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.