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Category Archives: Landscape

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour 2017, Carson City.

Riding the ACA Western Express Bike Route, 6-14-17

It got cold. Not too bad–but cold. The tent was on a concrete pad porch under a nice log and tin roof. Huge banks of snow blocked two other sides so that we were pretty well insulated from the wind. The new REI Quarter Dome Plus is a huge improvement over the older model we used last year. The newer one is far less over engineered and goes up fast and easily. 

I had just fallen asleep when the cop’s siren’s “booooeeeep” woke me up. Rami too. We heard the cop say through his bull horn “stop” and we agreed that that was not the command he would have used if our camping on the porch was his concern. “Stop camping there!” “Stop sleeping in the name of the law!” No–it did not make sense. So, instead of suddenly packing and leaving, we lay in our bags and watched the lights and listened to someone get a ticket. We also knew that if the cop left us unmolested, then we were home free, and indeed, and no one cared if we camped on the porch of the Carson Pass Information Center.

No one cared if we camped on the porch of the Carson Pass Information Center, and so we slept on and rose when the sun warmed us up a bit. We packed up the bikes and set off to let gravity do what it does best. At 8550 feet, Carson Pass is part of the annual Death Ride and we met a group of riders training for it. The race covers something like 129 miles, 5 peaks and descents, and something in the range of 15,000 feet of “lung busting climbing.” It is an amazing challenge. Rami later devoted himself to reading up on it am making his plan to ride it. No iPods allowed either. Ok–deal breaker right there!

The descent from Carson Pass was quick, fast, and beautiful. Heavy bikes want to go fast on downhills, but they have huge momentum and so it is wise to not let them do all they want to. I feathered my brakes a lot and really only held off when there was a straight shot down to a clear flat. Even then I easily broke 40 mph and could have gotten into the 50s or more if I wanted to. I did not want to. So much rests on machinery in a descent like that and I was almost too preoccupied with mentally checking every part of the bike and the ride feel to even focus on how beautiful was the place itself. I was listening to every brake hiss, feeling every shudder of the frame, weighing every jolt in the handlebars, constantly thinking about balance. I was not terrified, nor was I stressed–it was all just very technical: awaiting reports from the bike sent through the network of hands and arms and legs and feet. I bet a hang glider or a brain surgeon is pretty focused on the technical for a while before they really settle into enjoying the experience. “Hand me the little dremmel tool skull cutter nurse, I am really going to relish my time in this guy’s head! I am going to sail around his medulla oblongata as if I was hang gliding!”

Rami on the other hand was in adrenaline heaven. He had his music up loud and was imagining he was an eagle flying through the mountains. He has begun his training for the Death Ride. He is the Ringo just having a great time to my George overthinking everything. Dated?

Very quickly we were in Nevada and riding at the base of the range we just came down from. 
The climate was a total change–it felt noticably drier and hotter but nothing bad at all–just a nice change. We rolled over hills up and down until we got to the edges of Carson City. The maps led me to think there was a campsite south of town, but there were only sprawl malls and very unpleasant roads: six lanes many cars. The shoulder was fine though and were in town quickly, The first stop was The Bike Smith at 900 N Carson St. They were getting ready to close up and we were unfocused and a bit brain dead from the road. Nevertheless, I have been throwing my chain over my large chainring every time I gear up. The issue is the limiter screw on the front derailleur, but that is the part of the bike I feel least able to cope with. Carson City was our last chance to have a professional mechanic look at the thing before the desert, so in we stopped. Justin very kindly did a quick and solid fix and also spotted that the cable was fraying and summarily replaced it. Justin has a blog called Justinvelo where he discusses goodies he is seeing come through the shop and other issues in the cycling world. Mountain biking is big here–no surprise–and Justin had a very good discussion of the issues surrounding pedal assist. This is getting to a be quite an issue in competitions and some trails ban assisted bikes of any kind. Justin had some interesting insights into what might make a given rider support or oppose assist and he sees that riders with history are far more critical than new riders. My initial instinct is to think something is amiss with assist. But at the same time–assist would be great on some of these climbs–especially since we are not talking about motors, but rather internal mechanisms that simply add power to your pedal stroke. No stroke, no power. I have to think about this. 

We ended up at a hotel north of town and were fine. Food. I hate travel stuff that focuses on food. There is nothing worse that a travel vid that begins by showing a lovely city street somewhere for about 5 seconds and then cuts to the front of a restaurant. Next thing you know we spend the next ten minutes in a restaurant that could be anywhere looking at plates that could be anywhere laden with food that could be made or eaten anywhere sitting on tables that could be anywhere. Does it even count as a travel vid if all you see is the inside of some mostly generic high priced slop hall? Long and short, my adventures are not culinary. Local delicacies and the dining habits of the natives are things I am fine skipping. Thus, this will probably be all I have to say about food. 

Rami though is 16 and eats like some sort of creature that has to consume his weight in protein every 12 hours to survive. “I’m starving” is how most conversations begin. We don’t have an interesting array of eatables with us. Grits, oatmeal, bike gels, and lots of tuna fish. He is not sick of it yet–but it is only a matter of time. 

Rami says the beef jerky is too dry.  Of course it is–it’s beef jerkey! Dry is its thing, its metier, its ISP! What’s next? This ginger ale is too wet? This oxygen is too “breathy?” I can’t really complain though, I am a very picky eater myself and am the opposite of adventurous. What is that–an arm chair eater? But it is but it is not simply finikiness that makes me that way. It really is more an issue of outright contempt. I just don’t like food very much. That’s not to say that there is not food that I like very much–there is, and I am quite devoted to it. But it all tends to be simple–even elemental. Eggs (chicken ones), pea soup, lentils, white rice, beans, and hot chocolate are sort of the staples. There are extravagances now and then–but they are fairly tame as extravangences go. But I think above all it is the culture of food and food presentation that I can’t stand. Things were better when region and season limited what we could eat. With that said I a going to drink some Florida orange juice and grab a Perrier for later–I find Pellegrino to be just a little too flat for my taste. Maybe Pellegrino needs some fizz assist. 

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Carson Pass.

Riding the ACA Western Express Bike Route, 6-13-17

Having passed the night peacefully in Plymouth, I can now disclose the undisclosed location. It was the big lovely gazebo right in town. It became clear that cyclists stopped there often enough that it was no big deal, and so we joined their ranks. It got chilly at night but that was just a bonus as far as I was concerned. No one said “boo” to us and so we had a peaceful night. The guard kitty patrolled and we slept.

The next morning the warm sun made it hard to shake awake but we managed, snacked up, and hit the trail. That is when the fun stopped. Right outside Plymouth we hit our first staircase of the day. I find that grades of about 5% or even 7% are fine–even sort of fun. They give you a good feeling of strength without having to achieve high speeds. I am happy just finding the right gear combination and slogging along at a calm pace. But many of the grades are much steeper and far harder to take on. The bikes are defiantly overloaded–with food mostly–but I am going to have to reconfigure and mail some things home. But what has two thumbs and is the other problem? This guy! I am not a climber and I am not going to suddenly become one–even though I have to come to some agreement with the more level-challenged parts of the earth’s outer crust. 

Climbing requires one of two posture options. The celebrated one is standing. That uses different muscle groups than sitting and that makes for a nice change. It also though is quite tiring and I find it winds me a lot faster than sitting. Remaining seated though requires very low gearing–that means the smallest chain ring on the front and the biggest one on the rear cassettes–for me that means 26/34 while Rami has 22/34. If you have not ridden in that configuration before, let me assure you that it leaves one looking and feeling a bit like the Roadrunner right before he shoots off down the road. The catch is that the shooting down the road never actually happens. Instead, the legs spin and spin: lots of pedaling and flailing signifying nothing. But when the road is steep, low low gearing the only way to move–albeit a slow way. I suppose one has the option of staying in a higher gear ratio–say 50/12–and standing and pushing that way. I am pretty sure that that would shoot my kneecaps off though. But they would at least fly down the road at a higher rate of speed than that which they are achieveing still encased in my skin. Sorry kneecaps. Just FYI, this is partly why there will be a big boom in kneecap replacements in a few decades when all those fixie rider chickens come home roost in middle aged bodies. Bargain basement here–buy the right stock now. 

The other wonderful gift of the modern miracle that is low gearing is the magical instability that low speed creates. One of the hardest rider excecises people work on is slow riding. Being able to keep a bike straight at say 3mph takes remarkable skill. Just like a track stand (when you stay on the pedals and keep the bike stationary by balance), slow bike skills are great to have. I am ok with my road bike, on a level, when I feel like it, and when I fail I can say, “no, that was just how long I wanted to do this track stand.”  When I am pushing a loaded bike up hill on a few inches of shoulder, I am not always a wizard the 3 mph straight ride. Instead, I am THE man when it comes to awkwardly fighting with my front end to keep it in line. This skill I have carefully honed is making riding next to passing cars a special pleasure. 

And this is what the whole day climbing out of Plymouth was. An occasional flat or even a downhill, but mostly being near tears and hating life trying climb grades of 40 or even 60 percent. Ok, they were probably only 10% or 14% but they might as well have been 60. Can’t be done is can’t be done. We rode, we walked, we sat, we rode again, we walked again, we sat again, we napped in a guy’s driveway, we got bitten by ants while napping in a guy’s driveway, we rode again. The whole day. We sat for a little while in Fiddletown early on and felt like maybe we were not confronting hell. I am not sure we were all that convincing though. Even the giant fiddle on the curious town building could only raise a small smile. 

The weather was dreadful too–just too cold or too hot–impossible to get right. Arm tubes on, arm tubes off, sweat dripping down face, face cold from wind. The good news of course was that this part of California is beautiful. We were crawling out of the golden hills and heading into piney mountains and it is great. But climbing. Maybe I am not eating right? Maybe the can ditch things on the bike? Maybe it is altitude? Who knows, it is just so damned hard.

Here are the fragments of thought that pass though my mind when I am suffering up hill. “Chairs are nice. Your legs don’t move when you sit in one. Hot tubs are warm. You can rest your legs in them. How many miles is it back to San Francisco? It is mostly downhill and flat that way. That pickup truck has room for bikes. So does that one. Ooh! A van–our stuff and us can fit in there and there probably is air conditoning. That’s a nice house. If I just stopped here and never moved again, could I live there? How could I make a living? Grow olives? Run a coffeeshop? Tend to dying cyclists?” But then the ground levels out or better yet, drops, and the monologue changes. “One gear higher? Yeah I think so–good burn in the legs. Push harder–not maximizing hip swing enough. Zoom. Into the drops–get more aero, butt higher, try to rest your chin on the stem–that’s good, 40 mph is good.  Jeepers the gears make a terrible noise when I drop them. It’s hot. Am I going that slow that the flies can actually keep up? That pickup truck has room for bikes.” See what happened at the end there? Every decline ends and the staircase is again before me. A sport designed for Sisyphus.

We made it most of the way when we ran against the California weather. In this case, not in a storm or something like that. Instead, it was in the form of rain a while back that had washed out part of the road we needed to take. More spirit deadening gifts from Jello Biafra–he is the governor of California–right? Some folks thought we could make it past the rain-washed road. No problem. Jump the barricades and just stick to the half of the road that is not washed out. We will recognize it when we see it–it will be the part that still looks like a road and not a landslide. Others said it was not possible to get by. Still others told a tale of a detour–one of the most distressing words in the English language. Confused and exhausted, we stopped at a quiet little store to ponder our dilemma over bottled lemonade. The owners were lovely. We were close to our goal for the day–a stealth camp somewhere that would leave only about 25 miles or so to Carson Pass where the climbing abates. But we were also tired and it showed. They offered to allow us to camp out behind the store, and I think I agreed before the sentence was finished. Then, they offered us a lift past the blocked road (a problem that I was already deferring until the next day). Again–we were yessing as soon as the offer came. Next thing you know, we had packed up the stuff into a pickup and then drove over hill and dale, until we were past the road failure and a nice parcel of miles ahead of where we planned to be. When the day was over, we were at Carson’s Pass setting up camp on the porch of the visitor station there. More angels appeared–this time in the form of a family taking in the views, fishing, and scoping out a future ride. They provided us with some water–I was melting snow to cook the pasta we bought at the store–and even gave us some ichthyic delights. A great end to an odd day that went from wanting to kill us to suddenly jumping us 20 miles ahead of our plan.

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour 2017, Plymouth. 

Riding the ACA Western Express Bike Route, 6-12-17.

Disappointing miles? Oh hells yeah! But then again, this is hard climbing and the bikes are as fully loaded as they can be. I am trying not to be too hard on myself. When I looked at Crazy Guy on a Bike and saw the daily totals people were getting in the Sierras, they were often close to 35. Well, we are climbing the Sierras and we got just over 35 today, so I guess we are normal. Sort of.

Leaving Folsom was a farce. A comedy of errors. We ended up in a cheap motel last night after a long stint at Starbucks. It was getting dark and we passed a combination self storage place and motel and we were intregued. The State Park campsite was still a few miles away and the hotel was really only 25 bucks more than the campsite, so for that money we took the hot water and the bed. There was a television too. I don’t live with one, so I really only encounter it when I am in lodgings. I had one for six months last year at Mount Vernon, but I literally never switched the channel from CNN and MSNBC to anything else. I had forgotten that Sunday night CNN gave up on news and instead devoted the whole time to Anthony Bourdain, who, though once interesting and still personally credible, has nevertheless become a TV parody of himself. “Hey–I am edgy, and I am in this hip edgy place that is not one you would have thought of, but turns out to be more hip and edgy than you would imagine. Whoa! Here is my friend (insert regionally appropriate name here), he/she is a great artist/musician/collector of something hip/architect/culture hero. Let’s eat! Oh man, (named person) your friend is an amazing chef! Now THIS is good! Such fresh ingredients,” aaaaand wrap. Pack up the cameras and back on the plane to the next amazing place. Bourdain in a can. Instead, we saw an ad for an old music collection and I spent the remaining waking moments trying to reconcile Clarance Frogman Henry and Bowser for Rami. 

But despite a fitful night’s sleep haunted by images of cheesy 1950s revival culture heroes (does Anthony Bourdain know Bowser? He must have gone into the restaurant business by now, he can serve Clarance Frogman Henry legs a la Francaises–such fresh ingedients!), I was still up and ready to roll by 7 or so. Not so Captain Snooze. By the time I finally got him moving we had to do all the morning stuff as well as stop by a mail place to ship home my Revelate Tangle top tube bag. Ok–I love this bag. It is very well constructed, cleverly designed, and makes great use of otherwise dead space on the bike frame. But the way I have  my LHT set up means that the Tangle presents a problem. I am using downtube shifters–bar ends always bang into my knees and I like having a Sprint Tech rear view mirror on the end of my drop bars. I have very nice Dura Ace shifters on the bike and they are greater–but the Tangle fills in the spaces where I need to grab the shifter. Previous tours have been on largely flat terrain and so shifting was less of an issue. But here–Jimminy–I am shifting more than a 24 hour factory frantically meeting an order, or an eighteenth-century maker of specialized nightwear–primarily shifts. The point is that I really need a quick, easy, and precise grip on the Dura Aces. In fact, I am pretty sure that this was the source of the problems I had shifting as we set out. So, thanks to REI, I have swapped out the Tangle for the Ortlieb Ultimate Handlebar Box. I know I am sacrificing some aero here, but I think my 7 mph climbing speed can withstand the drag. The box is proving great–although its setup instructions were a bit challenging. Ortlieb is so international that they are beyond written language, and instructions come in a cross between heiroglifics and kabuki theatre. YouTube videos helped though–but it did take a few tries to get right.  

Thus, it made sense to mail home the Tangle and we did. A few other tiny errands, an abandoned phone that required a panicked back track, and a calming stint at yet another Starbucks and we were off by about noon. Not a start to be proud of, but once we were in gear we quickly escaped from Folsom, and were on the golden prarie. Most of the ride had a nice wide shoulder and the cars were no issue. The climbing started right away though and it did not let up. In fact, it became more and more constant as we headed east. The shoulders went away right when Latrobe Rd got all squirrelly, but cars’ fears for their own safety worked in our favor on the corners. We took few breaks and just pushed on at an ever decreasing rate of speed. No question–this is hard riding. We made the town of Plymouth by 4:30 and I at least felt every foot of altitude we had gained. We were in a bind. There really is nothing along the path we are following and it is at least 25 miles between towns–and even those are not much to hang the name “town” on.  Do we stay or do we go? As Mick Jones might have asked–he is Jewish by the way. 

Plymouth has a pleasant little cafe on the Main Street where we rested and schemed. Friendly locals tried to scare us with local info: big cats are on the prowl thanks to the fires, it is snowing in Kirkwood, the roads are horrible, Godzilla had attacked Carson City, there is an outbreak of plague at Fiddletown (real name, not one they made up for me). Ok–not all of that was told to us. But we were tired and it was getting late–and indeed there was no logical destination ahead of us–so we landed at Plymouth for the night, bringing my international Plymouth total to four. But the real crisis no one mentioned was that the RV park has NO TENT CAMPING. I mean–really? It is just grass! who builds a camping park and does have sites for tents?? Don’t answer that–I have already spoken to that genius. On top of that, hotels here start at $130 a night. Thank you Wine Tourism for making it impossible to afford a room. Next thing you know, Anthony Bourdain will show up to meet the local ballet impresario or artisan blacksmith and have a really hip meal–such fresh ingredients. Once that happens even a packet of oatmeal will be 30 bucks. Thanks Anthony! Thanks Wine! Thanks Locally Sourced Olive Oil! Thanks Popeye!

Anyway, we are resoureseful and secured quarters in a great undisclosed location for the night. Tomorrow should be an earlier start and let’s hope for twice the miles–but I will settled for less if it comes to it.  

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Folsom California. 

Riding the ACA Western Express Bicycle Trail.  Sunday 6-11-17

And laugh he did today! Well, maybe just a chuckle. Nothing bad happened–just low mileage let down.

As usual, Saturday was an off-the-bike day spent in this case reading, sleeping, and a short local walk. Nothing to report.

Today had a slow start from the cave in Sacramento–cozy and hard to drag out of bed at 6 am. We still had tons of yogurts to eat and orange juice left over and that was a good start. The real issue was that it is just so hard to get out of bed and onto the road. This is where tents are a huge advantage. In the woods or on tour, it is always easier to leave a tent than it is a bed. We made it out though by ten. I still wanted to hit an REI for last things before we leave civilization. Here were my genuius plans. 1: Leave Rami at a Starbucks with the bikes and get a Lyft for the 5 miles round trip to the store. Outcome: No Lyft connection available on my phone over and over–so that idea died. Lyft–if you are reading this–wtf?? B: A cab to do the same. Outcome: 10 rings and then an answering machine at the 24 hour cab co. Hey cab co., I hope Uber wipes you out–you would have been over-priced and slow to show up anyway. Plan The Thirde: Ride the 2.5 back to the REI in town. Outcome: turns out they do not open until 11am anyway and we were not going to wait a gratuitous hour. In the event, we might have been penny wise and pound foolish.

We left town again by way of the inner city bike path. Rami had found a story about a cyclist being attacked by machete wielding “stabby hoboes” not that long back and right close to where we needed to get the path. Machete Man was taking a break this morning, so we were lucky. Nevertheless, there was ample evidence again that every cranny of this city has been taken over. But as we headed north and west the path became less dicey and more like a regular path. A word about the homeless. This is always such a dilemma. We have an obligation to recognize and respect the humanity of these hard done by fellow humans. But many have made mistakes and are still living in their shadows. The tattooed tear on the face that says “I have screwed up mightily” or the premature toothlessness of meth habits are only the most visible markers of people who have lost their way or been shoved off their path. But guess what? People make mistakes. They do. So does that mean that they lose the right to humanity? It is amazing that we cannot figure out that punishments and punitive reward systems just don’t work. Too often we say to the drowning, “show me you can swim, and then I will throw you the life rope–but if you continue to drown, I will take the rope away. I don’t want to waste any rope on someone who might end up drowned anyway.” We need to change this attitude and just help people because they need help–not because they are somehow virtuous or somehow improving. And at the same time, there is no disputing the very real damage broken people do to those around them and the places they end up. Rami and I have been discussing this a lot. He has a deep romance with the edgy, the off grid, the untamed, and the seemingly free. He often talks about wanting to freight hop (bye bye leg!), or live in hobo camp–all fun and games until the fights begin. There is no point in arguing that that is not a life to romanticize–I am more in line with the butlers in Sullivan’s Travels on this one. I reminded him that many of the people we passed would happily slit his throat at night to steal all his nice bike gear. I think he gets this, and he was eager to move along when Machete Man came by on Friday. I read him as confonting ideas in words and playing out ideas in fantasy. The world is very cruel and grim right now and our sweet soft little ones are absorbing every dark and ugly iota of a culture that still thinks that it is entertaining to watch people–albeit actors–act cruelly and violently to one another. If you think about it, you’d realize how insane that can be. With that said–I still am Rik Mayall fan–so, inconsistent I guess. I think part of this ongoing discussion is because as cycle tourists, we are in some ways just like the homeless. Of course we have we some money to help us along (less and less as it happens). But we are in the elements too and looking for water and places to sleep.

Like now for example. The rest of the ride to Folsom was great. The trail is wide and lovely. Its markings are confusing though. They ask walkers to stay left while cyclists stay right, The result is that we kept having people walking towards us. That pissed me off at first–I read it as ignorance. I jumped to the left lane thinking that maybe this was a dividend path–riders on one side and walkers on the other. But an oncoming pace line quickly disabused me of this error with a classic “WTF??” hand gesture, and I appoliogize for being the momentary turd in the water pipe. The managers have painted instructional messages on the paveing, but they are worn to varying degrees making it hit or miss if your can read them. On top of that, the sentences are all pressed close together so that you can’t read them all as you fly by. American River Bike Trail Elves–try to spread those sentences out a bit more–make them more like the Burma Shave signs of old. We can only read a few words at a time as we pass–give us a fighting chance here!  

But–once we were out on the trail and knew the rules, it was great. Lovely little bends in the trail and gentle hills. It was a Sunday, so lots of riders were out. We met and chatted with many very nice super helpful people. A few wished us a safe journey as they passed and we got lots of other nice comments. These are our people and they all recognize what the fully loaded panniers mean. Many many lovely bikes too. All makes and frame designs but the guy with the titanium Seven with the Ritchie Logic stem, Chris King headset and Dura Ace mechanical was a stand out. He helped us out at a confusing fork in the trail and later I told Rami that that was like a $7000 bike. He was unimpressed. I was not though, and so, Ponytail Man in the American flag Rolling Stones Cycling Jersey–I salute you and your awesome elegant bike.  See, the issue here is that titanium is as light as carbon but can still have the classic gorgeous lines of a steel bike, whereas carbon, and even alloy, will have to be all thick and bulky in crucial places. Viva the classic lines, and double viva for a classic ride that is less that 16 pounds (this is weight and not currency–the rapidly devaluing British Pound would need to come in at about 5500 to get a bike like that). 

We got to Folsom and ate a bit. Then, bike stores for the last of the shakedown fixes. Mike’s provided about 50 bucks worth of gels and beans–as well as the California themed cap I was wanting since San Fran. Thanks Mike’s–trust me, the cap will look like crap soon enough. But the fiddlier stuff they had not. They told us the short cut to REI and the next shortcut back to the trail. Next stop REI where Doug fixed the broken bolt and Rami’s front rack is back to normal. Doug and the others were full of great info–including the news that the shortcut road we needed was shut down. Over a big hill and down a dirt path was the way ahead. But by the time were done at REI–the only one I have ever seen that sells shock cord too!!–it looked like the 25 to Plymouth was a bit of a challenge. On top of that, the sky hard turned black and we the wind was bringing it our way fast. We scooted off to a ritzy Starbucks 0.5 away and here I sit waiting for rain that missed us. Looks like we are camping just north of Folsom tonight as long as I can get Rami out of the Barnes and Noble close by from where he keeps texting me about the books he has found and the ones he wants to buy. He is torn between Arthurian poetry and “The State and Revolution.” Maybe he plans on creating a homeless hobo round table and initiating the Off Grid Revolution. Then again, this place is lousy with high school girls– so I may never see Rami again.

Man Plans, God Laughs Tour, 2017. Sacramento Ca.

Riding the Adventure Cycle Association’s Western Express Bike Route.

Fairfield is wine country and the hotel costs reflect that. But we had a bath tub and we took baths and fell asleep fast. Rami was captivated by the UK election and we spent a lot of time discussing how Parliament functions and which parties would be part of which possible coalitions. My prediction for a big upset by Plaid Cymru leading to a Welsh Independence majority Parliament, oddly, turned out to be off the mark. I need to rethink my confidence in the overall political influence of Welsh independence. 

We were up at 6 or so the next morning and got out soon and in good order. The mechanical cloud was not yet fully dispelled, as we would learn, but all problems are minor: the bikes are string and so are we.

It always take a bit of wandering to get out of a town. The ACA maps are good, but they can be a bit confusing near towns and towns are confusing to begin with when ridden into. In the woods, Rami and I always say we feel a bit like bears when we walk into a town–and not just because we pee on trees and rummage the trash cans. It is a headspace issue, and transitioning from just riding to suddenly considering which poorly marked street is which while cars do their car thing is never easy. Nevertheless, we found our way out and onto the roads east. We began by crossing some golden hills and skirting some others before a big right turn took us into the heart of the valley. There everything was table flat and covered in walnut orchards. The roads rolled and were lovely. There were lots of other riders out too. Cervelo seems to be the popular bike maker out here and all the riders we saw were friendly and looked skilled. It was hard to not envy getting out of the saddle and pushing hard up a hill on a 16 pound carbon racer while pushing my own 24 pounds of steel and 65 pounds of panniers. Seeing other riders on the road is great though–their being there tells you these are good riding roads, and their smiles and waves are very encouraging because they of everyone know fully well what a rider on a fully loaded bike is doing. Most of the cars are fine–although there is a pattern. Regular cars pass calmly and all have given us a wide berth. Big pickup trucks and flashy sports cars also pass us with enough room. But each of them likes to rev up and make lots of noise as they pass and then floor it after they have passed us. It is pretty routine. It conforms to the widely held view that drivers of flashy cars and overly large pickups have something they wish to prove to the world–perhaps something lacking in the trouser department. Just saying. 

The countryside was beautiful–especially the area between Winters and Davis. The roads were dreamy and the final miles into Davis were on a great path. We crossed a great bridge over the Putah Creek. It was high and covered in great graffiti. Right around there, amidst the sun and lovely riding, the bolt holding Rami’s right pannier rack onto the fork broke gave up the ghost no doubt overcome with emotion and landscape enthusiasm. Whatever its motivation, we were suddenly roadside with a dropped pannier. The modern miracle that is the Zip Tie allowed a creative rerigging and off we went again. The surviving bolt will need to be drilled out and we did not want to wander around Davis looking for a candidate mechanic (and we were about 60 miles too far to double back to Leonardo’s). The fix will work for now, but I am not thrilled with the Axiom Lowriders. They are not really made for heavy duty. But then again I am using a Salsa add on as the top bolt holder so the problem may be there. Rami is riding my Surly Crosscheck which is my daily commuter rerigged for touring–but its fork has no brazeons. My bike–the LHT–has the Surly front rack and it is a beast. There may be change of front rack in the future, maybe in Carson City. Who knows. Nevertheless, zip ties worked for now, and so off we went. Being in Davis also made me think of my late friend and colleague Ward Stavig and I took a few moments to speak of Ward to Rami and let him know how much he would have liked him–and vice versa. 

Lovely as was the ride into Davis, the ride into Sacramento was a grim contrast. There are good wide bike lanes but they are a bit, shall we say, road-sidey. We paralleled rail tracks though and that made it fun. We got to see commuter trains fly back and forth and some huge Union Pacific engines too. We also rode on the Yolo Causeway which is essentially the shoulder of west bound Rt 80 with a waist-high concrete wall and about five feet of chain link keeping us from the on coming traffic. The noise was loud enough to make ipods useless. But–it was a great ride. Out of nowhere, Rami suddenly passed me on the left with a big smile and tried to drop me! Good luck. I leaned in and pretty soon we were heading along at 19 mph and I just drafted behind him the whole way along. I know–19 is no big deal– but with touring bikes it feels pretty good. Plus this was table land and that is where we Florida riders shine. The US needs more of these kinds of highway-side causeways. We could add one of these to interstates all over the place and it would be amazing and there would be more cycling travel and the health and financial benefits that would bring. We have the damned highways already–let’s make bike lanes next to them too! 

The Yolo dropped us off in West Sacramento which is yet another rotted urban hell. Bad roads, marginal business, hard done by people, the whole panoply of all that is wrong in this land was on display block by block. It made a shocking contrast to the natural and cultural beauty of San Francisco less than a hundred miles to the west. The money and talent that collects there and the other few blessed cities like it comes at the expenses of places like this. Inequality doing its thing. Great.

We crossed a lovely yellow bridge and went through Old Town Sacramento. We paused for only a moment, but it was a nice area. Cobbles and boards were not good for riding, but this is a hopping area that has a great feel–like Fredericksburg Va meets Tombstone Az. We passed the California Rail Road Museum and saw some engines, but we had to move on as the Friday shadows were getting long. No sooner had we left night life town then we were on a path that lead up to the bridges which we needed to cross to get up where our Airbnb was. This path was horrible. Armies of really broken homeless mean and women have made the trail, park, and riverfront their own. They were everywhere and we could see little ramshackle encampments of tents of make of blankets and tarps behind every bush. Piles of trash were everywhere since these folks still consume and defecate as others do, but no sanitation ever comes to collect the refuse. It went on for miles and we saw lots of variations of forgotten people. Most were just tanned and grimey–one though was talking to himself and walking around waving a machete. Pretty scary. Something needs to change. Shame on you Sacramento: help these people before they realize they out number the legislators and can storm the capitol. 

After about 60 miles we made our Airbnb–in this case a converted office building made into something like a hostel. We are happy though and Saturday is the weekly Off-The-Bike Day. So, rest here we come, even though neither of us are that tired. Resting up for a few hard days of climbing before us will help though.

How We Build ‘Round These Parts

I have been participating in a community discussion about local development and redevelopment. It became clear to me that there was considerable confusion and imprecision in the terms people use in discussing building and development. So, I wrote these vignettes to help clarify. I sort of liked them–so here they are.


Hello. I am a Big Box Store. I bring shopping convince close to where people live. Sometimes I can offer great prices and selection and I will need a staff–so I bring some jobs too. Builders like me because I am cheap and fast to build. I always demand acres of parking spaces because I want every possible to car to get into my lot–even if that happens only once a year. My lot is bad for drainage, radiated heat, and in the night it can be a really problematic place. home-depot-gives-up-and-closes-the-last-of-its-big-box-stores-in-chinaI sometimes have big floodlights in my lot though to discourage that–it works well, but of course my neighbors get only my warm orange glow all night long. I had my heyday in the 1990s, but online shopping has made my life really hard. In the good old days, I could count on clearing out smaller local competitors and being king of the hill. These days though, smaller competitors have turned to that damn internet and have been cleaning my clock. Still, there are some stores–like lumber–that cannot survive online, so I still have a place at the table. I am a bit generic and alienating in appearance. No one every says–“wow, what a beautiful box store, I want to live right near it!” and consequently I am not great for property values. My main offer is convenience–the three or four times a year you need a new curtain rod or 60 feet of stereo cable, I can save you driving time. I am also subject to fashion though–my brand may be all up market one year, but in a few I am old hat and so I have to do lots of loss leaders and cheap specials to bring back my one-time friends. That only accelerates my loss of tone and my neighbors get less and less happy as I cut back on the little stuff like cleaning out the trash in my parking lot. We boxes are cannibals too–we love nothing more than being just new and shiny enough to kill and eat a similar nearby competitor–in fact we rely on each others’ market research to pick our sites.


Hi everyone. I am New Urbanism Mixed Used Development. Don’t be scared by my flashy title–deep down all I am is just a remade version of ye olde city downtown. The difference is that I am made all out of new materials and dropped lock, stock, and barrel in some place that never had a thing like me before. I have walkability, the potential of old style street life, and I am very fashionable right now. I am GREAT for property values and quality of life. People love to see me, and they will sometimes drive for miles just to be enveloped in my charm and atmosphere. When I am humming I can be home to hundreds and a work place for even more doing all sorts of things. I work best where there is already something very much like me nearby–imagine remaking a blighted chunk of an existing city with something like me! There are great example from big cities all over the country! cityplace4-cnu-florida-new-urbanismWhen a city has all the infrastructure, transportation, and existing population to support me I can be a God send. I can be a bit of a risk though if a plan is overly ambitious or a place does not have any of the infrastructure to make me work well. In those cases, all sorts of questions emerge I would rather we not discuss. Where would all the cars go? And what about parking for those visitors that are going to come and marvel at me? Well… I am not really ready to answer that. In the worst case there might have to be acres of parking nearby or built into structures or the ground–but that would defeat the whole idea. In any case, like ye olde downtowns themselves, part of my mystique is nostalgia for a time before cars dominatied. No one has really come up with a good answer for how to manage me in car-centric areas. Sometimes they just build me. In those cases I am nice to be in, but my full potential is not maximized since residents and visitors are still driving all over the place anyway and needing places to park. I require commitment since I am sort of an all or nothing choice in my full iteration. Do me right and give me what I need and I will change your world for the good. But I am not always great with a less than full commitment. In many cases I am best mastered by thinking carefully about scale–or even seeing me more as a principal, than an actual concrete goal (sorry for my little builder pun).


Hey Folks. I am a stand alone anchor buildings and I feel a bit odd to be here since I am sort of a different animal than a big New Urbanism project or a Big Box. I really am something far more modest–a sort of starter for a large change in an area. People build me when money or space is tight and they are hoping to jumpstart something better than what they now have. These days, I often adhere to the principals of New Urbanism–you will see me built to human scale–that means people feel comfortable near me–not sort of bowled over. No long walks next to vast windowless wall near me. No sir. Human scale means that there is always the possibility of looking up and seeing someone reading, or working, or chatting with friends through windows and comforting views. My New Urbanism cred also shows in that these days I am most likely to have store space at the street level and residences or office space above that. 57549c70183ee-imageYou see, after WWII places like Britain and Germany had their cities leveled and had to rebuild. At the same time, here at home, the Federal Government was eager to finance every new family getting its own house and picket fence. International urban planners from Omaha to the Soviet Union all landed on the same idea for how to build. They said–imagine a house. You sleep in one room, eat in another, bathe in a third, and recreate in yet another. All of these planners arrived at the idea that a town (new or rebuilt from the rubble) could be organized the same way. They imagined living areas separated from work areas separated from shopping areas. Vast arterial highways would move everyone along in their own car from place to place because as far as 1945 was concerned cars would always be cheap and gasoline virtually free. Cars were so cool then and they thought we would always love driving all over the place. The idea worked for a time and it took over the landscape–in fact in America, it completely remade how we live. But then came increasing gas prices, highway congestion, and alienation. Soon people wanted something more like what they had before the war but so many Americans were already living the structures and neighborhoods shaped by the dreams of people who survived the Depression. New Urbanism was one solution to getting some small town shoe horned into something built to be totally different. So, my layout–even though I am single stand-alone–is all indebted to that rethink. But, I am just a small part of it–think of me as a modest start–a baby step and not a full on helping of high dollar investment New Urbanism downtownism. I can be many things too–not just shops or apartments. I can be a medical center, or an office block, a college building, a museum–all sorts of things. It just depends on what a community wants and has. I am a first start–my whole point is to set a ball in motion. If I am done right and things go well, I will be the inspiration for an organically grown set of buildings each doing something specific for its community.


Greetings. I am a Condo, Condominium, or a Co-op. I am basically a Housing Complex or even an Apartment Building like any other, but what makes me special is that I am owned in one way or another by the people who live in me as opposed to an owner who rents the units out to others. There are a few ways I can be owned–classic condos mean each owner is an autonomous owner of a unit in the complex or building–it is theirs outright. condo-paintingsIn a “co-op” on the other hand each owner pays into a coop board who has a lot of say in what happens to the property. The coop board is the collective owner of the entire property. There was a mania for these sorts of arrangements in the big cities in the 80s and 90s. Thousands of buildings that had been made of rental units shifted and are now occupant owned. I have lots of prestige and panache and I am usually good for property values in the surrounding area. My very presence tells people that there are folks with money in town–I am like a concentration of homeowners and so create a very different impression in people’s minds than do rental units. I am only an ownership relationship–I am not a housing form–even though people use the word “Condo” as if it is a type of building. I do mean density though since I concentrate people in smaller areas than single family single lot units. Density can mean traffic–but it also can mean life and commerce. Swings and roundabouts.


Hey gang. You know me–you should at least, since I am going up all over the place these days. I am a New Style Apartment Building. I am THE cutting edge in housing right now. People coming out of college–and there are tons of them–have figured a few things out. One is that they don’t want lawns, another is that they don’t want to pay for patching a roof. They saw their parents fretting over bills at the table in the family’s post-war suburban house and they spent half their childhood being told to mow the law. apartment-design1Now that they are picking a place to live, they want none of that! Instead, they loved their time in college. They loved the cameraderie, they loved the anytime social life, and they loved the shared spaces with their peers. And now they want all of that as they set out on their own–and I am the result! I have open space for pool tables and chairs in my lobbies, and lots of times I have a courtyard with a pool in my center. But I also have shop space for coffeeshops and brew pubs. What I offer is the opportunity to go get a grande double macchiato pumpkin spice soy latte or an amber pineapple Dutch hops pale lager ale any time of day or night and never have to get out of your pajamas–and my residents LOVE me for it. When you see me, you are seeing youth and the future. These days I am most often seen popping up almost overnight at the edges of downtowns or at rail stops along what used to be suburban train lines. I always have a name. The Strand, The Swan, The Palace, The Metro and so on–that is a carry over from dorm culture and the great apartment buildings of the big cities, but residents find it toney and reassuring when I have a name. I can be a stand alone, or I can fit into a large patchwork of buildings. Because I have shops at street level, a community emerges when I cluster in groups. I can be rental units or resident owned–it all depends on my builder and what the community needs. What happens when I am no longer fashionable? No one really knows yet–I am still just too new!


Hey all. I am a Housing Complex but some of you might know me as an “Apartment Complex,” “Condos” or “Garden Apartments.” I am a curious development (no pun intended)–in some ways you can consider me the fruit of poor or no planning. In the big cities there have long been apartments and tenements where poorer folks, new families starting out, or new arrivals to these shores could live with fairly affordable rents. But the cities that blossomed and expanded rapidly after the 1960s had none of that infrastructure. The only type of home was the single family stand alone–and that was fine for a small population. But as cities grew and diversified economically, well, there had to be space for renters–a creature not envisioned by the designers of acres of single family homes. 2c6dc2I am the result of that oversight. Builders bought up acres at the edges of house patches and built miles of small, attached, single unit or multiple unit residences. You can see me everywhere now–in fact I am so ubiquitous that I am almost invisible. You can tell me by a few characteristics. I generally have a name–Palm Gardens, Riverside, or some similar pastoral reference. I generally have a single owner (or a company owner) that may or may not do the management for all of the many tenants themselves or contract it out. Sometimes owners decide to accept Section 8 housing vouchers, sometimes not–it all depends on the owner and the town. Obviously, there are problems for property values when Section 8 housing vouchers pay for many residents. When I slide into disrepair or worse, squalor, it is usually because my reputation or that of my neighbors, has slipped to the point where many potential tenants give me a miss. This is the great dilemma of my life–people need places to live regardless of their income level, so I and my fellows are constantly walking a line between the need to fill units, and the risks of being seen as the the last stop on the way down by neighbors and potential tennents. It is a hard life, and I often end up being the fair haired step child of the housing family. I can come in many forms and many styles, but I am most often found where land is cheap making it less costly for builders to build out rather than up. When things work well–as they often do–I can be great housing for students, young families, and people not ready to buy a home. I can be the location of real and substantive community and people love my pools, gyms, walking paths, and shared rec rooms. When things are bad, they can get really bad–fences surround me and no one can tell if they are to keep intruders out or residents in. The pools get closed, and maintenance fails. My biggest weakness is that I very susceptible to fluctuations in the economy and there really is no security against that since I always cater to the most economically vulnerable among us. In any case, I am a fact of life in many cities.

Riding the Erie Canal Towpath

The Erie Canal Towpath is the land’s second longest continuous bicycle path—or rather, it would be if it were considered to be a single trail, which it sort of is anyway.

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Rami and I somewhere. 

The path links Buffalo in the west to Albany in the east and comprises a network of dedicated paths, local park trails, some city streets, and under 50 miles of state road shoulders. The trail goes for about 360 miles and passes through virtually every kind of terrain Western and Upstate New York have to offer (mountains excepted). Riding the Erie is rather more of an adventure than taking on the C&O/GAP but it is by no means too much to take tackle and it really is worth it—it is a great ride.

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A typical view along the active portion of the Erie Canal–this one near Fort Plain, NY.

Our trip was in July and while it was warm, we never hit high heat and we avoided rain—we were lucky. We were two riders: me on my 2009 Surly LHT with a Brooks B17, Surly front rack and Topeak Tourist rear rack carrying a set of Ortlieb front and back rollers, and a Chrome roll up seat post bag for tools. My 15-year-old son Rami on a 2010 Surly Cross Check (my commuter with no front brazeons) with a Brooks B17, Bontrager rear rack carrying two Axiom Seymore Panniers, and a large Axiom seatpost bag filled with Hammer gells. We both carried Revelate Tangle top tube bags as well. These were genius—the best thing I have added to my kit in a while. They were easily accessible and super handy carryalls. They were never in the way (except maybe when it came to putting the bikes on the car) and were easy access bike handy wallets.

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My Surly LHT loaded and leaning on a tree. The shot shows the Revelate Tackle bag in its natural habitat. Great addition to the kit.

One thing to know before you get one (as well you should): the large size is deeper than the medium and small and so it intrudes more into the space one usually reserves for water bottles.

We covered the whole distance in 6 riding days (we took a 0 mile day in there) meaning an average mileage of about 63 miles per day. Our biggest day was 86 miles but I do not recall the shortest. Subtracting our biggest day creates an average mileage of 58 per day for the remaining 5 and that seems about right. I should add that no day felt really challenging—even with the hills and roads. We stopped to smell the roses and took breaks for worthwhile sites—in short, it was far from grueling, and if our mileage was low some days it was because we were pleasantly diverted. Nevertheless, I want to head back up and try it again and shoot for finishing in 4 days this next time—anyone with me?

When I was planning this trip I found less info online and in discussion forums about the Erie than other rides, and so my goal here is to fill in some holes and provide some of the info I would like to have known before I set out. The main source of information I turned to was the website run by Parks and Trails New York (PTNY) which is the body that oversees and promotes the trail. They manage that very helpful website, organize a large group ride in July, promote the trail, and are working to secure more sections.

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The PTNY map works well on a smart phone and they have made a little icon that links you right to it as if it were a stand alone app. The colors of the trail’s run in the map indicate road surface and were very accurate. Find the map at this link

I relied on their website quite a bit during the ride—particularly the interactive map they provide. That map carries current information about closures and route changes and has a handy mileage calculator that lets you plot out a trail section’s distance with a reasonable degree of precision. The calculator though can only do straight lines, so some of the curves become a bit more square in your calculations.


This is a section of the PTNY map on my phone showing the milage counter against the color-coded map.

Nevertheless–super helpful. There also is an independently published book or two available that has some pretty nice section maps. I did not have the PTNY book when I set out, but I grabbed a copy along the way and found it helpful but not essential.

Despite the great trail and amenities, there is not a fully developed culture of through travel on the Erie, so most of the info in books and sites is targeted at people planning short rides and looking to do their rides in maximum comfort. Much of the material out there stresses the trails’ doability and the path’s unquestionable beauty and history. It seems targeted at those considering a ride who may not have tried one yet and need some reassurances about the value of the trip and trail. No knock on any of that intended at all, but long distance riders’ questions often get deep into the weeds and I found it hard to get from the web the kind of brass tacks answers I most wanted. Where can you camp? What grades are the hills? How available is water, how far between supply points and so on—I found it hard to get these important questions answered in advance. So, here we go.

First thing to know is that there are really three Erie Canals—and the path does bits of each. The first is the original canal completed in the 1820s.

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This is a typical section of the now-disused 1820s-1860s canal somewhere near Syracuse. On the left is a standard section of double track and on the right is the glint of some over grown canal ditch and water. Some of these sections had HUGE carp in them, so if you like fishing this is your place! On the whole though, you would be forgiven for thinking this was the C&O in Maryland.

The second is an expansion of that original system in the 1860s that left bits of the original rare things indeed. The third was a further expansion in the early 20th century that swallowed up the 1860s canal in some places and created a whole new route in others. You need to know this because the trail touches parts of all three and each presents different challenges and advantages.


Here is a view of what much of the trail looks like between Lockport and Rochester. Fine crushed stone, wide path, and an active waterway are constant companions. It was no effort at all to stay above 15mph fully loaded on these stretches, there also were lots of towns and resources along the way.

On top of that, there are seasonal boaters using the active canal and info for them abounds. But—their route is slightly different than the one cyclists ride in some areas—so use the boat info carefully. What all of this means is that sometimes you are riding along side of a wide and usable canal and passing by modern operating locks—each of which is state owned and a legal camping spot–while other times you will be riding next to an overgrown and forgotten ditch—much like riding the C&O—with few amenities and only stealth camping if needed. Knowing that in advance makes it a lot easier to plan things out.

The operating locks are numbered and all have well manicured lawns. A few have bike lock racks and picnic tables. An even fewer have unlocked Portasans. There is very little visible notice that camping is permitted—but it is, so just set up and settle in.

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This was our camp at the lock at Marcy, NY. This was the largest and most fully equipped lock campsite we saw, but I am sure there are others. This one is right on the path (seen at left) and coming upon it at about 5pm made it just too inviting to pass up. This was still during the early Pokemon rush and poke trainers were strolling all over.

It is probably a good idea to lock up (no pun intended) since more than a few of the locks are fairly close to civilization and its occasional sticky fingers. With that said though, we had no trouble at all and in fact loved chatting with the lock master at Marcy New York and watching the boating action in the morning. The lock by Schoharie Creek near Fonda New York though was a bit off the trail and had nothing to offer other than a great lawn and a big shade tree. But—having the run of the place and a long sunset was great. One of the staff had left a nice pair of field glasses on a table next to the main building and that made for fun viewing up and down the Mohawk. On top of that, an open maintenance shed had outlets where we could recharge. We even considered sleeping in the shed, but there was no threat of rain. Lacking any way to say thanks though, I swept out the shed so at least the floor was nice and clean the next day.

Many of the towns—particularly west of Rochester and just to its east along the active canal—also allow free camping in public places for cyclists. Again, there is no public posted notice of this, so you may have to ask to make sure. The best example was Brockport where we spent a 0-mile day wandering in town and meeting people.

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Our camp at the Brockport Visitor Center. We locked the bikes to the tree over there and ate at the table on the other side. It was a wonderful comfortable camp.

As with the GAP, some towns have embraced the canal and others not so much so. Brockport is one of the best examples of a place taking the trail to heart. There is a nice visitor center right on the canal which welcomes both cyclists and boaters (smart move since both parties have wallets). The wonderful volunteers showed us where to camp right on the lawn and gave us the pass card that granted us access to a big clean bathroom with a shower and outlets.

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The bathroom at the Brockport Visitor Center

All we had to do was stop by the police and let them know we were there (they were nonplussed) and we were set for two nights at no cost. The visitor center also has a nice sitting room and we spent time there chatting with the volunteers and other guests. We were the only cyclists, but there were a few boaters tied off at the dock. It was nothing to walk over to the main strip in town where there was a bike shop, food supplies, and tons of people chasing pokemon. Oddly, few of the in-town business owners knew that cyclists were allowed to camp at the visitor center—and in fact we only ended up there because a sudden late day rain just after a coffee stop in town had us sheltering in the Brockport Fire Department. It was the firemen who directed us to the visitor center—so now I pass on their advice. Brockport is a must stay when you ride the trail.

Hotels are all over the place on the trail, but there are no real hostels we could find, so if you plan on staying under a roof each night, plan on shelling out between $75 and $100 for the privilege. PTNY’s web site has a list of hotels and other amenities which is worth the look over. It could be a bit better though if it also said just how far from the trail was each hotel. It is one thing to see that the town ahead of you has 6 hotels listed. It is quite another to discover that they are 4 miles away, uphill, and on an un-shouldered state highway. More details about the viability of hotels would have been good to know. Even so, we avoid hotels as much as possible to save money—maybe doing one hotel night to three or four tent nights ideally when touring. For that reason discovering the free camping in towns and at locks was a blessing.

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The sun going down just west of Montezuma on State Road 373. This is at the top of Cayuga Lake amidst lots of Amish farms.

We also stayed at a commercial campground at the Montezuma swamp near Clyde, NY at the top of Cayuga Lake. Although on roads, the passage on the trail here was lovely and full of fun hills and Amish farms. We cruised through this terrain as the sun was getting very low and just loved it—no cars at all, just us, the road, and the occasional Amish buggy.

The disused sections of the canal—mainly the miles east of Clyde, NY—are very different than the heavily trafficked western sections. This is where road shoulders become more a part of a cyclist’s day and the condition of the canal trail is far worse than the western miles of very solid crushed stone.

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The Erie is great for your cycling tan.

Riding here was often very much like riding the C&O in Maryland: a swampy overgrown canal trench on the right and single or double track dirt-in-grass paths to your front. Lots of road crossing here as well and towns were thick on the ground. That meant that we never worried for water even though it would have been hard to find a good camping spot if it came to it. It was no effort at all to maintain 15mph or more on the crushed stone but road speed dropped significantly on the older canal sections—13mph was good, but ruts and puddles often slowed us down to 11mph. Another irritation here was that many sections of the trail had patches of loose crushed gravel filling in potholes and water damage.

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It does not look like much, but this hill was one of two that I had to dismount for. In this case it was due to loose gravel that bogged my tires. This patch was somewhere near Jordan, NY.

These were rarely for any distance, but they came on us suddenly and sometimes threated to cause real trouble if we hit them at speed. A little bogging and fishtailing was the worst we got and neither of us went over the handlebars as I had worried. Nevertheless, I got a few good heart stops as I hit these patches. One rise to a road crossing was so loose that I could not gear down in time and was reduced to a full stop as my wheels sunk in and I had to unclip and walk a few steps (only one of two times in 400 miles, so that is not so bad).

The diversity of trail conditions makes tire choice and interesting problem. What with covering everything from to loose pack to ice-smooth tarmac, getting the right tires is as important as it is impossible. I had arranged for our support team to meet us at each crucial junction with a change of tires—road worthy 25mms for the paved sections, light tread 32mms for the hard packed crushed stone, and nubbly 40mms for the rougher areas. But back in the real world where there is no such thing as our support team, I had to make a single call at the start and trust to luck.

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Sometimes there is work going on which shuts down the trail and it makes more sense to push through rather than take a two mile on-road detour. This was outside Rochester.

Since we were doing the Erie right after covering the C&O/GAP the tires had to do multiple terrains over close to 800 miles. I went with 32mm Continental Touring Plus run up to 80-100psi. These are a bit thinner than the 38mms I used on my last tour and thought were exactly wrong. I wanted the lower rolling resistance of the thinner tire and yet still wanted some beef and tread. They worked fine, but in truth, no tire can be all things. I saw other people with a variety of choices and each had some good and bad to them. I was happy with the Contis though and would happily use them again. They were good all arounders but it all depends on what you want. Some riders clearly prefer the cushion and bite of a thicker tire with low PSI. I on the other hand hate pinch flats as much as I hate anything in life, and would rather take some knocks than replace inner tubes. I also want to be able to get up to the mid- 20mphs the second the trail lets me (pushing 40mph on some of my favorite down hills)—but obviously not everyone wants that. If you want to get speed you need to have the tires that agree with you on that project. One complaint about the Contis was that the rear tire on the Cross Check was oddly worn when we were done—more than the other tires despite not bearing a heavier load and enduring the same conditions and psi. I am not really sure what was up there and it may simply have been a bad tire. My next tour is going to be either 1000 miles or 3000 so I may move over to Schwalbes then. We’ll see.

Signage on the Erie is a mixed bag even though the trail managers have done a good job over all of getting a fairly uniform marking system in place. Admittedly, on large sections of the trail there is no need for signs: the choices are pretty simple—either I ride on this crushed stone ribbon, or I can turn left and slam into that cornfield or I can turn right and plunge into the canal.

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That circle shield is the most common trail sign. Note the color of the arrow–whether sun faded or a curious choice, the arrow can be hard to see when you are at speed, unsure where you are, and wary of cars.

No sign needed for much of the trail–especially west of Rochester. But it gets a bit trickier when passing though towns and riding state roads. Here the right and left turns are easy to miss at your cost. We were very lucky to be following the big annual July ride which left behind its spray painted marks on the pavement—little red hobo signs that helped us (and the 700 some odd riders the week before) keep on track. This is where the Erie is more like traditional bike touring and less like the C&O/GAP—you have to know where you are and are going. Even so though, clearly the goal is to increase the number of riders on the trail and some better signage would help sooth nerves. A problem though is that the many municipalities along the way will have something to say about signs and that can be just too much for advocates to take on. So for that reason, uniformity would help. There is a basic trail logo and it is on any of the signs. There are often helpfully posted at directional changes accompanied by an arrow. But in many cases the arrows were hard to read white on tan and sun faded. Since there are often cars around and signs pass by in an instant while riding, I found that we had to stop at many signs to be sure. That is not a really big deal, but I think it is a good thing to know about as you prepare a trip of your own.

Be prepared to be a bit confused in cities too while hostile cars whiz by. The issue was most pronounced passing through Syracuse and on the approach to Albany from Schenectady.

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Riding in Buffalo will take some concentration.

This section of the trail links together lots of local dedicated bike paths to mixed effect. A few turns are a bit sudden and unforeseen as you charge ahead eager to make the much-awaited destination. On top of that, this is the hilliest stretch of the trail. That is no big deal—but there are a lot of ups and downs—few being more than a 5% grade. There is one killer hill though just east of Schenectady in the Niskayuna area. That one is big enough to have its own warning signs. The worst part of the hills though was that more than a few of the down hills—especially in Colonie—end at stop signs and traffic or sudden tight right turns. That means riding your breaks hard right when you should be enjoying withdrawing your deposit in the gravity bank.

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Intersection near Albany

Beware too that things get pretty weird in Cahoes (in many ways). There is a very sudden left onto a city street that we overshot and I gather others did as well since the local bike path just carries on happy as a paved clam. Working back through hilly Cahoes was not fun to begin with, and then finding and navigating the road bridge in town was no picnic either as we were there close to 5pm and traffic was thick. I would say that this was the single most challenging urban riding we did—and that includes the whole of Syracuse (the largest urban stretch) which all in all was pretty straight forward. The long on-street ride on Broadway through Watervliet is worth careful attention too.

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The trail as it passes through Green Island. NY outside Albany

The streets here are numbered, but there is a sudden 3rd Avenue thrown in just to confuse your counting—when you see 3rd Avenue, the turn on 4th St is still a ways away. This is just the sort of place where a good sign could make a big difference—and given the traffic issues, confusion can become an issue of safety.

Another useful thing to have in advance are the mileages between towns, crossings, and waypoints. This bit of vital trip planning intelligence was also hard to come by—but knowing distances is essential to planning out how long you think it will take to get from point A to point B. The published guidebooks have mileage tables, but these are hidden in the back and are a bit spare anyway—and of course, are not available online. I kept a record for myself using my Cat Eye and I am sharing my results here. There is some imprecision in my miles though. I was not always so careful about clocking the mileage in the same place in each town—some I recorded at the edge of town, others right in the center. Some waypoints were little more than road crossings while others were whole cities, like Syracuse which I only clocked where the trail merges with Rt 173—but when planning your ride keep in mind that Syracuse occupies most of the 12 miles eastward until DeWitt. I also made no record of Colonie, Cahoes, Green Island, and Watervliet but just lumped them into the 32 miles between Schenectady and Albany. In a few places I also had a diversion to a campsite or a resupply a bit off the trail. Rarely were these infrequent jaunts more than a mile or two, but I did not carve those miles out of my totals. So, there is a little imprecision in my table, but it certainly will help you plan out where you might be day to day. As they say, “your mileage may vary,” but not by all that much.

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All in all, the Erie is a great bike ride and many many more people need to make it a regular part of their riding. It is a great mix of place, exertion, and adventure and I really hope a more fully developed through ride culture comes into being. It is a great resource and it is calling out for more prominence. Ride it.



Fredericksburg’s Farmers’ Bank II

The Free Lance Star reported yesterday that on Monday the city issued a stop work order on the demolition of the 1950s drive-through bank additions behind the Farmers’ Bank on Princess Anne st. farmer's bankIt seems though that the order was almost literally a day late and a dollar short. Last year, developer Mike Adams purchased the property from PNC Financial Services and floated a few plans for the building and lot. The latest is to turn the bank building into a restaurant and offices and put seven town houses in the lot. The former seems like a reasonable low-impact use of a historical structure, the later through still threatens to overwhelm the lot and over shadow the old building. The project began with the removal of the drive-through, but at the last moment the city’s Architectural Review Board–frequently a site of preservation battles–has thrown cold water on Adams’s plans. He has replied with a suit, and the city returned fire on Monday by sending over the cops to enforce the ban. From what I saw though, there was not much left to cry over. IMG_4297.jpeg

Magic Means Stay Asleep


How well did that magic multi-roadway bridge work out in that image future?

Wow–look at how technology will solve our traffic problems! Sensors, slots, half autonomous cars whizzing past each other with barely a thought from the driver of each one: it’s like future magic. Too bad we don’t have a simple tried and proven technology for just reducing the number of cars on the road in the first place. If only we had something like that, then we could address this problem right away and not have to imagine some mystical future where our ENTIRE road network is remade AT PUBLIC EXPENSE to accommodate new gewgaws. Oh well, I guess I am just a head-in-the-clouds dreamer and lack the down-to-earth practical problem solving skill of geniuses conjuring up star trek road ways for some imagined future.

Washington in Barbados (or a Long Post About a Short Trip)

George Washington was famously well-traveled. His careers as a surveyor and soldier of the King gave him a detailed familiarity the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Riding at the head of the Continental Army brought him to and through cities and communities all along the eastern seaboard, and once elected president he used travel as a way to see and be seen by the people of the new United States.


Walter Kerr Cooper’s imagining of GW in Barbados.

But for all of this travel, he only left the continental US once in his life. For four months at the end of 1751 he accompanied his sickly brother Lawrence to the British Colony of Barbados. The trip was meant to address his older brother Lawrence’s weak lungs by bringing them from Virginia to the softer, breezier, less humid, supposedly more healthful air of the Caribbean. Lawrence’s problems had actually begun years earlier in the Caribbean, but the view that changing one’s air could change one’s health was one was tenet of one of the competing regimes of medical logic confronting an ailing eighteenth-century Briton looking for relief. The Washington brothers had already traveled up to the Appalachian foothills to seek out the warm springs and cool dry air of what is now Jefferson County West Virginia. But that had limited effect at best. The Barbados trip was another attempt clean out, air out, and dry out Lawrence’s failing lungs.

And so it was that the two took bunks on a Barbados-bound vessel. There is some disagreement about just what ship this was. Some advocate a trip from a Potomac port aboard the Success, while others have argued that the sailed from Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock about the aptly named Fredericksburg. The George Washington Papers project at UVa and the Fred W. Smith Library at George Washington’s Mount Vernon are in the later stages of creating a new and probably authoritative edition of the small, damaged, and fragmentary journal Washington kept during his trip.


A little section of GW’s navigation note courtesy of The Washington Papers

Project Editor Alicia Anderson has made it her business to master enough trigonometry to be able to use Washington’s navigation notes to plot out the pace and path of the voyage. The chart she will create will go a long way towards settling the port of embarkation question. While we wait though, the most commonly read copy of the Barbados Journal is the one edited by J.M. Toner and published in 1892. It is full of oddities and errors, but it works. I have kept a copy of it on my phone so that I can refer to it on the fly while on the island. The George Washington Diaries also handled the Barbados Diary with a very good descriptive essay and a facsimile of the original which resides in the Library of Congress. The book I am now writing has a chapter on the Barbados trip and soon the new edition of the Diary will be out. Erin Holmes also will be pairing Washington’s homes and Barbadian homes in her University of South Carolina dissertation comparing plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados, so GW’s time on the island is really happening!

The Brothers W arrived at Bridgetown in late October (or so it seems—the first actual entry on the island is dated November 4th, but pages before it are missing). They had a fairly calm crossing in which they enjoyed the swells of the sea and ate dolphin—a Caribbean favorite which smart marketers have renamed Mahi Mahi so that no one thinks they are eating a porpoise. In arriving at Bridgetown, Washington landed in the most cosmopolitan British city he had ever seen. The two colonies were roughly the same age, shared a somewhat similar history, had long-standing and extensive trade connections, and bore a superficial resemblance in government and society. Before sugar took over the island’s acres, planters had made a short- lived stab at tobacco planting hoping to recreate Virginians’ early seventeenth-century success. Like Virginians, Barbadian Britons could talk of an assembly, a governor and his council, they lived on plantations, and relied on enslaved African labor to keep themselves fed and have their fortunes made.


Henry Partleton’s 1880 photo of Bajan cane cutters.


On top of that, the mix of Britons and enslaved Africans was a bit like that found along Virginia’s rivers. But that was where the similarities ended. Bridgetown was nothing like any place in Virginia graced as it was with in-town homes of wealthy planters, an English-style church, well-built and fully manned military instillations, and large a Spanish and Portuguese descended Jewish community of merchants. An upcoming blog entry will deal a bit more with Washington and the Jews of Barbados. But even though Washington was something of a city kid by Virginia standards having lived most of his life at the doorstep of the small city of Fredericksburg, Bridgetown was something new.

The countryside was different as well. Sugar production led to a very different form of African enslavement and called into being very different cycles of labor. And Virginia was big: really quite big. That size—especially on its western edge—had already defined a significant part of the lives of the Brothers W and would soon offer even more. Even where Virginia settlement was dense it was never particularly crowded. By contrast, Barbados was a tiny island packed tight with actually fairly small sugar plantations and the distinctive stone windmills used to grind the valuable juice out of the cane. Washington noted that “scarcely any part” of the island “is deprived of a beautiful prospect both of sea & land.” (Toner, 58). He was correct, and his observation is of course still true today—but the many views only emphasize the tiny scale of the island.


St Philip’s Church in the early 19c. The church I think is later than GW’s visit, but the landscape is more or less the same. I doubt GW got this far from Bridgetown though.

But the young Washington was thrilled at what he saw on this grand adventure. On his trips into the countryside he was “perfectly enraptured with the beautiful prospects” which presented themselves to he and Lawrence and he marveled at the “fields of cane, corn, fruit-trees &c. in a delightful green”(Toner, 42). Washington took note of landscape and vegetation on these country forays. He commented on soil quality, the scale of sugar production, and agricultural practices. This was more than a mere curiosity. Sugar was a far more lucrative crop than was Virginia’s tobacco—partly accounting for why comparatively small island holdings could yield profits enough to even allow some planters to live well back in England. By way of context, a large Barbados plantation would be about 400 acres–that was the size that Washington said were the largest plantations. Henry Drax though owned 705 acres at the end of the seventeenth-century. His was one of the largest holdings on the island and one that allowed him to live back in England. On the other hand, John Dottin’s Mount Edge was 166 acres in 1759—a far more typical holding for a nice plantation. Plots of 10 acres though were not uncommon though. Compare that with the close to 1000 acres Washington inherited when his father died (himself owning l close to 10,000) of the 18,000 acres Washington took control of when he married Martha. Washington was just then making his first money though land surveying—an enterprise that rested on the availability of ever more new lands. To a Virginian, Barbados’s planters and their agricultural system working a tiny patch of land in the middle of nowhere seemed to hold the key to a sort of magical alchemy for making a fortune. At the same time though, Washington seemed astounded that so many planters were in debt or even lived poorly–a foreshadowing of his own unease with debt.

Washington also brought some book learning to his descriptions. He referenced Griffith Hughes’s 1750 The Natural History of Barbados and matched his own descriptions of plants to those of Reverend Hughes. When and where Washington saw the book is unclear. A copy did not end up in his library, but there may have been one at the Fairfaxes’. It is also possible that he had a copy (or bought a copy) on the island itself. However he laid his hands on Hughes’s work, it is one of the earliest examples we have of Washington employing reading in this fashion.


A folio of Hughes from the Barbados Museum. Washington was interested in nature enough to have even come home with a small bit of coral.

The brothers settled into a simple one-story rented house which sat on a rise of land a short distance east of Bridgetown. For the cost of 15 Pounds a month paid to an officer of the garrison, they had the run of the place—but they had to pay for their own liquor and laundry. The home was close to the stone coral fort at Needham’s point and close to the garrison’s parade ground. It also afforded a superb view of Carlisle Bay with its ships riding at anchor. This home is now restored to an eighteenth-century appearance and serves as a museum dedicated to the Washingtons’ time on the island. The home is larger than it was then and has had a second story added to it, but the feel is there. The area around it is completely changed as well. The commanding view is blocked by trees and a new building cut directly into the limestone hillside. The garrison has changed considerably too. What began as useful flat near Needham’s Point grew in the nineteenth-century into an expansive military complex ringing a large turf race course. Today it all is the home of schools, government buildings, the Barbados Historical Society and museum, and the Barbados Defense Forces who, by the way, have a legal monopoly on the wearing of camouflage on the island. Colonial Williamsburg conducted excavations at the home in 1999 and 2001. These mainly concentrated on the steep ravine to the east of the home—a logical place for centuries’ worth of trash to accumulate. Virginia students still return here to do some digging in the ravine to this day. The artifact assemblages though cover a large swath of time, and apart from some very familiar 1740s and 50s white salt glazed stoneware plate, nothing has emerged dating with any precision to the years of the Washington visit—nor is anything much likely to. Nevertheless, the lower parts of the house—and especially its cellar with its hewn stone and wooden beams—are good links to the eighteenth century.

While the purpose of the trip was largely medical, the Washingtons did a considerable amount of socializing with the local gentry. Their main contact on the island was Gedney Clarke, a player in the local commerce and governance as well as being Lawrence’s wife Anne’s stepmother’s brother (head spinning as that connection seems to us, eighteenth-century English families were pretty used to these extended networks of kin by blood or marriage).

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Agostino Brunias’s “The Barbadoes Mulato Girl’ circa 1765. This depiction of Barbadian women captures very much the sort of enslaved people Washington would have seen.

Clarke had a thriving trade with William Fairfax and sent not only sugar and rum to the Potomac, but also procured enslaved people and goods for the Fairfaxes and other members of their extended commercial family—including both Lawrence and George. Clarke opened society’s doors, and with his aid Washington toured fortifications, dined with several prominent families (sometimes with their daughters deliberately placed front and center), attended the theatre, went to church, and rode into the countryside when he could. It is not clear just how far northward Washington actually ventured. His descriptions best match the rising hills of the south, and nowhere did he mentioning the rather astounding natural features of the north. He did nevertheless refer to people who at least had land there even if Washington never made it that far above the Bridgetown area.

Washington clearly was matching what he saw on the island against what he knew at home. “The ladys generally are very agreeable” he wrote, but also felt that they were prone to “affect the Negro style” perhaps in speech and manner—something the young Virginian saw as a liability compared to the women he knew back home. (Toner, 61). This racially inflected haughtiness was no doubt one of the reasons that he did not return home with a Barbadian bride or a prospect in mind. He noted the level of militia service and how men were apportioned in some detail, and he also discussed the island’s defenses noting that “they have large Intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an enemy to land.” (Toner, 62). I find it very interesting that Washington paired concerns about race and fortifications in his journal—something that I will be discussing in the upcoming book’s Barbados chapter.

Clarke—or rather, someone in the Clarke household—was responsible for the most enduring outcome of the Barbados trip—George’s bout with small pox. The Washingtons knew that someone either at the Clarke plantation house or the in-town house had the disease, but they risked a dinner visit nonetheless. Once the illness had passed Washington could record in the diary that on November 17th, he “was strongly attacked with the small pox.” (Toner, 53). As these things went, it was on the mild side and obviously could have gone far worse. But that would have meant nothing to a young man sweating out a renowned deadly fever far from home and attended by caring, though ultimately unfamiliar people.


Sugar cane was generally ground to produce cane juice which could be boiled to make sugar. English Barbadian planters used either wind, oxen, or horses to move the grinders. The windmill was so common a sight little images of them adorn over a century of maps. Today only one wind mill still functions–Morgan Lewis on the north eastern side of the island. Image from the George Grantham Bain collection.

He spent most of November in bed—the diary is understandably silent. By December 12th he was recovered enough to visit the Clarkes in Bridgetown and thank them for their care and visits during his illness. The consequences of Washington’s smallpox are difficult to pin down. There are those who like to say that that fevered island month inoculated George against the disease, and thus ensured that he would not die of it before, or even during the Revolution. That line of reasoning’s implications are clear: a small amount well-timed body fluid contact preserved Our Washington and in so doing secured the fate of the Republic. There are a lot of “ifs” in that charming premise, but one can understand how such a view could take root. The other often-cited consequence was that the fever rendered Washington incapable fathering children. This outcome is the opposite of the former outcome. In the former, Washington is saved to be the Father of the Country, whereas in the later he is denied the ability to be a father. And of course there is a relationship between the two outcomes. The challenge here is the uncertain relationship between small pox and male sterility. The simplest version of this relationship is that there is none—small pox does not cause sterility. The fever itself though can do permanent damage and other opportunistic illnesses can do their horrid work while a body’s defenses are down. The answer though is that we cannot say with any real certainty that the lack of direct line little Washingtons was because of that poorly timed dinner at the Clarkes’s.

As this rather long entry shows, I have quite a bit to say about Washington and Barbados—here I just spun out a few of the themes I am working with. And I have not even touched yet on Washington memory on the island long after the famed visit. A few important take aways though are the value of the Barbados Diary as an early and quite revealing Washington foray into the world of words. Another is the chance to see the Virginian mind (some may say gaze) examining a place similar enough to grant purchase, but alien enough to captivate. Still another is what we see of the island itself. The Barbados trip is usually a quick moment in most Washington literature. I am glad I am giving it a bit more page space than is usual.

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