Norfolk, VA to New York City

Day 1: Monday July 11.  Boston to Richmond by Train (5 miles + 5 miles = 10 miles cycling & 13.5 hours on a train)

The alarm went off at 5 am.  I have tickets on the 6:10 am local train out of Boston’s South Station.  The train is Amtrak’s Northeast Regional #95.  It starts in Boston and ends in Norfolk Virginia.  Why take the train, instead of the plane?  First, planes are a mess this summer.  The airlines laid off loads of workers during the Covid epidemic and are having big problems hiring people back.

Second, Amtrak doesn’t require me to box up my bicycle, which means taking it apart and then putting it back together.  While I have done this in the past, it is no fun sitting in airport baggage claim and reconstructing a bike.

Last, Amtrak is much cheaper than the airlines.  Airfares are astronomical this summer, since everyone wants to fly now after being cooped up for two years by Covid.  Amtrak only wants $160 for a one-way ticket and that includes a $20 charge for transporting the bike.  The big downside of Amtrak is that the train ride will take 13 hours.  That is a long time to sit in one seat, even if the view out the window is interesting.

The ride from home to the train station is a bit under 5 miles.  At 5:30 am there was no traffic on the road.  It was peaceful and very calm.  Plus, it was quite cool.  No worries about heat stroke this morning.  I made it to South Station with almost 20 minutes to spare before the train left and had to stand around waiting for the track number to be announced.

Getting on the train with the bike was a minor adventure.  At the beginning of the platform was a conductor.  She looked at me and said, “bicycles go up front, see the next conductor.”  I walked all the way to the front of the train and of course she was the last conductor I saw.  I turned around and started walking back and made it about halfway before another conductor appeared.

He showed me where the bike stand was in the coach car.  I was under the impression that I could just clip the bike into the rack and be done with it.  Nope.  I had to take the front wheel off and then take the seat off so the bike could fit into the rack.  That took a bit of doing since I had not taken the seat off in a long time and needed to find the right wrench, which was buried deep in my gear bag.

The morning train ride to New York City was uneventful.  The car was full of people and hopefully, none will give me Covid.  The afternoon ride to Washington D.C. and then on to Norfolk was also uneventful.

The only interesting bit was getting off the train in Norfolk and pedaling to the hotel (the Holiday Inn Express at Norfolk Airport).  Google maps did its thing again.  The route from the train to the hotel led me through Norfolk State University.  Google maps sent me on tiny pedestrian paths through the quad.  It was the most bizarre set of directions.  On a fall day it would have been a disaster dodging people.  Luckily for me the campus was closed for the summer and there wasn’t a single person in sight, but it was still weird cycling over bumpy brick paths when regular campus streets seemed so close by.  Oh well, it is written on all US currency “In God We Trust.”  The same cannot be said for Google maps.

The hotel was fine and surrounded by fast food restaurants, so dinner was a burger and an order of fries to go before I took a shower and went to bed.

Day 2: Tuesday July 12. Norfolk, VA to Pocomoke City, MD (85.5 miles)

Today is the first real day of biking….and it’s the start of heat wave.  Of well, you cannot always get everything you want on these adventures.  The hotel was nice, quiet and comfortable.  I was able to get a good night’s sleep.  I woke up at 6:30 am and only had to pedal a bit less than 9 miles to the start of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, abbreviated the CBBT.  The Bridge Tunnel is a 20 mile series of bridges and tunnels which crosses the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.  It has no shoulder and bikes are prohibited on the roadway.  To make things palatable for cyclists, the CBBT offers “free” rides across as long as you pay the toll and book a ride at least 24 hours in advance (call 757-331-2960).

I booked a trip across the CBBT at 9 am.  When I woke up I figured two and a half hours was more than enough time to get dressed, have some breakfast and pedal.  I was wrong.

I checked out at 8:10, giving myself just 50 minutes to navigate a confusing route.  The voice feature on Google maps was useful.  The big problem in Norfolk was the conditions of the roads.  I have rarely seen so much glass, rocks and other garbage scattered on the roads.  It is like the city rarely uses a street sweeper to clean up.

I was grateful that my tires were Continental Gator Hardshells.  Hardshells are extra heavy and extra thick.  They slow me down quite a bit, but every time I run over another pile of broken glass or metal I am happy to take the performance hit.  A slower ride in exchange for not having to repair another flat is a trade I will make every time.  Note for biking fanatics:  There are two types of Gator tires; Gator skins and Gator skin hardshells.  The skins are thinner than the hardshell.  The skins weigh less but provide less protection.

Google maps took me a very bizarre route.  At one point the signs said “dead-end.”  I stopped to check the map, just as another cyclist whizzed past.  It turned out there was a hidden bike path that was about 100 feet long that went through and saved a multi-block detour.

I finally arrived at my goal about 8:55 am, the on-ramp to route 13, which in that spot is a divided highway with a 55-mph speed limit.  My instructions were to go to 2400 North Hampton Boulevard, which is the address of the toll plaza.  Unfortunately, the back way to the toll plaza’s employee parking lot is chained shut, so you have to get on the highway and pedal right up to the toll plaza to get the ride across.  I was a bit worried, but it turned out the highway stretch was short and about half of the ride had a decent shoulder.

I tried to bring my bike into the toll plaza’s building, but the policeman inside the control room had a hissy fit.  It took a couple of minutes to figure out what he was upset about.  Given he was behind a massive amount of bullet proof glass it was tough to hear anything, but I got the idea that I was invited inside but my bike was not welcome.

I don’t know if showing up exactly at 9 am when I had booked a ride was the trick or if the toll plaza attendant was just watching for an idiot on a bike to come pedaling down the highway, but one of the two toll attendants shut down their booth, came over to me and told me to pedal around back and hop in the van.

The man’s name was Don.  He drove me through the toll ($14 since it was off-peak, instead of the $18 charge I was expecting) and chatted about how the CCBT was a private bridge, not public and that 90% of the tolls are used to keep the bridge and tunnel in great shape.  He was very proud of the 20 miles.  He also told me all kinds of stories about the grief people give him when faced with an $18 charge.  I was very happy to pay since going over the CBBT meant avoiding downtown Washington, D.C. traffic!

Don dropped me off at the welcome center on the other side.  The map showed a walking trail that led out of the back of the parking lot.  It was very rough for the first half mile.  Grass, tree roots, and small rocks abounded.  Then as if by magic a real bike path showed up.  It was paved, shaded and had mileage signs every tenth of a mile.  It even had a bike repair stand along the way to pump up tires and make minor repairs.  Unfortunately, the bike path only lasted 5 miles, but it was fun while it lasted.

I then got on Virginia route 600, which was also named Seaside Road.  I never saw the sea, but the road was lovely.  There was almost no traffic on the road and I had a nice tail wind.  The road was flat but had enough curves to make it interesting.  While I didn’t get a chance to look at the ocean, the road was scenic winding through fields and woods.  The first 30 miles on route 600 went by in just two hours, which at 15-mph is a very respectable time for bike touring.

After 30 miles I stopped to eat the yogurts and a banana.  Like in all good bike adventures the early afternoon was not as idyllic as the morning.  I was chased by a dog, who was pretty darn fast, but thankfully not vicious.  Google maps sent me on two short stretches of deep gravel roads, where crashing was a distinct possibility given the shifting rocks under my wheels.  Plus, I had to get on Route 13 (the same divided 55-mph highway) for a bit over a mile in a spot where there was no shoulder.  Throw in 9 miles of another 55-mph road, plus the heat wave, and the middle of the day was not a lot of fun.

The last few hours, however, turned idyllic again.  Somehow, I got routed onto back country roads with little traffic.  Google maps announced unexpectedly when I turned onto a tiny country road that I left Virginia and entered Maryland.  I took a picture of the intersection where it happened, but neither state put up a sign.  I even found a gas station that sold ice-cream cones and the end of the day was not too bad.

I pulled into a Pocomoke City motel just after 4 pm, which was about six and a half hours after getting out of the van at the end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.  While I was drinking a lot on the road, I still guzzled two water bottles once I made into the motel room.  I had even more water at Don’s Restaurant, which is next door to the motel.  I capped dinner off with a large piece of Carrot Cake and more water to celebrate doing 85.5 miles in the middle of a heat wave.  Tomorrow should be an easier day since the plan is just to cover 65 miles to Rehoboth Beach.

Day 3: Tuesday July 12. Pocomoke City, MD to Rehoboth Beach, DE (64 miles)

Today is going to be a good day.  I have to pedal a bit over 30 miles to Willards, MD.  In Willards, one of my best friends from high school is going to meet me.  Then we will pedal another 32 miles to his house located very close to the ferry that crosses the water to New Jersey.

The ride out of Pocomoke City was quiet and peaceful.  There was almost no traffic on the roads.  The ride went through lots of corn fields, separated by a few houses and then some small forests.  The only downside was the brutal heat and humidity.  It was so humid that when the wind stopped blowing, my glasses fogged up, making it tough to see.

I prepared for the heat by drinking a lot of water even before hopping on the bike.  I might have overdone it.  I had to stop five times during that 30+ mile ride to pee.  I made it to the meeting point about 30 minutes earlier than we planned.  The meeting point was the Iron Horse coffee shop and restaurant.  I ordered scrambled eggs and toast.  My friend showed up before they came out.

I was very excited to see him but I  was a bit disappointed at seeing just him and not his wife.  I was hoping his wife would have driven him down in a car and I could have given her the twenty pounds I was lugging on my back.  It wasn’t to be.  He had pedaled down by himself and was expecting to pedal back.

We sat at the café for about an hour, eating and resting.  Then we got back on the bikes and pedaled toward his house.  The early part of the trip, while very hot, was quite nice.  There was no traffic on the roads and we pedaled side-by-side and chatted.  After about 15 miles, the area got more urban.  We pedaled through a chicken processing plant, which was quite smelly.  I do mean through.  The plant was on both sides of the road, and we went right down the middle.  We then got to route 1, which is the famous north-south highway.  The shoulder was very wide which was good because the stretch near his house is 55-mph for cars.

We got to his house around 3:30 pm and I was exhausted.  I had no energy.  I did not even feel like eating.  I lay down for a little while but could not sleep.  Sixty-four miles in a heat wave had taken everything out of me.

A shower helped a little but I was not totally clear in the head.  I told my friend that I wasn’t feeling great and he said, “stay another night.”  It didn’t take much to convince me since I had trouble contemplating getting back on the bike.

How was I feeling?  I only ate a half-portion of food for dinner, which is not like me at all.  My friend wanted to show me his house, but I declined since it meant walking up two flights of stairs and this was beyond my strength.  We sat on his porch after the sun went down.  Once it started getting cooler I started to feel better but was still in no shape to pedal the next morning.

Day 4: Thursday July 14. (0 miles)

Today was a miserable day to ride a bike.  I am glad I did not ride.  The temperature was in the 90s, the humidity was in the high 70s and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  It was hot, steamy and prime conditions for heat stroke.  Add to that mix the fact that I was not feeling great after yesterday’s ride and I decided to not push on, but instead spend the day resting.

We went to downtown Rehoboth Beach and had crepes for breakfast at a local shop.  Then it was time for a short stroll along the boardwalk.  It reminded me of Atlantic City’s boardwalk, with lots of snacks for sale, amusement games and tacky souvenirs for sale.  I walked about four short blocks before I was out of gas.

We then drove around in a car looking at the sights.  We drove by President Biden’s summer home, which had a large gaggle of secret service and police standing outside.

I took a long nap after lunch and when I woke up we walked over to the beach.  We found a spot on the sand by the 18th lifeguard chair, which is the last chair on the public beach.  We arrived just in time to see all the lifeguards who were not on duty line up at the 18th chair.  The mass of them all jumped in the water and, for practice, swam down the shore to the 1st chair.  The lifeguards at the front of the group were powerful swimmers who quickly disappeared from view.  The back of the group had people who looked like the 1.1 mile swim was going to be a tough slog.

This year the U.S. has a labor shortage and lifeguard positions were very tough to fill.  I asked the person sitting in the 18th chair what happens to the slowest swimmer.  I was expecting to hear they were reprimanded or told to get more training.  I guess in a labor shortage the answer was not surprising.  Nothing happens to them.  They do not even get yelled at.

I went to bed early feeling much better than when I woke up that morning.

Day 5: Friday July 15. Cape May, NJ to Manahawken, NJ (79 miles)

Have you ever had a day where a computer wanted to rule and ruin your life?  Today was that day.  During the middle of the night, the weather changed.  There was a lot of thunder, lightning and rain.  The word “rain” was the key part of that sentence and will be important for the story.  When I got up, the air was noticeably cooler and drier.  It looked like a good summer day for bicycling.

The first part of the day was getting on the ferry in Lewes, Delaware.  Getting on the ferry was interesting.  First, I had to create a ticket online.  Then I had to check-in.  Then a Delaware State Trooper had to inspect my backpack (not very thoroughly).  Then all the bikes were loaded onto the ferry.  Once this whole process was complete, the cars and trucks were let on.  They treated the whole process like TSA at an airport.  However, if someone was going to cause trouble, why would they do it with a bicycle?  It seemed a bit bizarre to me.

The ferry ride from Delaware to New Jersey was smooth and over in about an hour and a half.  I was one of the last people to disembark.  When I wheeled my bike off the boat, I had completed three states; Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.  States go by much quicker in the East than in the West and Midwest where it can take days to cross one state.

As soon as I started pedaling the trouble started.  On the laptop, Google Maps presented three options.  The preferred option spent a lot of time on Route 9, which was one of the major arteries.  Route 9 is loaded with strip malls, gas stations and chain stores.  I have no problem with this type of commerce.  However, these roads are not fun to pedal along since cars are constantly pulling in and out.

The first alternate route looked much better.  It was slightly longer but took more back roads.  The problem is that Google Maps on the phone refused to go on the alternate route.  Every time I took one of the alternate route roads, the voice would yell at me to turn around and follow its directions.  I could not shut the mapping program off because I hadn’t memorized or at least written down the route.  My speed dropped precipitously as I tried to both pedal and figure out the way I really wanted to go.  It took a long time, but I finally got far enough off the “correct according to Google” route that it gave up trying to course correct and sent me the alternate way.

The middle of the day was a fun ride.  I passed by a home with a giant set of amusement park statues outside like an elephant, polar bear, and clown.  I passed by a home with two giant skeletons tied up to a fence.

Then I started to get into a more rural area.  I was pedaling down a long and deserted country road.  On one side was a dead forest when Google maps rang out with the dreaded phrase “Lost GPS connectivity.”  How the phone could not see satellites in the middle of an open road is beyond me.  I tried shutting down the mapping application and starting it up again.  It now said I needed to turn around and it added another dozen miles plus an extra hour to my arrival time.  Oh, no.  I was lost and my mapping program was confused.

I kept pedaling in the direction I was going.  I saw no reason to go back.  Then the phone crashed and automatically rebooted.  The reboot helped a bit and at least removed the dozen extra miles and didn’t force me to retrace my steps.

I pedaled for what seemed to be a long time when the mapping program announced, “Turn left on Dan Bridge Road.”  I was surprised by this statement since I didn’t see any roads.  I pedaled a few more feet and the program commanded me to turn around or else spend 18 extra minutes to arrive at my destination.  I stopped.  The phone showed I had only 16 miles left.  Then I saw Dan Bridge Road.  It was a dirt path about the width of one pickup truck off on the left.

I was quite skeptical having been taken down dirt paths in North Dakota by Google that were roads from hell.  However, this time I figured it probably would not be too bad.  I only had 16 miles left and the program said go 1.5 miles.  Maybe this was like the day before when there was a secret shortcut that saved countless miles?

It wasn’t a shortcut.  Instead, Dan Bridge Road was another road from hell.  Google maps decided to send me on a traverse through the Bass River State Forest to potentially save a few minutes.  For those of you who have never had the pleasure of wandering through a New Jersey state forest, you have often seen images of what I experienced on television.

TV is littered with commercials for trucks and sport utility vehicles that can go off-road, through puddles and small streams.  The difference between TV and my experience is that the actors on TV are snug inside a vehicle, while I wasn’t.

If there was one positive side, I only saw one other vehicle on the road and that was at the bridge itself.  Maybe bridge was too loose a term.  It was some boards nailed together.  Dan Bridge Road is probably a fun route if you are riding a mountain bike or a fat tire bike and have not already pedaled for hours that day.  One part I really disliked were the sections of deep sand.  I almost crashed numerous times as the tires slipped on the road.

Another part to hate were the giant puddles that were filled with water from the rain that fell during the night.  The puddles of course were deep and the water went right up to the edge of the trail.  I ended up with wet, muddy shoes.  My bike was covered in sandy mud, giving the chain a gritty sound every time it went around.

Stupidly, I pushed on since I could hear the sound of a roadway off in the distance and it sounded like the road was getting closer the further I traveled.  After one hour of Dan Bridge Road, the computer announced that I needed to turn left on the Garden State Parkway’s service road.

I have pedaled quite a few service roads.  They are often paved roads that run parallel to a major highway and give cyclists, farmers and others with slow moving vehicles a way to get somewhere.  The service road in this case was a dirt path under the power lines that ran beside the highway.  Looking at the map much later, I saw there were two service roads.  My side which was on the south bound lanes, was impossible to ride and tough to walk.  The north bound service road was paved and had no traffic.  However, I didn’t know this and even if I had, there was no way I was going to sprint across the Garden State Parkway with a bike and a 20 pound pack during rush hour.

I started pushing my bike down the path and the underbrush started getting thicker and thicker until it was impossible to move.  This forced me to walk on the grass beside the highway.  For those worried about my safety, I was very far away from any car or truck since the grass was about 3 lanes wide and I was staying as close to the woods as possible.

I have occasionally seen people walking by the side of the road when driving down various highways.  Well, today I was one of them.  I have always wondered where they came from and what they were doing there.  The next time I see them, I will think…..”Oh, well, another Google maps user.”

My whole goal was to get to the next on-off ramp and to get off the service road.  I was on the service road and the grass beside the highway for about 30 minutes.  It was quite a slog.  Near the end of the march, the service road actually became a real path through the woods that would have been easy on a mountain bike.  I was able to pedal some of it.  Finally, the on-off ramp appeared.  Google’s “short-cut” took one and a half hours to go about six miles.

The last ten miles were relatively easy compared to the slog through the woods.  However, by now I was exhausted and had used up all my water and snacks.  I made it to the hotel, which was another Holiday Inn, around Six PM.

I grabbed dinner at the supermarket in the shopping center next to the Holiday Inn and turned in early, exhausted.

Day 6: Saturday July 16. Manahawken, NJ to Wall Street, NYC (65 miles)

I woke up early and decided to lie in bed an extra 30 minutes.  I wanted to get my money’s worth.  People had warned me that hotels in July on the New Jersey shore would be expensive.  I didn’t know how expensive, until last night.  It cost $430 for last night’s one night stay at a Holiday Inn.  To give some context, the Holiday Inn in Norfolk was $187 for the night for a two-room suite.  Tonight’s Holiday Inn right next to Wall Street in Manhattan is $225.  The Jersey short during prime tourist season is expensive!

The goal today is to ride about 65 miles to Highlands, New Jersey.  Highlands is the northern part of the Jersey shore.  At Highlands there is a ferry that takes a bit more than one hour to get to Manhattan.  Using the ferry means I do not have to bike from New Jersey into Manhattan along some tough roads.  My wife and her brother both think this is the ferry my father-in-law used to take into Manhattan when they were small children.

The first part of the journey to the ferry was along a bike path that ran for about 17 miles.  I was quite excited by the prospect that one-fifth of my day would be easy.  The first part of this bike path was shady and easy going.  Unfortunately, the path was built using crushed gravel.  In the hands of an expert, crushed gravel bike paths are fine, fast and smooth.  In the hands of a neophyte crushed gravel paths can be as hard to navigate as Dan Bridge Road, from yesterday afternoon’s story.

Most of the path was maintained by a neophyte.  Parts of the path had far too much gravel and I almost crashed multiple times.  The only way to handle this was to unclip my feet from the pedals and cycle slowly.  By the end of the path, I couldn’t wait to be back on normal roads, even if it meant sharing the road with cars and trucks.

The ride to the Jersey shore took me through the city of Tom’s River.  After Tom’s River the ride was one hour of white-knuckle terror.  To get to the shore, I had to traverse a number of highways, lined with strip malls.  Much of the time these roads had no shoulder, no sidewalks, and very aggressive drivers.  I was very glad to see the sign for New Jersey Route 88, which meant my time on highways was done.

I stopped just before noon for some eggs and toast on route 88.  While I was sitting outside the restaurant, another customer asked where I was bicycling.  I told her my standard story that I started in Norfolk, Virginia and was heading North.  She then said that no local cyclist pedaled along the Jersey shore during the summer because it was too dangerous with lots of cars backing out of parking spots and drivers not looking.  I thanked her for the unsolicited advice but decided not to vary my route.  If I had survived strip mall hell, I was pretty sure I could handle beach traffic.

Compared to the highways before my breakfast the Jersey shore was easy and safe.  Did cars back out of spots?  Yes.  But most were going so slowly they were not a big concern.  Yes, there were also lots of pedestrians crossing streets without looking, but these too were not a huge problem.  I biked probably 20 miles of the Jersey shore and saw everything from fancy mansions to dumpy homes.  The ride was fine.  The worst part (tongue in cheek here) was having to look at so many out of shape people who were wearing skimpy bathing suits.

There were a few parts where I had to get off my bike and walk.  Bicycles are not allowed on the beach boardwalk after 10 am.  However, there were a number of streams and lakes that were only passable by using the boardwalk or bicycling inland a half-mile and then back out another half-mile.  I decided to reduce my mileage by walking a few hundred feet, even in clunky cycling cleats.

I made it to the ferry terminal at 2:05.  Fifty-five minutes until the next ferry to Manhattan.  That gave me enough time to buy a ticket, go to the bathroom and find a food truck for a quick lunch (hamburger and fries) before it was time to board the ferry.

The ferry ride was uneventful.  I was surprised by the number of people from Manhattan who took the ferry to the beach.  I wouldn’t want to sit in a wet sandy bathing suit for 90 minutes on a ferry and then spend even more time getting to my apartment, but I guess the shore has a great appeal for many people.

I then pedaled the last one and a half miles of the day to the Wall Street Holiday Inn.  I got to the check-in desk, gave them my ID and credit card and waited for a room.  The lady started off pleasant and then turned grumpy.  She then asked to see my email confirmation.  Looking at it she declared that I was in the wrong Holiday Inn.  There were two near Wall Street.  They were only a couple of blocks from each other, and I was in the wrong one.  Oops.

I got to the right one around 5 pm.  It was a very long day.  Getting the bike from the lobby and into the room was the next adventure.  The corridors were the minimum size possible.  The space around the bed was non-existent.  My bike is large and maneuvering it took time and effort in the very small space.  Once the bike was in the room I needed to climb over the bed to get from the desk to the bathroom.  Space in lower Manhattan is very expensive and the hotel room was a graphic manifestation of this premium price.

Once I was able to get my backpack and bike into the room I showered, went for a walk around the neighborhood and picked up udon noodles for dinner from a Japanese restaurant.  I took the food back to the room, ate a small feast and typed this log before falling asleep at the computer around 9:30 pm.

I had some doubts, but I made it from Virginia to New York City.  Everything from here on is icing on the bicycling trip cake.

Economist Biking Around America