Bike Nielsen 2007

Day Zero: Two Oceans in One Day
Santa Barbara, CA to Concord, Massachusetts
Start time: 6:15 am PDT
End time: 4:34 pm EDT
Today’s mileage: three thousand air miles
Total bike mileage so far: 0 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.81 was the cheapest we saw.
Weather: High seventies in degrees and humidity
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
Animals for the day: Don’t tell the locals, but we said, “OOoo, look, Canadian Geese!”
We’re standing in our socks, the TSA guy is rummaging through our stuff, and the metal cleats in our bike shoes are under scrutiny in the x-ray machine.
“Where’s your ticket?”
“You took my ticket!”
“No I didn’t, you must have set it down. Oh, here it is in my pocket.”
We’re just about the last passengers to board. Ninety seconds of stomach-wrenching panic are quelled when the ticket appears from a pocket. Ahh, vacation time. As with most of our story-telling, we will leave the task to our readers to decide who is writing about whom.
Our plane made a stop in Salt Lake City, where the flight pattern includes overshooting the airport by quite a ways and making a fun banking turn to approach the runway. Most of the turning happens over the Southern tip of the Great Salt Lake. On our first look, the water looked dull and lifeless. There were white-grey deposits on the shoreline and faded marsh vegetation in patches. When the plane turned around, the mid-morning light acted on the landscape in a completely different way. The water was vibrant blue, so vivid it seemed artificially enhanced. The plants were either bright green or red-golden. There were flocks of shocking white birds. The woman in the seat behind John, in her Airplane Voice, said, “It’s like a topographic map!” Well, it would be if it had contour lines. Even with its inaccuracies, her comment made Berta squint her eyes and imagine the islands of green with patches of gold as whole continents amongst the great blue expansive oceans. It really did look like the photographs from space.
The video screen at each seat on the plane had about ten free TV channels. There were many other choices that cost five dollars just to think about viewing them. The family in front of us spent fifteen dollars for three screenings of Shrek III that were enjoyed approximately one-third of the time by their attention-challenged, energy-rich children. If they could have coordinated their twitching and thrashing, they might have been able to get away with just one charge. John decided to play trivia with four other passengers. After ten questions he had zero points and his fellow flyers had thousands of points. That would have been okay except the points tally screen identified the player’s seat number. Look at that moron sitting in 37F! He doesn’t know anything!
Day One: Onward
Concord to Westborough, Massachusetts
Start time: 7:45 am
End time: 1:30 pm
Today’s mileage: 42.5
Total bike mileage so far: 42.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.79
Weather: Very pleasant
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
Animals for the day: A Burro, horses, a hawk, a small yellow bird and three hard-shell insects that impacted Berta in quick succession while she sped downhill.
As amazing as it sounds, the weather today in mid-August in Massachusetts was fabulous. Most of our route was on roads covered in shade from a thick canopy of trees. There was a light breeze and the humidity seemed reasonable. The terrain here is undulating, with only a few huffy hills.
One significant feature here is the granite. There is granite bulging out of the ground in big boulders. We passed the Berlin Stone Company and caught a quick glimpse of a huge granite wall in the quarry. Most of the curbs in this area are made of granite. Even the crash barriers in corners on the road are made of granite. In corners where California would put 100 yards of Armco with reflective striping and ten big black arrows on yellow signs, Massachusetts puts maybe ten granite posts. These posts stand about three feet tall and have a six-inch rectangular cross section. We suspect that if you were to doze off in that corner, you would hear thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump thump right before you crashed into the ditch. Similarly, Massachusetts makes only the smallest attempt to warn its drivers of danger. We saw a sign tacked to a power pole way overhead that said “slow corner ahead”. The actual corner had no signage and no stripes on the road whatsoever, only the shadows of the trees that would stand between you and an Evil Knievel moment.
Beautiful terrain and granite walls
For our second breakfast, we stopped in Bolton and entered the general store to the music of Loggins and Messina, which seemed perfect. The radio station was WSRS and streams live on the internet at The store had barrels of candy, knickknacks, way too many candles, historic local photos, old farm accoutrements nailed to the wall, and a magical young cook who produced perfect eggs, home fries and toast. We talked to a lady who said the area mostly dealt in “fahming”. She was perfectly coiffed and led into the store a severely handicapped daughter who was equally well coiffed. The woman was the boss of the store who treated her help poorly but lavished love on her daughter.
We saw many fahms, including some growing corn, apples, peaches, raspberries, grapes, and nectarines. Most of the orchards had just a few rows of trees. There were signs that read “Danger, chemicals in use”, but we suspect that was a little white lie to discourage pilfering. Many of the farms offered their produce for sale. Berta reluctantly passed a winery, but she knows better after that Foster’s beer incident after a long hot day of cycling in 1994.
We passed a throng of people attending the Pure Hockey Camp near South Berlin. There were many hundreds of people walking from a field parking lot to an arena out in the middle of nowhere. They carried shoulder pads and helmets and hockey sticks. There were local police officers directing traffic at three places to control the crowds. Pure Hockey has six stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They just moved into this location last month from a mile down the road. They didn’t seem to have any trouble attracting a lot of campers.
This is the land of the riding mower. There is moss that is still green on some granite outside, even though it gets strong afternoon sun. The tap water here tastes great.
Day Two: Too Much Excitement
Westborough, Massachusetts to Willington, Connecticut
Start time: 7:20 am
End time: 2:30 pm
Today’s mileage: 62 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 104.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: It’s raining and we cannot see the Truck Stop prices from here
Weather: Cold (low fifties!) and Wet
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
Animals for the day: More Burros and horses, geese, and a few uninterested dogs
Regionalisms: it’s a Rotary, not a Traffic Circle
When we approached Main Street in Oxford, Connecticut, we had known for a while that we needed to find food. John asked a kid on a bike where we should eat. The kid motioned down the street and said Jack’s was a good place. He suggested we order the ham and eggs because they give you a big plate of good ham. Berta took the recommendation, but she couldn’t have expected what arrived:
Look at that plate! We estimate there was a pound of ham, three eggs, about two or three potatoes’ worth of home fries, and two well-buttered pieces of toast. This was easily three meals on a plate. The waitress suggested we could take the rest for sandwiches later, so we thought about buying a loaf of bread. Berta had made a pretty respectable dent in the delicious pile when she went to grab a jacket from her bike because she was cold from the rain (it rained all day today). She ran back into the diner and said her bike was missing. John ran out of the diner, chewing his bacon, to look for the missing bike. The waitress handed John a telephone and he called 911 to report a stolen bicycle. John asked the closest customer where we were. The response was “Oxford Diner.” Another customer offered to take John in his car to look for the missing bike. John and Ray, the owner of the tavern next door, drove around town, with Ray consulting with the police on his cell phone. Ray was embarrassed and indignant that someone would steal a bike in his town. He told John, “You know, this is a good place”. Meanwhile, Berta guarded John’s bike and donned some of John’s clothing to make her warmer. Berta asked the stream of arriving customers if they had seen a bike with red bags on it. Really, this was as frantic as Berta can be.
Berta waited outside the diner, talking to one of the three local police officers who were on duty today. He had zoomed by in his car a few minutes earlier and apologized that he hadn’t stopped—he said he was rushing to search the neighborhood. The cop insisted this type of thing doesn’t happen in Oxford. While Berta stammered about how distressing this was, a guy went into the bathroom that was five feet away. Berta’s bike was in the bathroom. Nothing was touched. It appears someone was playing a prank on us. The officer called Ray, who returned with John to the diner. John went inside to pay for breakfast, and they refused his money. In retrospect, people in the diner seemed to know what happened. We wonder if someone inside had paid up when they found out what a ruckus they caused.
It’s “funny” what comes to mind when you get a shock like thinking your vehicle is gone and vacation is over. Let’s not even consider that Berta’s bike is a fabulous 1993 Cannondale aluminum-frame beauty with good recent components. She doesn’t need or want a new bike because her frame rocks. And let’s ignore that her wallet and cell phone were in her pack (not going to do that again). No, Berta is standing there mourning her eyeglasses—would they still
have that stylish frame when she went to get new glasses?—and that there were dry socks in her pack. It turns out John was considering where we would get a new bike for Berta to continue this ride. Boy, would we be off schedule then!
Berta considered hugging her bike, her favorite glasses, her dry socks, and everything else. She didn’t even care that the table had been cleared of all that ham. We put on our soggy clothes and rejoined the route. It was miles before the adrenaline wore off. How lucky we were that it was only a prank. How glad were Ray and the officer that it was only a prank and this type of thing really doesn’t happen in Oxford?
The rest of the ride was uneventful. We stopped outside of Stafford Springs and ate leftover Dunkin Donuts cinnamon buns in the shelter of an office building with a porch. That improved our mood so much that we are going to pack a few buns again tomorrow. We arrived at the EconoLodge/Rodeway Inn at 1430, dripping and dirty. Hot water and soap work miracles and, with those and a hearty dinner at the Truck Stop next door, we are ready for tomorrow. Rumor is that there will be no rain tomorrow. You can bet we will lock the bikes together when we stop, and we will appreciate our things and our adventure.
Day Three: Beautiful Weather, Beautiful Land
Willington to Torrington, Connecticut
Start time: 8:45 am
End time: 4:30 pm
Today’s mileage: 62 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 166.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.81
Weather: Cool in the morning up to the high seventies
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
Animals for the day: A bird with a black mask outlined in yellow, a red robin
Regionalisms: “Tag Sale Today” means garage sale
There is no flat in Connecticut. There is only up or down. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but representative of our ride today. We are a little bit embarrassed to tell you, but yesterday we became bike walkers, not riders. The hill became so steep that we had the choice of falling over or walking. We walked. We have decided that Connecticut is just like Montana where they pave the roads straight up the hills. If your car can’t make the grade, you just don’t drive that road. It’s just worse here because the hills are so steep. We were on a road today called Hatchet Hill. Yes, we get it.
The hills are drenched with green. The girl at the motel desk said it is really pretty during “peak” here, meaning fall. That may be true, but the green is so rich and the landscape seems so untouched that it is beautiful now too. As desert dwellers, the lush verdant scenery is intoxicating.
We crossed an earthen dam near Barkhampsted that supports over thirty billion gallons of water. Looking up the long thin lake, there was not a sign of humanity. There was a building in the middle of the dam (see below) that had fabulous castle doors with a big heavy metal bar across the big heavy door handles. Berta didn’t even try the door due to a combination of factors. The overriding reason is ten years of Catholic school. The second reason is the possibility that behind those doors is a deep dark creepy dam scene. Of course, John went over and pulled hard on the doors. Yes, they were locked. Yes, the video surveillance caught him doing it.
On the Saville Dam near Barkhampsted
We tried to stay in Winsted today but there was no room at the bed and breakfast—not a first choice—so we had to detour seven miles to Torrington, a lovely small town with a heaven-sent Quality Inn.
We are only twenty-five miles from the state capitol (Hartford) but still had to search to find a place to stay. The little towns here have many businesses, but few motels. Every town has a garage, insurance agents, pizza places, and at least a general store. This town has a store that sells groceries, drugstore items, and school supplies. It is called the Big Y, and they wanted to know if we had a Big Y Card when we made a purchase.
The cemeteries in this part of the country have headstones, close together, that give witness to people who lived long ago. Many of the towns here were incorporated before 1800, so we
saw dates from way back then. For some reason, the tight rows of headstones in old cemeteries are more of an affront than the widely-spaced well-manicured newer cemeteries. It seems like people back then were smaller, closer, more connected than they are now. Husbands and wives are buried next to each other and have the same simple markings on their headstones. Many children had short life spans, at least according to the graveyard.
We were standing in the central square in Winsted, wondering where to stay. We filled our water bottles from the public fountain. A lady walked by, and we asked her for lodging advice. At first, she seemed in a hurry, but then she talked for ten minutes about the town and its efforts to renew itself. Winsted suffered a major flood of the Mad River in 1955, a combination of Hurricanes Connie and Diane. The town is still struggling to thrive as a suburb of Hartford. This woman thinks there has been some progress, but not enough. She always has lived in Connecticut and moved to Winsted because she loved the reasonable price of her beautiful Victorian house that has a marble fireplace. Whether she stays in Winsted or not, she says she will always live in Connecticut.
Today we saw corn, tobacco, squash, raspberries, beans and “something or other over there”. We heard a dog barking that had the deepest voice you can imagine. Another, presumably smaller, dog in a passing car timed his bark perfectly as he passed John. Perfectly timed means BARK! right in your ear. We really need to use the Laundromat across the street but we don’t have the gumption. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have clean clothes.
Day Four: Enchiladas malas
Torrington, Connecticut to Rhinebeck, New York
Start time: 8:45 am
End time: 4:30 pm
Today’s mileage: 71 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 237.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.87
Weather: Warm and nice
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
Animals for the day: Billy goats and burros. Why so many burros?
Regionalisms: Yea buddy!
The breakfast hostess at the Quality Inn was loud, liked to talk, and had a long gray pony tail restrained with some kind of decorative elastic device every two inches for a grand total of six devices. She explained that she knew how to run the breakfast much better than her boss and that on the 4th of July weekend she used 25 gallons of waffle batter. She likes TAG sales because if you plan it right you can get some great deals. There are some old ladies who just have tag sales because it gives them something to do, but the moving sales are the best. When she left her ex, she didn’t take all her pots and pans. As a matter of fact she, just last Sunday, got an entire set of Pyrex dishes for 50 cents each. You pay a lot to get a new set of all those pans! Her hours at the motel are not sufficient so she has landed a new job making seats for airliners at a factory that is just this side of the Stop N Shop. She starts next Tuesday. While she was filling out the application for the seat job, she helped a guy complete his application because he couldn’t read English. Upon observing her behavior (that and knowing her current status as employee of the month at Kmart), the interviewer said she was supervisor material. During this monologue, John ate faster and faster for fear of hearing way too much detail, which was surely forthcoming. She was a woman looking for a better future and spoke of returning to school. Even though she was a bit voluble, we admired her determination.
We spent much of the day in the Northwestern corner of Connecticut, where the towns are small and quaint. Like most small towns in America, each community here has a monument to their fighting people. In Norfolk, we saw a particularly nice plaque on a stone bell tower:
Directly behind us as we read this sentiment, Buttermilk Falls splashed into a rocky river. As we looked in another direction, there was a beautiful stone church where a man watered the purple pansies near the door. The town of Norfolk is listed on our map as having 1660 people. We can tell you with certainty that it is one of the most beautiful spots we have seen.
Tonight, we are staying at the Beekman Arms Inn, which has been serving travelers for over 235 years. They claim they are the oldest inn in America. On the menu at Pete’s diner, the “History of our Town” page says the Beekman is one of the oldest inns in America. We’re just trying to stir up controversy. George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas
Wolfe and FDR all visited the Inn. We are not actually staying in the Inn but in a mini motel in back of the Inn. It’s nice except the wireless Internet really doesn’t reach out here. The tea tree bathroom products and the included decanter of New York Sherry make up for that. We’re sure the tea tree bath gel was a big hit during the Civil War.
We considered eating at the Inn, but the menu prices forced us to choose the Rhinebeck Grille & Cantina. The decision was arbitrary as there are many restaurants within blocks. Mexican food sounded good after eating two breakfasts today. It just so happened that we both ordered the same entrée, chicken enchiladas. Without a doubt they were the most tasteless enchiladas we have had in recent memory. You could say they were some of the most tasteless enchiladas ever served. This, we think, is the recipe:
One whole chicken breast, poached in unsalted water. Dice into one-inch cubes
Six corn tortillas
One can diced tomatoes, pureed
One tablespoon cheddar cheese.
Place the diced chicken on each tortilla. Roll up and place three on a plate. Spoon tomatoes onto “enchiladas”. Garnish with cheese. Heat in oven.
Maybe we don’t have the measurement exactly right on the cheese. It might have been two tablespoons. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough. If there was any spice at all on our plate, we couldn’t find it. We didn’t want to look at each other because we couldn’t stop laughing. We couldn’t really look at the carrots and peas in the “Spanish” rice, because that made us laugh harder. We used about four cups of salsa that didn’t help with the taste so much as to lubricate the food for easier eating. John wanted to tell the waitress the truth about the food she was serving but Berta asked “what good would that do?” because she just served the food and didn’t cook it. John just wanted the young woman to know that she was serving slop and boring salsa and should look for another job. Berta’s counsel won the day, but John maintains that leaving the woman ignorant was cruel.
We needed to do laundry yesterday so we asked today for directions. We were informed that there is a Laundromat down the road across from the fairgrounds. “We’re not from here” we explained, so the CVS clerk said the fairgrounds are just past the hospital. Finally we pinned him down to saying the Laundromat was about ½ mile down on the left. We found it after walking about a mile and we were two of the five English speakers washing clothes. With so many Spanish speakers present John wanted to know why dinner had been so bad. Sometimes he just can’t let go.
We saw some other bicycle tourists today. Actually, we saw many cyclists, all going the opposite direction, but only a few had baggage like we do. One guy named Dan is riding from New Jersey to Maine to attend a wedding. He confessed he had dress shoes in his panniers. It’s likely those dress shoes will end up on the side of the road on some steep hill in Connecticut. Dan is young and fit, and travels without someone to whine to, so maybe he will keep the shoes on board all the way.
Our little tour reinforces what a beautiful land this is. Several times a day, one of us says “wow, look at that!” The green landscape is punctuated by goldenrod and some unfamiliar yet similar wildflower that has deep red flowers. The sky is scattered with big billowy clouds that, if you painted them accurately, a person would say they don’t look real. No clouds are that three-dimensional for being only water droplets and that colorful for being basically white.
Day Five: Money Money Money
Rhinebeck to New Paltz, New York
Start time: 9:155 am
End time: 1:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 29 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 266.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.97
Weather: Nearly ninety with palpable humidity
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.5 from yesterday
Animals for the day: A female white-tailed deer, a woodchuck right next to us, and some goose-sized dark brown birds with longish necks and long tail feathers.
Regionalisms: Liquor only liquor stores, with no sodas or beer allowed in them
We’re safely ensconced at the Rodeway Inn and unable to watch TV without a large black rectangle that blocks out the lower 40% of the screen. The TV was fine when we arrived. Berta became irritated with the settings on the TV, so she decided to “fix” the problem. Well, she admits that she deserves whatever is being written at this time. If you know Berta, that is quite a statement. If this TV belonged to us, Berta would have just carried it to the curb and put a FREE sign on it. There is a three- to four-second blank screen between changing channels. With more than sixty channels, that is about four minutes for the whole channel flip. Besides, John knew Berta was a fiddler before he married her.
We were cruising down the road today when we saw a spectacular view of the Hudson River. We pedaled about half a mile to see the Vanderbilt summer home. Frederick William Vanderbilt (1856 –1938) was a man who inherited 10 million dollars and multiplied it many times. Many of his brothers and heirs spent their fortune and had none of the vision of him and his father. He was generous, endowed many educational institutions, and insured that local children had Christmas presents. He “took care” of his workers and sent some of their children to college. The mansion we visited was the smallest of the Vanderbilt mansions and it was huge. We wondered what was different between folks like us and a man who made millions from millions. There is a lesson here for you and me but we don’t really know what it is. Let’s see, travel around the country according to the season and live in one of your many homes? It sounds good to us.
Berta got the black box off the TV. She wants you to know that.
We learned many of the details about Vanderbilt from Derek, who was the affable Park Ranger sitting at the desk in the smaller Vanderbilt home next to the mansion. The smaller
home was occupied by the Vanderbilts for two years while the mansion was built. There are some very large wildlife heads mounted on the dark-wood wall around the fireplace in the main room of the small house. John asked if Vanderbilt was a hunter. Derek said an interior designer decided on the animals. Our conversation started out informational and became philosophical when Derek offered and elaborated on the well worn sentiment that money can’t buy happiness. He was referring to the heirs who squandered their money.
The back porch of the Vanderbilt Mansion
Just a few miles away from the Vanderbilt home is the home of our former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945). It is much more modest structure; however, if you were asked to live in his house you would jump at the chance. Both the Roosevelt home and the Vanderbilt mansion are situated on lovely grassy bluffs high over the Hudson River in Hyde Park.
We are following some maps we purchased from Adventure Cycling. What a great decision that has been. Picture the area around where you live. Picture if you needed to get to the next town by bicycle. You wouldn’t ride on the freeway, right? You would probably end up on small country roads and smaller highways. The maps we have show this kind of local knowledge. As a result, we have been on mostly excellent roads. The surfaces have been smooth (generally), the shoulders wide, and the traffic reasonable. Today, we followed the route to the Mid-Hudson Bridge to cross the Hudson River. Rivers in general pose a problem for cyclists, because not all bridges allow foot or bike traffic. We trust that this bridge is the best way to cross the Hudson for miles and miles. Let’s clarify now that Berta does not like heights. The Mid-Hudson Bridge is 135 feet above the water and 1500 feet long. It is a Big Bridge. About a hundred yards onto it, Berta was cussing. The cussing turned to crying and by the time she got off the bridge she was sobbing. Then she felt like a million bucks. Okay, she sat down on a park bench and blew her nose. Then she started feeling better about it. The crossing was probably better than years of psychotherapy. Her coping mechanism with high bridges is to ride faster. John says she rides
like “a scalded cat”. When Berta finally got to the other side, she looked back and John was in the middle of the span taking a picture. Weirdo!
That #$%@$& Bridge. Kind of pretty, huh.
About two-thirds of the way across, there was a worker walking towards Berta. Who knows what she was thinking, but she blurted out “I DON’T LIKE THIS!” He didn’t hear, so she said again, “I… DON’T… LIKE… THIS!” When the guy saw John, he asked if we were together. The guy said he was concerned for Berta. People are nice.
Berta notes that while she didn’t get many style points for the crossing, she did it.
As we entered the College Diner this afternoon, a veteran of the Korean War was holding forth with some other regulars. The diner was quiet, so the conversation was audible to even the hearing challenged. “When was the end of the Korean War?” “July 27, 1953, I know because my buddy got it on the eighth.” As John was spooning the Thousand Island dressing, he heard, “How did you know the war was over?” Answer: “Because I was there.” Everyone laughed. It was bittersweet snapshot of American history. It was small town America.
Day Six: Magnificent View
New Paltz to Port Jervis, New York
Start time: 8:15 am
End time: 2:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 66 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 332.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.65 in New Jersey across the street!
Weather: 75 degrees
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.3 (easier miles today)
Animals for the day: A big hawk on a wire decided we were too big to carry off for lunch. We raced a vulture who was flying about 15 mph.
Regionalisms: SUNY New Paltz is pronounced locally as “Sunny Nooples”, and they want to know if you want cawfee with your breakfast
We spent the early morning riding with the Catskills a couple of miles away. Our perspective included some magnificent rock walls breaking the thick forestation. In the foreground were miles and miles of pastures and fields. Those were dusted with lovely raspberry lavender flowers, which we have since learned are an invasive plant that at least one New Yorker calls a “bane”. Such color, especially in August, was beautiful just the same.
The Catskills
Rural restaurant/diner placemats are a window into the health and variety of businesses in a community. We’ve mentioned them before. Today we saw advertised the “go cart” (a trailer you
rent that holds a yard of concrete), the services of an attorney, married physical therapists Fritz and Gretchen Meier (or were they siblings?), a counseling service that covered just about anything that one would need counseling for, a heating & air conditioning service, a plumber that is “America’s Neighborhood Plumber”, a garage, and that’s all we can remember. An ad for a used car lot was the center piece of the placemat. The lot is run by the same guys who own the diner. They suggest that after you have lunch at the Quickway Diner, you should look at the great deals at the Quickway Car Lot.
We suspect the waitress at the diner traded legs with John during lunch. That’s the best explanation for John having a bad case of lead legs for several miles. Maybe the sausage and peppers casserole he ate had something to do with his condition.
The greater Port Jervis area spans both sides of the Delaware River in New York and Pennsylvania. Just to the South is New Jersey. As we sit in our Comfort Inn room, two other states are within a mile.
We just finished watching Meet Joe Black and John doesn’t understand the ending. Oh, and he would like to have Brad Pitt push his hair out of his eyes.
We spent much of the day in Orange County. Berta just looked up the location of Orange County Choppers, the motorcycle manufacturing shop featured on the Learning Channel. We were within twenty miles of them. We’re not sure why we mention it, though, because they could have been twenty yards down a side street and we wouldn’t see them. You only concentrate on the little corridor of life that you travel.
Life is good on the road and is greatly improved by hot water showers and clean sheets. See you tomorrow.
Day Seven: Fresh Oil and Loose Gravel
Port Jervis, New York to Easton, Pennsylvania
Start time: 8:00 am
End time: 4:20 pm
Today’s mileage: 78 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 410.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: No gas stations in the National Park
Weather: up to 90 degrees, but mostly very comfortable
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.0 for a long day
Animals for the day: Three squawking vultures who had just spotted some new road kill, a woodchuck that was two feet away on some rocks at the side of the road, and a fabulous hawk we describe below.
Regionalisms: Birch Beer and poles sticking up on the fire hydrants to indicate their location in the snow
We spent most of the day within yards of the Delaware River, crossing from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and back. There were stretches of miles where no cars passed us on the road. As a result, we were comfortable to look around a little more in case Sasquatch was ambling by. John, who has a real talent for making meaningful gestures (mostly to keep Berta safe), pointed up ahead at a hawk that had flown out of the tree tops. We were in the National Park, and the road cut a small channel through thick forest. The hawk decided to try to out fly us straight down the road. For a magical ten or fifteen seconds, this hawk flew about ten feet above our heads, maybe twenty yards ahead of us. His tail feathers swiveled and he looked from side to side, hoping he had left us behind. He would aim for one perch, then decide we were still too close. Finally, he stopped to let us pass. He sat on a high branch and watched us ride away. All of this happened in the silence of wilderness, flight, and bicycle travel. After a few minutes, we broke the hush and said, “Wow!”
John keeps his wallet in a barf bag. The bag was available on our Delta flight into Boston. They don’t actually call it a Barf Bag, of course; it has barf euphemisms in several languages printed on it. The English version is “Motion Discomfort”. Barf is not discomfort, and luckily discomfort is not barf. It is probably better that it is not actually labeled a “Barf Bag” because several times a day John produces this item from his pack, removes his wallet from it, and sets it on the counter in front of a cashier. He did show it to a young woman at a Dairy Queen, and she thought it was funny. Another person who found out what the bag is said you couldn’t find a better bag in a store if you looked for it. It is plastic, not just plasticized paper, so it is waterproof, and it is perfectly wallet size. There is an adhesive strip at the top that was covered with a strip, but the strip is gone and the adhesive has collected all manner of lint-like material. Above all of the words in different languages, the bag is entitled “Song™” with a fashionable swoosh logo. Since it has a trademark symbol, that must mean that a group of consultants sat around and brainstormed on what word most conveys the barfness of the bag.
Lots of swoopy roads today. Delaware River on Left
We are doing something a little different on this bike trip: bringing donuts or something similar in our packs. Three times we have needed to eat with no place to buy food in sight. A few days ago, Berta had kind of arbitrarily picked up some Hostess Cherry pies and stashed them in her pack. They hold up remarkably well in a pannier. Today, we passed two very small towns where we had expected to get some juice when our energy levels dictated it was time for the backup plan. Out came the pies. “Shall we eat the mushy one or the firm one?” “The mushy one.” Well it wasn’t mushy, or not that mushy, and when you’re drooping, who cares? The good thing is we still have the firm one.
It really isn’t an adventure without pea gravel. For about four miles today we white-knuckled it through fresh oil and loose gravel on the River Road. It wasn’t so bad when we could ride where cars had compacted the gravel, but it got a little iffy when a car needed to pass. We probably put about two hundred miles on the tires with the rough surface. Good thing it was a really quiet road.
Berta, bicycle ambassador to river rafters, waved many times to folks floating down the Delaware. She had many return waves. If you blurred your eyes a bit, the organization of the tubers, rafters and kayakers looked a little bit like Brownian motion. All were going generally downstream, but on many different paths. In any group of river rats, there are those who relish the quietness, and those who can’t resist hollering and squealing in voices that carry well along the river.
Every once in awhile, in this falling rock area, the road will suddenly shrink to one lane with a stoplight at each end to regulate traffic. We were sitting at a sign that said, “WAIT 3 Minutes the signal will change.” Well we hadn’t seen a car in the last 10 miles and we were anxious for lunch so we didn’t wait the full three minutes, but we did wait some. So off we go and soon we see a car that looks like the COPS. John thought “Oh great, now we are going to get a lecture.” Fortunately it wasn’t a cop. We met three other cars and they were serious when they said it was one lane. Next time we’ll wait. Maybe.
During a juice break, we stopped at the Layton County Store. The proprietor was cooking breakfast and one elderly patron was sipping coffee on one of the five stools that constituted the counter. While looking over the drink selection we noticed a bottle of “Birch Beer” with the
store’s name on the label. “What is birch beer?” we asked. “You know, birch beer,” was the first answer because our question was probably pretty difficult for a local. “Is it alcoholic?” “It’s like root beer.” After a lengthy discussion, the actual ingredients of birch beer were never revealed. Berta thought it tasted like a combination of root beer and ginger ale. Restless with the chatting, John started wandering around the store and to try to identify why the place smelled like his Grandfather’s basement. Through one door and there it sat. A magnificent French commode with beautiful inlayed wood, curves that make one marvel at the woodworkers craft and a marble top. We were told it was made in the 1800s. It had three beautifully curved drawers—the bottom two functional and the top one faux—that opened to make a small desk with two small drawers and several cubby holes. It was priced at $995.00 but the proprietor said she would make us a good offer. Unsure of its provenance, we passed; but even if it was made last year, it was a stunner. You never can tell what’s around the corner. Can’t wait for tomorrow.
Day Eight: Fresher Oil and Looser Gravel
Easton to Norristown, Pennsylvania
Start time: 8:00 am
End time: 3:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 62 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 472.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.54 Wow!
Weather: Very humid and 100 degrees on the road later in the afternoon
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.5
Animals for the day: Two whitetail deer hopping across a yard, and some squirrels. And lots of butterflies this whole trip.
Regionalisms: Bridge Street. You follow a big river for many miles, and every town has a Bridge Street.
This morning we donned our lightweight jackets before leaving the motel. We got as far as the parking lot before we took them off. It was hot and humid like Midwest humid. We were treated to more lush greenery as we rolled up and down next to the Delaware River. Being from
‘out of town’, we rely on our map, faithfully execute all turns, and ignore Road Closed signs. The reason the road was closed this morning was the highway department was lubricating the road with fresh oil and ball bearings (aka gravel). Fortunately, they had only accomplished two thirds of their task so we had a lane to ride in and saw firsthand the application process. It was also good that we didn’t need to cross the fresh oil—Berta’s jacket has had a glob of oil on the back for seven years since we hit the same stuff near Aberdeen, South Dakota.
We rode for a little while on a bike path today
Feeling the need for Hawaiian Punch, we stopped in Milford and discovered that Minute Made and Tropicana fruit punch are good substitutes for HP in a pinch. Milford seems to be a prosperous little town with quite a few art dealers and a great bakery. We purchased ginger and chocolate chip ginger cookies from the Oven Door that were a real treat, especially after a shockingly boring lunch in the next town.
While we were eating lunch it started to rain, not hard, but a steady drizzle. Berta had faith that John would decide when it was a good time to put on our rain gear. John proclaimed the time was now and soon we were sweating profusely and getting wetter than we would have from the rain. We ditched the rain gear and the rest of the day was sunny. That was amazing considering the big red glob that ate Pennsylvania on the Weather Channel forecast this morning. We have no idea where the monster rain went.
The camera we are carrying is pretty much a point-and-shoot model from Canon, but it has a good optical zoom so its lens sticks out a bit. We practically have no complaints about it except that the cap on the lens falls off constantly. This design flaw means that we routinely stick a fingerprint on the lens because the cap has come off. We complained about it one time and were told it was intentionally designed that way so the cap will pop off when the camera powers up. It is, being polite, a bad design. We try to avoid lens touching by carrying the camera with a rubber band over the lens cap. It looks pretty lame, but it works. The other day, John snapped the aging band. When he mentioned it, Berta commented that it would be hard to buy just one rubber band and we don’t stop by many office buildings. John insisted that the universe would provide. Last night, we walked a block to have dinner at Olive Garden. The wait was 5 minutes.
We looked at several empty chairs in the waiting area and selected one that seated two. Before John sat down, he reached down and picked up a blue rubber band from the seat. Neat! Next, we are asking the universe to provide a winning lottery ticket.
We have noticed many political/ballot issue signs in yards on this trip. So far, we haven’t seen a yard with a bunch of quotations from the bible, but it won’t be the first when we do. We went through one town that displayed many signs objecting to a proposed power line. One voter was motivated to paint his classic automobile with the no power line logo. We recognize that issue from our neck of the woods, too. We saw many signs in one community stating NO MARSHFIELD, and the web address was so convoluted that we had to stop and write it down. It turns out a small township along the Delaware River is feeling threatened by a proposal by a giant energy company to change zoning in their town. The zoning would be for residential units and would result—according to their website—in a 90% increase in population in five years. Actually, we think both of these towns are fighting the same big energy company.
Thanks for all the readers who offered words of support for Berta and the Big Bad Bridge. She understands the height thing intellectually. When we crossed the bridge, there was a railing that was higher than our shoulders. Berta would have had to fall off her bike and land on a big sheet of Flubber for her to bounce over the rail. And for those of you who recalled other Berta Bridge Debacles, rest easy knowing that she didn’t remember one of them. She erased that part of the disc.
Valley Forge tomorrow.
Day Nine: Fast Cars, Slow Buggies
Norristown to Morgantown, Pennsylvania
Start time: 7:40 am
End time: 4:20 pm
Today’s mileage: 75 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 547.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.79
Weather: Hot and Humid, but it didn’t rain like it seemed it would
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 2.0 longer day
Animals for the day: Lots of deer in Valley Forge, including some Bambis.
Regionalisms: Mowing the grass must be a full time job here
Wow, what happened there?
We see about one mower per mile. We have seen a guy standing on the back of a mower—that’s how it was designed—lots of guys on riding mowers, and a few hardy souls tackling the yard with a push mower. Some people with truly mammoth lawns use tractors with mowing attachments. With the amount of moisture they get here, the grass must make noise when it grows. We have seen many horses and cows eating fresh grass instead of dry hay. They must just sit back on the couch and pat their bellies at the end of the day. We passed one guy riding a mower and towing a cart and asked him if he wanted to race. He had a long grey beard, had mulch in his cart, and smiled at the proposition.
The accommodations at Valley Forge
We rolled into Valley Forge today thinking of George Washington and the privations the Continental Army soldiers suffered. The revisionist theory is that they didn’t suffer as much as we thought (or at least no more suffering than usual). General Washington wanted more supplies for his army so he portrayed the state of the army more negatively than was the case to extract more funds from the continental congress. Now what was the story about the cherry
tree? In August it is difficult to imagine the bitter cold of winter, but we could picture it would be pretty to view. The terrain here is gently hilly with stands of tall trees and verdant meadows. In those meadows, we saw deer of all ages who weren’t very concerned about us. One group that included a fawn was only a few feet off of the path. They stepped a few feet away, looked back, stepped a little further, then decided we weren’t a threat.
It is impossible to predict the state of small towns from maps. The map may show a community with many inhabitants, but the main street is a shambles. Today, we stopped at a deli because the next few towns looked very small. We asked before entering the deli if there was a place to sit down and have lunch in town. The young man we addressed asked another man about a specific place and wondered if you could sit down there (neither was sure). We decided on the deli and had some decent sandwiches. The potato salad was sweeter than we expected or wanted. This small deli/market had two-stroke oil, pet flea collars, and a spectacular selection of cold drinks. It turned out, however, that the next town was one of those picture-perfect towns with a couple of really cute inns and restaurants. All of the buildings on the main street were freshly painted in deep rich fashionable colors. In retrospect, we should have eaten there and it was just a mile away.
Some years ago, we had a hard time finding lodging in a small town in Idaho on a Saturday night during their big softball tournament. You would think we would have learned a lesson from that. Tonight is Friday night. We are about ten miles from the Maple Grove Raceway. We are not at the motel we intended to visit, but about ten miles the South of it. There are tens of thousands of people at the raceway for the 23rd annual TOYO TIRES NHRA NATIONALS ( All of those people are staying right where we meant to stay. The Holiday Inn in Reamstown has a clerk who laughed at us when we asked if they had a room for us. The person at the Comfort Inn did about the same. They’ve all been sold out for months. We pulled some sort of lodging rabbit out of a hat and found a good room at another Holiday Inn only twelve long miles away. There are racing banners all over the lobby and lots of drag racing stickers on the cars in the parking lot.
This is Amish country. We eventually stopped swerving around the horse poop on the shoulder due to lack of energy. We stopped at a harness shop to fill our water bottles. As has happened in many places on our trips, John stepped in and asked if we can fill our bottles from the hose outside. The young woman wearing Amish clothing and running shoes showed us to a chilled water fountain instead. That type of thing happens pretty often. The fountain was located in the employees area where there were five men making accoutrements for horses and buggies. Even though we are lycra-clad and wearing outrageous colors, we are treated well. A recurring theme in this trip is how willing people are to help other people.
The most help we received from strangers today occurred at the Sun Valley Campground. We stopped at the entrance to the campground after seeing the throng at the raceway. We were coming to realize the gravity of our situation, and entered the store at the campground to get some water and to ask advice. Everyone there was trying to think of the best solution to our problem. We talked to a lady who is here “for the season” but lives in Memphis. She lived in Orange County for five years. She helped a lot. She let us use her phone for a toll-free call to make a reservation. We asked as we prepared to leave if the trip to Morgantown would be downhill. They said, “Nothing’s all downhill here.” They were right, but we found an acceptable place to stay. Thanks to them.
Day Ten: Whoopie Pies
Morgantown, Pennsylvania to Aberdeen, Maryland
Start time: 8:05 am
End time: 4:05 pm
Today’s mileage: 74 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 621.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.55
Weather: As beautiful as it gets, with a strong tailwind
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 2.0
Animals for the day: Miniature sheep, billy goats, donkeys, big cows
Regionalisms: Quilt shops and Whoopie Pies
We spent the morning in the area around Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The weather was just about as perfect as the scenery. The day was so good that people along our way commented to us about it. This is Amish/Mennonite country. We saw many buggies on the quiet country roads we traveled. It seemed like all of the buggies were pulled by the same type of horse: a small, athletic, slender horse with chestnut coloring and a dark mane, tail, and hooves. They move very quickly with minimal vertical movement. These horses are unflappable. A semi tractor trailer can pass one of these buggies and the horse doesn’t flinch. It is hard to imagine a horse feeling comfortable pulling into a left-turn lane at a stoplight with traffic all around. While we stopped at a shopping center, there were four buggies hitched in the parking lot. The horses munched on treats from the rail in front of them.
Buggy parking at the grocery store
There is something very formal about these shiny black buggies and the people who drive them. Berta feels like bowing to them to honor their dedication. What tough, devoted people they are. They quietly travel through life at about ten mph while dually trucks strafe them on the highway. They hang their laundry to dry on long clothes lines and some harvest their crops by hand. And, boy, can they bake! Today, we were on highway 372 riding southwest. That road bends left and right, uphill and downhill, like everywhere in the Keystone State. We were flying through a corner, preparing for an expected uphill when we practically tipped the bikes on their front wheels at the site of a baked goods table. Accept our advice: don’t pass up a chance to sample Amish baked goods. The food and produce that was displayed was unattended. Prices were displayed on the items or listed. There was a covered plastic bowl with money in it where you paid on the honor system. Our choices included Shoe Fly Pie (look it up—it basically has nothing in it), molasses cookies, chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies, and some breads and jellies. None of these could possibly have been better than the Oatmeal Whoopie Pies that we purchased and ate on the spot. These were two oatmeal cookies (with a nice touch of salt to make them more tasty) with a very fluffy maple-ish frosting between. When we finished the cookies, we unashamedly licked the remaining frosting from the plastic wrap they came in. John carried a dozen molasses cookies that came in really handy a few hours later. Those were good, for sure, but the whoopie pies are the stuff of legend now. The honor system of buying produce or baked goods demonstrates a basis for Amish/Mennonite society. Trusting your fellow citizen is a hallmark of their culture. How refreshing.
In sharp contrast to many of the small towns we have visited, tonight’s lodging is at the periphery of a large town. We had the choice of about eight motels within a few blocks of here. We’re sure the marketing people would love to know why Berta decided on La Quinta Inn (John said “You pick”). Whatever her reasons, she was rewarded when the woman at the desk handed her not one, not two, but three samples of facial moisturizer products from Oil of Olay. It just now occurs to Berta that this might have been a commentary on her appearance. No matter, Berta took a shower and then applied something that might have made her look years younger. It has been at least twelve days since she applied anything called “serum”, and that really is too long.
Day Eleven: The Big City
Aberdeen to Columbia, Maryland
Start time: 8:30 am
End time: 3:50 pm
Today’s mileage: 64 hilly miles
Total bike mileage so far: 685.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $2.57
Weather: Rainy and cool
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 3.0 Maryland, repave your roads!
Animals for the day: White cranes with their cow friends
Regionalisms: Turnpikes, parkways, and smoking sections in restaurants
We’ve heard that there is a pending shortage (or at least rising prices) of corn because a lot of corn is being used for ethanol production. If this is the case, the deficiency is not due to farmers in Pennsylvania. We have seen miles and miles of corn plants, most of them almost mature. These aren’t the huge plantings of the Midwest, but they still cover a lot of area. We are wondering if these farmers changed crops because of the demand. Plenty of produce is available at roadside stands. Some of the ‘stands’ are pickups parked in dangerous corners on high speed highways. We have also seen many beautiful tomatoes and pumpkins.
Berta has now enjoyed two applications of active hydration serum. She might have turned the clock back prior to starting this bike trip. She is still quite pleased with the ‘free samples’ she received from the motel last night. The Hampton Inn we occupy tonight has shampoo, conditioner, lotion, mouthwash, and shower gel. Berta is doing her level best to sample them all.
Yesterday, we were enjoying a very long descent when the view blew open into a spectacular gorge. It was the Susquehanna River (originally “Sasquesahanough” according to the 1612 John Smith map). Just upriver was a large hydroelectric plant. We were still rolling well (twenty plus) across the high bridge, and we were admonished (by numerous signs) not to stop on the bridge, so you will have to trust us that this is a really beautiful river gorge. Berta even managed to look out a little between trying to ignore the scary large expansion joints all along the bridge. The river bed featured huge granite outcroppings and lots of evergreen-covered small islands.
After we crossed the Susquehanna, we hoped to get a picture of the gorge from a public park on the other side. The photo didn’t materialize because it would have required a hike, but we did talk to a couple in the parking lot. They had a black dog that was thirteen years old. They explained that they had already mourned her passing last year, but that she was still kicking. They walk her with a sling that fits under her hind legs for when she gets tired. The dog looked happy for being out in the fresh air and to have new scents to investigate.
We see many dogs in passing cars, most of those for only seconds. A pickup passed today with two pit bull looking dogs. The one turned his head in the open passenger window and stared, unblinking, at John for a long ways.
Yes, that is a ring of dirt from the rainy streets. And Berta is not that tanned, it’s dirt.
When we left the motel this morning, a light rain was falling. We debated putting on our rain jackets until it really started raining a few hours later. As we approached Baltimore, the rain lessened. The road surface in Baltimore is some of the worst we have encountered in a big city. The route took us through neighborhoods that we would avoid after dark. In precisely one of those neighborhoods, John got a flat. It was only our second flat of the trip, but what an inopportune time! Well, we changed the flat as fast as we could, and continued without event. There is no doubt that the rules are different in a big city. Crossing the street at any place you desire is normal, no matter what effect it has on traffic. Standing in the middle of the street is
common, even with a lot of cars around. Police cars are everywhere. The country bumpkins spent an hour in the big city and we were wide-eyed.
Day Twelve:
Columbia, Maryland to Washington, D.C.
Start time: 8:30 am
End time: 3:50 pm
Today’s mileage: 57 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 742.5 miles
Best Local Gas Price: $3.39! What happened?!?
Weather: Dry and cool
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.0, we are done.
Animals for the day: Deer and Great Blue Heron
Regionalisms: We are the only people in D.C not wearing credentials
The approach to the District of Columbia by the Rock Creek Bike Path is as good as it gets (as nice a big-city approach that is). The path starts about twenty miles away from downtown and spends much of its mileage in a state park. It is paved, although not perfectly, and it suffers some puddles and muddy spots. What it offers is a car-free, slightly downhill route that takes cyclists right down to the Lincoln Memorial. There are deer and water birds around Rock Creek, which is never far from the path.
The only problem with big city bike paths is that they can be confusing to navigate. We spent a fair amount of time yesterday at forks in the path, discussing our options. Good thing Berta was almost always right. One time, we went a hundred yards in the wrong direction, but it was worth it. We asked directions of a man who was watching some deer across an empty playing field. He said he was 87 years old and had had a stroke that affected his speech, but that didn’t keep him from telling us plenty about himself over the next ten minutes. He was an aviator on the Saratoga in WWII. He struggled to pronounce the name of the plane he flew, and Berta was
thrilled that John rattled off a list of plane types until he hit on the right one. The old vet struggled to extract a two inch thick wallet from his pocket to show Berta his dog’s picture. Then we witnessed the display of many other small documents. When John saw his card and knew how to address him, the retired officer asked John if he was a Navy man. There aren’t many WWII veterans left to thank for what they did for their country and for you and me.
Berta and that monument
We have to admit that planning a bicycle trip on the East Coast in August is probably not the smartest thing to do, considering the average August temperature here. However, we are pleased to announce that the temperature has been very below average. We experienced one day of heavy rain and a few hours of rain on another day. A few days got quite hot in the afternoon, but this wasn’t one of those trips where we carry extra bottles of water and only stop in the shade. We didn’t have to rely on loitering in the air conditioned splendor of mini-marts and restaurants on this trip, which is fortunate because we passed few of either. Yesterday, we both wore light jackets all day. This all goes to prove that it is better to be lucky than good.
The weather reality did not match our expectations, nor did the terrain. Pennsylvania shows, on the topographic map, as pretty flat. It actually has the same contour as the surface of a golf ball. There is no going down without going up again. Our top speed on this trip was 41.5 mph, and it was probably followed by about twenty yards of yearning for more momentum, then frantic down-shifting, then by the flush of lactic acid as the uphill took effect.
In the morning, on top of a hill, we stopped to remove our rain jackets. We leaned the bikes against a pasture fence. Across the pasture, against the green of the landscape, trotted a tall white dog. It was long-legged, like it had a wolf in its bloodline. It had light eyes and a long tail. As it approached, John encouraged it with that “Come here, boy!” voice. The dog came right up to the tall wood fence, sniffed John’s extended smelly, sweaty bicycle-gloved hand, and stood there to be petted. We explained to him what a good dog he is, and suggested he not chase us along the fence. He sat down, then crouched down on his stomach with his arms extended and his legs underneath him, and sniffed the ground as we rolled away.
For many pastures along the route, there were dogs who didn’t see us because they were sleeping near the house, there were people living their lives and working their work just yards away whom we didn’t see. Cars were on roads just a block away. There might have even been a few baked goods tables just off our route that held Whoopie Pies that were better than the ones we enjoyed. That seems unlikely, but it’s possible.
A slow-speed roll through small-town America shows us the width and breadth of this land. We did not see a Wal-Mart on this trip until we arrived in D.C. We saw few chain stores of any kind because we were on the quietest country roads there are. We had some remarkably good food, chicken enchiladas in New York notwithstanding. We stopped in Delaware Water Gap, a tiny town on the edge of the Delaware River, at a place called the Sycamore Grille. We had taco salads there that were great. Did we mention the Whoopie Pies? It would be nice to somehow have local knowledge in each of these little towns. But we don’t. We only have local knowledge of our little locality. And we like it.
Thanks for following along this year.
New Orleans
We secured a rental car at the New Orleans airport and went in search of lodging. Within miles on Interstate 10, we saw three disabled cars in the median. At about 3:30 in the afternoon, the freeway was no longer free as cars were backed up three lanes wide into the downtown area. The cause? Maybe it is the streets in disrepair and all of the construction debris. There are a lot of cars with flat tires. The traffic congestion is reminiscent of Los Angeles.
For all of the poverty and damage that exists in the New Orleans area, there are some communities here that seem to be fine. We are staying in Metairie, which is away from the gulf and closer to Lake Pontchartrain. We are less than ten miles from downtown. On a main thoroughfare here, we saw a Ruths Chris restaurant, Ethan Allen, P.F. Chang’s, Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn and plenty of other swanky chains. The parking lots are nearly full and the cash registers are humming.
It does seem that the whole New Orleans area is more vital than last year. We are approaching the two-year anniversary of the hurricane on August 29th, so it is shocking to see how many houses and buildings are still boarded up. What we can see, though, is that there are more cars on the road and more open businesses. In the Upper Ninth Ward, we need to drive in our own lane because there are cars all around. Last year, we could swerve on the road with impunity. We see lots where the structures have been removed and other lots where new buildings are in progress. Unfortunately, there are still many lots in decay.
One of the most baffling stagnations in New Orleans concerns the lingering rescue markings on houses. Do you remember the spray paint markings on houses to document what emergency personnel had done? There are blocks where those markings still show on every house. We wonder why someone hasn’t gone up and down every street with a few buckets of the most common paint colors and obliterated those things. We decided that it probably hasn’t happened because permission would be needed to trespass on private property. For many houses, there is nobody to ask for permission.
We arrived at Musicians Village before eight on a Thursday. In contrast to the single row of partly finished houses we left a year ago, there are rows of occupied houses now. Each house has a short chain-link fence around the yard and plenty of green grass. There are small trees that will eventually create some welcome shade from this August sun. Most importantly, there are cars parked at the houses and all other signs of vitality. Even though Musicians Village sits in the middle of the area with the least recovery from Katrina, the Village is beautiful and
exciting. We joined the group gathered at the Habitat for Humanity area and received our assignment to another site in the Broadmoor area on the other side of the French Quarter.
Sam and Trellis
The Habitat house at 3127 Third Street belongs to Anita Maples. Anita is a nurse. She has selected pale green with white trim for the exterior paint. Her carpet is off-white closed loop and the tile in the kitchen, bath, and laundry room is kind of brick red. The house has three bedrooms, one bathroom, a dining room, and a living room. The porch is shaded in the morning. The occupants will enjoy a wealth of electrical outlets and smooth-sliding vinyl windows. When we arrived at Anita’s house, it was 26 days old. Most Habitat houses take two or three months to build. This house had a tight schedule before it needed to be presented at a ceremony, so the work has been quick.
There is a radio playing most of the time at the work site. The radio belongs to some neighborhood kids who hang out all day. Sam just turned seventeen, and his nephew Trellis—we have to guess at the spelling, but it sounds like the garden item—is younger. Sam is thin and microcephalic with poor dentition. He is a really good kid. He wants to help and does. When asked what he wanted for his birthday present Sam said, ”I want my friends back.” Trellis, 11, lays on the floor in the house most of the time and usually in a high traffic area. Stepping over Trellis is just one of the obstacles at this job site. Trellis rarely speaks, but when he does it is fractured and very hard to understand. He asks questions a four year old would ask. “Why do you have long hair?” “What would happen if you put a pen in bleach?” “Why don’t you go home?” “How old are you?”
The boys like to have the radio on an R&B station, but someone else changed it to Country and Western this morning (thank goodness, as John has heard enough rap “music” to last a lifetime). At one point, the DJ gave a “shout out” to “those Habitat for Humanity people.” He wanted us to hurry up (to compete) his friend’s house so they could sit on the friend’s porch instead of eating all the DJ’s food. We are not working on his friend’s house, but we all froze and listened to the voice for a moment, at least those of us who could hear it.
To say we froze is just a figure of speech. What we actually did today was melt. It was a little cooler today than yesterday, when the thermometer indicated 109°, according to our car. Our clothing has salt rings to separate the kind-of-sweaty areas from the really sweaty areas. We have mandatory water breaks because the Habitat people don’t want to deal with fainters. Once we get into the shade and find a place with a nice breeze, we get refreshed a little and go back to work.
John melting
Partner Familes
During the week, volunteers dominate the work site at Habitat for Humanity. On Saturday, the “partner families” pour in to help. They are the homeowner, friends and family, and other people who are somewhere on the path to qualifying for a Habitat home. These people work during the week and put in their volunteer hours on Saturdays. Habitat does not work on Sundays (faith-based) and Mondays (fatigue-based). The homeowner is required to supply 250 hours of work—whether personally or by proxy when friends or family work–to “get an address”. Then, they work more towards their specific home.
Volunteers for Habitat for Humanity are usually white people. The partner families we have seen are exclusively black people. Volunteers are typically college-aged (we’re above average!), and they talk fast about getting the house done, what more needs to be done, and about the volunteering they do in their own communities. The partner families include people of all ages and they talk about regaining their social network. Before and after a plain lunch, they talk about how they like their shrimp cooked for a family get-together. They look at the back yard and picture where people would sit for a party. We suspect that the volunteers look at the back yard and—beyond thinking of the logistics of completing the project—probably picture the landscaping and the “look” of the place rather than the people who will occupy it.
Just like any group of people, the partner families have some workhorses and some slackers. Robert is a hulk of a man who took the wheelbarrow to the dumpster again and again, talking the whole time but working very hard. He would wait for others to fill the barrow, playfully directing them because they didn’t load it right. “You just don’t want to put the weight on the wheel, do ya? I’ll just lift up that back heavy part, then.” He punctuated many of his sentences with “uh-huh” or just plain “huh”. Robert is clearly a religious man, and often his paragraphs start with “It’s a blessin’, it is…” While in the back yard of 3127 Third Street, in the bright sun, on a very hot day, Berta heard Robert say to no one in particular and in that Louisiana drawl that is
hard to describe, “This is a blessin, it is. All these people come together from all over to help. We don’t know each other, we just help. It’s a blessing, that’s what it is.”
You wouldn’t have known that the partner families were not acquainted. During breaks they talked like long-lost relatives. A common theme is where you were when the hurricane hit and what happened to you, your family and your house. The volunteers chatted a little. We talked to one young woman from New Jersey who is a coordinator for a fabulous nationwide art project for kids that will culminate with 13,000 NYC cabs covered with child-drawn pictures of flowers. We asked some questions, and her enthusiasm carried the conversation. Otherwise, we did a fair amount of kicking the dust and looking around with nothing to say. The partner families, by contrast, talked with great animation, bubbling with enthusiasm. One woman had recently been married, so she pulled out her wedding pictures and there were ooos and awws all around (what a contrast: her wedding day, and sweating in the dirt, working on a house). There was a lot of talk about the details of house financing and Habitat paperwork. Every topic referred to the aftermath of Katrina.
Inner city versus outlying areas
New Orleans is good and bad, depending on which direction you look. Outlying areas, good. Inner city, bad. New Orleans has a program here with a euphemistic name, the Good Neighbor Program. It is a system for ratting on your neighbors who haven’t cleaned up yet. You report a blighted property, it gets inspected, the owner is warned to make improvements, they get inspected again, they have a hearing, and—if nothing has happened—the house will be demolished at the owner’s expense. It sounds harsh, but seems a good plan. The process is described to take less than six months from the first inspection. This program has seen some success. According to The Times-Picayune as of July 18th there have been 17,112 good neighbor blight complaints and of those 12,065 have been inspected. Many of the inspected houses have seen some work. However, picture those five thousand houses that haven’t even been inspected. Picture the other thousands of houses that haven’t been reported yet. Most of the houses in St. Bernard Parish—where the Lower Ninth Ward is—are still in ruins.
Dangerous Place
Today is Sunday August 26th and in the last two weeks 19 people have died from shootings in New Orleans. We have seen billboards on the freeway and the inner city showing mug shots of six men. Running diagonally through each picture is a red bar containing the word
ARRESTED and exhorting citizens to call and report murders and receive a reward. During our lunch break yesterday we drove through a neighborhood that had signs nailed to trees commanding THOU SHALL NOT KILL.
Other topics to cover:
“Thou shalt not kill” signs
More progress in Grand Isle
Every newscast and every edition of the newspaper covers some aspect of rebuilding.
Smoking rooms
Pedaling bikes versus pushing scooter
Loch Raven
Monday night football doesn’t start til 8 pm in Boston
Peanuts on the plane with scissors