Day 50, 65 miles

In the spirit of trying everything once, what would a cross country bike trip be without at least one night of stealth camping. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is when you camp without a spot or a permit, just finding a small place to sleep where you think you won’t be found. Of all the towns to stealth camp in, one might think that Seneca Falls, New York, the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement and strong history of women’s rights organization ought to be a good place to do so, if any.

It had not been our intention to do so, but arriving there in the evening, we decided we didn’t want to bike the several miles out of town in the opposite direction to get to a campground, and we weren’t going to stay in a hotel starting at $150 a pop, so we decided to find a place in the town park for the evening. As compared to the west coast, where this is often encouraged, this sort of thing isn’t as esteemed in the east.

In the spirit of it, we didn’t pitch a tent, and rather found a nice spruce tree with low lying limbs and some bushes around it to put our sleeping bags under, out of sight of passerbys. What we failed to think of, however, was that in being as well concealed as we were, there was nothing to encourage others to be considerate  of our sleep. You can’t just get up and be like, ‘excuse me, I’m trying to sleep in this bush here, could you keep it down.’

The park which we were in turned out to be a local late-night hangout for the teenagers in town, and others who saw it fit to drink in public spaces, so despite our inability to be seen, we were kept up all night by the socializing not twenty feet where we were concealed. At first it was two bartenders who had just gotten off work, who talked and drank for about an hour, and then within 20 minutes of them leaving, a group of teenagers showed up and proceeded to laugh and talk for the next two hours. When they left, two others showed up, and proceeded for the next four hours to drink, talk loudly, and smash beer bottles until sunrise. So, the opportunity for sleep faded before us and we had to listen to drunken conversations all night long.

Near the end of the escapades of the two guys, one of them noticed our bikes and came over, starting to poke at Sonali’s bike. After a night without sleep, I broke my cover and yelled out, ‘Yo, chill out man’. The man screamed, ‘there’s someone in the bush!’ And him and his friend proceeded to burst into fits of laughter. ‘Oh my God, there are people in the bush! Have they been there the whole time!?’ ‘Chill out man!’ they repeated, ‘The guy in the bush wants us to chill out!’

I could not help but laugh quietly to myself, at the absurdity of our current predicament, and despite our frustration, we kept a low profile and were greatly relieved when they left, smashing a few more bottles on the way out.

So, that was perhaps our first and last stealth camping of the trip, and perhaps there is a lesson to be distilled from the discomfort of it all. You would like to think so, because it was a hard earned evening.

In 1848, the first gathering in relation to the rights and roles of women was held up the street in town, and over time the town has maintained a strong tradition of activism, working towards women’s suffrage, which came into effect in 1920. Now, almost 100 years later, the law has remained, but the amount of sexism in the modern world is still quite prevalent, especially in relation to language and conversation regarding women. Rarely has this been more apparent than in the conversations of the individuals we had to overhear all night long. As a fly on the wall, or two cyclists in a bush, so to speak, the irony of the evening as a cultural bellweather sticks out in a way that would not have been imagined beforehand.

Across the canal, the old knitting mill looked down over us with its stone facade, and the boats in the canal gently rocked as we packed up our stuff in the early morning to head to Syracuse and hopefully get some rest at the host’s house we are staying with for the evening.

Day 49, 88 miles

Today was a nice ride along the Erie Canal. 88 miles along its bank, along the old walkways where the donkeys used to pull the boats up its course.

As a child, I was confused by canals, imagining them as a series of steps one after the other, where the water would be pumped up, and the whole business would be an awful lot of work. But now, having ridden a day’s length along its shore, I find it to be a bit more simple and elegant than I had imagined. The distance between each loche is many miles, and each loche raises it only a reasonable amount as the water slowly pours down according to their allowance of it.

The amount of labor that went into the construction of the canal is impressive to say the least. At forty feet wide, four feet deep, and over 300 miles long, it is a project that reflects upon the ability of a people with a common vision and enduring effort to complete a seemingly unfeasable task.

As we pulled into another city, Rochester, in the evening, and saw another slew of large buildings, I began to reflect on just how much labor has gone into building the modern world. Each brick in each building in each city was fired and placed by a human hand, where each city was once a forest or field, that billions of people wake up each morning and complete a day’s work, and in doing so create and recreate the world around us.

Collectively, our ability to create any sort of vision we might share is well within our grasp, and in that sense the value of our individual dreams and visions of what the world could look like is like throwing a stone in a river, small but forever altering its course. When many people share dreams together, these stones add up, and massive things like canals can be built, diverting the flow of energy whichever way we might choose. The inspiration and the vision comes before the sweat and toil, and in carrying out our visions, we come to better understand ourselves.

Many things in this world seem improbable, and many improbable things exist. Perhaps in some small way, riding a bicycle across the country seems like an unfeasible task, but all any of us ever have in front of us is a single day’s work, and at night we rest, to wake in the morning, and pick up where we left off.

We grabbed dinner in town and then stayed for the night on the outskirts of Rochester, with Chris and Catherine, both lawyers, pitching a tent in their backyard.

Day 48, 78 miles

In the telling of a history, it is not only important to tell the history of your own self, how you got to a certain place, but also important to know how a place came to be of its own accord. There is an incredibly rich history here in Northern NY, near Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, where before it was called New York, it was the western edge of a series of five nations, the Seneca, the Onandaga, the Oneida, the Cayuga and the Mohawk.

Particularly in a time like we are in now, where the degree of national and international political discord can be overwhelming, looking back on the history of these five nations and the peace they were able to achieve can be a model for the type of peace we ought to strive for as a nation and as a world.

These five nations were around for many thousands of years before European colonization, and they did not always enjoy peaceful relations. For many years there were a series of conflicts with warfare and retaliation. As the history goes, at one point, a peacemaker was born, and he rode down on a canoe along Lake Ontario bringing with him a message to the five nations. Not without challenge, he was able to convince them to lay down their weapons and enter into an alliance, the Great Law of peace, the alliance of the Hodinohoso:ni. Today, despite all the challenges of the last 500 years, the Seneca still live by that Law, and by the message of the Gaiwi:yo, a way of life based around a calendar of thanksgiving of the hodinosho:ni year.

This is an oversimplification of a rich and nuanced history, and there is a danger of too singular a characterization, but perhaps even greater a disservice is to ignore the current existence and history all together, modern ‘halluciNations’ as the Native activist and author Jon Trudell used to talk about.

We were not aware we would be coming across the Seneca Nation in our travels today, but after we sat down for lunch at a diner, and a table of several other diners asked us where we were from, we came to learn that we were right on the edge of the Seneca Nation. They were on a lunch break from their jobs working in healthcare on the reservation, and after hearing about our own background and the cause for our trip, invited us back to see some of the projects and initiatives the Seneca Nation has been working on. So, taking an 8 mile detour down the road, we met them at the health center where they worked.

There are some 2,000 Seneca that currently live on tribal land, and another 6,000 who live in other places. At the health center they have a clinic, a wellness and prevention center, and programs specifically targeted for substance abuse and diabetes, as well as programs geared specifically towards seniors. Robin, who we had met at the diner, told us how they have a strong interest in the relationship between nutrition and health, and they had started an initiative called Food is Medicine, as well as trying to link agriculture projects with their health initiatives. One larger concern for them at present is the presence of a Nuclear waste processing facility upstream of a creek that runs through the whole reservation.

We were only there for a short period, but it was quite an interesting snapshot of a community making a strong effort to build and grow a healthy community with strong cultural ties to their past, and use that identity to lift up their nation out of their current afflictions. In some ways, particularly in relation to their language, they are in a very fragile period as there are only a few fluent Seneca speakers still alive, but in this avenue and many others, they are making a really meaningful attempts to revive their health and culture.

Health is culture and culture is health. Their are no healthy people without a healthy land, and the food that comes from it reflects and gives back according to what it is given. As future physicians, I think it is important to realize how powerless we are in our own accord, without that alliance, that anything we give to fill that gap without addressing its reality is purely a placeholder, never a cure,  and that the intangibles of health, identity, sense of place, sense of person, creation of meaning, are as important as any tangible we can provide.

We ended up in Buffalo for the evening, an interesting city with a real mix of buildings, where we stayed with Mike and Wendy for the night. Mike works for GM, in the research and development for electric vehicles, and Wendy works as an accountant for a non-profit. They talked to us about the strong bike culture of Buffalo, and after eating some tacos, we walked around in the evening to get ice cream at their busy local ice cream shop. Buffalo is an interesting city that we could probably spend more time in, but tomorrow we are heading to Rochester, some 80 miles east, as we begin the final week of our adventure.

Day 47, 66 miles

It is amazing how many unique places exist in this country, each with their own locales, a singular combination of geology, hydrology, biology and climate, each one layered atop the other. Each day, to a small degree, I wonder if the day following it will be redundant to the one at present, and each day I’m presented with a slightly new version of the reality that is in front of me. Even while as a society, with our corn and cars and cows, we are working so diligently to make every place look the same, the underlying character of a place still manages to speak through to greater or lesser extents.

As I sit on a small dock atop a bluff, with a 30 drop off in front of me to the water of Lake Erie, I see the layers of shale strutted out along the side of the cove I am looking into, with forest all the way to its steep edge. I am met again by a sense of openness that the desert had inspired, looking out on a horizon so straight and unwavering that it could only be many, many miles away, but this time with an impressive body of water before me. The lake, at this particular hour, at this particular place on this particular day has an incredible presence as it laps below at the shore, with clear blue water somewhat tropical in appearance, the whole place taking on more of a dreamscape than a landscape. I wouldn’t have guessed I was in upstate NY.

Turns out we are in wine country here in the northwest corner of NY and as we biked in, we passed a number of vineyards on both sides of us, some going all the way down to the water’s edge.

This morning, still in Ohio, in a town east of Ashtabula, there was a real estate sign advertising 20 acres for $100,000, across the street from the lake, answering my question about property value from the day before.

The land here looks very fertile, with a number of impressive looking trees, and the variety impressive as well, so it only made sense that at some point the land turned from suburban to agricultural. Along the lake, the towns fan in and out, some, such as Erie, Pennsylvania taking on the appearance of small cities. In one town park, I noticed a number of young fruit trees recently planted.

Staying with our hosts for the evening in Ripley, we got a good taste for the local area, as they offered us a number of their local wines and cheeses, in addition to making us a lovely dinner from their CSA share. They had some nice green vegetables, something we appreciate these days, as our ability to eat them has become somewhat limited in our current lifestyle. We talked for a good bit about life in Ripley, and found it to be a storied small town with a long history of winemaking, a strong arts and cultural scene, and despite the small class sizes in the town’s high school, an impressive wrestling tradition that our host family has been a part of.

Neither of our hosts are touring cyclists themselves, but seeing so many cyclists pass through the area each summer, they became interested in helping out. Recently, Mike has been working to petition the town to create a camping spot for touring cyclists, somewhere along the lake.

 

Day 46, 78 miles

Today was a pleasant ride along the southern coast of Lake Erie, through beach side towns, weaving along the coast. I was curious as to the real estate value of the many small houses along the shore, not large in size, but each with a stunning view of the water. The water stretched out to the horizon on three sides, in shades from tan to dark blue, and with a wide sky above it, it made for quite a vista. Outside of Cleveland, there were a series of large mansions, perhaps remnants of the steel money in the area, and further along the lake it turned into suburbs.

We stopped at a town park beach for a snack, and shutting my eyes for a few minutes, really appreciated the lapping of the waves and the large shade trees overhead, a place I could get used to. A breeze came off the lake, and despite it being a headwind for most of our ride, it kept us cool all throughout the day. Through suburban Ohio we passed by many town parks with soccer fields, basketball courts,  playgrounds and beaches, probably a nice place to grow up. Some towns tried to take on a tourist vibe, with outdoor bars, ice cream stands, mini golf and knick knack stores, kid sized knock-offs of Coney Island, the whole landscape here being a far cry from Montana, and even the rural Ohio we were in just days ago.

In the evening we ended up in Ashtabula, another small beach side village, and enjoyed some pizza and wings, not roughing it too much. We will keep heading east along the lake tomorrow, before cutting across New York, and then into Massachusetts, before likely being back in Farmington on the expected date of Friday, August 4th.

Day 45, 0 miles

Rest day number 6.

We spent the day in Cleveland today, with Dan and Evelyn, and two other cyclists Helen and Richard from New Zealand.

When we woke up, Evelyn had a nice blueberry French toast casserole waiting for us, and Dan suggested that we check out the west end market before hitting up the rock and roll hall of fame, so that’s what we did, cycling over there, several miles into the city. The west end market had a wide array of foods, sweet and savory and fresh alike, and it would take several weeks to do the place justice and try everything you would like. Sonali ended up with an apple fritter, myself a chocolate pastry and Evelyn a Guinness cake which she let everyone try a bite of.

Dan and Evelyn were wonderful hosts, happy to entertain and quite accommodating, and having been long time Cleveland residents, had a good understanding of the city and its attractions. They took us to a nice lookout where we could see many of the city’s bridges, and biking downtown with Dan, we could see many of the city’s storied buildings as well.

The rock and roll hall of fame was more or less what one might expect, old guitars, old outfits, and old bits of paper scribbled with song lyrics, and despite the appeal of these things I felt myself more drawn to the music itself, wishing for more of it. These sorts of things, the collectibles, the things you can put behind glass to grow dusty, are more or less empty vessels without the people who accompanied them. But, there is something about the music itself, something that doesn’t age, that whatever note was struck still strikes the heart in the present moment when it is heard, evoking emotion just the same as it may have had 50 years ago and will likely 100 years in the future. Perhaps that is the true magic that the museum pays homage to.

After visiting the rock and roll hall of fame, the most logical next step is to reunite your own band, so I visited my friend and drummer, Tony, who lives in town, grabbing ice cream with him that evening.

Dan and Evelyn had dinner for us again that evening, so all-in-all it was a lovely day, a much needed rest, and another appreciated experience of generosity from fellow cyclists in the cycling community.

Day 44, 101 miles

These 100 mile days are long days. By the time we got to sleep again tonight, it was 11:30 pm, after being up at 6:30 am, on the road for a good 9-10 hours, and then socializing with our hosts for the remainder of the day. I think my yawning gave away my disposition as at one point Helen said, we really ought to let you get some rest and I just nodded in agreement.

We are now in Cleveland, and plan to spend two nights here, getting a chance to rest tomorrow, for a full day, perhaps visiting the rock and roll hall of fame, or even just sleeping in and hanging out sounds good as well.

Our hundred miles today took us southeast on trails and roads, under mostly cloudy skies, making it an enjoyable ride. As usual the corn continued, but the landscape became increasingly interesting with a mix of trees along the trail, some wild apple trees, some mulberries, even a paw paw, and the increasingly dense human habitation as we got closer to the city.

As we rode along the rail trail in the morning, a local cyclist pulled up next to us, and chatted with us for a good ten miles as he rode along side. He was retired, after putting in 42 years working at the local Whirlpool washing machine factory which was the main employer of that town and the two others next to it. The factory puts out 4 washing machines every eleven seconds while it is running, and employs some 3000 people he told us. Now in his mid sixties he tries to get out and bike about 40 miles a day, choosing one of several routes in his area. He commonly rides along with touring cyclists, he said, and gives them some advice on biking through the area. He never had children, but each year had tried to save up money to take him and his girlfriend on cycling vacations all over the world. He said he lives meagerly and given the option of fixing his house or going on vacation, he always opps for traveling, up until recently when his house was broken down to the point where putting money into it became a necessity.

For lunch we stopped in Oberlin, a small college town, and while sitting down in a cafe, the skies opened up for a good twenty minutes, filling the streets with water. I ran out to close up my bags, and got a good dose of water myself. That soon stopped, the sun came out again, and we went on our way.

During lunch we had talked about how we felt that we were doing pretty well by this point in the trip,  without accidents or injuries, and as pride comes before the fall, we had a fairly clumsy afternoon. Sonali swiped a parked car and almost toppled in rebound from it, and an hour later I clipped a curb as I was pulling onto it, and was sent diving into the grass. Nothing was hurt except possibly bruised egoes, but even that not considerably so. It is hard to take too much too seriously, given the itinerant nature of our days, the number of people and places and experiences we have each day, that the opinions or feelings of one instance do not stick in the way that they perhaps ordinarily would.

A highlight for me today was looking at the different roadside wild apple trees we rode by, and stopping to try a few that looked appealing. These are more the equivalent of straggly domesticated strays than of true wild apples, which can be found in the remaining wild apple forests of Kazakhstan, from where our modern ones originate. The ‘wild’ ones here are mostly seedlings from nearby orchards, and many are of questionable desirability, but occasionally you get one with interesting characteristics, or a nice balance of sweet and tart. The wild apples in Kazakhstan still contain the genes of a variety of shapes and sizes and flavors, and flesh ranging in colors from all shades of reds, purples, and yellows, in addition to white, whereas these here are all more or less small, somewhat tart and with white flesh.