Day 7: Sunday July 17. Wall Street, NYC to Mahopac, NY (56 miles)
Today is an exciting day. At the end of the day I will be at the halfway point, between Norfolk Virginia and Montreal, Canada. If I only go to the Canadian border, at this moment I am more than halfway!
Not only that, but this morning’s route should be easy. The state of New York has created a bike route from the lower tip of Manhattan to the Canadian border. The route, which runs up the Hudson River is called the “Empire Trail.” While I have not cycled any of this trail, my son did all of today’s route a few years ago on his bicycle and pronounced it as “easy to do, Dad.”
Getting out of the hotel was not as much of a challenge as getting the bike in. I carefully thought out the geometry this time and was able to maneuver the bike out of the room and into the elevator without crashing into any walls.
Pedaling out of the area around Wall Street on a Sunday morning was a breeze since there was no traffic. Thankfully, it was not a weekday morning. I have been to the Wall Street area on a weekday, and it is often bedlam. It took a little bit of time but I made it to the start of the Emprie Trail near the One World Trade Center.
The trail in lower Manhattan was a lot of fun. It was well marked, and free of cars and pedestrians. Plus there were lots of other cyclists, many of whom knew what they were doing. I raced one man in a yellow jersey for about 2 miles. It was good I raced him since there was a small detour in the route and I didn’t have to slow down at all to figure it out. Instead, I just chased his back wheel until the route went around the detour.
Lower Manhattan was fast, smooth and easy. Once the trail got above Columbia University and into Harlem it was like the Parks Department forgot to maintain the path. There was sand, trash and graffiti, but luckily no broken bottles or glass. The route was still a lot of fun until crossing under the George Washington Bridge.
Below the bridge the route needs to climb a hill. I am pretty sure no one thought about cyclists when the path under the bridge was built decades ago. The hill was in two stages. The first stage went almost straight up. I put the bike into the lowest gear and just made it to the top. Then came a blind right turn, followed by an immediate blind left turn. I was straining mightily but I knew I was not going to be able to pedal to the top. The hill was too steep.
The problem was that I was clipped into my pedals and could not yank my feet out. I started cutting across the path, praying no speeding cyclist was coming downhill. I made it once across the path but even weaving was not going to get me to the top of the hill. I wove back to my side of the path and spotted my salvation: a large wrought iron fence. I headed straight for it, swerved at the last minute and was able to grab onto one large pointy post. Hanging onto the post gave me enough time to unclip my feet and get off the bike.
I pushed the bike the next four or five minutes up the hill, panting like a dog. I was out of breath but had not crashed! Who knew that parts of the Empire Trail could be so steep?
At the top end of Manhattan the bike trail along the Hudson River stopped. It was time to pedal a couple of miles along city streets in the Bronx. Luckily, I had walked these same streets years ago. Once I took my family on a “short walk.” Well, it was a short walk by my standards and since you are reading this you probably know that my conception of outdoor activity is a wee bit beyond what most people consider normal.
My family walked the entire length of Broadway, which is the famous road with all the theaters. Broadway starts at the tip of Manhattan, near the Staten Island ferry station and ends in the Bronx. It is only 13 miles in Manhattan and 2 miles in the Bronx, so it is easily doable in one day if you start early and are in shape. The walk takes you through many of Manhattan’s most famous neighborhoods.
My job today was to pedal the end part of Broadway in the Bronx, up to Van Cortland Park. Google maps was totally confused. It was trying to send me left and right, but always with the goal of getting me to follow Broadway. I ignored the instructions and just stayed on the road and soon made it to the park without much problem.
My son did warn me. He said the only part of the route where he was truly lost was in the park itself. I took it very slow, ignored Google maps most of the time and kept looking for signs for the Empire Trail. Luckily there were quite a few signs as long as you were going slow enough to spot them.
The trail starting in Van Cortland Park was lovely. It is an old railroad route. The path is wide, impossible to get lost on, and shady. The shade was key today. I passed a sign that had the time and temperature on it. The sign was in the sun and read 94 degrees. Ouch. Another potential heat stroke day if I was riding without tree cover.
The only part of the route I was not expecting was the steady climb. New York City is at sea level and leaving the city means climbing a lot of hills. The railroad decades ago had eliminated the steep parts and made the grade quite gradual. Nevertheless, when I was racing other cyclists in lower Manhattan I was cruising at 16 to 17 miles an hour according to my “trusted” (I mean that sarcastically) friend Google maps. Now I was doing 10 to 11 miles an hour climbing out of Van Cortland Park.
The route took me along the Sawmill River and Parkway. The path was freshly paved and whoever had worked on the path did an amazing job. If you live in New York City and want a pleasant cycling experience, the bike path beside the Sawmill is it. There were places to sit. The river wound lazily around the path. There were cute bird houses to look at on many of the trees. There were even some parking lots with portable toilets for people who wanted to drive a car to the trail.
The miles went by smoothly. Then Google maps announced “get on Route 100.” I started thinking, “Oh, no, here we go again.” However, the path planner was clearly someone who understood safety. Yes, I was on a major road, but the trail planner had erected a large steel barrier to keep the cars away. The barrier had no breaks in it so I felt quite safe no matter what speed the cars were doing. Plus, the amount of on-road riding was quite short and soon I was back in the cool woods.
The ride even went across a marvelous trestle bridge that spanned a large lake. The path almost, but not quite, made up for some of the hell of cycling in Northern New Jersey.
My goal was to get to a house in Mahopac, New York, where some family members promised me lunch when I arrived and a place to stay. The computer said 1:30 pm was my arrival time. I started getting hungry and draggy a little bit after noon but decided to push on since food at someone’s home is always better than food from a convenience store or gas station.
The house was about a half mile off the path and I arrived right on time. Unfortunately, by not stopping for food I arrived totally depleted. I made a note, eat no matter what. While the path was beautiful and easy to ride, it still took energy.
Lunch was a hamburger hot off the grill, followed a couple of hours later with some steak. It was quite yummy. Then I had a chance to do laundry. After being on the road for a week with just one change of clothes, let’s say I really needed to clean up. Plus, my biking clothes were covered with dirt from my time in New Jersey’s Bass River forest, where I had the exciting time of wandering down Dan Bridge Road.
After dinner I spent time working on what you are reading. The following is not meant as a complaint, but it takes a lot of time and effort at the end of each day to write down the day’s activities. Some days I just don’t have enough energy to write, so multiple days of writing sometimes get compressed into one marathon session like tonight.
Day 8: Monday July 18. (0 miles)
I decided after a week of being on the road to take a rest day. First, I am exhausted. I did give some serious thought this morning to calling my wife and asking for a pick-up to go back home. When I went cross-country a few years ago I didn’t have that option. There wasn’t much choice in Montana beside continuing to pedal. Being on the east coast it is tempting to throw in the towel and just go back to my own bed to sleep for a week. I did call my wife, but I didn’t ask for a pick-up.
Second, I hurt. I am having trouble feeling two of my fingers. Biking would be so much easier without the heavy backpack and under the seat saddle bag. The back pack is clearly the cause of the numb fingers. Plus, my bottom is sore. Sitting on a tiny saddle for hours at a time is not the most comfortable thing to do, even if I do have fancy bike shorts with super padding.
Last, the weather today is miserable. When I woke up it was thunder and lightning out. For most of the day, heavy showers periodically came through soaking everything in sight.
I am sorry to disappoint you loyal readers (and I know you are loyal if you have gotten this far) but not every day is an adventure. The highlight of my day was an hour nap after lunch. My goal for today is simple; rest, upload the blog and plan out the rest of the route to Canada.
The route planning is not as easy as it looks because upstate New York has relatively few places to stop. For those of you who are familiar with upstate New York, there are plenty of hotels. The problem is that they are all clustered together in places like Albany and not evenly spaced out along my route. Wish me luck as I figure out the path onward.
Day 9: Tuesday July 19. Mahopac, NY to Kingston, NY (75 miles)
Why bicycle long distance? Today was a day that answered that question. It was wonderful, marvelous and, in parts, sublime. Of the 75 miles I did today, seventy of the miles were on repurposed railroad grades that were car free.
For those that care about details I pedaled the Putnam Trailway, Maybrook Trailway, Dutchess Rail Trail, Hudson Valley Rail Trail and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail. While these seem like a lot of different trails, they typically merge into each other and if the signage didn’t change, I would not have known which trail I was actually on.
What made this day so special? Today was blisteringly hot and humid, but not on the trail. Most of the trails were in deep shade and much cooler than the surrounding roads. Yesterday it rained. The trails were in such deep shade they didn’t completely dry off until 11 am, while the roads were dry from the moment I started.
The trails went through some beautiful countryside. I passed birds preening themselves, had to dodge a turtle slowly walking across the path, and startled an exceptionally large deer. Given today is a weekday, the trails were not crowded. There were just enough people to make it interesting and few enough so I had long sections of complete solitude.
One highlight was that roughly the first six miles of cycling was downhill. There is nothing like having a long coast just after breakfast to start the day off right.
Another highlight was Poughkeepsie, New York. What??? How can Poughkeepsie be a highlight? The trail didn’t go through the city. Instead, it went over the city on a 1.5 mile long bicycle and pedestrian only bridge. The bridge crossed the Hudson River in spectacular fashion and I only saw Poughkeepsie from nose-bleed heights.
Even the end of the day was very good. The last trail was the Wallkill Valley Trail. All the other trails were paved. The Wallkill was crushed stone. I had an unpleasant experience on crushed stone during my last day cycling through New Jersey, but the Wallkill was in great shape. The beginning and end of this trail were in top notch shape and the stone was laid by a master. While the middle of the trail needed work (I did walk one short stretch) it was clear the trail was being fixed and I expect it will be much better in a few years.
I made it to the motel (a Super-8) a little after 4 pm, which gave me plenty of time to shower and have an early dinner. I ate dinner by picking up various items in a supermarket that was a 15 minute walk away. I ended the day by eating some apple pie.
If you are ever tempted to try long distance cycling, so far the journey from the bottom of Manhattan to Kingston, New York is a trip I highly recommend.
Day 10: Wednesday July 20. Kingston, NY to Troy, NY (83 miles)
The headline in today’s Wall Street Journal says it all “More Than 100 Million Americans Face Dangerous Heat Wave.” Very high temperatures are not only in New York, where I am cycling, but also in parts of Europe. Yesterday parts of England hit 104 degrees!
Today I received an email from Boston University, where I teach, saying they were opening up cooling centers for BU students seeking relief from the heat. I have spent decades teaching at BU and I do not remember ever getting this message before.
The heat was expected, so I tried my best to work around it. I woke up at 4:45 AM and left the Super 8 motel in Kingston by 6:15. My goal was to pedal as many miles as possible before 10 AM, when the heat and humidity were expected to start climbing.
I also bought a lot of Gatorade, which replaces the salt lost when the body sweats a lot. Last, I decided to keep the mileage relatively low and pedal less than 70 miles. Unfortunately, I ended up doing 13 miles more than I planned. By doing all these things I was hoping to avoid heat stroke and get to the next hotel (a Best Western in Troy, NY) just after lunch.
Let’s jump right to the ending of the day before I regale you with any details. I made it to Troy, which is about 10 miles north of Albany (New York’s state capital) in fine shape. I am not exactly sure but I drank over 200 ounces of liquid today and it all came out in sweat.
The first challenge of the day was getting from Kingston, which is on the west side of the Hudson River, to Bard College, which is on the east side. There is a bridge, which I had taken before in a car, but the bridge was two-lanes and the speed going over the bridge is 55 mph. Not the type of road a bicyclist wants to be on. However, unless I went back to Poughkeepsie it was the only option available.
My hotel was a bit off the Empire State Trail so Google maps routed me on back roads to the highway on-ramp. It was a real divided highway for the first mile. Luckily, the traffic was very light at that early morning hour. Google maps said I had 4 miles of pedaling. At the end of the first mile, the Empire State Bike Trail joined the highway. Wow, a real protected sidewalk with concrete Jersey Barriers suddenly showed up. The person in charge of the bike path from New York City to Canada clearly has influence.
The trail over the bridge was so new that the start of it was blocked off with orange construction barrels. I had a choice; ride in 55 mph traffic or ignore the barrels. I ignored the barrels. The bridge was quite nice, until I got to almost the top of the span. A bridge worker in a yellow-day-glow vest was walking ahead of me. The path was in great shape, but it was too narrow to go around them, so I shouted, “can I squeeze by?”
The worker was quite surprised to find a bicyclist on the walkway. Her first words were, “We haven’t finished this. What are you doing here?” I at once went into praise mode and started saying how wonderful it was that there was a bike lane and how great it looked. I was actually in the pedestrian walkway, not the bike lane, which was closer to the cars. She seemed dubious at first but let me continue pedaling on the walkway.
I am not sure the last time anyone had used this path because after I passed her, I hit the spider webs. Ever few feet a spider had made a web across the path, from the bridge’s railing to the concrete barrier. I had roughly a half mile journey through spider land. Spiders don’t bother me, but I clearly bothered a lot of spiders today. The spiders were not happy as I smashed through web after web. My hands and the bike’s handlebars ended up being a sticky mess.
At the bottom of the bridge on the east side was a locked gate. I picked up my sticky, web-covered bike and carried it over the guardrail and around the gate. I then pulled out my phone to take pictures of the”closed walkway” sign. At that moment another bridge worker pulled up in a pickup truck and told me I couldn’t go up the path. I said that was fine since I was going east, not back west to Kingston. He looked confused when I said I was only standing there to take a picture and I got back on the sticky bike and pedaled away.
Once safely away, I cleaned all the webs off the bike and took a back country road to Bard College. They were definitely trying to keep cyclists safe on this road since it had lots and lots of speed bumps to keep people from driving quickly.
The path wound through Bard College and of course I got lost trying to figure out all the twists and turns. This added time, which meant I was going to cover less distance before the searing heat really began.
After I made it out of Bard College, the next few hours were spent on bucolic back country roads with almost no traffic. It was a lovely ride until a few miles outside of Hudson, New York. The beautiful back country roads disappeared, urban roads with broken glass showed up and the heat started to soar.
I stopped at 10 am in a Hudson park that had a picnic shelter for my day’s second set of yogurt and bananas. I had done slightly more than 30 miles, which was well below the plan. This meant I was going to cycle for a long time in the hot afternoon sun. As a consolation, a light breeze came up, so I pulled off my shirt and was able to cool down. I sat there for about half-an-hour and after the food and Gatorade kicked in I felt much better.
The rest of the afternoon followed a pretty similar pattern. Pedal very slowly. Stop every hour or so for a rest. Drink as much as possible. Luckily from the city of Hudson to the hotel, most of the pedaling was done on a converted rail-trail. This meant that there were relatively few big ups or downs.
The problem with today’s rail-trail is that most of it was not shaded. Yesterday the trail was cool and shady. Today’s trail was the opposite. Most was out in the open.
Another problem with this trail is that many sections were missing. I don’t know the details, but it felt like I would pedal a mile or two on the rail trail, then be guided onto regular streets for a mile and then the rail-trail would begin again. Luckily, the entire route was well marked so I never had to backtrack while on or off today’s rail trail.
I arrived in Troy, New York, which is north of Albany at 4 pm. My goal was to arrive at 1:30 to 2 pm, but it took an extra two plus hours because of the heat wave. The hotel was quite cool and someone had already turned the air conditioning on high in my room.
I took a shower and then walked across the street to the “Dinosaur BBQ” restaurant. I asked for an outside table. I really want to make it to Montreal and sitting at an inside table potentially could expose me to Covid. I ordered a large salad and BBQ chicken platter. It was so hot sitting outside that I asked the waiter to box all the food up and took it back to my air-conditioned room to eat in peace.
Overall, it was a nice day of biking. If the temperature was 10 degrees cooler, I would have rated it spectacular.