In the check-in line at the Santa Barbara Airport, John realized that he forgot his belly pack at home. The pack was not at all as important as its contents: his bicycle gloves and rear view mirror. Despite our strident insistence that we “never go back!”—with the end of our street as the point of no return—John decided that these two safety items were critical. He ran for the car (nearly 85 miles away at the end of the construction-modified long-term parking lot), and tried to convince himself that forty minutes are enough to drive about four miles home and four miles back. As John pulled next to the kiosk to leave the parking lot, the attendant told him that the system was automated and pointed to the machine about ten feet back. It’s a good thing in these troubling economic times that we can pay an attendant to explain that we don’t need an attendant. John put the car in reverse and backed up to the automated credit card reader. His adrenaline caused him to improperly insert his card three times before the machine finally charged him two dollars for the five minute stay. Relieved to be on his way, he pressed on the gas and the car shot backward. Oops. That’s when the check engine light came on. We are thinking of letting our friend who picks up the car from the airport believe that it wasn’t on until he drove it.
John returned with two minutes to spare before boarding. He was a little too tense to follow the security instructions with accuracy, so he had to be told five times to take the cell phone out of the tray and put it in the bowl. By the fourth time, the TSA guy had his hand on his holster and was shouting in deliberate tones “PUT… THE… PHONE… IN… THE… BOWL!” People were probably running and talking into walkie-talkies all over the airport because of the two weirdos with metal plates in their shoes.
Lunch in Denver International Airport consisted of a turkey sandwich which contained the obligatory turkey with a slice of Velveeta for flair. The napkin dispenser was labeled “Easy-Nap” and was, as advertised, easy. However, it dispensed non-bleached items that were marginally thicker than cheap facial tissue. Wiping the detritus off one’s mouth required three of these scraps. What good is saving money on a napkin if everyone uses ten of them for lunch? As we waited for the next plane, we watched heads appear on the up escalator slowly followed by bodies. It is fun to watch people. People wear strange stuff on planes.
We were picked up at the Rochester airport by a shuttle driver who wanted to know where we are going. We told her of our plan to see the Underground Railroad and she told us of knowing people who live in old houses with secret compartments so they could hide fugitives. Our interest has been whetted. Yahoo.
Day One, Sunday
Rochester to Mt. Morris, New York
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 1:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 36 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 36 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.72
Weather: 90+ degrees and high humidity
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0
Animals for the day: Holstein cows in a scrum, and a pretty yellow and black songbird
Our first stop of the day was prompted by a sign that announced: Museum. Turning right onto a rocky road led us to a large gray-haired man who was a member of the New York Museum of Transportation. Underfunded but enthusiastic, the members restore electric trolley cars and give rides on Sunday. They had a length of track covered by wires supplied by a 600 volt transformer station in their building. The guy said they get very nervous during electrical storms because they fear damage to their transformer could “take out all the power from here to Rochester”. The museum was not open, but we saw eight or ten large gas-powered relics built for street paving, snow clearing, and hauling of people. They had the recognizable smell of old machinery, that of a pile of tire rubber, grease, and stale gasoline rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-soled shoe.
Cruising along the river road today, we saw a huge pile of rock salt. It came from the American Rock Salt mine that is the largest in the USA. They have the capacity to mine 18,000 tons per day. Their customers are the road departments in the northeast that salt the roads in the winter. If you go to their website, you can use Visa or Mastercard to order a load of rock salt. Careful, it might be enough to bury your house.
We asked a lady at the deli in Geneseo if we should push on for just six more miles to get to Mt. Morris. Our specific questions concerned lodging and food, but she also offered that we would be staying “right at the dam”. So after we settled in at the motel, we asked at the desk about the dam. Our choices were to go left, then right and up the hill to the Visitor Center; or to go right, then left and up the hill to “the overlook”. We opted for the overlook. The hill turned out to be about a mile at about 10% grade (Berta has an inclinometer this year). Part way up, there is a turnout with signs calling it an overlook. What we needed, though, was a throughlook. There was a big stand of trees between us and the view. The signs showed the view with the leafless trees of winter. File that overlook under “Dud”. John suggested going up the hill further. Berta said he had one-half mile to produce something interesting. Tah-Dah! The real dam overlook! The Genesee River Dam is in a very deep gorge, enough to take your breath away as you walk to the fence. But then you say “Huh?” because the river is practically dry behind the dam. Expecting to see an impressive waterfall, we were disappointed to see some water, a large dam and mostly mud upstream. Coming from a drought-prone area, we assumed this was a drought thing. Not at all, we were looking at a “dry dam”. The Genesee River floods in a big way about every seven years, according to records from 1865 to 1950. So they built this dam for those years when the river would have flooded the valley below. They let the water build up behind the dam, and then they let it out slowly. The dam was built at a cost of $25M in 1952. Mt. Morris dam has saved an estimated $1B in flood damage. There was a souvenir stand that we passed, not interested in lacquered bark log slices covered with colloquialisms. A tourist standing in front of the stand had one of the worst wigs you have ever seen in all your life. Color, bad. Placement, bad. Shape, bad. Bad, bad, bad. At first glance we thought he had a Mohawk. You know it’s a bad piece when tourists visit a big dam and then finish the paragraph with your misplaced vanity.
We have had two dinners at the time of this writing, and both of them have been Greek. Both of them were very good, too. On a trip like this, meals are selected on practical terms. How far is the restaurant (walking in high heat), and can we wear lycra to the table without causing a riot? We spend a fair amount of time, standing at one restaurant, wondering if this is the best we can do, and straining to read the sign down the road in case it is better. These first two nights, we walked a little ways and each time happened on a Greek restaurant. Last night, we planned to eat at the recommended nice restaurant just steps from the hotel, but it is not open on Sunday. So, we took the hotel desk person’s suggestion to go to “that new Greek-Italian place just past the Kwik-Fill”. We were a little concerned at our prospects when our server returned from the kitchen to tell Berta they didn’t have any hummus. That’s like not having forks for a Greek restaurant. Despite this bad omen, our meals were delicious. Both of us insisted the other taste our meal. Berta had a Greek salad topped with Greek beef patties that were seasoned very well, and John had a Gyro sandwich with big potato wedges on the side. Our server was a fresh-faced young man who charmingly appreciated our decent attempt to pronounce the items on their menu. When he brought waters, he poured a large portion of John’s water on John’s plastic-coated menu. The kid grabbed the menu, wiped it in a big swipe on his hip, and put it back on the table.
We overheard the patrons at the next table ask how long they had been open. “Since Wednesday.” Wow! That explains why our server had to ask the chef what was on Berta’s salad. Now this little town has a new restaurant to try, and we can recommend two of the Greek dishes they serve. We looked around at the ten or so workers and about fifteen customers, and wondered if some of the workers had just finally gotten a job after being out of work for too long. The chef, Theo, has probably been dreaming of opening his own restaurant for years. And we were there to see it happen.
Day Two, Monday
Mt. Morris to Angelica, New York
Start time: 9:10 am
End time: 3:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 44 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 80 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.72
Weather: 90+ degrees and high humidity.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.5 it was hilly
Animals for the day: Buzzards—Look alive!
Today was the hottest day of the year in New York. All over the state, the frail and elderly without air conditioning were implored to go to senior centers. But not us, no. We went up and down, up and down the hills in Letchworth State Park. We averaged 10.5 mph today. Some of the hills were a 16% grade. It was a grunt in places, but the view was inspiring. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East”, the gorge of the Genesee River is a spectacular site. The road through the park follows the rim of the canyon, and it was quiet and smooth. Most vehicles gave us plenty of room when passing. A navigation mishap compelled us to ask a park ranger what direction we should take. She said we should turn around and take the shady route. Boy oh boy was she right. We turned around and pealed up and down some excellent hills with views that made us appreciate geological history. The gorge is about 550 feet deep, with steep sides and a thick fringe of trees on the top. As we stood at overlooks, buzzards flew below us.
Later, our route took us out of the state park and down a country road. The Short Tract Road isn’t very short (twenty miles), and it makes no concessions to the terrain. The road goes straight up and over any hill it encounters. The nice thing for cycling in this region is that no hill is much more than about one-half mile. At the crest of most hills, you can see several ridges in the landscape, each getting more obscured by haze than the last. Sometimes, the road disappears and a descent awaits. There is almost no flat in Western New York State, at least not on this day.
As we passed a house where two guys and a dog were out front, John surprised Berta by hollering out if we could fill our bottles from the hose. This is not something Berta would do, but it is John’s job to keep us safe and hydrated, so he goes to great lengths to keep the bottles full. The guy insisted that even if he had a hose, you wouldn’t want to drink from a hose anyway, and he disappeared into the house to get some water. He reappeared, apologizing that he had no ice nor chilled water. We noted that the ice would not last long enough to enjoy it. The hound dog witnessed our good fortune. The toothless, shirtless,tattooed guy told us to stay safe, and we rolled away. Some hot miles later, we stopped at a church, looking for water again. John walked around the building, looking for a hose. It’s probably the freezing in winters that makes the hoses useless—nobody seems to have one. Or it could be the ample rainfall. A woman appeared from inside and knew we needed water from the empty bottle in Berta’s hand. She and another woman were in the relatively cool basement, working on quilts (ironing, can you believe it?). The two quilts they had out looked like lap quilts, about five feet on a side, with the border already on. The one on the ironing board had simple squares all in light brown colors. We were rewarded with full bottles (“oh, make sure you have enough”), and friendliness and kindness that is typical of America.
Later, we stopped at a ‘Trading Post’. There were two people in the establishment, a woman and a man who might have been in their late sixties. She motioned to the old refrigerator when we asked about drinks. This trading post was loaded with ammunition and guns. It had many things to trade, but the theme of the place was What Have You Shot Lately? In the front rooms, there was kitsch enough for the whole state. There were rows and rows of plastic American eagles lined up on tables. They sold local Maple Syrup for $38 per gallon. In the display case under the register, everything cut. Most blades were about six inches, and one had entirely impractical teeth along the handle so it looked like a jawbone. We entered this post looking for some liquid refreshment, but we encountered a totally different world. The proprietor was a silver-haired ball-capped man who talked a lot about what he used to do. John followed the guy past the fishing tackle into some back room hunting sanctuary and left Berta to hope that wasn’t a bad idea. John saw a deer head mounted on the wall and heard of the struggle to subdue this animal. While John was hearing this story that would cause chagrin to hunters and non-hunters alike, Berta was talking to the woman sitting in the stadium seat in the store. She didn’t know how we handle the heat. She had talked to another cyclist earlier in the day, and asked about where we are from and where we are going. Berta was grateful that John emerged from the back, not wearing a plaid hunting shirt and not carrying a double-barreled shotgun. It turns out he had been politely listening to this guy’s monologue of past hunting exploits. We wonder how a guy who runs a small store on the side of the road where there isn’t even a town can have two people ride up on bikes wearing chartreuse riding jerseys and not even ask “where you from?” John nodded through a few more hunting stories, and we stepped back into the heat.
The land gave us a few more obstacles, and then rewarded us with a view of the valley where our friends live. We rolled up to the house, and met Sam who was doing grass control in the yard. Lucia and the dog, Maggie, appeared from the house. These people live in a Civil War era house with a barn and a guest house that used to be the granary. There is more color in the form of wildflowers in ten feet of their yard than there is on our whole street at home. No, let’s take that back. Bougainvillea aside, they have way more color than we do, especially when you factor in green. They have corn and strawberries, more cucumbers and zucchini than they can eat for months, a small field of buckwheat, some acres of alfalfa that other people
farm, and a beautiful hops vine that resurrects from nothing each summer to frame the deck with lush and fragrant growth. We sat and enjoyed dinner and conversation on their 120 acre farm near a small town in a place very different from our own home. The town has seen a decline and a rebirth since they moved here more than thirty years ago. It was pretty grim until a rich woman came to town, bought a mansion and turned it into a bed and breakfast place. Tourists visited and others took note. Now there are several antique stores that attract visitors from all over the state, a public bus, and a good grocery store. We spent the night in their guest house on a screened porch looking at the night sky. It was a little slice of paradise. It was good to see Lucia again (John met her in New Orleans after Katrina) and to meet her husband Sam. Friends are good.
Day Three, Tuesday
Angelica to Olean, New York
Start time: 10:30 am
End time: 2:30 pm
Today’s mileage: 37 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 120 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.79
Weather: 85ish degrees and rainy.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.5 and soggy
Animals for the day: A pig in a pigsty, and Hogan the Bull Mastif with his Chihuahua friend who sits on his back while he lays in the floor of a shop in Olean.
Of the many wildflowers in New York, a few stand out for us. There is a lot of Queen Anne’s Lace, which has a tall thin stalk topped by a spray of tiny white flowers. Then there is a blue-lavender daisy-ish 1.5 inch flower and a big golden yellow bloom that looks like a coneflower. The white, lavender, and yellow punctuate a rich green moist background of pines and hardwood trees. We wonder how people here keep up with the grass. We walk across grass where there should be a sidewalk, and there are ribbons of freshly mowed grass mulch that stick to our bike shoes. We passed a really nice athletic field on this trip where someone was driving a riding mower. We were going about 14 miles per hour, and he was almost keeping up. We figured he was doing at least ten. With the expanse of grass outside most homes in this area, plus the frequent rain showers (see below), a person would have to go Nascar to get it done.
Within ten miles of starting out, we stopped in Belfast to see a house that was part of the Underground Railroad and is rumored to be haunted. It is a regular house with a truck outside and people inside (don’t know about ghosts). There is no marker to show it, but we have information from a photocopy of a book our friends worked hard to secure for us:
The Renwick House at Two Main Street in Belfast has been at various times cited as a station in the Underground.
Robert Renwick, the earliest member of that family to be listed in local histories, came to Belfast in the 1830’s and is listed as a supervisor in the town in 1835.
–from “And Why Not Every Man?” by Helene C. Phelan, 1986
The section of the book that we have is “an account of slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the road to freedom in New York’s Southern Tier”, according to the subtitle. In it, we gathered some basic facts: the Underground Railroad was most active in the decades leading up the Emancipation Proclamation (1862-63); however the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was a real turning point in the abolitionist movement. Until that law, passed by Congress, it was required that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters, but a jury trial was usually necessary so not many fugitive slaves were returned. Not that they were completely free in the North, but if abolitionists and runaway slaves avoided slave catchers, they could continue with their goals. After 1850, the law was stricter and enforcement increased.
The UR consisted of people of all walks of life who came to believe that slavery was not right. They developed a system of “conductors” and “station masters” who coordinated to move slaves from one “station” to the next. Sometimes, it was one house in town that was the station, but there were other people in town who were sympathetic and would look for slave catchers entering the area. The runaway slaves did not spend much time in any station—many people recall as children seeing “colored” people at the breakfast table who were not there the last evening and were never seen again. The station master, and often his wife, would hide the fugitives in a wagon or carriage and deliver them to the next station, usually about ten miles away. Typically, they had no idea what fate the slaves had after they concealed them for a night. Friends told us what house to look for, we stopped briefly, and rolled away silently. Just like the slaves, except for our freedom, and A LOT more.
We left Belfast and spent much of the day in a river valley with a stiff headwind. The large black storm clouds to the Southwest just blew by in the distance. Wouldn’t that be great if we didn’t get rained on! Yeah, right. John announced we should pull over in the driveway ahead to get prepared for rain. We stopped, pulled out our rain jackets, got the GPS off Berta’s handlebar, and were zipping up when BAM! the rain came. For a minute, it rained as hard as it can in North America. There were no warning sprinkles, just a water truck went by with its nozzle pointed right at us. We laughed and each threw a leg over a bike to continue. The really hard rain couldn’t have lasted for more than five minutes, during which passing cars were barely visible and raindrops were bouncing off the pavement. A few minutes later, the rain subsided to a light shower. Pretty soon, the pavement was dry, and the rain jackets started to seem like a bother rather than a Godsend. Berta removed her rain bonnet (yah, it looks as goofy as it sounds), so John did too (Monkey See, Monkey Do, he explained). Having a water-proof hat over your helmet is instant heat, and the rain we are describing was not cold, so it felt good to have the hat off. Removing our hats antagonized the clouds, so the rain started again. All of this probably took only twenty minutes in total. By the time we got to our destination, most of our bags and items were dry. The shoes took overnight, but they dried too.
We found a hotel across the street from St. Bonaventure University in Olean. It is pronounced O-Lee-Ann for you foreigners. We try to be couth, but there is no guessing how place names sound. We had to be corrected from saying O-Lean, which is surprisingly similar to how it is spelled. But take “Lompoc”, for instance. Some of you reading, from central California, know how to say that. The rest of you sound silly, at least to the locals.
After we stopped for the evening, at a store, John motioned to Berta with that “you have to see this!” look. There was a Bull Mastiff, lying in the aisle near the register, sleeping. His name is Hogan. Sitting at attention on Hogan’s side, a full large dog’s belly away from the floor, was this tiny Chihuahua who was wearing a tinier studded collar. The alert toy went up and down as Hogan breathed. It looked at us with a cocked head and perky ears. The woman at the register says the Chihuahua did that from the day he met Hogan. One would have to suppose that Hogan is more comfortable than the floor.
As we exited for a half-mile walk to the hotel, the sky opened up again. The dry clothing now wet again, we found the guest laundry in the hotel and one hour later, everything was clean and dry.
Day Four, Wednesday
Olean to Jamestown, New York
Start time: 10:00 am
End time: 3:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 53 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 173 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.79
Weather: 80 degrees and dry.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.5
Animals for the day: Our first live woodchuck on this trip, and some horses with big flowy Renaissance Faire tails.
It rained early this morning, so we waited awhile for the roads to dry before starting out. We’re following New York State bike route 17, and it generally follows roads with wide shoulders. The road surface is occasionally broken and potholed just like anyplace that has the thawing and freezing of winter; however it is quite an acceptable bike route. We passed through a town named Cuba. According to their website, Cuba is a Roman word that means Goddess or protector of the young (http://www.cuba-ny.com). According to us, it sounds like we made a grievous navigational error.
After a few miles, we stopped in a gas station to have some Hawaiian Punch. That is a Roman word for “Wow! That tastes great!” The clerk was a bespectacled gray-haired guy whose faded tattoos peaked in and out of his t-shirt sleeves. He possessed what we all possess at home: local knowledge. The route we had planned would have been a jarring, flat-producing ride. It used to be the main road to Jamestown, but now it evidently is in terrible disrepair. He kindly called a friend at another station to consult and then drew a map for us. He was a landmark kind of navigator, so the instructions included turning at the light after the Rite Aid. We made no wrong turns and the route was good. The gas station where we talked to this man is located on the Seneca Indian reservation and sells Seneca brand cigarettes. It turns out that the Seneca tribe manufactures its own brand of cigarettes and we had passed the factory a few miles back.
The Seneca were the largest of the 5 tribes which comprised the Iroquois League or the Five Nations. Along with the Seneca, the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) League includes the Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Cayuga. Later the Tuscarora, or “shirt wearing people” became the 6th Nation to join the confederacy, fleeing from British occupied North Carolina. Today, nearly 10,000 Seneca live on reservations in Western New York; the Cattargaurus, Allegany, and Tonawanda reservations, with some also settled in Oklahoma, and Ontario, Canada; they are the only Nation to own a U.S. city, Salamanca, which is situated on land owned by the Allegany Indian reservation.
We went through Salamanca, which is where we made the right turn after Rite Aid. They have a new casino that looks like it went up in five minutes, and a new Holiday Inn Express across the street. We tried to go to Subway for lunch, but there were more than ten people in line (the local high school football team), so we went over to McDonalds and John waited in line behind ten people there. John is not a line jumper, so when he chooses a line, he stays in it. Well, the McDonald’s employee was not a native English speaker and he was helping a non native English speaker so at least fifteen customers came and went while John waited in line. Maybe he should be more flexible.
We saw several examples of the following symbol today:
|HAUDENOSAUNEE FLAG The Haudenosaunee Flag represents the original five nations that were united in peace by the Peacemaker. The five nations includes: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk and Oneida. The pine tree symbol in the middle represents a White Pine. If you look at a White Pine you will notice that the needles are clustered in groups of five.|
While we were getting advice at the gas station, a youngish female appeared from the back room. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw John and the mirror he has attached to the left side of his eyeglasses. “I couldn’t stand staring at my own eyeball all the time!” she exclaimed, clearly not getting the point of the mirror. She continued to say that she does have nice eyes (she did); so nice that she once was signed up to be an organ donor but then decided against it so that her children could have her eyes. Evidently they have their father’s eyes already. This lead to a confession that her eyes were all they would want, because “who would want these boobs?” Berta explained that boobs are not considered organs; another woman agreed because you can live without boobs she said, but Eye Woman wasn’t into details. John had no comment and looked at his shoes.
One thing we expected on this trip was to be reminded of the slow economy. When we were last in Western New York (up North) in 2005, there were some really grim looking towns. Certainly, when we ask how the economy is, people say it is slow. Even so, the area here looks remarkably prosperous. We saw many houses undergoing renovation, and a couple of brand new buildings in process. The local papers have a lot of coverage about a $12M federal stimulus grant with matching state funds to build a wastewater treatment plant and a sewer line extension in the area. For miles and miles outside of population centers, we passed many nice-looking and well-kept homes. We even passed a pair of homes where the first one had what looked like a classic Rolls Royce in a garage and the second had a thirty foot new motor home that said “See Ya!” on the front grill. This area seems to be doing pretty well.
Even though the sky was full of clouds all day, we didn’t feel a drop. Living right, that’s what we say.
The dirt piles
Clouds, and no rain
Jamestown, New York to Erie, Pennsylvania
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 3:45 pm
Today’s mileage: 57 miles with our first puncture
Total bike mileage so far: 230 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.69
Weather: High seventies and one short rain shower.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.5
Animals for the day: A wild turkey who flew across the road right in front of John and three chickens who ran from us like we were Colonel Sanders
Jamestown, NY to Erie, PA
John looked out the window in the hotel this morning and said, “Oh no, it’s raining”. As soon as that came out of his mouth, he realized the parking lot was dry and the “rain” he saw was coming from the air conditioning unit on the room above ours. It was a lot of water showering down, but we didn’t need to wear our rain jackets.
One of the first signs we saw today was for “Shari’s Perm Palace—I’m careful not to scalp or frizz”. It seems like there are several things that could happen short of scalp or frizz that would still be undesirable.
We started out along Chautauqua Lake, riding by many lake homes. After that we headed west until we crossed the Pennsylvania State line and later we saw Lake Erie. The terrain here is hilly but milder than what we have seen earlier in this trip. The wind was strong today, blowing across the road, especially on hilltops.
We passed a field of sunflowers that were at the perfect point of development. The blooms were large, and the seeds were not yet falling out. This field burst into view as we came down a hill. John clicked out of his left pedal, stuck out his leg (the signal for “I’m stopping”), and exclaimed, “Photo Op!” Notice the gray silo in the background, which made for a very pretty picture.
In Sherman, we saw a picturesque little town with about fifteen businesses on either side of Main Street. John said he was all over having lunch at the Main Street Diner. As we walked in, a customer wasted no time striking up a conversation. He was over 75, and his wife of similar age sat across the table from him. We sat at the next table such that Berta was practically shoulder to shoulder with him, facing opposite directions. The man had many questions: where we are going, where we started, what about the prevailing winds, if you are going West why did you roll down the street towards the East, and so on. He had an accent that was hard to decipher, so Berta had to often ask, “What was that?”, but he repeated everything and we really had a good conversation. He and his wife are not from the area. She just had a stent put in at the hospital in Erie, and they were returning home. At that news, we turned to her and wished her good health. She seemed weak, but with wide clear eyes smiled at us. The questions dwindled as we concentrated on our ham & cheese sandwich with a cup of soup that all five customers had ordered (you should always order the special because that is what the cook wants to make). When the older couple left, the man looked toward us with his hand on the door and said in a voice strong and clear so we didn’t have to ask him to repeat, “I envy you.”
Statue with Pylon in Sherman
Another patron was a 50ish man who claimed to have been away from his Erie home for more than a year. He travels to North Carolina before it starts snowing in Erie. Then, when it starts snowing in North Carolina, he goes to Florida. Can’t take another flake of snow, he says. He chose North Carolina because the people there are so polite. They say yes ma’am and no sir and excuse me, which he says is something foreign in his Erie experience. He talked of buying a portable pool in North Carolina that weighed 200 lbs in its box. The black kid working at the store went to load the heavy box into the van. When our storyteller insisted on helping, the kid said, ”You’re not from around here, because white folks don’t help black folks like you did.” So he thinks North Carolina is more polite than Pennsylvania, but that it still has its problems. He likes to ride his Harley. Considering his butt gets sore after 250 miles, he’s really not sure about sitting on a bicycle seat. On his trips, he collects carvings and when he buys something, he mails the new acquisition to his son to take to his house. The son told him the dining room table is just about covered with carvings and he had better come home and put them up. His latest acquisition was an American eagle carved out of a buffalo bone by an American Indian. As he opened the door to leave, he looked back and wished us a safe journey.
The third person in our cast of characters was the waitress. Her parents own the restaurant. She was a pretty young woman who, by her own admission, is fat. When John explained our destination, she stood transfixed for a long time, mouth open and staring at Berta. “Really, you’re kidding, right?” The face was a mix of nausea and astonishment. “I could never do that, I’m too fat.” We told her of our first bike ride (five miles) and coming home and sleeping the rest of the day. We assured her that we are average people and she could do just as we are doing if she just would take it a step at a time. Not that she wants to vacation like this, but she could if she wanted. Somehow, this is reminiscent of the Roman folk tale of the young man who was given a baby bull. From the start, he carried the calf around the coliseum every day. By the time it was full size, he could carry the bull around the coliseum. Progress is made in little steps. Somewhere down the road, you realize you are carrying a lot of bull.
We each had a slice of homemade cherry pie, settled up, said our goodbyes, and started down the road. Some miles down the road, facing a refreshing headwind, we saw a sign in front of a house in the middle of nowhere. It read, “Snipe Farm and Sanctuary. Over 3 million caught and released.”
Erie, Pennsylvania to Ashtabula, Ohio
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 2:45 pm
Today’s mileage: 56 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 286 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.59
Weather: High seventies with scattered showers that showered somewhere else
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.5
Animals for the day: Dogs who barked from their yards
We have been watching the Weather Channel for the last few days with eyes kind of squinty shut, trying not to see that most of this region of the country is covered with an orange-red glob of thunderstorms moving from West to East. Yesterday, we were rained on just long enough for us to put on our rain gear on. We stopped under the shelter of the entrance of a dialysis center to get the gear out. We have excellent rain jackets made by Showers Pass, and we have rain covers for our helmets. The jackets have removable hoods, and we choose to keep those off when we are riding. It takes just a minute or two to get things out, put them on, and to make sure the bags are closed well. Our panniers are water resistant and our blue stuff sacks are waterproof (so the change of clothes goes in the stuff sack). This year, we made a change to the panniers. We read a suggestion to put a grommet at the bottom of panniers so that any rain that gets in goes out. That solves what we know to be a problem about riding with water resistant packs. The rain goes in the zippers at the top and then has nowhere to go in the bottom. We have opened our panniers and dumped out a cup or two of water. So this year, we installed quarter-inch grommets and keep all of the stuff inside the pack in a plastic bag. So far, so good, but we really haven’t tested them with a really good soaker yet. Anyhow, we are in Erie, and it started to rain, so we stopped under shelter to don our gear. We started off again. Within 500 yards, the sun came out full force and we couldn’t stand wearing the jackets. We put them away again, and took off down the glorious bike path that goes through most of Erie. After we stopped for the night, the skies opened up and delivered a blow that would have made Breaking News on CNN. They would have had a newscaster holding his hat, describing blowing debris and windspeed. It was like nothing in we see in California.
By the morning, the ground was dry save puddles, and we pedaled to the lakeshore. We spent almost the whole day within five hundred yards of the shore of Lake Erie. When we could see through the trees to the lake, it looked like the ocean. When we stopped at a park and stood on a small cliff over the water, we could see a small boat lurching over the waves in the distance and nothing more for as far as we could see. The Great Lakes are huge.
We planned for lunch in Conneaut, population 12,465 according to our route maps. The GPS showed many streets in town. We passed the first diner because it didn’t seem to have a place to park the bikes in view of where we ate. McDonalds was too national. Quiznos, too national. It turned out that those were the three choices in town. One local diner and two national chains for twelve thousand people. Quiznos must sell a lot of subs. We ended up backtracking for a mile or two to go to Quiznos and order exactly what we get at home. Good thing they have jalapenos here too.
Between towns on bike trips, the roads are usually pretty good. In towns, the roads can be horrendous. It makes us wonder about the municipal funding for road repair versus state funding for highways. Today, near the end of our day, we went through some streets without bike lanes, and then got on the Rails to Trails route indicated on our map. For more than four miles, we were on a paved bike path swerving and closing our eyes because there were no dangers. The GPS searched frantically for a road to follow. When we got near a road, the GPS tried to pretend we were on that road, but eventually gave up and showed us riding through a field away from any road. Instead of showing that we were “Heading West on Lake Blvd”, it just showed “Heading West”. We don’t have the voice playing on the GPS when we have it on Berta’s bike, but Jill (that’s the GPS’ voice name) was probably screaming “Turn, you idiots! Can’t you see there is no road here?” Jill is crazy about people driving their cars through open fields. Eventually, we left the bike path for only a short distance and stopped at a Holiday Inn Express for the night. Jill slept soundly knowing there was a road right outside.
Our choices for dinner, according to the lovely red-head at the hotel desk, were the restaurant in the Comfort Inn next door and the restaurant in the Flying J truck stop across the street. Mr. Skinflint (you can surmise for yourself who that is) picked the cheaper eatery in the truck stop. We got the buffet at the truck stop, and we have two items to name for you: Mashed Potatoes and Butterscotch. Not together, but their mashed potatoes were as good as homemade and their caramel was pretty butterscotchy (that’s a real good thing).
A tale of two properties: The Erie Triangle is the little tab on the Northwestern corner of Pennsylvania that includes the port of Erie and some coveted shorefront property. As Berta’s mom says, states will do anything to have some waterfront. After it belonged to nobody, it belonged to the state of New York. In 1788, Congress ratified the contract for the sale of the triangle to Pennsylvania. Three years later, the Pennsylvania state legislature authorized Governor Thomas Mifflin to purchase the Triangle’s approximately 200,000 acres for $151,640.25. In contrast, there is currently for sale more than four acres of land near Lake Erie with School House No. 3, built in 1897, on it for $319,000.
We stopped at a beverage shop in Ashtabula. One of the struggles of taking bike trips in other states concerns liquor laws. We think there be should federal rules that are just like the rules in California: you can buy liquor everywhere except in the lunchroom in kindergarten. You have to drink it at home, and you can’t drive after drinking it, but you can BUY alcohol of all types anywhere. This is not the regulation in any of the states we have visited. In non-California states, liquor is only available on busy streets two miles from anything and sometimes not on Sundays. There are decoy stores that sell beer and wine, which keeps one of us happy. Anyway, at one of these shops yesterday, Berta selected a bottle of wine, and John settled on premixed Margaritas because that contains at least a little tequila. The cashier asked if we were together. Really? You have two separate people in spandex in Ohio, and they both happen to be in your Ashtabula beverage store at the same time? What are the odds?
Ashtabula to Burton, Ohio
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 2:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 36 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 322 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.47
Weather: Low seventies; we can’t believe no rain again
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.5 Bumpy roads
Animals for the day: Llamas!!! With baby llamas! And baby goats too!
When we walked into a biker bar/grill this morning, (replete with I wanna be a biker folks wearing headscarfs and no helmet), we were told it was breakfast time so we ordered eggs. By the time we got our food, it was lunchtime and people were ordering cheesesteaks. It seemed like forever before our food came. Maybe it was that we were seated directly in front of a blurry large rear-projection TV showing a very old American Idol rerun. The only other options for viewing were Bud Light posters, Welcome Race Fans posters and happy hour details. On Thursday, Bud in a bottle is $1.50 (Normally $1.75). It was impossible not to look at the TV. Finally, our food came. Two eggs, sausage, hash browns, two pieces of toast, and a drink for us each and the total was ten bucks. It was good, too. It was almost worth that horrible dress Carrie Underwood wore and the rude comments Simon made about it.
For the last ten miles of our ride today, we were in Amish territory. Even sitting in the biker bar, we were in Amish territory. There are a few obvious clues that a farm is Amish. Cars in the front, not Amish. Small piles of hay in rows throughout the field, yes Amish. Big rolls or bales of hay, no. Only plain-colored clothing on a clothes line, yes. No connection to the power grid, yes. We stopped in an Amish variety store and there was no one in the store. We could have absconded with half the store before a nine year old girl appeared, surprised at our presence. The store was mostly a dry goods store with many bolts of plain-colored cloth, premade childrens’ clothing in muted colors and women’s hats that couldn’t be returned for $20.00. There were some items that didn’t fit our picture of an Amish store like LED lamps, digital pocket watches on nylon lanyards, and propane torches. According to a non-Amish docent we listened to in town, an important aspect of Amish living is to be independent of the grid. The LED lamps are battery powered. Some Amish here have gas wells that provide them with natural gas to power some tools. The docent also said there are over 200 Amish sects, all of them different as to what rules should be followed. We saw several Amish women using gas-powered weed whackers. We also saw a man and a boy driving a hay trailer that had truck tires, pulled by two huge black draft horses. They turned on to the road ahead of us, but before we could catch them, they pulled off into the field on the other side of the street. The horses pulled that heavy trailer up a little ridge and we heard the man call for them to slow down and stop.
We benefitted from the many horse and buggies on the road. The drivers clearly were used to waiting for a clear stretch of road to make a good pass of an Amish buggy. The cars were aware of the road and usually gave us plenty of room.
When we were planning today’s ride yesterday, Berta saw a website for the Red Maple Bed & Breakfast in Burton. John balked at the price, but considering how much his butt hurt, he acquiesced.
The Red Maple Inn is quite a luxurious place with patrons who are way above our economic status. Wine tasting (wine drinking, really, because the wine was already in carafes with no labels on them) happened at 1800 and there were various groups dispersed throughout the room. We placed ourselves in close proximity with a couple who had just celebrated their 60th anniversary. He was a loud-mouthed boor and she was a nice woman who liked to use the word “elegant”, who dropped a lot of hints at how much money their aunt has. The aunt just had her 106th birthday.
We took a tour of the oldest house in the area, built in 1806. The docent—the same one we have been referring to—was a guy who just attended his 50th high school reunion and had a booming voice probably deepened by the cigarettes he never puts down. He wore Amish looking clothing and wore a beard to complete the effect. We bought tickets for the official tour, but he would have talked for hours either way. After we bought tickets, he actually got out his keys and opened some buildings and we went inside to listen to him. He showed us a device that held a slice of bread up to the fire in the fireplace and then with your toe you stirred the cradle that held the bread so the other side of the bread would be browned. Thus the name toaster and toast came about. As he said, “I didn’t make this up.”
We visited a log cabin in the town commons where volunteers make maple syrup and maple candy. There were two women in the shop. One was 71 years old but surely didn’t look it. This lady was an easy, friendly, pleasant woman. The other woman was 50ish, and she was most pleased to have an audience interested in the making of maple syrup. She showed us the evaporator and described measuring the boiling temperature and specific gravity of sap as it boils. It takes about 50 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of syrup and the syrup can only be harvested during certain climatic conditions. One way to measure when the syrup is at the right concentration is to weigh a gallon of it. Maple syrup must weigh at least 11 pounds per gallon (water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon). Sometimes nature delivers sap that has more sugar in it to start with. Good maple sap is clear, but when conditions change it becomes yellow, “sour”, and unusable. Last year, Canada had the wrong weather for collecting sap and produced very little maple syrup, so they had to buy much of their sap from the USA. She told us they are happy for people to buy maple syrup from anybody, even their competitors, because they are happy that demand exceeds supply. The sap taps that are nailed into the tree are 5/16 of an inch in diameter and much smaller than those used in the past. The reasoning is that the tree will be harmed less by a smaller wound. Trees need to be thirty years old before they are tapped for sap. While this woman talked, she was pouring maple candy into flexible rubber molds. After John had spent $2.50 on four tiny morsels of maple candy shaped like maple leafs, the woman handed us each about eighty cents worth of warm candy that spilled outside of the mold. Yum!
Day Eight, Sunday
Burton to Hudson, Ohio
Start time: 10:30 am
End time: 3:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 38 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 360 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.59
Weather: High sixties and dry
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 2.0 Bumpier roads
Animals for the day: A big hawk flying over a field. A hound dog that just gave three big woofs and then looked away.
A few days ago, Berta misplaced her Revlon Anti-Snap Leave-In Hair Treatment at the Holiday Inn Express in Austinburg. For almost two days, she struggled with tangles and flyaway hair. John tried to sympathize, but he really couldn’t muster any authenticity on this topic. He keeps referring to it as Snap Treatment, but Berta reminds him that you wouldn’t put snap in, you want snap out. “Oh, of course,” John says. Then, while at the Red Maple Inn, Berta rediscovered the small container of her precious serum. All was right with the world. This reunion, along with the Gilchrist and Soames Soaps and lotions at the Inn, made for a sweet-smelling smooth silky day.
We, again, got the better of the weather today. The sky here in Ohio is bright blue and the clouds are substantial and well defined. You wouldn’t describe the day as “overcast” because that sounds like a blanket of clouds. The sky is filled here, but it is filled with billowing clouds of irregular shapes with bright white on the upper edges and at least medium gray on the bottom. The clouds move and change shape while we look at them. They seem so heavy and full that we really can’t believe that we have made it four days since our last rain.
The terrain here, as we have mentioned, is hilly. It isn’t as rough as the New York area we covered last week, but there still are few flat stretches of road. Where there is a house, there is an expanse of lawn that is glorious green and well trimmed. In contrast, the undeveloped areas are thick with trees and brush. It is hard to imagine how fugitive slaves traversed this region, especially in the extremes of weather. We have rain jackets and sunscreen and wicking material for clothing, not to mention the mechanical advantage of riding bicycles. We are going to ride a total of about six hundred miles in two or three weeks. These people followed a circuitous route in order to evade capture. They covered a lot more distance than we will. They could not stop in a gas station and select a couple of Hawaiian Punches from the refrigerated section. Not many of them attempted the trip. In about sixty years that the Underground Railroad was in operation, between thirty thousand and one hundred thousand slaves travelled to freedom. This was out of approximately four million slaves in this country.
After we left the big bucks inn this morning, we found ourselves in between lush green fields and thick forest. The road surface was concrete with slight striations that ran from side to side. This feature of the road surface produced an unsettling sound, like a jet engine, as cars approached. Later, the pavement changed and we noticed something different about it. All over the road, in irregular distribution, were rust stains, some more than a foot long, each dripping from a divot in the surface. The road was light colored, but might have had some asphalt in it. It might have been concrete—it was definitely an aggregate. We have looked online, but searching for “road rust stains” is not so useful.
We are staying near the town of Hudson. It is a pretty little town that has recycling cans next to trash cans on the street. Some of the bike racks look like a group of old time bicycles:
Do some people in this world use multiple pillows at night? Tonight’s bed, in a motel that aims high but only made it to American Tacky, is a king-size bed that is littered with pillows. There are two rows of three pillows, making 5.5 too many pillows for John and Berta. Berta uses one pillow all night. Conscious John starts out using one pillow, but part way through the night, Subconscious John launches the pillow away. At home, there is no launch. John’s pillow is never on the floor, it is carefully wedged between the bed and the wall. In hotels, where there is normally no wall nearby, Berta has to be prepared for flying pillows anywhere anytime. Or like last night, when she probably was having some dream about being in a big marshmallow river and woke up covered in pillows. At least last night, the temperature in the room was perfectly cool and the two layers of pillows on Berta were okay.
Hudson to Medina, Ohio
Start time: 9:10 am
End time: 2:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 33 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 393 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.59
Weather: High sixties and dry
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.0
Animals for the day: Alpaca babies, and a handsome cardinal outside the restaurant window
We saw a few more alpaca farms today. The signs out front mentioned alpacas, and the other day we called similar animals llamas. We now think that those llamas were really alpacas. Llamas are larger, have banana-shaped ears, and are beasts of burden. Alpacas have straight ears and were bred for their wool. One thing we can say for sure, they are enthusiastic bike fans. Both times we came near a crowd of them, they loped across the field towards us. The youngsters are extra fuzzy, but not like they need anti-snap treatment.
Since the third day of this trip, John has had a click in his drive train. Each revolution of the pedals produced a click. It isn’t just a little click, it’s a Ka-CLICK. After talking way too long about it, we realized that it only clicked when John pedaled with his left pedal. So we swapped left pedals. Nope, that wasn’t it because John’s bike still clicked and Berta’s didn’t. We checked the chain; nope, no sticky link. Just in case it was the chain, we bought a can of brake cleaner and emptied it on the chain to get all of the gunk off. Nope, the click continued. Every dog along the route has had advance notice of our arrival because of the click; some relished that fact. Today, a German shepherd ruined a bush of flowers in the corner of his yard trying to get at the clicking machine. A rough calculation of the number of clicks endured over the last three days puts the estimate at 37,800. We have seen one closed bike shop and came within a mile of another bike shop since the clicking started; however, it is difficult to get to a shop when we leave a town before hours and when we want to get to a shower in the afternoon. Both of us admitted later that we only had so much patience left for the clicking. Just as Berta was typing “sanitarium” into the GPS, we happened upon an open bike shop in the middle of a short day. Our clicking problem was solved by Century Cycles of Peninsula, Ohio. It turned out that a combination of tightening the chainrings and regreasing the bottom bracket solved the problem. It wasn’t that anything was broken, but the rain some days ago must have put some grit around the axle. The men and woman who were working today at Century Cycles are real bikers. The mechanic talked of riding his bike in Colorado and wanting to ride the Pacific Coast Highway. Kevin on the sales floor rode from Ohio to Guatemala last year. They had at least a couple of products that we know to be really worth the money, including a really good brand of pumps made near our hometown in California (Lezyne, in San Luis Obispo) and the brand of jackets we use (Showers Pass, in Oregon). A sincere thanks to Century Cycles. www.centurycycles.com In parting, they gave us some good advice on local roads down the valley. As John pedaled away, he was on a stealth bike again and we ambushed a bunch of dogs this afternoon.
At the bike shop, they suggested we visit the local farmers market. Just down the road a few miles, and only a quarter mile off the route, we saw Szalay’s Sweet Corn Farm. It was a huge market filled with fresh produce and locally made items. We had chocolate chip cookies. The woman in line behind us said, “Now that’s a testimonial. Skinny people eating cookies.” We talked outside with some women who were riding on the Ohio and Erie Towpath. It was originally a path along the river where the horses walked while they pulled barges that were on the canal. Now, the path is used for hiking and recreational biking. It is gravel, so it is not the best surface for road bikes.
We stopped to use a restroom at a park and the fellow who cleans the restrooms was there. It was one of those permanent buildings that has a chemical toilet in it. The worker warned Berta that he had not looked inside and it might be bad. He did not hesitate to tell us of his difficulties cleaning restrooms and what detestable behavior some restroom users exhibit. Earlier in the day he had “caught” people taking saplings from the forest and others picking wildflowers. It turned out that this restroom was just fine, and still had hand sanitizer in the dispenser. Even though we could not help the fact that we needed to use the restrooms, we felt slightly guilty anyway. Just down the road was the only covered bridge left in the area. It is used on the walking/biking path now, not for cars.
After we checked into the motel this afternoon, we looked for something to eat. We walked up to the Road House and it was not open for twenty five minutes. We had some time to kill, so we visited the local Harley Davidson dealer. This is two nights in a row that we have stayed within view of a Harley dealer. This one was in a magnificent building with at least 75 brand new Harleys in stock. Bill approached us asking if we were interested in a Harley. John told him that we arrived on bicycles, we were leaving on bicycles and that we were just wasting time until the restaurant was open. As blunt as that sounds, at least John didn’t blurt out “Wow, how much does that chrome weigh?!?” John and Bill had an interesting discussion while Berta perused the showroom. She enjoys the paint jobs and is intrigued by how they market and present Harleys. That doesn’t mean Berta doesn’t know anything about motorcycles, though. When John asked about the reliability of Harleys now, Bill insinuated that they are very reliable, “so reliable that a big part of our sales are to women.” Huh? How do they figure out how to use the gas cap? Do they make their husbands start the motorcycle? Berta bit her tongue and went off to look at a brand new Sportster. Bill said that they were currently selling 60 bikes per month. Last year they sold 80 bikes per month and the year before that they sold 100 bikes per month. Bill sees that the local economy is improving (they just reopened a big steel plant in Cleveland that was closed for five years). He says that the high end bikes continue to sell but the low end bikes sales are still weak because those customers are unsure of their economic future.
Day Ten, Tuesday
Medina to Elyria, Ohio
Start time: 9:10 am
End time: 1:30 pm
Today’s mileage: 44 miles with a flat tire. That makes two, and this one was a split near the valve on a tube that had been patched three times already.
Total bike mileage so far: 437 miles
Local Gas Prices: we did not pass a gas station today
Weather: Beautiful warm day
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.8, so says Berta
Animals for the day: A doe near the bike path, and a hawk that flew with us for about 100 feet
The route today was very flat. The sky in the morning was bright blue and cloudless. The weather and terrain was about as good as it gets for cycling. In this area south of Cleveland, the land is starting to look like the middle of the country. We are expecting some hills tomorrow, but they each show only a few hundred feet of climbing over several miles.
We saw a sign today for The Smokehouse. The sign mentioned beef jerky, which isn’t our first choice for snack food; however, it seemed like a fun stop. We went inside to see a dizzying number of choices, flavors and shapes of dried meat. After a highly unscientific process, we each selected an item. We waited for anyone to recognize that we were in the sales room. We could see the backs of people behind the glass, packaging their products. John went through a door marked “Office” and came out with two women. One of them grabbed the items we had, and said, “I don’t know why this is out here, it is expired.” Berta asked if vacuum-packed smoked and dried meat can expire. She explained that it just won’t be moist. Moist beef jerky? Really? We paid $1.00 for three packages of beef sticks. She wouldn’t charge us for the expired one, John’s was 75 cents, but he said we would call it even at a dollar, so she threw in another expired one. That’s one dollar for a whole day’s worth of sodium and cholesterol.
We sometimes get to little towns and cannot find a place to stay. Usually, we only worry about that on Saturday nights. One time a town was filled up with people for a big softball tournament, another time it was the national drag racing series. Today, the crowds were for students arriving for the school year at Oberlin College. The Oberlin Inn, with 67 rooms, was filled with parents. We had to decide between going nine miles directly away from our route or going an undetermined distance along our route. Hmmm, what to do? We decided to go with the known distance, nine miles to Elyria (El-leer-ree-uh). John asked Berta the navigator if she could find a route that did not include the busy looking highway. As if by magic, we went a couple of blocks away from the highway and stumbled on a bike path that made a bee-line for Elyria. Most of the bike paths in Ohio are paved over rail beds, so they have barely any grade. Motivated by a tailwind, we put the pedals down and covered the distance in about thirty minutes. We stopped for a handful of cross streets, and slowed once when we saw a doe standing in the grass next to the path. When the bike path ended, we played dodge the crazy drivers on stupid streets until we found a motel. The GPS only tells you how to get there, not whether your hair will be on fire along the chosen route. The Country Inn and Suites across the street only had smoking rooms left. We chose a well-worn room in the Best Western that didn’t smell so bad. Our first meal was a choice of Arbys, McDonalds, or a family restaurant next to the Dollar General. We went to the family restaurant, called Rubins. The waitress was efficient if not wordy, and we both ordered Perogies with split pea soup. John had to ask what perogies are. They are kind of like ravioli with potatoes and cheese inside. The flavor is reminiscent of sour cream, but they gave us sour cream on the side to add to it. Berta’s friend, Judith, served these for breakfast one time with yummy crunchy bits of bacon. Today, the perogies were served with a lot of sautéed white onions. The split pea soup was tasty. The meal was new and different for us on this trip.
Usually downhill signs show trucks
It is too bad that we could not stay in Oberlin, because it is a beautiful town with some good social history:
Many African Americans, including some who were fugitive slaves, lived openly in the community, especially before the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act. Since the entire town was known as a safe place and a hot bed of the abolitionist movement, it is unlikely that many homes had secret hiding places. Not many homes from the pre-Civil War era survive and many that do have undergone extensive alterations. Of course any house in town built before the Civil War could have been part of the Underground Railroad.
The town of Oberlin and its college were founded in 1833 and from the beginning Oberlin was different from any other school and community in the nation. It was the first coeducational college in the US where women and men were taught in the same classroom, and the first college to admit students “irrespective of color.” Oberlin was a community committed to opposing slavery and educating blacks as well as providing an active stop on the Underground Railroad and playing a major role in the abolition movement.
The town of Oberlin and the college there were founded at the same time by people who “wanted to found a Christian perfectionist settlement away from the sinful world”. The college included a non-denominational seminary that existed until 1964.
Oberlin College originally included a Theological Seminary. Many of the graduates of the Seminary worked as missionaries in all regions of the world. One “hot spot” for Oberlin-trained missions was China, particularly the Shansi (Shanxi) province of China. In 1899, a group of Chinese nationalists (the “Boxers”) wanted to purge their country of foreign influences, including missionaries. The “Memorial Arch” in Tappan Square is a monument to the Oberlin-trained missionaries who were killed in the Boxer Uprising/Rebellion. More recently, a plaque has been added to the Arch to honor the Chinese nationals who also were killed in the violence.
The town was abuzz with students. Main Street was filled to capacity. The bike path was pretty busy too, and the people we passed there were friendly.
Day Eleven, Wednesday
Elyria to Ashland, Ohio
Start time: 8:30 am
End time: 2:45 pm
Today’s mileage: 67 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 504 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.47
Weather: Beautiful warm day, looked rainy, did not rain
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 2.0 after five hours of pedaling
Animals for the day: Lindsay the black lab at a farm where we got some water
Sometimes the population distribution in this country is not well suited to bicycle traffic. Looking at our maps in Elyria, we knew today was going to be at least a long day. The unknowables, though, are terrain and wind. Even when the map has topographic information, it cannot show it with enough detail for cycling. So we put on the gear and started pedaling. It turned out that the light wind was generally out of the Northwest and we were travelling generally south. For at least part of the day, it felt like a tailwind.
We say our path was generally south today because we did a fair amount of zigging and zagging. We wanted to follow Highway 58, which goes directly south from Oberlin. We use Adventure Cycling Association maps, and they avoided Highway 58 as much as they could. We rode on a parallel road to the west of 58 for eight miles, then made a ninety-degree turn, crossed 58, and turned again to find another parallel road to the east. All of the roads here are either township, county, or state roads. Most of them are on about a 1 to 1.5 mile grid, and they are numbered as such. For instance, when we crossed Township Road 900, we knew we had about four miles to go to our turn at Township Road 1302. The house numbers along the street also conformed to this system. Upon reflection, that is much more reasonable than expecting someone to know that Mission Street is north from Carrillo.
We rode into Wellington for lunch. We selected an eating establishment with the highly scientific “I don’t know, what do YOU want to eat?” method. The marketing folks would love to know how we decide. We locked up the bikes and entered Dmitri’s Family Restaurant. The specials board listed Gyro sandwiches. Our server said we could have the regular Gyro, or the large Gyro. She claimed that the large would hold us over until 6p.m. It came with soup or salad. We both opted for the homemade chicken noodle soup, which was excellent. The Gyros were super good too. There are good places to eat just about everywhere. We have had good luck finding them on this trip.
Wellington’s Town Hall … Designed by the architect Oscar Cobb of Chicago at a cost of $40,000 in 1885, the Town Hall originally housed the bulk of Wellington’s public functions as well as an Opera House. This structure features an unusual but attractive blend of Byzantine, Gothic, Greek and Spanish architecture.
Just a mile down the road, the Lorain County Fair was happening. We waited for a restored train to slowly cross the road, probably headed for the fairgrounds:
–image from from http://www.lakeshorerailway.org/
The display of tourist attraction pamphlets in this hotel has information on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Berta had to remind herself that we are nearing the southern border of Ohio, and there is Kentucky. In other continental news, we have confirmed that all of Ohio is in the Eastern Time Zone.
It was a long day of riding, made necessary by the irregular distribution of hotels along our route. Even so, we rolled into Ashland before three. A bicyclist saw our bikes outside the hotel and we guess made his wife pull in the driveway so he could talk to us. A few years ago, he made a long bike trip along the Northern Tier—it sounded like all the way across the U.S.—with a group and with a motor home following them. He had many questions about our bikes, asking about the GPS and wanting to lift our bikes. He bubbled with enthusiasm, spoke quickly and was fun to talk with. He lifted Berta’s bike and proclaimed, “That’s a lot of girth in the rear!” I beg your pardon! His wife yelled from the car, “We’re late, we have to go.” With that he waved and was off.
Ashland to Mount Vernon, Ohio
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 1:30 pm YIPPEEE
Today’s mileage: 44 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 548 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.52
Weather: Overcast warm day.
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.5 (tailwind)
Animals for the day: A miniature pony, some sheep that all looked over when John said hi to them and a pink pig.
The day started at WallMart, looking for sun screen for Mr. I’m Picky about my sunscreen. Out of thirty choices, there was none suitable for the king. He will wait just a little longer before he has to break down and use the other gunk. Off we go.
Precisely three miles into today’s ride, Berta felt an itching kind of gnawing feeling on her forehead, under her helmet. When she felt into an air vent in her helmet, she got a black smudge that was probably an insect moments before. Considering her proclivity for swelling up like a puffer fish in response to biting/sucking insects, Berta wanted to stop to at least witness the expansion. John started laughing, like “Really, I am stopping because you might have a bug in your helmet?” He didn’t say that, but he was thinking that. Berta said, “Pretty soon I’m going to look like a unicorn.” (On close inspection, six hours later, Berta’s forehead looks normal). Berta didn’t think it was unreasonable to have a creepy crawly bug freakout, so she pouted and suggested that five miles of overt sympathy was appropriate. John, the ever-attentive husband, began to repeat “poor, poor Berta” to the music of old show tunes. He thought this was quite funny; however, within a half-mile and approximately fifty repetitions, Berta decided she had had enough sympathy. Or maybe it was just that it wasn’t the right kind of sympathy; John isn’t sure what he did wrong.
We tried to go to the Johnny Appleseed Drama, but it has not been performed since 2006. We saw a road sign—one of those brown signs with white lettering that suggests a wholesome, natural attraction—pointing to the drama, but the gates were closed. These signs led us to read up on Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman. He spent much of his adult life in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana.
The popular image of Johnny Appleseed had him spreading apple seeds randomly, everywhere he went. In fact, he planted nurseries rather than orchards, built fences around them to protect them from livestock, left the nurseries in the care of a neighbor who sold trees on shares, and returned every year or two to tend the nursery. Many of these nurseries were located in the Mohican area of north-central Ohio. This area included the towns of Mansfield, Lucas, Perrysville, and Loudonville.
He obtained the apple seeds for free; cider mills wanted more apple trees planted since it would eventually bring them more business. Johnny Appleseed dressed in the worst of the used clothing he received, giving away the better clothing in barter. He wore no shoes, even in the snowy winter. There was always someone in need he could help out, for he did not have a house to maintain. When he heard a horse was to be put down, he had to buy the horse, buy a few grassy acres nearby, and turn the horse out to recover. If it did, he would give the horse to someone needy, exacting a promise to treat the horse humanely.
Johnny Appleseed died around 1845, and purportedly left an estate of over 1200 acres of land to his sister.
Miles passed as we rode up and down quiet farmland roads that Berta has chosen with Google maps. We were off our prescribed route to get to a hotel, so we were headed back to the roads Adventure Cycling recommends. Suddenly, there it was: a large pink pig on its pig pedestal. “Photo op!” Many of the farm animals we see are made of fiberglass. This pig was solid cement, and had wooden pegs for ears because the original ears probably fell off like Venus’ arms. There was no indication of the history behind this pig: there was no plaque and the buildings nearby looked like a privately owned farm. As far as we know, the only reason this pink pig exists is for our enjoyment. We had quiet roads, beautiful scenery and now we had a pink pig.
Lunch was served in the Whiffletree restaurant (in Butler) When we walked in, John pointed and said, “The Duke.” The Duke is an endearing figure for some of us. We each had a cup of delicious homemade cream of potato with bacon soup. Berta had a good tuna salad sandwich that was probably just as good as the ham salad sandwich she ordered. While eating, it occurred to us that the Duke was watching from every angle. We counted on the way out, both of us mumbling the numbers, as if walking through a small-town diner in bright yellow spandex wasn’t conspicuous enough. This small restaurant has eight pictures of John Wayne on the walls. Two were on lacquered wood with bark attached and one was a clock. Another was a montage of pencil-drawn portraits, but we only counted that as one.
We climbed several significant hills today, but none after lunch. As we left the town of Butler, we turned in the direction indicated by the gently flapping flags. The wind was at our backs for the last twenty miles. The roads were basically flat, and we arrived in Mount Vernon around 1:30.
Mount Vernon is a town steeped in history with people eager to preserve it. A store front display showed pictures and artifacts of a building that was just restored in the downtown area. It was four-stories tall, brick, and had painted wooden trim on the windows. The substantial painted crown around the top of the building was white with simple blue highlights. In the same block, we saw two women and a man washing the tall picture windows outside a nearly empty retail space. We learned from Aunt Bee in the quilt shop a few doors down that the downstairs will be used as an art gallery. The rest of the space will be used as an art center for a local college as well as for public adult education classes. Bee says that Mount Vernon has a considerable population of older people who might be interested in art classes. The older folks are part of the reason that Bee decided to open the quilt shop last February. She is hopeful because each month has been busier than the last, but she admits that every dollar she receives goes right back into the shop. We entered her shop in hopes of hearing something about the quilts of the Underground Railroad. We have heard that women hung quilts on the clothesline to communicate with runaway slaves. There are some websites that claim the quilts had a very intricate language of special squares, but other websites point out that remnants or patterns of the quilts have never been found. Aunt Bee apologized that she did not have any information about it. They are planning a quilt tour of examples of Amish quilting in November. Bee did have a small kit for a quaint American flag that has a local legend to go with it. Civil War soldiers visited a woman and complained that she did not have evidence of her loyalty to the United States. They gave her three hours to put up an American flag. She found scraps of fabric, and made a flag before they returned. Bee offers this kit with the legend on a red piece of paper. It wasn’t so noble a pattern as one to direct slaves to freedom, but it had an historical story, so we bought it and Bee promised she would have it in the mail to Berta’s mom the next day.
We aimed to have Indian food at Henry’s inside the fancy-pants hotel in the square, but we went there in the doldrums between lunch and dinner. Apparently the two red and blue neon OPEN signs were wrong. Plan B was the High Street Diner in a building that was erected in 1905. The interior of the diner was all twentieth century, though, with a heavy emphasis on celebrities who died young. We decided to sit at the Marilyn Monroe table because Elvis was a little faded in the next booth. We ordered the special after we asked for more details. It was stuffed banana peppers with two sides. The mild peppers were three inches long, stuffed with a meatball, and baked with parmesan cheese and marinara sauce on top. Each order had two of those. The sides we chose were obvious: fried green tomatoes and cucumber salad. We each got six fried slices of tomatoes, which were delicious and different for us. The cucumber salad was a small bowl of unpeeled slices of locally grown cucumbers in a light oil seasoned with a little vinegar and rosemary. There was nothing bitter about these ultra fresh cucumbers. It was an excellent meal even before we ordered dessert. They had homemade pie, and we agreed to split a piece. John normally goes for cherry or berry pie. Berta exercised her dessert veto power and blurted out “Peanut Butter Pie!” before John could say anything. The slice was easily one-fifth of a full-sized pie, and was two inches thick if you included the whipped cream and chocolate chips decorating the top. Berta turned the point of the pie towards John because he is offended by the pie mass that is wasted on crust materials. John lifted a generous portion and ate it. He stopped mid-chew, realizing the flavors. His eyes closed, the angels did sing on high, and he proclaimed, “Yum!” It was a spectacular piece of pie. When Berta finds recipes that sound similar, she is going to try to replicate this whole meal, including the peanut butter pie.
Mount Vernon to Delaware, Ohio
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 12:30 pm YIPPEEE again
Today’s mileage: 42 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 590 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.47-$2.67
Weather: Overcast warm day, see below
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 1.5 (tailwind AND downhill)
Animals for the day: A stuffed albino raccoon in a grocery store and those yellow birds again
In the dark at about five o’clock this morning, we awoke to the booming of Midwestern thunder. The lightning illuminated our hotel room through both the modesty curtain and the thick drapes that cover the windows. Flash! We counted one-one thousand, two-one thousand… seven seconds between the lightning and the huge clap of thunder. That’s good, the lightning was more than a mile away. We could hear rain on the window. The lights in the parking lot shown on big puddles roiling with raindrops. John opened the drapes so we could see the flashes better. Again and again, we saw a flash and counted the seconds until the sound. One big flash ended the buzz of the refrigerator and snuffed out the little orange light on the hotel hair dryer. The power was restored within minutes, but the fireworks continued. It was hard to picture a dry day ahead.
We pretended the weather was balmy while we acted like locusts at the Comfort Sunshine Breakfast. It seems like the weak economy has forced most national hotel chains to upgrade their rooms and their complimentary breakfasts. Some are better than others (scrambled eggs are uncommon, some pastries are fancier), but they all have coffee with half-and-half, waffles you make for yourself, and a good choice of cereal. The orange juice can be watery. This morning, we had ripe kiwi fruit and bananas that were a nice addition to the standard fare. The cinnamon-swirl bread for toasting was yummy. We wore a path from our table to the breakfast bar.
By the time we rolled away from Mt. Vernon, there were puddles on the road but the rain had stopped. We rode for three hours aided by a tailwind and stopped in Delaware. We went to dinner at a Chinese buffet, returned to the hotel, and watched the skies open up again at 1915. The rain was coming down so hard that we went outside to watch. It is opening weekend for high school football, and we are in the land of football. There are numerous young men slopping in the mud tonight. This storm we are watching illustrates why everything is so green here.
The local news teams in this region all have their special spin on telling the viewer that the sky is falling. Three dimensional weather maps are popular. Instead of just showing the red and orange blob on the radar map, now we see a big wavy depiction of the cloud thickness. Tonight’s weather man said that the local weather cell was 40,000 feet tall. Whatever the case, it rained cats and dogs for about two hours.
We stopped at the only store in Kilbourne for Hawaiian Punch. The store clerk was sitting on the front steps as we arrived. John purchased two drinks inside while Berta hopped from foot to foot, looking at the handwritten but insistent “No Public Restrooms” sign in the window. A young woman passed Berta and entered the store. The only thing Berta noted was that she was wearing pajama bottoms for pants. “I look terrible today,” she said to the clerk. Not according to John. He wondered how good she would look on a good day. “Your usual?” the clerk asked. The customer nodded. The clerk turned and retrieved a can of chewing tobacco. Money was exchanged and she left the store with a Styrofoam cup in her mouth, chew in her hand and tattoos showing at midriff. Image shattered. John emerged from the store with 20 ounces of fluid for Berta who was still staring at the sign. He walked back in and asked the clerk if there was a park in town where we could find a restroom. Without hesitation, she showed Berta down the back hall to a bathroom. “We make exceptions for cyclists,” she said. John talked to the woman about the local economy, which she said is very bad. The clerk’s mom, who worked at the same company for twenty years, was given the option of early retirement or lay off. She chose early retirement. People have lost their jobs and there is no local hope for new jobs at this point. Some people have lost their homes, and not due to speculation. The store had a number of stuffed animals on display: a fox, a coyote, a mink, the obligatory deer head and the show stopper was an albino raccoon. That’s what she said it was. How did we know bleach wasn’t involved?
We do laundry about every other day unless there is no guest laundry in the hotel. There has been no need so far to look for a Laundromat. Tonight, laundering needed to happen. John took off his socks and put his shoes back on without socks. Berta asked, “Did you only bring one pair of socks?” He explained that he had a second pair of socks, but that he had never taken them out of his pack. We’re on day thirteen and John finally got out his second pair of socks. He also has been carrying rain pants, another jersey, a flashlight, three tubes, a bivvy sac and a spare tire that he hasn’t used. These are things we might really need under certain circumstances. But socks? What was John waiting for?
Day Fourteen, Saturday
Delaware to London, Ohio
Start time: 9:30 am
End time: 1:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 41 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 631 miles
Local Gas Prices: Unleaded: $2.56, Diesel: $2.69, Marlboro: $4.95 (that is on the towering sign at the Speedway outside this hotel)
Weather: Overcast warm day
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 2.0
Animals for the day: more yellow birds and your regular farm animals
For the audience members interested in Welt Watch, no red itchy patch has appeared as evidence that Berta was attacked by a bug yesterday. The potentially significant incident involving the alleged insect was apparently a figment of Berta’s active histamine response. Thanks to those of you who have suggestions about bug repellants, but this is not about little blood suckers smelling a mammal. This is a cyclist speeding down a hill, appearing out of nowhere to contact a bug that was on his way to the garden center. The bug’s last thought is “Stick All Pointy Things Out!” and THWACK it is over for the bug. For the cyclist, the brain registers that an insect impact is imminent. There isn’t time for ducking, so there is this full-body flinch and THWACK the cyclist wonders what remains on his face. Yesterday, Berta saw John ahead of her do the big bug flinch and then saw a butterfly hurtling out of control past her. It must have walloped John right in the kisser, because he said BLETH BLETH trying to spit it out. That is the rule for bugs in the mouth—two attempts to spit it out, then a big gulp of water to wash it down. Otherwise, you might as well just chew it.
Our route passed a U-Pick Raspberry farm. We stopped. We spent about fifteen minutes walking down one of the ten long rows of raspberry vines available to us. It was a little disconcerting wearing bike shorts in close quarters with barbed vines, but no snags happened. For much of the time, we were near a young family that had a child who was young enough to need constant input. As a result, we heard her name many times: Brady. Brady this, Brady that. Brady is a strange first name for a girl. John later asked,”What was her name?” We returned to the barn and paid $2.85 for almost a pound of berries. We also acquired an appreciation for the labor involved in harvesting raspberries. At the picnic table, Berta learned that John can eat about a cup of berries at a time. We both got a large helping of berries that were delicious. While we ate, the dog that was chained with a long chain to the corner of the barn came over to say hi. When we walked up, he was sitting on a wooden chair with one paw and his chin on the armrest. His eyes followed us, but he looked mostly uninterested. That was just an act though, because he was as extroverted a dog as you would meet. Berta had to ask him not to lick all of the sunscreen off her legs. When he realized we didn’t want a thirty-pound dog in our laps, he spotted another human to greet and trotted off.
We have crossed most of Ohio from the top right corner to the lower left corner. Our route has consistently passed very nice houses. For all we know, Ohio is one big golf course community. Besides massive lawns, the typical house we saw had about ten windows on the front. A good number of homes have not only an attached multi-car garage, but also another large garage with a rollup door big enough for a motor home. Some of the homes had front entryways that were two stories tall, a clear sign of new construction. Others didn’t look quite so new, but had new roofs and new siding.
We have had the pleasure to observe the natural beauty of our country. The USA is a farming powerhouse. Miles of healthy thriving crops abound. We saw two huge new collection sites today. One was a stand of four silos that were each probably fifty feet across and a hundred feet tall. They were shiny bright metal. Another farm had a new building that must have housed similar silos because it was huge and it had all overhead grain movers. On this trip, the two crops have been corn and beans. The corn is ready, with some of the fields already drying up for feed for animals. It is harder to see the beans, but those plants are about two feet tall with wide dark green leaves. Truly we live in a most beautiful land.
This weekend, there is a large cycling fundraiser not far from here. It is called Pelotonia, and Lance Armstrong is riding and speaking for the event. Because the main sponsor, NetJet, covered the cost of the event, 100% of all donations go directly to cancer research at Ohio State University. This year, there were 2265 riders who collectively raised more than thirty million dollars. All of the local newscasts are airing interviews with riders living with cancer and their families.
The socks that John finally broke out yesterday were immediately soiled today with grease. John knew it was a mistake to wear them.
London to Xenia, Ohio
Start time: 9:30 am
End time: 12:30 pm
Today’s mileage: 44 miles
Total bike mileage so far: 675 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.56
Weather: Overcast cool day
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 2.0
Animals for the day: Lots of cardinals, a bunny on the bike path, and Mittens the cat.
We rode just a few miles today until we were on a bike path. The Erie to Ohio trail is a converted rail-trail route devoted to bikes and similar ilk. It links Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. The route near Cincinnati is a separate asphalt path, but some of the northern route is crushed limestone, and the middle of the route goes along roads. Today, there were no big rigs or loud 4x4s, just pristine pavement surrounded by vegetation. We rode, swerving with our eyes closed. There is a big difference between the tension of the open road and the safety of a bicycle path.
We arrived at a town with a bicycle staging area that had racks, bathrooms, water fountains, and two railroad cars on display. There was an interesting log cabin next to the railroad cars that was clearly the oldest building around. John asked a guy about the history of the cabin; he answered, “I don’t know. Let’s ask the Scout Leader.” The scout leader didn’t know either, but mentioned that somebody must care for the cabin because it had a wreath on the door. The scouts were about to embark on a 50 mile bike ride for their bicycling merit badge. Berta heard the Scout leader remind his charges that they had only covered ten miles by 1030. He said it would be a very long day if they continued at that pace. The scouts were heading in our direction and took off before we did. Soon, we reencountered the first group of scouts who were experiencing “technical difficulties” that required them to stand blocking 85% of the path. “Oh!” they commented, surprised that we wanted to get through. As we overtook the next clump of scouts, one of them was pedaling with his right foot while inspecting the sole on the shoe of his left foot. He was making surprisingly good time with one leg folded up onto his top tube. We announced our intention to pass, and he did one of those kid bike path freakouts where his front wheel swerved along a physically improbable path from right to left and back again. It could have been an X-Game highlight, but he stayed up and we didn’t crash avoiding him. Later, we discussed it and decided that these scouts probably rode 1.5 miles for every 1.0 mile they went forward.
For a long stretch today, there was a line of obsolete power poles running next to the path. There were no lines between the poles, but many line shreds hanging from the glass insulators decorating the poles:
Berta remembers her family having candlesticks made from stacks of a couple of these insulators in red. All of the insulators we saw today were blue or clear glass. There were many poles and probably about a hundred insulators still on the pegs.
We were greeted in Xenia by a sign proclaiming it as “The City of Hospitality”, to which Berta replied, “We’ll be the judge of that!” We arrived at 1230 at the Holiday Inn and were told by the troglodyte at the front desk that we could not check in until 1500. John walked out, confident that our tourist dollars would be welcome at acceptable lodging elsewhere in town. Boy oh boy was he wrong. The other options looked like gang headquarters and a roach hotel. Meanwhile, Berta called Holiday Inn reservations. She talked to a bubbly friendly customer service type and made a reservation for early checkin at the Xenia location. We were assured we could check in at 1200 (it was already past that time). Triumphantly, we returned to the inn to claim our room. Ha! They re-scoffed at us and reiterated that check in time was 1500. Who cares what the guy at reservations said, we can’t possibly get a room ready in two hours! Grrrr. We went to get lunch and spent WAY longer than we usually do while eating. That was good for wasting almost twenty-five minutes. John was desperate to watch the Moto GP race, which was starting soon. So we swallowed our pride and sat in the hotel lobby using their high speed internet and electricity to catch the last 10 laps of the 250cc race. Meanwhile, Berta was trying to shame the hotel staff into relenting by looking as forlorn as possible. She sat on the edge of the lobby couch, trying to sleep with her head in her hands. A constant stream of people entered the hotel to attend a church service in the meeting room. They are forming a new Baptist congregation and evidently a requirement is fertility as well as an enthusiastic disposition. Formal dress was compulsory. The racers John really wanted to watch were starting to warm up. Berta was channeling her inner Raggedy Ann, flopped over with her knuckles on the floor. John tried to balance the warm laptop on his crossed leg without slathering the computer with sunscreen. The joyful music began down the hall, but Berta could only manage a sigh. At 1430, Ms. Trog called from across the lobby, “Excuse me, you were waiting to check in, right?” Why yes we were, what was your first clue? So Berta’s melodramatics were good for thirty minutes’ reprieve. At least the room was nice. John was able to hear the race with the experienced announcers on the computer while watching the muted race on the TV (all of the passing and crashing happens during commercials on TV). It was a good day: Nicky Hayden, an American riding for the Ducati factory team scored third place in the Moto GP race. All was right and good again.
Day Sixteen, Monday
Xenia to Cincinnati, Ohio
Start time: 9:00 am
End time: 1:00 pm
Today’s mileage: 41 miles
Total bike mileage for this trip: 716 miles
Local Gas Prices: $2.37
Weather: Bright cool day
Saddle Sore-o-meter reading: 0.0 We are done
Animals for the day: There is an insect in our hotel room.
The town of Xenia is laced with bicycle paths. From the Xenia Station hub, riders can go north to Yellow Springs, east to London, or southwest to Cincinnati. All of these rides are at least twenty miles out and back. We talked to a lady outside the hotel. She was with a group that was staying in Xenia and doing bicycle day trips from there. Besides the longer routes, there are many connecting paths that cyclists could use to stay off the roads. The Xenia station that is hub to all of these routes has restrooms, drinking fountains, and about one hundred parking spaces for people to drive over and bike away. There was a long line of well-designed bike racks and bicycle storage lockers.
When we returned to the station first thing in the morning to get back on our route, it was 50° F. The seasons are definitely changing. There was a city worker at the station who offered to take a photo of the two of us. The city van he was driving had a cyclist logo on the door. It is clear that Xenia derives substantial revenue from visiting cyclists. The city brags on their website about being called one of “America‘s 10 Fittest Cities for Women” by Health Magazine.
The path into the greater Cincinnati area is slightly downhill. The only negative comment we can make about travelling for distance on rail trails is that you don’t see many buildings or local people. A few towns straddle the rails so that we get to see how the people there live, but usually we don’t even know we passed civilization. Much of the trail we were on had thick vegetation on both sides of the path. The town of Spring Valley is right on the trail, so we rode down the one block of Main Street. There was a brick building that had three tall floors—we could look in the tall windows and see that all three floors had high ceilings. The building was empty but it looked like it was being renovated. On the same side of the street is the George Barrett Cement House that is marked with an Ohio Historical Marker. The house was completed in 1853 with “a new building material that included gravel, sand, and lime”. Barrett had lost the previous structure to fire and wanted to rebuild with materials that were more fire resistant. As we stood at that house, we could see two men painting the window trim on an old brick building across the street. The roof was new and the eaves were already freshly painted. Spring Valley looks like a town on the move and a town that values its past. Treasuring the past is a common theme in Ohio.
We arrived at Mason, in the suburbs of Cincinnati, and looked for a place to stay in the shadow of a large roller coaster at Kings Island amusement park. It turns out that Kings Island isn’t very amusing because it is closed all week. We are not really “into” amusement parks, but both of us like roller coasters, and we later admitted to each other that it would have been fun to walk over and zip around under someone else’s power for a while. We do, however, enjoy the fact that we are in a very comfortable room that is much cheaper than any hotel we have had on the whole trip.
We rented a van to transport the bikes to a shop to have them boxed. The rental company came to the hotel to pick us up. The driver, Richard, helped us to reconfigure the back of the van and we loaded the bikes. He took the scenic route to the rental office so that he could point out a bike shop we had in mind. We think Richard would be a fabulous tour bus driver. He knew a lot of history about the area and had an interesting history of his own in aerospace engineering. His best story was about a local radio station:
There is a 747 foot radio tower here that transmits WLW’s radio signal. The tower itself is interesting because it is a diamond-shaped tower made around 1920 by the Blaw-Knox Company:
WLW is the radio station Powel Crosley started to increase sales of the radios he manufactured. WLW became the most powerful AM broadcast station ever in the United States. The transmitter power grew from 20 watts to 500,000 watts, eventually settling down to only 50,000 watts in 1939 because of interference with radio transmissions in Canada, the United States, and even in Europe. One complaint allegedly came from Hitler, who called Crosley “the liar of Cincinnati”. After the radio station reduced its output to 50,000 watts, it still had the capacity to transmit further, and it did so (during WW II) to send coded messages to Europe when the U.S. government requested. It is widely reported that WLW’s signal was so strong that it was picked up in the coils of mattresses and box springs. Talk about a captive audience. There is still an unmanned guard tower next to the antenna.
We drove past a Ford automotive plant in Sharonville where they make transmissions. In July, they started calling people back to work there. When we passed at midday on a Tuesday, there were hundreds of cars in the parking lot. We looked, but did not see any Toyotas in the lot.
The little town of Mason displays banners as the “Top Suburb” in the Tri-State area. They call the greater Cincinnati area “Tri-State” because the population stretches south into Kentucky and west into Indiana. The Cincinnati airport is actually in Covington, Kentucky. Mason was tops amongst all of the surrounding villages. It has a very cute downtown of a couple of blocks. Many of our trips in the car have taken us through Mason, and the stoplights are remarkably long in this region, so we have studied all of the storefronts there. One new business has a slogan that we have seen so many times we have decided to befuddle you with it. The Sugar Mommies Cakery just opened last week. On their window, in pink letters, it says, “Cakes so good they make you wanna slap your momma”. Really?
We visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The downtown area in Cincinnati is shaped around a large curve of the Ohio River, which delineates the borders of Ohio and Kentucky. So some of the streets enter downtown, make a big U-turn, and exit going the opposite direction. Also, many of the streets are one-way. This arrangement can be challenging to small-town foreigners. We really didn’t make any navigational errors, but we ended up driving about a mile in a big circle around the museum and The Great American Ballpark as we spiraled down to the underground parking for the museum. Our plans clashed directly with a Cincinnati Reds home game that started at 1300. At every corner were people who either had tickets to the game or wanted tickets to the game. They looked at us with high expectation and we looked through them, trying to find the next arrow pointing to our destination. The fee for parking is usually $4.50, but when a game happens the price is $12.
The entrance fee to the Freedom Center includes a digital audio player that is easy to use to hear salient facts of the exhibits. We walked up to the first display, which was a huge textile piece, and listened. The audio directed us to look at one panel, and then another, describing the inspiration of the colorful artwork. Within moments, it became hard to maintain our composure. There was music playing that was incredibly poignant and the large room was empty except for us. We turned from this emotional introduction to see what was around us. The Freedom Center is a nicely designed building with good use of textural construction materials. There is a lot of rock and wood inside and out. Some of the rooms are large and quiet, like a church. In other rooms, the ceilings are low, the lights are dim, and there are numerous effective artificial trees making it feel like you are walking through the woods. In those rooms, there is a soundtrack of crickets and riparian noises playing. We walked from one display to the next with tears streaming down. How cruel people can be to each other. We saw an actual “Slave Pen”, a building moved from where it was used for newly captured slaves before they were sold to slaveholders. The building was a tangible reminder that the institution of slavery was a tragedy that impacted individuals and families. John crawled into a cramped wooden shipping crate that was the same size as the one a slave used to mail himself to freedom. Henry “Box” Brown (1815-1879), spent 27 hours in the box until he was released by a friend. Standing up, Mr. Brown said, “I’m free!” and then passed out. The Freedom Center celebrates men and women, black and white, who fought to end slavery. The celebration is for those who made it out and for the eventual end of slavery, but it is hard to ignore that for the few who made it out there were about four million who did not. Going to this museum and trying to convey the emotion of it is like going to Niagara Falls and trying to describe that. No matter how well a person could formulate a description, you couldn’t get the whole idea from words alone.
It took us sixteen days of riding to cover about a third of the full length of the Underground Railroad. Along the road, we could buy food and drink from people who were willing to sell it to us. Nobody was chasing us. Our path was paved and marked with signs to direct us. Some of the slaves started their journey in the Deep South and travelled into Canada. They had no experience with navigation, no maps, and no GPS. Many of those who made it to free states were forced to travel even farther north to live their lives unmolested. This was a most compelling route for a bicycle trip and reinforced how fortunate we are for myriad reasons.
Now we return to the rest of our possessions and the comfort of our regular lives. It is time to go home and time to go back to work. We had fun and we hope you did too. See you next time.
Chains reaching to the sky with shackles opened