Biked from Philly to NYC.

2010 March 23
by admin

This Saturday, I woke up with a nervous stomach and a sore leg – not encouraging omens, considering my plan for the day included riding my bicycle from Philadelphia to New York City along the East Coast Greenway.  One of the best things about being marginally-employed and “location independent” is the freedom to do wacky things like bike trips, hikes, etc.  Lately I’ve been developing a more complete world-view based on adventure and danger.  Not serious danger or unbelievable adventure to far-off lands or space, but something more ordinary.  Kind of like dietary fiber for the soul: I’ve self prescribed ordinary adventure in regular doses.  For the purposes of health, you understand.

So, for this ride, I decided to use maps and cue sheets produced by the East Coast Greenway – a non profit organization that is promoting an intra-urban greenway path for non-motorized travel that stretches between Florida and Maine.  This idea has enormous gravity, because it brings ordinary adventure within the grasp of all of us city dwellers.  Think about it – lets say you awake with the yen for a little soul-refreshing adventure.  If you live in an urban area like DC, Philadelphia, or NYC, ordinary adventure involves car rental, a detailed study of traffic patterns, $50 in gas, and a whole lot of inconvenience to puncture the membrane of traffic and suburbs that encases major cities.  All for a brief walk in a local park. With the East Coast Greenway, you can plot your escape immediately, and when you cruise out of your front door, you are immediately ON THE ROAD, ON YOUR WAY, and GOING OUT THERE.

To plan your own trip from Philadelphia to New York City, see:

PA Greenway Information: http://www.greenway.org/pa.php
NY Greenway Information: http://www.greenway.org/nj.php

I find it most useful to have both the maps and the turn-by-turn cues.  If you have time, order the PA and NJ State guides, which have maps and cues – but if you’re short on time, you can print out the relevant portions of the guides, or print the cues and maps from the guides separately.  Better yet – JOIN the ECGW to support their great work.

My ride began with a quiet cup of coffee on the stoop, and then I spun off down Spring Garden St., merging with Delaware Ave, and heading north.  As I spun north, passing the industrial scrim of the city, I entered a series of working-class neighborhoods that stretched on for miles.  The character of the houses, intermingled with small shops, old cars, and older people made me feel as if I had traveled back in time 30 years.  Passing Croydon, PA, spaces began to open between the tenement houses, lawn size increased, and it was obvious that I had escaped the city proper and entered the “suburban zone.”  After several miles, the concentration of gas stations increased, the roadways became wider, traffic increased, and I entered the diffuse and mysterious “intra-urban zone,” that indefinite area that occupies the areas between cities.  In some places on the east coast, these areas stretch for miles – after the metro area, after the suburbs, after the exurbs, that gray zone where people can’t claim allegiance to one city or another.  Without exception, these areas have the best gas stations, stocked with food for the long-haul traveler, without the vast majority of inner-city grime.  I stopped at one just past Bensalem, PA and drank 30 or so ounces of coffee, re-applied sunscreen and ate a banana.

A young man working the counter at the convenience store stopped me as I left, refreshed and hyper-caffeinated.

He asked me if I was, you know, like, traveling on a bicycle?  We had a quick talk about the route of the East Coast Greenway directly past the front window of the convenience store, and left it at that.  I’ve worked a few boring customer service jobs and I know the feeling of being stuck inside on a beautiful spring day, feeling too young to waste time.  I hope that young man saw me ride away and got a few dangerous ideas about the pleasure of bike touring.

On through PA and crossing the Delaware River, I was back in the “urban blight zone,” which continued undiminished until Trenton, NJ. There, I rode through similar densely packed working-class neighborhoods, with some interesting exceptions.  Where I’ve lived in the past, neighborhoods are, to a significant degree, racially divided.  There are the African American neighborhoods, with the corner stores, the scent of “Black and Mild” cigars, the fried fish and chicken joints.  There are the Guatemalan/Salvadoran/Peruvian neighborhoods, with the Peruvian Chicken places, the regaton music booming, and the aroma of spices.  And so on and so forth, with each enclave proclaiming its cultural heritage through a complex mixture of ethnic junk food, bumper stickers, leaked strains of music, tell-tale last names on shop signs.  But this neighborhood was of an older, different order.  Trenton near the river was obviously old.  So old, in fact, that the different eras of working-class inhabitants had begun to blend, to mix in interesting ways.  Here, there were signs with East Indian last names, a sign advertising the Polish American League, African American churches, Mexican cars blaring accordion music, an interesting mishmash of smells, sounds and cultures.  Dazed by the possibilities that the melting pot myth could be true, I gazed around, around, and…promptly got completely lost.

Pulling out my map and gazing around, I sighted a group of older men sitting in the shade of a store awning and decided to ask them for directions.  For my trouble, I got the sort of great, detailed, digression-filed directions that you can only get from someone who has grown, lived, and will die in a very small area.   I got directions back to the route, the history of the block I’m on, and the names of stores to stop at along the way.  As I left, one of the old men, face lined with years of looking out on this corner, tells me, ‘You’ll be OK.  It only gets whiter from here on out.”

Puzzled, I rode away.  People have yelled many strange things after me in my years of bicycle touring – but few comments have caused me as much embarrassment.  From the skin color we held in common, I had been granted an unwanted membership to a very old, dubious club.  I didn’t want in.

I left the road almost immediately and am on the Delaware and Raritan Canal.  After, frankly, 30 miles of urban blight, the soft crunch of dirt under my tires was a blessed, sweet relief:

D+R Canal

D+R Canal

I left the “urban blight zone” and entered the “intermediate sub-urban natural area zone,” a place in which the natural world holds court, but barely, and the detritus of litter, bottles, condom wrappers, and cans reveals the presence of THE CITY not so far away.  Soon, the “intermediate sub-urban natural area zone” gives way to THE COUNTRY, where litter dwindled to the occasional bottle and the birds begin to chirp.  Almost immediately, the D+R Canal became a cyclocross course from hell.  Recent rains have washed away much of the surface of the canal, which has been replaced by fist-sized chunks of broken rock, punctuated by deep, tire jarring gaps.

Major ruts and flooding.

Major ruts and flooding.

Soon, I came to my first downed tree.  Shortly, I would encounter scores more.  At each tree, I removed my pannier, toss it over, and heft my bicycle awkwardly onto my shoulder, dragging it over the log.  On the other side, I re-attached my pannier and re-mount my bicycle.

As I approach Princeton, my stop for the night, fatigue dulled my thoughts.  The slanting light of the evening lulls me, and I spun up the road, off the Canal, and into the driveway of a good friend’s house in a state of bemused detachment.  I remember with perfect clarity the INCREDIBLE vegetarian Indian meal my good friend bought me, and a lovely conversation with his sainted girlfriend.  I remember lying down and falling asleep.  I remember nothing else.

Abruptly awake – I found myself sitting in my good friends’ apartment in Princeton, NJ, drinking my 7th cup of instant coffee and preparing for my day’s ride.  For marvelous, generous, incredible hosts, my friends have fatal personality defects.  Neither drinks caffeinated beverages in the morning.  No sensible green tea, no risqué chai tea, no ruff n’ tumble coffee.  Nothing.  I am appalled.

Riding out in the cool of the morning, I called another friend who volunteers with the East Coast Greenway in New Jersey.  He tells me that my experience on the D+R Canal the day before was, unfortunately, predictive of the state of the rest of the canal.  With some reluctance, I detoured off the D+R onto a country road, and spent the next several hours biking through some of the prettiest country I’ve been in for some time.  Rolling hills slide by, horse farms, old mansions, stone walls, flashes of sunlight.  The canal on my left, clean pavement under my tires – all in all it is incredible country road riding.

Midway through this segment, I dallied in a small town, basically an intersection, and take a few pictures:

A town so cute I wanted to pinch its cheek.

A town so cute I wanted to pinch its cheek.

A rider so cute I want to pinch his cheek.

A rider so cute I want to pinch his cheek.

At this intersection, I find myself officially out of THE COUNTRY and into the “small town zone.” Passing through several cute downtown areas, I stop for a bagel and coffee.  The quality of the bagel (incredible) and the coffee (not so good) tells me that I am getting closer to New York City.

As my ride progresses, I leave “the small town zone” and began the feel the tentacles of New York City pulling the surrounding landscape closer to its center.  Train tracks loom.  Power lines, heretofore thin spindles on creosote sticks, become thick bundles on bolted steel transoms.  Big power, fast trains – I can tell that the CITY draws near.  Suburban New Jersey rolled past, and a few clouds occluded the sun.  I passed through narrow bands of greenway, through increasingly compressed city parks, and soon the towers of housing developments rose up, crowding the sky.

As my ride progresses, I leave “the small town zone” and began the feel the tentacles of New York City pulling the surrounding landscape closer to its center.  Train tracks loom.  Power lines, heretofore thin spindles on creosote sticks, become thick bundles on bolted steel transoms.  Big power, fast trains – I can tell that the CITY draws near.  Suburban New Jersey rolled past, and a few clouds occluded the sun.  I passed through narrow bands of greenway, through increasingly compressed city parks, and soon the towers of housing developments rose up, crowding the sky.

Before I know it, I near Newark.  On the brink of hypoglycemic collapse, I wobbled into a Dunkin Donuts, awkwardly clacking my bicycle shoes and order 4 bagels.  I eat two at a time, dousing them with salt, and washing them down with vivid purple recovery drink.  The clerk looks at my tight pants, sun-screen spattered face, alien-colored beverage, and the rate at which I am consuming bagels.  He is nervous.  I was hungry.

Charged with simple carbohydrates, I sprinted to Newark Penn station, loaded my bike on the train and caught my breath:

My Bike.  In Newark.  Yu gudda problem wid dat?

My Bike. In Newark. Yu gudda problem wid dat?

15 minutes later, I arrived in Manhattan.  Exhausted, tires rapidly losing air, I call a friend who has agreed to house me for the night.  I ask for directions from 33rd and 5th, and she pauses, gasping, “my place is almost 3 miles from there…are you sure you can make it?”  16 minutes later my journey has ended.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2010 March 24

    Sounds like you had a great ride, and NO – I don’t gudda problem wid dat. Did you find the wayfinding signs along the ECG in NJ usefull? Did you find them at all? That friend you called and I have spent some time getting those installed over the last couple of years. I’d love to hear if folks find them useful.

    Also, how was your experience taking the train back south? I’ve had good trips on NJTransit, but I’m guessing you went further. Did that work out OK? Can you even remember?
    Mike D

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