Breaking Out 2021: Chicago, Cincinnati and the OTET

LA Times (John Brenner)

On Sunday, the 1st of August, we rode the Southwest Chief out of Flagstaff, Arizona. We made good time through Albuquerque, but then slowed to a bicycle pace in northeastern New Mexico. The heavy rains over the weekend required that the tracks be inspected ahead of our passage. I slept reasonably on the big seats.

By Kansas City on Monday morning, we were more than an hour behind schedule. The sun rose red in the sky, trying to push through the smoke from the western wildfires. The sky was not as grey as in 2018, but the red ball did not turn yellow for a long time and the haziness never completely dissipated.

The train picked up some speed crossing Illinois, but instead of arriving in Chicago in midafternoon of the second of August, we found ourselves crossing town and checking into the HI Hostel after dark. We had supper at Eataly, always a favorite for both of us.

Tuesday was my birthday. In spite of the late check-in, I was up at eight. Four dozen people had sent greetings while I slept. I was finishing my fruit when Cheryl came down at 10:00. She thought it was the 2nd of August. I might have made the same mistake had it not been for the greetings on my phone when I awoke.

We walked to Wildberry for lunch, waiting in the long line on the sidewalk as we had last time. The sun tried to blast us from a cloudless sky, but after the heat in the west, the air felt simply wonderful.

After eating, we took the El(evated rail) to Bucktown, where the Arc’teryx store was. I bought a new rain jacket for my birthday. Cheryl recognized two famous chains, Stan’s Donuts and Jeni’s Ice Cream in Bucktown. They were up to their reputations and fortified us for the twenty-kilometer walk back to downtown.

Why walk? Because it was a beautiful day. Because the buildings were interesting. Because it was fun to see the neighbourhoods change dramatically as we walked.

That evening, we walked to the Riverwalk district, where the streets had been turned over to open air dining because of the pandemic. Our destination was Pub City, famous for its barbeque. Unfortunately, they had run out of it, so we had a beer and walked down to the river. The promenade along the Chicago River put us close to Eataly, so we ate there again.

Wednesday, the 4th, a fresh breeze off Lake Michigan kept the engine exhaust away as we rode north on the Lakefront Trail to Evanston. We covered sixty kilometers riding out to Loyola and Northwestern Universities. Cheryl likes riding through university campuses, and I had memories of wanting to see both places. I had applied to Northwestern from high school. They accepted me, but I also won an appointment to the Naval Academy. The rest is history…

I thrilled riding on the smooth, separated bike paths, and passing the different landmarks, like the Goose Point lighthouse.

That evening we checked off our intention to take in a show in Chicago: School Girls, or the African Mean Girls, by Jocelyn Biot.

It was special to enjoy live theatre again, and the production was excellent. After the show, we celebrated our last night in Chicago at the Prime Provision Steakhouse, the kind of place where important people can meet discreetly, and the food is worth the price.

Up at 07:45, we broke our fast at eight. Cheryl went ahead to the Art Institute of Chicago, which had dire, discouraging information on its website. She slipped in with the members at ten o’clock. I arrived at 11:30 with the unwashed masses. The guard said that it was impossible that Cheryl could have gotten in early, but I knew better. After checking what I wanted to see, especially the Tiffany windows, I caught up with her at Wildberry. No one had even challenged her as she smoothly joined the flow of members enjoying their privileged status.

We both had the eggs Benedict, then I walked her to the Hair Loft, where she had planned to get her hair cut. I caught the Brown Loop elevated back to the hostel. Cheryl caught two wrong trains getting back, but by 16:30, we were both waiting at Gate 26 for the Cardinal, the Amtrak train to Washington (and Cincinnati).

She had been frustrated not to find food for supper on board (no dining service for coach class yet), but I remembered Robinson’s No. 1 Ribs from my trips on the Empire Builder. I raced upstairs and got back barely as the Cardinal left on time. We definitely ate better than the sleeper car passengers using the dining car.

The train arrived in Cincinnati 44 minutes late, long after the station had closed for the night. We were among only four people to debark.

The station is a museum now. The ticket windows and other features of the station have been restored to their appearance in the heyday of passenger travel, but are static exhibits now. Online ordering and kiosks handle the actual ticketing.

The night watch took pity on us looking out over the dark city. There was no point in starting out in the dark. He let us wait in the lobby for dawn before setting out, for which we were very grateful. The benches were across from the police/security window (where he worked), which let us feel safer, locked in the station.

The pink fingers of dawn were creeping across the sky when the night watchman woke us up.

“I go off at six-thirty. You might want to be on your way by then. Then I won’t have to explain anything to my relief.”

We thanked him profusely as he let us out to face the Cincinnati skyline. We easily crossed Cincinnati to the river and picked up the Ohio to Erie Trail (OTET). The OTET follows two big sections of the US Bicycle Route System, USBR 21 and USBR 50. It connects Cincinnati with Cleveland, passing through well-known cities like Xenia, Columbus and Akron.

The beginning of the OTET mixed the best and the worst of bicycle facilities as we made our way along the river (smooth asphalt paths following the park by the riverbank) and turned north through potholed truck routes of the industrial warehouse district to Plainville. After that, we paralleled US 42, zipping along comfortably toward Xenia, our first stop.

We found the John Allen House Bed and Breakfast and met Sherry and Wesley and their adult son Cameron. An interesting family with much life experience in many areas. We were blessed to be able to chat with them at supper and breakfast, because they were not overflowing with guests that day.

Saturday the 7th of August started out sunny and pleasant. With music in my Bluetooth hearing aids, I flew up the OTET towards London, Ohio, which had special significance for me. The hero of my Lockhart series of novels grew up in London, and I was curious to see the modern town, note the changes since the 1960’s and confirm that my research supported the world I created for Sandra Billingsley.

We reached London at midday and found a street festival in full swing. Except for the widening of roads and the many repavings of the asphalt, the town was much as I expected it. The Madison Messenger newspaper had moved to a new building not far from where it was. And US 38 still led north into the farmland. We had lunch and enjoyed the party atmosphere.

As I crossed over the Bridge of Dreams, I was put in mind of the novel The Bridges of Madison County. That story was set in Madison County, Iowa, not Ohio, but I enjoyed the memory of reading it.

The trail to Columbus continued straight across the farmland. As we pedaled, the clouds gathered, and the wind picked up. Crossing the city, the storm caught us in full fury. Accommodations were mostly filled, but we finally checked into the German Village Inn soaking wet.

Although Columbus itself is a large, interesting city, this would prove the low point of our experience on the OTET. A rotating group of workers partied outside our door until dawn. The noise, the cigarette smoke and the smell of beer kept us awake.

The next morning, the storm had passed. We bought greetings cards for our respective sons’ birthdays and groceries at Walmart on our way northeast out of town.

At Sunbury, we encountered the first of two major interruptions of the OTET. The locals seemed to resent touring cyclists, with street signs removed and glaring residents on various corners. We rode around the town rather than follow the recommended route through downtown. After riding on US-36 for a couple of miles, we rejoined the OTET and pedaled to Centerburg, the aptly named midpoint of the trail across the state.

We had hoped to ride farther, but we stopped at the Mount Vernon Grand Hotel. This fine establishment is run by MV Nazarene University and apparently manned by students. Lee and Ashley were very friendly and helpful, even locking our bikes in a conference room for us. The hotel is on the central square of the city. We walked out West High Street and found supper at Fiesta Mexicana. Deep and dreamless sleep that night did much to help us recover from the rain and the racket in Columbus.

On Monday, we found a full English breakfast waiting for us. We set out fuelled and rested. Warmshowers hosts in Akron and Cleveland were awaiting their guests.

Cheryl wanted to go to Berlin (an extra thirty kilometres). I did not understand why, because I had not read the guidebooks as closely as she had. I did figure that we would not get far before the forecast week of rain started.

I recognized the shiny tracks of steel wagon wheel bands, and realized that we were in Amish country. In fact, Berlin is in the heart of Amish country.

We stopped at the Walmart in Millersburg, then I went to the laundromat whilst Cheryl rode into town. We raced to Berlin but failed to outrun the first squall. Cheryl booked the Berlin Heritage Inn. Very clean and nice with a view of Amish Country. The farms stretching over the hills to the north seemed so tidy, without the large combines and airconditioned tractors that usually clutter the yards of working farms.

After showers, we considered our route for tomorrow. There was a seventeen-mile break in the OTET from Fredericksburg to the tow path past Dalton. Not sure which way we would go, but it did not seem worth it to go back to the OTET, just to run out of trail.

The next morning, we shopped at the country market specializing in local products, and Cheryl shipped a box home. Then we took US-62 to join the OTET towpath at Navarre. This skipped the piece from Dalton to Massillon, but it was more direct. To my surprise, US-62 crossed US-250 in Wilmot. US-250 is the main street through Charlottesville; it felt strange to see it again. I stopped to take a photo.

The Amish country rolling away from the OTET surprised us and slowed us, with many short, steep climbs (no fun with full loads).

The rain started soon after leaving Berlin. As lightning striking the farmland came closer to me, I looked for shelter, painfully aware that my steel steed was about the highest thing around. I saw Cheryl’s red bicycle leaning against the awning of an egg processing plant, so I braved the “No Trespassing” signs to knock on the door. The staff let us take shelter from the downpour and the lightning. When the worst of the squall rumbled on, we thanked our hosts and mounted up.

The roads were fine, even with the trucks and rain. Cheryl passed me when I stopped at Wineburg, but we started the canal together at Navarre. Here the OTET goes from being a rail-trail to following the towpath of the old Ohio to Erie Canal.

The tow path became a miserable slog even after the rain stopped. Cheryl had to follow the nearby road, but my bike was able to ride almost all the trail What a difference three millimetres in tyre width can make!

When we reached the south end of Akron, we found ourselves riding all the way across town, impressed by the shocking changes in prosperity of the neighbourhoods. The stores became more upscale, the pavement improved, and the tree cover increased as we rode north.

Susan and her cats provided an enthusiastic welcome. She had been a cyclist and long-distance tourist herself. She cooked up a lasagna and introduced me to Nero di Troia, as well as the Vivino wine app. She was delighted to host people who knew and loved the wines that she did.

I also hosed off my muddy bike, oiled the chain and pumped up the tyres.

My socks picked up much cat hair, of course, but that did not spoil the pleasure of being her guests.

Wednesday started out nice but deteriorated rapidly. Again, Cheryl was forced onto the road. Cleveland is only about 40 km from Akron, but still, it was a long, wet day.

It seemed to me that the National Park Service got ripped off by an unscrupulous or ignorant contractor and lacked the kind of supervisory personnel to catch it. The surface of the trail was supposed to be packed stone dust, but in the Cuyahoga National Park, the trail was a muddy, sloppy mess, with large pieces of gravel tossed into the worst holes. It had not been packed down, and the dirt used instead of stone dust was not packed down. Sometimes the mud buried my rims, as I pushed through the worst sections. There was no enjoying the scenery as I struggled to stay upright and make forward progress.

The OTET was well-marked going into Cleveland, and our destination was easy to find during a break in the rain. Our host stored our bikes in the garage with three others. He was also hosting John, Rhonda, and Rhonda’s sister Lauren from Texas.

With our host and his friend, the simple dinner became a boisterous feast of shared stories. Meanwhile, a violent storm crashed outside, with 80-mph winds, felling trees and power lines (elsewhere, we were grateful to note).

Cheryl and I had the attic to ourselves. Our host invited us to extend our stay by a day, so we could catch the Lakeshore Limited to Buffalo. Obviously, we were not going to ride there in this weather.

Our host greeted us when we came down after the other cyclists rode away. After power-washing the mud off our bikes, we oiled the chains and pumped up the tyres. We meant to walk to the Red Line and tour the town, but the construction on the Red Line forced us to lose most of the morning. We took the train to Cleveland Public Square, and visited the Cleveland Museum of Art.

We walked to Heinen’s supermarket in the historic Cleveland Trust Company Building. It did not disappoint. The recently restored historic section (damaged by fires from the George Floyd riots) houses a wine tasting section with automated dispensers. Clever. The selection of craft beers was impressive too.

After taking the train back to the Westside Market, we met our host for dinner at an inexpensive Italian restaurant. No one was in the mood for that, so we decamped to Le Petit Triangle closer to his house and enjoyed excellent French cuisine.

We packed and turned in early because the three-hour run to Buffalo was scheduled to arrive at 05:30.

On Friday the 13th, we were up at 04:30. We suffered a frustrating goose chase to find the Amtrak station in the dark even with maps and directions. It was hiding below an expressway that ran between downtown and the stadium. Luckily, the train was late. The Amtrak staff were as helpful as possible, given the short, narrow platform and the need to make up lost time.

The train left us in DePew, New York, 16 km from Buffalo. We hit the local Walmart for supplies, then loaded onto the Number 46 city bus to the block downtown where the Erie Canal Trail started.

The weather cooperated, staying partly cloudy and comfortable. We had a rough start with all the construction on the Buffalo end of the trail, but I took it as a sign that there would soon be an even better trail there.

Today, the Erie Canal Trail is one of three legs of the 750-mile Empire Trail. It connects Buffalo with Albany. The other two legs run from Albany to New York City and to the Canadian border. New York City was our destination.

At Tonawanda, the trail left the Niagara River, and turned inland toward Lockport. We were on the Erie Canal itself, riding toward the fabled Erie Canal. This was another ride that I never thought I would do. Tonawanda was cute, with parks along the canal. Pleasure craft of various sizes bobbed at their moorings as we rode the trail by the Canal

The paved section ended in Lockport. We checked into the Lockport Inn, and I rode for take-out pizza.

We had many surprises along the way, but never failed to see the humor in them. Come back in two weeks and follow us to Rochester, Syracuse, Rome, Utica, Albany and New York City.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


2 thoughts on “Breaking Out 2021: Chicago, Cincinnati and the OTET

  1. Thank you for all the pictures and narrative on the Ohio to Erie Trail. I live in Columbus nowadays and ride to London and wherever. I grew up in Knox County. The picture of the Bridge of Dreams is beautiful, but out of sequence. I’ll note that Amish Country is steep riding, as you mentioned.


  2. Thank you! it’s always a boost to know that someone is enjoying my reports. I confess that sometimes all I have is the date of the picture, so I am lucky to get the photo in the same article as the narrative. I want to go back to Columbus under better weather next time. Cheers.


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