Saturday, 27 September 2014

Day 6 - Niagara Falls to Toronto

The border guards were curious about my tale, and perhaps since they didn’t have anyone else in line at 6 a.m., brought me inside to inquire further about my scant kit (Where are your clothes?), motivation for biking 500 miles (Why didn’t you take the train?), and solvency (How much money do you have?) They also generously took note of my age but eventually decided that odd practices were not grounds for exclusion from Canada. After all, they have their own whimsical side [left].

The Canadian side of the falls is more dramatic as one gets a full-on view of the cascade rather than the awkward sideways perspective available in New York. But the honky-tonk prize goes, surprisingly, to the Canadians who have loaded up the approaches to the falls with all sorts of seedy touristic drek. There were two or three visitors out catching the panorama just after dawn, so I got my photos in and pedaled off to see what Ontario looks like, having not visited Canada since the 1970s.

The first obvious difference is that the Canadian roads, despite heavy traffic, had inadequate shoulders, often forcing cyclists—which were plentiful—onto the sidewalks. No one objected, and motorists seemed used to us as well as cautious; but it felt unsafe. Then there was the immediate monument celebrating the War of 1812 and a battle site just across the border there in which Canadians kicked our Yankee asses. They seemed quite content to memorialize a war we are neglectful of, Ohioans being perhaps the exception given our attention to the heroics Admiral Perry—victorious heroics, to be sure.

The first town on the Ontario side is St Catherine’s, a tidy, serene place with a beautiful cemetery with chimes memorializing the many veterans laid to rest there. A group of retirees oriented me toward Hamilton and wished me well in a most encouraging way. Outside the town the first of many abundant fruit stands appeared as peach and plum season was at peak. That section of Ontario is actually further south than most of Michigan, so I guess an ample growing season should not have been surprising.

On the road to Hamilton I went past a kid on inline skates who asked me directions. It was hard to imagine him climbing the hills 20 miles in those things—but who was I to question? Near Grimsby many sites and businesses made reference to “the 20,” so I asked several people what it meant. (Twenty fallen soldiers in a battle? Twenty homesteading families in a new settlement? Twenty bears in a cave?) No one knew, and it’s not on the Internet.

At Hamilton the road veers from west around the point of Lake Ontario back due east, and I needed directions from a bike shop. It was complicated, but the bike route was well laid out with a lane reserved. After that, the stretch into Toronto followed Lakeshore Boulevard for a lat 50 miles or so, and I just powered on into the outskirts where a friendly young couple took this picture of my triumphant entry [below].

So after having given myself eight days to do the trip, I had arrived in six. The bike had performed magically without even a flat tire; my stamina, carefully nurtured with a steady intake of proper foods and electrolyte-laden water, had as well. I had kept my balance, not just on the two-wheeled machine, but in my own head, maintaining a cautious confidence that things would unfold to my advantage and all my needs would be met.

It would be pointless to deny that there were times I asked myself, Whose idea was this anyway? when toiling up seemingly endless curves only to plunge down the other side and face another ridge; when roaming through vast, open fields a little too late in the afternoon without even an abandoned lean-to in sight; when observing the contented families out lolling by lakes and rivers with their vehicles standing by ready to whisk them off to domestic comforts.

But I knew all that before starting out and did it anyway. I am drawn to the uncertainty, the multiple challenges, the isolation and anonymity, and the accompanying freedom. The countryside is benign and quite friendly overall (for white people at least), and I was armed with credit cards and a mobile phone. The worst case outcome was having to bail on the trip for whatever reason and rearrange my plans.

People frequently express disbelief when I confirm that I made this trip, and I can only agree—it feels unreal to me, too. And yet the answer to the How? question is, One mile at a time. It’s rather amazing how far one gets with nothing more than single-minded concentration on taking the next right step.

The route: 20 from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to back roads into St Catherine’s, 81 out west to Grimsby and Hamilton, a complicated turn through the freeway intersections onto Lakeshore Boulevard straight into the bike paths leading to Toronto. Niagara Falls to Hamilton, 54; Hamilton to the Toronto downtown airport, 51; total: 105. Estimated six-day total: 546.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Day 5: Victor to Niagara Falls

Gear and clothes were dry by the following morning, so I set off by the back roads from Victor in the dark wearing my headlamp and aa bright yellow Izod windbreaker, required for the first time in the cool breezes. The country roads were pleasant and empty with deer appearing regularly to address me with those indignant stares before crashing into the woods. But the larger intersections were crowded with commuter traffic heading toward Rochester.

I made good time to Mendon, Rush and Scottsville where I entered the local diner full of dour Scots, or convincing fascimiles, who stared judgmentally, said nothing, and overcharged me. Was happy to show the place my mounted backside.

There are fewer routes west at this point to cross the last third of New York State, and I had to make a decision of whether to push further north or continue straight west through Batavia. The country is less hilly, which was a relief after the Appalachian ridges of eastern New York. But the scanty population meant that towns would be far apart, possibly complicating pit stops for water or repairs. I opted for a slightly more southerly route through the town of LeRoy, which features a Jell-O museum celebrating the invention of that substance within its borders (I didn’t pay it a visit) and one town with billboard-sized photos of local youths enlisted in various branches of the military, celebrated as “local heroes.” It was a good reflection of the heavily militarized environment of upstate with many signs in yards calling for the repeal of the (post-Newton, Connecticut, shooting) S.A.F.E. Act, which outlawed assault weapons, and others endorsing the Republican candidate for governor, Rob Astorino. Most people in the five boroughs could not correctly identify this personage, nor would they see any reason to do so.

My recollections of this day of pedaling are the least vivid, probably as a result of the unremarkable countryside and few interactions that I experienced while covering the 80-some miles between Victor and the Buffalo area. Local news and weather reporters speak of this stretch of western New York as the “lower tier,” a curious construct of the map—it’s where a long, straight line separates the southern portion of New York State from Pennsylvania but has no physical existence outside this cartographic formality.

The most remarkable stretch of the day was the route up the Niagara River to Niagara Falls, which I settled upon by checking the map and did not realize took me through a desolate, industrial stretch that included miles of eerily deserted buildings with nothing resembling civilization nearby. It was the one time that I felt vulnerable and exposed, not because of the presence of threatening or dubious-looking persons but due to the utter absence of any persons at all, including shops, stores or businesses along the way. It would not have been a comfortable spot for changing a flat.

Cheap and adequate motels are usually found on the outskirts of a city while downtown lodgings tend to be pricey. But Niagara Falls turned out not to follow that logic. The approaches to the tourist area were rundown and tragic, classic rust-belt scenarios everywhere with no rooms to be found of any sort. (The one exception was a grim welfare hotel near the sewage treatment plant that looked like the set for a sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)

But the downtown hotels near the falls were moderately priced and staffed by cheerful employees who welcomed my bike into their rooms and made my stay there so enjoyable that I was tempted to take an extra day off. After a quick shower, I headed down to catch the spectacle at sunset and had, for the second time during the trip, a moment of ecstatic insight, influenced no doubt by the intense exercise and the wondrous sight and yet effused with something more mundane and remarkable banality: I was entranced by the idea of water.

Saint-Exupery in Wind, Sand and Stars describes his near-death experience in the Sahara desert after a plane crash and his last-minute rescue by a Bedouin with a bowl of life-giving water, and his phrases about the way he tasted the substance for the first time are memorable. Seeing that vast supply pouring over the cliffs between the U.S. and Canada made me marvel at the strange accident of our watery earth, how its temperature is precisely right for these molecules to come together and wash over us, to lubricate us into existence for whatever brief period we manage to sustain it. It was like an LSD trip, impossible to describe in any but banal terms and yet unforgettable.

The route: 96 out of Victor to 251 (Victor-Mendon Road) to Mendon and Scottsville, then rural roads 383 to U.S. 36, back away from traffic via 245 and 17 to Route 8, 34, and 33 into Batavia. Route 5 west to 324 and 384 through Amherst and Towananda, 265 and 384 into Niagara Falls. Victor to Towananda, 82 miles, to the falls another 18. Total: 100 on flat terrain.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Day 4 - Trumansburg to Victor, NY

The B&B proprietress had announced she would be up early and left coffee ready to brew, so I waited to have a predawn chat with her. But when the sky began to lighten, I headed down the slight ridge back to the main road that runs along the lake. Rain was forecast, and I was eager to get to Seneca Falls before running into any, assuming that I could wait it out by visiting the museum dedicated to the town’s historical role as the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement.

The shore along that northern half of Cayuga Lake is close to the road rather than tucked away down steep inclines as is the case near Ithaca. So instead of luxury homes there were many more piers, boathouses, and buildings of one kind or another, but no cafes or restaurants open that early on a Tuesday. But the clouds merely threatened without producing any raindrops.

Upon the approach to Seneca Falls, past the Chiropractic College on its outskirts, I happened upon this landmark [photo above] commemorating the chance 1851 meeting on the street of the town between Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which led to their lifelong collaboration as chief organizer and pamphleteer, respectively, of the women’s equality movement.

The Seneca, of course, were part of the Iroquois Confederation, but had sided with the British during the revolution. Historical signs dot the landscape of the area referring to the “campaign” or “expedition” of General Sullivan of 1779, in the midst of the war. From Wikipedia:

Sullivan's army carried out a scorched earth campaign, methodically destroying at least forty Iroquois villages throughout the Finger Lakes region of western New York, to put an end to Iroquois and Loyalist attacks against American settlements. With the Amerindians’ shelter gone and food supplies destroyed, thereafter the strength of the Iroquois Confederacy was broken. The death toll from exposure and starvation dwarfed the casualties received in the Battle of Newtown, in which about 1,000 Iroquois and Loyalists were decisively defeated by an army of 3,200 Continental soldiers. White Loyalists also lost their homes and lands in the deliberate scorched earth actions explicitly ordered by General George Washington, who was soon after known in Amerindian cultures by the pejorative “the Burner of Towns.” The survivors fled to British regions in Canada and the Niagara Falls and Buffalo areas. The devastation created great hardships for the thousands of Iroquois refugees who fled the region to shelter under British military protection outside Fort Niagara that winter, and many starved or froze to death.

Thus our proud history of gender equity, inaugurated by staunch opponents of American slavery, also originates at the crossroads where the way of life of the region’s indigenous population was finally destroyed.

The museum was closed on Tuesday, and I could not visit it.

I asked directions to the public library of an elderly Italian guy having his coffee in front of an imported food store and noted with the waitress in the coffee shop next door that there were many Italian names in the local cemetery. She confirmed that Seneca Falls has a large Italian colony and notes that the day’s soup special was called “Italian wedding.”

Western New York flattens out and is smoother riding, the towns more scattered but still popping up at comfortably regular intervals. However, the few main east-west routes are heavily trafficked. I asked a young girl sitting with her bike at Seneca Lake outside of Geneva how to avoid the highway and eventually found a back way through helpful attendants at gas stations. An agricultural experimentation station was the guidepost to the easier route 4 west, and at Hopewell Corner, friendly women clerks at the country store sold me Gatorade and spoke knowledgeably about the cooling capoline fabric that I had wisely bought in New York and which kept me fresh throughout the unusually humid days. Everyone speculated on when the rain would hit, myself included.

In Canandaigua the storm clouds gathered more ominously, and I found myself by chance in front of a bike shop with this clever hitching post.
The owner got out his map and showed me how to get to the town’s airport and follow Country Road 30 straight west again, but the rains interrupted, and I ducked under shop awnings up and down the main street, trying not to stay too long in one place to draw unhappy stares from the owners. The best place was a bench outside a bar where the drinkers slipped out regularly to smoke and acknowledged me tersely, thinking nothing of my slumped over, half-asleep form. I bought a new vial of electrolyte tablets and got my tires filled and enjoyed the busy movements of a fairly large city that I had never heard of.

There was plenty of time for riding left when the rains seemed to be letting up for good, and I rode steadily into the next town, Bloomsburg, whereupon I saw this unexpected sign in a yard [left]. Pulling into the gravel driveway, I greeted the man standing in his driveway with his dog and asked if he was Mr. Frasca. Yes, he said, to which I answered, So am I. His name was Dale Frasca, and he spoke of his immigrant grandfather from the area south of Naples, his 13 aunts and uncles on that side, a distant cousin in Brooklyn, took my card, and thanked me warmly for the unusual visit.

This detour turned out to be rather costly, as the storm clouds gathered again and I stopped to ask for water at a fruit stand, the owner showed me on her iPhone weather app the colorful line of storms approaching. “If you don’t get to Victor before they get here,” she said, “you’ll be stuck a long time.” I decided to make a dash for the town 4 miles up the road, mostly downhill, which turned out to be an error. The rains hit within minutes, and I was soaked but saw no reason at that point to turn back and flew down the approach into Victor and past the town to the refuge of a motel. The bike handled marvelously, and the despite the drenching never showed any sign of creakiness then or afterward. Would it have been better to stay at the fruit stand for two hours, then break for town in the near-dark? I didn’t stay to find out, and all was well. It was only 5 p.m., but we were done for the day.

The route: Continued north along Cayuga Lake on 89, then west on 116 into seneca Falls. 110 to Waterloo and Geneva, then 4 due west to Canandaigua, North Bloomfield Road and Country Road 30 past the airport and into Bloomfield, then north on 444 to Víctor. Mileage: Ulysses to Seneca Falls, 31; to Geneva, Waterloo, and Canandaigua, 34; Bloomfield and Victor, 14; total 79 with riding time cut short by rain.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Day 3 - Deposit to Trumansburg, NY - Sept 1

There is an unsettling moment that often occurs on these trips when night is approaching and any options for lodging are not readily apparent. I had pulled into a couple of deserted towns with hardly a functioning store before making my way to Deposit, where it began to drizzle, and the deserted Sunday afternoon streets did not offer many opportunities even for a casual contact. It began to look like I might be facing a chilly night under the awning of a deserted shed or roadside fruit stand when a man walked by on the opposite sidewalk in what appeared to be the long robes of a Franciscan monk—hardly the outfit you'd expect to see in small-town Appalachia. He very cordially told me about two motels located on the edge of town a few yards from the banks of the Delaware. One was full, but the manager of the other did not find my arrival by bike remarkable and set me up with a convenient balcony. I even had time to shop and watch the sunset over the river as the evening cleared. As usual, anxiety over creature comforts was unwarranted.

The same problem recurred the following night (Day 3) when the shores of Lake Cayuga north of Ithaca turned out not to be populated with plentiful, cheap resorts but rather with fine vacation homes in exclusive settings. These areas are the worst for casual travelers as the only options for overnight stays are usually pricey B&Bs or elegant lodges catering to the premium trade.

First, I had to make my way into Binghampton, a fairly large city and SUNY college town. Locals told me that the old secondary road that predates the 17 freeway did not go all the way into town, but a useful map posted at the downtown crossroads of Windsor about halfway to the city showed the existence—apparently unknown to motorists—of a well considered bike route complete with its own signage [below].

The large student population probably stimulated the establishment of this convenient arrangement, by which one can make one’s way into the city via back roads, all clearly marked, which skirt the main highway. I was sitting in the central Binghampton plaza by breakfast time and took this photo [below left] of the impressive courthouse there. A fellow cyclist stared at me in a peculiarly unfriendly fashion, offered no information, and munched his doughnut. But a local directed me to a diner sure to be functioning even on Labor Day and shared his civic pride over the booming branch of the state university and other felicitous developments. Solo bike trips impel one to casual contacts of this sort, and they are comforting even when it takes two or three attempts to draw out a friendly response.

West of Binghampton is Johnson City, which looked suspiciously like the section blacks are expected to live in, then a couple of country roads lead to the northwest toward Ithaca, all containing killer hills that forced me to climb down and push for only the second (and last) time of the trip. But aside from a brief stretch on a too-busy main road without a shoulder, the rest of the way to Ithaca was delightful country pedaling over rolling hills.

Ithaca matched the perfect cliché vision I had formed of it as an Ivy League college town: a tiny downtown with the usual shops and an oversupply of restaurants outdoing each other for haut dining pretension. My attempt to get a quick dish without abandoning the poorly secured bike required three waiters ceremoniously presenting themselves by their first names and reciting the local ingredients used to prepare the menu items. Long afterward, a broccoli cheese soup appeared without the inedible stem removed.

It was late afternoon before I scrambled out, and the highway that runs along the lake on its west side did not look favorable for my purposes. The state park was hosting a huge Labor Day crowd, and I was tempted to try to sneak into a lean-to or cabin to spend the night but thought better of it. These are the trying moments in which one questions the wisdom of the entire outing; and yet if one relies on the locals for advice, something always comes through. A particularly friendly young farm couple directed me into the side road leading to the hamlet of Trumansburg to a B&B, where a sign on the door said to phone for assistance. As I sat on its porch, a lady in housecoat and curlers burst out the door and gave herself a heart attack as she hadn’t checked her messages. She turned out to be a charming hostess; her establishment and the village itself are located in the Town of Ulysses.

The route: West out of Deposit on 315 (old 17), becoming 28 to Windsor, West Windsor, Binghampton, 11 to downtown. Then 17C to Johnson City, Endwell, north on 29 (Taft Avenue), becoming Twist Run Road (76), north on 13, short stretch on highway 26, then northwest on 308 to 38 north at Newark Valley, west on 79 into Ithaca. North along Cayuga Lake on 89 to Frontenac Road turnout into Trumansburg (Town of Ulysses). Deposit to Binghampton, 30 miles; to Newark Valley, 25; to Ithaca, 27; to Trumansburg, 13, total 95, add 5 for wrong turns and indirect routes: roughly 100 miles.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Day 2. Wurtsboro to Deposit, NY

I couldn’t make the coffee machine work in the motel lobby and left without having any since no one else was up on a Sunday at 5 a.m. This minor event turned out to have certain consequences.

The towns in the mountainous areas outside of New York are nestled, not surprisingly, in valleys; a river or stream often runs through them. Thus coming into a town usually involves a fairly thrilling descent, and starting out the next morning entails the opposite. The climb out of Wurtsboro on “old 17” is not excessively steep but easily 3 miles long, meaning 30 to 40 minutes of hard pedaling in the lowest gear. My energy didn’t really recover all day, and I was later given to understand that the caffeine deprivation caused my pre-dawn food intake to have no immediate impact on my blood sugar levels. As a result, I was propelling the bike, my gear and myself up a mountain “on fumes.” I didn’t make that mistake again—a trip this physically challenging can remain fun despite the fatigue, but one has to feel invigorated overall, not sluggish.

In the next town, Rock Hill, I stopped at a gas station where a cordial attendant of Indian ethnicity let me fill up my bottle at the water tap. (Not everyone reacts in a kindly manner when you ask that favor in stores.) He promptly began to tell me the story of his life, his U.S. government-sponsored scholarship to study here, his time with the Navaho in the southwest understanding their economy, the occasional hostility to his employment in the convenience store as a foreigner while others are jobless. He was blithely dismissive of the xenophobia, which was refreshing, and yet I had to wonder if he had any sense of the vast entitlement he had enjoyed in his life up to now, to be plucked from India with an opportunity to study abroad (the fellowship was worth $80,000 as he informed me at once), presumably with the idea that he would go back home armed with this useful new knowledge, to then have the freedom to decide to stay, to engage in business in an economically depressed area. Canada, I would later discover, remains the immigrant nation par excellence, and people are expected to go there, find opportunities and thrive—as was once the case here. Our nativism is short-sighted, but this guy’s indifference to others’ misfortunes was unappealing in its own way.

These bike journeys with no fixed daily destinations always present the issue of how far to push on when dusk approaches. I will not ride in the dark, but there are hours of twilight, even in September, that are ambiguous enough that one is tempted to try for the next town. Seeing Monticello on that second morning, however, which was my original, map-driven goal, made me realize that I had made the right choice to remain in cozy Wurtsboro though it had still been early when I arrived. Monticello has a racetrack and “gentlemen’s clubs” by the roadside, and the motels conveniently placed nearby were not the kinds of establishments in which I would have felt terribly comfortable. It’s a dump, and I was glad to show it my back.

Outside of the town, I came close to making my first major routing error. The signage was confusing, and I nearly took 17 north to Liberty. But that way out of town involved an enormous descent, and I stopped to double check, thinking that if I went down the wrong way, it would be a bitch to have to come back up. The correct route was 17B west to the town of Bethel and eventually the Delaware River valley. This is the site where Woodstock took place in 1969, and I stopped at a diner there to enjoy the local ambience. The waitress had full-sleeve tattoos, and her ponytailed co-worker a jacket with H.A.T.E. emblazoned on the back, meaning “Hotrodders Against The Environmentalists.” Yet they were full of fun and friendly, making jokes and displaying their offbeat, biker-redneck style more as a fashion statement than a campaign. Still, a few miles down the road I saw a biker enter the road with a swastika on his helmet. A white-haired guy in the restaurant made small-talk and greeted me with a honk later when he passed me in his convertible sports car.

These roads were eerily deserted with the main traffic confined to the four-lane highway nearby. The road dipped and curved through still, silent towns that looked trapped in a Norman Rockwell time warp, the real life of the region now occurring elsewhere. Some houses were abandoned entirely, especially those too close to the freeway where any resident would have had the annoyances of isolation along with the drawbacks of the noise and rush of modernity. A good many rural crossroads were populated with ancient junk-cum-antique stores piled high with bric-a-brac of the decades, like the peculiar establishment shown at the top of this post in the town of Equinunk, not an Inuit trading post but a village within driving distance for excursionists from New York. The family’s children played nearby; the store probably opened later in the afternoon.

There was a heavy enough mist that I pulled over at another country store a while later, sat outside with my Gatorade at a picnic table to rest and wait out the sprinkles, and fell asleep briefly. When I set back out, the rural biker bar that appeared on my right reminded me strongly of another bar I had passed on the opposite side—no doubt this sort of establishment is popular in the area, I thought. Then I saw a sign indicating that I was headed south and realized that my rest break had left me disoriented—I was going the wrong direction, and the two biker bars were actually one and the same. Only a mile or so lost in that mix-up.

At Calicoon, I was in dense parkland along the gorgeous Delaware River, festooned on both banks with miles of a whitish blossom that I was not familiar with. A thick mist lay over the river the entire day, which was overcast and constantly threatening rain. The mysterious, white hedge reminded me of a Whitman poem that I had recently reread, which begins:

Spontaneous me, Nature,
The loving day, the mounting sun, the friend I am happy with,
The arm of my friend hanging idly over my shoulder,
The hillside whitened with blossoms of the mountain ash . . .

It’s a nature poem, which in Whitman, is indistinguishable from sex. Not by accident is the sun “mounting.”

Calicoon has a farmers market, which was bustling on this Sunday of a long weekend. The prices were 1/3 higher than those in Manhattan, which suggests its patrons are mostly well-heeled city dwellers enjoying their country retreats. Many of the towns no longer can rely on local agriculture or other productive endeavors and are forced to use their natural setting to pull in weary urbanites and hope they leave some cash behind.

After some confused consultation with the locals, I settled on River Road, whose name suggested it would follow the Delaware as far north as I wanted to go. This turned out to be not only a prescient but a delightful choice, a cathedral-like setting with light traffic. I spent hours encountering only an occasional car and even hit a patch of dirt road before returning to the New York side and tumbling finally into the town of Deposit. You can see the local church in this picture [above right] and perhaps can make out the lettering on its side: JESUS LOVES YOU, DEPOSIT. Perhaps adding “NY” would have been a more prudent communication strategy.

The route: Old 17 out of Wurtsboro to Rock Hill and Monticello, 17B due west to Bethel, picking up country road 178 northwest into the Delaware River park lands. At Calicoon, NY, crossing the river to the Pennsylvania side, then following River Road north all the way until it tracks route 17 again going WNW, including a stretch on Old State Road and Winterdale Road through the State Game Lands (dirt only for a stretch) Penn-York road, Faulkner Road, River Road (gain), 53 to Deposit. Wurtsboro to Bethel, 23 miles, to Calicoon, 12.5 miles, final stretch to Deposit, 40 miles, based on using the main highway. Total 75, add 5 for indirect routes: 80 miles through hilly terrain.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Day 1: New York City to Wurtsboro

August 30. Some projects you don’t talk about; you just do them. It’s not exactly bad luck to air one’s plans, but people are going to react and say whatever comes into their heads; you don’t always want to hear that. I didn’t tell many people that I was going to ride my bicycle to Toronto, and they’re probably just as happy that they didn’t know in advance. Now I’m going to discuss what happened, and we can all enjoy it.

The main route north out of the city is on the Jersey side as the George Washington Bridge is the only crossing with pedestrian access until much farther up the Hudson River valley. Bikers use 9W all the time to have a vigorous ride along the invisible Palisades, and the towns of Piermont and Nyack are chock full of cyclists in all their gear every weekend. So I wasn’t surprised to be passed by several whizzing past on their Cannondales and Treks just after dawn while I labored steadily with my kit tied onto the back.

I’ve always done these trips with any old plastic bag stuffed with an extra tee shirt and an inner tube, but this time I decided to get something really built for the road. It fit neatly onto the rack with two bungee cords and worked wonderfully, side pockets for the little things you need regular access to, and a second little case that fits under the seat with velcro straps for my electrolyte fizzy tablets, the wheel lock key, tire repair stuff, cash. After hitting a sharp bump, I couldn’t help reaching back to feel that everything was still tied on there. It always was.

The downtown New York skyline [above] looks terrific from the bridge at that hour, and I stopped to take a quick snapshot to record the moment of setting out, scarcely believing the plan I had hatched. My habit on trips like these is to cover as much ground as possible starting as early as it is safe to set out, partly to beat the afternoon heat, but also to convince myself that the plan is actually viable. When you’re having a second breakfast in a local diner with people barely awake and realize you’re already 30 miles from home, it all starts to seem more plausible.

However, the first major hill I climbed into Harriman State Park was extreme, one of only two moments in the entire trip where I had to dismount and push the bike. Long, punishing grades are manageable as long as the bike can be propelled forward steadily, even if it’s only at 2 mph. But when the rise is so steep that each turn of the pedals nearly brings you to a halt, I can’t continue, not if the plan is to stay mounted for 10-12 hours a day. At the top, inside the park, I encountered two guys getting their bikes off a car rack, who greeted me cordially. A doe and her fawn crashed through the woods next to us, the fourth pair of the morning, they said. I asked them about water access as I was already running dry, and they told me there was a tap in the picnic area up ahead. I said my destination was Monticello, which surprised them; one handed me an energy bar. The lake water was warm, and the beach at Welch Lake, one of seven in that short stretch, looked inviting. The descent out of the park on the west side was long and steep as well, and I saw day-trip bikers struggling their way up looking quite put out.

The next stretch upon exiting Harriman involved back roads winding around route 17 into a series of towns that I don’t recall much. A few were heavily populated with orthodox Jews in their regalia as those areas are popular with them, some for rural getaways but many who prefer to live there permanently. In the late afternoon a nice local guy walking his dog in the town of Goshen gave me directions for a good back route to Wurtsboro and said he had moved up there 20 years before while still commuting to his job in the city, one of the first to do so. Then 9/11 occurred and many more decided to decamp to a quieter, more suburban life. I told him that my final destination was Toronto, since he asked, but at that early stage I usually keep mum. I had consulted him after trying the Indian family that ran the local general store in that town, but they had no idea what I was talking about and did not appear to be fluent in English. It’s odd that people in charge of such a strategic resource as a store like that would be so cut off from the town’s life.

It was getting late by the time I coasted down the mountain into Wurtsboro, named after Mr. Wurts, an early immigrant settler. It has a long main street with shops for city tourists, and a Mexican restaurant where the kindly waitress gave me a glass of water even though I wasn’t yet a customer. The motel on the corner was just right, lots of families out for the Labor Day weekend preparing their barbecues, children everywhere, the attendant cordial, no problem with the bike.

The route: From my flat in Inwood @ 214 Street down Broadway to the George Washington Bridge pedestrian access ramp @ 176 and across the bridge. The exit gate on the New Jersey side is not opened until 6 a.m., and I’m the first to go through it from the city. I take 9W north towards Nyack but cut west onto 340 before Piermont into Sparkill and Orangeburg, then pick up 303 to Blauvelt and 59 west to Nanuet and Spring Valley, tracking the NYS Thruway on side roads. Missed the turnoff and ended up on U.S. 202, Haverstraw Road, a rural route through the woods bordering Harriman State Park, hardly any traffic at that hour. Eventually took Call Hollow Road to Willow Grove Road (County Road 98) into the park, then a killer climb up to Lake Welch where I had to dismount. At Welch Lake I stop briefly to enjoy the beautiful, clear autumn day, lots of people fishing. Emerging from the park I’m forced to take busy route 17 for a few miles until escaping the highway onto secondary roads, 17M to Chester and Goshen, where I get directions for back ways into Hasidic Bloomingburg and Wurtsboro. Too late to continue to Rock Hill and Monticello. Total distance Fort Lee to Wurtsboro, 79 miles, add 3 for the access to Fort Lee, total 82 miles through mountainous terrain.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Film Festival

I spent the last week at TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, on a whim, viewing up to four films a day and wandering the streets in between. I made the trip on a bicycle straight from my flat in upper Manhattan, on which more in a later post. Most people find it hard to believe that I actually did that, and I must say I largely agree with them. The experience was in many ways unreal.

I gather that film festivals are populated by people from the industry itself with the rest of us popping in according to our tastes. The filmmakers are looking for distributors, the buyers for the next hot property, and the other hordes of technicians and journeymen drumming up their next gig or at least keeping connected to the people that might know where one is likely to turn up. There are red carpets, celebrity galas, premieres and a lot of bored gossip in the next day’s papers. Locals turn out to gawk.

Anyway, it had been 40 years or so since I visited Canada, and it’s worth a trip to see something recognizably North American that functions with a subtly different logic. People’s default reaction I discovered to be toward helpfulness and cordiality, and overt aggression is rare. I almost caused an auto accident behaving like a New York pedestrian, and the Torontonians yelled at each other over it, but not at me. Women react without wariness to a man asking them for directions; people wait for green lights and do not step into the street anticipating it. The equivalent Manhattanite would be halfway down the next block.

But I digress. One can only scratch the surface of the insane overload of films on offer, but I found three real gems and a number of pictures of interest, to wit:

In the Crosswind (Risttules)(Estonia). I’ve seen a lot of movies in my life but never anything quite like this. The technique is the novelty, which I recommend you know nothing about in advance. But it’s not a gimmick; the way novice director Martti Helde translates extracts from an Estonian deportee’s Siberian diaries is heart-stopping. Helde introduced his film; he looks about 16 and is actually all of 27. We will be hearing about him.

Labyrinth of Lies (Im Labyrinth des Sweigens)(Germany). A thriller about something that actually matters, this gripping picture tells the story of how a junior prosecutor forced open the Pandora’s box of the Holocaust at a time when Germans preferred not to know and Nazi criminals went about their business without the least fear. An unknown and challenging chapter of history is expertly unfolded as the protagonist realizes how ordinary and unremarkable the cogs of the Nazi death machine are—and how rarely anyone chooses moral heroism over collaboration.

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes)(Argentina). Four revenge fantasies from recognizable Argentine situations and characters. Completely over the top and particularly hilarious if you’ve ever been there.

More film news tomorrow.