Morale Rollercoaster

Currently I’m feeling pretty good. I’m at another Airbnb place, having enjoyed a hot shower to wash away the cold toes of the day. However, due to the weather, I’ve repeatedly questioned why exactly I’m doing this. Probably my level of motivation would remain more constant if I were riding through the sunny weather I generally expect of May. As it is, my mental process vacillates between “this is moronic. Where’s the nearest bus back to Philly?” And “it can’t possibly rain and be in the 50s every single day for the first half of May…even if that’s what the forecast says.  You have to push on!”

I guess a hardened backpacker should be used to these conditions – but I’m sure glad I have the option to stay indoors every other night and let my stuff dry out for once. 

Rain aside, my route has been very scenic and well-suited for bike touring – even the parts that were suggested on the fly by Google Maps. It occurs to me that there should be an easily-searchable database of touring routes for people in my situation who aren’t following Adventure Cycling maps or the like. But I digress. The only bad part of the route so far has been some roads near Allentown that either lacked shoulders completely, or were the kind of six-lane “stroads” that have been the bane of American city planning for decades. 

I have been on bike trails for much of the way and should be back on one more tomorrow.   I took the Schuylkill River Trail out of Philly and the Perkiomen Trail from there until it’s end. Then I connected to the Delaware and Lehigh trail, which actually begins in Trenton, and rode it to its end in Mountain Top. I noticed that the maps at each trailhead kiosk aspirationally showed the trail extending a number of miles beyond where it actually does. This seems like a good way to jinx the construction of those future sections. While I understand the desire to keep the maps from becoming outdated quite so soon, I can’t condone such behavior. It reminds me of when some French people kept telling me to put a “grotto accommodation” on a map of the Judean desert, which grotto was and remains a tiny overhang with the guano scraped out of it; the plans to spend 30,000€ somehow turning it into a guesthouse are as phantasmal as the Palestinian State that patch of desert is supposed to inhabit. It’s for the best, too. It was a stupid idea to build something there in the first place, and of course my refusal to draw the thing on the map is vindicated. 

Sorry, I’m rambling again. These posts are going to be streams of consciousness, since the screen of a phone is not exactly cut out for editing and word processing. 
Speaking of acccommodation, the Delaware and Lehigh trail is sorely lacking. It really needs what the C&O trail has – primitive campsites every ten miles or so. I wound up.camping illegally on state game lands, as there didn’t seem to be any state forest tracts nearby, where such things are permitted. Luckily the trail I’ll be on tomorrow does have designated campsites. How exciting!
In any case, I’m almost at the northern edge of the Ridge and Valley province, and I’ve managed to cross the Appalachians without climbing over a single one. By following river gorges and natural passes, the trail brings you to 1800 feet elevation at a 1% grade the whole time. Winding up through the Lehigh Gorge past zinc-poisoned Palmerton, kitschy Jim Thorpe and miles of isolated state park wilds sure beats hauling your tired butt up steep mountain after steep mountain over who knows how many ridges. And starting tomorrow I’ll follow one more stream up into the Allegheny Plateau – so close to flat, easy Midwestern riding for the next thousand miles. 

I’m reading a book by John McPhee about the American shad, an obscure enough topic. I learned that the Schuylkill was especially plentiful in that already-numerous fish to the point where William Penn and Ben Franklin advertised the river as such. Who knew that dam by the Art Museum could have such effects on things upstream?

Anyway, despite the roller coaster, I’m pretty confident that barring major injuries, I can complete this trip. The weather even looks better in the latest forecast!
My gadget to transfer photos from my camera to my phone works! So here are a batch of the nicest – it’s been a scenic ride even with the bleak weather. 

airbnb spot for the first night
Palmerton area had its veetation wiped out by pollution from newrby smelters. This property owner is not interested in the restoretion efforts thst have most of the surrounding area turning green again.
Jim Thorpe

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May Showers

So I’ve ridden out of Philadelphia, which feels a lot more like the beginning of the trip than the overnighter across New Jersey did. This also feels more like a proper bike tour in that I rode 82 miles, covering some real ground this time, and had proper hills and plenty of rain. That kind of hazing is what makes you able to say you’ve been on a bike trip in earnest. I also met three other bike tourists in the first two hours (two from New Zealand, one another Mennonite who lives in West Philly, only this guy rides 200 miles in a day) and by two and a half hours in had gotten an invitation from a guy who noticed my panniers to stay with his family in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when I get there. 

The following paragraph is more a note to self than anything, so I can remember the ride in the future. I took the Schuylkill River Trail past Valley Forge, then took the gravel Perkiomen Trail up to Green Lane. It was on this that I first realized my legs are nowhere near ready for this trip. The next few weeks are going to be an even more intense hazing. At the beautiful Green Lane park, I was unable to appreciate the beauty thanks to a constant chilly wind and the collected sweat on my shirt, and the incessant cold, blowing mist. So I started looking for campgrounds between Allentown and Palmerton, only to decide that maybe actually drying my clothes out by the morning might be nice. So I found a cheap Airbnb instead. This turned out to be a good decision. I rode route 29 north, which started out decent but got pretty terrible later – steep climbs combined with no shoulder at all and 45mph traffic. But I survived. I made my way on busier highways through Allentown and the surroundings, got a bit more bike trail (the Ironton Rail Trail through Whitehall) and finally wound up in the hills above the Lehigh River, which I’ll follow tomorrow. 
I’m currently fighting off sleep in the very comfortable Airbnb, being full of pizza which the hosts fed me. Like me, they tend to go to bed around 8pm, so it all worked out very well. I’ve just got to stay conscious long enough to examine my potential route tomorrow, and then it’s off to sleep,in hopes that my legs can get some kind of recovery from what they just went through. 

The New Jersey part

Tradition demands that a coast-to-coast bike trip officially begin and end with dipping a bike wheel in each ocean. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make this tour fully coast-to-coast, or just start in Philly and call it close enough – the remaining New Jersey part would be something I was doing just to say I did it, and I’m a bit concerned about my timeline (I have to be in Chicago by June 5, but also really want to see the Upper Peninsula of Michigan). Since I was planning in any case to leave in the week of May 1, I decided to do the NJ part as a shakedown ride to test all my gear, and in the process ensure that I retain my ocean-to-ocean street cred. Can’t have people calling me a poser.

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Here’s the official start photo. You’re supposed to get somebody to take a picture of your wheel dip. As it happened, I grabbed the first bystanders I saw for this photo, but felt bad asking them (a whole family) to make the longish schlep down to the actual water, not to mention I felt silly for requiring such a frivolous photo.

I then discovered that the beach was entirely abandoned for the next few hundred feet, so I hauled the bike back over the sand to the boardwalk and processed down it until I came near a place where I’d seen people earlier. Unfortunately I got down onto the beach a bit too early, and before I could get within shouting distance of the first cluster of people, they started walking back to the boardwalk. Not that I’d want to be shouting like a crazy person for people to stop and wait for me, anyway. This is Jersey. They’d probably just walk faster. At any rate, I looked further down the shore and as far as the eye could see was empty beach, with a few groups of people all walking away from the beach, almost in lockstep, back to the boardwalk. They must have sensed me coming.

Clearly this crucial photo was going to have to be a DIY affair, so I made it work. I guess these are the actual official start-of-trip glamor shots.

So after spending a total of about 15 minutes on the Jersey Shore (which is 15 minutes more than I’ve spent there in the last decade or two, I think) I headed back west into a cold rain shower. Did I mention that the weather, after greeting my return from the Middle East with perfect April days sunny and in the 70s, decided to turn back into late-February misery for the start of this trip? No big deal though.

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Yay, bike path! It lasted about 4 minutes. I’ve been sketching potential itineraries through PA that will make more extensive use of such paths, for which the Rails to Trails online resource (www.traillink.com) is very handy.

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Finally most of the way out of the depressing sprawl around Atlantic City, and enjoying some classic South Jersey scenic beauty.

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It did get more scenic. Soon, I was in the woods; pine green mixed with deciduous brown looked more like February than April, though the dogwoods were brightly in bloom. Luckily I like winter forest scenery.

The Mullica River. I’ve been wanting to go for a kayaking trip in the Pine Barrens. Something to look forward to this August when I get back.

The first real point of interest, river overlooks aside, was historic Batsto. I was in a bit of a rush and didn’t stop to read the explanatory signage, if there was any. The area looked like a farm village, but this area is notoriously worthless for agriculture from what I understand (hence “Pine Barrens”) and the main reason anybody built anything here historically had to do with harvesting and smelting bog iron, or producing coal.

The mansion was impressive, and clearly haunted. I don’t know what could possibly be going on in that high tower other than sinister witchcraft and seances. I peeked in the windows to see museum-style rooms furnished with fake food, creepy busts, and similar foreboding items. No baleful, dead-eyed visages gazed back at me in mute appeal from the shadowy interior, but I’m sure that’s just because it was before dark. Totally haunted.

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Made it to camp with daylight to spare. I was lucky to have the campsite to myself, and my pick of five spots. I chose the one furthest from the road, which was still within sight and very much within hearing range. Still, when I awoke in the morning, it was to the sound of birdsong rather than constant traffic.

I got this fancy new “underquilt” for the hammock so that I don’t have to sleep on a foam mat for the next month. So far, so good – it’s like sleeping in a hanging cocoon. I still have some learning to do when it comes to setting it up properly, but I did not suffer in the night from what hammock aficionados refer to as “Cold Butt Syndrome.”

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The next day, I saw quite a few farms of this stuff. If you know what it is, leave a comment; I’m curious.

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Fairly monotonous, though pleasant enough, scenery until Atsion Lake. Another angle of the loaded bike here. I’m still deciding whether or not to use the saddlebag. I’m also figuring out why the handlebar roll insists on sagging like that. Some adjustments are in order before the main leg of the trip begins; that’s the reason for these shakedown rides.

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Atsion Lake, my usual haunt in the Pine Barrens. I like to camp in an undisclosed location on the opposite shore.

Last views of Pine Barrens scenery. There were quite a few horses wearing jackets.

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Camden, approaching Philly. Camden begins suddenly. You can tell because the roads abruptly go from asphalt to this weird pseudo-sidewalk-type surface.

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The Camden entrance to the pedestrian/bike trail over the Ben Franklin Bridge is not particularly welcoming. I had to make two trips up thanks to how heavy my panniers were. I’m sure the Circuit Coalition is on top of implementing some sort of improvement here.

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State #1 down! Note the inventive use of the H&M bag to keep the Brooks saddle dry in the rain showers that began here and lasted until I made it home.

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I’ll miss this skyline for the next 3 months.

I was thinking it would be funny to ride around downtown Philly and get touristy photos of me and the bike in front of various landmarks. As it was, my cross-country bike route took me right past Independence Hall. But it was starting to rain fairly hard, which reduced my appetite for corny antics that only I would find amusing anyway, so I rode my usual route back to West Philly at high speed.

This post is fairly heavy on both pictures and text. I’m anticipating future entries will be less so, since I’ll have to type everything on a phone, and somehow get my photos online from my camera, via that phone. So enjoy all the South Jersey landscape shots…

The plan

Here’s the bike I plan to ride from coast to coast. Hopefully, it will not end up quite as dirty this time.

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Check this Google map for an illustration of my rough route: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zQ2qTciNQWN0.kOECJyglmnP8

As of this writing, I’m already considering some changes to this – since I have to be in Chicago by June 5, I’ll probably head south rather than north, and take the C&O Canal trail/Great Allegheny Passage to Pittsburgh before rejoining the route by Lake Erie.

I’m starting in the first week of May, stopping in Chicago for a week to stash the bike with friends and fly to Hawaii for a wedding, then returning to resume riding from Chicago. Hopefully I’ll reach the Pacific Ocean by the end of July, but my timeline after the Hawaii hiatus is not fixed at all.

Stay tuned for more posts starting the first week of May, and click the “follow” button at right to subscribe for updates whenever new posts arrive.