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Friday, 17 August 2007
Bike trip, 9 - Why I ride
Topic: travel

I’ve tossed a few thousand words into cyberspace about my summer bicycling trip – but, as a few friends have pointed out, I haven’t dealt with the primary question. Why did I get on my bike in the first place?

Sure, I could have taken the same route by car (or approximately the same route by bus or train) and done the whole 1,000 miles in a couple of days, or a leisurely week by motoring standards. And to tell the truth, I would have seen pretty much every high point along the way.

But in these facile determinations lie the answers to “Why Bike?”

First, long experience leads me to believe there’s unbreakable link between biking and the human biological clock. Just as in music, it’s a matter of rhythm and tempo.

Whether by accident or technological limitation or whatever, the bicycle was designed to be a close extension of the human body. It’s not a cocoon like a modern automobile or truck. (Recall that early cars and trucks were pretty open-air.) It’s not just a multiplier of muscle power, it’s almost part of your arm-and-leg motion and your biological drive to cover distance. (Think long runs across the savannah.) And as such, it heightens your awareness of the terrain you cover, not just on fast downhill “runs,” but also in quiet moments as you roll past woods and fields and (let’s face it) strip malls and used car lots.

In a car, you’re mentally at your destination before you’ve earned the journey, and the distances are the psychological equivalent of stoop labor. On a bike, though, you may be thinking about a hard pull ahead – that monster hill or unplanned ten-mile detour – but fundamentally you’re right “there,” in the Zen sense that you cannot be anywhere but where you are, if only you’ll realize it. And because, if you’re lucky and realize this, your body has to go peaceably along with your mind.

Somewhere Thoreau asks the reader, What mode of travel is the fastest? His answer: walking, which he contrasts with the trains of his day. But Thoreau wasn’t posing a Zen koan; as with much of his work, he was making a stripped-down calculation. To be able to ride the train, he said, a person must work x number of hours to buy the ticket; but walking is practically free. So when you compare the hours of work required to support each mode of travel, then add these hours to those spent en route, you have to conclude that walking is fastest.

I don’t claim that biking is faster than walking, in this sense. But I think it’s competitive, and that it transmits similar wholistic messages and values back through our bodies and spirits. Biking may be an industrial-technological compromise. (It’s certainly not atavistic or romanticist – not in a world where, way off the First World radar screen, hundreds of millions of people either use bicycles as their primary transport or wish they could afford to.) But it’s still uses the same language as the one we feel in our gut, genetically speaking.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:58 EDT
Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007 14:00 EDT
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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Bike trip 8 - Champlain Valley, south toward Lake George
Topic: travel

Hugging the west shore of Lake Champlain, the village (or maybe just hamlet) of Port Kent, NY, evokes better times. There’s one old estate in particular that overlooks the water, offering a spectacular view of Burlington in the distance. The building and grounds, laid out in a now seedy Victorian pattern, probably will fall into the hands of the condomeisters who’ve seized good chunks of the Vermont shoreline. Indeed, much of the New York side of the lake has given way to such development.

But when you hit Route 9 only a few miles from the lake, you pretty well leave the Orlando North ambience behind. There are workaday towns like Keeseville, and bits of curbside leftovers – including decaying motels, some of which have been converted to rooms-by-the-week, and all of which are visual essays on the first and second automobile epochs.

Some of the change from resort glitz to Adirondack hardscrabble comes from the effects of Interstate 87. When the “Northway” opened years ago, it became for most people the one and only north-south roadway between Albany and Plattsburgh. (It also entailed ripping off chunks of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve via a statewide ballot proposition, but that’s another story.) I would gladly live without I-87 and the rest of Interstate system, which like many other things done in the name of “national defense” has seriously damaged the continent. But at least I-87 siphoned off most of traffic that had clogged Route 9, leaving the latter to evolve (devolve?) into a road with a more human face.

In fact, I can honestly say that, excluding some short stretches on backcountry pavement, Route 9 was the finest bicycling road I found this summer. Why? Well, the scenery is unexcelled, for one thing. The western fringe of the mountains don’t get so much respect as the High Peaks or the central and southwestern lake regions. But I challenge anyone to find places more beautiful than the abrupt hills and tumbling creeks and rivers of the upper Hudson River watershed.

Even the town of Lewis has its charms. Though dominated by a quarry/gravel pit, this working class Adirondack community is a good place to spend a night. I stayed at a private campground, at a tenting site that was far enough from the road for comfort. If you want a short burst of civilization, you can pedal down to a combo (not condo) gas station, pizza-and-sub joint and grocery that functions as the town’s commercial nexus. The good folks there made me a decent veggie sub, and I even found a bottle of Lake Placid brown ale (brewed in Plattsburgh; cf. Saranac beers and ales, brewed in Utica) to wash it down.

This is as good a place as any to talk about accommodations. The cyclotourist has to be prepared for anything. I always pack a one-person shelter, of which there are many good designs on the market today; a super lightweight sleeping bag; and a small foam pad. Actually, for this trip I got a backpacker air mattress, only because it compresses into a much smaller bundle than good old closed-cell foam. But of course you’ve got to use some time and lung-power to inflate an air mattress, and it takes a little while to deflate and fold them up in the morning, too. Plus, air mattresses are a bit heavier than foam. So I think in the future I’ll go back to foam – I’ve found the accordion-style mats are cheap and ridiculously easy to deploy and pack up.

So where are you going to pitch your tent? Personally, after this trip, and after many past trips, I’m swearing off the public campgrounds. I dig the communal thing, the notion of the commons, etc., but the noise and congestion at these facilities have turned them into something quite unlike the wilderness experience.

For example, one night early in this summer’s odyssey, I camped at Selkirk Shores State Park, a beautiful spot northeast of Oswego, right on Lake Ontario. Some large group of yahoos (in the Swiftian, not the search-engine sense) was set up across a field from me; they hooted and hollered till 1:00 a.m., and – until I asked them to cease and desist, they even made late-night forays in a truck to fetch firewood from a well-thinned stand of mixed hardwoods behind my tent. Now, I don’t blame this hideous conditions on human nature; I think they stem from state indifference. Albany doesn’t see fit to keep park staff on site after 8 p.m. or so on weekdays; patrolling is left to the state troopers, who drive through every few hours. So there’s no pressure on the yahoos. I don’t want a police presence, though. I want the kind of supervision that a good ranger can offer – with a bit of friendly education.

But the beauty of the Adirondacks is that you can camp anywhere on state forest land for nothing, and without harassment. (As I remember the law, you can camp on one spot for three consecutive days without a permit. But be advised: this does not apply to Wildlife Management Areas and state parklands, only to designated state forest – not just the Forest Preserve of the Adirondacks and Catskills, but also the many state forests that dot the Southern Tier and other regions.)

Also, it’s a sign of the times that campgrounds with services, public or private, are damned expensive these days. The place I stayed at in Lewis cost $16 per night; state campground sites go for a little under $15; and one place in Vermont that I scoped out and rejected (it was essentially a sandy parking lot for RVs) went for $25! At that price you can get an inexpensive motel, a.k.a. dive. More about that option next time.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 23:29 EDT
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Tuesday, 7 August 2007
Bike trip, 7 - Northern VT and thought processes
Topic: travel

Despite a viewshed that most chambers of commerce would kill for (and probably have killed for, by the usual market mechanisms), the area just east of Burlington is standard Americana. As you approach the suburbs and the postglacial slopes above Lake Champlain grow steeper, you depend physically and psychologically on the gravitational pull to get you quickly through the overdeveloped mess. I happened to hit this zone at rush hour, and believe me, it was no lark. But despite its being Vermont’s version of metropolis, Burlington is really a small town, and you can hold your nose and get through the worst its roadways have to offer. And as I’ve said before, the city center is very bike- and pedestrian-friendly. (City Hall, in fact, runs a pedestrian rights/responsibilities program, with appropriate signage, etc.)

But even the heart of Burlington must cope with the Open Road’s ubiquitous monstrosities. Motorcycles, for example. I can tell you, after a couple thousand miles this summer on roads large and small, various post-adolescent noisemakers have driven me to distraction. These goddamn testosterone-fueled Guymobiles - crotch rockets and choppers, ATVs, and various road-legal “customized” trucks and sedans with aftermarket “tuned” pipes instead of mufflers – were always nuisances, but these days they’ve proliferated so much that, for bystanders, they’re like something prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t make jokes with contexts like that. But some combination of irony and outrage is necessary. I get depressed thinking about how America long ago forfeited the public highways to hyper-individualized modes of destruction. Look at the typical New York or New England town center, with woodframe homes and commercial buildings lined up close to the road, often within 20 feet, sometimes only at arm’s length. Loud, stinking motor traffic has squeezed the value – monetary and quality-of-life – right out of these old structures. The roadway is now the enemy, and building codes with ample setback requirements are the norm. I mean, who in their right mind wants to live next to thundering herd of pollution generators? But the setbacks and other accommodations to what’s deceptively packaged as “modern life” are forms of alienation, literal distancing from the “commons.” And they’re just what the bicyclist and pedestrian can counteract simply by doing their thing.

Well, it might seem that I’m digressing, avoiding the actual experience of my trip – but not so. The bicyclist’s mindscape is part and parcel of the journey; under pedal power, your body drives your thoughts to destinations not attainable by other means. You’re simply much more embedded in your impressions and reactions..

One last thought for this installment, this time from my home base. Last night, when the temperature and humidity were coming down after a near-90-degree afternoon, I got one of my frequent itches to walk up through Highland Park. But when I stepped into the arboretum at the high end of Meigs Street, I saw mountain bike tracks where they don’t belong – and bikes are legally prohibited anywhere in Highland and other county parks. Then sure enough, I saw the biker himself. Not one to be silent in the face of assaults on this beautiful park, even non-motorized ones, I motioned to him (he was plugged into a “personal audio device”) but he blew me off, then did a 20-mph schuss down a steep hill across from the reservoir. Then he pedaled back around to harass me for spoiling his idyllic experience!

You run into these barbarians every day, I know, but that doesn’t make the experience any less maddening. They think they’re harmless, even while they’re literally carving up the park with their knobbies and disturbing the atmosphere that draws so many walkers to the quiet paths. Much of the blame for these intrusions rests with the parks administration and higher up in the junta, though. The Monroe County Parks office is located right next to Highland Park, just off South Avenue; yet there are no patrols, docents, or even proper signs regarding permitted use. I think we need to get rid of two groups: the rogue mountain bikers and other park abusers, on one hand; and the King-Doyle-Brooks generation of politicians, on the other. Enough of budget cuts and looking the other way on a range of violations.

Next time: I rediscover the Lake Champlain Valley, north to south.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:44 EDT
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Friday, 3 August 2007
Bike trip, 6 - northern Vermont
Topic: travel

Route 2 across northern Vermont is a major highway, but thankfully not as major (read: horrifically trafficated) as the Interstate it shadows. I caught the old road a bit west of Montpelier, a little more west than planned, actually, since a construction detour took me the long way around. It seems there was a bridge being rebuilt somewhere along Route 100. I asked a cop at the detour barrier if there was any way to walk (or wade) around the construction site; I was thinking back a decade or so, when Rochester bicyclists enjoyed a break from traffic on Clover Street because of a bridge project near Calkins Road. In that case, you could just carry your bike through a piddling stream and then cruise unmolested for a while. But no such luck in Vermont. I talked to a cop who was monitoring traffic at the Route 100 detour; he told me there was no way to bypass the construction, and lacking any firsthand info, I took his word for it and followed the traffic northeast. Thinking back on this, I wish I’d made a secondary detour through the nearby woods and followed Route 100 regardless. Maybe I would have ended up trespassing somewhere, but I surely would have found a way around the mess.

The detour did have one good result. In the little burg of Middlesex, just as I was about to turn onto Route 2, I stopped for a newspaper and a very large coffee at a country gas station – the type of facility that has become by default the nerve-center and business district for many rural communities. As I watched one of the proprietors barbequing some stuff destined for the warming/embalming rotisserie, a young man with a neo-hippie look strolled by. We got to talking. Turns out he was a Montrealer (originally from the Prairies) who was on a long tour of Vermont and New Hampshire; his steed was a 1980s Peugeot he said he’d retrieved from a trash pile and restored. We talked about touring tires, load distribution (his rig was piled high with panniers and assorted gear over the rear wheel but nothing up front – a recipe for wobbling and worse), road conditions, and more. Then up walked a true Vermont hippie (my kind of guy) who was originally from the UK and decades ago settled on a Green Mountain farm. He, too, had plenty of thoughts on biking, roads, the weather, and local politics. The three of us spent maybe half an hour discussing everything under the sun. Then the young guy and I rode west Route 2 as far as the next town, Waterbury – home to that lil’ ol’ backwoods ice cream shop, Unilever, better known by the label Ben & Jerry’s.

Back in the 1980s I’d toured the B&J factory and store here, imbibing much bushwa about “caring capitalism,” the company’s flavor of the month. Now with the explicit corporate transformation, I passed through town without swallowing so much as a microgram of saturated fat.

Strangely, though, as I stood in the shade on Waterbury’s main drag, I remembered that I’d failed in another pilgrimage. Long ago I promised myself that every time I visited Lake Placid, I’d pay my respects and the John Brown Farm, where the madly militant anti-slavery hero and his sons are buried. Yes, it seems like an oddity: Just how did Brown and his family end up in the North Country - specifically, the town of North Elba - after the disaster of Harpers Ferry? It was the aftermath of a plan to create an African-American colony/community in what was then considered a howling wilderness, a very marginal agricultural region that had been largely bypassed by westward migration.

The plan came to naught, of course – and to this day, given historical racism, the failures of transportation, and other factors, Lake Placid is one of whitest areas you’re likely to visit. But when you do visit, go to the Brown Farm; it’s just outside of town, and it’s now a public historical site with original buildings and educational displays. Just try to ignore the nearby Olympic ski-jump tower that looms before you, marring the mountain views.

Next time: Route 2 takes me slowly to the burbs of Burlington.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:31 EDT
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Wednesday, 1 August 2007
bike trip, 5 - Vermont ups-and-downs
Topic: travel

Before I continue with a Green Mountain travelogue, let me take a break to praise canoeing by bicycle. I mean, getting your canoe or kayak to water’s edge by bike, solely with human power and with minimal carbon emissions. It’s one of those little ironies: Too many HPVs (human-powered vehicles) get to the starting line aboard or atop a gas guzzler; think of the common ad image of mountain bikes on an SUV, as if they’re jewelry. But you can take another path. Last night, for example, I put my 18 ½ foot Mad River canoe on a second-hand kid trailer and attached the improvised rig to my faithful Dahon folding bike, then I headed over to Corn Hill Landing. It took no effort to get to the dock, then a few minutes to unload, get the boat in the water, fold the bike and trailer and stow them aboard, and set off for a three-mile paddle upstream to Brooks Landing (near the UR campus). Once on the water I was in a different world; near the old railroad bridge a bit south of Ford Street, I saw, and followed, a beaver that was swimming placidly along – at least till he/she realized I wasn’t a big log and submerged with a loud slap of his/her tail. I’d seen muskrats thereabouts before, but a beaver sighting is a personal first. Anyway, there’s something cool about doing the whole canoe “expedition” without resort to horsepower. Try it, you’ll like it.

Back to the Green Mountains. I’d enjoyed small but urbane Burlington, but I was ready for a change of pace, and the mountains of Central Vermont certainly provided that. For one thing, the steep, long inclines slowed me down; I had to walk up some stretches. But of course, even while you’re huffing and puffing, the Vermont scenery is priceless. The epitome came quite literally at Lincoln Gap, where you go up forever and ever, sometimes into the clouds, then descend like mad. It took me hours to get to the high point, where the famed Long Trail crosses the seasonal road. But my descent was slow, too. Turns out the road on the downside is too steep to ride safely (or maybe I was just chicken, though I enjoy a 45-50 mph schuss as much as the next biker), so I ended up walking for a couple miles before the slope got a bit less than lethal. This bit of walking, with 50 or more pounds of bike and gear beside me, straining to pull me along, was the toughest thing I came up against anywhere on the trip.

But maybe I just spoke too soon. Because some of the road conditions in Vermont (as later in other parts of New England) were atrocious. Route 100, a wonderfully old-fashioned two-laner that runs north and south, paralleling the Green Mountains’ spinal column of high peaks and threading its way through traditional rural communities, is a tourist’s delight. But there’s lots of traffic, including heavy trucks and construction vehicles, and there’s very little bikeable area at the edge of the pavement – basically, the road lacks a real shoulder, so you’re squeezed into a narrow strip near the sideline, and the sideline, if it’s visible, often runs atop shattered asphalt.

Then there are the bridges! Normally – that is, as found on the back roads - a tight two-lane bridge is a pleasure, or at least not a problem. But some of the bridges along Route 100 are downright scary; a biker has to watch for pavement hazards while the traffic presses him/her toward a safety railing that hardly exists. The railings I saw were not more than two feet high, and it took no reflection at all to realize that if I got sideswiped, I’d be knocked over the edge. And in these wondrous boulder-strewn mountains, that type of maneuver would involve not a plunge into a deep, cool river but a 10-meter swan dive onto a pile of rocks.

Overall, though, I loved the Green Mountains - and next time I'll write about some good stuff that happened as I completed the round trip back to Burlington. 

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 15:33 EDT
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