There’s nothing like being forced to stay at home 18 months to stoke a bit of wanderlust. Oh, and turning 50. COVID made a party impossible, so instead I set out to do 50 things over 52 weeks to celebrate my 50th year—and ideally that most of those things would be with friends. One of those items included a vague plan to do at least a 50 mile bike ride, which could be easily done in a day, but what if instead of coming back home after a few hours I just kept on going? What if instead of staring at a computer screen I could keep my eyes on desolate roads and car-less paths? What if instead of cooking every meal for me and my family I could eat out without worrying about finding a place that conforms to everyone’s preferences?
I set out to answer these questions when my friend Kerry and I did on a fine early summer June day.
There was a question of the route. After considering the New York State Empire Trail, we settled on biking the tow path of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal because there were better camping options. This 184 mile route runs along the Potomac river—starting in Washington D.C. and concluding in Cumberland, Maryland. The visionary idea was to link the eastern seaboard to the Ohio river. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad rendered the quaint mule towed boats obsolete before it even opened in in 1850. The good news is that the tow path survives to this day—a gravelly and sometimes rocky road adjacent to what remains of the canal. It draws walkers, runners, hikers, and bikers. There are overnight bike campgrounds about every five miles, first come first serve, no reservations.
I’m no stranger to bike riding—as a means of transportation, exercise and as escape. I bike commuted to my first paid job washing dishes, which led to a job at DJs Cycles, and something of a life-long love affair with bikes. A bike is liberating. There is nothing like the rush of wind that you get when you start pedaling. The machine is efficient. That pedal stroke conveys you further and faster than you could ever get on one’s own two feet, and with less effort. There is a vulnerability—you are sharing the road with cars that vastly outnumber you. However, you are rewarded with a direct experience that is unlike any other—a bit of speed, a shift in perspective, weaving through traffic. It’s just plain fun. I also like traveling by train, and while I prefer to rest my head in a bed, I have been known to camp if it’s right for the destination. This trip would be a chance to stack those experiences and try something new.
For those who like bikes, the right number of bikes to have is always one more than the number that you own (n+1). After a bit of equivocating, I settled on taking my mountain bike on this trip—a Trek 7200 I bought 14 years ago ostensibly so that I could mount a child seat on it so that I could take my daughter Mia for doughnuts or to the park while mom slept. (It served this purpose admirably.) This winter I bought a rack and a couple of bright yellow Ortleib panniers. I fretted over replacing the original knobby tires with something better for the road but decided to just wait and see how it went. I also borrowed a tent from a neighbor instead of buying one. I packed the panniers with a couple changes of clothes and food from our pantry that I thought was trail worthy—peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, raisins, peanuts, crackers, dried fruit and some tuna in olive oil. Oh, and two cans of cold brew coffee to feed my caffeine addiction. I could give up my pillow for a few days but not my morning joe.
Kerry and I met at 6:45 AM at the Brooklyn Quaker Meeting house on Adams Street, a spot we would both pass by on our way to New York, Penn Station. It was overcast, warm, and humid, well on the way to hazy and hot. We climbed over the Brooklyn Bridge, said hello to Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. While I hadn’t really noticed much of a difference in the weight from the bags on the flats, I did notice the extra heft as I pedaled up the bridge’s gentle slope. Manhattan was quiet on Saturday morning. We zipped over to the bike path on the West side highway, with ample time to spare before our 10am departure to Washington. We made a brief stop at Little Island, the new floating park, but posted guards said our wheels would have to remain outside. Another day.
Given my pandemic commute to my basement office, this trip was the first chance I had to see the new Moynihan Station—a/k/a the old Farley Post office. It is light, open and airy, with massive windows that let the sun stream in. There are massive digital screens above the Amtrak waiting area that ran a slide show of black and white photos showing commuters boarding trains, rushing through older station, and happily on their way. This is a sharp contrast to NJ Transit Penn Station experience, still accessible by a tunnel, which continues with its low ceilings and Departure Vision terminals that commuters stare at forlornly while waiting for track assignments. NJ Transit tried to make it better. They made the ceiling higher by building a pit and installed a quirky kinetic sculpture of the jersey devil and Mr. Peanut but there is no denying you’re in the basement of a place that you just want to exit as quickly as possible. Moynihan’s spacious grand concourse is for walking but not waiting; there are no benches, or no iconic information counter where you might meet someone. We park near the elevators and make bets about which track will be ours. I spy a redcap bringing people down and correctly guess track 7 is the winner.
I took a Brompton folding bike on the train every day for years when we lived in Glen Ridge, NJ. I lugged that bike up two flights with some effort but without hesitation. Moving this mountain bike with full panniers gave me some appreciation for what my motorcycle brethren may experience. It takes effort to hold up—the weight in the back always pulling, twisting. and waiting to fall if I were to release my tense grip. The elevator opens and we search for a space on the train that would fit the bikes. The conductor directs us to a vacant corner. We settle in for the ride.
I learn early that Kerry has a train ritual that involves eating a pan au chocolat once we are underway. The train is crowded. We’re reminded not to place anything on the seats and keep our masks on at all times. “Take a sip, or a bite, and put your mask on. If your mask is off, you’ll be off the train at the next station.” On this Washington bound regional everyone follows the rules.
Unlike a bus, or a plane, trains lend themselves to conversation—something about having more space, the rhythmic clickety-clack of the tracks, the ability to stare out a window, and knowing that the journey could end at the next stop serve to support casual and often deep conversations. The well-heeled gentleman on my left whips out a new iPad and starts browsing the cars section of Consumer Reports, and spends a good bit of time there before hopping over to a few car manufacturer websites. As we pull into Philadelphia’s 30th Street station and I can see him preparing to leave I mention that I work for CR and ask if there’s anything we could have done better to support his car buying research. He says he loves CR and that he’s looking for his son. One of the things I realize I miss most about the pandemic is just talking with people throughout the day. The train is ideal for these serendipitous connections.
After car shopper leaves I am joined by Marion, an older woman wearing a bright orange tee shirt with matching sneakers, who’s signing onto Purdue’s Global Classroom. After a bit of talking about growing up in Berkeley, she shares that she’s on her way to visit family in Georgia—and is moving back there because her husband of many years passed away. “My church got me through but my family is in Georgia—and I can join the services online now anyhow.” I say goodbye to her when we’re packing up and wish her well on her journey and transition and she does the same.
Washington’s Union Station’s grand hall feels expansive and stately compared to Moynihan. The expansive arches and shiny gold painted ceiling welcome telegraph wealth and a bit of pomp and some age but nothing like say the old world confidence, grandeur and expansive indifference of Paris’ the Gare du Nord. I snap a few touristy snaps to document the voyage. A running joke at my Grandmother’s house when the phone rang twice within an hour was for my Aunt Bobbie to crow, “What is this, Grand Central Station?” Now that is a concourse with energy—throngs of people huddled around the information booth. Signs of the Metro North lines and their tracks that go into the 100s, people rushing to make trains, buy tickets and if you take a minute to look up you are rewarded with constellations. I will never forget the first time my mom brought me on a trip to visit Aunt Carolyn in Norwalk. “Look up,” she said. And now every time I pass through, I do exactly that, and am rewarded with sky and stars.
Union Station’s cool sleepiness and quiet gives way to the city’s summer achy humidity. We exit and see the Capitol in the distance, its view obscured a bit by camping tents in front of the fountain on the lawn in front. I lived in Washington DC for about three years—and after a stint a an Alexandria bookstore this then idealistic political science grad scored an internship and then a staff job on Capitol Hill working for a freshman Congressman from Arizona. This is to say, I know my way around town a bit, but it’s changed. I am sad to see the barricades and fencing around the Capitol and remember the days when all we had to do was pass through a metal detector. I didn’t even need my House of Representatives ID card. That has all changed.
I tell Kerry I can get us to the tow-path though I have only a vague notion of how to get there. I have made a couple bike trips to DC and know there’s a well-designed center bike lane that goes right down Pennsylvania. I resist the certainty that could come by simply taking out my phone and typing in the location. I want the affirmation and self assurance that comes with knowing. Before long, we’re on the Potomac’s bike path and pedaling past the Kennedy Center and into Georgetown. I am reminded of the city’s swampiness and recall JFK’s dig about DC having all of the charm of a northern city and the efficiency of a southern one.
I’m enjoying this tour down memory lane so much that I speed right past the entrance to the tow path. Kerry summons me back and we see two flights of stairs and a rusty track to help push a bicycle up. I wonder if any of the designers of this solution ever actually tried this with any bicycle, yet alone one with overstuffed panniers. I question the wisdom of my choosing to ignore the Google, but we muscle both bikes up and onto the gravel path.