An interesting book on the experience of bicycle touring. Somehow managed to be part of my journey and a good book to reflect on after.
They are an unavoidable sight when you ride the highways these days. Those colorful markers on the side of the road that catch the corner of your eye. They seem to spring up out of nowhere and vary in all respects except for their purpose — heartfelt memorials to a tragic ending for someone who was loved.
Highway memorials, (also called Descansos in Southwestern U.S.), are markers that note a place where a violent death took place. They are commonplace these days and vary state by state. Most states recognize the emotional connection a family has to a victim of highway tragedy. But, they also realize that such displays of emotion can be a form of distraction which can lead to danger too. There’s a fine balance of sympathy, public service message and distracting signage here. And, that’s not to even mention the problem of family caretakers maintaining the site with flowers and other symbols of the loved one’s life.
I think I began noticing the memorial displays in the Florida Keys along 100-mile section of Route 1 (aka Overseas Highway), one of the more dangerous roads because of the amount of traffic and speed. There’s a conundrum here because much of the Keys has an alternate bike path that runs alongside 80% of the highway but traveling it by bike requires much more time. Riding the path means slowing for various cross streets and commercial businesses, which can make that path inherently dangerous too. But there are sections, like the Seven Mile Bridge where there is no alternative path but the highway.
Even for a bicycle, stopping to view or attempting to understand the origin of the memorial is not possible or even wise. Besides, there are too many of them. After a while they blend into the road and become a passing blur except for maybe a few unique ones.
Over the years, you may have seen a white bike, usually adorned with flowers, chained to a tree or sign with a memorial plaque. This memorial is called a “Ghost Bike” and symbolizes a cyclist meeting his or her end on the highway. These are particularly meaningful to me and I would guess to anyone who rides a bike. The message is clear: “This could be you. Be careful.”
While not as common or varied as the typical roadside memorial, they can be seen occasionally in places where you least expect them to be, like a quiet country road, a beautiful turn in farmland or just a normal intersection. There are roads that were constructed without cyclist safety in mind, but in the end, any road can be dangerous.
You can’t continue to ride a long journey thinking of the possibility of danger at every corner, but you can perhaps heighten your awareness and senses. My passing thought, and sometimes prayer, goes out to the one who lost her life, to the victim’s family and even the driver, for a mistake that continues to reverberate.
Big mistakes are avoidable but sometimes they just part of price you pay for taking the journey.
I love this article on the power of words and motivation to enable us to reach beyond our limitations. I’d have to say both Tom Wolf and Scott Kelly had an affect on me too. Wolf for his brilliant observations of society and Kelly for his courage and openness.
Living long enough to be a senior citizen, I guess you learn a few things that you might call wisdom. One of these is what to tell your spouse, and when. It has been almost a week now since I arrived back home. It’s time for transparency. Or, is this TMI?
Mary Ann, sorry this took so long but timing is everything…
Flipping the bike
I had just come from Savannah, after spending an extra day there to take in a few parts of the city. It was Saturday, April 21 and I arrived in Beaufort SC, my next Airbnb stay after a pleasant day of riding. It was also the day I ran into my bike shop friend at Lab Cyclery on the way here. Between the last couple days and new friends I had found, I was in a good mood and ready to go out and discover Beaufort, an old ante-bellum town just above Hilton Head.
Maybe I was feeling a little too confident. I had settled now into riding alone for this adventure solo after Tom bailed out four days ago. Since the tourist area was close I decided to put on some casual clothes, my flip-flops and ride into town, without a helmet, and go full tourist. I would just take my time and disappear into the crowd.
The hub of Beaufort is a nice commercial waterfront area just a few miles from where I was staying. To get there I’d have to maneuver on Route 21 which is busy with not much shoulder until you get to the tourist area. Beautiful old southern mansions grace the road along the harbor. The town is fairly lively with mix of tourists, residents and prom attendees milling around. Looking or a place to eat I found Hearth Wood-Fired Pizza which seemed to be busy and looked like the real deal for good pizza in South Carolina.
After the pizza and a couple beers I decided to ride back on the safer bike path, rather than the street. However, it appeared that the bike path was being paved in some areas. So I decided I’d ride it until I needed to go to the street and continue.
I’m less than a mile away and all is well until I approach a dark area of the bike path. Then, before I can even react or brake, there’s a sharp drop off in front of me of about three feet deep. The bike dips down and sticks. I flip out in front and land on the other side of the ditch about four feet away. My forearm cushions my head and I take just a slight knock. The top of my right hand is cut in a few places. A slight cut is on my left hand. My legs are fine. Nothing needing stitches, thank God! Basically, I’m just a little bruised and very much shaken. But, I’m feeling real lucky and relieved. I’ll give partial credit to the luck of “The Joker” who came with me too.
The moral here is always wear that helmet, of course. I’m usually cool with that and rarely will ride anywhere with out it. But, I’ve ridden the streets of Amsterdam and even the Jersey shore where we tempt our fate sometimes for a fleeting feeling of freedom. Needless to say for the rest of the ride my helmet is on my head wherever I ride.
In a sport full of tradition, there are few more iconic than the winner of the Tour de Franceriding triumphantly with his teammates along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Tour de France takes place over a 23-day period and covers usually about 2,200 miles and is recognized as the greatest cycling event. This last ride is really a ceremonial end to the race. The winner, who has already been decided, gets to bask in the glory.
I’ll need to take you back a couple days to last Friday, my last planned stage of my 1600-mile ride to explain how if feels to end such a long journey. I had not given much thought to the actual end except where might be the appropriate place. Morristown seemed to be the appropriate place where my family and friends were. My son, Justin, had mentioned that he wanted to meet me somewhere along my final route.
Just a few days before some of my riding buddies from Morristown also expressed an interest in meeting at the Swiss Chalet Bakery & Cafe who helps sponsor our club Swiss Chalet Cycling. So, I set a plan to ride 90 miles northwest to Morristown on Friday, May 11th after resting a day at my place in Ortley Beach. I was feeling great and ready to get this job done. It had been 30 days since I was home.
The Ride Home
The weather looked good again. The only problem was a nagging 10 mph headwind that I hoped would be easier as I went inland. I took mostly backroads to avoid the highways. I had enough of that.
I looked at the ride in two parts. The first was to get to Old Bridge for lunch, about half-way. Then from there to Morristown. I followed Rt 35 north to Bay Head then turned northwest into towns like Brick, Farmingdale, Adelphia, Colts Neck and finally Old Bridge – almost all on county roads. Mostly, a pretty route and certainly easier than most roads I had been riding this past month.
Going through Point Pleasant I eyed two familiar riders going the other way. It’s Terry Downs and his wife Lori, Terry is a rider I had met at the shore. Just another unexplainable coincidence in this journey. He had been tracking my progress over the past days. We stop for a brief conversation and eventually he rides with me, taking me through some really pretty areas of Allaire State Park instead of county roads. A nice little unexpected detour on my way home.
I was already running a bit late for my scheduled lunch with Tom Borkowski, my morning riding mate and fellow employee at Amboy Bank, before I retired. I forgot how much I missed that morning ride (generally, a few days a week) and the bagels and coffee almost as much. At least at this point I’m about 1/2 way home (40+ miles), although time is ticking away.
Soon I was off again heading through Middlesex County towns for the next 25 miles or so in local traffic. This is where I learned to ride in traffic while commuting occasionally to work. Alright, this wasn’t world-class Tour de France racing but dodging traffic requires some energy and a lot of concentration. I wanted to make it safely home at this point.
The last 20-mile segment left was the ride over the Watchung Mountains. This mid-section of Jersey geographically divides the area as a range of mountains that you need to cross to go north to Morristown. In a car, they seem like big hills, but on a bike they are formidable and require about 2,000 ft. altitude of climbing. That’s something I have not had to do much of this last month since I was hugging the flat coast.
By the time I reached the first mountain, I was pretty tired having ridden 70 miles and was at least 1/2 hour behind schedule. The first major climb is a steep one up Vosseller Avenue and took all the energy I had to climb it. The second is up Mt. Bethel Road which is not quite as steep but very long. Once over those there are are still rolling hills to face, but time can be made up and you sense the end is near. I’m now over the mountains.
The Last Pull to the Finish
At 5:00 p.m., about one hour behind, I pull into to the Meyersville circle and meet my riding entourage that will escort me to the finish in Morristown about 1/2 hour away where others are waiting. My fatigue and concern about making this last leg on time have vanished. It’s just sooo good to see familiar faces. Justin, Tom, and Pete are riding with me. And, Duncan and Brit are providing a motorcycle escort ahead! It’s not a solo journey anymore.
We pulled into the Swiss Chalet Bakery in Morristown about 5:30 to my surprise there are a dozen or more people cheering, including my grandkids! This was much more than I expected and such a great feeling that friends and family came out to see a pretty whooped guy finish his crazy journey. It’s that kind of time in your life when you feel grateful for what you have and especially for the people around you.
My Ride on the Champs-Élysées
But, the ride did not end until I finished the last couple miles home from the bakery. At the end of my block (Mountainside Drive – today’s Champs-Élysées) , the grandkids were lined up on their bikes ready to ride the last “miracle mile” (actually about 1/4 mile). I rode with my little teammates on bikes, a trike and a scooter to the end. It was a triumphant ride, at least as memorable as anyone ever rode in Paris.
I’m back home and tomorrow is Mother’s Day. Surprisingly, I made my goal to be home for Mother’s Day. The plan worked. I’ve been gone 30 days in a very personal effort. For what reason? I’m really not sure except to see where my limits are at age 70.
You may be thinking that this is a form of machismo or a need for attention. I hope not. But, it may be the form of desire that we all experience once in a while when we just want, or need, to do something crazy. As you age, you realize that there’s not many more opportunities to do that. Carpe Diem.
The open road and the freedom to do what I want was both a scary and exhilarating thing. What that does is to heighten your senses and to drop your guard. At least for a while, you enjoy life without any pretenses.
But for those around you that really care about you, it’s not a lot of fun. There’s ongoing uncertainty and the anxiety of something happening. This is especially true for a task that is inherently dangerous, like riding highways in areas where cyclists are not appreciated. I know I caused more headaches and inconvenience to Mary Ann and my family than they deserved. For that, I am truly sorry.
Who is the person who cares the most and sweats the details for YOU? That’s probably your spouse, kids, friends, father – or most likely your mother. On this Mother’s Day, I’m going to give all the mothers I know an extra big hug. Not to worry. The ones you love will be home soon.
As I close this one-month journey, I’ve already been asked, “Which part of the ride did you like the best.” That made me think about what makes up the best place to ride, and the corollary of what makes the worse place. Setting aside my love of ferries and fear of bridges, there were two locations that easily come to mind.
It’s a lot easier for me to think about all the wonderful unique places along the coast, starting with Florida Keys for its beauty and laid back attitude. The stark and vast beauty of Hatteras’ sands and water make other beaches seem small. It’s hard to compare the southern hospitality and vibe of Savannah. I wish I could have had a few more days to explore and eat my way through Charleston. And, part of me feels I could have written the next great southern novel in either Beaufort, Georgetown or Cape Charles. There’s mysterious local characters there along with the moody Cypress moss hanging from those trees.
But, I would have to give the nicest place to ride and enjoy to the area to Rehoboth. Rehoboth is a great little accessible town and I love the idea of riding a 17-mile ferry here for a mere $8 (with bike) from or to NJ. The Delaware beaches, paths and riding lanes make it so easy and enjoyable that almost everyone can be happy doing some outdoor activity.
The Delaware state parks seem almost as wide and open as Hatteras. Perfectly groomed paths are all connected and run into the community. Wide roads are clearly marked for cyclists, at least more than I have seen anywhere else in the U.S. It seems that they also provide more public information on their resources. It’s probably also due to having the right infrastructure and marketing to make it work. It begs the question, “Why would you not bring a bike or walk a path here?” This is an inviting place to be. (Also, reknown for its craft breweries.)
After my stay in Rehoboth, I took the Cape May-Lewes ferry to continue my journey north to my next stop, Atlantic City. The day, while clear, was a horrendous one for a 60-mile bike ride. The earliest ferry put me at the tip of Cape May at about 10:30 a.m. for a late start and I had about 55 miles to ride faced with a 20 mph headwind, with only higher gusts to look forward to. While I enjoyed a couple of boardwalk stops in Wildwood and Ocean City, the rest of the ride was tough, including about a half-dozen bridges. I should have know that this was going to be the appropriate prelude to my stay in A.C.
The shore towns between Cape May and A.C. are all very nice and some quite outstanding like Avalon, Stone Harbor and Ocean City. But A.C. is in a different category. Once you cross the last inlet bridge, its clear that you are not in Kansas anymore.
Fortunately, I was staying right across the street from the Tropicana which is on the southern end because I was pretty pooped when I reached A.C. Buildings suddenly turned into skyscrapers, streets narrowed and you got the feeling you were entering a street in Manhattan. Any consideration for a pedestrian, let alone cyclists, was absent. You know the drill. The casinos want you to stay where you gamble and not leave. If you do leave, you leave at your own risk. Better to get a cab or a Uber.
When I approached the Tropicana, I’m was about to make a turn down Iowa Street when I noticed three young dudes just hanging around talking to each other on the corner. KInd of strange at this intersection. They eyed me. I rode a half block down right past them looking for the building where my Airbnb apartment would be. I found it in an old multi-story building, similar to one you might find on any New York City street.
I called my Airbnb contact to let me in the building and noticed that suddenly the three characters are 10 feet away from me. One is in an animated conversation on his phone the other two are talking to each other. My instinct along with the hairs on my back, tell me this might be the time to just roll out of here. I made that call again rolled around the block and mentioned the situation to a cop. He asked, “Did they do anything to you or threaten you?”
So I try again stiffening my resolve. The Airbnb contact, who is just a building super or something let’s me in the shabby entrance and escorts me nicely to the room. The apartment I got for $62 that night was actually quite nice, newly renovated with full run of a bedroom, living room and kitchen. My only question was, “Is it safe to leave here?”
There are plenty of restaurants nearby and one or two pedestrians, but there’s an emptiness to the streets, except for cars. I walked down a couple blocks and can easily see this is not a wealthy area, except for those locked up in the casinos.
I Googled food stores to buy something to bring back and hole up with. I ended up walking a mile along Atlantic Avenue to find the nearest thing to a grocery store. There’s more of that same insecure feeling there with many guys hanging out, maybe doing deals, maybe not. I just didn’t want to be part of it, especially on foot. I played it cool and probably looked like just another loser hanging out on the streets.
I decided to try walking the Boardwalk back for safety and curiosity. It looked like the same concessions stands from years ago only fewer people. To be fair this is an off time of the year. But A.C. is on the ropes these days. Even here it’s a stark difference between casino, streets and the boardwalk.
So, here’s a contrast that I just never thought about when I was planning the ride. One place has a community of its people in mind the other of visiting winners and losers, with no apparent concern for its place and its people. Is it possible to rehabilitate a place based on those principles?
The A.C. Airbnb represented the city perfectly. If you are inside and you have what you want, the rest of the world does not matter, that is spite of the beautiful ocean just one block away. It’s like saying, “The area around me can go to hell as long as I’m happy.” Whereas, in a place like the Delaware shores, there’s a recognition of the importance of sharing the outside resources which promotes a feeling of a caring community.
Which would you rather play or live in?