riding idyll

Sitting in a coffee shop in Rome, NY, I’m going to make another attempt at fleshing out the details of the past few days:

Forced from the Adventure Cycling route by my lack of a passport, I had to make my own way through Buffalo, to the American Falls. Getting through Buffalo wasn’t too bad, using Google’s walking feature, but it did require some improvisation. And it occurred to me, having used it to get around Cleveland as well, that one thing Google does not use as criterium is the socioeconomic milieu of the streets its walking routes pass through. It doesn’t bother me much, but I could hear the imagined warnings of “locals who know” not to go through such areas ringing in my ears. I figure my incongruity makes me look like some kind of athletic buffoon. There are worse ambassadors.

It was an 80+ mile day into Niagara, and while the persistent traffic noise gets my adrenalin going, making me oblivious to fatigue, pulling in to the Econolodge and dismounting was like hitting a wall. I didn’t even care when my shower failed to produce hot water. I showered and headed to the hotel restaurant, an Indian buffet, thanking my lucky stars that this particular Econolodge just happened to have an Indian restaurant in it. Loads of tasty, filling, vegetarian food.

That was before I went looking for ice cream–just after dark, after checking out the Falls–when walking all along the main stretch, all I could find was hotels and Indian restaurants: one on every block, on some blocks two. If anyone out there, reading this, has any insights as to the proliferation of Indian restaurants in the Falls area, please share.

I got no ice cream. And all I could find for breakfast in the morning was a Denny’s in the Days Inn. But they served the most accurately prepared over-medium egg of the trip so far.

I checked out the Falls one more time, in the morning light, and then started making my way north to meet back up with the Adventure Cycling route. But on the way, I came across Devil’s Hole State Park, and hiked down the path there to the edge of the Niagara River. Devil’s Hole is the remains of another great waterfall that disappeared long ago after draining another long-gone Great Lake into the Niagara waterway. What’s left is rocks, spilling their way down the cliff face, piled deep against the turquoise waters of the Niagara. The parks people have cut a crooked castle stairway into the rocks, leading down to the river shore. It was a good hike and I took my time with it.

*pause… Now I am camped at Canal Lock 20, between Rome and Utica. And resume…*

About 20 miles into resuming the Adventure Cycling maps, the route joined a 90 mile stretch of New York’s Erie Canal trail. It was mid-afternoon by the time I reached it, and I was planning to camp in a designated spot just 12 miles in, but the evening and the trail were so pleasant that I kept going. Around 8 o’clock, I passed a fantastic nook that looked perfect for my bike and tent, and I doubled back. I was tending my stove when a voice behind me asked, “Are you going to sleep here?”

“I was planning to.”

It was a girl on a bike. I wasn’t sure how old: maybe high school, maybe older.

“Don’t you get scared sleeping out alone like this?”

“No, I’ve never had any trouble.”

Astride her bike on the trail, she asked a few more questions and mentioned a movie called ‘Wrong Turn’.

“Sounds like ‘Deliverence’,” I said.

“I don’t know what that is.”

She said bye and rode off, and I resumed making my dinner. A minute later, she was back.

“Mind if I hang out?”

She was from the town I’d passed five miles back, Albion, which had made me think of William Blake’s promised land. She’d been tucked in my little nook smoking pot just a few minutes before I found it. She’d just dropped out from three years studying natural resources at an ivy league school. Was living back at home, with massive debt, and no idea what to do with herself. In the course of talking, she alternated between wishing she could stay in Albion and settle down, and being completely frustrated with being there, trying to make money so she could leave. She rambled the way the stoned and stimulated do, and I did my best to wrangle the conversation while warding off her hints at wanting me to smoke a little more with her.

She kept me company all through dinner, and said she’d better go or she’d be in trouble as I was rinsing out my dishes, about 15 minutes before the sun went down completely. A couple of minutes later, I was setting up my tent and I poked my head out to glance up and down the trail. She was still lingering a couple hundred feet away, fumbling with her headphones. I figured she’d stopped to smoke just a little more before heading home.

I went to bed feeling completely in sync with the universe, and I woke up feeling the same.

The first 100-or-so miles of the Erie Canal trail, from Lockport to Newark, are magical. The Erie Canal is like an early Holywood movie set idea of a river, or like a river imagined by a young child: little visible current, uniform width, gentle curves. The old lift bridges are still in place, with the name’s of the cities they belong to clearly denoted on signs across their centers. And in the towns, the old Canal-centered business districts are still vibrant and welcoming.

All of this, and the sheer pleasure of not having any cars ride up beside me–allowing that much greater space for contemplation as I ride, no small pleasure in my estimation–made me decide to stick with the Canal when my maps veered away from it some 15 miles before Newark.

As I noted in a previous posting, the trail and the thorough signage accompanying it disappeared in Newark. It was after eight in the evening when I pulled in there, and I wasn’t up for searching out my next move. I found a Canal Lock just a little further up the road, and saw its attendant working on something in one of the mysterious bright yellow boxes (sorry to interrupt, but here’s another great Canal detail: all of the Locks and the Canal’s considerable crew of maintenance boats are painted brilliant blue with gold trim, and they all look as though they’ve been painted very recently, all glossy and glowing) on the other side of the Canal. So I leaned my bike against the Lock’s railing and walked on across the canal atop the narrow swinging gate, calling out to him, like I knew what I was doing. He was my age, give-or-take, and I said, “I know they let bikers and boaters camp at some of these Locks, would you mind if I camped here?”

He squinted and said, “Well, you have to get permission.”

“Who do I ask for permission?”

“Well, it’s alright with me.”

“Oh, okay. Where should I set up?”

In the morning, not wanting to depend on the iPhone with its depleting battery capacity, I looked for a state road map. But they were either too expensive or not very detailed. So I just started following the Canal. This included a two mile stretch of overgrown tire ruts that I figured would have to come out somewhere. They ended in a turn around.

After I finished picking the vegetation from my panniers and bike frame, I pulled out the iPhone and figured an on-road route to the next town the Canal would pass through. At the Locks there, a significantly friendlier attendant radioed to someone to find out exactly where the trail picked up again, and dug out a couple of trail map brochures for me to take with me. He also recommended that I divert down to the Finger Lakes region if I had time. He takes his Harley down there all the time.

So, new map in hand, I have managed to make it this far. It’s not been without adventure. The Katy Trail this ain’t. It cuts in and out without warning, dropping you on a mysterious street, or a dubious stretch of dirt that may or may not be a continuation of the trail. Today, I had to backtrack a couple hundred yards and wait for a team of horses pulling tourists on a historic Canal boat recreation to pass, only to have the trail dead end on me without warning immediately after I got going again and dump me a little further down the same road I’d been waiting by. But I suppose it was worth it for the odd, enthusiastic round of applause I received from boat’s passengers as I continued by. It’s a weird trail, but I’m having a pretty good time on it.

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One Response to “riding idyll”

  1. Mom Says:

    I really enjoyed this posting and the pictures too!

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