Breaking Out 2021: the Erie Canal Trail and New York City

Saturday, the 14th of August greeted us with a sunny sky and pleasant temperatures. After the rain of the past two weeks, it felt like paradise. The engineering that went into the locks of the Erie Canal amazed me. In Lockport, for example, the Flight of Five Locks carried the water over the Niagara Escarpment, a drop of sixty feet in about two city blocks. Originally built in 1824, the locks have been restored and now carry traffic up and down the cliffs that, not far away, run under Niagara Falls.

Riding a canal trail is not physically challenging if the surface is smooth and hard. We rolled quickly under tunnels of low-hanging trees and highway overpasses, never needing to strain up hills or brake on steep downhills. Still, it was dark when we reached Rochester, one hundred km from Lockport.

The Canal put us into the dodgy neighbourhoods south of town, but we kept rolling into downtown, where my cousin Erik lived. We spent two nights with Erik, and I am happy that Cheryl liked him. He is one of my favourite cousins.

On Sunday, the brilliant weather continued. Rochester is a very walkable city. In the company of good friends, the distances only hit us when we got back from visiting the George Eastman Museum and Mansion. I could have spent more time in Rochester, and I will be back.

Monday, we started out for Syracuse. Cheryl was inspired to go to Seneca Falls, which was a diversion off the straight canal route. I was glad that we turned south. The sight of an Amish buggy moving at a gallop around the corner among the cornfields alone was worth the detour.

Seneca Falls is the site of the Women’s Rights National Historic Park, located next to the church where the original women’s suffrage meetings took place. And next to that was the Gibson Hotel, where we spent the night.

The National Park Service has done a good job setting up the historic park. The displays were interesting. We spent hours there before going to the hotel.

Temperatures cooled and the wind picked up as we set out from Seneca Falls the next day. I made a wrong turn by facing the wrong way coming out of a corner gas station, and so added twenty km to my ride. The rain came as Cheryl and I followed different routes to meet at the Best Western Fairgrounds. I had the experience of stopping at the Erie Canal Park in Amboy to take cover from the storm. At this point, the canal trail was a mud slide, so I took the road to the motel.

The Erie Canal Trail took us through downtown Syracuse the next day. The canal was rushing in flood as we made our way to the point where it overran the bike path and ducked under the city. Syracuse paved over the canal and other water features and built elevated expressways during the six decades of automotive hegemony. Today, the city is preparing to remove the interstate and reunite the dissected neighbourhoods.

For our part, we rode hard and fast to cover the eighty km to Rome while the rain held off.

The Oak and Ivy Inn B&B was clearly a work in progress, with most of the work going on outside. The peeling paint and overgrown garden were immediately balanced by the presence of Frederick’s friends, who had come to work on the property with him. Inside, the Italianate décor and the friendly hospitality made us feel at home.

While staying with Frederick, we learned that the New York State Fair was opening back in Syracuse, across the street from the Best Western that we had just left. Cheryl loves state fairs, world expos and similar gatherings. We left our bicycles with Frederick and boarded the train to return to Syracuse the next morning.

The New York State Fair is in a class by itself. It is so big that Amtrak has a stop at “Gate 11” of the fairgrounds when the fair is open.

Everything one might expect at an American state fair was there (animal husbandry contests, agricultural prizes and food vendors), but also major music concerts each night and petting zoos of exotic animals. We spent two days at the fair, and I can’t begin to describe all the different things we enjoyed: https://nysfair.ny.gov/.

On Saturday, we took the train back to Rome. The news was full of grim weather forecasts as the remnants of Hurricane Henri barrelled up the eastern United States, threatening to worsen the flooding we were already seeing. After a war council of sorts, we decided to try to ride to the Amtrak station in Utica and hope to catch a train to Albany.

Utica lay only thirty km away from Rome. We rode on the roads and sometimes the canal trail, boarding the train just before the rain resumed. Through the streaming water on the windows of the coach we could see the Mohawk River and the canal itself in full flood. Sometimes it was like riding a speedboat over a lake with trees sticking out of the water.

This was my first experience with the new bike racks that Amtrak is installing in all its coaches. Only two in each car, and they are not intuitive. One must hang the bicycle upside down, tilting the front wheel sideways to allow the bike to slide out of the way. The instructions call for removing the front wheel, but that is often not an option. I was delighted to find that I could use the new rig without disassembling my bike.

In Albany, we mounted up and rode through heavy rain to Troy, where Ken, our Warmshowers host, put our bikes in the garage and welcomed us to dry off in his apartment.

While we were with Ken, we booked three nights at the HI Hostel in New York City. There was no way that we could ride to Manhattan in that weather.

On Monday the 23rd, we returned to the Albany Amtrak station in the same downpour as the day before. The water blew horizontally against our coach as we rode to New York City. Amtrak cars are big and heavy, a safety requirement for any train that must share the track with freight trains. Even so, the force of the storm rocked the coach back and forth as we rolled down the Hudson River. We settled into the HI Hostel on Amsterdam Avenue, relieved to have made it to New York safely.

There was one more bicycle-related adventure waiting for us.

After Hurricane Henri passed over, we enjoyed a week of blue skies, pleasant temperatures, and gentle winds. We rode all over Manhattan, taking in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met Museum of Modern Art, the New York Historical Society Museum and some cultural events I did not expect, like the Fotografiska exhibit at the International Center for Photography, and the Morgan Library. We spent hours in the famous Strand bookstore, another bucket list item for bibliophiles.

On Saturday, the 28th, we were riding around Battery Park when Cheryl noticed the banner for the TD Five Boro Bike Tour back in May. She looked it up on her phone and found that it had been postponed to the 22nd of August – then postponed again for Hurricane Henri! I booked two spots for the ride immediately.

Sunday the 29th of August. I will never forget the unique pleasure of riding 64 km through all five boroughs and all the bridges of New York City with 13,000 of my closest friends and no cars. The ride ended at Staten Island and included the ferry ride back to Battery Park. If I am ever in North America in May (or whenever it is postponed to), I plan to do that again.

On Monday the 30th, we rode to Grand Central Station and caught the train to Old Lyme. We spent four days there while local mechanics Greg and Dave installed a hitch and new tyres on my car, then we set out for a car camping trip in the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Acadia National Park and Cape Cod. This time, we did things we could not do in 2019. We drove around the Schoodic Peninsula, camped on Mount Desert Island and drove the coast road around every peninsula back to Newburyport, Massachusetts. This was a car trip, so I won’t report on it here. However, we did take our bikes to Martha’s Vineyard. As far as I am concerned, that island need not be visited with an automobile. We left the car in Yarmouth and enjoyed the salt air and unspoiled vistas of that rocky island.

On 6 October, Cheryl loaded her car into a van taxi in Boston and rode to Logan Airport. By that evening, she was home in Vancouver, and I was parking the car in Old Lyme.

Breaking Out 2021 started on 8 March and ended on 6 October. The adventure included riding two challenging highways (US-58 and US-89), a pair of iconic bicycle trails (OTET and the Erie Canal), leaving my home in Norfolk, and breaking out from the lockdown of 2020-2021. As I write these words, I have returned to Norfolk and taken up residence in the same apartment building as before. I am already looking forward to the TD Five Boro Bike Tour in 2022 and either a long ride to visit friends and relatives in North America, or a return to my familiar grounds in Europe. Stay tuned.

Not having a new bike tour to report on, I will resume the account of River Run 2017. Last time, I left us riding through Rouen and Chartres. Next, we’ll cross Normandy on our way to Brittany and the Atlantic Coast. Come back for it!

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

JT

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