Allentown, PA to Ithaca, NY
April 10-13, 2006
Until March 17, 2006, I had a lot of conversations that went like this:
“I’m riding a bicycle across the country this summer.”
“Really? When do you start?”
“Do you ride a lot?”
“Actually, not at all… I don’t even have a bike!”
The fact of the matter is that I’ve done basically no riding at all since I was fourteen years old, on a small mountain bike. No problem though, getting back to it ought to be like, well… like riding a bike!
Doing some research on touring bikes, I decided that the Trek 520 would be my best choice(As a novice without knowledge of my cycling gear preferences), so I bought one through my local bike shop.
I’ll never forget the day I picked it up because it was St. Patrick’s Day. They were having a sale for the weekend so I also bought a helmet, gloves, clip-less shoes, bottles, cages, a spare tube, and maybe one or two other oddities. I researched and purchased all my other gear online.
On my next day off of work, I went for my first ride and set out to conquer the local South Mountain. I’m in pretty good shape from running and hiking, but that climb, at only about 1,000 feet, really put the smack down on me. I found myself in the lowest gear, and stopping numerous times to catch my breath.
That ride was only about 10 miles. The next day I went out and did the same mileage, only riding for less than an hour and staying away from the mountain.
One week later, on my next day off of work, I intended to kill myself. Starting at six in the morning on less than four hours of sleep. I had it in mind to ride all day long. The temperature was in the high 20s and low 30s for the first hour or two, but it turned into a perfect, beautiful day with highs at about 60.
I rode 80 miles, including up and over Blue Mountain (At the north end of the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania), a more serious climb than South Mountain. Needless to say, I was all kinds of sore afterward, but very, very, happy with myself.
On that ride I had the chance to get familiar with the bike and made some gear decisions:
-changing out the stock saddle for the often recommended Brooks B17.
-getting some lower gearing, because I often found myself sitting in the lowest gear, and I didn’t even have any extra weight on the bike yet!
-raising the handlebars for a more upright saddle position. The handlebar can’t be raised on the 520 because it comes with a thread-less headset, so I needed an adapter to do so, not to mention longer cables.
Since that ride went so well, the next step of course was to get some weight on the bike and actually do a small tour. My brother lives in Ithaca, NY, a doable distance from Allentown, and I’d been overdue to visit him anyhow. So I took vacation the week before Easter to ride up and see him, and catch a ride in his car back to Allentown for dinner at Mom’s on Easter Sunday.
April 10, 2006
I’m presently sitting with my back leaning against a tree trunk with my legs stretched in front of me. I’m camped next to a small creek in a grove of hemlock trees, out of sight and about fifty yards off of a random country road southeast of Scranton, PA. I can hear a dog barking intermittently in the distance, and vehicles pass about once every fifteen minutes. Those are the only sounds, save for the creek beside me and my water for dinner working up to a boil. I’m glad that my first day has been successful.
Today is Monday. I worked long hours all weekend, not getting to do the bulk of my packing until late last night, so I consequently got almost no sleep at all. A friend picked me up at 6am and we drove up to Lehighton and had breakfast. I had some coffee but couldn’t shake that “out of it” feeling you get when you barely sleep – and that made me nervous, knowing that I had a long day ahead of me.
The early miles were slow and easy as I got settled in. I was nervous about never having had weight on the bike before, but I must have packed well because I barely noticed the difference. The first climb of the day had me working as I passed Penn’s Peak – a local mountaintop concert hall. The climb had me worrying that it would be quite a dragging, arduous day, but I soon found myself cruising along at a good clip along PA route 903. Through this touristy area of the Poconos I passed canoeing, paintball, and other outdoorsy and vacation-oriented businesses.
Before the trip I printed out the maps for “PA route L” online off of the PennDOT site – eleven sheets of paper from my printer. When I was coasting down my first descent and worked up to a good speed for the first time, all the papers blew out of my handlebar bag! I stopped and walked back to retrieve them, from all over the road and shoulder. Fortunately it wasn’t a windy day or busy road.
Later I rode through Hickory Run State Park – my favorite section of the day. It was simply a winding road through forestland on a beautiful morning. At midday I took a break to eat some lunch (Snickers, bagels, peanut butter), and tried to take a nap, but the high sun and gathering heat wouldn’t let me rest very well.
The afternoon brought me along more scenic roads, including a few lakes, reservoirs, a sweet waterfall, Lackawanna State Forest, and one Bald Eagle! It was only about 5pm when I stopped to set up camp.
Now I’m really tired and sure to get a good night’s sleep on this chilly night. Life is good.
April 11, 2006
I crawled out of my tent at 8am, very cold and unmotivated to break down camp. Crunching on a half-frozen Snickers, I gulped down the last of my water and proceeded packing up with cold fingers. The one Velcro strap on my rear pannier had torn, so I took some extra time to tie it on my rear rack more securely. I feel as though all my panniers are essentially ghetto rigged – I’ll have to find a better way to attach them in the future.
I was riding at 9am and my thermometer read 32 degrees. The morning was uneventful until I came to Route 435, just east of Scranton, PA. There was a McDonald’s where I stopped for a little extra breakfast and water.
Turning off of 435, I followed a scenic road along a reservoir for a few miles before I realized I was off route. I checked the map and found a way to pick up the PA Bike Route farther north without backtracking at all.
Along a back lane there was an old couple in their front yard, and the man came walking to the road waving “Hey, how’s it goin’?” He saw my fully loaded bike and was curious how far I was riding and everything. I love the way people are out in the country.
Back on route, I stopped at an inviting looking general store for a Coke, and proceeded to climb quite a little mountain – a 1,000 foot ascent. I made it up without too much trouble, and the descent was excellent – long, breezy, fun, and a greatly appreciated rest.
On the north side of the mountain I passed through three small towns – Jessup, Archbald, and Mayfield. In Archbald I took a break outside a store across from the fire station. A local cyclist stopped to chat with me, and I got him to take my picture. PA Route L (The one I’m following) converged with Route Y for a couple miles until I came to the larger town of Carbondale, where I took a break at a war memorial where they have a tank.
Climbing out of town, I moved through Forest City – “one mile of hospitality” – and embarked on an afternoon of hilly loneliness along route 171. It was a long, rolling, endless road along open, windy, dry country in the afternoon heat. Going north feels like I’m going uphill! 🙂
I saw a lot of motorcycles and took a break at the the only roadside stop in the area. After having a snack, I was all set to go when a local cyclist (On his motorcycle today) struck up a conversation with me for a half hour, and I ended up drinking 40oz. more of water! I guess I was dehydrated.
After that the riding was easier and the evening was fast and beautiful with lots of descents, and a ride along Starucca Creek and picturesque countryside. At one point I stopped and was walking toward a tree to relieve myself, when an old lady pulls up and slows down, looking genuinely concerned, cracks her window halfway, and yells “Do you need any help?” I just smiled, waved and shook my head no thanks.
It was getting on close to sunset, so I decided that I would camp at the very next ideal spot. At that moment, I was downshifting to the lowest gear on the crank, and the chain fell off! No problem, I stopped and got it back on in less than five minutes.
Now I’m camped up high off the road, in some woods out of sight. It’s a nice clear night, and the full moon must only be a day or two away. The last fifteen miles this evening really brightened my mood – it may be my favorite section of the ride so far. This valley is beautiful. I must be pretty far “out there” because I have absolutely no cellular coverage – the first time that’s happened since I got a cell phone six months ago. Life is good.
April 12, 2006
I packed up my stealth campsite this morning and was on the road at 9am. I went through the small town of Susquehanna and crossed over the Susquehanna River – I would end up following the river all day long. The guy I spoke to while I drank all that water yesterday afternoon recommended a road off-route to pass into New York State, and I’m glad I followed his advice. It took me along a scenic corridor next to the river, and soon enough I was in New York!
The first thing I saw in Windsor (The first town in NY) was a small country diner that beckoned to me, so I stopped to celebrate crossing my first state line by bicycle. Inside I was greeted by one waitress, one cook, and three older farmer-types sitting at the counter.
I went to join them at the counter, but remembered that I probably smell a little funky by now, so I chose a table in the corner – alongside my bike in view out the window. I had two pancakes, home fries, toast, and an omelet – with ample coffee – while watching a guy install a wooden screen door for the summer, on another beautiful day.
I wasn’t paying attention on my way out of town, and after almost an hour of enjoying the pastoral New York countryside, I came to the realization that I was off route again. I needed to go west, and had pretty much gone straight north.
I stopped to look at the map, and a guy who was shingling his roof nearby strolled over to see if he could help with any directions. I had already decided that I would backtrack to Windsor, but he went on and told me all I’d ever need to know about the local roads for probably fifteen minutes. I utilized his services to take an “action” shot of me on my bike, and went on my way.
Along the road back to Windsor I stopped at a general store and spent seven dollars on a small tube of sunscreen! The detour ended up totaling about two hours out of my way, but it was sort of worth it because the countryside in this area was magnificent. Also I think I saw more cows than people this morning!
Heading west out of Windsor I found myself riding a gradual, steady uphill grade against a headwind for some miles. Passing a house on the right, an unleashed dog came running at me out of the back yard. There was no traffic, so I moved over to the left lane on the far side, but this dog came charging right out into the middle of the road!
When a dog doesn’t stop at the end of its “territory” and keeps coming at you, well, that means war. I whipped out my dog mace, ready to use it(The same stuff your mailman probably carries). I slowed a little, looked back, and in the best blood-curdling-bad-ass-you-don’t-wanna-mess-with-me-’cause-I’m-a-lot-bigger-and-meaner-than-you-voice I could muster, I yelled “GO HOME!”
The dog stopped dead in its tracks! Its ears went back and it suddenly had this confused look in its eye that seemed to say “Hey, I just wanted to run along and play for a little!” So then I felt kind of bad, but not really.
After a sweet descent, New York Bike Route 17 brought me straight through downtown Binghamton and some hairy traffic, making me wonder who the heck designed this route. Leaving town, it looked like it would rain, and in fact a few drops did fall for about five minutes, but then the sun came back out.
The late afternoon was mostly a slow, gradual descent along the Susquehanna to the town of Owego, and I was feeling some fatigue and saddle sores at the end of this long day.
I’m now only 40 miles from Ithaca! I was afraid it might rain overnight and tomorrow morning, so I got a room in town for the night to reward myself for coming so far in three days. This trip has gone exceedingly well so far, and I’ve covered some distance with much greater ease than I expected, so I deserve it. Life is good!
April 13, 2006
I didn’t get started until noon today after enjoying my room for the night. My mom was sure glad to hear from me – that everything’s going great, and that I was in a room instead of camped at some random location in the middle of nowhere.
It’s too bad that people don’t understand that I’m in no more physical danger on a bike tour than I am in my everyday life at home – driving a car on the interstate or working as a cook with burn hazards everywhere and sharp knives – or those other hazardous things people do every day without a second thought… a trip like this, being in shape in the fresh air day after day, is probably the healthiest lifestyle a person can possibly live.
It turned out to be yet another beautiful day without any rain overnight – I had great weather for the whole trip. Today’s ride was pretty much a straight shot up Route 96 from Owego to Ithaca, with little traffic and wide shoulders the whole way through scenic woods and farmland… a little victory ride home of sorts. The only drawback was some steady hills and a headwind that lasted all day long.
My brother always jokes about the freaky weather in Ithaca, and sure enough when I got close enough to town, this dark cloud rolled in and starting pouring rain while the sun was still shining! It let up after only about ten minutes, but it was enough to get me soaked. Then there was a good feeling in the air like a garden that’s just been watered on a hot afternoon, but things turned ominous soon enough when a huge mean mother of a thunderhead darkened the whole sky to the west. Soon I saw a sign that made my day – trucks use low gear – next four miles! Sweet!
And so I was at the top of a great long four mile hill as Cayuga Lake came into view, and I coasted downhill the rest of the way into Ithaca. When in town I sought shelter immediately at a laundromat to sit out the impending storm, but it never came – it must have passed to the south.
My brother stepped out of his Cornell office to greet me for a moment (Some people have to work!), gave me directions to his apartment, and, well, that’s all folks! See you on the big one!