When I told friends I’d be posting regular road reports from this summer’s bicycle tour, I was making one of those fine resolutions fated not to be kept. But now I’m home – at least for a spell, while I get stuff together for another jaunt – so I can sketch out what I saw from the saddle the last two weeks.
After a conversation with Wayne County raconteur-naturalist and inveterate bicyclist Roland Micklem, I left from Peacework Farm (Arcadia/Newark) on June 24. A series of paved back roads took me to Route 104 and then lunch in Wolcott (not-quite-famously the birthplace of “Grandpa” Al Lewis, one-time TV “Munster,” and later, NY City radio personality and Green Party gubernatorial candidate). This lunch was in the grain for my bike trips: bursts of pedaling followed by long stops with the usual small-town “bottomless coffee cup” and a local newspaper.
From Wolcott I pushed on to Oswego. In the past I’ve taken Old Route 104 through this area, but this time I went for the new 104: more traffic passing but fewer hills, plus generally smoother pavement. Mostly I wanted to get to the North Country asap.
Oswego was quiet and refreshing that warm Sunday. Of course, SUNY was not in session, so this college town – which, alas, doubles as the capital of regional nuclear power – was in the doldrums. I stopped in the partly gentrified harbor for a sandwich and microbrew. By now you should have a clear idea of my mode of travel, alternating hair-shirt and bon-vivant.
Struggling to be more of a leisure destination than old milltown, Oswego is showing too many signs of sprawl these days. The big-box miasma stretches east of the city center over what I remember as an interesting greenspace that flanked a creek and led to farm fields and woodlots. Now there’s mostly traffic, and not of the nonpolluting kind.
From Oswego I made my way to Route 104 B and then to Route 3, which hugs the Lake Ontario shoreline till it veers through Watertown and heads toward the Central Adirondacks and, eventually, the west side of Lake Champlain. Route 3 has evolved over the last couple decades from a narrow, unpleasant bike route to a fairly nice alternative to the likes of Route 11, which along with I-81 (the latter off limits to human- or actual horse-powered vehicles), carries most of the heavy commercial traffic.
And speaking of horses: All through the North Country I came upon Amish farmers, who’ve relocated to several parts of rural New York because land is both expensive and unavailable in south central Pennsylvania. Indeed, Northern New York still has some of cheapest farmland you can find, and thus is a magnet for anyone who lives outside the mainstream. Here’s to appropriate technology: I enjoyed greeting the Amish families who, relying on their horsecarts and wagons, truly know how to share the road.
Route 3 took me through Henderson Harbor, where you look westward to beautiful islands and the oceanic expanse of Lake Ontario, north to Sackets Harbor. The latter is still a little overwhelmed with its War of 1812 past, in the sense that the town and its historical markers tiptoe around the truth – that the dirty little war almost 200 years ago was launched on shaky grounds (which is not to deny the British were guilty of various crimes, like the impressment of US citizens into the British Navy) and largely aimed at “neutralizing” indigenous peoples who thwarted westward imperial expansion.
But none of this neutralizes the visual appeal of Sackets Harbor, which now hosts a fine, eponymous brew-pub, even though it’s all too close to Fort Drum, home of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division, since the Reagan Pentagon build-up a big player in imperial “conflicts.” (Disclosure: When I was in the Marine Corps Reserve, I used to train occasionally at what was then the modest, retro Camp Drum, a holdover that should have gone out with spats. It was a shithole, and though the layout and amenities have changed, the character of the place has not. It’s such a shame that Watertown and neighboring towns bring a little bit of, say, eastern North Carolina-style militarism into Northern New York.)
From Sackets I pedaled due north toward the St. Lawrence River, and I soon found myself on a freshly-repaved Route 12 through the Thousand Islands. Long about Chippewa Bay, where there’s a scenic overlook more than worthy of the designation, you can see just how wonderful the region is, especially when you get a good distance from the powerboats and, ugh, jet-skis. I think the vistas around Chippewa Bay are as grand as any I’ve seen on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts – but you have to realize I’ve been accused of being a Great Lakes chauvinist.
The ride along Route 12 was as hot as it was beautiful, though. Ninety-eight degree air temperature on new asphalt: That’s got to translate to 115 degrees. But at least I had a stiff tailwind and thus cruised in style.
I thought I might continue up along the river, but frankly, once out of the Thousand Islands, the scenery didn’t turn me on so much, so I veered southeast toward Canton and Potsdam. Great riding country here, though I was fighting a powerful crosswind most of the way. On Route 56 just outside of Canton I saw a cooperative experiment in progress: local colleges and the state DEC have put up fencing of various types and diversion culverts so that migrating turtles and amphibians can get to the other side of the road without harm. I didn’t see any roadkill on the quarter-mile experimental stretch, so I suppose things are working. Elsewhere on my trip, roadkill – everything from snakes to waterfowl to beaver – was extensive. (Lest you think I’m being a sanctimonious cyclist, here’s a confession: near Saranac Lake a young grouse that was sitting on the pavement shot up as I approached and hit my handlebar pack head on; the impact broke the bird’s neck and it died within half a minute as I stood there, helpless. The mother grouse cried out from the bushes at roadside. A couple days later, a second mother grouse mock-attacked me as I apparently went by her concealed brood. Quick karmic retribution, I guess.)
Well, I’ll continue the travelogue pretty soon, covering the itinerary through the Adirondacks and on to Vermont. So check in again…