vote of the people. Leaders either fought their way to the top or were born to it. Would it work? I guess we're still waiting to see.
During the revolutionary war the city of Philadelphia, 2nd largest English speaking city in the world, had a whopping population of 25,000 people. Compared to today that is a small town. Now, the area that was the central district with the shops, houses, and town hall are completely surrounded by glass box highrise buildings. Independence hall, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is carefully preserved amongst tree and grass filled parks and a few of the other historic buildings that managed to survive various urban modernization projects. With a lot of imagination and a bit of help from the movie at the park's visitor center, it's possible to imagine horses and carriages drawing up to the building to unload their soon to be famous passengers. Men in waist coats, knee length button pants, tights, tricornered hats, and those snow white power wigs mill around waiting for a sign that the meeting is about to start. Women, children, and merchants of the town go about their daily business fully aware that events that could shape their future are taking place within the building. The word, independence, is whispered between men, but not yet spoken aloud as men on both sides of the fence consider the optons. It must have been an exciting time, full of hope, anticipation, fear and dread. Oh to be able to go back in time to see this auspicious start of a worldwide change in mankind.
Independence hall actually was just the Pennsylvania state house, used by the state government for their business. Philadelphia, being the largest city in the new world and located in a reasonably central position, became the natural place for representatives of the 13 colonies to meet. 90% of the building's external structure and 75% of it's interior are original. Unfortunatly the room where those two important documents were signed has nothing original, one of those modernization projects. Even as we visited it was undergoing more major renovations. The entire electrical system, much of which dated from the 1950s and even the 1920s, was being replaced. So the room was bare, wires hung out of bare sockets in the ceiling, makeshift fans were attached to the windows in an attempt to keep things somewhat cool. Despite the missing furniture, we did get an unusual treat. In front of the room is a bannister that normally keeps the crowds away from the furniture, some of which is original. With the furniture gone, there's no need to keep people out. So we got to wander around the room at will in places where Joe Public hasn't been for some 25 to 30 years and probaby won't be in again for many more decades. A rare treat indeed.
Covered in a glass house in the park in front of Independencs hall is the original, one and only, Liberty Bell with its distinctive crack. It's perhaps a medium sized bell by today's standard, weighing 2,000 lbs its only about 3 ft high. It was cast in about 1750 and was used to call meetings to order in the Pennsylania state house. It had no association with the events to take place in 1776. It continued to be used beyond 1776 until it cracked. The original crack was just a hairline. The huge gap it has now was an attempt at fixing it. They drilled holes along the crack and then bolted it at the top and bottom. Evidently it worked, for a while. While ringing it all day to celebrate George Washington's birthday the tone started out just right. But it gradually changed until it was just a dull thud at the end of the day. The bell had completed its useful life as the crack had continued to grow and the bell threatened to split in half. Normally such a bell would be melted down and recast as another bell or something else. However, by that time this bell had already begun to take on a certain symbolic significance. So instead they reinforced it with a tripod underneath and that's the way it remains today. With millions of visitors coming to see the bell each year we were amazed that they still allowed you to touch it. But I guess they feel it would detract from the symbolism if they completely walled it off. So the bell that when in use could call people from up to 5 miles around now calls people from throsands of miles without making a single sound.
That evening upon returning to Wendy and Jeff's house we were treated to a rather unique sporting spectacle that probably only biking enthusiasts could truly appreciate, track racing at the Texlertown velodrome. The veledrome came into being because Bicycling Magazine is headquartered near there and, naturally, would be instrumentla in getting funding for it. It is one of only a half dozen or so outdoor velodromes in the country and is likely to be one of the best. You have a choice of tickets, grandstand puts you in the permenant bleachers overlooking one of the straight sections of track and general has you standing by the walls at the corners. We got seats just about overlooking the finish line giving us a great view of each race end.
This particular night featured men's and wommen's international competitions. The men had 4 races; 4 2 mile heats where 8 men race and the first 2 go onto the finals, the 2 mile finals featuring the winners from the heats, a miss and out, and a 100 lap Madisen. In the miss and out the entire field of men start the race. At the end of each lap the last man gets eliminated until there's only 3 racers left. These guys, after busting their guts for about 25 laps to stay in the race now have to sprint for the final lap to wind 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.
In the Madisen the men ride in pairs, one man hanging on the wall for a lap while the other rides the race. The exchange is not just a simple passing of a baton. Noooo, the rider in the race comes up behind the guy who has been resting, grabs his hand, and gives him a good, hard pull to pass on his momentum. This might be simple if you were the only ones on the course, but to do it with another 24 other guys trying to do the same thing at the same time in almost the same place is utterly suicidal. But they did it and without so much as one crack up. So this riding a lap, passing, resting, passing, and riding again goes on for a grueling 100 laps. But to make things a bit more interesting, the winner of the race is not necessarily determined by who crosses the finish line first. Instead it is determined by who has the most number of points. Points are gained by the first, second, third, and fourth men to cross the finishline at certain laps during the race. Double points are given for the final lap. Whoever has the most points at the end wins. So you find the riders ae forced to sprint at their top level for each and every point gaining lap in addition to keeping up with the pack throughout the other laps. To add even a bit more spice, prems, short for premiums, of $20, $50, or $100 are offered to the winner of various laps again causing riders to sprint for all their worth. I culd just imagine at the end of the 100 laps these guys must have absolutely zero energy left.
Racing for the women was not quite such a ironman test. They had 2 lap heats and a final with similar rules as the men's 2 mile races. They also had a win and out race, winner of the first lap is the race winner and gets to quit, winner of the second lap is second and gets to quit, winner of the third is third and the race is over after just 3 laps. In general the women's races seem to still have a lot of sprinting involved but seem to be of shorter distance.
Having never seen track bike racing before we were quite impressed. There's something about hearing the gentle whir of 16 fine tuned bikes whizzing by, bodies hunched over the handle bars glancing quickly right and left looking for holes to punch through or gaps to close up, men and women putting every ounce of energy into each and every sprint until they simply have none left to put out. Bike racing is not a high paying sport. Wendy tells us points for each night are gained and the overall winner may garner a total of $3K for the evening. Quite a long way from the millions paid to football, basketball, baseball, and even golf stars. But, there are a few, just a few, who do manage to make a living at it for a while.
We could only stay with Wendy and Jeff a short time as the 4th of July weekend was rapidly approaching and we wanted to be bedded down in a nice state park campground by the Wednesday before. So we gave our hugs goodbye and continued our ride on up the Delaware River on into the Empire state, New York.
Appendix A - Route
Mt. Vernon bike path to Arlington Cemetary Memorial Bridge, Cross bridge
Rock Creek bike path to Broad Branch Rd. to Kentsdale Rd., Backroads through towns of Rockville, Gaithersburg, Redland, Olney, Sandy Spring, Brinklow, Brighton, Dayton, Glenelg, Glenwood, Cooksville, Eldersburg, Oakland, Wards Chapel, Reisterstown, Shawan, Hunt Valley, Cockeysville, Sunnybrook, Sweet Air, Jacksonville, Jarrettsville, Federal Hill, Pylesville, Whiteford, Cardiff, Delta
Backroads through Sunnyburn, Airville, York Furnace, New Bridgeville, Wrightsville, Columbia, Marietta, Mt. Joy, Manheim, Elm, Clay, Reamstown, Bowmansville, Maple Grove Park, Geigertown, Knauertown, Pughtown, Phoenixville, Valley Forge, Norristown, Ambler, Horsham, New Hope, Lambertville,
New Jersey and Pennsylvania
Stockton, NJ, Raven Rock, NJ, Erwinn, PA, Uhlerstown, PA, Kintnersville, PA, Riegelsville, PA, Easton, PA, Bethlehem, PA, Phillipsburg, NJ, Harmony, NJ, Hutchinson, NJ, Belvidere, NJ, mt Bethel, PA, Delaware Water Gap, Pa, Worthington State Forest, NJ, Walpack Center, NJ, Layton, NJ, Dingmans Ferry, PA, Hainesville, NJ, Montague, NJ, Matamoras, NJ
Port Jervis, Cuddebackville, Otisville
Appendix B - Campsites and hotels
Holiday motel in Rockville ($), Ramblin Pines Campground at Woodbine ($), Econo Lodge in Cockeysville
Otter Creek Campground near York Furnace($), Chickies Creek day use area near Columbia, French Creek State Park 2 nights ($), Motel 6 Valley Forge ($), Wendy Strutin's house in Bethleham 2 nights, Dingman's campground in Deleware Gap Nat'l Rec Area ($)
Bulls Island State Park ($), Worthington State Forest ($)
Otisville Campground ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.