Monday, October 18, 2010

New England bike trip October 17-18, 1985 - onward to New York!

On Thursday the 17th, I headed west over Brandon Gap. 'Twas a sweet climb, not as hard as people had told me it'd be. On top I stopped and put a ton of clothes on: sweater, jacket, windpants over lycra tights I was already riding, ear covers, gloves. The descent was long, fun … and cold! The clothes were all worth it.

The road to Brandon Gap, October 17, 1985.

A photo before donning the warm gear!

Brandon Gap, Vermont. October 17, 1985.

This put not far from Middlebury, Vermont, which I was curious to see. But it was out of the way and I was keen to see Fort Ticonderoga, scene of a favorite childhood book about French and British and Indians and fighting and all that stuff 4th grade boys in particular are fond of. So onward west I rode, across beautiful farmland. The views were framed by the Adirondacks ahead of me and the Green Mountains behind me. Sunshine dominated the day.

Looking back at Brandon Gap and the Green Mountains. October 17, 1985.

Near Shoreham, Vermont. October 17, 1985.

Near Shoreham, Vermont. October 17, 1985.

Near Shoreham, Vermont. October 17, 1985.

There was another fun ferry ride, this time across Lake Champlain to the state of New York. Had to wait for it for a bit. Ate a lunch of peanut butter and English muffins and played with a kitten while I waited. Once I crossed, Fort Ticonderoga was only a short distance away.

Waiting for the Lake Champlain Ferry.

Note cat atop bike! October 17, 1985.

Welcome to NY. October 17, 1985.

Wild Man Mark at Fort Ticonderoga. October 17, 1985.

At the fort, I met another bicyclist--also named Mark. I will just summarize right now that he was One Wacky Dude. Eccentric, generally in a good way. Definitely his own man. Though we had spirited debate about a few differences, I really liked him. He had paid the $5 to see the inside of Fort Ticonderoga and didn't think it was worth it. So I skipped it and was happy with looking in over the fence.

What we had in common was a joy of being on the road, travel by the power of our own legs, living cheap, and paying attention to small details in the nature around us. We had a similar sense of humor, kind of fueled by left-of-center, skeptical-of-mainstream thinking. But wow, he took things to an extreme I couldn't quite wrap my head around.

Let's start with equipment. Me: Panniers bought from a bike shop, bike shorts & helmet & gloves, tent (albeit droopy) and sleeping bag. Fairly conventional T-shirts 'n' "football" style jersey. Wild Man Mark: Instead of panniers, two $5.99 backpacks from K-Mart attached to a cheap rack with bungee cords, with a larger backpack clamped on top. No helmet. An old black pair of pants, big boots (!), weird (at least to me) shirts. Um, and for sleeping, he had a cheap tent that doubled as a sleeping bag. Meaning, he just laid it out on the ground and rolled up in the damn thing. I could never have done it that way but I was sort of tickled that he was doing it. And clearly having a great time every bit as much as me.

Next consider our respective ways of solving the "Where Am I Going To Sleep Tonight?" question. You have already seen (and will see further later) that I was, well, let's say "flexible," about where I'd sleep. But Mr. Mark, his favorite was sneaking into churches to sleep. That might be misrepresenting it a little, but he'd done it. Me, I'd rather ask permission to pitch a tent on someone's property. He objected to this, saying it puts people "on the spot" and also makes them feel as if they're expected to invite you into their home for dinner and such.

I suppose he had a point there to a degree, though I was always careful to make clear that I had food, had a stove, was headed to the store for food, whatever. That is, I literally did not expect anyone to "take me in" -- but without question I was appreciative when people did. Over years of cycle touring in the 80s and early 90s, it happened many times but never once where I felt the host didn't thoroughly enjoy the experience made possible by their spontaneous generosity. Mark, though, summarized his feelings by saying "I'd rather steal a dollar than accept $100." Wow, we were different on this one. Thinking more on it later, I felt like he was comparing things of way unequal comparison. I thought that maybe "steal a dollar vs. accepting $5" might be a more reasonable analogy.

Well anyway. We had enjoyed running into one another and were headed in the same direction. So we saddled up the horses and struck out together toward the town of Lake George, NY, 38 miles south. We were on a newly-paved section of highway 9N, which made for nice smooth riding. The town of Lake George is on the south tip of the loooong lake of the same name, so we were riding alongside the lake for some time. It's a pretty lake, but the whole area was a bit to developed/touristy for either of our tastes.

A view of Lake George, October 17, 1985.

During one stretch, the road left the short and went up... and up... and up... a thing called Tongue Mountain. This was without question the toughest climb of the trip so far. I had no tiny chainring, like is standard on most mountain bikes and many road bikes today. I just had two chainrings, equivalent of the bigger two out of three on today's bikes. On Tongue Mountain, was out of the saddle and standing in the lowest gear I did have for a good two miles. It was very steep, steep enough to even make me think of giving up and walking it! I was close to doing so.... "OK, if the top isn't around three more corners...." You'd go around a corner and look up only to see another... and another. I made it up though. Mark's gears were less-suited to the climb than mine, even, so I got up way in front of him.

After doing all this work, the road plunged right back down to the lake shore a little further south! We got to the town of Bolton Landing as it was starting to get dark. We found a store, bought some good white bread and a couple cans of baked beans. I had some leftover chili mix. There was a picnic table right there next to the store's parking lot. We sat there and I used my stove to heat beans mixed with the chili stuff. Poured that over the bread and feasted. A hail road food! Best tasting stuff anywhere!

Once our bellies were full, we went into the local library to read. Mark was reading a tiny (two inches high) book of Shakespeare. Nice warm place to hang out 'til they closed at 9pm!

Just to experience the way Mark operated, I decided to go ahead and find a sleeping spot his way for one night. What the hell. Sleeping in a church sounded sorta fun. We checked several but not one was unlocked. However, we'd spotted a place under some trees earlier, so we went there and crashed out. No tent for me -- it was dry. Mark rolled up in his :) A ton of stars were out. Not bad!

Next morning, Friday the 18th, we were up at first light. We went back to the same store and picked up some rolls for breakfast. And then off we went to the actual town of Lake George, 10 miles away. I picked up some "General Delivery" mail at the post office there (do they still do that these days?!?). From here my plan was to go west into the heart of the Adirondacks, whereas Mark was going south. We thus said goodbye to one another there, agreeing that we'd enjoyed the brief travel together.

Next comes the hamburger story, one of my favorites for some reason. I was sitting on a park bench by the lake reading my mail and writing some. A couple folks from Boston came up and spoke with me. I assumed they were husband and wife but it turned out they were brother and sister. They were part of a tour bus group that had stopped. They soon had to go hop on the bus. As the left the lady said to me "Well, you look like a nice good clean-cut American boy. Enjoy your trip." I was tickled then and I am still tickled today by this description of me. After all, I had been checking church doors the night before! I just didn't exactly think of myself on those terms. But I took it as a pleasant compliment... if they found me polite and enjoyable to talk to, I was good with that. As if for punctuation, the man was suddenly was waving a five-dollar bill in front of me, sort of pressing it into my hand and not letting me even begin to refuse. The lady looked at me an winked and smiled and said "Now you go have yourself a hamburger or something."

My oh my, I was blown away. The generosity of strangers never ceases to amaze me. This and many other experiences over the years have had a huge influence on me. They really caused me to have a great faith in people, generally. They made me want to treat others with kindness, care, respect. I mean, I think I got that stuff raised up by my Mom (thanks Mom) ... but these types of experiences magnified it.

Some things crossed my mind. Would my friend Mark have accepted the $5? "I'd rather steal a dollar than accept $100" flashed through my mind. How strange, I'd been with Mark only an hour before! Also, would this couple have treated Mark the same way? That made me think a lot too, because although Mark was clearly a good soul, he might not have looked as "approachable" as I did. Hmmm, how much of how we look is facade? Was I less "clean-cut" than I looked? Was Mark nicer than his unusual clothing might suggest? How much of who we really are is hidden by appearances--for me, for him, for anyone? Fabulous food for thought even 25 years later.

With this making my head spin, I set out westward. It was suddenly windy. And dusty. And as I started to climb a hill, SPROING! Another broken spoke! Dammit. I turned around. This wheel thing was not going to work in the middle of the Adirondacks. So I went south to Glens Falls, a decent-sized town. I had to find a bike shop, again. As I pulled into town, another spoke broke. Once one goes out, others are stressed and more likely to go. Found a small bike shop where the guy quick popped a couple new spokes in and trued up the wheel, no charge. I crossed my fingers and headed to Saratoga Springs, 20 miles further south. Not a very scenic road. I literally did stop and have that hamburger, at some Burger King along the way. One cheery something in the midst of a suddenly dreary mood.

The weather forecast added to the dreariness. Close to 100% chance of rain that night and most of the next day. This sent me running for a motel, willing to spend some bucks but too budget-wary to do the place that was $30 for the night. But eventually I found the Whispering Pines Motor Inn for $18. (Wonder if they are there today....) I dragged my bike into the room and went to a nearby grocery called Price Chopper. Got me some bagels to go with my peanut butter, and some bananas and yogurt for breakfast. I used the pay phone outside to call home. Later I settled in front of the TV in my room to watch the gloomy weather forecast. (I believe it might have even been The Weather Channel, maybe the first time I'd ever seen that. It was sorta new then, I think.)

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